Historians have long debated whether a commoner such as William Shakespeare could have been responsible for the wealth of literature we attribute to him. Shakespeare certainly lived in London in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries where he could have, no doubt, been spotted on the stage of the Globe Theatre, performing in one of “his” many plays.
The intricate knowledge of courtly life, however, has called into question whether he penned the masterpieces himself, or if a better-educated contemporary—Francis Bacon, perhaps, or Queen Elizabeth—was really the poet behind the quill. Though the academic debate continues, the most likely author of Shakespeare's plays is William Shakespeare. This does not mean, however, that he didn’t steal more than a few ideas. It is also possible that he did not always work alone.
Francis Bacon has been accused of being the true author of Shakespeare’s plays for over a hundred years now and in all that time no convincing piece of evidence in support of this has ever surfaced. Conspiracy theorists have poured over every inch of Shakespeare’s writing, combing the text for ciphers, or cryptic word puzzles, that Bacon left behind to reveal his authorship. None have been discovered. Furthermore, Bacon was not the type to allow another to take credit for his ideas, no matter the risk of scandal.
Another contender for the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays is Queen Elizabeth. As a woman, it would have been highly unusual for her to be a writer, but the fact is that she did publish poetry under her own name. Elizabeth would certainly have had the knowledge of geography, politics, and life in court necessary to write the plays, but she lacked the need to cover her pen marks by ghost writing under William Shakespeare’s name.
Though the author of Shakespeare's plays was almost unquestioningly the the Bard himself, many of the plots were well known before he wrote them. In much the same way that the Disney Company takes classic fairytales and retells them in new ways, Shakespeare took historical accounts and other people’s fiction and made them his own. A number of his plays are histories that at least loosely chronicled the lives of some of England’s monarchy (think The Tudors: real people, real events but often exaggerated in the name of good drama).
It is well known that Romeo and Juliet, one of Shakespeare’s most beloved and well-known texts was translated by Arthur Brooke from an Italian novella. Shakespeare dramatized Brooke’s long poem, adding his own details, but also pulling many lines of dialogue directly out of the poem. Though many of his plays were borrowed, as such, from other authors, there are a few plays, notably The Tempest and The Merry Wives of Windsor that are unique works.
Inconsistencies of voice are another argument for why it is not possible Shakespeare couldn’t have authored his own plays. Though there is no evidence for a ghost writer scribbling away behind the scenes, there is evidence that suggests Shakespeare collaborated with other playwrights on an number of occasions. Close examination of the text of Henry VIII, for example, shows that Shakespeare may have co-authored the play with John Fletcher. Many of the scenes follow Fletcher’s literary style and the evidence for this is strong enough that the majority of Shakespeare experts agree that this is a valid, if not likely, theory.