The Future of History

Monday, 24 February 2014

The Shakespeare Deniers

I was recently sent an electronic document - quite a large one, in fact.  The author had deconstructed the entire sequence of Shakespeare's Sonnets (in reverse order!) with the determined intention of proving that they were written by Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford (pictured).

Oxford is not the sole candidate for the enviable role of the "real" William Shakespeare, but he is certainly the front runner.  The point, though, is why should we even consider the possibility that a man who died in 1604 - twelve years before the death of Shakespeare - was the true author of the plays and poems we attribute to Shakespeare?

Let me first of all state that I have some sympathy with the conspiracy theorists who propose that Oxford (or one of fifty-or-so other candidates) actually did all the hard work, for which William Shakespeare took the credit.

I have some sympathy because the standard biography of Shakespeare is so woefully inadequate.  There does seem to be a disconnect between the picture of William Shakespeare presented by so many of his biographers and the genius behind the Complete Works.

However, it's one thing to suspect that the Shakespeare of countless biographies might not have been up to the task of creating some of the world's finest works of literature.  It's another thing altogether to leap to the conclusion that somebody else must have written them.  Such a wild leap in the dark overlooks a far more obvious, and more realistic, interpretation - that the standard biography of Shakespeare is grossly misleading.

Or, in other words, Shakespeare wrote the works of Shakespeare.  But the Shakespeare we're told about wasn't who Shakespeare really was.

The history of Shakespeare denial is long and far from honourable.  We can trace it back to Rev. James Wilmot, who left London and moved to Barton-on-the-Heath, near Stratford, in the late 18th century.  He began to have concerns about the authorship of Shakespeare's plays, wondering (in 1785) how the humbly-born Shakespeare of Stratford could have mingled so freely with the great and the good.  Clearly, it was impossible - and so somebody else must have been the real Shakespeare.

English society had changed a great deal between Shakespeare's and Wilmot's day.  The aristocracy had distanced itself from the peasantry, and to Rev. Wilmot the very idea that a middle-class lad could become friends with lords and ladies was unthinkable.

But let's consider this: Ben Jonson was more humbly-born than Shakespeare.  He went to Westminster School, but did not finish his education.  He became a bricklayer instead (although he hated it, and it haunted him for the rest of his days).  He attended neither of the universities.  And yet, Jonson freely mixed with the aristocracy, had various aristocratic patrons, lodged with a cousin of the king and became Britain's first (unofficial) Poet Laureate.

Going by Rev. Wilmot's logic, none of that was possible, and so Ben Jonson cannot have been Ben Jonson.  Somebody else must have written the plays, poems and court masques, for which Jonson took all the credit.

To the best of my knowledge, nobody has ever made that suggestion about Ben Jonson.  We don't seem to mind the fact that he - an overweight, alcoholic bully - could have made the journey from obscurity to celebrity and enjoyed the patronage of lords and ladies.  So why do we assume that Shakespeare could not have done so?

In fact, Shakespeare's dealings with the aristocracy were fairly limited, in comparison with Jonson's.  The only patron we know of, where Shakespeare is concerned, was the teenage Earl of Southampton, who came from a Catholic family.  Shakespeare dedicated two long poems to him (in 1593 and 1594) and appears to have written a number of sonnets to the young earl.  But it was not a notably long association, and it does not seem to have survived Southampton's coming-of-age.

So the theory that Shakespeare couldn't have been Shakespeare because he lacked the appropriate social standing is utter nonsense.  Poets had aristocratic patrons; they hung around noble households.  What seems surprising about Shakespeare is that he kept his contacts with the nobility to a minimum.

The real issue, when it comes to the various "Alternative Authorship" theories, is something else.  It starts from a desire to make Shakespeare - the best writer we've ever had - into something that he wasn't: an aristocrat.  Behind this lies a very strange assumption - that only those of noble birth are capable of marvellous things.  Realistically, we know that to be untrue.  But not everybody has reconciled themselves to democracy, and there are still plenty of people out there who harbour the delusions of an earlier age.  And, if you believe that blue blood is inherently better than any other kind, it will follow that you want to claim Shakespeare for the ruling elite.

So the denialists start out with a fundamental belief (the aristocracy are universally brilliant; everyone else is an idiot) which they then seek to prove.  We call this sort of thing "confirmation bias".  You start out with a theory and then bend the evidence to suit it.

Sir Derek Jacobi - one of the more consistent anti-Stratfordian voices - once claimed that there is absolutely no evidence that Shakespeare wrote the plays.  Well, you can make that claim if you decide to exclude every bit of evidence that he did.  But you have to ignore the testimonies of Robert Greene (1592), Richard Field (1593/4), Francis Meres (1598), William Jaggard (1599), the students at Cambridge University (1601) and a host of others, including John Fletcher, Michael Drayton and Ben Jonson.  Or, rather, you have to conjure up a conspiracy of epic proportions, so that the churchman Francis Meres could praise both Oxford and Shakespeare in his Palladis Tamia without realising that they were (allegedly) one and the same, and Ben Jonson could collude in a ridiculous plot without giving the game away (this is probably the best argument against all the Alternative Authorship theories: Ben Jonson wouldn't not have been able to keep the secret).

Basically, everybody at the time knew that Shakespeare wrote the plays.  It wasn't until more than 150 years after Shakespeare's death that anybody began to imagine that he didn't.  And the basis for that imaginary claim was groundless - it grew out of the refusal to acknowledge the social realities of Shakespeare's time.

