On the second floor of the glass book tower in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, there are two unremarkable-looking volumes of Shakespeare’s works. Beneath the covers, many pages are covered in elaborate cursive handwriting. It is not a neat hand; the reader seems to get ahead of herself, erasing words, writing upside down, and straying out of the margins. She makes symbols: triangles, exclamation points, squiggles, circles. She underlines copiously. And, over and over again, she scrawls the letter B.
The reader’s name was Delia Bacon, a writer and schoolteacher who lived in New Haven during the first half of the 19th century, and this 1834 edition of Shakespeare was her personal copy of his plays and poetry. In the 1850s, she became convinced that she had uncovered the secret of the true authorship of the plays: according to her, they were not in fact written by William Shakespeare, but instead by a heroic “Round Table” of Elizabethan courtiers led by Francis Bacon, Walter Raleigh, and Edmund Spenser.
She had difficulty convincing others of her theories, but she was convinced that her cause was just. “This has not been a selfish enterprise,” she wrote in her manifesto, a 700-page, ponderous tome called The Philosophy of the Plays of Shakespeare Unfolded. “It is not a personal concern. It is a discovery which belongs not to an individual, but to a people.”
There was no English department at Yale in the 1830s, but Delia believed that to uncover the secret of the authorship of the plays required an exercise in careful, critical close reading. Her annotated books are a testament to that concern; in an era before searchable online texts, she had a prodigious ability to identify clusters of words and images which recur in Shakespeare’s works and had clearly memorized large swaths of the plays. She may be the madwoman in the attic of Shakespeare studies, then. But perhaps, in a sense, she was also New Haven’s first English professor.
Delia Bacon’s annotated copies of Shakespeare currently reside in the student curatorial office at the Beinecke. In 1853, Nathaniel Hawthorne saw them on her table.
At this time, Delia was living in London, where she had taken lodgings at Spring Street, Sussex Gardens and was working on her book. Hawthorne was also in England, and decided to pay a visit to the woman who would later become infamous for her eccentric theories about Shakespeare. In his essay “Recollections of a Gifted Woman,” he recalled that “I was ushered up two (and I rather believe three) pair of stairs into a parlor somewhat humbly furnished, and told that Miss Bacon would come soon. There were a number of books on the table, and, looking into them, I found that every one had some reference, more or less immediate, to her Shakespearean theory — a volume of Raleigh’s History of the World, a volume of Montaigne, a volume of Lord Bacon’s letters, a volume of Shakespeare’s plays.”
When Delia appeared in the parlor, Hawthorne was surprised. “Having no other ground of such expectation than that she was a literary woman,” he wrote, he had expected “a very homely, uncouth, elderly personage.” But he describes her as “rather uncommonly tall,” with “a striking and expressive face, dark hair, dark eyes, which shone with an inward light as soon as she began to speak…making allowance for years and ill health, I could suppose her to have been handsome and exceedingly attractive once.”
This rather tenuous compliment seems to capture something of Delia’s magnetism. In New Haven she had found employment as a public lecturer, where her audiences seemed to find her supremely charismatic. One spectator called her “graceful and intellectual in appearance, eloquent in speech, marvelously wise.” Her teacher Catherine Beecher wrote that Delia had “a melodious voice, a fervid imagination, and the embryo of rare gifts of eloquence in thought and expression…preeminently one who could be pointed to as a genius.” Even allowing for the typical embellishments of nineteenth century prose, nearly every contemporary description of Delia remarks upon her rhetorical gifts and formidable powers of persuasion.
“She was indeed an admirable talker,” wrote Hawthorne, and she managed to “produce in the listener’s mind something like a temporary faith in what she herself believed so fervently.” But, he added, “the streets of London are not favorable to enthusiasms of this kind.” He left Spring Street somewhat bemused, but undeniably impressed.
Delia Bacon was born in 1811 in Ohio, the daughter of a Congregationalist minister. The Bacon family had long been established in New Haven, but her father was determined to found a new ministry on the western frontier. The new church foundered, and Delia’s father died quickly after the family returned to Connecticut. All of their limited financial resources seem to have been dedicated to sending Delia’s brother, Leonard, to divinity school at Yale. At fifteen, her formal education ended and she became a schoolteacher in New Haven.
She was, by all accounts, a gifted teacher. The young women under her charge may have been denied a Yale education, but they followed a rigorous curriculum. A former student wrote that “she imparted to them new ideas; she systematized for them the knowledge already gained; she engaged them in discussion; she taught them to think… she knew both how to pour in knowledge and how to draw out thought.” Delia’s method of teaching Shakespeare was somewhat unusual for the 19th century; she encouraged her students to pay close attention to every word and phrase, asserting that “there is nothing superfluous in any of these plays…Every character is necessary; every word is full of meaning.”
