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Another man etc

At the pictures the other night, saw a trailer for new film Anonymous, in which the Earl of Oxford writes Shakespeare's plays.

The conspiracy theory that the plays were written by someone other than Shakespeare (who in this version was just an actor) is of very long standing. There are a number of other candidates suggested, but the overall gist is the same: 'the man from Stratford's' contribution to the oeuvre (sonnets and other verse as well as the plays) was nil or negligible.

It seems to me that this theory or set of theories, which I used to think of as being the realm of fringe loonery, has recently gained a bit of currency. What better way to find out than with an LJ poll?

Poll #1787472 Nobler in the mind?

Do you think that the work of 'Shakespeare' was all or mostly written by the Stratfordian actor of that name?

Yes, I do
Mm, probably
Not too sure tbh
Hmm, probably not
No, I don't

And furthermore:

I didn't actually know there was a controversy
I agree, it does seem to have been growing recently
I disagree, not see signs of recent growth
It's all a bit silly isn't it?
I suppose it makes people happy
I am sufficiently post-modern that I don't think it can be considered as of even theoretical significance
Other (in a comment)

You might remember Shakespeare in Love also included signficant aristocratic contribution to the Shakespearian canon. But that was a bit different, in that it was presented as a joky fun idea rather than an uncovering of the truth. The people involved with Anonymous make it clear that they see it as practically documentary, exposing a centuries-old wrong.

What I find interesting is that the main argument of the anti-Stratfordians is that William Shakespeare was a mere middle-class grammar-school oik, so he couldn't possibly have written works of refinement and grace: the author must have been a nobleman. You can imagine why this sort of naked appeal to snobbery was popular among its Victorian originators, but a little startling to see it now. It's as though the Stratfordian theory is simply too socially repellent to be true.

More detailed arguments seem to me weak. For example, it's argued that the author must have travelled in Italy, because so many of the plays are set there and landscape etc is described in detail. But if it's pointed out that much of the Italian geography in the plays is hopelessly and fancifully wrong, that is adduced as evidence of the true author covering his tracks.

The killer though, I think, is that one group of people see the evidence as inexorable pointing to Oxford as the true author; others see the same evidence as inexorably pointing to Francis Bacon. (And there are other schools, too.) They can't both be right, but make very similar cases, so it seems more likely that neither are correct. In fact I think Occam's Razor works strongly against any such conspiracy.

But respected actors such as Derek Jacobi and Mark Rylance take the Oxford line, so pay your money and take your choice. Maybe the film will convince me…

(The post title is a call-back to this post of a while back.)


( 22 comments — Leave a comment )
18th Oct, 2011 13:32 (UTC)
I think on the the things people expounding the theory also forget is the huge part the Shakespearian canon has had in shaping our culture and our ideas of what constitute "refinement and grace" in language. They have the argument backwards, as it were.
18th Oct, 2011 14:07 (UTC)
Verily, thou speakest sooth, good lady.
18th Oct, 2011 14:37 (UTC)
Sooth! Sooooooooth!

18th Oct, 2011 15:13 (UTC)
It's always been around and I quite like the lunacy in the way I quite like Ark of the Covenant theories. My particular favourite is that they were written by Marlowe who as a spy found that things were getting a bit hot in England and used Walsingham to fake his death and flee to Italy. It is all hugely plausible and fails only in that there is not a shred of evidence.
18th Oct, 2011 15:21 (UTC)
After all these years the Shakespeare IS Shakespeare line has still not been demolished.
18th Oct, 2011 15:38 (UTC)
Mm, indeed. That's what my earlier post, linked in the footnote, was about.
18th Oct, 2011 15:35 (UTC)
Snobbery is everywhere, I think the appeal of cotton-gin-punk (as Charlie Stross calls it) demonstrates this.

Also, I feel, the celebration of Countess Ada Lovelace over the far more deserving Rear-Admiral Grace Hopper.
18th Oct, 2011 17:08 (UTC)
Mm, I think you're onto something there.
19th Oct, 2011 12:30 (UTC)
I used to be a cast-iron Stratfordian, but I saw Mark Rylance's play 'The BIG Secret Live—I am Shakespeare' a few years ago and I have to confess it did make me much more open to doubt. And that's all he's asking for: he wants academia (not exactly known for its flexibility) to concede there is at least room for doubt. There are a lot of oddities in the remarkable lack of information about the man from Stratford, the bland and bookless nature of his will, the lack of writings in his hand, etc etc. I'm not sure we'll ever know the answer, though, and of course there are compelling reasons against de Vere, Bacon etc.
19th Oct, 2011 12:59 (UTC)
You mean the way that Intelligent Design supporters merely wants academia to concede that there is room for doubt on Evolution or Moon-Landing Conspiracy Theorists merely want... Have you tried reading Bill Bryson's 'Shakespeare'? Very lucid.
19th Oct, 2011 13:02 (UTC)
Not really like that, no. I like to think evolution is based on loads of evidence. The point is merely that there is not actually a great deal of evidence available one way or the other for Shakey.
19th Oct, 2011 13:19 (UTC)
Again, read Bryson. There actually is far, far more evidence in favour of Shakespeare than in favour of any other candidate. Well, thinking about it, as all the evidence against Shakespeare added together is pretty much baseless conjecture, that would not be hard.
A brief summary of some of the extant evidence can be found here: http://shakespeareauthorship.com/howdowe.html
19th Oct, 2011 13:44 (UTC)
Interesting summary, ta - will digest when I get a mo. And probably change my mind again :)
3rd Nov, 2011 14:51 (UTC)
Thanks again for that link as it prompted me to read up on all this. My summary of it all is here.
3rd Nov, 2011 15:06 (UTC)
Many thanks for the summary. Pretty much my conclusions, with a little less swearing :-)
19th Oct, 2011 13:08 (UTC)
There's room for doubt in everything, I suppose, and one can't disprove negatives in either direction. But I have quite a high doubt threshold for conspiracy theories, based on the human inability to keep secrets.
19th Oct, 2011 13:44 (UTC)
Oh me too - I'm sure we've all read that Charlie Brooker piece. I think Mark Rylance is worth listening to at least.
19th Oct, 2011 12:56 (UTC)
I have always found the most compelling evidence for Shakespeare is the fact that for over 250 years no-one thought to question the idea that he wrote them. It was only in the mid-Victorian era that dimwittery started about this theme.
19th Oct, 2011 13:09 (UTC)
Mm, I agree, that is one of the things I find telling.
19th Oct, 2011 22:22 (UTC)
I think it's one of those things that comes and goes, rather than having built in strength recently. Funny how the favoured candidates tend to be sexier, more glamorous or posher than boring old Brummie Bill. Seems like a load of old wishful thinking tosh, really - and as a Canterbury lad who attended the same school and university college as Chris M, I have plenty of reason to jump onto that bandwagon, but haven't. Always felt like it was good idea to avoid Deptford, though :)
20th Oct, 2011 08:58 (UTC)
I think it's one of those things that comes and goes, rather than having built in strength recently.

Yes, you're right, I meant really that there seemed to be a current up-tick in background activity.

I was at college with the then Lord Vere, now Earl of Burford. He was an active Oxfordian proponent at university level, and I see has gone on to prominence in that field.

We didn't mix socially… but I remember him as having a very broad open face, and wearing tweed all the time.
3rd Nov, 2011 14:47 (UTC)
Shaking spears at each other
User hatmandu referenced to your post from Shaking spears at each other saying: [...] A recent conversation at LiveJournal [...]
( 22 comments — Leave a comment )