Shakespeare Wins the Debate: Part 3

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by Max Beerbohm

I thought you’d like to read Professor Michael Dobson’s contribution to the debate about the Shakespeare authorship issue which The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust took part in at The English-Speaking Union a couple of weeks ago. The last couple of posts on this issue created quite a lot of discussion. Michael takes up the post of Director of The Shakespeare Institute, University of Birmingham in September.

‘I only have five minutes: sadly, I don’t have time to explain to the noble lord who has just spoken how a play can be a great play without being an autobiographical memoir instead. I’m just going to give a very quick sketch of how we got here.

Seventeenth century: everyone knows Shakespeare writes Shakespeare’s plays, some have seen him do it, he’s a popular public figure. Later on, neoclassicism happens: snootier commentators lament that every page of his work shows that he hadn’t been to university. He wasn’t very good at imitating posh conversation, he gave too much stage time to middle- and lower-class characters, he made silly mistakes about geography. But despite this vulgarity he was the greatest playwright ever. So far — no story.

Eighteenth century: nationalism happens. Shakespeare was now great not despite but because he had comparatively little foreign book-learning. He was a son of the British soil, a native genius, a sort of English Robert Burns: his plays came to him in visions from the fairies. Absurd popular biographies retail anecdotes in which Shakespeare does rustic folk-hero things such as stealing deer or drinking astonishing quantities of English beer.

Nineteenth century: Romanticism happens. Genius is now deemed divine and incompatible with recognition or respectability: really great artists are unacknowledged in their lifetimes, and they never write for money or work in show business. True literary geniuses are those whose writings put you in touch with a kindred soul, a better version of your inner self. What some Victorian think they know about William Shakespeare now isn’t good enough for what they feel about the glamorous imaginative realm of his plays.

So a pseudo-problem has now been invented: and along comes the pseudo-solution. An American called Delia Bacon feels that the plays champion modernity, democracy and scientific progress: she thinks (quite rightly) that they are too clever for the ignorant rustic of folklore to have written them. So she looks for a more congenial author, and in 1856 she chooses the lawyer and philosopher Francis Bacon. She spends the rest of her life going mad in an unsuccessful hunt for any evidence whatsoever to support this idea.

A story, at last. But, quibble many, *why* would Bacon hide his authorship of the greatest plays ever? And *how* could he have mobilized the most elaborate and completely successful cover-up in history in order to do so? This problem is solved in the 1890s by an Ohio dentist called Owen, who sexes-up the new conspiracy theory by recourse to an older, royal one. Ever since her lifetime, there have been sectarian smear-stories, inventive gossip and lurid historical fiction about Elizabeth I: at one time or another she has been frigid, promiscuous, a hermaphrodite and a man in drag, and she has had secret love-children, legitimate and otherwise, by almost everyone. Owen argues that the plays are full of secret codes stating that Francis Bacon was secretly the son of the Virgin Queen from a secret marriage to the Earl of Leicester. So Bacon was not only the Attorney General, but also the real Shakespeare and the rightful King of England into the bargain. It’s so obvious when someone points it out that you can’t imagine how you ever missed it.

1921: Times have changed. To one reader, the passionately right-wing Thomas Looney, Shakespeare’s plays don’t articulate a bourgeois desire for progress, but are the last great expression of proper feudal hierarchy. When Looney finds a poem that slightly resembles Venus and Adonis, published by a card-carrying Earl, he knows he has found the real author. When people point out that Oxford died in 1604, before, for example, the real-life shipwreck that informs The Tempest, Looney declares The Tempest a fake. To his credit, though, Looney is horrified when some disciples, carrying on where Owen left off, declare that Oxford and James I between them must have hushed up the true authorship of Shakespeare’s plays because, if you read them properly, they are really all about how Oxford was Elizabeth I’s mother, and the Earl of Southampton was the secret love-child produced by the secret incestuous affair they somehow managed to have later on.

How wonderful it must be, though, to feel, as one reads Shakespeare’s plays, that one is privy to such a dynastic secret! That one is among that persecuted minority fully in touch with a tormented, unacknowledged, aristocratic genius somehow robbed of his place on the throne! Given the choice between identifying with that fiction-enhanced version of the Earl of Oxford, and with a successful man of the theatre from the Midlands, which would you choose? The powerful, self-aggrandizing emotional appeal of an archetypal romantic daydream? Or the richly-documented, if more prosaic, obvious historical truth? I for one am very grateful to Roland Emmerich for perfectly underlining the very genre and character of what is called the Oxfordian case. It is no less, and certainly no more, than an absolutely terrific plot for a B-movie.’

