Delia Bacon, the writer who proposed the first theory about the true identity of Shakespeare

The debate about the authorship of Shakespeare’s works is not recent; began approximately a century and a half after his death, when Herbert Lawrence suggested it in 1771, and has continued since then by people such as the famous poets John Milton and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the historian J. Thomas Looney or the journalist Charlton Ogburn. In that group of revisionists there was a woman, an American writer of plays and short stories who was self-taught and she achieved a certain reputation for being the first to elaborate a theory on the matter. Her name was Delia Salter Bacon.

Delia was born in 1811 in the town of Talimadge, Ohio (USA), to which her father had moved from New Haven following a vision; her father was a Congregationalist pastor who would die soon after, perhaps depressed by having to return without having achieved anything. The fact is that the widow and her six children were homeless and the friends of the family had to take charge of the children’s education. Delia, a frail young woman who fell ill with malaria and cholera, dragging her entire life along with its aftermath, was lucky enough to be able to attend the school of Catherine Beecher, sister of Harriet Beecher (the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin), an educator who defended equality between women and men (although she was anti-suffragist, considering that if they were left out of the shady politics they would be more useful to society).

This is how, from school to school for almost four decades, Delia gained enormous experience that allowed her to develop her own pedagogical methods, becoming a respected teaching professional. In between, she also revealed herself to be a good writer, as she published her first book in 1831, when she was only twenty years old. It was titled tales of the puritans (Tales of the Puritans), although because of the prejudices of his time, he could not sign it, and it had to be published anonymously. She was not bad with the pen, of course, since the following year she entered a short story contest sponsored by the newspaper philadelphia saturday courier and won by beating a certain Edgar Allan Poe.

Her move to New York in 1836 allowed her to go often to the theater, which fascinated her to such an extent that she put stories aside to write dramas. The first, which was titled The Bride of Fort Edward (The Bride of Fort Edward), had a blank verse format, that is, with regular meter but without rhyme, something very common in English literature in general and in Shakespearean literature in particular.

He even convinced a famous actress with whom he became friends to assume the leading role and represent the play, but it could not be: Delia relapsed due to her health problems and could not be promoted; In addition, her own brother dissuaded her by considering that the work was bad. It was published in 1839 but, once again, anonymously. The irony is that it got good reviews, including Poe’s, which wasn’t enough to stop it from being a bestseller.

To recover from the disappointment, in 1846 she went to the land of her childhood, New Haven, where she began a love affair with Alexander MacWorther, a prestigious Yale-graduated theologian who taught metaphysics and English literature at Troy University. MacWorther had already staged a scandal by supporting the book Truth Stranger than Fictionwhich the aforementioned Catherine Beecher wrote.

But his coexistence with Delia without marriage reached the ears of Leonard, her rowdy brother, who was a Congregationalist minister and denounced MacWorther. Submitted to an ecclesiastical trial before his community, he was acquitted with a mere reprimand but under the pressure of public opinion, in which only Catherine Beecher defended him, he had to end his relationship with Delia and leave New Haven.

Delia received a certain intellectual influence from MacWorther, since from then on she became especially interested in the work of Shakespeare, plunging into extensive research on the English poet and even making a trip to England in search of sources.

It was in 1853 and he had the opportunity to personally meet the scholar Thomas Carlyle: philosopher, mathematician, historian and writer of sharp wit, anti-Semite and defender of slavery (or, failing that, of servitude), he was the author of the so-called Great Man Theory (the great characters are the ones that determine the future of history) and firmly defended the superiority of Anglo Saxon race over the others. Carlyle was pleasantly surprised by the manuscript Delia showed him.

It was titled The Philosophy of the Plays of Shakespeare Unfolded (The Philosophy of Shakespeare’s Plays Revealed) and followed the fashion of the time for what was known as higher criticism or the historical-critical method, the investigation of the origin of ancient texts. It is true that this method focused above all on the Bible and the Torahwith the aim of proving their multiple authorship, but also the works of Homer and others were subjected to this analysis.

And since that second half of the 19th century coincided with the emergence of the bardolatrythat is, the blind adoration of William Shakespeare (who was nicknamed the bard from the previous century) denounced by Bernard Shaw, (in fact, he created the term), along with the exaltation of the philosopher Francis Bacon, Delia’s work did not remain immune to it.

She thought she saw in Shakespeare’s literary production authentic philosophy lessons conceived for the privileged classes, something that did not go well with the popular fervor that Shakespeare’s theater aroused. She, therefore, came to the conclusion that that actor with little training turned into a playwright would only have put his name to what was actually written by a group of geniuses who preferred to remain anonymous. Who and why?

