In our present age of choking, overpowering, ubiquitous information, it’s easy to search for the biography of a celebrity or politician because history is better preserved now than ever before. Everything you never wanted to know about Britney Spears’ hairstyle history, for example, you can find out. And then you can never forget it.
Alas, it was not always this way. The facts about many historical famous people weren’t written down until years — sometimes decades or even centuries — after they allegedly lived. Given this amount of time, the evidence of the person’s existence itself may have completely deteriorated, and the legends themselves might have borne little resemblance to what actually happened. But we’re habitual creatures who like good stories, so we just keep on telling the same ones, facts be damned. Here are some famous people whose names you will recognize but who may never have existed at all, at least in their popular form.
When Disney introduced Western children to the legend of Mulan, she was already a big deal in Chinese literature. The tale of a warrior’s daughter dressing as a man and fighting in her ailing father’s place is a timeless bit of badassery and girl power. But the evidence of her existence is scarce to say the least.
A book about women in Chinese history mentions Mulan might’ve been a made-up figure partly based on Wei Huahu, an actual female warrior from ancient China. It’s unknown, however, if Huahu ever fought in men’s clothing. As for Mulan herself, the earliest known reference to her was in the ancient ballad “The Battle of Mulan.” But the song doesn’t specify when she lived, gives few details of the actual battles she fought, and didn’t give a full name for her outside of “Mulan.” Pretty vague!
Then there’s a text (translated as Exemplary Women of Early China) written by Liu Xiang around 18 BC, and packed with over 120 biographies of famous women from ancient China. Mulan, despite supposedly being a major deal, has no biography. Granted, she supposedly lived several hundred years after Xiang first published his book, but there’s a section at the end for “supplemental biographies.” No one has ever added Mulan, even though what she did was quite exemplary indeed.
Surely the great William Shakespeare was real, right? He has writings — lots of them — and we have portraits of the man. How could he be phony? Amazingly, quite easily. Many people are convinced “William Shakespeare” was a pen name, and whoever wrote those stories might be lost to history.
As recapped by PBS, there was a guy named William Shakespeare, but we know little about him. We don’t know where he learned to write, and his will mentions no plays or sonnets. Maybe the real Shakespeare didn’t write much more than a grocery list. If so, it’s unclear who the “real” Shakespeare is. Plenty of candidates have emerged over the years — like Francis Bacon, Ben Johnson, and Christopher Marlowe — but these possibilities haven’t stuck.
There’s another legitimate possibility in the obscure Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere. According to J. Thomas Looney, a schoolteacher who uncovered a great deal about the man, Vere wrote poetry that reads much like what the Bard wrote. According to this theory, Vere used an assumed name because, as nobility, he didn’t want to be associated with a low-brow art like playwriting. Then, when he died, his followers published his plays under the pen name of some random, dead commoner named William Shakespeare.