Ben Jonson would have ratted him out so fast

Oh yay, Amanda Marcotte has a poke in the eye for the people who think Shakespeare was just the front guy for the Earl of Oxford or some other more aristocratic type because how could a nobody from the provinces possibly be Shakespeare?

Newsweek has a surprisingly sympathetic piece about Shakespeare truthers, republished here at Raw Story, and I just have to take some time to point out that, like with other conspiracy theories and denialist obsessions, there’s more going on here than some kind of legitimate dispute over the facts. For those who are unaware, Shakespeare truthers are people who believe that William Shakespeare was just a half-literate actor who was the cover story for some no doubt wealthy nobleman who secretly wrote the plays and didn’t want credit because, as we all know from our fairy tales, wealthy noblemen are noble, honorable creatures who have small egos and little desire for respect and adulation.*

*This is sarcasm, truthers.

Seriously. Shakespeare truthers drive me batty, because there are so many reasons not to think anyone other than Will Shakespeare, co-owner of one of the two great acting companies of Elizabethan London, colleague of Richard Burbage et al., colleague and rival of Ben Jonson et al., published author of two long poetic narratives, wrote the plays attributed to Shakespeare. He was known to a shit-ton of people, and a good few of those people left written records of him.

Newsweek treats the controversy as if it were mostly one of competing camps who are arguing over facts, with only a whiff of acknowledgement of the political forces that are driving this controversy and always have. The one acknowledgement is dismissive: “Yet no matter how much the scholastic Shakespeare establishment insists that the doubters are fruit loops, flat-earthers or simply snobs, who can’t bear the idea that the world’s greatest poet was a mere grammar school boy and not a glamorous aristo, the case against Shakespeare is as vociferous today as at any time since it first gained credence in the mid-19th century.”

Of course it’s as vociferous! There are a lot more people, for one thing, and there are always a lot of people who don’t know their ass from their elbow and so are suckers for dopy conspiracy theories. So what? That doesn’t make the theories reasonable.

The implication that a theory cannot be crackpot because it persists is handily disproven by the existence of all major religions. The same political desires that drove Shakespeare trutherism back in the day have not gone away, however. It’s still fueled by an unsavory classism and hostility to bohemianism that manifests in an unwillingness to accept that someone could develop as a great poet without a formal education but merely by practicing through his work as a writer and actor.

It’s true that it’s mysterious how Shakespeare got to be Shakespeare, but you know what? It would be no less mysterious if he were Edward Vere or Elizabeth Tudor or John Dee or anyone else. He’s a one-off, and a childhood in a big house would not explain him. In fact a childhood of that kind would make him a good deal more of a puzzle, because in that case why would he have been doing something so vulgar as writing plays for the big theatres where any ruffian could enter? If an aristocrat, he should have been at most writing unpublished sonnet sequences, not plays.

The notion that being an educated or erudite person precludes being suckered by bullshit is bound up in the same knee-jerk respect for wealth and authority that gives rise to Shakespeare trutherism to begin with. Granted, Mark Twain is a bit of a surprise in there, but he wrote his anti-Shakespeare screed a year before he died, deep into his cranky old rich man years. Wealthy, educated people are just as prone as any other group of people to falling for conspiracy theories that flatter their sensibilities, and a conspiracy theory that purports to prove that great poets cannot come from the masses just so happens to be exactly what many rich, educated people want to hear.

Thought leaders. Only rich men can be thought leaders. It’s common knowledge.



  1. says

    …people who believe that William Shakespeare was just a half-literate actor who was the cover story for some no doubt wealthy nobleman who secretly wrote the plays and didn’t want credit…

    Normally the exact opposite is true: the wealthy nobleman or other bigshot hires the lowlife nonentity to write something which the nobleman then claims is his own creation. (Seriously, why would a rich and powerful person allow someone else to take credit for his own work? That lot are more likely to take credit for their underlings’ work!) It’s called ghostwriting, and it’s normally paid for by people who want to be memorialized but don’t have the time or talent to write their own story their own way. Anyone with any common sense can see this; but common sense is one thing ALL conspiracy-buffs lack.

  2. says

    Oh wait, this is Newsweek we’re talking about here. That explains a lot — American weekly magazines have been nothing but crap for decades. Newsweek is only a few millimeters higher up than Time. What was Marcotte expecting, the Economist?

  3. guest says

    The exhibits at the Shakespeare museum in Stratford indirectly address this issue, by identifying aspects of Shakespeare’s early life (familiarity with the natural world around Stratford, the fact that his father was an alderman and entertained notable people, his father’s profession as a glover, other stuff I can’t remember) that are clearly reflected in the language and metaphors of the plays.

