Credence and science

In a number of essays on this homepage I have demonstrated that it is easy enough to prove most convincingly that William Stanley, 6th Earl of Derby (1561-1642) was the author of what is known as "Shakespeare’s works". At the same time it appears that the theory of this identity is very useful in practical life. This is evident especially in the case of interpreting the meaning of the play Hamlet.

It is well known, however, that professional literary historians adhere unyieldingly to the theory that the author was an actor from Stratford-upon-Avon. They do not even call it a "theory", but regard it as a "fact". The experts thus accept without hesitation that the putative author of Hamlet had no noticeable connection with the character of Prince Hamlet in this play. That literary history lacks a connection between its number one playwright and his number one stage character is certainly an unsurpassed fiasco for this discipline. Is it really possible that qualified and experienced professionals are capable of making such a gross mistake within their own field? We are certainly inclined to answer in the affirmative, and so are the literary historians themselves.

Already in 1918, Professor Abel Lefranc (1863-1952) launched the theory on Derby’s authorship. The entire literary establishment asserts that this front rank literary historian of the Collège de France went wide of the mark. If this distinguished expert could make a capital mistake, then of course, anyone can. Literary historians, even the most distinguished among them, are obviously not considered exempt from making capital mistakes. Our next question will be: Is it possible that many experts in the same field make the same mistake? Again we must answer in the affirmative.

Greek astronomers realized about the year 300 BC that the earth must be an orb that circles around the sun. They had collected observations enough to demonstrate that this theory was superior to the old one. The latter implied that the earth was a disc encircled by the sun. Given the possibility to make the necessary observations, it was certainly a gross mistake to hold on to the old theory after 300 BC. Nevertheless, even the foremost astronomers of all the world stuck to precisely this outmoded theory for about 1,800 years.

Other scientists adhered just as long to Aristotle’s old statement that the housefly has eight legs. Yet it is a simple task for the laity as well as for the learned to count the legs of a fly. (There are six of them.)

To count the chromosomes in a cell from a human tissue is a little bit more complicated. It is a task reserved for experts with adequate microscopes. Even so, there have been thousands of scientists with access to the necessary equipment who sometimes also had occasion to study the chromosomes. A count gives the sum of 46. Nevertheless all the authorities in the field maintained that the correct number was 48.

In 1924 a sensational archeological find was made in Glozel in France. The find consisted of a great number of seemingly ancient objects. Prominent archeologists declared that the objects were forgeries that had been deposited a short time before the discovery. A distinguished criminologist also investigated the finding-place and found intact earth layers above the objects. He concluded that the objects must have been in place for hundreds of years. The archeologists, however, paid no regard to this conclusion for more than 40 years. Only when the age of the objects could be established by means of new physical methods was it finally accepted that the find was about 2,000 years old.

In 1896 the French physician Duchesne tried penicillin on guinea pigs that had been infected with typhoid bacteria. He found that the pigs treated with penicillin survived while the rest of the infected animals died. This discovery was totally disregarded for the next 40 years. In 1945 three other persons received the Nobel Prize for having "discovered" penicillin and demonstrated its medical efficacy. Yet Duchesne had reported all his results in his doctor’s thesis of 1897.

As a matter of fact, we can find lots of examples of a whole professional group adhering, to a person, to a conception that has been proven defective by one in their rank. Sometimes this happens even when it is possible to demonstrate the error by simple means. In such cases the professionals usually refrain from trying to prove the validity of the accepted theory. Instead they say that the divergent theory is due to some unspecified fault or to general incompetence or malignity.

In the case of Shakespeare, however, attempts have been made to prove the correctness of the accepted theory. The Englishman Gordon Crosse argued in 1917 as follows: "Granted that it seems improbable that Shakespeare [i.e. the actor] wrote the plays, can it be shown to be equally or more improbable that any other person or group of persons did so? That is the real problem..." The solution of the problem, according to Crosse, would be this: "...on the balance of probabilities, Shakespeare would after all come out as a less unlikely author than any other who could be suggested." The reasoning as such is unassailable. A poor theory is often better than no theory. It certainly made sense in 1917; one year before Lord Derby had joined the group of suggested authors. Already in 1918 Lefranc presented a number of facts pointing to Will Derby as the author. With due consideration to these facts Crosse’s reasoning would obviously have resulted in Derby as the one who was "less unlikely than any other". Unfortunately Crosse did never reappear with his logical argument.