In 1836, when Delia was twenty-five, she moved to New York City to become a writer. She wrote short stories and even a play, but felt ambivalent about the suitability of a theatrical career for “a lady and a Christian,” as she wrote to her brother Leonard, now the Rev. Dr. Bacon. She returned to New Haven a few years later and rented permanent lodgings at the Tontine Hotel on the New Haven Green, where she continued to teach classes and hosted an informal salon.
In the 1840s, Delia became particularly friendly with a young Yale theology student and fellow boarder, Alexander MacWhorter. They shared an interest in Shakespeare and a belief that they were on the brink of world-changing textual discoveries (MacWhorter believed that he had found a link between Rabbinic texts and early Christianity), and they soon became inseparable.
Their intimacy occasioned comment, so much so that Leonard publicly confronted MacWhorter in the street and accused him of dishonorable conduct towards his sister. Delia and MacWhorter seemed to have had a falling out shortly afterwards, and reports emerged that he had taken to reading her letters out loud to his friends. In 1847, Leonard instigated an ecclesiastic trial, accusing MacWhorter of “calumny, falsehood, and disgraceful conduct, as a man, a Christian, and especially as a candidate for the Christian ministry.” The trial called upon accounts from numerous witnesses, as Catherine Beecher recounted in Truth Stranger Than Fiction:
Testimony of a Gentleman Boarder.
I boarded at —- Hotel in the Winter and Summer of 1845. I observed that Mr. A would leave his seat often and go and sit at the table where Miss D sat; not at breakfast only, but at dinner and sometimes at supper. He would often walk out of the room with her. The gentlemen where I sat were accustomed to talk of Mr. A’s attention to Miss D as indication of interest in her. By interest I mean, something more than that he was pleased with her intellectual attainments. It was that he was interested in her personal attractions.
Testimony of the Servant.
I had charge of Miss D’s parlor. Mr. A used to be there as often as two or three times a week. He stayed late in the evening, sometimes till ten, sometimes till eleven o’clock.
The trial scandalized the New Haven Congregationalist community and subjected Delia to humiliating inquiries into her personal life. She seemed to have found the scrutiny unbearable, and in 1848 she left New Haven for Boston. For many of Delia’s biographers, the MacWhorter affair was the defining turning point of her life, a deeply spiritually destabilizing event which may have precipitated her obsession with Shakespearean authorship. James Shapiro writes in Contested Will that “the pursuit of the authorship question, for Delia Bacon, was both a product of, and illuminated by, personal and religious crisis.”
Still, it seems reductive to attribute Delia’s tireless support of the Baconian theory solely to romantic disappointment, or to assert (as some critics have done) that in William Shakespeare she had found a man she hated even more than Alexander MacWhorter. For centuries, critics have mythologized, romanticized, and pathologized her; it is nearly impossible to find the “real” Delia, since her history is often obscured by patronizing assumptions. We often hear about Delia from others. There may be something revelatory, then, in letting her speak for herself.
Who, exactly, did Delia Bacon think wrote the plays of William Shakespeare? It is not as straightforward a question as it seems; in her own writings, she is often maddeningly cryptic. A few things are clear in The Philosophy of the Plays of Shakespeare Unfolded: for her, the Elizabethan and Jacobean period was an era of tyrannical political repression, in which a “mad licentious crew…armed against the commonweal” was pitted against “the natural chiefs and elected leaders of the nation,” a group of aristocrats and their hangers-on including Sir Walter Raleigh, Edmund Spenser, and— — first and foremost — Sir Francis Bacon.
These “Elizabethan Men of Letters” turned to playwriting under the name of the obscure actor William Shakespeare, she asserts, because the political establishment of the time could not accommodate their radical republican ideals. In this era of “diabolical tyranny,” they were “driven into books, cornered into paragraphs, and compelled to unpack their hearts in letters.” Delia’s emphasis on the repressiveness of the Elizabethan and Jacobean regimes undergirds her assumption that every text of the period is an exemplar of double-speak and euphemism; in her reading, all the plays of Shakespeare become ciphers to unlock, if she can only break the code.
In her copies of Shakespeare, the plays Troilus and Cressida, Timon of Athens, Pericles, King Lear, Hamlet, and Coriolanus receive the most annotations — although mysteriously, either Delia or someone else appears to have attempted to erase all the marginal commentary on the latter play. Her comments range from multi-page expositions to isolated words and phrases. Often she annotates with simply the word “Bacon,” “Raleigh,” or “Spenser,” presumably attributing individual passages to one of the authors of the Round Table.
