The Future of History

Sunday, 16 June 2013

Oxford Marmalade and Smoky Bacon

"Are you the writer?"

Two gentlemen, a father-and-son combo, had come to finish off a bit of work on our patio (ha! you wanna see it: it's not really a patio).  I'd been asleep when they first came because - as my good lady wife explained to them - I had worked through the night.

I confessed that, yes, I am the writer (other writers are, of course, available).

Sure as night follows day: "What sort of things do you write?"

I told them I've got a book on Shakespeare coming out very soon.  To which the son responded, "I heard it was Francis Bacon who wrote the plays."

Not such an isolated incident, as it happens.  I showed a photo of Shakespeare's skull to a friend who happens to be a martial arts expert.  "What's happened to him?" she asked. "Looks like he's been attacked with a machete!"  Yes, it does.  But then she told me that her father had made a bit of a study of Shakespeare and concluded that somebody else wrote the plays - though she couldn't remember who, exactly.

Stratford-upon-Avon is just ten miles away.  And yet a lot of people in these parts seem to doubt that William Shakespeare really was William Shakespeare.

If the locals aren't even sure that Shakespeare wrote his own plays, how bad must things be farther afield - in America, say, where the determination to "prove" that Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, wrote the plays of Shakespeare seems to be particularly rampant (Oxford died in 1604; Shakespeare continued to write topical plays until about 1612 - figure that one out).

In the great scheme of things, the belief that someone else wrote Shakespeare's plays ranks with believing that the Earth is flat or that climate change isn't happening.  The astronomer Carl Sagan provided an excellent "Baloney Detection Kit" in The Demon-Haunted World.  Climate sceptics and Shakespeare deniers both practise the arts of Baloney with merry abandon.  But why, oh why, do so many people believe their ludicrous theories?  Why - even right here on Shakespeare's doorstep - do so many people think that Will Shakespeare wasn't the real Shakespeare?

Conspiracy theories flourish where there is a paucity of credible, reliable information.  In the case of climate sceptism, the problem has as much to do with scientific illiteracy (most people don't really understand how science works) as it does with political lobbying and religious extremism.  As for Shakespeare, the problem seems to be that very few people really believe what the experts keep telling us about Shakespeare.

There are perfectly good reasons for this.  The Shakespeare you get in Stratford is marketed at tourists.  It's an image of Shakespeare which has as little to do with the man himself as a picture postcard Cotswold village has to do with real life in the UK.  It's a cosy, processed and packaged, Merrie Englande idea of Shakespeare.  It's not a real person.  It's a reflection of what certain people want England and its Bard to be.

Nurturing and promoting this mythical, fantasy-figure of Shakespeare requires a heavy dose of deception.  Life wasn't like that.  Shakespeare wasn't like that.  England wasn't like that.

And so we get a rather fetching portrait (probably) of Sir Walter Raleigh presented to us as a "new" portrait of Shakespeare.  It's all part of the deception.  Whether we're just flogging this nonsense to the tourists or actively deluding ourselves, the upshot is the same.  "Here's what we want you to think William Shakespeare was - now don't ask any questions."

Is it any wonder, when even Stratford-upon-Avon cannot be relied upon to give us reliable, credible information about Shakespeare, that some people (even here, just 10 miles away) have their doubts?

If they told us the truth about William Shakespeare - his life and times, his family and friends, his hometown, his beliefs, and what an appalling place England was in his days - things might be different.  Then we'd understand who Shakespeare was, and what he was trying to tell us.  And here, I could put in a plug for my forthcoming book (Who Killed William Shakespeare? The Murderer, The Motive, The Means - published this August by The History Press), only I can't be bothered.

But for as long as the Shakespeare scholars continue to promote their self-serving, sanitised idea of Shakespeare, people will go on believing that somebody else wrote the plays.  Because, deep down, most of us have our own Baloney Detection Kits.

The Shakespeare they sell you in Stratford certainly isn't Bacon.  But he is Baloney.

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