The Scotsman John Semple Smart (1868-1925) certainly had access to Lefranc’s theory before he finished his own book on Shakespeare, published posthumously in 1928. Yet Smart does not mention Derby or Lefranc when he tries to convince the reader that the Stratfordian must be the author. His entire reasoning aims at demonstrating the deficiencies of the case for Bacon as author. Smart elucidates the exceedingly improbable premises about Bacon’s relations to various persons that are required in order to make the Bacon theory hang together.

Smart has indeed succeeded in demonstrating the utter improbability of the Bacon theory. His principal proof in support of the Stratford theory is less convincing--to say the least. It consists of two prefaces to the First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays signed John Heminge and Henry Condell. Heminge(s) and Condell were actors and former partners of Shakspere. They had acted in many of Shakespeare’s plays. When they in 1623 certify that their colleague (who died 1616) was the author of the plays, they are to be trusted on their word, maintains Smart.

If we take for granted that everything printed is true, this is a good argument indeed. In all probability Heminge and Condell knew whether their fellow actor had written the plays or not. But what about the truthfulness of the prefaces? It says, among other things, that "wee haue scarce receiued from him a blot in his papers". As a literary historian, Smart should have known that his contemporary, Sir Sidney Lee (Samuel Levi, 1859-1926), had found traces of changes and corrections in almost every play in the Folio. Still the printed version contains about 20,000 errors of sundry types. As a man of letters, Smart should have been stricken by the manifestly academic style of the prefaces. We do not expect actors without university education to express themselves like graduate students the very first time they get published. This is the first sentence of their first preface:

Whilst we studie to be thankful in our particular, for the

many fauors we have receiued from your L. L we are falne

vpon the ill fortune, to mingle two the most diuerse things

that can bee, feare, and rashnesse; rashnesse in the enter- prize, and feare of the successe. (L. L = ’Lordships’)

Certainly Smart should have realized that the prefaces could not reasonably have been written by any ordinary actor. The very long sentences (30 words on an average) contain a great number of subordinate clauses and digressions. They point to a writer who is accustomed to following a complex train of thought. The two epistles also demonstrate a remarkable talent for writing in differing styles. The beginning and the end of the second preface (addressed to the general public) are kept in a terse advertising style. These parts contain 16 sentences with about 16 words per sentence. The proportion of long words (more than 6 letters) is 10 percent. The middle part and the entire first preface (addressed to two earls) give proof of a considerably more sophisticated style. The sentences contain 50 words as an average and the proportion of long words is 18 percent. This can be compared to the prefaces to the two long poems by Shakespeare, Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece. These prefaces contain a total of seven sentences with 32 words per sentence and 18 percent long words. We have reason to suspect the author of the Folio prefaces to be a person on an educational level equaling that of Shakespeare/Lord Derby. Not a single literary historian seems to have noticed this remarkable circumstance. Do they think that Shakspere’s colleagues in general were champions of erudition? In that case they had perhaps chosen (by casting lots) one troupe member to write the plays, that any other could have written just as well. Was Shakespeare not a unique genius after all?

Incidentally, it is not unusual for literary historians to use Smart’s chief argument in the attribution of texts to authors. His argument is, as we noticed, that it can be proven that Bacon could not have been the author. The reasoning goes as follows: It is claimed that person A has written the work W. Analysis of style shows that a certain B cannot have written the text. Ergo: person A must be the author. In exactly this manner it was decided that Mikhail Sholokhov (1905-84) was the true author of Tikhiy Don. There is much that speaks against his authorship, although he himself took the credit of it. After a lot of ifs and buts someone at last succeeded in showing that a certain Kryukov had used a different literary style than that of Tikhiy Don. Since Kryukov could not possibly have written the book it was suddenly self-evident that Sholokhov must have done it, just as he himself pointed out in an interview. The members of the Swedish Academy adopted this "logic" and granted Sholokhov the Nobel Prize for literature in 1965. The one who was in a position to know something about Sholokhov’s relation to Tikhiy Don was Arnost Kolman, but he was not consulted. I therefore refer to page 131 of his book Die verirrte Generation.

