Delia Bacon (February 2, 1811 – September 2, 1859), a sister of Leonard Bacon, is best known for her work on Shakespearean authorship.
Bacon was born in a frontier log-cabin in Tallmadge, Ohio, the youngest daughter of a Congregationalist minister, who in pursuit of a vision had abandoned New Haven for the wilds of Ohio. The venture quickly collapsed, and the family returned to New England, where her father died soon after. The impoverished state of their finances permitted only her elder brother Leonard to receive a tertiary education, at Yale, while her own formal education ended when she was fourteen. She became a teacher in schools in Connecticut, New Jersey, and New York, and then, until about 1852, became a distinguished professional lecturer, conducting, in various Eastern United States cities, classes for women in history and literature by methods she devised. At 20, in 1831, she published her first book, Tales of the Puritans anonymously, consisting of three long stories on colonial life. In 1832 she beat Edgar Allan Poe for a short-story prize sponsored by the Philadelphia Saturday Courier.
In 1836 she moved to New York, and became an avid theatre-goer. She met the leading Shakespearean actress Ellen Tree soon after, and persuaded her to take the lead role in a play she was writing, partly in blank verse, entitled The Bride of Fort Edward, based on her award-winning story, Love's Martyr, about Jane M'Crea, which she also published anonymously in 1839. The work was reviewed favourably again by Edgar Allan Poe, but proved to be a commercial flop.
Delia Bacon withdrew from public life and lecturing in early 1845, and began to research intensively a theory she was developing over the authorship of Shakespeare's works, which she mapped out by October of that year. However a decade was to pass before her book The Philosophy of the Plays of Shakespeare Unfolded (1857) was to see print. During these years she was befriended by Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Ralph Waldo Emerson, and, after securing sponsorship to travel for research to England, in May 1853, met with Thomas Carlyle, who though intrigued, shrieked loudly as he heard her exposition.
This was the heyday of Higher criticism, which was uncovering the multiple authorship of the Bible, and positing the composite nature of masterpieces like those attributed to Homer. It was also a period of rising bardolatry, the deification of Shakespeare's genius, and a widespread, almost hyperbolic veneration for the philosophical genius of Francis Bacon. Bacon was influenced by these currents. Bacon, like many of her time, approached Shakespearean drama as philosophical masterpieces written for a closed aristocratic society of courtiers and monarchs, and found it difficult to believe they were written with either commercial intent or for a popular audience. Puzzled by the gap between the bare facts of William Shakespeare's life and his vast literary output, she intended to prove that the plays attributed to Shakespeare were written by a coterie of men, including Francis Bacon, Sir Walter Raleigh and Edmund Spenser, for the purpose of inculcating a philosophic system, for which they felt that they themselves could not afford to assume the responsibility. This system she set out to discover beneath the superficial text of the plays. From her friendship with Samuel Morse, an authority on codes, and encryption for the telegraph, she learnt of Bacon's interest in secret ciphers, and this prompted her own approach to the authorship question.
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