Wednesday, 9 October 2013
How Conspiracies Work
At first glance, you'd imagine he'd be pretty chuffed. Nearly 400 years on from his death in 1616, he is still far and away the leading figure in his chosen field. No one comes near him. Shakespeare is, without doubt, the most famous poet-playwright ever to have walked the planet.
He might find the internet exciting. He would surely be impressed that the journey from Stratford to London can be done in two hours, as opposed to the two days it took on horseback.
But, to be honest, I think he would be appalled - and certainly very uncomfortable. After all, it's one thing to be celebrated as the world's greatest dramatist and poet. It's another thing altogether to be completely misremembered.
The Shakespeare industry is as busy as it ever was. New books about Shakespeare appear all the time. And most of them spout unadulterated rubbish about him.
There seem to be, essentially, two sides to the argument. On the one hand, Will Shakespeare was a humble Warwickshire lad of extraordinary gifts - and, more than anything, humble and self-effacing; he went to London, made his fortune, wowed the Queen and then the King, and then he thought, "Ah well, I've had a good run, time to go home", and he sort of vanished.
The alternative argument goes something like this: That semi-transparent and quite frankly boring individual, better known for grain-dealing in Stratford, could never have been the universal genius who penned those marvellous comedies, histories and tragedies. So somebody else must have done all the hard work. William Shakespeare was just a frontman, a cardboard cut-out, undeservedly remembered as the greatest writer in the English language.
Both arguments are fundamentally flawed and - to put it bluntly - stupidly simplistic. The latter arises from the former. For as long as the academics, the Shakespeare experts and the tourism industry insist on selling us a see-through Shakespeare, a man who kept himself to himself and wrote entirely from his own imagination, steering well clear of the controversies of his day, there will always be those who cry "Foul!" and demand to know who the real William Shakespeare was.
And, if they happen to be of the all-aristocrats-are-excellent-and-infinitely-better-than-the-rest-of-us school (which dominates so much comment these days), they will insist that Shakespeare must have been an aristocrat - like the Earl of Oxford (who died while Shakespeare was still busily writing plays) or, more crazily, Queen Elizabeth I (ditto).
These are two extreme positions: Shakespeare was just an ordinary bloke, and Shakespeare must have been someone of high social standing. They are the curse of Shakespeare studies. Neither standpoint does any credit to William Shakespeare himself.
In a sense, what we are looking at is two sides of a conspiracy theory. The first - and, apparently, the more innocuous - side claims that Shakespeare was just a patriotic middle-class Englishman; the second argues (quite rightly) that such a Shakespeare is a sham. But, ultimately, both sides are wrong.
In Who Killed William Shakespeare? I examine the circumstances of Will's life and death. It's been described as a conspiracy theory. Which it isn't. The real conspiracy theory continually pours out of Stratford and the cloisters of academe, fiercely countered by the fanatics who want to believe that somebody else altogether was the true genius.
Let us take a moment to consider the similarities between Shakespeare's lifetime and that of Arthur - the first historical Arthur on record, that is; not the silly and mythical King Arthur.
First of all, even though these two individuals lived a thousand years apart, their periods were subject to very similar strains. In Arthur's day, a foreign religion (Christianity) was taking root at the same time as Germanic settlers were forcibly conquering much of southern Britain, beginning with the eastern side of the country. In Shakespeare's day, a sort-of foreign religion (Protestantism) had entered the country from Germany, working its way across the land from the eastern counties. One of the results of the spread of Protestantism was enormous social change. The old gentry was almost entirely ruined, as Protestant parvenus stole fortunes and scrambled for precedence.
In other words, both in Arthur's day (late-6th century) and Shakespeare's day (late-16th century), a dangerous and disruptive movement was spreading across the country from the east and seeking to destroy and/or seize everything in its path. The old religion (paganism, first; Catholicism, later) was under concerted and violent attack. If you adhered to the old form faith and the social order which had obtained before the 'tempest' blew up, you were more or less doomed.
Both Arthur and Shakespeare stood for what could be called the 'true' Britain. Arthur was no Christian, but there were Christians in his circle. Shakespeare tried to pose as a Protestant, only to return to the faith of his forefathers when he saw just how vicious and corrupt the regime of Elizabeth I really was. Neither of them was a fundamentalist, in any meaningful way; rather, they saw that what Britain needed was an end to the religious strife that covered a multitude of sins. As Shakespeare had John of Gaunt say in Richard II:
"That England that was wont to conquer others,
Hath made a shameful conquest of itself."