But certainly there are literary historians smarter than J.S. Smart and 18 Swedes. One of them is Frank W. Wadsworth who in 1958 published the book The Poacher from Stratford. It is true that even he devotes most of the book to battering at an open door, i.e. to refuting the Bacon theory. But he also notes the theoretical possibility that people other than Bacon could have written plays under an assumed name. Among such people he also mentions Lord Derby, whom he then disposes of on four pages. Wadsworth notes that the initial sponsor of Lord Derby was the British archivist, James Greenstreet, who published three essays on the playwright Earl in the years 1891-92. Wadsworth goes on to say: "Filled with the traditional distaste for the idea of a low-born author, Greenstreet found his discovery cause enough to suggest the Earl as a substitute for Shakespeare." In his essays, Greenstreet succeeded in completely concealing this distaste--but, lo and behold, Wadsworth discovered it anyway! Mind reading, sixth sense or what?

Wadsworth goes on to mention the American, Robert Frazer, who revived the Derby theory, arguing in The Silent Shakespeare (1915) that although Shakspere "popularized" (i.e. vulgarized) old plays, he could not have written the magic lines of the disputed dramas. Next he turns to the French scholar, Abel Lefranc, well known as a writer on Rabelais and the Renaissance, "who has been awarded the mantle as Derby’s first modern supporter". Wadsworth meticulously covers the supporters Jacques Boulenger, Richard Macdonald Lucas, Mathias Morhardt, and arrives at Dr. A.W. Titherley, Dean of the Faculty of Science at the University of Liverpool. He then dwells upon whatever logical mistakes he can find in Titherley’s book and makes the doctor a laughing-stock. Finally he mentions A.J. Evans, "whose admiration for the learned doctor [Titherley] pulsates on almost every page of Shakespeare’s Magic Circle and is matched only by his absolutely awesome admiration for the aristocracy".

Wadsworth does not bother to refute any of the arguments of these writers. By making fun of Dr. Titherley he creates the impression that it is all about passing fancies coming from a bunch of madcaps.

In a separate "Epilogue" Wadsworth says: "The question is frequently asked, if, when all is said an done, it matters who actually did write the plays and poems; and the question is deserving of an answer. [...] That it does matter, on purely emotional grounds, to a great many people who love the Shakespearian works, I do know. [The battle] strikes at the heart of man’s knowledge of himself. The reasons we have for believing that William Shakespeare of Stratford-on-Avon wrote the plays and poems are the same as the reasons we have for believing any other historical event--for believing that Julius Caesar was stabbed by Brutus and the conspirators, [...] that Abraham Lincoln was shot watching a performance [...]. We believe these things because, in the opinion of those best qualified to judge, the historical evidence says that they happened. In exactly the same way the historical evidence says that William Shakespeare wrote the plays and poems. If one can argue that the evidence in Shakespeare’s case does not mean what it says, [...] then one can just as surely argue that, [...] as Henry Ford said ªhistory is bunk´. That is why the charge that Shakespeare did not write the plays does matter."

It is one thing to accept historical happenings as real in cases when there is only one theory about the implication of the evidence. It is quite another matter to choose one theory out of several that purport to explain the same group of evidence. Wadsworth seems to plead against choosing the most probable or the simplest of the competing theories. Instead he pleads for the theory that the authorities in the field prefer. The case of the eight legs of the fly show that this principle means an effective obstacle to scientific progress. Besides, which authority is to be trusted in the case of Shakespeare, if we are to follow Wadsworth? Was not Professor Lefranc one of those "best qualified to judge" in a question of Renaissance literary history? Or did he meet his match in the person of Mr. Wadsworth?

As for Wadsworth’s remark that the question of authorship does matter to a great many people on purely emotional grounds, he is probably right. Somehow it is more emotionally attractive to think that Shakespeare’s masterpieces sprang forth out of the creative force of an ordinary man of the people. With a little bit of luck, any man should be able to inherit the right genes for developing any kind of championship without years of awkward studies. Emotional reasoning in its glory!

It is the same emotional reasoning that has made the Cinderella story popular, that made a poor Corsican the Emperor of France and an Austrian bohemian the Fuehrer of Germany. It is not absolutely necessary for a mighty and venerated king to have begun as a shepherd, youngest of eight brothers, but it certainly helps a good deal. The same emotional appeal works in the world of literature. The play Titus Andronicus "by Will Derby" would have disgraced its author. As sprung forth from the pen of a simple actor (and in company with Hamlet etc.), this play has won recognition as a part of the world literature.