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Author:Paul Edmondson

Head of Research and Knowledge and Director of the Stratford-upon-Avon Poetry Festival for The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. Follow Paul on Twitter @paul_edmondson
  • Iloveshakespeare

    Hey Spaceetc,

    Are you spacing out? You seem to suggest you know more than we do. Show
    us ocular for the aural proof, I say. Show it, don”t suggest it.

    I know of no trusted prompter or two we can pinpoint as having committed
    this deed. These willing stooges who assist in your conspiracy. Who
    dey? Conveniently, namelessly, lost in the mists of time and bad

    One day Oxford the 17th earl of that name, after embarassingly farting
    in front of the queen, travels to Europe and documents his travels and
    dallyings with choir boys and hookers. Brought the boy back to England
    with him. The queen then reminds him she”d forgotten the fartte.

    I see your Rowe and raise you an Aubrey.

    yours in the name of Will,


  • Spacethefinalfrontier101

    That man from the trenches was actually Nicholas Rowe who first altered the canon for the sake of stage directions. Otherwise, you’d be overly exposed to the character’s lines. I wouldn’t blame those who play dumb towards the extensive volume of forensic scholarship with an FBI-like profile polished since the 18th century. How could you blame anyone for not reading. That analysis looks so daunting. For example: each play was proven to be created orally and dictated to a trusted prompt writer, maybe, possibly two, (cf. W.W. Greg’s endless intra/inter-textual analysis of the quartos/octavos). The storyteller’s obvious mastery of literature, law, the sciences, military combat, even a royal’s antechamber, which was at the time privileged access – privileged education – privileged oratorical training – privileged travel. I remain shocked at the number feeling so pricked, yet today’s average citizen enjoys a thousand more privileges than any Elizabethan nobleman dreamed of.

  • Spacethefinalfrontier101

    As an impressionable open-minded young American who lived in Suffolk England I see this as totally plausible that the British never gave up their love for one of their greatest practical jokes. One lasting from when printers/publishers – who were exonerated from any liability and freely used the printing device Shakespeare, Shake-speare, Shakespear, – freely sold their ownership of the works as copyrights many times over. Thus, the connective device “Shakespeare” existed, but alas Shakespeare the person did not. Before the British end this charming joke, they have to feel compelled to accept a spoiled rich kid who from time to time dictated the beautiful works to some trusted secretary long, long ago. That he faithfully documented each of his privileged travels abroad in his works. That he was from a long line of battle-hungry ancestors backing successive King Henrys (and he dictated marvelous insights about them), yet, finally, was constrained in every mentally cruel way by the queen’s handlers. And they succeed even today in erasing him from history.

  • Read Schoenbaum’s Shakespeare’s Lives to find out this neat little scenario is not what happened at all — rather the search for Shakespeare began soon after the reformation and produced exactly nothing. The statement that no one asked who Shakespeare was for two-hundred years is a lie.

  • Colette

    So well said! Thank you for this clear, common sense approach to this non-question. Unfortunately, “common sense” seems to be lacking two very essential ingredients on this topic: commonality and sense. It is so much more fun to create elaborate hoaxes and long held secrets than to accept that the plays were, indeed written by a working man of the theater. I can tell you that as a director of Shakespearean theater, there is no doubt in my mind that they were. They are peopled with characters that showcase specific types and talents – most likely those of the men and boys who were involved in the company at the time. They are carefully constructed to allow for doubling, costume changes, etc. They utilize the type of theatrical space that the Chamberlain’s/King’s Men had for their use at the time. It is very clear, as one works on them, that the author was in the trenches and knew exactly what would be required to take his play from page to stage. Since that was his bread and butter, it makes sense that it was more important to him than geographical details that most of his audience wouldn’t know anyway. Your article succinctly outlines the changes in culture that brought us to this morass. I also enjoyed James Shapiro’s Contested Will, which fully documents the succession of thought that you outline here. And incidentally, I would love to read your take on the other issue you briefly mention at the top of your article: the danger in assuming an autobiographical tone before the time when that genre was commonplace. Well done and thank you.

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