*. Let’s start by talking about snobbery.
*. When discussing politics and the recent slide into anti-democratic populism (a global phenomenon) there’s a tendency to locate the undercurrent of rage in the masses of the “left behind” by the global economy, and in particular white males without a college education. This has always struck me as simplistic, as many of the angriest people I know are affluent, well-educated professional people. Could anyone imagine angrier people than the current slate of “conservative” justices on the U.S. Supreme Court, or Donald Trump? These people aren’t losers, but they’re positively incandescent with rage.
*. By the same token, and near allied, is the association of conspiratorial thinking with ignorant rubes who swallow the fantasies of QAnon wholesale. But many of the leading lights of today’s wildest conspiracies are again well-educated professional types who just have a blind spot or a particular axe to grind.
*. The idea that William Shakespeare, the “man from Stratford,” didn’t write the works attributed to him during his lifetime (and posthumously in the First Folio) is a good example of what we may call highbrow conspiracy thinking. It’s not like the people who say they believe any of the alternative-author stories are dummies. Many of them are academics, with Ph.D.’s in the field. And yet, if you take a step back to look at what they’re saying, it’s madness.
*. There’s also a lot of snobbery attached to the anti-Stratfordians, whose main line of argument is that Shakespeare couldn’t have written the plays because he was uneducated, even illiterate, and was low-born (of the middle class, but not the nobility). Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford seems to them to be a more likely candidate.
*. Last Will & Testament presents itself as an examination of what it calls “the greatest literary mystery of all time: who wrote the works of William Shakespeare?” It isn’t all anti-Stratford, as Stanley Wells and Jonathan Bate are given time to argue the orthodox side, but it does have a finger on the scale by allowing the Oxfordians substantially more play.
*. That Shakespeare was really Christopher Marlowe or Ben Jonson or Francis Bacon or Queen Elizabeth I or Emilia Bassano or any one of over a dozen other candidates are theories that are only mentioned without being addressed in any depth. Though the point is made by one anti-Stratfordian that the sheer number of alternative Shakespeares provides the “final nail in the coffin” for Shakespeare’s authorship because it indicates a “widespread dissatisfaction” with that conclusion. In other words, “people are saying.” Which is not an argument I put much stock in. Or really one that I think can be considered an argument at all.
*. Oxford gets the most attention as an alternative candidate, and the idea is further floated that he might actually have been the love child of Elizabeth I, and Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton their love child in turn. Now if that nutso idea sounds familiar it’s because it was the basis for the speculative (and entertaining) 2011 film Anonymous, which was directed by Roland Emmerich. And Emmerich was executive producer for this film, which might almost have been included as a bonus feature with the Anonymous DVD. As it is, footage from Anonymous recreating the Globe Theatre in operation back in the day is included throughout, which helps make the link between the two films even stronger.
*. I’ve listened to many of the anti-Stratfordian arguments and find none of them convincing. Take the matter of Shakespeare being illiterate. This leans heavily on the fact that we have no proof that Shakespeare attended the grammar school in Stratford-upon-Avon. But all the records for that school have been lost so we don’t have evidence that anyone attended it. Given that Shakespeare was the son of a former mayor and could attend the school for free it seems more likely than not that he did, so the illiterate smear seems far-fetched to me.
*. Then there’s the matter of Oxford having died in 1604, after which point Shakespeare went on to write quite a bit more. Some special pleading has to be put into work here (he’d already written the plays and they were only produced and/or touched up later).
*. But even more to the point the question has to be asked as to what the point of this giant Shakespeare fraud was.
*. Derek Jacobi talks of how “we’ve been duped” and “had this author [that is, Shakespeare, or “Shaxberd” as they like to call him] foisted upon us.” But by whom? That Oxford wanted to keep his authorship a secret seems a stretch to me, and would have involved far more people than I can believe capable of keeping a lid on such a story (the fatal flaw in most conspiracy theories). But then who continued, and continues, to “dupe” the public with this supposedly false tale of the man from Stratford being a playwright? Here’s where conspiratorial thinking becomes more generic.
*. The guilty parties include authors and publishers looking to sell Shakespeare biographies, the tourist industry in Stratford-upon-Avon, and the Shakespeare-industrial complex of merchandising that has, in the words of Vanessa Redgrave, “benefited, over the centuries, many people.” Beneath all of this is a hatred of elites and academics who aren’t open to the truth, or anyone who happens to be “just asking questions.”
*. This strikes me as projection. If anyone is cashing in here it’s the anti-Shakespeare crowd, who also have books to sell.
*. All of the best evidence suggests that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare. This includes new evidence like that drawn from stylometrics (which is not mentioned here). Meanwhile, nothing presented here as evidence in support of Oxford strikes me as even being remotely likely. As so often with this kind of thing (think of a question like “Did Jesus exist?”, for another popular example) I can see reasons for doubting the “official story.” The record isn’t everything we could want it to be. But while I understand why doubters reject official stories I can never understand why they put stock in stories with even less, and I mean far less, evidence to support them.
*. As Chesterton wrote, “When men choose not to believe in God, they do not thereafter believe in nothing, they then become capable of believing in anything.” Which can be liberating, and a lot of fun. But can also be dangerous.