Why 'Shakespeare deniers' pay a compliment to the Bard

Apr 26, 2013
Crispin Black

Shakespeare's birthday was celebrated this week, but the idea he didn't write his plays won't go away

"MR POWELL, sir, I have enjoyed your lecture to us on why Shakespeare could not in truth have been the author of the plays usually attributed to him, and that they must have been written by a highly educated man with an influential position at court. But I detect a theme in your arguments – snobbery. You just can't accept that the most sublime dramatic poetry ever could have been written by the son of a Stratford Glover."

Enoch Powell's famous blue eyes flashed annoyance but he answered my question courteously. It was 1978 and he had just delivered a lecture to our school literary society on his theories about the real author of the plays.

He was a mystery guest - if word had got out that he had been invited to the school the security implications would have been difficult. We only found out it was him at the pre-lecture drinks party where he was both charming and charismatic.

It puzzled me at the time why such a brilliant man – Professor of Greek at Sydney University aged 25; promoted from private soldier to Brigadier during the war – should hold such a weird and wrong-headed opinion. How come a man who was right about so many other things was so wrong in this case?

It was only after the lecture that many of us realised Powell was not the only heretic. The list of Shakespeare deniers or, more properly, 'Anti-Stratfordians' is long and distinguished: Sigmund Freud, Charlie Chaplin and Malcolm X to name just three, while in our own day academics at Brunel University in Uxbridge and Concordia University in Oregon, even in these straitened times, both offer courses in Shakespeare authorship studies.

Three main candidates are usually proposed. First, there are the Baconians – those who back Sir Francis Bacon, the philosopher and scientist who became Lord Chancellor. He was a profound thinker and great prose writer but there is little evidence that he had any poetic talent. Nor did he have any particular connections with the theatre though he would certainly have been exposed to drama at Gray's Inn and the court. Given his demanding legal career it seems unlikely that he would have had the spare time to produce the Shakespearian canon.

To the irritation of purist Baconians some of their fellow travellers have come up with even more extravagant theories – 'Groupists' who believe Bacon was involved in writing the plays but only as part of an aristocratic (of course) syndicate. Others believe the plays were actually written not by Bacon but by his secret real mother – Queen Elizabeth I. Some Baconians, on their journey of discovery, have even come to believe that it was all the other way around – Shakespeare wrote Bacon.

Then there are the Marlovians – those who back the Elizabethan dramatist Christopher Marlowe as the true author not only of the marvellous plays in his own name but Shakespeare's also. This is the one group unmotivated by social snobbery as Marlowe's father was a Canterbury shoemaker. But intellectual snobbery may be at work - Marlowe, unlike Shakespeare, was a university man (Corpus Christi, Cambridge). And as a religious unbeliever and sexual rebel his candidacy is congenial to many modern minds. There is just one major snag - historians are fairly sure that Marlowe was murdered in a Deptford Tavern in 1593. The records of the inquest have survived.

Finally, there are Oxfordians, who claim Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, as the rightful author. This theory forms the basis of the 2011 film Anonymous with Rhys Ifans in the starring role. Oxford was a noted poet and patron of a theatre company (as well as an epic brawler, boozer and womaniser) but like Marlowe he died inconveniently early (1604) to have been the author of the plays. He could just about have written everything up to Othello but not twelve further masterpieces still to come, including King Lear, Macbeth and The Tempest. Oxfordians take themselves seriously and don't like being teased about the founder of their movement - a 19th Century Tyneside schoolmaster by the name of John Thomas Looney.

In a way the deniers pay the real Shakespeare a huge compliment. His imaginative and technical gifts are so extraordinary and his human sympathy so powerful and wide that they just cannot believe that in many ways he was just an ordinary Englishman.

We do not know for sure the date of Shakespeare's birth, traditionally celebrated on 23 April. However, the parish register of Holy Trinity Church, Stratford does have a record of his baptism there on 26 April 1564.

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The fact that Oxford died in 1604 is not relevant to the case for his authorship.

Neither date of performance nor date of publication
indicates the date of composition. 14 plays were newly published in the First Folio but were agreed to have been written much earlier. It cannot be ascertained why they weren’t published sooner. My own view is that Oxford
was always revising his plays and may have left many uncompleted. When he died, it is quite possible that his son-in-law, The Earl of Derby, himself a prominent playwright, may have edited them for eventual publication.

It is claimed that Macbeth has direct connotations and influence from the gun powder plot of 1605 and that The Tempest took inspiration form a Bermuda ship wreck of 1609.

Recent scholarship by Prof. Stritmatter and author Lynne Kositsky, however, has shown that earlier sources were available. Stritmatter has said that the argument for Strachey’s influence on The Tempest is “rooted in a host of errors,” and declared that Richard Eden in his 1555 work The Decades of the New Worlde, a Spanish document, was a “more persuasive source.” Eden’s was a book that Shakespeare knew and that passages that came from Strachey actually originated with Eden.

According to Stritmatter, Eden strongly influenced The Tempest as demonstrated in many particulars, including the “new world” theme, the storm scene, the plot filled with conspiracies, the description of the fire, and Mediterranean classical references.

The attribution of Macbeth to 1605 is based on the fact that the play mentions the “Law of Equivocation.” It has now been verified that the doctrine of equivocation was mentioned as early as 1583 and 1584. In 1584, a Spanish prelate named Martin Azpilcueta first formally laid out the Doctrine of Equivocation, which was disseminated across the continent and into England.

This is the original 'undecideable' question. Like all such questions subsequently the scope for imagination coupled with the supposed implications 'for future generations' makes the Shakespeare authorship a magnet for those with an axe to grind and not much else. No weight of evidence is available that would convince these doubters. Their principal argument, usefully, one that does not involve convoluted reasoning or convenient chronology, is simple prejudice: Shakespeare was from the wrong background to have written these epic plays and poems, four hundred years later still exercising a hold over the western mind.

The "Shakespeare establishment" loves to dismiss the Oxfordians with the accusation of snobbery cited repeatedly above. But couldn't it be true that modern folk living in democratic societies actually have a reverse-snobbery prejudice? We all love the idea of the commoner who becomes a big success. Surely that bias plays into some of the fierce refusal in certain quarters to even consider that Mr. Shakespeare might simply not have had the life experiences and higher education demonstrated by the author of the plays. This isn't a question of loving the aristocracy or scorning the lower classes -- it's simply facing the fact that the Shakespeare texts contain hundreds of references to subjects only a learned member of the nobility would be likely to know much about.