Well, for example, the aforementioned Francis Bacon, a lawyer, politician and philosopher, father of empiricism, whose name had the same number of letters as that of the Bard and that he wrote a play, The comedy of errors (The Comedy of Errors), suspiciously similar to The Tempest (which is later), apart from other indications. Likewise, Sir Walter Raleigh and Edmund C. Spencer would be at the core, who aspired to instill in English society an entire philosophical system that they could not officially assume.

It so happened that all three were prominent poets and that Bacon handled cipher codes skillfully, as Samuel Morse explained to Delia (they were friends). They would have been joined by Thomas Sackville (who, in addition to being a statesman, also had a notable literary career) and Edward de Vere (a model courtier who excelled in both poetry and theater, although none of his works survive); the latter had extra reasons for his rebellion, since he flirted with Catholicism.

Delia described them as a small clique of disappointed and defeated politicians who undertook to lead and organize popular opposition against the government, and were forced to withdraw from that enterprise (…) Driven out of the open field, they fought in secret. He was referring to an alleged attempt to fight against the despotism of Elizabeth I and her successor James I in a republican key.

No one is unaware of the circumstances that surely influenced the writer: not only had she had to publish without her name several times, but she had also just come out of a noisy sentimental breakup that led her to move away from the congregationalist faith, which is who interprets it as the spark of his thesis, since, consciously or subconsciously, he would be trying to destroy the myths of the Puritans who founded the United States from England. Therefore, as expected, she had opinions for and against.

Among the first was that of Ralph Waldo Emerson, a Bostonian philosopher, poet and essayist with whom he had struck up a friendship years before through the sister-in-law of Nathaniel Hawthorne (the author of the scarlet letter) and who, despite having some skepticism towards her theory, helped her to publish The Philosophy of the Plays of Shakespeare Unfolded in 1856, in the magazine Putnambecause he considered that the American literature of those times only had two worthy names: one was Walt Whitman and the other Delia Bacon (by the way, both good friends too, even though he, too, had his doubts about her work).

Among the detractors stood out the New Yorker Richard Grant White, literary critic and unconditional defender of Shakespeare, about whom he wrote several studies dedicating part of his attention to the question of identity in Essay on the Authorship of the Three Parts of Henry VI (Essay on the authorship of the three parts of Henry VI).

Delia Bacon became obsessed with the subject but never consulted primary sources or did extensive research, as Carlyle recommended. She wrote and wrote taking as her only proof the absence of data on Shakespeare’s life, as if that were enough to constitute a certainty. Magazine Putnam he distrusted her mental balance and withdrew financial support, leaving her in a difficult situation from which Nathaniel Hawthorne, then consul in London, had to rescue her.

The man of letters also offered to write her the book’s foreword, but he did so by making it clear that he was skeptical about it and she withdrew the word from him forever (yet, in a gesture that honored him, Hawthorne took care of his debts and always spoke good of her).

Delia did indeed border on insanity with her obsession. She visited Shakespeare’s tomb at night, hoping to open it for secret documents, just as she had petitioned—in vain, of course—for Francis Bacon’s.

When he was finally able to publish his book, he received applause from writers like Mark Twain, Henry James, and Walt Whitman, some of whom came to believe what he said. Unfortunately, it was a commercial failure and she, Delia, who did not take her criticisms well – they affected her until she was sick – she was prostrated once again. She would be her definitive one, when she died in 1859; she young, only forty-eight years old.

He did not live long enough to see what would happen to his hypothesis about Shakespeare, but other authors picked up the baton, each one proposing an identity for the English playwright: although Francis Bacon and Edward de Vere were still in the pool, others such as Christopher Marlowe, John Fletcher and John Donne.

Of course, the list of dissenters also grew and today they are the majority. In any case, that debate grew as Delia was ignored and forgotten, if not taken for a half-crazy eccentric. Hawthorne’s epitaph was pretty tight: No author was as confidently hopeful as she; none had ever failed so completely.


The Philosophy of the Plays of Shakspere Unfolded (Delia Salter Bacon/Delia Bacon, the woman who hated Shakespeare (Elizabeth Kerri Mahon in Scandalous Women)/The Shakespeare Controversy. An analysis of the authorship theories (Warren Hope and Kim Holston)/Shakespeare beyond doubt. Evidence, argument, controversy (Paul Edmondson and Stanley Wells)/Women reading Shakespeare, 1660-1900. An anthology of criticism (Ann Thompson and Sasha Roberts, eds)/Wikipedia

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