"In fact, every sect is religious." — Karl Marx
Many years ago I read with riveted fascination a big book on the history of a controversy that has more than a little interest for citizens of a socialist movement that has reduced itself to a sprawling archipelago of self-sealing, self-intoxicating, self-blinding sects - the dispute about "Who wrote Shakespeare?".
It was called Shakespeare's Lives, and written by S. Schoenbaum.
The dispute has raged for well over a hundred years now and rages still.
Shakespeare wrote "Shakespeare", you say? But very little is known about William Shakespeare of Statford upon Avon. What little is known about "the Stratford man" deepens the mystery that must attach to "Shakespeare", whoever he was. How could anybody be so universal, know so much about so many different sorts of human beings and human situations?
Those who believe that William Shakespeare of Stratford upon Avon did not write the works of "Shakespeare", are called the "anti-Stratfordians".
How, they ask, could the small town petty-bourgeois, with at best a grammar school education, have known courts and palaces and the secrets of the princely exercise of state power? How could he have known the things which the author of "Shakespeare" knew, and knew so amazingly well that plays he wrote about the politics of a different world, can still talk to us - Richard III, or Hamlet, or Macbeth, or Coriolanus, for example - about the essentials of our own political world, 400 years later?
However you look at it, there is, as well as a dearth of hard fact about the man, an awe-inspiring mystery about the genius of Shakespeare. It is the same sort of mystery as you confront in Mozart, but far greater and with no obvious solution.
From early childhood Mozart produced a wonderful profusion of musical patterns, as if he were a medium for some force outside himself. But Shakespeare dealt with character, situations, History.
Where Mozart can, perhaps, be explained by the qualities of a unique but more or less self-sufficient musical-mathematical mind trained from infancy by his musician father, Shakespeare did not deal with patterns in his own mind, or only with patterns of sound, but with patterns in society, psychology and history. How did he know? How could he know? Where did he learn what he knew? What experiences shaped and instructed, honed and stocked that wonderful mind about the world and its inhabitants?
For now, the mystery of Shakespeare is irresoluble, and maybe it always will be. We simply do not know. And that not knowing is very unsatisfying.
Enter the anti-Stratfordians. Their game is to find the most likely "alternative Shakespeare" from among public figures who were Shakespeare's contemporaries, men about whom, unlike "the Stratford man", much is known, and who had a background that might explain Shakespeare's knowledge of power, people, kings and cabals.
So who was "Shakespeare"? Who is hiding behind that name? Was he the Jacobean pioneering philosopher of science and one-time Lord Chancellor of England, Francis Bacon? Or Christopher Marlowe? Marlowe died more than 20 years before Shakespeare - but can you prove that he really died in a tavern brawl in Deptford, that he, a sometime government spy involved in plots and political intrigue, did not go into hiding on the continent and there write "Shakespeare"? No one can!
Or was it, perhaps, the Earl of Oxford? Or of Southampton? There are other "alternative Shakespeares", among them Queen Elizabeth I. Shakespeare outlived her by a dozen years. But if you know, with burning conviction that "Shakespeare" couldn't have been Will Shakespeare, you won't let petty details like that clutter up your theory. They are easy to explain away.
Sects have formed around favoured candidates - Marlovians, Oxfordians, Baconians. All of them try to prove the unprovable, sometimes by way of sifting through texts for secret encrypted messages from the "real Shakespeare".
Rejecting chaste scientific restraint, and the unsatisfying, "I don't know", all of them have gone on from the paucity of information about "the Stratford man", to the conviction that "Shakespeare" was Bacon, Oxford, Marlowe. They display passionate conviction, and certainty taken to the point of obsession. But they have only subjective grounds of intuition, inclination, sympathy and antipathy on which to mount their conclusions. It is probably no accident that one of the founders of the first, Baconian, school of anti-Stratfordians was named... Delia Bacon.
The anti-Stratfordians, inevitably, depend on the suppression and arbitrary selection of evidence, and on an impatient dismissal of what science tells them or, to the point here, what it can't tell them, and on special pleading for their own candidate. They fill the void in what we know and can hope to know with fantasies and projections, thrown up arbitrarily and subjectively.
