There are a lot of famous historical figures that we assume were one person – one solitary individual who changed the world and found immortality in the popular culture through historical myths and legends. Many of these famous people, however, were probably more than one person, if they were real at all. William Shakespeare is one of these often-cited, legendarily prolific creators who scholars have reason to believe (and debate) could've been more than one person; in fact, the list of people who could have been Shakespeare is a decently long one.
When it comes to historical narratives, it's oftentimes more satisfying (and less mentally exhausting) to be able to attach a wide range of daring and amazing feats – or a prolific body of work – to a single individual. These are the people that then inspire generations through their seemingly superhuman ability to create and lead; they provide inspirational models to which few can compare. However, they also sometimes create unnecessarily impossible standards, and they can even become ideologically and politically malevolent – like some of the myths about the founding of America have become. Is it possible that history has produced ridiculously amazing individuals who have been capable of the work of 10 people? Certainly. Have some historical figures been exaggerated in the centuries since their passing? Undoubtedly. Here's to the people behind the single person history has remembered.
The real identity of 19th-century serial killer Jack the Ripper remains a mystery. What is known is that a killer dubbed Jack the Ripper for his particular murder style killed five prostitutes in London in August and September of 1888. His serial killer ways caused panic and confusion in London, but the murderer was never found. There has been a lot of speculation as to the who the real Jack the Ripper was, but no decisive identification has ever been made.
And some believe Jack the Ripper was probably more like Jack the Rippers. As recently as 2009, historian Andrew Cook claimed that the killing styles were different with respect to some of the victims, indicating that they could not have been committed by the same man. Does it make it better to think that this could have been the work of multiple individuals?
The significant religious and historical figure Moses was probably numerous people whose collective actions resulted in the creation of the legendary prophet Moses of numerous belief systems. The Moses of legend was born to a Hebrew mother in Egypt and sent down the Nile after the pharaoh proclaimed that all male babies should be killed. He was found and raised by the pharaoh’s wife, and, after killing a man, he was forced to flee Egypt. During this period of exile, Moses heard the word of God instruct him to return to Egypt and rescue his Hebrew brethren. Moses did return, led the Israelites out of Egypt, received the Ten Commandments along the way, and later died wandering in the desert looking for the Promised Land.
In reality, the events of the Moses legend stretch across thousands of years. Numerous historical figures and mythical tales have been linked to the figure, including aspects of Sargon of Akkad and Mesha of Moab.
To say that William Shakespeare didn’t write all of his own works is akin to heresy in certain circles but, generally speaking, there’s a pretty big contingent out there that believe numerous men contributed to the Bard’s oeuvre. Not much is known about Shakespeare’s early life, nor is there solid evidence of Shakespeare’s authorship. Theories that his works were written by Sir Francis Bacon, Sir Walter Raleigh, and Christopher Marlowe, among others, have been put forward for various reasons.
Some scholars argue that Shakespeare’s writing style was similar to Bacon; others suggested that Shakespeare took credit for Marlowe’s works after the latter faked his own death. Even Mark Twain weighed in, once saying: “So far as anybody knows and can prove, Shakespeare of Stratford-Upon-Avon never wrote a play in his life.”
9th-century Viking Ragnar Lothbrok may have been one person, but the Ragnar that is presented in the Viking sagas and the History TV series Vikings is probably an amalgamation of several Viking warlords. Lothbrok (or Lodbrok/Ladbrok), a nickname rather than a surname, means “hairy breeches” and was given to Ragnar due to the pants he wore while successfully fighting a poisonous snake, dragon, or serpent.
In medieval texts, Ragnar is portrayed similarly to all raiding, troublesome, violent Vikings, so it is difficult to know if he functions as a placeholder for those actions or actually stood out among the larger Viking menace. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (also written by several different people) recounts how Ragnar Ladbrok and his sons raided England throughout the 9th and 10th centuries. French sources connect Ragnar with Regenheri, a Viking that sacked Paris and killed over 100 Christians, as well as with a Danish king that constantly raided France with his sons.