Monday, November 21, 2011
Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts. You are free to agree or disagree with him.
A reader asked me to comment on the recently-released film Anonymous, which purports to expose the “conspiracy” to palm off the plays of Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, as being by a talentless nonentity called William Shakespeare.
I can comment very succinctly.
Whatever the film’s merits as drama or thriller, as history it’s sheer bollocks.
However, that uncouth answer won’t satisfy ardent conspiracy theorists or people who liked the movie, so I’ll have to add a bit more detail.
I base my answer on a number of scholarly books I’ve read on the topic, plus my encounter with books by “alternative authorship” theorists, plus my (pretty good) knowledge of Shakespeare’s plays themselves.
I assure you, I have seen and heard the best arguments “alternative authorship” that people can offer.
Back in 2005 I reviewed for the NZ Listener Brenda James’ The Truth Will Out, which purported to “prove” that Sir Henry Neville wrote Shakespeare’s plays. Its “proof” was laughably slim, yet when it was released it was hailed as the most convincing “alternative authorship” theory so far. (My 2005 review is still on-line on the NZ Listener’s website). In 2010, I had the immense pleasure of reviewing for the Sunday Star-Times Professor James Shapiro’s Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?, which I ended up nominating as one of the Books of the Year.
If you are at all interested in “alternative authorship” theories about Shakespeare plays, or if you have ever been pestered by somebody who believes them, then I urge you to get hold of Contested Will. Calmly, rationally, without any name-calling or condescension toward “alternative authorship” theorists, Shapiro demolishes one by one all the conspiracy theories.
And they are conspiracy theories, even though “alternative authorship” theorists get annoyed at the term. Remember, there is hard documentary evidence of Shakespeare’s authorship. He was attested as the author of his plays in his own lifetime, and seven years after his death, when the first collected edition of his plays came out (the First Folio), it was preceded by testimonials and verses written by Shakespeare’s friends and admirers, including illustrious people like Ben Jonson. If you want to believe that someone other than Shakespeare wrote the plays, then you have to believe that all these people (plus the printers) were sworn to conceal a secret i.e. that they were a conspiracy.
I leave it to Shapiro’s book to give you the fine details. Suffice it to say that the documentary evidence for Shakespeare is overwhelming, whereas there is no documentary evidence at all for anyone else’s authorship. Note also that we know a great deal about how books were printed in Elizabethan and Jacobean times, and we can chronicle with great accuracy when and in what circumstances most of Shakespeare’s plays were first written, published or performed. (“Most”, not “all” – there are some gaps and genuine mysteries.)
Alternative authorship theorists are, to a man and woman, ignorant of the scholarship that is currently available in these matters – textual analysis, palaeography and the ability to scientifically date texts. What we know from the real scholarship is that the life of no other claimant so far proposed matches the writing of Shakespeare’s plays. They were either too old, too young, dead or nowhere near where the plays were being written and produced.
Shapiro shows convincingly how the whole troop of erroneous theories arose from snobbery. By the late eighteenth century, Shakespeare’s reputation had risen so high that he had come to embody the English nation and seemed more than human. In the circumstances, it was disconcerting to realize that the real Shakespeare was a lower-middle-class boy from the provinces who had never been to university, was not a great power in the land at the time he was alive, and could possibly have been a Catholic. What was wanted was somebody who was aristocratic, glamorous, powerful and preferably Protestant. So, in succession, out came the theories that Shakespeare’s plays were really written by Sir Francis Bacon or the Earl of Southampton or the Earl of Derby or the Earl of Oxford or Sir Henry Neville or the great playwright and Cambridge-graduate Christopher Marlowe or (and even most conspiracy theorists baulked at his one) Queen Elizabeth 1.
All of this assumed, of course, that a lower-middle-class, non-university-educated chap couldn’t possibly have imagination and genius. As Charles Dickens was lower-middle-class and non-university-educated, this presumably means that somebody else wrote David Copperfield.
