Shakespeare Beyond Doubt

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ShakespeareBeyondDoubtCover1I’ve just finished reading the collection of essays Shakespeare Beyond Doubt, edited by Paul Edmondson and Stanley Wells. The book is designed to counter the increasing number of what it politely refers to as ‘anti-Stratfordians’ – those who believe that Shakespeare wasn’t the author of the plays attributed to him. A couple of years ago James Shapiro wrote Contested Will, a history of the Shakespeare deniers from Delia Bacon and her hunch that the real author was Francis Bacon (there’s a surprise), through the appositely named John Looney to people like Derek Jacobi, who really should know better. This new book is a more academic refutation of the varied conspiracy theories out there, linked to explanations of how a dramatist like Shakespeare would have actually crafted his plays, and explanations as to why the Shakespeare deniers exist. The tone of the book is that of a group of baffled professors peering out of the literature faculty window at a bunch of nutters jumping up and down waving banners and shouting in the car park. While the essays are short, they are carefully rigorous and at times a little bit laboured.  My experience is that conspiracy theorists tend not to respond to the subtle investigation of evidence as their own beliefs paint over reality in broad lurid colours. Having said that this collection does a very comprehensive job of exposing the fallacies behind their ideas. The key points are summarised below, please feel free to print off and keep in your back pocket in case you meet a wild-eyed Baconite or Oxfordian at a party:

1) Shakespeare-deniers believe in the Romantic notion that an author can only write about what he or she knows (their theories date from the mid-Victorian era, no-one before that questioned the authorship of the plays). Shakespeare’s plays talk about kings and queens, and foreign lands. Therefore only someone posh and widely travelled could have written the plays. This is bollocks. As far as I know Kim Stanley Robinson has never been to Mars and George R. R. Martin has never visited Westeros, yet they have managed to do a perfectly good job of describing both. Assume that writers can only describe what they themselves have experienced and in one fell swoop you have wiped out Science Fiction and Fantasy.

2) There is hardly any evidence of Shakespeare’s life. Huge gaps exist in the timeline. Well, you can say this about all his contemporaries. We know more about Shakespeare than Christopher Marlowe or John Fletcher, and no-one doubts the authorship of their plays. In this period in history people didn’t write down the day to day ephemera of people’s lives, they didn’t think it important. It’s only with the rise of journalism and the novel at the end of the 17th century that people’s lives become serious objects of interest. Having said that Stanley Wells painstakingly lists all the references to ‘Will Shakspear Wot Wrote Thyse Playes’ and there are loads.

3) Shakespeare-deniers misunderstand the way in which plays were written in this period. They subscribe to the Romantic notion of a single author in a garret penning Great Works and then handing them over to the actors (as in Shakespeare in Love or that steaming heap of dung Anonymous). This, again, is nonsense. Plays were written collaboratively by teams, often including the actors themselves. Shakespeare worked with others on many plays, and we can see the hand of Christopher Marlowe and John Fletcher in plays like Timon of Athens and Macbeth, to take two examples. The best analogy is of a team of script writers working on a film or TV series. Shakespeare, Marlowe and an actor (for example, Will Kemp) would get together down the tavern and thrash out a scene, testing lines of verse, entrances and exits, working out blocking with coins on the tavern table. They might say to Shakespeare ‘I need a stonking good speech for my entrance in Act III but make it short because I’ll be knackered after the duel’ and Will would sit in a corner and come up with something, but the idea that Shakespeare sat in a room on his own or under a tree penning Great Art is a Victorian fantasy.

Anonymous (2011) - utter nonsense from start to finish

Anonymous (2011) – utter nonsense from start to finish

4) Conspiracy theorists love a conspiracy, and each one tries to out-do the others with their own pet theories. Hence there are now about 80 contenders for the ‘real author’ of the plays, including Queen Elizabeth herself. The law of diminishing returns kicks in here, because every new addition to the cast list undermines the case for all the others. It reminds me of the wonderful comment by a Beefeater Tour Guide at the Tower of London – ‘If you think you are Anne Boleyn reincarnated you are certifiably insane, I meet four of you every year and you can’t all be right.’

An Elizabethan play sketched by Johannes de Witt in 1596. One theory suggests this is a scene from Hamlet with Richard Burbage as the Prince. If that is the case then the Ghost of Hamlet's father (figure on the right) was played by Shakespeare himself.

An Elizabethan play sketched by Johannes de Witt in 1596. One theory suggests this is Hamlet with Richard Burbage as the Prince. If that is the case then the Ghost of Hamlet’s father (figure on the right) was played by Shakespeare himself.

