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

A painting believed to be the only authentic image of Shakespeare made during his life. Photograph: Oli Scarff/Getty Images

Sat, Apr 26, 2014, 01:00

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.

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