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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Harry Potter and the Minotaur’s Rage: how fanfiction got me into writing

My fanfiction was almost uniformly awful, like most of the things I did or liked when I was becoming myself.

The source of the noise was clear. Some kind of monster was emerging from the wood.

"Easy, Harry," counselled Hagrid, "Easy.”

Nervously, the bespectacled wizard approached the hulking beast cautiously. What was it? It had red leather skin, like a sofa, was bigger even than Hagrid and had a pair of cruel horns.

You may not recognise the above passage from any of J K Rowling’s seven entries in the Harry Potter series. That’s because it’s not by Rowling at all, but is taken from Harry Potter and the Minotaur’s Rage by awideeyedwanderer, the alias under which I, with the addition and subtraction of a few dashes and underscores depending on the platform, wrote fanfiction from 2000 to 2006.

To deal with the obvious questions, no, it was not about the Labour party, and no, I don’t think anyone ever had sex, except perhaps very briefly towards the end of the story. (As such, it was a fairly accurate reflection on the life of its author during that period.)

Fanfiction often gets a bad rap, in my case deservedly. One former editor of the New Statesman used to say of one of his staffers that he was “the Fred West of prose”, and my fanfiction was not much better. I hacked my way through the universes of Harry Potter, Doctor Who, A Series of Unfortunate Events, Final Fantasy and Star Trek. I also perpetrated my own, highly derivative “original” fiction, featuring a character called Mr Jones who was basically Doctor Who with a gun.

My fanfiction was influenced by whatever novel I was reading and whatever the current state of my politics were, which meant that as the Noughties wore on it became increasingly dominated by thinly-veiled allegories for the excesses of the Bush administration and the war in Iraq.

What got me started? Well, it’s all J K Rowling’s fault. I was an early adopter of the Harry Potter books, and though the first three books came out every year, there was a three-year gap between The Goblet of Fire and The Order of the Phoenix. So without a new book, Potter fans had to write their own, of which Harry Potter and the Minotaur’s Rage was one.

At this point in this sort of article, it’s usually customary to defend fanfiction by pointing out that some of it is actually very good, while some of it has made a great deal of money. My fanfiction was neither good nor financially lucrative, but I always think this misses the point a bit. Very few people think they are producing high art when they write fanfic – people are doing it to have a good time, to expand a world they’ve enjoyed.

My fanfiction was almost uniformly awful, like most of the things I did or liked when I was becoming myself. (In its defence, I think my fanfiction has aged better than Evanescence, a band which provided the soundtrack and most of the chapter titles to my fic.) But I had a great time writing it, and if nothing else, it taught me never to begin a sentence with “nervously” and end it with “cautiously”.

This piece is part of our themed Internet Histories week. See the rest of the stories here. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.