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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Marvel has moved past the post-credits teaser, and it's all the better for it

Individual stories are suddenly taking precedence over franchise building.

The lasting contribution of 2008’s Iron Man to contemporary cinema comes not from the content of the film itself, but in its Avengers-teasing post-credits scene featuring an eyepatch-sporting Samuel L. Jackson. While post-credits scenes were not invented by Marvel, their widespread adoption in other blockbusters is a testament to Marvel using them to titillate and frustrate.

Fast forward nine years and Marvel’s direction has significantly altered. Having moved to a three-film-a-year structure ahead of next year’s climactic Infinity War, their two releases this summer have featured less explicit connective tissue, using post-credits scenes that are, in typical Marvel fashion, self-reflexive and fun – but this time with no teases for films to come.

Where previous Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) films have trailed characters donning superhero mantles, confrontations to come, or more light-hearted team ups, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 decided to lovingly poke fun at Marvel grandmaster Stan Lee, leaving him stranded on a godforsaken space rock in the outer reaches of the stars. Spider-Man: Meanwhile Homecoming targeted filmgoers who had stayed until the end in expectation of a tease, only to receive a Captain America educational video on the virtues of “patience”.

That isn’t to say that connective tissue isn’t there. Marvel seems to be pursuing world building not through post-credits stingers, but through plot and character. In the past, teasing how awful big bad Thanos is ahead of the Avengers battling him in Infinity War would have been done through a menacing post-credits scene, as in both Avengers films to date. Instead Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 uses character as a tool to explore the world at large.

Nebula’s seething rage is, rather than just a weak excuse for an antagonist’s arc, actually grounded in character, explaining to Sean Gunn’s loveable space pirate Kraglin that Thanos would pit his daughters, her and Gamora, against each other, and replace a part of her body with machine each time she failed – and she failed every time. It’s effective. Thanos’ menace is developed, and you feel sympathy for Nebula, something Marvel has historically failed to do well for its antagnoists. Her parting promise – to kill her father – not only foreshadows the events of Infinity War, but also hints at the conclusion of a fully formed arc for her character.

In the high-school-set Spider-Man: Homecoming, the stakes quite rightly feel smaller. The inexperienced wall-crawler gets his chance to save the day not with the galaxy at risk, but with an equipment shipment owned by Iron Man alter-ego and billionaire inventor Tony Stark hanging in the balance. While such a clear metaphor for widespread change in the MCU might be a little on the nose, the set-up is effective at plaing the film at street level while also hinting at overall changes to the structure of the universe.

Stark gifting Peter a new (and oh so shiny) suit is a key set piece at the end of the film, whereas in 2015's Ant-Man’s Hope Pym inheriting her mother’s own miniaturising suit it is relegated to a teaser. Peter’s decision to turn it down not only completes Peter’s transition past seeking the approval of Stark’s unwitting father figure, but it also leaves the Avengers in an as-yet unknown state, still fragmented and incomplete after the events of 2016’s Civil War. To anticipate Spider-Man joining the Avengers proper is to anticipate the forming of the team as a whole – keeping our collective breath held until we stump up for tickets to Infinity War.

With this happy marriage of the macro and the micro, individual stories are suddenly taking precedence in the MCU, rather than being lost in the rush to signpost the foundations for the next instalment in the franchise. It’s a refreshingly filmic approach, and one which is long overdue. To suggest that Marvel is hesitant to overinflate Infinity War too early is supported by their refusal to share the footage of the film screened to audiences at the D23 and San Diego Comic Con events in recent weeks. Instead, the limelight is staying firmly on this November’s Thor: Ragnarok, and next February’s Black Panther.

Stan Lee, at the end of his Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 post credits scene, cries, “I’ve got so many more stories to tell!”, a hopeful counterpoint to a weary Captain America asking “How many more of these are there?” at the end of Homecoming. With Disney having planned-out new MCU releases all the way into 2020, entries in the highest-grossing franchise of all time won’t slow any time soon. We can, at least, hope that they continue their recent trend of combining writerly craft with blockbuster bombast. While the resulting lack of gratuitousness in Marvel’s storytelling might frustrate in the short term, fans would do well to bear in mind Captain America’s call for patience.