Is Shakespeare Dead?, by Mark Twain


Did Francis Bacon write Shakespeare’s Works? Nobody knows.

We cannot say we KNOW a thing when that thing has not been proved. KNOW is too strong a word to use when the evidence is not final and absolutely conclusive. We can infer, if we want to, like those slaves. . . . No, I will not write that word, it is not kind, it is not courteous. The upholders of the Stratford–Shakespeare superstition call US the hardest names they can think of, and they keep doing it all the time; very well, if they like to descend to that level, let them do it, but I will not so undignify myself as to follow them. I cannot call them harsh names; the most I can do is to indicate them by terms reflecting my disapproval; and this without malice, without venom.

To resume. What I was about to say was, those thugs have built their entire superstition upon INFERENCES, not upon known and established facts. It is a weak method, and poor, and I am glad to be able to say our side never resorts to it while there is anything else to resort to.

But when we must, we must; and we have now arrived at a place of that sort. . . . Since the Stratford Shakespeare couldn’t have written the Works, we infer that somebody did. Who was it, then? This requires some more inferring.

Ordinarily when an unsigned poem sweeps across the continent like a tidal wave whose roar and boom and thunder are made up of admiration, delight, and applause, a dozen obscure people rise up and claim the authorship. Why a dozen, instead of only one or two? One reason is, because there are a dozen that are recognizably competent to do that poem. Do you remember “Beautiful Snow”? Do you remember “Rock Me to Sleep, Mother, Rock Me to Sleep”? Do you remember “Backward, turn, backward, O Time, in thy flight! Make me a child again just for tonight”? I remember them very well. Their authorship was claimed by most of the grown-up people who were alive at the time, and every claimant had one plausible argument in his favor, at least — to wit, he could have done the authoring; he was competent.

Have the Works been claimed by a dozen? They haven’t. There was good reason. The world knows there was but one man on the planet at the time who was competent — not a dozen, and not two. A long time ago the dwellers in a far country used now and then to find a procession of prodigious footprints stretching across the plain — footprints that were three miles apart, each footprint a third of a mile long and a furlong deep, and with forests and villages mashed to mush in it. Was there any doubt as to who made that mighty trail? Were there a dozen claimants? Where there two? No — the people knew who it was that had been along there: there was only one Hercules.

There has been only one Shakespeare. There couldn’t be two; certainly there couldn’t be two at the same time. It takes ages to bring forth a Shakespeare, and some more ages to match him. This one was not matched before his time; nor during his time; and hasn’t been matched since. The prospect of matching him in our time is not bright.

The Baconians claim that the Stratford Shakespeare was not qualified to write the Works, and that Francis Bacon was. They claim that Bacon possessed the stupendous equipment — both natural and acquired — for the miracle; and that no other Englishman of his day possessed the like; or, indeed, anything closely approaching it.

Macaulay, in his Essay, has much to say about the splendor and horizonless magnitude of that equipment. Also, he has synopsized Bacon’s history — a thing which cannot be done for the Stratford Shakespeare, for he hasn’t any history to synopsize. Bacon’s history is open to the world, from his boyhood to his death in old age — a history consisting of known facts, displayed in minute and multitudinous detail; FACTS, not guesses and conjectures and might-have-beens.

Whereby it appears that he was born of a race of statesmen, and had a Lord Chancellor for his father, and a mother who was “distinguished both as a linguist and a theologian: she corresponded in Greek with Bishop Jewell, and translated his APOLOGIA from the Latin so correctly that neither he nor Archbishop Parker could suggest a single alteration.” It is the atmosphere we are reared in that determines how our inclinations and aspirations shall tend. The atmosphere furnished by the parents to the son in this present case was an atmosphere saturated with learning; with thinkings and ponderings upon deep subjects; and with polite culture. It had its natural effect. Shakespeare of Stratford was reared in a house which had no use for books, since its owners, his parents, were without education. This may have had an effect upon the son, but we do not know, because we have no history of him of an informing sort. There were but few books anywhere, in that day, and only the well-to-do and highly educated possessed them, they being almost confined to the dead languages. “All the valuable books then extant in all the vernacular dialects of Europe would hardly have filled a single shelf” — imagine it! The few existing books were in the Latin tongue mainly. “A person who was ignorant of it was shut out from all acquaintance — not merely with Cicero and Virgil, but with the most interesting memoirs, state papers, and pamphlets of his own time” — a literature necessary to the Stratford lad, for his fictitious reputation’s sake, since the writer of his Works would begin to use it wholesale and in a most masterly way before the lad was hardly more than out of his teens and into his twenties.