And thus, over more than a hundred years, the anti-Stratfordians have created a paranoid sub-culture of warring sects that parallels and overlaps with both religious and political sectarian formations, of which they are, I suppose, a hybrid specimen.
One of the beauties of the game is that anybody can play. All you need to 'know' is that "Shakespeare" could not possibly have been the man fools have called "the Bard of Stratford-on-Avon". After that. your opinion is as good as that of anyone else. Sigmund Freud was an anti-Stratfordian; so was the arch Tory, Enoch Powell. Anybody can play!
One man, a once-prominent Tory, Duff Cooper, wrote a whole book about it - he was an Oxfordian -after it came to him in a flash of intuitive knowledge, one day in a World War I trench, that that yokel Shakespeare couldn't possibly have written those plays. Class snobbery, rampant class conceit, seems to be a prime component of all the anti-Stratfordian schools - the gut conviction that "Shakespeare" couldn't have been that pleb from the hick village in Warwickshire.
In his own time, Shakespeare was sneered at by some of his university-educated rivals - whose denunciation survives - as a mere grammar school upstart crow trying to steal the plumage of his betters. The anti-Stratfordians are their still-snobby descendants.
Unlike Kitsch-Trotskyist groups, which begin, or whose political ancestors began, as rational political formations, the anti-Stratfordians are not subject to the brutal but health-regenerating blows of experience. They start by discounting the only available "experience" - the evidence, such as it is -and take off from there.
Impervious to criticism, riding their intuitions, sympathies, antipathies, narcissisms, obsessions, as witches in Shakespeare's time were said to ride their broomsticks, they can go on forever, for as long as Shakespeare is read and performed, and they probably will - "stretching out to the crack of doom"!
Roland Emmerich's film Anonymous
Though it markets itself as having something fresh and startling to say, Roland Emmerich's Anonymous is only a crude sensationalist rendition of a century-old dispute: who was William Shakespeare, "really"?
In this rendition an actor, Will Shakespeare, lends his name to Edward De Vere, Earl of Oxford. De Vere's social standing forbids him to appear in public as an author of popular plays but he is the "real" author of what we know as "Shakespeare". In this crude and vicious "alternative history" the actor Will Shakespeare is a dim-wit, blackmailing cockney fly-boy who murders at least two of his literary rivals, Marlowe and Kid. But that's not the half of it.
This De Vere is an illegitimate son of Queen Elizabeth I. Ignorant of that fact, he fathers a child with her. Their son is the Earl of Southampton. Southampton is himself believed by one "who-was-Shakespeare-really" school of thought to have been "the real Shakespeare". The Earl of Essex is another of Elizabeth's secret sons. He too is her lover. She has him beheaded.
Essex probably was her lover; and he was beheaded after a feeble attempt at rebellion. Adding the detail that he was also her son is typical of this film's witless sensationalism.
At the time of the Essex "rebellion", in 1601, a play by Shakespeare was performed for some of the conspirators, and taken to bear a contemporary political message, that the Queen should abdicate. It was Richard II, in which the king is forced to abdicate, and then murdered. Elizabeth herself is supposed to have said of it: "Know you that I am Richard?"
In Anonymous, the play performed is Richard III, and it carries a political message. What message? Richard III is depicted as a hunchback; Elisabeth's chief minister, Robert Cecil, is depicted as also a hunchback. This is another measure of the crude witlessness of the makers of this film.
But they take themselves seriously. To go with the film Sony Pictures has distributed study notes to teachers in the USA proclaiming that Anonymous "presents a compelling portrait of Edward de Vere as the true author of Shakespeare's plays". It does nothing of the sort.
On one level, of course, it doesn't matter. Shakespeare was the author of Shakespeare's plays; the plays are what defines Shakespeare, of whom little else is known. The rest is waffle and speculation. Unprovable speculation. Poisonous waffle. But, as many came to believe in the alternative history of early Christianity in the Da Vinci Code, so this awful film will, no doubt, win believers for its preposterous, vicious fantasies.