Rereading Richard III as I visited the Tower of London last week led to me finding a very interesting free ebook this evening by Stanley Wells and Paul Edmondson. It’s called Shakespeare Bites Back, from the Blogging Shakespeare project. It’s a spirited, brute-force attack on the idea that Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare. It’s devastatingly direct.
[P]eople who have chosen to ignore the evidence for
Shakespeare have proposed an increasing swarm of individual alternative authors
including a whole host of aristocrats, and even Queen Elizabeth I herself. At the
last count 77 individuals had been named. The fact that there are so many of them
should be enough in itself to topple the whole house of cards. Every additional
name added to the list only serves to demonstrate the absurdity of the entire
enterprise. All of these nominations are equally invalid; none has a greater claim
than any of the others. It’s worth remembering this next time the topic comes up
in conversation. Don’t start arguing against an individually named alternative; start
by reminding the person putting forward the claim that their preferred nominee is
in no way more valid than any of the others.
Later, I stumbled over a few verses by Francis Bacon this evening I wonder to myself whether the astoundingly many people who believe that Bacon wrote the works of William Shakespeare have ever read any works by the person they are crowning poet laureate of the world. Bacon was a thinker a mile and a horse-head ahead of his time, and a good prose stylist, doing innovative work in the formal essay. And a fair enough poet, apparently, though I hadn’t really read him before tonight.
Surely his acknowledged poems ought to be the first place for the Baconian conspiracy theorists to go for evidence?
But what are they like? They are poems that simply could not have been written by the same person. And it’s not exactly Shakespeare, to put it mildly, witness this little piece of moralism:
The man of life upright, whose guiltless heart is free
From all dishonest deeds and thoughts of vanity:
The man whose silent days in harmless joys are spent,
Whom hopes cannot delude, nor fortune discontent;
That man needs neither towers nor armor for defense,
Nor secret vaults to fly from thunder’s violence:
He only can behold with unaffrighted eyes
The horrors of the deep and terrors of the skies;
Thus scorning all the care that fate or fortune brings,
He makes the heaven his book, his wisdom heavenly things;
Good thoughts his only friends, his wealth a well-spent age,
The earth his sober inn and quiet pilgrimage.
Is this really the same person who plunged into these deep, dark waters of the soul:
When my love swears that she is made of truth,
I do believe her though I know she lies,
That she might think me some untutored youth,
Unlearned in the world’s false subtleties.
Thus vainly thinking that she thinks me young,
Although she knows my days are past the best,
Simply I credit her false-speaking tongue:
On both sides thus is simple truth suppressed:
But wherefore says she not she is unjust?
And wherefore say not I that I am old?
O! love’s best habit is in seeming trust,
And age in love, loves not to have years told:
Therefore I lie with her, and she with me,
And in our faults by lies we flattered be.
Or the man behind the sweetness of
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come:
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.
It’s just not the same person! The same psyche did not produce these three texts. Not even Shakespeare could have faked mediocrity as a poet that well.
So I say: let Bacon be Bacon, Shakespeare be Shakespeare and let’s leave the silliness of the conspiracy theories behind us.
What are these ideas about? These notions that Shakespeare couldn’t have written the plays and the poems of Shakespeare? I think they are born out of a sense that people who come from common places can’t be special. The half-schooled son of a glover couldn’t possibly be that insightful. It would take a noble, an elevated person. Someone special.
I think that idea is obviously false. Many of the world’s greatest poets, playwrights and novelists come from normal places. The only thing they mostly have in common is knowing how to read and write and being aware of literary culture in some way. Moreover, what Shakespeare seems to teach us is that being human and aware of your fellow humans is the only thing necessary to become insightful about them. One of the most profound pleasures of reading Shakespeare is his insight into humanity, but also how he gradually reveals little pieces of himself through the characters. But not biography. You see him instead on a deeper level. There’s a sense of getting to know a strange, half-glimpsed heart and mind behind the pyrotechnic surface of the text. And that is a lot of fun.
And when I read first-hand accounts of Shakespeare like “‘the players have often mentioned it as an honour to Shakespeare that in his writing, whatsoever he penned, he never blotted out line”, I thrill.
But these ideas of other authors, or of reading Shakespeare to get to know Shakespeare, the man (while a lot of fun, I admit) propagate because of a fundamentally narcissistic misappropriation of Shakespeare. It’s a way of making the works of Shakespeare in some sense about you, the codebreaker, the investigator. But it’s not, his work is about all the multiplicities of things they are about. Reading them as cryptograms of the author’s identity is reductive. It turns them into gestures towards secret. They become code, symbols standing for something other than themselves. What you should be engaging with is the text. The learning of Shakespeare isn’t in codebreaking, it’s in Shakespeare; the texts, the plays, the poems. It’s in the wordplay, the poetry, the fully realised people who spring out of costumes, greasepaint and creaky boards and reveal our own humanity to us. Shakespeare isn’t about you, it’s about us.
UPDATE: Well, would you look at that? Just yesterday, a report came out crediting Shakespeare for co-authorship in three other plays. Among them, scenes in the excellent The Spanish Tragedy by Thomas Kyd. It’s been well-known that the Bard was a collaborator and editor, a working playwright. But this puts an interesting spin on that idea.