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.