Reviewed: Shakespeare Beyond Doubt by Paul Edmondson and Stanley Wells

A player, not a gentleman.

Shakespeare Beyond Doubt: Evidence, Argument, Controversy
Edited by Paul Edmondson and Stanley Wells
Cambridge University Press, 298pp, £18.99

The film director Roland Emmerich likes blowing things up. Having destroyed New York, Los Angeles and virtually the entire planet in a series of blockbusting disaster movies, he then decided to explode something else: the reputation of Master William Shakespeare, the glover’s son from Stratford-upon-Avon.

Emmerich’s Anonymous, released in 2011, was a prize turkey: Shakespeare in Love meets The Da Vinci Code with a strong dash of Blackadder unintentionally thrown in. A merry romp, with lashings of torture, a bit of obligatory sex and some spectacular CGI of Queen Elizabeth’s funeral procession along the frozen Thames (no, that didn’t really happen), it bore about as much resemblance to the history of Elizabethan theatre as his previous effort, which featured solar flare neutrinos liquefying the earth’s core, did to the realities of astrophysics.

The basis of the plot was a wild conspiracy theory proposing that Shakespeare’s patron, the earl of Southampton, was Queen Elizabeth’s illegitimate son by Edward de Vere, the earl of Oxford – and that Oxford was also Elizabeth’s illegitimate child, conceived when she was 14. So Oxford was both the queen’s son and her lover, Southampton her son and her grandson. What with all this intrigue and incest, when Oxford decides to start writing plays, he has to remain anonymous. So a frontman is required: step forward William Shakespeare, the semi-illiterate actor from the provinces. With Anonymous, the Shakespeare authorship controversy hit the Hollywood big time.

Fortunately, the film bombed but the idea that Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare remains one of those myths that just won’t go away. This new collection of readable and authoritative essays on the subject tries to put an end to the debate but it won’t.

Not so long ago, it was possible to say that the ranks of the “anti-Stratfordians” were peopled exclusively by taxi drivers, a few dead writers jealous of Shakespeare’s reputation and an assortment of opinionated but historically ignorant members of the American judiciary. Back in the last century, I wrote with some confidence that the people you wouldn’t find among the conspiracy theorists were major Shakespearean actors. That was because they knew the plays from the inside. And anyone who knew them from the inside would know that they came from the pen of someone who was an actor.

Sir Francis Bacon, the earl of Oxford and all the other courtiers who have been put forward as candidates for authorship might have dabbled in poetry but they didn’t have inside knowledge of professional theatre. Shakespeare’s works were written by a player, not a gentleman – a player who was, to boot, a little sore that he hadn’t been born a gentleman, with the result that he didn’t get the chance to go to university.

I was wrong to assume that no true actor would ever betray his profession by doubting that the world’s greatest author once trod the boards. Not long after I made that claim, Mark Rylance, the first artistic director of the reconstructed Globe theatre and the finest Shakespearean actor of his generation, came out as a Baconian. And soon after that, Derek Jacobi voiced his doubts. In 2007, they signed a bizarre document that circulated on the internet under the title “A Declaration of Reasonable Doubt About the Identity of William Shakespeare”. And who popped up in the cast of Anonymous? Rylance and Jacobi. The latter even spoke the movie’s prologue, in which he asked: “What if I were to tell you that Shakespeare never wrote a single word?”

The theory that Shakespeare’s plays were written by the earl of Oxford originated with an Edwardian schoolmaster who rejoiced in the name of John Thomas Looney. That the earl was an enthusiastic and sometimes violent pederast is not necessarily an impediment to his candidacy. A little local difficulty comes with his death in 1604, before many of the plays were written. He would also have had some difficulty collaborating with the actors during the long period when he was in exile abroad for having committed the unpardonable offence of farting in front of Queen Elizabeth.

