I have very few deal breakers in my life. Racism, homophobia, sexism, classism, all the usual ones. Also, anti-Stratfordians. Seriously. F*ck those guys.
If you’re a frequent reader, you know it’s not often that I drop the f bomb in a column. This is why I need you to fully understand how serious I am about hating anti-Stratfordians.
What is an anti-Strafordian, you say? Well, when a snooty, elitist academic and a conspiracy theorist love each other very much and really need tenure — You know what? Just watch this trailer for Anonymous.
The anti-Stratfordians believe that William Shakespeare, the son of a Catholic glove maker, wasn’t educated or rich enough to write what are pretty much the greatest works in the English canon. Shakespeare’s incredible works range from hilarious sex comedy to heartbreaking tragedy to bloody political thriller. It’s blockbuster television written in iambic pentameter, and many academics and eccentric rich people believe that the man we call Shakespeare wasn’t smart or experienced enough to write them.
Nobody doubted that Shakespeare had written his own plays until the 1850s. The first claim to the contrary is Delia Bacon’s article William Shakespeare and his Plays; an Inquiry Concerning Them, printed in Putnam’s Magazine (in 1856). Bacon thought the Complete Plays represented a deliberate attempt to spread enlightenment, modernity and progress, and that rather than being the work of a single supremely talented showbusiness professional they must have been written by an occult committee of world-designing philosophers. Its leader, she hinted, could only have been Sir Francis Bacon, who had somehow scheduled its meetings in between his other duties as attorney general and his efforts to invent empirical science.
Delia Bacon died in an asylum after failing to find a single piece of evidence in favour of her claim, but her example has not inhibited successive waves of other champions, who have credited the plays to Francis Bacon alone, to Christopher Marlowe, to the Fifth Earl of Rutland, to the Sixth Earl of Derby, to the 17th Earl of Oxford, and even to Queen Elizabeth I, among many others. The obvious truth that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare, sadly, is not news, and popular journalism since the 1850s has preferred news at all costs.
Someone with a Ph.D. can probably do a better job of quickly articulating the myriad historical inaccuracies and implausibilities one has to accept in order to disbelieve Shakespeare. (The most obvious being that so many of his friends and enemies refer to him as the author of the plays of William Shakespeare, including the Queen of England, and no one questioned authorship until batty Miss Bacon, who seemed to just be writing fan fiction about her possible ancestor. There’s also the issue that none of the alternate candidates that have been suggested were alive for the length of Shakespeare’s writing career, a career that was topical in the way South Park episodes are, precluding the argument that the plays were stockpiled and then released after the “actual” author’s death in order to maintain the ruse.)
The New York TImes Magazine dissects Anonymous‘s particular historical failings and plot holes, and James Shapiro’s brilliant book Contested Will explores the broader implications of authorship doubt more fully than I ever could in this blog post (and without a Ph.D. Gosh, I would like a Ph.D.)
That said, I need to explain to you, friend, why I dismiss your conspiracy theory with the same offense that I would a Holocaust denier or someone who advocates that 9/11 was an inside job.
The primary argument that many anti-Stratfordians make focuses on William Shakespeare’s class and schooling (or lack thereof.) It’s true that Shakespeare was the son of a glove maker and local politician who had gotten into trouble with the authorities for hiding Catholic priests in his home. Shakespeare’s father ran into a few money troubles and the family was partially disgraced because of this and the Catholic arrests. Baby Shakespeare would have attended grammar school like any local boy, where he would’ve learned to read and write by reading and transcribing classic literature in Greek and Latin.
He would have also studied rhetoric at this school, one of the most well funded and respected in the county. An English Renaissance grammar education is often described as being the equivalent of a B.A. in Classics at an Ivy League university.
Yet, anti-Stratfordians argue that Shakespeare’s classical education doesn’t explain the [very, very flawed] understanding of geography and history presented in his plays. These internally inconsistent knowledge bases are supposedly proof that the plays of Shakespeare were written by one of his betters. Often Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, or Sir Francis Bacon are posited.
