Culture Shock: Shakespeare conspiracy theories are a comedy of errors
A painting believed to be the only authentic image of Shakespeare made during his life. Photograph: Oli Scarff/Getty Images
They come crawling out again, the Shakespeare conspiracy theorists. The 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth fell sometime this week. (His official birthdate, April 23rd, 1564, is suspiciously neat, falling nicely on St George’s Day. All we know for sure is that on April 26th the vicar at Holy Trinity church in Stratford baptised “Gulielmus filius Johannes Shakespere”.) Cue the chorus of denials that this mere provincial actor could be the author of the greatest works in the English language.
It is an apparently harmless form of idiocy that is actually quite toxic. No serious scholar doubts Shakespeare’s authorship (or in some cases coauthorship) of the plays and poems. But intelligent and otherwise sophisticated people continue to do so, making this a respectable kind of ignorance.
A fortnight ago the former supreme court judge John Paul Stevens, one of the leading jurists in the US, was the subject of a Q&A in the books section of the New York Times . Asked to name his favourite literary genre, his reply was: “Writings about the authorship of the plays attributed to William Shakespeare. ” If Stevens had responded, “Writings about the faking of the moon landings,” or, “Writings about the cover-up of the alien crash in Roswell,” mental alarms would be ringing all over the US: “And this guy sat in judgment on some of the most crucial cases in our recent history?” But devotion to crank theories about Francis Bacon or the earl of Oxford or Charlie Chaplin being the real Shakespeare is taken as a sign not of an appalling refusal to consider evidence but of a healthy scepticism.
It’s easy to grasp the nuttiness of the crank theories even before looking at any detailed scholarly evidence. Think of Cork city – that’s about the size of Shakespeare’s London. Imagine a very well-known and immediately recognisable man about town. (Even the cranks don’t deny Shakespeare was a prominent actor in a city where theatre was the main form of popular entertainment.) Imagine all the rivalries, jealousies and backbiting of the artistic community. And imagine, finally, that this guy Shakespeare, whom we know from other writings to have been deeply resented as a pushy upstart, is going around claiming falsely to have written a slew of the most successful plays on the contemporary stage.
Then make the most astonishing leap: no one, not a single contemporary source, so much as drops a hint that this man is a liar. None of the playwrights who collaborated with him ever mentioned that Shakespeare couldn’t write these amazing plays. Even one of his spikiest rivals, the fiery, argumentative Ben Jonson, expresses reverence for his memory – and criticises him not for being unable to write great plays but for having too fecund and unstoppable an imagination.
This alone shows the absurdity of the whole theory: Shakespeare’s nonauthorship of the plays is a secret kept in the gossipy worlds of theatre and literature and patronage and publishing, not just through his own lifetime but until a century and a half after his death, when James Wilmot suddenly comes up with the theory that Francis Bacon wrote the plays.
But absurdity piles upon absurdity. The very fact that more than 50 rival candidates for authorship have been put forward suggests the weakness of each claim. There are mysteries in Shakespeare’s life, as there are in the records of all Tudor and Jacobean lives, but every rival claim demands that we accept much greater implausibilities.
If Christopher Marlowe was the author, he must have faked his own violent death in 1593 and then written virtually all the “Shakespeare” plays from a hiding place that was never discovered. The argument that Bacon wrote the plays rests on bizarre cipher-hunting that ends up seeing them as coded works of Rosicrucian mysticism. Advocates for the earl of Oxford (favoured candidate of Sigmund Freud) have to come up with tortured narratives to explain how Macbeth or The Tempest could have been produced by Shakespeare after Oxford’s death, in 1604.
But, to adapt the IRA’s statement to Margaret Thatcher after its failure to assassinate her, those who accept the overwhelming evidence that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare have to be lucky all the time – we’re stuck with Will. Those who are determined to prove he didn’t can lob candidate after candidate into the arena. As each one implodes there’s always another: Mary Sidney, Walter Raleigh, John Donne, Queen Elizabeth I. There’s even an Irish candidate, the rebel William Nugent.
It’s tempting to dismiss all of this as a mere game played by people with nothing better to do. But it is not harmless. It shows an alarming contempt for real scholarship and actual evidence. It is founded in a deep antipathy to the idea that the greatest of writers could be an unconnected provincial who never went to university. And it displaces something that is really important to any appreciation of Shakespeare: the sense of mystery. In the hunt for a nonexistent unknown we can lose sight of the real one: the great enigma of human nature in the plays. The true mystery is not that of a man who wrote plays. It is the mystery of mankind those plays enact.