There is another thing about conspiracy theories. They tend to cancel one another out. Take the example of JFK assassination conspiracy theories, given a great boost by Oliver Stone’s unhistorical film JFK, which in turn was based on the fantasising of Jim Garrison. Those who refuse to accept very good evidence that Lee Harvey Oswald did it present us with theories about the pro-Castro Cubans. Or anti-Castro Cubans. Or the Mafia. Or hired French hitmen. Or dissident American military men and the CIA. Or (and – I’m not kidding – this was the first theory of the crackpot Garrison) homosexuals who were jealous of JFK’s virile, heterosexual appeal. Or various combinations of these groups working in concert.
But if any ONE of these conspiracy theories is true, then ipso facto all the other theories are wrong. So, even before I examine the evidence, I am entitled to say that the great majority of JFK conspiracy theories are wrong. And after reading the evidence, I conclude that they are probably ALL wrong. (I really mean that they are definitely all wrong, but I add the “probably” just in case some hitherto undisclosed real evidence does turn up.)
Now apply this irrefutable logic to conspiracy theories about the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays. If it was Bacon then it can’t have been Oxford. If it was Oxford then it can’t have been Derby. If it was Derby then it can’t have been Southampton. Or Christopher Marlowe. Or Sir Henry Neville. Or Queen Elizabeth 1. Or Mickey Ye Mouse. Ipso facto, the majority of Shakespeare authorship conspiracy theories must be wrong. And all the hard evidence suggests that they are in fact all wrong.
Let it be made absolutely clear that there is no documentary or material evidence whatsoever connecting Oxford with the writing of Shakespeare’s plays. As James Shapiro has correctly said of the film Conspiracy, it is concocted by people who believe that lack of evidence is evidence.
There is no evidence to connect Oxford with Shakespeare’s plays! Therefore there must have been a conspiracy to suppress the evidence!! Therefore this proves there was a conspiracy!!! Therefore Oxford must have written Shakespeare’s plays!!!!
On these principles I can prove that the Earth is flat, that the Apollo mission never landed on the moon, that actually Ted Kennedy and his drinking buddies were standing on the grassy knoll, that there is a Zionist conspiracy to rule the world and that Michael Jackson was really killed by Peter Pan. (Actually that last one’s probably true.)
There is a side-issue over the part-authorship of some of Shakespeare’s plays. Even the best authorities agree that some of Shakespeare’s plays were probably written in collaboration with other people. Henry VIII was almost certainly written mostly by John Webster, and some of Will’s first plays were re-writings of older plays. And of course nearly all Shakespeare’s plots were borrowed from earlier sources. But these facts about Shakespeare’s working methods are quite separate from theories about Bacon or Oxford or Southampton writing the lot.
I’m not losing sleep over any of this. I rest safe in the knowledge that all reputable experts reject the alternative authorship theories and have the hard evidence on their side. Alternative authorship theories are to Shakespeare scholarship what astrology is to astronomy or numerology is to mathematics. It makes no difference that at various times illustrious people – none of them experts in the field – have championed the Oxfordian or Baconian or Southampton cause. One such illustrious person is the very good actor Derek Jacobi, who contributes to Anonymous. But – sorry – Jacobi is no scholar, no matter how outstanding his BBC performance as Hamlet was.
You can’t keep conspiracy theorists down though. The fact that Shakespeare scholars reject their theories must mean there’s a conspiracy in Academe!!!
Incidentally, the Wikipedia entry on the film Conspiracy is in part a puff for the film, as you would expect, and is certainly not written by Shakespeare experts. But it does at least (a.) note the poor critical reception the film has received and the low box-office return, which led its distributors to limit its release; and (b.) conclude with a list of historical absurdities in the film which, on their own, torpedo its claims to historical credibility.
Trouble is, re-runs and DVD release will doubtless persuade new generations of fantasists that this bollocks is credible.