The last point throws an interesting light on conspiracy theorists in general. I’ve met enough Shakespeare-deniers and Moon-hoax advocates to spot a constant note of underlying smug triumphalism – along the lines of ‘I know the real truth, unlike you deluded saps’. Latching onto a wild-eyed theory that flies into the face of established knowledge has the dual effect of making you feel smarter than the unenlightened and somehow a rebel. The rise of the internet has given amateur ‘scholars’ a free platform for all sorts of theories without the inconvenience of careful peer review. Conspiracy theories are also sexier and more mysterious than reality. We have yet to see a decent film of Shakespeare’s life with the same apparent high-mindedness and production values of Anonymous.

Shakespeare Beyond Doubt is a great collection of essays, and a small calm voice of reason amid the shouty nonsense. I doubt most Shakespeare-deniers will read it though. In the end I always think that the best response to conspiracy theorists is that of Buzz Aldrin when challenged by Moon-Hoax advocate Bart Sibrel.

12 Comments

  1. How reassuring to hear that you thought the Derek Jacobi film was a load of bollix. Our eldest daughter went to see it last year and said that she enjoyed the costumes but was rather outraged at the idea that the elegant toff in tights must have written the plays because Shakespeare was just a rude mechanical. True, she has been brought up in the spirit of secular republicanism but the film rather wallowed in that presumably completely trumped up aspect.
    It also implied that Shakespeare was not a true artist because he later gave up play writing to make a bit of money. Does anybody dispute that Arthur Rimbaud wrote his poetry because he gave up poem writing to become a mercenary, gun-runner, and complete social outcast?
    I never realised there were moon deniers. Though my mother-in-law was sceptical.

  2. John Guy Collick says:

    The Oxfordians are basically a load of snobs. In Victorian times they made no bones about it – a smelly oik from the lower orders couldn’t possibly have penned such art. The big problem is that De Vere died in 1604, and a load of Shakespeare’s plays appeared afterwards. The film, and the twits that believe in this nonsense, claim that Oxford had written the dramas to be released at staged intervals after his death, but the plays refer to historical events that happened after he went to his grave…and so it goes on. A shame, because I used to admire Derek Jacobi.

    • Ed Boswell says:

      It has been said that only elitists use the term to deride others. I think it applies in this case as well, with your snobbish rubukes. In fact, entrenched English Professors, and paid representatives of the Stratford Tourist Trap are the true snobs. They’ve psychoanalyzed Freud without a sense of irony in order to explain his mental condition for believing the the Earl of Oxford was the true author. What they’ve avoided is the astute observations made by Walt Whitman, who a full 1/4 century before Oxford was identified as “Shake-speare” in 1920, said the history plays of WS were probably written by “one of the wolfish earls” so close to the Queen they could lampoon the royals for her delight without fear. I question whether you know anything about Edward de Vere at all. Surely you know the First Folio was dedicated to his in-laws. I might add that your logic is flawed. Considering that 17 of the plays in the First Folio were first attributed to WS at that time, a full 7 years after the Stratford man’s death. I assume you’ve eliminated the Stratford man on that point, (your point) alone. I have no time for Baconian ciphers, or the other supposed candidates that defy simple logic. I have investigated this mystery with an open mind, and have actually tried to punch holes in the Oxfordian position, and have not succeeded. It’s somewhat snobbish to have laws declaring certain sports exclusive to the upper classes, but that’s the way it was then. Falconry was a royal sport by law. Oxford would have known quite a bit about it. Shaksper? No logical explanation. Hundreds of lawyers since the mid-19thc have emphatically insisted he was a member of their craft. Oxford attended Gray’s Inn. Shaksper sued some people, and chicken scatched a barely legible blotted signature six times, no two alike. How could the bard describe actual Italian streets and houses that still stand? Oxford took a grand tour of Italy in 1575, and by the greatest of coincidences, went to all of the Italian settings in the Plays. Not a single city in the plays left unseen by Oxford. And speaking of death and the impossibility of authorship, kindly explain why the sonnets, published 5 years after De Vere’s death, have no dedication by the author, who is described by the printer on the dedication page as the “ever-living poet”? Get back to me when you find a single example in all of English literature where a living person puts out a book, does not dedicate it, and instead is simply referred to as the “ever-living” author without being DEAD. In short, I’d suggest you get off your high horse, read about Shake-speare AKA Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford with what’s left of your open mind. I suggest SHAKESPEARE BY ANOTHER NAME by Mark Anderson, which is sober, researched over 10 years, and fascinating. And if you actually think the Bard simply winged it about Italy, kindly read “The Shakespeare Guide to Italy” by Richard Paul Roe. BTW, there is no mention of Oxford in the book, so you should be able to enjoy it without cognitive dissonance ruining your day.

