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Mysterious Engravings Question Authorship of Shakespeare’s Works

Reproduction, © Bloomsbury Auctions
Engraving from ‘Cryptomenytices et Cryptographiae libri IX’ (all images courtesy Bloomsbury Auctions)

William Shakespeare was a commoner who wrote witty plays attended by Queen Elizabeth. Sir Francis Bacon was a noble who served as her Attorney General. Right?

Well, if you’re a “Baconian,” someone who reveres Bacon as the true author of Shakespeare’s rhymes, then not exactly. Their basic hypothesis is that Bacon pulled a Cyrano de Bergerac, letting Shakespeare take credit for his plays so that he could pursue a political career.

Soon, alleged evidence for that claim — which, for the record, most scholars completely reject — will go under the hammer at a Bloomsbury Auction sale in London on March 19. Believers have pointed to clues of Bacon’s authorship in Gustav Selenus’s Cryptomenytices et Cryptographiae libri IX (1624), a first edition copy that is now up for grabs.

The volume contains two eyebrow-raising engravings that the Baconian writer Sir Edwin Dunning-Lawrence has said offer hints of Bacon’s involvement. On the title page, an illustration shows the statesman sitting at a desk and writing on a folio-sized manuscript; the book came out the year after Shakespeare’s First Folio was published. More convincing is another image inside the book that depicts Bacon handing a folio to a man carrying a spear — a seeming reference to his unique business relationship with the bard.

Baconians believe Bacon’s contemporaries were in on the ruse and alluded to it through imagery in their own works. Selenus’s Cryptome falls into that category, along with images in works by Joseph Hall, John Marston, George Wither, John Florio, and even Bacon himself.

Doubts about the true author of Shakespeare’s plays first surfaced in the mid-1800s and have since fueled an endless production of rabbit trails in journal article form. As with any conspiracy theory, it’s easy to get sucked in. Some have claimed works like Macbeth and Romeo and Juliet are riddled with language that Bacon used in his personal writings. Others have pointed to secret codes and ciphers in the text that Bacon supposedly inserted to reveal his authorship.

These theories have had their fair share of converts, with everyone from Mark Twain to a Chicago judge, who actually ruled in 1916 that Bacon was the genius behind the plays, buying in. And now, if you want, you can too. Literally.

Reproduction, © Bloomsbury Auctions
Engraving from ‘Cryptomenytices et Cryptographiae libri IX’
Reproduction, © Bloomsbury Auctions
Engraving from ‘Cryptomenytices et Cryptographiae libri IX’
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