Plenty of other candidates have been proposed: the 17th earl of Oxford, the eighth Baron Mountjoy, the seventh earl of Shrewsbury, the sixth earl of Derby, the fifth earl of Rutland, the second earl of Essex, Sir Walter Raleigh, the countess of Pembroke, Queen Elizabeth I and King James I. These names seem to have something in common. It all boils down to snobbery, the conviction that genius could not have come from a lowly place. Americans, including Mark Twain of all people, have often taken this line, which is curious in a country where it’s supposed to be possible to go from a log cabin to the White House.

Conspiracy theorists dismiss the man from Stratford as an imposter. They suppose that he was an illiterate actor mouthing some greater man’s words. Yet they cannot explain away the facts. This book helpfully pulls together irrefutable evidence – ranging from manuscripts to funeral monuments to the personal testimony of friends and rivals – that Shakespeare really was Shakespeare.

Poetic licence is the artist’s prerogative. Shakespeare played fast and loose with history in his plays. He would have chuckled over Anonymous and most of the other bizarre manifestations of the “authorship controversy”. However, no one should mistake the whisperings of conspiracy theorists for the truth. A prominent anti-Stratfordian once shared a platform with David Irving at a “revisionist” historical conference. Deny the reality of Shakespeare one moment and the next you just might find someone denying the reality of Srebrenica – or even Auschwitz. In the meantime, you can learn a lot from this book and maybe even more from a marvellous new website called Oxfraud.

Stanley Wells stands by the "Cobbe portrait". Photograph: Hazel Thompson/The New York Times

This article first appeared in the 29 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, What makes us human?

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Friedrich Nietzsche, the conqueror with the iron hand

Gavin Jacobson considers the great philosopher’s plan for society as revealed in Nietzsche’s Great Politics by Hugo Drochon.

In 1893 Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche returned to her mother’s adopted home town of Naumburg in Germany. She had been living in Paraguay with her husband, Bernhard Förster, a nationalist and anti-Semite who had founded an Aryan colony to begin “the purification and rebirth of the human race”. Elisabeth’s brother, Friedrich Nietzsche, had condemned her husband’s anti-Semitism and her decision to join him in South America. The experiment failed in any case. Blighted by disease, poor harvests and intercommunal strife, the outpost collapsed in two years. Förster committed suicide in 1889. Around this time, Nietzsche began his final descent into madness and Elisabeth came back to take care of him and his legacy.

Nietzsche’s first book, The Birth of Tragedy, published in 1872 while he was a professor at the University of Basel, received marginal attention. It wasn’t until the 1890s that his writings gained a wide readership across Europe. Elisabeth soon took control of Nietzsche’s literary estate and, little by little, transformed him into an instrument of her fascist designs. She began to rework his notebooks and to clip, cross out and fabricate quotations, so that, in the public imagination, her brother went from an opponent of German nationalism to a lover of the fatherland, from the author of The Antichrist to a follower of the gospel, and from an anti-anti-Semite to a venomous ­Jew-hater. Before his death in 1900, Nietzsche had asked his sister to ensure that “no priest or anyone else utters falsehoods at my graveside, when I can no longer defend myself”. He could not have foreseen this betrayal by Elisabeth, as she cast him as the lodestar of National Socialism.

Since the 1950s, scholars have endeavoured to rescue Nietzsche from his asso­ciation with Nazism. Walter Kaufmann’s Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist (1950) was a formative work in which the German philosopher became a humanist and progenitor of 20th-century existentialism. His thinking was directed not at the triumph of Teutonic supremacy but at reviving, as he wrote in Twilight of the Idols (1889), an “anti-political” high culture.

The problem was that, in stripping away the layers of external disfigurement that had built up and set over the years, Kaufmann and others denied Nietzsche an interest in politics. The task that Hugo Drochon sets himself is to reinsert some political content into Nietzsche and show that he had a systematic political theory. The result is a superb case of deep intellectual renewal and the most important book to have been written about him in the past few years.

Drochon’s study takes place against the backdrop of 19th-century Europe, as that is where Nietzsche’s account of politics – the fate of democracy, the role of the state and international relations – is best understood. Nietzsche’s sane life coincided with the main political events of his time. He served as a medical orderly in the Franco-Prussian War, witnessed German unification and experienced at first hand the traits of a modern democratic order: party competition, secret ballots, voting and the influence of mass media. He also lived through Britain’s and Russia’s “great game” for control over central Asia. He went mad in the year Bismarck tended his resignation to Wilhelm II.

