In England in the summer of 1964, an unusual case came before the courts.
It involved a squabble over the will of Miss Evelyn May Hopkins and the authorship of the works of William Shakespeare. Miss Hopkins had died, leaving a third of her inheritance to the Francis Bacon Society for the purpose of finding the original manuscripts of Shakespeare’s plays. She referred to them as the “Bacon-Shakespeare manuscripts,” believing the true author of the works to have been Francis Bacon, the Elizabethan philosopher and statesman. The aim of finding the manuscripts was to prove that Bacon was, in fact, the author of the works attributed to Shakespeare. Her heirs were not pleased. Naturally, they preferred that the money go to themselves. Seeking to reclaim their inheritance, the heirs brought a suit against the society, arguing that Miss Hopkins’s provision should be set aside on the grounds that the search would be a “wild goose chase.” To support their case, they solicited the testimony of scholarly experts. The Right Honorable Richard Wilberforce, a justice of Her Majesty’s High Court, presided.
Counsel for the next of kin “described it as a wild goose chase; but wild geese can, with good fortune, be apprehended,” observed the justice. Many discoveries are unlikely until they are made, he pointed out: “one may think of the Codex Sinaiticus, or the Tomb of Tutankhamen, or the Dead Sea Scrolls.” Wilberforce was a stolid Englishman, a former classics scholar at Oxford University who rose through Britain’s legal ranks to become a senior Law Lord in the House of Lords and a member of the Queen’s Privy Council. Having reviewed the evidence submitted to the court, he summarized it as follows:
“The orthodox opinion, which at the present time is unanimous, or nearly so, among scholars and experts in sixteenth and seventeenth century literature and history, is that the plays were written by William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon, actor.” However, Justice Wilberforce continued, “The evidence in favour of Shakespeare’s authorship is quantitatively slight. It rests positively, in the main, on the explicit statements in the First Folio of 1623, and on continuous tradition; negatively on the lack of any challenge to this ascription at the time” of the First Folio’s publication. Furthermore, the justice found, “There are a number of difficulties in the way of the traditional ascription… a number of known facts which are difficult to reconcile…. [S]o far from these difficulties tending to diminish with time, the intensive search of the nineteenth century has widened the evidentiary gulf between William Shakespeare the man, and the author of the plays.”
The justice went on to consider the testimony of the scholarly experts. Kenneth Muir, King Alfred Professor of English literature at the University of Liverpool, supported the plaintiffs, Miss Hopkins’s aggrieved heirs. He considered it “certain” that Bacon could not have written the works of Shakespeare. Hugh Trevor-Roper, Regius Professor of Modern History at the University of Oxford, departed slightly from his English literature colleagues, taking what the justice deemed “a more cautious line.” Though Professor Trevor-Roper “definitely does not believe that the works of ‘Shakespeare’ could have been written by Francis Bacon, he also considers that the case for Shakespeare rests on a narrow balance of evidence and that new material could upset it; that though almost all professional scholars accept ‘Shakespeare’s’ authorship, a settled scholarly tradition can inhibit free thought, that heretics are not necessarily wrong. His conclusion is that the question of authorship cannot be considered as closed.”
Justice Wilberforce agreed. The question was not closed. The evidence for Shakespeare was too slim, the problems too many. The scholars might be wrong. Even if Francis Bacon was unlikely, new material might show someone other than Shakespeare to have been the author. Whoever wrote them, the manuscripts of Shakespeare’s plays had never been found. Their discovery would be “of the highest value to history and to literature,” Wilberforce proclaimed. Indeed, he added, to the consternation of the plaintiffs and the Shakespeare scholars, “the revelation of a manuscript would contribute, probably decisively, to a solution to the authorship problem, and this alone is benefit enough.”
Miss Hopkins’s bequest to the Francis Bacon Society was upheld.