My Favorite Conspiracy Theory

Did Shakespeare (the Stratford guy) write his own work? At various times it’s been suggested that “Shakespeare” was secretly someone else, like Francis Bacon, Edward de Vere, or Christopher Marlowe. Conspiracies are always implausible, and the experts mostly seem to be what they call “Stratfordians”. So as someone who knows nothing about this stuff, normally I’d say, that’s that.

Peter Farey has a web page claiming that the text on the monument near Shakespeare’s grave, if properly deciphered, says that Marlowe wrote Shakespeare’s works after faking his own death. It’s worth the read, even if only as an ingenious and creative misinterpretation. It begins:

So many ludicrous cryptograms have been offered as an alleged proof that someone other than William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon wrote the works attributed to him, that anyone attempting to suggest something even remotely along these lines is bound to receive a fairly cool reception. I would, therefore, have much preferred to be writing about some quite different discovery, but that which follows was what I actually found. Unfortunately, if one is looking for the truth, the evidence that crops up is not always of the type that one would have ideally picked.

The article has some probability calculations that purport to show it can’t be chance. I find these calculations naive, but they look like they could be loosened to something less naive and still work. So on the one hand, intuitively it seems like strong evidence. On the other hand, human brains are really good at finding secret messages where there aren’t any. And there’s a low prior for the evidence to overcome. (Though not for Farey himself, who already believed the faked death theory before the whole monument business).

So I’m not quite sure what and how to think here (perhaps some sort of Bayesian analysis would help, but it’s tricky.) Other than for amusement value, I’ve never been into conspiracy theories. But I’m not sure I’d dismiss this one easily. (And yes, I know that none of this has any real implications, but it’s interesting and perhaps a good case study.)