  4. Al Dente says

    Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, wouldn’t have needed to have someone front for him because he was a noted playwright and poet. While none of his plays have survived, his poetry still exists. His contemporaries considered him a good poet but modern critics do not have a high opinion of his poetry. C.S. Lewis described de Vere’s poems as “showing a faint talent” and Stephen May said his poetry was indistinguishable from “the output of his mediocre mid-century contemporaries.”

  5. Anne Fenwick says

    It’s also shows a tendency to polarize class. Even in Shakespeare’s day, there was a middle-class of sorts and Shakespeare’s family was drawn from it. I believe his parents were free-holders, owners of property (though not that much) with no doubt a few servants and laborers. Owning anything at all puts them above the majority of the population. Their male children would have had the opportunity to get as much schooling as Twain did and at least the eldest would follow in their footsteps. Shakespeare ran away from that life and from his marriage as an adult.

    * Isaac Newton was drawn from approximately the same class. I’ve visited his house. It’s almost shockingly modest, but the family owned it, which made them not poor. Their servant slept by the fire in the kitchen.

  6. cottonnero says

    A teacher I had always said that the plays weren’t written by William Shakespeare, but by someone else with the same name.

  7. says

    I’ll tell you who was a good poet though, and that’s Philip Sidney. He was an aristocrat, though his family’s status was of recent vintage and also somewhat insecure because of their involvement with the Lady Jane Grey plot – but despite being a toff he was a good poet. Astrophil and Stella is good stuff.

  8. mark4nier says

    I think the whole thing came about because most people don’t realize that Shakespeare was considered popular culture until the 20th century. He was so rowdy, bawdy, and slapstick that intellectuals preferred the Greeks. He was the Spielberg of his day, when common people still entertained themselves with word play. Only when English had drifted enough that we no longer got the jokes was he considered highbrow. The folks at the Globe Theater in London are now doing the plays in the original accent, where the puns and word play suddenly stand out in their original meaning. The Bard was raunchy!

  9. says

    Actually it’s not really a persisting theory because the current contender (de Vere) wasn’t even considered by the first people to come up with this. After all the Earl was dead when most of the plays were written. De Vere is presented as a closeted gay man fighting against social convention and secretly pouring his heart out into the plays when in fact he seems to have been a violent drunk who used his nobility cred to crash a lot of parties and was actually pretty open about his interest in boys (as were a lot of London figures of the day, including Marlowe and Shakespeare himself). Earlier fads included Marlowe, who, despite the disadvantage of having died even before Oxford, at least is known to have written some good plays himself–he wasn’t dead, he was a secret agent who went into hiding–and Francis Bacon, who was just an all-around smart guy but not known for poetry. Bacon has the advantage of having lived long enough to write the plays, but for some reason he stopped early instead of giving us some more late Shakespeare masterpieces. He also wrote volumes of other stuff that resembles the plays in no stylistic or linguistic way.

    In other words, the Candidate de jour seems to be a function of contemporary trends, evidence be damned.

  10. says

    Mark – well yes and. He was both. He was of the earth earthy and also highbrow. Gabriel Harvey said “The younger sort takes much delight in Shakespeares Venus, & Adonis : but his Lucrece, & his tragedie of Hamlet, Prince of Denmarke, have it in them, to please the wiser sort.” People didn’t think he was forbiddingly highbrow then, or something you took like medicine in school, but he wasn’t solely a rowdy audience-pleaser.

  11. peterh says

    @ #6:

    My professor of Elizabethan Drama at University said exactly the same thing. That Shakespeare’s works were from another hand is one of the oldest (and most often disproved) conspiracy theories going.

  12. zackoz says

    A point that Bill Bryson makes in his excellent, sceptical book on Shakespeare (the best short book on the Bard that I’ve read) is that for the first 200 years after Shakespeare’s death, no one at all expressed any doubts about authorship.

    If de Vere, Bacon or anyone else “authored” Shakespeare, it’s hard to see how such a secret could be held. Could the entire theatrical profession, the publishers and the Elizabethan court (Shakespeare was a courtier in King James’s time) have been kept in ignorance? And if not, how could such a conspiracy possibly have existed?

  13. weatherwax says

    Zackoz, I was about to say the same thing. One post I read years ago pointed out that we forget just how small London society was at the time. And the idea of somebody writing the plays in secret, then meeting Shakespeare on the downlow to hand them off, especially when you add in servants, is rather silly. Everyone would have known.

  14. Ed says

    Yea, these theories always seemed stupid to me in many of their assumptions like:

    -Everyone was either an aristocrat or an illiterate peasant
    -A skilled actor couldn’t have written plays
    -The real writer would have been content to remain anonymous
    -The plays reveal a knowledge of history, philosophy and linguistics which would have required a university education.