Drochon traces Nietzsche’s “intelligible account of modern society” in response to these events. Inspired by the Greeks – especially Plato and his mission to legislate a new state and train the men to do it – Nietzsche wanted to establish a healthy culture in which philosophy and great art could be produced. He was certain that slavery was necessary for this (a view that led to his eventual split with Wagner). The “cruel-sounding truth”, he admitted, was that “slavery belongs to the essence of culture”, as the artistic class, “a small number of Olympian men”, is released from the drudgery of daily existence to focus on producing art.

His disagreement with Wagner over the role of slavery led Nietzsche to describe the genesis and decay of the state. He saw clearly, like Hobbes, that the state of nature was “the war of all against all”. But whereas Hobbes imagined the state arising through a contract, Nietzsche saw it originating from a “conqueror with the iron hand”, who “suddenly, violently and bloodily” takes control of a people and forces it into a hierarchical society. Nietzsche then plotted its evolution, from a space within which culture flourished to the modern Kulturstaat, in which culture was appropriated for its own sake. If the state’s birth was violent, its decay was slow and was linked to Nietz­sche’s notorious phrase about the death of God: given that the Christian God was no longer a self-evident foundation of morality upon which societies could support themselves, the state faced dissolution.

Tracing with great forensic skill the minutiae of Nietzsche’s arguments across multiple sources, Drochon never loses the overall narrative thread (an occupational hazard of studying the history of political thought). Nor does he shy away from his subject’s unsavoury views. If Nietzsche’s remarks on slavery were harsh enough, his thinking on eugenics, or his physiologically inflected theories about democracy (which he regarded as the victory of a slave morality – associated with the “dark-skinned and especially dark-haired man” – over a master morality of the “Aryan conquering race”) sound even more repellent. Without wishing to justify these ideas, Drochon reminds us that theories of racial classification were prevalent and acceptable modes of inquiry in the 19th century. It would have been strange if Nietzsche had not drawn on them.

His darker side notwithstanding, many of Nietzsche’s insights speak to our politics now. He foresaw the privatisation of the state, in which “private companies” (Privatgesellschaften) would assume the business of the state, including those activities that are the “most resistant remainder of what was formerly the work of the government” – that is, “protecting the private person from the private person”. He showed how democracies gave birth to aristocracies and could become hostage to a “herd morality”, majoritarianism and misarchism: “the democratic idiosyncrasy of being against everything that dominates and wants to dominate”. He explored the question of wage labour and the increasing hostility between workers and employers and predicted the erosion of trust in
public institutions.

Nietzsche also described how statesmen revive the kind of pathologies that are corrupting European and American societies at the moment: nationalism, racism, intellectual parochialism and political insularity. He knew what he was talking about: Bismarck’s power politics, a tribute to blood (war) and iron (technology), was a “petty politics” that divided nations and peoples. Nietzsche’s “great politics”, by contrast, imagined the unification of Europe led by a cultural elite, the class he termed “good Europeans”, bred by intermixing Prussian military officers and Jewish financiers. Continental union would not only constitute a geopolitical counterweight to Britain and Russia. Good Europeans would, as Drochon writes, create “a new trans-European culture, which itself is specially called on to lead a world culture”.

So, this book has come at the right time. In the light of Britain’s vote for Brexit, which threatens to take us back to a petty politics of nationalism and continental division, Nietzsche’s writings are more significant than ever. Those of us who desire a more integrated and peaceful union with our neighbours cling despairingly – and with receding hope – to his dream that, in spite of “the morbid estrangement which the nationality craze has induced and still induces among the peoples of Europe, owing also to the short-sighted and hasty-handed politicians . . . Europe wishes to be one”.

Nietzsche’s Great Politics by Hugo Drochon is published by Princeton University Press, 224pp, £34.95

Gavin Jacobson is a writer and book critic

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt