I’ve had a letter complaining that scholars are not doing enough to fight the arguments that Shakespeare didn’t write his own works. The letter was provoked partly by news of the forthcoming film Anonymous which I gather supports the authorship claims of the Earl of Oxford as well as propounding other ridiculous ideas such as that Oxford was both the Virgin Queen’s bastard son and, later, her lover as well as the father (and therefore also brother) of Henry Wriothesley third earl of Southampton, dedicatee in 1593 and 1594 of Shakespeare’s narrative poems. Really, how ridiculous can you get! Of course it is a film, not a documentary. If it’s done with the wit and charm of Shakespeare in Love, which does not for a moment invite us to take itself as a portrayal of the truth, it is unlikely to do much harm. But it’s to be accompanied by a full length documentary which will attempt to offer arguments in favour of the film’s underlying thesis. I know this very well because on Saturday I spent three gruelling (and unpaid) hours when I ought to have been doing the shopping being interviewed and filmed by a ten-strong crew in Shakespeare’s school room about this subject. At first, when asked to do this, I had refused. I am all too well aware of the distortions that can be made when quotations are taken out of context and ‘edited’ in a manner that can make the speaker appear to be saying the opposite of what he means. The film makers were persistent and in the end I gave way. I worried about my motives in doing so. There is always a temptation to act against one’s better judgement in response to approaches from the media. An element of flattery is involved, the vanity of appearing on screens and being told ‘I saw you on television last night’ even though one may respond with ‘Well, now you actually see me in person, isn’t that much better?’ Still someone ought to stand up for the truth; I knew that some of my colleagues and friends had refused to participate and I could see why, but in the end I caved in and agreed. I sat on a distinctly uncomfortable eighteenth-century school bench while two separate interviewers interrogated me for three hours about many aspects of Shakespeare’s life, reputation, and works as well as about the historicity of his biography. The interviewers were courteous and well informed but their producers are likely to use only a few minutes, at the most, of what was recorded and I have no control over how they may do so.
This is far from the only time I have attempted to fight the cause. I have taken part in a debate chaired by Jeffrey Archer at the Middle Temple, where I was cross-examined by an eminent barrister (we won). I’ve spoken in a debate at the Theatre Royal Bath attended by coach loads of anti- Stratfordians some of whom had travelled across the Atlantic to fight their corner irrespective of any arguments that might be adduced. I have published a book, Is It True what They Say About Shakespeare, in which I examine the claims that have been made. I have an entry on the topic (soon to be revised) on The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust website. Much of my writing about Shakespeare, even when it has not been directly concerned with authorship, has had this as an underlying theme. So it may be understandable that I feel a bit aggrieved when I hear complaints that academics have not been ready enough to attempt (as Sarah Palin might say) to ‘refudiate’ the anti-Stratfordian claims. It’s easy to feel depressively that the fanaticism of the non-believers is impervious to reason and logic. James Shapiro’s excellent recent book Contested Will should be enough to convince any rational person. Still, maybe we should be more aggressive in fighting our corner. Even though we are unlikely to change minds that are already made up we might be able to convince the waverers and defeat the proselytizers. I feel a campaign coming on. Wait for it!