    When in reality, this was the early modern period, not the dark ages, some actors were also writers, people generally like credit for their work, and there is such a thing as self-education(not to mention the fact that much historical and cultural information is contained within plays that…you know…an ACTOR might be familiar with.

    It’s like saying that Tarantino`s screenplays show such a familiarity with many styles and periods of cinema that there is no way such an uneducated commoner could have written works that blend aspects of the western, film noir, French New Wave, Japanese classics and 70s grindhouse so well. Clearly they were written by an independently wealthy trust fund kid with a degree from one of the best film schools and no vulgar desire for fame.

    Wait a few generations and some idiot will be arguing this.;)

  15. says

    Some of the weirdos can be fun.
    I have a copy of an edition of the sonnets written by a Mason who thought that Francis Bacon (who some think founded the Masons) wrote all of Shakespeare, Marlowe, and (rather surprisingly in this context) Francis Bacon.
    Oh yes… and was the illegitimate son of Elizabeth.
    The sonnets were supposed to prove this by having certain letters bolded to make cryptograms! (If you know anything about C16/17 typography, and are drinking coffee while you read, you have my sincerest apologies… and you should wipe your keyboard immediately!!)

  16. 4ozofreason says

    The case is vociferous, but that doesn’t mean it’s valid (“If you have neither facts nor law on your side, pound the table”).

  17. says

    Wait a few generations and some idiot will be arguing this.;)

    Wait a few MINUTES and some idiot will take your comment as a revelation, and be off and running with all the dumbass rationalizations that reinforce every conspiracy theory. :-/

  18. says

    “Will in the World” by Stephen Greenblatt, is a pretty good read; I enjoyed it.

    To Shakespearean retconners we owe “the index of coincidence” – the seminal work fusing cryptography with mathematics, which was written by William Friedman when he was hired to try to use statistics to see if Shakespeare was Bacon, or some such. Friedman thought the idea was ridiculous, but advanced the state of cryptography tremendously.

  19. Hoosier X says

    Here’s a Web site exclusively devoted to debunking and mocking Oxfordians.

    The Man Who Wasn’t Hamlet

    It’s kind of mean some of the time, but many of the Oxfordians are so aggressively stupid that it’s difficult to say they don’t deserve it.

    They’re almost as bad as creationists.

  20. otrame says

    I, personally, don’t care all that much what the guy’s name was–though I think those who think it wasn’t Bill are going to have to show me more than they have so far. I just feel that humans are damned lucky that we have so much from him. There are times when I listen to Shakespeare, when I wonder how anyone could make “Hey, dude, what’s up?” “Glad to see you.” “Damn it’s cold. Hey, have you seen the ghost yet?” “No, but it is almost midnight so who knows” into exquisite beauty, using just our plain old English language.

  21. Nick Gotts says

    written by a Mason who thought that Francis Bacon (who some think founded the Masons) wrote all of Shakespeare, Marlowe, and (rather surprisingly in this context) Francis Bacon. – richardelguru@17

    That reminds me of a short story I read in an SF anthology (can’t remember more than that, unfortunately), in which it turned out that Bacon the author of Shakespeare’s plays, but Shakespeare was the author of Bacon’s scientific and philosophical works.

  22. Phillip Hallam-Baker says

    Not only did Twain write his piece on Shakespere in his ‘cranky old rich man’ phase, quite a few folk have suggested that it is a poe since he spends a lot of time presenting facts which undermine his argument. It is certainly incongruous for Twain to be seriously arguing that a man with a better start in life relatively than he had was too illiterate to write.

    That is not to excuse Twain but it does say something about those who rely on Twain as an authority. The only serious historian among the deniers is Hugh Trevor-Roper and he isn’t much of an authority either. Not just because of falling for the Hitler Diaries, his review of Alan Clark’s book pinning the blame for the horrors of WWI on the generals (The Donkeys) failed to mention that his wife was the daughter of Gen Haig.

    Not going to school was hardly unusual in Shakespere’s day. There weren’t very many for a start and they weren’t considered notable. The official founder of my school is Henry VIII who converted a Benedictine monastery into Chester cathedral. But there was almost certainly a school attached when the monastery was founded by St Anselm around 1100.

    We don’t even know the date that Oxford university was founded with any certainty. The first evidence we have is of doctorate being awarded in 1096. Nobody knows for sure when Bologna was founded.

    The fact is that we don’t know how much education Shakespeare received. In the days before social mobility was understood as a possibility, going to the ‘right school’ was not an established way to ‘get ahead’. Oxford was at the time a place for training the clergy and Cambridge was a dry patch in the middle of a peat bog.

  23. says

    @HoosierX #22:

    Comic book artist John Byrne is a devoted Oxfordian. He frequently comes off very badly in this forum discussion.

    Edited to make more universal and no less true.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *