As you like it

As you like it

Is this man an imposter?

Yes, it all started seventy years ago. I was fourteen years old, growing up as a faithful disciple of William Shakespeare. I had declaimed his noble words on the stage, I had stepped reverentially through his birthplace in Stratford-upon-Avon.  And then one day, browsing in a seaside bookshop…

Walter Ellis’s little book The Shakespeare Myth cost me just one shilling and sixpence and at first sight it hardly seemed world-shaking. Its 29 pages were calmly formulated, with only the occasional exclamation mark to betray the author’s innermost feelings, but for me it was a veritable Bardbuster. William of Stratford, as Mr Ellis persuaded his readers, had in truth been no more than a butcher boy, the hardly-literate son of the tradesman Shagsper. After a youth involving both procreation and a little poaching he had gone off to become a speculator and an actor of uncertain merit in London, leaving his wife Anne Hathwey (or was it Whately?) and her children to live alone – at times in penury –  for years on end; finally the fellow had returned home, dying in 1616 (without the townsfolk apparently taking much notice of the fact) and bequeathing to his unfortunate spouse nothing better than his second-best bed. As to Stratford-upon-Avon, Mr Ellis assured us that it was a mere tourist trap; even the Bard’s monument in the Church was falsified. No, the credit for all that was said to be Shakespearean must instead go instead to Sir Francis Bacon of St. Albans.

So far, so good. But not much further, you understand.. Before the next month had passed, I was confronted in another bookshop with the writings of one J. Thomas Looney, who appeared to prove conclusively, to anyone with an open mind,  that the true Bard was no less a person than Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, a genius whose light had been hidden under a bushel for three centuries.

As the years passed, I found weightier matters to occupy my thoughts, but my little Shakespeare Library grew, and with it the number and variety of candidates for the Bard’s role. Among them were three Earls (all somehow related to one another), and many persons of lesser rank, among them the playwright Christopher Marlowe, who had (as some believed) inconveniently perished in a tavern brawl in 1593 before most of the plays had even been conceived.

So what, after seventy years, am I now to make of it? Truthfully, I don’t know, but various things strike me.

Firstly, various of the candidates prove to have been a great deal better qualified to write the Shakespearean opus than was the butcher boy of Stratford; some were well-versed in the intricacies of the law; several had spent time at the Court of France, in Venice, or at Hamlet’s Elsinore; more than one was well versed in languages, in navigation or in falconry – all of them matters reflected in the plays.

Another conclusion must be that if one or more persons of eminence were involved in the authorship, (and there may indeed have been several) they had good reason to hide the fact from public view; the London stage of the day was not considered a proper arena for the respectable, and it was not unknown for the makers of plays to be arrested as mischief-makers or worse. Shake-speare became their corporate nom-de-plume, and it prevailed.

Alas, sound arguments in favour of any particular candidate are invariably admixed with lamentable rubbish. There is, to take only one example, the matter of the ciphers – the codes and anagrams which the Bard is said to have scattered throughout his works to provide hints as to his identity. One notable decipherer indeed devised a routine that proved capable of tracking down the name of F. Bacon at many a point in the works – highly convincing until a sceptic pointed out that the device in question could just as readily be applied to suggest the involvement of quite another figure.

Above all I am struck by the pathetic weakness of the Stratfordian case; the known facts about Shagsper and his kin can be noted on a postcard; so-called biographies borrow their conclusions from one another, and are pieced together with the aid of supposition, suggestion and pure guesswork. What is just as distressing is that when any one of the competing parties runs out of facts to support its case, it is prone to dismiss inconvenient evidence and then to suggest that folk holding other views on the authorship issue are half-witted, malicious, or have simply not done their homework.

After four centuries, does it matter? Hardly, I think. Though I may inwardly dream that the Stratfordian myth will one day give way to something more credible, I choose to keep my mouth shut. Just now and then I have confessed my belief to those around me, only to observe how the Shakespearians in my circle engage in head-shaking or simply gaze at me rather pityingly.

Shall I, you may ask, be going to Stratford again? I am not sure about that, either. The theatre is splendid, and any tourist trap is fun. But in my weaker moments I sense a faint suspicion that if I turn up at Stratford and my reputation has preceded me, I shall step down onto the station platform only to find myself confronted by persons in doublets and hose, all ready to block my way and – at the very least – to persuade me firmly to get back on the train.

You never know.

2 comments on “As you like it
  1. Neil Taylor says:

    Graham is surely right to suggest that it hardly matters who wrote the plays and poems that bear Shakespeare’s name.

    However, conspiracy theories that argue that only an aristocrat or a university graduate could have written them arise out of simple snobbery. And that is depressing.

    Equally depressing is the media culture that automatically assumes that there must be two opposing sides to any issue, and equal air time must therefore be given to ‘both sides of the debate’ — even where there is no real debate to be had.

    This culture encourages conspiracy theories and gives them a spurious authority. It also gives them a long life, since a supposed ’expert’ is now permanently on the BBC or Fox News database. Luckily, there is a brilliant and highly readable book which explores the whole history of anti-Stratfordian theories and puts the case against them all. It’s also very entertaining and funny. I recommend everyone reads Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? by James Shapiro (Faber, 2010).

    [Also see Hilary Mantel’s take on it – Ed.]

    • Graham Dukes says:

      Neil Taylor’s comment is generally very fair, but I have to question his reliance on James Shapiro’s book. As he points out this pulls much of the anti-stratfordian argument to pieces, but Shapiro is uncritical about the Stratfordian tradition. I rather prefer the splendid book by John Michell (“Who Wrote Shakespeare” ) published by Thames and Hudson in 1996; he is absolutely neutral and finds just as many deficiencies (or more!) in the Stratfordian belief as in the others.

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