Her annotations display a supreme faith in her own powers of perception, although the conclusions she draws can sometimes feel rather tenuous. When Moth asks Armado to “say the moral again” (3.1.) in Love’s Labour’s Lost, she writes “I will add the sense. Say the word Raleigh again.” Often she seems to be speaking a language that only she can understand. “This comes off well,” she writes triumphantly of the banquet scene in Timon of Athens, but the textual evidence she has found to support her theories of Shakespearean authorship remains elusive.
The impression garnered from her notes, then, is that of a reader who sees what she wants to see. “What trash is Rome what rubbish and what offal when it serves for the base matter to illuminate so vile a thing as Caesar,” she scrawls on another page of Timon of Athens, her virulent underlining conceivably referring to William Shakespeare, the glover’s son who she believed could never have written works of literary genius.
Ironically, however, the upstart crow from Stratford-upon-Avon may have provided her with the evidence she needed to formulate her theories. “Shakespeare has surface beneath surface, to an immeasurable depth, adapted to the plummet-line of every reader,” writes Nathaniel Hawthorne. “Whatever you seek in him you will surely discover, provided you seek truth.”
In June 1857, the Mayor of Stratford-upon-Avon wrote to the U.S. consul expressing concern about “an American lady” residing in the town. “She is in a very excited and unsatisfactory state, especially mentally, and I think there is much reason to fear that she will become decidedly insane.”
Earlier that year, Delia had left London and moved to Shakespeare’s birthplace. She had submitted her book for publication, but was very ill and running low on funds. When Leonard asked her to return home, however, she refused.
I am calm and happy. Never happier,–never so happy. I do not want to come back to America. I can not come. I pay seven shillings a week for my rooms and it takes very little to keep me alive. I do not want any luxuries. But I think this is the place for me at present.
Your ever affectionate sister,
Brimming with frustration, Leonard wrote to Hawthorne (who was supporting Delia financially and had facilitated the publication of her book) in irate terms: “The crisis at which my sister’s case has arrived, requires me to say, plainly, that in my opinion her mind has been ‘verging on insanity’ for the last six years. She knows that since 1851 I have habitually distrusted the soundness of her judgment. She knows that I have all along regarded her darling theory as a mere hallucination. She therefore distrusts me.”
The Philosophy of the Plays of Shakespeare Unfolded “fell with a dead thump at the feet of the public,” as Hawthorne put it. But Delia was convinced that the final proof of her theory could be discovered only in Stratford-upon-Avon, at the grave where Shakespeare was buried. “Curst be he that moves my bones,” reads the epitaph inscribed on his tomb: Delia seems to have ignored the warning.
Her grave-robbing efforts were unsuccessful, however, and in 1858 Leonard sent his oldest son to England to escort her home. By this point, she had experienced a nervous breakdown; and when she returned to Connecticut she was placed in a mental institution in Hartford. On September 2, 1859, she passed away at the age of forty-seven. She was buried in New Haven at Grove Street Cemetery. Her tombstone, a simple brown cross, bears this inscription:
“So He bringeth them to their desired haven.”
The final chapter of Delia’s life has been overshadowed by her association with Nathaniel Hawthorne; because he provides the most vivid depictions of her, she is inevitably transformed into the heroine of a Hawthorne novel. But while Hawthorne may have romanticized Delia, his imagining of her encounter with Shakespeare’s grave at the Church of the Holy Trinity, Stratford-upon Avon, has an undeniable Gothic appeal:
She went thither with a dark-lantern, which could but twinkly like a glow-worm through the volume of obscurity that filled the great dusky edifice. Groping her way up the aisle and towards the chancel, she sat down on the elevated part of the pavement above Shakespeare’s grave…if Shakespeare’s ghost would rise at any provocation, it must have shown itself then; but it is my sincere belief, that, if his figure had appeared within the scope of her dark-lantern, in his slashed doublet and gown, and with his eyes bent on her beneath the high, bald forehead, she would have met him fearlessly and controverted his claims to the authorship of the plays, to his very face.
How do you solve a problem like Delia? She is doomed to be remembered as the mad despoiler of Shakespeare’s grave, not a pioneering advocate for women’s education, but this passage captures something of her radically iconoclastic spirit. She was always on the outside of the scholarly conversation; although she might now be considered an ultimate insider, one of the founding figures of anti-Stratfordian authorship theories and perhaps even an intellectual ancestress of later critical movements such as New Historicism.
For better or worse, the debate about Shakespearean authorship has continued. But it continued without her. She might have been ahead of her time, or behind; she could never quite join the conversation. And even if she could, she was always faced with a silent interlocutor. In this sense, perhaps Hawthorne was right to leave us with our most enduring image of Delia Bacon: a woman alone in the dark, arguing with a ghost.