Advocate. Role model. Inspiration. Helen Keller has been called all those things.
But there’s one more surprising description that fits: Shakespeare skeptic.
Keller didn’t believe that William Shakespeare, whose birthday was just celebrated on April 23, wrote the plays and poetry credited to him. And she said so publicly.
Research into the playwright’s life “led me to the conclusion that Shakespeare of Stratford is not to be even thought of as a possible author of the most wonderful plays of the world,” Keller wrote in the January 1909 issue of the Matilda Ziegler Magazine. “The question now remains: Who was William Shakespeare?”
Keller’s views about Shakespeare were not completely out of character. She was never afraid to take unpopular positions, and made headlines as a vocal advocate of a woman’s right to vote, an opponent of child labor and an early supporter of civil rights for African-Americans.
Keller also wasn’t alone in questioning Shakespeare. Other public figures of her era – including Sigmund Freud, Walt Whitman, Charlie Chaplin and Keller’s longtime friend Mark Twain – were all Shakespeare skeptics.
Most literary scholars scoff at their anti-Shakespeare theories. They say the historic evidence is overwhelming that Shakespeare did, in fact, write the plays that bear his name. Modern-day computer analysis of his work also strongly supports “The Bard” as the lone author of most of his published plays and sonnets.
However, anti-Stratfordians – the preferred label for Shakespeare skeptics – argue that the real William Shakespeare was incapable of writing the plays attributed to him. They speculate that Shakespeare was hiding the identity of the real author, who was unwilling or unable to claim credit.
Keller was a “Baconian,” and believed that Sir Francis Bacon, a renowned philosopher and author, was the ghostwriter of Shakespeare’s plays. Her theory stemmed from both legitimate scholarship and a somewhat gullible belief in outright quackery.
On the scholarship side, Keller argued that Shakespeare’s humble background precluded him from writing such sophisticated and erudite plays.
In the Matilda Ziegler Magazine, Keller wrote that whoever penned Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets was “a profound reader, a learned scholar, a courtier, a lawyer and a traveler.”
None of those attributes matched the historic facts of Shakespeare’s life, Keller argued. He grew up in a backwater town and there’s no proof that he received a formal education. Her research, Keller wrote, convinced her “that what I have been taught about Shakespeare is founded on insufficient evidence.”
In the quackery department, Keller was influenced by a book by William Stone Booth, “Acrostic Signatures of Francis Bacon.” In it, Booth claimed to have uncovered an elaborate hidden code that Bacon used to embed his name in Shakespeare’s plays, proving his authorship.
Keller was dazzled by Booth’s claims. The “signatures are perfect, unmistakable, obvious,” she wrote. “I have some right under my fingers in braille. No evidence given or sworn in court could be more overwhelming than this.”
Keller wrote a 34-page manuscript entitled “A Concealed Poet Disclosed,” in which she argued that Bacon secretly wrote Shakespeare’s plays. To her dismay, no publisher agreed to print it. Instead, they encouraged her to write more autobiographical material, which was popular with the public.
That annoyed Keller, who wanted to write on a wider range of topics. “I do wish editors and friends could realize that I have a mind of my own,” she wrote in a snippy note to a magazine publisher.
Keller eventually moved on from questioning Shakespeare’s authorship – but remained a lifelong fan of his work, from “Macbeth” to “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
In her autobiography, “The Story of My Life,” she wrote, “I do not remember a time since I have been capable of loving books that I have not loved Shakespeare” – no matter who actually put quill pen to paper in England 400 years ago to write his plays.