The de Vere argument is seductive in part because it provides an Elizabethan version of the Batman story. Edward de Vere, often thought to be privileged drunkard playboy whose parents’ deaths brought him into the care of Queen Elizabeth (who is Alfred in this story), suddenly decided that criminals (errr…playgoers) are a superstitious, cowardly lot and that he could best do his work with an alter ego: Batm– err William Shakespeare. Nevermind the fact that de Vere was already a published playwright under his own name.
Yes, none of de Vere’s texts survive to this day. That could have been censorship. It could also be that we only have a fraction of the literature from the 16th and early 17th century. The texts that survive had to be the right combination of hegemonic narrative and popular hits/bestsellers. (Shakespeare’s collected works are an exception because his friends felt the need to preserve everything rather than just his greatest hits, which had been published several times in “quartos” before the First Folio appeared.) Publication depended on both commercial success and approval of those empowered to finance the printing of texts (i.e. Brecht would not have done very well.) Once published, the preservation of those texts to the present day required continued relevance, timelessness, and plain dumb luck.
De Vere also seemed to be more focused on producing plays for court than for the public, so the demand for quartos of his work would be smaller. (The English Renaissance was the time that a middle or merchant class truly began to form in the country, as the Tudors and later the Stuarts were forced to move away from feudalism. Merchants bought books. Lots of books. It was a sign of status that the middle class could afford.)
The other issue with trying to find de Vere quartos is that he probably wrote a lot less plays than an Elizabethan playwright usually did. He was a nobleman. He had to fight in wars, manage several estates, and suck up to the Queen on a monthly, even weekly basis. (That stuff takes time away from composing verse.) There are many reasons de Vere’s works could have been lost to history and only a few of them involve vast conspiracies. Guess which ones Anonymous goes with?
In that New York Times Magazine article, Stephen Marche points out that “Real life lacks narrative tension; that’s why people go to the movies.” This is a fair statement. Biopics run into this problem all the time. A full life is rarely satisfactorily dramatic. We don’t know much about de Vere, but we know even less about Shakespeare. This is part of why the Oxfordian theory is so seductive. We love our tragic, disenfranchised princes. (Just ask Hamlet.) A lot of people love a really weird conspiracy theory.
So I shouldn’t have gotten so upset at this woman outside the movie theater, going on and on about how cool Anonymous was going to be. “It makes sense, you know?” she said to her friend. It makes sense that a poor man could never so convincingly write about kings and princesses, wars and intrigues. Never mind Euripides, Zeami, or any number of playwrights who wrote beautifully about kings, merchants, women, and demons, having never been any of those themselves. It makes sense that only an aristocrat would support the aristocracy in their work, not a middle class worker. Never mind the millions of Republican lower class voters who consistently vote for policies that elevate the riches’ needs ahead of their own, or the fact that Shakespeare aspired to nobility his whole life. (One of his major purchases once he became successful was to get a coat of arms for his family, an honor his father had applied for and been refused.) It makes sense that we only write what we know, that our imaginations are small and sad and our capacity for research pathetic. Sure it does. Suuuuuurrrreeee.
There’s something unbelievably beautiful and dramatic about a great playwright being brought before a queen or king, having never set foot in a place as beautiful as the palace before.
“So tell me about yourself, Mr. Shakespeare,” the virgin monarch says. “Where did you get your great wit?”
“I live in London, mam.” The whole court laughs at this, recalling the rabble outside, the prostitutes, pickpockets and vagabonds who make London the largest and most dangerous city in the country. Wit was in short supply when it came to Londoners. Having a brain required an estate.
“But where were you educated?”
“King’s New, my lady.”
The Protestant Queen wrinkles her nose. “In Stratford?”
“Yes mum.” Catholic country. Provincials.
“And who was your father?” The young man just smiles.
“I am the son of a glove maker mam.”
The tragic aristocracy can suck it. That’s a better story. That’s a story that inspires and challenges the status quo. Just like the plays of William Shakespeare.