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This has just come out in paperback, and costs about Ł5.50 on amazon.
One of the odder conspiracy theories is that Shakespeare didn’t write the plays and poems attributed to him. The evidence in favour of various other candidates – Francis Bacon and the Earl of Oxford have been the most popular – is, at best, negligible, but that hasn’t stopped plenty of otherwise intelligent people from believing it. As conspiracy theories go, it’s fairly innocuous – it certainly doesn’t have the potential to do harm that left-wing conspiracies about 911 or right-wing ones about climate change do. It’s about on a par with a belief that Jack the Ripper was a conspiracy of various Royals and freemasons.
The current favoured candidate is the Earl of Oxford, who according to more extreme versions of the theory, fathered a child on Queen Elizabeth I; some versions of the theory go even weirder, and have the child go on to become the Queen’s – his own mother’s – lover. Needless to say, there’s not a shred of evidence for any of this. But according to enthusiasts, it not only happened, but Oxford forged a series of plays which gave coded hints about these and other events in his life, and arranged to have them attributed to an actor named Shakespeare to protect his reputation. Why he might have thought this was a good idea is unclear.
James Shapiro is an acclaimed Shakespeare scholar whose recent book, 1599, was quite popular (a copy’s been sat unread on my bookshelves for a while; I’ll have to get round to reading it). He gives an overview of the development of the most popular alternative authorship theories, although he acknowledges that there are plenty of other candidates, and claims a comprehensive survey of all the different theories would be impossible. He tries his best to be fair-minded; although he’s very much of the belief that the plays were written by Shakespeare, he doesn’t sneer at those who think otherwise, although the temptation to do so must have been strong.
It all seems to have sprung from a sense of disappointment in the banality of the few facts we have about Shakespeare’s life. A writer that great – who has become so central both to English culture and English-language literature – must have been fairly extraordinary, or so everyone would like to think. But he left no manuscripts or notebooks, and most of the hard facts we have concern his financial affairs. These, Shapiro argues, have always been misunderstood – he claims that an understanding of Jacobean legal conventions would put the lie to the idea that Shakespeare’s will was ungenerous to his widow. Legal papers survive longer than personal ones, and no one started looking for Shakespeare-related materal until it was too late. All that was left were documents pursuing his debtors and detailing his malt hoarding. People developed an unfair view of Shakespeare as a miserly businessman which didn’t tally with how they believed a great writer should behave.
Inevitably people started to look to the plays and sonnets for evidence of the ‘real’ Shakespeare (oddly enough, they only saw him in characters like Hamlet and Prospero, never in Richard III or Malvolio). And equally inevitably, some of them decided that the plays were just too darn sophisticated to be the work of a glover’s son from the provinces. And so the theories were born.
An early attempt to forge letters to Shakespeare from Queen Elizabeth (along with all manner of other Shakespearean documents, including a ‘lost’ play, Vortigern) set a precedent for fraudulent claims about the Bard, and there was always a belief that Shakespeare’s papers would still be found someday and sort everything out. The failure of these papers to materialise inevitably allows conspiracy theorists to state that they never existed because Shakespeare didn’t write anything. And so the alternative theories began to come into being.
The book focuses on two main theories. A 19th Century theory that the true author of the plays was Francis Bacon, an Elizabethan philosopher and politician, was popular for a while. Mark Twain was an ardent believer in it, as was Helen Keller. It was pushed out by the Oxford theory, which was originally proposed by an Englishman with the inauspicious name of John Thomas Looney, and strongly supported by Sigmund Freud. It’s still the most popular alternative identity theory. (Shapiro says that other theories are gaining ground on it, though; the internet gave the Oxford theory a new lease of life, but other theories are becoming popular. This is probably because people on the internet are more interested in proving each other wrong than in furthering the sum of human knowledge. I’ll bet that the strongest advocates of alternative candidates have previously had vitriolic arguments with Oxfordians.)
The book is perhaps a little light on the substance of the arguments in favour of Bacon and Oxford, although that might be because there isn’t much substance to the arguments. It does seem that a lot of the ‘evidence’ in both cases is nothing of the sort, and advocates of the Oxford theory fall back on tired old arguments about a conspiracy of mainstream Shakespearean scholars deliberately refusing to ‘debate’ the issue, when in fact there is no issue to debate. (This is depressingly similar to arguments wheeled out by climate change sceptics and Holocaust deniers. The Shakespeare theories are mostly harmless, but they’re a symptom of a worrying malaise in modern Western culture that I suspect can’t lead to anything good.)
Shapiro examines the people who have believed in these theories and offers explanations as to why they did so. In a way, he’s doing to them what he criticises them for doing to Shakespeare’s plays: concluding things about their lives and beliefs from what they wrote. But Shapiro’s arguments are convincing. Looney came up with the Oxford theory around the time of the Great War, and was passionately anti-modern, harkening back to a feudal time when benevolent aristocrats governed the lives of their subjects and no one had to think too much. So deciding that Shakespeare’s works were actually written by an aristocrat is perhaps understandable to someone like that (it’s more odd that the theory has taken off so well in America, where you’d expect aristocrats to be unpopular).
One of the problems is that the counter-arguments aren’t very sexy. ‘An aristocrat secretly wrote plays while fathering a child on the Virgin Queen’ is quite a good story. ‘The plays were written by the guy whose name appears on the title page, who made a bit of money off them and retired to Stratford’ is less so. But Shapiro does run through the reasons why Shakespeare was indeed the author of the plays attributed to him. Some of the information about Shakespeare’s career that he reveals was new to me, but it’s all user friendly. This kind of book probably wouldn’t be the right place to go into close linguistic examination of the plays, and he keeps that sort of thing to a minimum. But he leaves no doubt that Shakespeare was the author history believes him to have been. He acknowledges that nothing is necessarily set in stone – we now know a few of the plays were co-written by other playwrights, which wasn’t acknowledged a few decades ago – but it’s impossible to see anything coming to light which will cast doubt on Shakespeare’s authorship.
Shapiro lists Derek Jacobi among the sceptics. I recently saw Jacobi play King Lear. He was magnificent, of course. But the theories he apparently supports are incredibly reductive. I can slightly see the appeal of wanting Shakespeare to have been a more ‘important’ man than he was, but I can’t see the appeal of wanting to reduce his work to the level of encoded court gossip. Watching Jacobi and Paul Jesson acting the great scene between the mad Lear and the blind Gloucester is a highlight of my play-going life. I’d far rather believe that it was written by one of the greatest imaginative writers ever to have lived, rather than being the dry result of an unlikely conspiracy (which, like most unlikely conspiracies, really falls down when you start to wonder what possible motive there could have been for it to have happened).
Shapiro’s written an entertaining and, I think, fair-minded history of Shakespearean conspiracy theories. I don’t see how anyone who reads it could possibly believe that any of the alternative candidates have any credibility at all, but no doubt those who do believe such things will write it off as either too credulous or part of the conspiracy. For people with their heads screwed on, though, this is worth reading.
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