The snob theories about Shakespeare

Sean Matgamna

Many years ago I read with riveted fascination a big book on the history of the “who wrote Shakespeare” controversy: Shakespeare’s Lives, by S. Schoenbaum.

The controversy 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?” has raged for well over 100 years now and rages still.

Shakespeare wrote "Shakespeare", you say? Very little is known about William Shakespeare of Stratford 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.

Was “Shakespeare” 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? Maybe he, a sometime government spy involved in plots and political intrigue, went into hiding on the continent and there wrote “Shakespeare”?

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 to passionate conviction, even to 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 100 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”!


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Your Shakespeare comment

The issue over the authorship has nothing whatsoever to do with class. it is about evidence, pure and simple.

If you don’t think the arguments for the Earl of Oxford are serious ones, it means only one thing. You simply cannot be familiar with the evidence. Some of the greatest writers and thinkers in American history such as Henry and William James, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Mark Twain, Sigmund Freud, Mortimer Adler, Mark Rylance, Derek Jacobi, Charles Dickens, Walt Whitman, Supreme Court Justice Henry Blackmun, Harvard Professor William Y. Elliott, Clifton Fadiman, John Galsworthy, and many others, have doubted the Stratfordian orthodoxy.

Here are the arguments explaining why there is so much doubt about the Stratfordian attribution.

I will also take the liberty of posting a link in which laymen and scholars answered point by point the arguments of Stratfordians as contained in their “60 Minutes’ Broadcast.

The issue continues to exist only because William of Stratford is a cipher without any known biographical connection to the plays or poems while the connections for Oxford are too many to dismiss as coincidence.

Stratfordians falsely claim that “we know a good deal more about his (Shakespeare’s) life than most of the playwrights of the period.”

Gabriel Harvey left over 150 books written in five languages.

Thomas Nashe left behind a handwritten verse in Latin, a letter to William Cotton, and a 1593 letter to Sir George Carey to Cotton reports that Nashe had dedicated a book to him.

Robert Greene’s death in 1592 was the talk of the town in literary circles and there is a complete record of Greene’s education at Cambridge.

George Chapman contributed a commendatory poem to John Fletcher and received one from Michael Drayton.

Drayton was treated by physician John Hall and was described in Hall’s casebook as an excellent poet. He has a handwritten inscription to “his honored friend” Sir Henry Willoughby on a copy fo his poem “The Battle of Agincourt”.
Drayton, Chapman, Henry Chettle, and John Webster among others were paid by Henslowe to write plays. Thomas Dekker’s name appears in the Henslowe diary as a payee over fifty times.

I could go on and on citing documentation from the period for John Marston, Francis Beaumont, William Drummond, Samuel Daniel, George Peele, John Lyly.
Thomas Kyd wrote in a letter that he shared a room with Marlowe for writing and that Marlowe had been writing for his players. Peele paid tribute to Marlowe with in a month after his death. There are records of Marlowe’s education at Cambridge. Marlowe along with Easton and Webster were three of the least documented writers yet for each of them, literary records survive such as personal tributes (while they were alive) or payments for writing.

If the man from Stratford did write the plays, he would have left some trace as to HOW he did it. There is nothing to show that Shakespeare was a writer by vocation, and anyone who conspired to eradicate records could not possibly predict which records may have escaped detection and therefore might survive.

All that we have for Shakespeare are six signatures, each spelled differently, one is incomplete and the other is blotted. Epithets do not serve as an argument. “Denial, ridicule and entrenched belief systems are extremely potent defenders of the status quo.”

Questioning Shakespeare is not Snobbery

"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."

Is not that a bit extreme as a description of people, usually well-read and well-meaning, who suspect that there should be something more factual behind the Shakespeare canon than a fable about somebody all of a sudden writing the best prose and poetry in English?

I do not consider myself a snob, nor do other people in my union, in my neighborhood, my synagogue, my political affiliation, my softball team, etc. I just love the truth and hate falsehood. Excuse me for saying this, but a man who couldn't write the letters of his name did not write the Shakespeare canon.

From quite a lot of reading and research, I have a provisional idea (a theory) that since the Shakespeare canon was a generally accurate portrait of the aristocratic class, philosophy, manners, relations, and sense of order in life, that it was written by somebody who was a member of that group.

Not that a surpassing genius from the lower classes could not have been his equal or superior. If that other person came from a small town in sixteenth century England, he no doubt would have provided us with the never-written saga of surviving and growing spiritually and personally amidst famine, plague, class-suppression, difficult but beautiful geographical conditions, and being caught in the cross-currents of an age of new thoughts and huge changes.

But that possibility isn't the same thing as an inquiry into who 'Shakespeare' (a pseudonym in use before Gulielmus Shakspere ever showed up in London) really was. It is, rather, an endorsement of the truth that any human being, regardless of his or her origin, can be an artist and a thinker. A truth that has been proven the world over. Talent is universal.

Once you get into the specific historical inquiry, as I have, you may drop the initial hostility and revulsion to the proposition that the Stratford Shakespeare narrative never made any sense. I know I did. As soon as I saw that the childhood of Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, was a dead ringer for the nightmare that is dramatized in Hamlet, I knew that it was way closer to the truth than anything I had been conditioned to think.

The study of the factual truth in this matter is not an attack on the capabilities of the lower class. I came out of the lowest level of that class. I do not identify with the aristocratic class, past or present. But I have the human instinct for what is true and false, and everything about the Stratford story sounds like a trick that became an unexamined belief. In fact, it was a political trick early on, high figures attributing posthumously the works of 'Shakespeare'/Earl of Oxford to a similar sounding person, Shakspere, so that the people would not know that the true writer told all on his corrupt class. Which is the content of the Shakespeare plays and poems.

The Earl of Oxford was ahead of his time in many ways. But he never overcame his class bias. Nevertheless, his universal feelings, fructified into art, in some strange way made him a member of the working population of every age. The personality of the writer was like that--frank, liberal, and generous. He was admired, from Kings to the humblest and least protected.