I believe - and have offered evidence to support my belief - that both Arthur and Shakespeare were treacherously betrayed. Murdered, to all intents and purposes. Why? Because both of them, in their different times, stood in the way of the triumph of Britain's enemies - the greedy, the self-serving, the corrupt, the dishonest, the over-zealous, the cruel and the depraved.
Now, here's where we enter the realms of conspiracy. And the simple fact is that no conspiracy can succeed if (as is commonly supposed) it comprises just a handful of shady individuals. Any conspiracy of that kind is likely to fail, or at least to be quickly exposed.
If it had been that simple - if, that is, the premature deaths of both Arthur and Shakespeare, had been brought about by just one or two fanatics - then we would have known the truth for some time. But I would argue that such a scenario is pretty much the opposite of a conspiracy.
The real conspiracy requires many, many more people to engage in the cover-up. It needs generations of commentators to collude in the crime.
In the case of Arthur, the treachery stemmed from the early Church - and, one could say, a particular religious establishment set up by one prominent churchman. In the case of Shakespeare, the treachery stemmed partly from professional rivalry and partly from the paranoia that was loose at the court of King James.
Now, consider this: could future generations, wedded as they were to the cause of Christianity, acknowledge the role played by the early Church in the assassination of Arthur and the destruction of Britain? Were there own beliefs not essentially the same as the beliefs which led to Arthur's death and the betrayal of Britain to her enemies?
And consider this of Shakespeare: the very people whose devious and bloody-minded behaviour was exposed in his plays ended up running the country. Protestantism, which provided so many of these ogres with the excuse they needed to rob and slaughter their fellow countrymen, became the official religion of the land. Future generations of scholars set out to prove that this was an inevitable and desirable process: it's what made Britain great. And so, if Shakespeare had opposed this very kind of extremism, and his vocal opposition had led to his death, then it was absolutely necessary that the biography of William Shakespeare should be rewritten and the circumstances of his death ignored and forgotten.
The original conspiracies - the murders of Arthur and Shakespeare - required only a few determined and unscrupulous individuals to succeed. Initially. After that, though, huge numbers of likeminded people had to play along, to connive in the original crime, to become complicit in the cover-up (for reasons of faith and/or political expediency). They became accessories after the fact.
It continues to this day. There are still scholars who spout absolute gibberish about Arthur. They steadfastly refuse to explore his northern roots. They get unreasonably angry at the very suggestion that the first Arthur on record might have been the original Arthur. Why? Because they are colluding in the conspiracy that led to Arthur's death. They are studying Arthur purely from the point-of-view of his enemies. They are happy to continue the cover-up, because their mindsets and belief systems would have led them to participate in the original crime.
The same goes for Shakespeare. His story is repeatedly written up by his enemies - even though they claim to love and admire him - because they harbour the same set of beliefs, ultimately, as the men who killed him (the one who wielded the weapon, the one who commissioned the crime, and the faction which kept it quiet). So the conspiracy continues, perpetuated by the very character-type that was involved from the start. Naturally, these academics cannot tell the truth about Shakespeare. They might not have been there at the actual assassination, but they can continue to assassinate him by lying about his life, his works, his beliefs and covering up the harsh reality.
That's how conspiracies work. If it were just a hugger-mugger huddle of plotters, their crimes would soon be exposed. But it isn't. It's an ongoing propaganda war. Those who would have applauded and approved of the crime continue to cover for the criminals. They misrepresent Arthur and Shakespeare and attack anyone who points to the realities of the time.
So Shakespeare, I believe, would find his visit to today's world a truly depressing experience. His enemies triumphed. They continue to tell his story, and to tell it all wrong.
And here's where we should take note. Conspiracies can only prosper in a society, in a world, where there is sufficient fanaticism for the crimes to be covered up. We don't all have to wield the knife - only to lie to ourselves and each other about what really happened. And we do so because our belief systems are so horribly skewed. We will justify atrocities because our blind prejudices assure us that they were justifiable.
Have you been on Facebook lately? Read the below-the-line comments beneath any online newspaper story? Fanaticism is flourishing.
Somewhere out there is today's Arthur, today's Shakespeare. They will be betrayed and put to death. And future generations will be none the wiser. Because there are enough maniacs out there who will happily spread lies in support of their extremist positions. And that's all that is needed for conspiracies to succeed.