  3. I hadn’t realised Derek Jacobi had anything to do with it, except for the spiel at the intro, and the finale.
    For me he is synonymous with Claudius. That was a tremendous serialisation. I watched it again recently, started off on my own, by the end half the family was peering over my shoulder.

    • Ed Boswell says:

      Sir Derek Jacobi, the world’s most renowned Shakespearean actor of our generation, is a very astute man. He firmly believes the plays and poems were written by Edward de Vere. I suggest you take your well-founded respect for him and use it to investigate this literary mystery with an open mind. Oxford had acting troupes, he had Lyly and Munday as private secretaries, he took a Grand Tour of Italy in 1575 to all of the cities in the Italian plays,spoke the idiomatic french spoken only by French royals which are contained in a full scene in Henry V, knew the most eminent physicians and astronomers of his day, was tutured by the man who translated Ovid, WS’s main classical influence, who just happened to be Oxford’s maternal uncle, Arthur Golding. Oxford’s paternal uncle was the first (along with William Wyatt) to introduce the sonnet form into English. I could go on, but it would be best that you find out about Edward de Vere yourself. Forget about the movie “Anonymous”. Like WS himself, license was taken with historical facts in order to drive the story. It is NOT a movie made to convince anyone that Oxford is Shakespeare. If it was intended as that, it failed miserably. Follow Jacobi, follow Freud, follow Whitman, and forget about people who fail to question authority, and resort to ad hominem attacks. Good Luck~~~ there are websites that have fascinating articles about the Earl of Oxford. So it’s easy!!!!

  4. James King says:

    How bizarre to write a review of a book about the authorship question without once mentioning the Shake-speare Sonnets ! It is as if Shake-speare only wrote plays ! You really should do your homework before pronouncing certainty on such matters.
    If you read the Sonnets carefully you will begin to understand the extent of the mis-match between your own candidate, the colourless Stratford businessman, and the great poet who wrote the universally admired works of “Shake-speare”.
    I should also point out that there have been many authorship doubters whose books make no attempt to promote an alternative candidate – e.g. Sir George Greenwood – and did so long before the age of the “conspiracy theory”.

    • Ed Boswell says:

      Mr. King, could Sonnets possibly be excluded because matching them with Shaksper is impossible without declaring them as “literary exercises”, as though they were for a PHD thesis at Oxford? When this silly Stratford myth is finally overturned, students will be puzzled as to how supposedly astute scholars could have missed the obvious. For heaven’s sake, the Sonnets have no dedication from the author, and instead have the printer using the page to thank the person who provided him with the poems by the “ever-living” poet. How obvious can it get? De Vere was dead, Shaksper was in Stratford doing business deals, loaning money for profit and suing people. If it said,the “ever-loaning poet”, then maybe I’d have an iota of doubt. cheers~~~

  5. John Guy Collick says:

    You’re echoing the Romantic distinction between the Great Artist and the tawdry mundane world. This is an approach to reading poetry which dates from the late 18th century, was picked up by F. R. and Queenie Leavis and through them became embedded in the education system. It runs something like this – a Great Poet like Shakespeare is possessed of a fine mind that sees the universal truths that transcend grubby reality. A sensitive and noble reader, by careful study of the texts will recognise and appreciate the beauty of those truths. Therefore a Great Poet exists above and beyond the mundane. A ‘colourless businessman’ couldn’t possible be possessed of such a genius – therefore the sonnets must have been written by a lord or noble, or a professional poet. This is transplanting Victorian elitism back into history. Pre-Romantic writers would have found it baffling. Chaucer was a customs officer, Milton a civil servant (to me he is often the better poet than WS), Dante, who singlehandedly formalised modern Italian, trained as a chemist – all dreary mundane jobs to modern ears. Modern readers often mis-interpret the sonnets because they isolate them from their historical moment and, for example, assume that when WS speaks of ‘love’ he means the same that we do. John Barrell wrote a wonderful essay on Sonnet 29 in his book Poetry, Language and Politics where he shows that, in the context of the historical period, it’s not a ‘love’ poem at all but a request for money from a patron. As to Shakespeare being ‘colourless’, evidence suggests otherwise – Robert Greene called him an upstart crow who stole everyone else’s plots (which he did). Ben Jonson famously said that he wouldn’t shut up and had to be told to do so – he was clearly possessed of a mind in overdrive. We have contemporary evidence of him rummaging round bookshops looking for ideas. Unfortunately we have little else, and so historically critics have turned to the poems and plays, read them in isolation, and created an image of a Great and Noble poet, standing outside the tawdry world, expressing universal truths that speak to all ages and all men.