At fifteen Bacon was sent to the university, and he spent three years there. Thence he went to Paris in the train of the English Ambassador, and there he mingled daily with the wise, the cultured, the great, and the aristocracy of fashion, during another three years. A total of six years spent at the sources of knowledge; knowledge both of books and of men. The three spent at the university were coeval with the second and last three spent by the little Stratford lad at Stratford school supposedly, and perhapsedly, and maybe, and by inference — with nothing to infer from. The second three of the Baconian six were “presumably” spent by the Stratford lad as apprentice to a butcher. That is, the thugs presume it — on no evidence of any kind. Which is their way, when they want a historical fact. Fact and presumption are, for business purposes, all the same to them. They know the difference, but they also know how to blink it. They know, too, that while in history-building a fact is better than a presumption, it doesn’t take a presumption long to bloom into a fact when THEY have the handling of it. They know by old experience that when they get hold of a presumption-tadpole he is not going to STAY tadpole in their history-tank; no, they know how to develop him into the giant four-legged bullfrog of FACT, and make him sit up on his hams, and puff out his chin, and look important and insolent and come-to-stay; and assert his genuine simon-pure authenticity with a thundering bellow that will convince everybody because it is so loud. The thug is aware that loudness convinces sixty persons where reasoning convinces but one. I wouldn’t be a thug, not even if — but never mind about that, it has nothing to do with the argument, and it is not noble in spirit besides. If I am better than a thug, is the merit mine? No, it is His. Then to Him be the praise. That is the right spirit.

They “presume” the lad severed his “presumed” connection with the Stratford school to become apprentice to a butcher. They also “presume” that the butcher was his father. They don’t know. There is no written record of it, nor any other actual evidence. If it would have helped their case any, they would have apprenticed him to thirty butchers, to fifty butchers, to a wilderness of butchers — all by their patented method “presumption.” If it will help their case they will do it yet; and if it will further help it, they will “presume” that all those butchers were his father. And the week after, they will SAY it. Why, it is just like being the past tense of the compound reflexive adverbial incandescent hypodermic irregular accusative Noun of Multitude; which is father to the expression which the grammarians call Verb. It is like a whole ancestry, with only one posterity.

To resume. Next, the young Bacon took up the study of law, and mastered that abstruse science. From that day to the end of his life he was daily in close contact with lawyers and judges; not as a casual onlooker in intervals between holding horses in front of a theater, but as a practicing lawyer — a great and successful one, a renowned one, a Launcelot of the bar, the most formidable lance in the high brotherhood of the legal Table Round; he lived in the law’s atmosphere thenceforth, all his years, and by sheer ability forced his way up its difficult steeps to its supremest summit, the Lord–Chancellorship, leaving behind him no fellow-craftsman qualified to challenge his divine right to that majestic place.

When we read the praises bestowed by Lord Penzance and the other illustrious experts upon the legal condition and legal aptnesses, brilliances, profundities, and felicities so prodigally displayed in the Plays, and try to fit them to the historyless Stratford stage-manager, they sound wild, strange, incredible, ludicrous; but when we put them in the mouth of Bacon they do not sound strange, they seem in their natural and rightful place, they seem at home there. Please turn back and read them again. Attributed to Shakespeare of Stratford they are meaningless, they are inebriate extravagancies — intemperate admirations of the dark side of the moon, so to speak; attributed to Bacon, they are admirations of the golden glories of the moon’s front side, the moon at the full — and not intemperate, not overwrought, but sane and right, and justified. “At ever turn and point at which the author required a metaphor, simile, or illustration, his mind ever turned FIRST to the law; he seems almost to have THOUGHT in legal phrases; the commonest legal phrases, the commonest of legal expressions, were ever at the end of his pen.” That could happen to no one but a person whose TRADE was the law; it could not happen to a dabbler in it. Veteran mariners fill their conversation with sailor-phrases and draw all their similes from the ship and the sea and the storm, but no mere PASSENGER ever does it, be he of Stratford or elsewhere; or could do it with anything resembling accuracy, if he were hardy enough to try. Please read again what Lord Campbell and the other great authorities have said about Bacon when they thought they were saying it about Shakespeare of Stratford.

Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 20:05