Famous people who may never have existed

Shakespeare

Surely the great William Shakespeare was real, right? He has writings — lots of them — and we have portraits of the man. How could that equal a phony? Amazingly, quite easily; many people are convinced “William Shakespeare” was a pen name, and whoever wrote those stories might be lost to history.

As recapped by PBS, there was a guy named William Shakespeare, but we know little about him. We don’t know where he learned to write, how he learned so much about law, politics, and history, and his will mentioned no plays or sonnets, which you’d think would be foremost on his mind. It sounds like the real Shakespeare didn’t write much more than a grocery list. If true, we’re unsure about who the “real” Shakespeare is. Plenty of candidates have emerged over the years, like Francis Bacon, Ben Johnson, and Christopher Marlowe, but these possibilities haven’t stuck.

There’s another legitimate possibility in the obscure Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere. According to J. Thomas Looney, a schoolteacher who uncovered a great deal about the man, Vere wrote poetry that reads much like what the Bard wrote. According to this theory, Vere used an assumed name because, as nobility, he didn’t want to be associated with a low-brow art like playwriting. Then, when he died, his followers published his plays under the pen name of some random commoner named William Shakespeare, who died years back. That’s good, because most aspiring writers would much rather be called “Shakespeare” than “Vere.”