Will Derby was not only a dramatist genius. He was also a genius in the field of marketing and advertising. From time immemorial "sailing under false colors" has been one of the means to enhance the status, popularity and circulation of works of literature. The Ten Commandments that Moses preached would have been soon forgotten if he had claimed the authorship himself. He knew better than that. Montesquieu (1689-1755) achieved quite a success with his first book, Lettres Persanes (1721) allegedly written by a visitor from Persia. Daniel Defoe (1660-1731) made people believe that his The Life of Robinson Crusoe (1719) was based on a narrative by a shipwrecked traveler--which may have contributed to the success of that book. The Frenchman Lavergne de Guilleragues (-1685) was smart enough to give himself out as the "translator" of his Lettres portugaises (1669) and to have the readers making guesses about which nun was the author of these love letters. How many would even have cared to read them if they had been presented as written by a man?

Most of us agree that Shakespeare’s works are written by a genius. It seems natural to think that the same genius should be able to realize the value of an emotionally well-adjusted "frame story", just as did Montesquieu, Defoe and Guilleragues. If Lord Derby wrote plays ranging from the most sophisticated to utter box-office matter and poetry from Venus and Adonis to "The Knack", then he would certainly have been able to write the advertising matter in the First Folio as well. Who else would have dared put the names Heminge and Condell under prefaces written by somebody else? Derby, on the other hand, could easily have borrowed their names in return for a suitable gratuity.

The conjecture that Derby may have written the Heminge-Condell epistles is worth putting to the stylistic test that has proved to be decisive. The epistles contain 895 words altogether. Out of these there are 90 (85 different) words of the category occurring less than 20 times in the works of Shakespeare. This amounts to a frequency of 10 percent or exactly the same as in Shakespeare. Not even the Earl of Oxford (Derby’s father-in-law) wrote an English with such a high proportion of low-frequency words. The number of non-Shakespeare words in the prefaces is 11, compared to an expected number of 7 to 21 for a "new" text of this length by Shakespeare. The number of non-Spenser words is 41, compared to an expected number of 3 to 17. (The estimate is based on the fact that the number of different words in a text by Shakespeare is 54 percent higher than in a text of the same length written by Spenser.) We can safely assert that not just everybody in cultivated society could have written the Heminge-Condell text. The probability that e.g. Spenser could have done it is less than one in a million.

Since the prefaces in question could not have been written by any actor, nor by the erudite Spenser. Shakespeare alias Derby is clearly the chief suspect. The decisive proof, however, comes from the many idiomatic locutions that Shakespeare and the prefaces have in common. There are 15 such expressions, of which only four occur also in the works of Spenser. (See Appendix below.) A few other expressions from the prefaces are missing in Shakespeare (just as do 11 single words as mentioned above). Suppose that every one of the 15 expressions was common enough to have been used by 50 percent of all writers. In such a case the odds are one to 33,000 that two independent writers would use all of them. The number of people who had anything to do with the editing of the First Folio was probably below 20. It borders on absolute certainty that Shakespeare/Derby wrote the prefaces for his own book.

It follows that Frank Wadsworth was completely taken in by Derby when he thought that he could depend on the testimony, seemingly given by two fellow actors, that their colleague had written the plays. All other literary historians who have given a thought to the prefaces have willingly walked into the same trap. The uncritical believing in the "truths" of the establishment is just as common among literary historians as among other scholars and scientists.

We may well ask, however, why experts sometimes give credence even to liars that they have exposed themselves. A certain Dr. H.N. Gibson declares in his book The Shakespeare Claimants that some of the statements in the Heminge-Condell prefaces are clearly untruthful. Says Gibson: "These two men were merely ordinary players, possibly of little education and certainly with no literary experience. [...] Their names would undobtedly be an attraction [...but] there are undoubtedly flagrant untruths, equal to any of those on a modern blurb." Gibson then frankly declares that the First Folio is not a perfect text and that it is not based on Shakespeare’s original autographs, as the prefaces explicitly maintain. After debunking these lies and realizing that Heminge and Condell are not the authors of the prefaces, Gibson still considers them as having assisted in the publication of the First Folio. He does this solely on the ground that their names are printed under the prefaces, and he does not bother to search for the real author of these.

