Writing about the controversy surrounding the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays, the actor Mark Rylance comments:
“You have to ask, if the man from Stratford wrote the plays, how did he manage to leave not one trace during his lifetime that he was a writer or even attended school? Why has the evidence disappeared for the years he might have attended grammar school? Did the author of the Shakespeare works really never write or receive a letter? He has been subjected to the greatest literary inquiry of any author’s life, but there is nothing but the attribution of the First Folio to prove that he could write at all.”
These are all perfectly legitimate questions, and they’ve been asked even by Shakespeare’s contemporaries. In fact, I’ve read a small library of books arguing (rather convincingly) that Will Shakespeare of Stratford didn’t write the plays attributed to him and insisting on alternative candidates (somewhat less so).
Now Shakespeare is the only great writer of his time who gives rise to such speculation. Sydney, Bacon, Jonson, Marlowe, Webster – we know almost as much about them as we know about our own contemporaries.
And even if some biographical details may be uncertain, no one has ever disputed the authorship of their works. With Shakespeare, such doubts simply refuse to go away.
The reason, as the above passage shows, is that what we know about Shakespeare the man doesn’t really tally with what we know about Shakespeare the writer. The disharmony is so pronounced that researchers are compelled to delve deeper and longer into the minutiae of Shakespeare’s life and work.
Rylance, incidentally, has co-authored a book on this very subject that uses computerised textological analysis as a tool. I haven’t read the book yet, but apparently it shows strong indications of, as a minimum, collaboration between Shakespeare and Bacon, among others.
I don’t feel qualified to pass judgement on the substance of this thorny issue or especially to come down decisively on either side of the debate.
Nor can I vouch for the reliability of textological analysis in general. I do know of cases where it worked and of some others where it didn’t.
One way or another, some arguments against Shakespeare’s authorship strike me as persuasive, some less so, but all are sufficiently interesting to encourage further study.
Now regular readers of this space are familiar with my frequent lament about the all-pervasive politicisation of every aspect of life, including those that ostensibly have nothing to do with politics.
One would have hoped that a forensic effort aimed at establishing definitively the identity of probably history’s greatest playwright, and arguably its greatest writer tout court, would be spared political fisticuffs. Yet such a hope would be forlorn.
For Will Shakespeare, or whoever hid behind that pseudonym, has been recruited to man the barricades of class war. You see, the Stratfordian was a man of a rather modest social background, a glover’s son in a provincial town.
Hence, whenever anybody dares argue against his authorship, that reckless individual is instantly accused of class snobbery, a refusal to accept that ordinary people are capable of extraordinary achievement.
Such a vice shoves a stick into the wheel spokes of egalitarianism, which makes it impossible to assess the saboteur’s data and arguments on merit.
It doesn’t matter whether his case is made well or badly. What draws spittle-sputtering opprobrium is that the case should be made at all.
The old you-can’t-say-this ethos kicks in, albeit in the guise of reverential respect for an iconic personage of literary and theatrical history. The air gets thick with flying accusations of conspiracy theories, elitism, snobbery and what have you.
Such is the level of debate one observes in the academe and the press, where politicised invective and general ad hominems have become commissioned as weapons of mass instruction.
Considering the ideological bias in our universities, one isn’t particularly surprised. After all, attacking the opponent’s person rather than his ideas is a time-proven trick liberally employed by those whose own ideas can’t withstand scrutiny.
Now some 20 per cent of our faculties in the humanities self-identify as Marxists, and the likelihood is strong that another 70 per cent are so close to that end as to make no difference.
Hence, since most people professionally engaged in the humanities base their intellectual being on ideas as unsound as they are immoral, one shouldn’t be surprised that even such an innocuous subject veers into the morass of ideological nonsense.
So I’m not surprised. But I’m saddened. I suspect that Will Shakespeare, whoever he was, would be too.
After all: “Make the doors upon a woman’s wit, and it will out at the casement; shut that, and ‘twill out at the keyhole; stop that, ‘twill fly with smoke out at the chimney”. And in this case woman embraces man.