February 2, 2011

Bicentennial of Delia Bacon

Delia Bacon was born in a log cabin in Tallmadge, Ohio on February 2, 1811. Her father had moved the family there in a speculative venture that failed shortly after the young Delia's birth. The family returned to their roots in Connecticut, but father died shortly after. She was six years old. Her mother, already caring for four other children, sent Delia away to live with a family in Hartford. There, she studied for a time under Catherine Beecher (sister of Harriet Beecher Stowe), who acknowledged that Delia possessed "one of the most gifted minds I have ever met" and was "an agreeable person."

Others would later disagree.

After a decade of research, in 1857, Bacon published The Philosophy of the Plays of Shakespeare Unfolded. Her proposition, as she called it, was that William Shakespeare did not exist as we know him, that the plays attributed to that name were written by a coterie of men (including Sir Walter Raleigh and Edmund Spenser) and that, in fact, the plays were meant to show philosophy, not serve as entertainment, and that its authors hid their true identities due to political fears. This "little clique of disappointed and defeated politicians," as she speculated, "undertook to head and organize a popular opposition against the government, and were compelled to retreat from that enterprise, the best of of them effecting their retreat with some difficulty."

Among her supporters in her Shakespeare skepticism was Ralph Waldo Emerson, who helped publish her first essay on the subject. He even offered her advice on how to frame her argument (likely inspiring the introductory chapter "The Proposition"). The book's preface was provided by Nathaniel Hawthorne, who had met her while serving as Consul in Liverpool. In the preface, he admitted he hadn't even read the book before endorsing it. After admitting most readers will first feel "repugnance" at the theory, he explained:

What I claim for this work is, that the ability employed in its composition has been worthy of its great subject, and well employed for our intellectual interests, whatever judgment the public may pass upon the questions discussed. And, after listening to the author's interpretation of the Plays, and seeing how wide a scope she assigns to them, how high a purpose, and what richness of inner meaning, the thoughtful reader will hardly return again — not wholly, at all events — to the common view of them and of their author. It is for the public to say whether my countrywoman has proved her theory. In the worst event, if she has failed, her failure will be more honorable than most people's triumphs; since it must fling upon the old tombstone, at Stratford-on-Avon, the noblest tributary wreath that has ever lain there.

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