  6. Ed Boswell says:

    Kindly refer me to contemporary accounts of the Stratford man rummaging thru bookstores. Nice try though. HA HA…. Edward de Vere was trained in the legal profession,having attended Gray’s Inn. He had both John Lyly and Anthony Munday as personal secretaries, as well as a scribe. He is listed by Meres as being the best at comedies, yet nothing in his name exists as far as plays go. He grew up around his father’s acting troupe. He took a Grand Tour of Italy, even passing by a 20 mile stretch of Adriatic Coastline won by Bohemia as a war spoil. He was tutored by his maternal uncle who translated Ovid. He paternal uncle introduced (with W.Wyatt) the Sonnet into English. His brother in law was sent to Elsinore Castle. His daughter married into the Howard Family, and her husband and his brother received the Dedication to the First Folio. The problem with the “procreation sonnets”, whereby the poet is telling a fair haired youth to marry and have children is solved once you know that Oxford’s daughter (1 of 3) was tentatively engaged to the 3rd Earl of Southampton. Do you really think a man of Shaksper’s station could have been writing sonnets to a member of the peerage telling him to marry and have kids? And why? I think not. Your argument is unconvincing and illogical in my opinion. The sonnets are the smoking gun, and that’s why the Stratford Tourist Trap avoids them like the plague when defending the Stratford Myth against Sir Derek Jacobi and his fellow adherents of the Oxfordian position. Perhaps you should study up on Edward de Vere before pontificating to such an extent. Knowledge is strength. How much do you know about Edward de Vere? Kindly read “Shakespeare by Another Name” by Mark Anderson, and then issue an informed opinion on this fascinating mystery. It would do us all good, yourself especially~~~ good luck~~

    • John Guy Collick says:

      Ok I’m going to put this one to bed. I have a book to write and neither the time nor the inclination to get embroiled in ‘Prove it – ha ha’ debates. Rightly or wrongly I intend to claim blog-owner’s privileges and have the last word. 🙂

      If I explain where I’m coming from then hopefully I’ll make clear why I get irritated by Shakespeare conspiracy theories. I have a Doctorate in Shakespeare and taught and studied him for 15 years at university. I’ve had the privilege of working alongside (and being taught by) some of the leading Shakespeare scholars on the planet, people who I suspect most Shakespeare conspiracy theorists have never heard of. This is simply because mainstream literary scholars are not that interested in the authorship question because it’s a debate almost single-handedly invented by the other side. Personally, I’ve been in and out and up and down the plays and sonnets more times than I care to remember. To be utterly honest, I don’t actually care whether ‘William Shakespeare’ wrote the plays or not. I think the whole question of authorship is an anachronistic distraction based on a fundamental misunderstanding about how literature is produced. I’ll be perfectly truthful, my feelings of mild frustration are those of any professional when confronted by amateurs muscling in on their patch loudly proclaiming their theory to be right, and demanding that the mainstream ‘prove’ their own, like a Doctor being challenged by Homeopathic practitioners or Reiki healers. My position is quite simple:

      1) As a professional academic (I left academia in 1999 and changed careers) I was/am a Cultural Materialist (New Historicist in the US). Simply put – we study literature in its cultural and political moment to understand how it mirrors and explores fractures in the dominant ideology. For me a writer (myself included) is an Aeolian harp. The winds of politics blow through our strings and produce music. Sometimes it’s utterly sublime (Shakespeare), other times it’s a simple but entertaining tune you can tap your feet to (John Guy Collick). The author him or herself is less important because we as Cultural Materialists treat literature as historical documents that tell us interesting stuff about the past, not as the sublime expressions of the individual genius. In that context who actually put pen to paper is less relevant, so the authorship debate is an anachronistic distraction, nothing more.

