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?

Gallery Stock
Show Hide image

Beware of tea: the cuppa has started wars and ruined lives

. . . and it once led F Scott Fitzgerald to humiliate himself.

A drink sustains me – one that steams companionably as I write. It is hot, amber and fragranced differently from any wine; nor does it have wine’s capacity to soften and blur. I’ve never understood how the great drunks of literature, Ernest Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald and their like, ever put anything on the page more worthwhile than a self-involved howl, though even Hemingway apparently finished the day’s writing before beginning the day’s drinking.

Tea is more kindly, or so I’d always thought. Those aromatic leaves, black or green, rolled and dried and oxidised, have some of wine’s artistry but none of its danger. Even their exoticism has waned, from a Chinese rarity (“froth of the liquid jade”), for which 17th-century English traders were made to pay in solid silver, to a product that can be found dirt cheap on supermarket shelves.

There are even home-grown teas now. The Tregothnan estate in Cornwall has supplemented its ornamental rhododendrons and camellias with their relative camellia sinensis, the tea plant, while Dalreoch in the Scottish Highlands grows a white (that is, lightly oxidised) tea, which is smoked using wood from the surrounding birch plantations. Tellingly, this local version is priced as steeply as the imported rarity once was.

I enjoy a simple, solitary mug, but I also appreciate communal tea-drinking – the delicate tea warmed with water at 85°C (a little higher for sturdier black blends), the teapot and china, the pourer volunteering to be “mother”, as if this were a liquid that could nurture. But in reality, tea is not so gentle.

Those long-ago English traders disliked haemorrhaging silver, so they started exporting opium to China from India and paying with that. This was a fabulous success, unless you happened to be Chinese. In 1839, a commissioner attempted to clamp down on the illegal and harmful trade, and the result was the Opium Wars, which the Chinese lost. “Gunboat diplomacy” – a phrase that surely constitutes froth of a different kind – won England a great deal of silver, a 150-year lease on Hong Kong and an open tea market. China received a potful of humiliation that may eventually have helped spark the Communist Revolution. As many of us have recently realised, there is nothing like economic mortification to galvanise a nation to kick its leaders.

Later, the tea bush was planted in India, Ceylon and elsewhere, and the fragrant but bitter brew for the upper classes became a ubiquitous fuel. But not an entirely sweet one: just as the opium trade ensured our tea’s arrival in the pot, the slave trade sweetened it in the cup. Even today, conditions for tea workers in places such as Assam in north-east India are often appalling.

Scott Fitzgerald also had tea trouble. When invited round by Edith Wharton, he frothed the liquid jade so assiduously with booze beforehand and risqué conversation during (a story about an American tourist couple staying unawares in a Paris bordello) that he was nearly as badly humiliated as those 19th-century Chinese. Wharton, unshocked, merely wondered aloud what the couple had done in the bordello and afterwards pronounced the entire occasion “awful”.

Some would blame his alcoholic preliminaries, but I’m not so sure. Tea has started wars and ruined lives; we should be wary of its consolations. On that sober note, I reach for the corkscrew and allow the subject to drive me softly, beguilingly, to drink.

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

0800 7318496