But here's the problem.  The Shakespeare denialists are very much like climate sceptics (or "contrarians", as they're sometimes called) or Creationists.  They've started out with a fixed idea based on a kind of blind faith, and nothing will shake their conviction.  No amount of evidence will force them to rethink.  They'll just adapt their theory, regardless of how far from reason and reality they have to travel to accommodate the inconvenient facts.

You can't argue with them, because they made up their minds before they started.  Everything becomes some strange kind of "proof" that they are right (and, consequently, anyone who points to the facts is engaged in the original conspiracy - the reasoning becomes decidedly circular).

It's all incredibly frustrating, because the denialists can lose the argument one hundred times but will still come back claiming that they've won.  Just as with climate sceptics, who get very creative with the facts, they won't give in.  Why should they, you might ask.  Well, for the simple reason that they're absolutely wrong!

There is no evidence - none at all, not a shred - that somebody else wrote Shakespeare's plays.  They were written by William Shakespeare, gent, of Stratford-upon-Avon (although others had a hand in a few of them).  There is no argument about this, and it is facile to pretend that there is.

But the big worry is that the obsessives who want to believe that Shakespeare simply wasn't posh enough to be Shakespeare will keep misleading the public.  If we're honest, there isn't a debate.  There are a few loud voices continually trying to shout down the experts.  There is, as it were, a "tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."

These people are trying to drag us back to a past which we ought to have got rid of.  No one in their right minds believes that only aristocrats can write well.  So let's be honest: nobody in their right minds believes that the Earl of Oxford wrote the plays of Shakespeare (including those plays which were written after Oxford's death).  It is a kind of madness to imagine that he did, and it's a madness we could all do without.

Please, devote your energies to researching who William Shakespeare really was, because that's where the Stratfordians have let us all down.  But don't take the lunatic view that Shakespeare was "illiterate".  That simply shows that you left your reason at the door when you blundered into the debate.

And stop trying to mislead people.  In my book, that's an unforgivable sin.  Whether it's climate change or who was William Shakespeare - there is no excuse for trying to force people into believing things that are not true.

Keep your madness to yourself, and stop trying to take Shakespeare from us.


  1. Like you, I'm fascinated by what William Shakespeare was really like. Your post overlooks a major problem with the traditional authorship belief, though. If "Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare," who wrote the Shakespeare Apocrypha? There is no evidence - none at all, not a shred - that somebody other than William Shakespeare wrote the apocryphal Shakespeare plays printed under his name or initials, or otherwise attributed to him (unless you turn to stylistic arguments). According to all the direct evidence available, they were written by William Shakespeare, gent, of Stratford-upon-Avon (although others had a hand in a few of them). The fact that two distinct bodies of literary work were attributed to one man, William Shakespeare, during his lifetime or soon after, is a fascinating historical mystery. --Sabrina Feldman (author of The Apocryphal William Shakespeare)

    1. Thanks for your comment, Sabrina. Your book sounds very interesting, and I look forward to getting hold of a copy. I'm confident that Shakespeare had a hand in, or cast an editorial eye, over a number of plays, some of which were perhaps attributed to him on the grounds that his name was good box office. By the same token, it seems clear that several Shakespeare plays were passed to Thomas Middleton for edits/revision, and that John Fletcher substantially edited or revised several Shakespeare texts. In that respect, The Globe was a little like a Hollywood studio, in that the writer who gets the credit might not have done all (or even most) of the work

  2. Sir: "Please, devote your energies to researching who William Shakespeare really was."

    Here are some websites that may assist you or your readers in doing so:

    I especially recommend the last link to the recent documentary, "Last Will. and Testament," which can correct some of the misapprehensions on which your blog posting depends for its self assured complacency. Please don't accuse me of trying to "mislead" you. I'm merely suggesting that you may yet have something to learn about this topic.

  3. Thanks for the links, Doc. There does seem to be an awful lot of Oxfordian stuff there, which inevitably begs the question, "Why?"

    In Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon, there is a funerary monument for Shakespeare. The first part of the inscription refers to him being a Nestor in judgement, a Socrates in genius, a Virgil in art. Given that Shakespeare had been dead for at least six years when that monument was commissioned, designed, created and installed (and Oxford had been dead for 18 years) one has to ask why anyone would go to so much trouble and expense to maintain a pointless conspiracy. With both parties dead, what was the point of installing an expensive monument to Shakespeare, if Oxford really had done the work? There would have been absolutely no need to maintain the illusion.

    As with so much else in the Oxfordian argument, it all starts from nowhere and leads nowhere. There are no sound and reasonable grounds for assuming that Shakespeare couldn't have written the plays - not at all - and so there are no good reasons for imagining that Oxford did. All the so-called "evidence" only looks like evidence to those who have already convinced themselves.

    It's not complacency to accept what everybody at the time knew to have been the case, because there are no sound and reasonable grounds for doubting it (other than a deep misunderstanding of the nature of Elizabethan society). The entire topic is a great big waste of everybody's time, and a cynical and unworthy attempt to deprive a true genius of his reputation for nobody's benefit. What a pointless activity.

    There is a lot of genuine research to be done into Shakespeare (his links in the English Midlands being especially revealing). The Oxfordian mania is merely an unnecessary distraction.