‘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.’