Have you heard the one about how American astronauts never really landed on the moon? It was an elaborate ruse—created on a Hollywood sound set—and perpetrated on the entire world. NASA has been able to keep this colossal secret for half a century. But a decades-old secret is nothing compared to one that stretches back to the 1580s. Like our poor American astronauts, William Shakespeare has become a favorite target of those who desperately want to be in on a fantastical secret that the rest of us are too stupid or naïve to figure out. If you’ve not heard, Shakespeare is not really Shakespeare.
I’m re-reading a slim but highly entertaining biography of William Shakespeare by award-winning writer Bill Bryson, Shakespeare: The World as Stage. Bryson keeps this volume to just under 200 pages by focusing on what we actually know about Shakespeare’s life from the historical record. Shakespeare After All—a surprisingly readable 1,000+ page tome by Harvard University’s Margorie Garber—is another option for those who have either retired or sworn off email, but the rest of us must be grateful for Bryson’s “bite-size” volume. I’d happily flown through Bryson’s lively biography once before, but did not stop long to ponder the ridiculous theories about Shakespeare’s “true” identity.
William Shakespeare’s contemporaries did not question the authorship his plays. The Master of the Revels’ accounts from 1604-1605—the official record of plays performed before the king—lists Shakespeare as the author of seven plays performed for King James I. As Bryson points out, you can’t get much more official than that. Shakespeare is also recorded in primary source documents as the author of the sonnets and the poems The Rape of Lucrece and Venus and Adonis. And a thinly veiled, clearly envious contemporary account published by pamphleteer Robert Greene—Greene’s Groat’s-Worth of Wit—charges that he’s an upstart theatrical player who’s reached above his station by taking up writing. Clearly, the Elizabethans accepted his authorship.
The doubts started much later. They did not have auspicious beginnings. Delia Bacon, born in the frontier country of Ohio in 1811, gradually became convinced—no one knows why—that Francis Bacon (no relation) was actually the author of Shakespeare’s canon. Her research methods were dubious—non-existent, really—and her writing unintelligible. Although Nathanial Hawthorne wrote a preface for her book, The Philosophy of the Plays of Shakespere [sic] Unfolded, he hadn’t actually read it; almost immediately, he wished he had. He later said, “This shall be the last of my benevolent follies, and I will never be kind to anybody again as long as [I] live.” Despite it being a critical bomb, her harebrained book became surprisingly popular among such luminaries as Mark Twain and Henry James. It didn’t occur to them that Francis Bacon—philosopher, statesman, jurist, scientist and author—was probably a bit too overextended to have also penned Shakespeare’s plays, as well as the works of Christopher Marlowe, Edmund Spenser and others, as other Baconians assert. Time constraints aside, Bryson notes, Francis Bacon openly disparaged the theater.
Anti-Stratfordians needed a new candidate. Enter J. Thomas Looney (seriously), a British schoolmaster, who in 1918 published Shakespeare Identified in which he argues that Shakespeare’s work was actually written by the seventeenth Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere. Looney asserts, as do all subsequent Oxfordians, that William Shakespeare lacked the erudition, sophistication and the refinement to have produced such incomparable literature. The Earl certainly had all these qualities, but there are numerous problems with this theory. As Bryson explains, his personality was patently abhorrent in every possible way. It is difficult to imagine him possessing “the compassionate, steady, calm, wise voice that speaks so reliably and seductively from Shakespeare’s plays.” He was also terribly vain, and it seems highly improbable that he would publish his most brilliant work under a pseudonym. But there’s another compelling reason the Oxfordians are dead wrong: Edward de Vere died in 1604—before many of Shakespeare’s plays appeared. Did he really leave a stack of manuscripts to a confidant to be released at regular intervals after his death?
Why would people favor a dead guy over William Shakespeare? Conspiracy theories proliferate when primary documents are scant. There’s much we don’t know about Shakespeare. But that’s not unusual for an average citizen of Elizabethan England. The dearth of primary sources aside, the meat of the Oxfordian argument is that a person from Shakespeare’s humble roots could not demonstrate such breadth and depth regarding the human condition. They question how a tradesman’s son could possibly write about Italy, Denmark and Scotland, never having gone to university. But they don’t question contemporary Ben Jonson’s legitimacy as a playwright, and he also never went to college. As Shakespeare researchers have shown, William Shakespeare’s country upbringing permeates his work—from references to dandelions as “golden lads” and allusions to alderman’s thumb rings, to his frequent mention of the minutia of the tanning trade.
The classism of the Oxfordians is unmistakable, which is peculiar given that many of them accuse Shakespeare scholars of being elitist in not taking their theories seriously. Could the son of craftsman have created some of the finest literature in the Western World? Certainly. Although it’s fun cocktail banter and may suggest a quest for truth, the anti-Shakespeare hoax reveals our own lack of imagination and our denial of man’s inexorable creativity. Whether it’s sending man to the moon or writing heavenly prose, we can be an exceedingly clever species.
Let Shakespeare be Shakespeare.