Gibson’s book pretends to refute four different theories on the authorship of Shakespeare’s works. Two of these theories apply to Edward Oxford and Christopher Marlowe who died when many plays were still unwritten (1604 and 1593 respectively), and refuting them therefore means battering at an open door. The third is the Bacon theory which was thoroughly refuted already in 1913 by J.M. Robertson and once more by J.S. Smart in 1928. Finally Gibson figures that he has refuted the Derby theory as well. But he, like Wadsworth, shuns the really weighty arguments that Lefranc and Titherley plead in support of the theory. Gibson all but ignores Lefranc (whose books are obtainable only in French). Instead he devotes several pages to the airy-fairy speculations that take up a large part of Titherley’s book beside its chief subject. The dodge consists of casting suspicion on the Derby theory by showing that it has been advocated by a person who has also put forward some passing fancies without foundation.

Another of Gibson’s crafty devices is his smart use of terminology. He titles his first chapter "Theories and Theorists" and consequently reserves the word "theory" for the unorthodox theories only. This gives him reason to introduce the term "theorist" for the supporters of these theories. One gets the impression that the "theorists" are a little suspect in their "theorizing" about something that has really nothing to do with theories. The Stratford theory thereby appears, on purely emotional grounds, as a "fact" in contrast to the "theories" contradicting this "fact". Yet Gibson himself knows very well that there is no hard evidence for the Stratford theory. This he admits quite frankly in his book. The Shakespeare Claimants, with a bit of sharp practice, seeks to make the reader believe in a theory that is devoid of evidence. Permit me to call this a piece of reprehensible scholarship.

The Derby theory is certainly unorthodox, but at the same time very useful. Therefore, you may be curious to know a little more about Will Derby. So why not read The real Shakespeare?




Boulenger, Jacques, L’Affaire Shakespeare, Paris 1919.

Churchill, R. C., Shakespeare and his Betters, London 1958.

Crosse, Gordon, "The Real Shakespeare Problem", The Nineteenth Century and after, Vol. 81, London 1917 (p. 883).

Evans, A.J., Shakespeare’s Magic Circle, London 1956.

Frazer, Robert, The Silent Shakespeare, Philadelphia 1915.

Gibson, N. H., The Shakespeare Claimants, London 1962.

Kolman, Arnost, Die verirrte Generation, Frankfurt 1979.

Lee, Sidney, A Life of William Shakespeare, London 1898.

Lefranc, Abel, Sous le masque de William Shakespeare, Paris 1918.

Lefranc, Abel, A la découverte de Shakespeare, Paris 1945, 1950.

Lucas, Richard M., Shakespeare’s Vital Secret, 1937.

Morhardt, Mathias, A la recontre de "William Shakespeare", 1938.

Robertson, John M., The Baconian Heresy, London 1913

Scientific American, Vol. 239, 1978 (Glozel, p. 81 A-B).

Smart, John Semple, Shakespeare Truth and Tradition, London 1938.

Titherley, A.W., Shakespeare’s Identity, Winchester 1952.

Wadsworth, Frank W., The Poacher from Stratford, Berkeley 1958.





Stylistic expressions shared by Shakespeare and two of the prefaces of the First Folio but not by all the writers of their period.

The following 15 expressions are found both in the works of William Shakespeare and in some of the two prefaces in the First Folio signed by John Heminge and Henry Condell containing 895 running words. (Commonplace expressions are not taken into account.) The expressions marked "SPE" have been found in the works of Edmund Spenser as well.

1. In someone’s particular.

2. Cannot but do something.

3. In the enterprise.

4. To stand for something.

5. How odd/low soever.

6. Someone’s wisedomes.

7. Study to be (or do) something.

8. Someone had rather somebody would ...

9. Letters of commendation.

10. And welcome.

11. Fallen upon.

12. So-and-so living. SPE

13. Ill fortune. SPE

14. To be numbered. SPE

15. To prosecute plays (or rights). SPE

The following wordings from the prefaces are not shared by SHA:

Worthy by the perfection.

Most though meanest.

To stand out appelles.

Magistrate of wit.



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