      2) Having said that all the historical, literary (and these days computational) evidence points to the fact that Shakespeare’s plays were written in collaboration by a group of writers and actors working together to develop pieces of commercial drama. This seems to be something the conspiracy theorists have difficulty getting their head round so I’ll say it again:

      Shakespeare’s plays were written in collaboration by a group of writers and actors working together to develop pieces of commercial drama

      This makes conspiracists uncomfortable because it pulls the rug from under the foundations of their argument – which is that either Shakespeare wrote his plays or another person wrote his plays. If you want to be pedantic about it – yes, Shakespeare did not write his plays, but neither did anyone else. It was a bunch of people working on performances over a period of years. Renaissance plays were not written by one man with a quill penning great art – this is a Victorian myth – which is why conspiracy theories started in the Victorian times.

      3) Ed Boswell asks me to consult Jacobi, Freud and Whitman. Why would I? Jacobi is a good actor (I’d suggest Patrick Stewart is better, but then I’m biased towards a fellow Yorkshireman) and by all accounts a nice enough guy, but he’s not a Shakespeare scholar. I would no more turn to him for an understanding of Renaissance drama than a NASA scientist would ask William Shatner for advice on how to build a spaceship on the basis that he captained one in Star Trek. I’ve read, taught and written about Freud – I know his stuff backwards. He’s a psychoanalyst not a literature scholar and his views on literature are, quite frankly, preposterous. Whitman’s a poet, I like his poems but he has nothing new to teach me about Shakespeare that I can’t get from Shapiro, Greenblatt, Holderness, Sinfield or Taylor. If I want to learn about Shakespeare I’ll go to peer-reviewed contemporary scholarship by people who are respected in their field, not actors, poets or early 20th century Viennese doctors.

      4) At the end of the day, as I said, the authorship question is, for me, an irrelevant argument. Literary studies have moved way beyond this kind of ‘did he didn’t he?’ author-centred approach to books and plays. For conspiracy theorists it’s a black and white zero sum game, a case of scraping through minute evidence to support a theory. The sonnets might have been written to Oxford’s daughter, Shakespeare’s gay lover or Marlowe’s pet cat – we can only guess. What is interesting about the sonnets is what they reveal about Renaissance society’s attitudes to love, politics and patronage, not the fact that they may or may not be DaVinci code-style secret messages that only a bunch of amateur scholars have been clever enough to crack.

      5) As I said, in the end, the Oxford/Shakespeare debate is an irritating distraction to modern Renaissance studies. No doubt it will run and run. In the end I still believe it’s down to snobbery, Shakespeare conspiracy theorists, especially those from across the pond, seem unable to resist snide comments about Shaksper (or Shake-speare) chicken scratching his signature, being a ‘mere’ businessman etc. Part of me thinks it stems from an American fascination with English class society, which can magnify and exaggerate perceived ideas about nobility and culture. This was certainly the position that the founder of the conspiracy theorists, Delia Bacon, began with. Brits have less difficulty in the idea that working class oiks can produce wonderful art (the Beatles for example). It might also have something to do with the inevitable disappointment an American tourist may have when arriving in Stratford to find that little of Shakespeare remains, yet the whole town is one big tourist trap in his name.

      So ultimately I think the whole debate is going nowhere. Shakespeare conspiracists like to think they can triumphantly slap their ‘discoveries’ on the table and the rest of us will reel away, desperately clutching our busts of the Swan of Avon as the edifice of Shakespearean studies crumbles around our ears. In reality the feeling on this side of the debate is more ‘Really? Do we have to get involved in this nonsense?’ and that’s what comes across in Shakespeare Beyond Doubt. I suspect it was written because an editor saw a chance of sales off the back of the film Anonymous. Professional Shakespeare scholars have bigger fish to fry, and I have a book to write…

      Oh – re. the Shakespeare in the bookshop reference. It’s in Shapiro’s 1599, pp: 215-6.

  7. jean Ross says:

    When it comes to `who wrote Shakespeare’, apply the principle of Occam’s razor – the hypothesis with the fewest assumptions is the likeliest.
    I cringe at the implied snobbery that so much of the debate shows. It is far more likely that a man with a good grammar school education could have learnt about `foreign parts’ than that a member of the aristocracy could have written the poem `When daisies pied …… ‘ in Loves Labour’s Lost. What would (say) De Vere know about `Greasy Joan [keeling] the pot’?

  8. Tom Reedy says:

    > Save it for Shakespeare Quarterly, the Times Literary Supplement or the letters page of the Inner Mongolian Gazette, I am no longer interested.

    But . . . but . . . they won’t publish them! They gotta go where they can be seen–FaceBook, Amazon book reviews, blog comments–all those scholarly hangouts!

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