Sunday 25 April 2010
If there is one thing that makes me fume it’s the suggestion that Shakespeare did not write Shakespeare! Not only is the controversy, which dates back to the nineteenth century, entirely bogus but it’s also tinged with obvious overtones of condescension and snobbery. No ordinary man, the argument goes, could possibly be so literate and so accomplished as William Shakespeare of Stratford, no; so the plays and poetry had to be written by, say, Edward de Vere, seventeenth earl of Oxford, or William Stanley, sixth earl of Derby.
Oh, but one mustn’t overlook the fact that some commoners have been roped into the ‘who wrote Shakespeare?’ industry. There is Christopher Marlowe, also a playwright of humble origins, a man who wrote, amongst other things, The Jew of Malta, and then proceeded under the pseudonym of Shakespeare to write The Merchant of Venice, a play with a similar theme but vastly superior in every way.
Francis Bacon is another candidate, undeniable one of the greatest scholars of the Elizabethan and Jacobean age, a man with a remarkably full life as a philosopher, politician, scientist and courtier who somehow managed to find time to compose the whole Shakespearean canon! He was first put forward as a possible candidate, interestingly enough, by one Delia Bacon, herself a failed playwright. For her Shakespeare, the real Shakespeare, was a “third-rate actor” without the “highest Elizabethan breeding”, suggestions that clearly reflect her own lack of success.
The defenders of the aristocrats are, if anything, even more self-deluding in their sheer loopyness. Those who advance the Oxford claim, known collectively as the Oxfordians, clearly believe in drama after death, because their man shuffled off this mortal coil in 1604, years before Shakespeare’s greatest plays were published. Chief among the Oxfordians, wait for it, was one J. T. Loony!
But not all loonies were, well, Loony. Sigmund Freud took the absurd view, in accordance with his psychoanalytic theories, that works of art are essentially confessional, and that an ordinary man could not have imagined himself among kings. I see in this yet more condescension, coupled with a belief that his own notions could be projected back through history; that an unconscious oedipal conflict was the solution to Hamlet.
I have to say that this is the point of deepest irritation for me, the notion that all art is autobiographical; that if Shakespeare wrote about courts and courtiers he had to be familiar with courts and courtiers. It’s a view that becomes increasingly absurd if projected back through time and on to others. Do we assume that Sophocles, Aeschylus and Ovid consorted with gods and heroes? Bacon, Loony and, yes, Freud, are ranged with all those who would deny the power of the imagination, the power of genius, the power of an ordinary individual to reach sublime heights.
As I have said before that it’s almost impossible to knock down a good conspiracy theory when it’s up and running. There will always be people, no matter what, who believe that aliens built the pyramids, Richard III did not kill the Princes in the Tower, the moon landing was a hoax and Elvis, like King Arthur, somehow never really died! There will always be people who do not believe Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare.