Disproving the porky that Shakespeare was Bacon
I probably know as much as anyone reading these words about the life of William Shakespeare.
That’s not the boast it sounds like – it’s a statement about how little there is to know about the biographical details of the greatest writer in the language.
He died nearly four hundred years ago, and he’s been celebrated for at least three hundred, but the documentary discoveries about Shakespeare have been few and far between.
There have been hundreds of biographies, but they mostly rake over the same embers – the birth and death in Stratford on Avon, the marriage to Anne Hathaway, the death of his son Hamnet , the law cases, the money-lending, the sparseness of the will, and so on – while indulging in guesswork about how these events may have influenced the plays.
There have been some honourable exceptions in recent times: I’d nominate Stephen Greenblatt’s ‘Will In The World’ for its intricate interweaving of textual analysis and close understanding of the historical period, and Charles Nicholl’s ‘The Lodger’, which brilliantly illuminates one brief interlude in Shakespeare’s life.
But arguably the most fruitful approach was that of James Shapiro, whose book, ‘1599’, focussed on the place, London, and the time (the eponymous year) when Shakespeare’s career was starting to accelerate.
Instead of shining the spotlight on the playwright himself, Shapiro looked at the city - exploding with growth, filled with paranoia about a possible Catholic invasion, roiling with political rumour and fear of the secret state - in which he worked.
The effect was not, of course, to add detail to the figure of the writer himself: there were no new documents or manuscripts and no more detail to add; but to make him clearer in silhouette, outlined against the vivid scenes around him.
Shapiro says he hoped that one consequence of ‘1599’ would be to put an end to the idea that someone else wrote Shakespeare.
His new book, ‘Contested Will’ , is an examination of some of the conspiracy theories about who really wrote Shakespeare, and a chronicle of some of the people who took them up.
The principal theories have involved the Elizabethan statesman, essayist and scientist Francis Bacon, and the courtier Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford.
Their proponents approach the subject from opposite political points of view, but whether left-wing or right-wing they share one thing – a sort of snobbery, born of the sense that there is something too low and mercantile, not sufficiently elegant, about the middle-class, little-travelled, unrefined William Shakespeare.
Francis Bacon’s first great champion was an American intellectual coincidentally named Delia Bacon, a friend of Nathaniel Hawthorne, among others. Ralph Waldo Emerson was an early champion of her theory.
Francis Bacon’s prose works were surprisingly popular and influential in America at the time, and many found his namesake’s theories persuasive: one towering genius could have written both the essays and the poetry.
The fact that Bacon, among his many accomplishments, invented some sophisticated codes and ciphers, gave enthusiasts decades of pleasure attempting to find hidden messages in the Shakespeare texts. Most of these have been shown to rely on ignorance of 17th century printing practices, or on extreme manipulation of the letters and numbers involved.
In the case of Oxford, the seeds were sown by J.T.Looney (pronounced to rhyme with bony), a preacher in a sort of failed humanist church. Looney’s reading of the plays is reactionary and authoritarian – he harks back to a mythical mediaeval purity and insists that Shakespeare has the greatest affinity only with the kings and queens in his plays.
What’s so instructive is to see the way that everyone saw these theories through their own prism. Mark Twain was an enthusiastic Baconian, principally because he had reached the conclusion that he himself never made anything up – so he was attracted to a theory in which the author of ‘Shakespeare’ was merely transcribing the events he had witnessed or lived through. Twain was also obsessed with hidden pairings, which occur throughout his work, and are even echoed in his pen-name ‘Twain’, so that the idea of a secret identity for Shakespeare attracted him instantly.
Sigmund Freud’s may have been the most peculiar case of all. Freud became an almost obsessive Oxfordian, and Shapiro implies persuasively that this was because he came across the theory after he had developed his own theory of the Oedipus complex, and Hamlet became a central feature of his thinking. He believed that Shakespeare had written Hamlet in the immediate aftermath of the death of his own father. When a central fact he’d relied on about the play – its date - was proved wrong , he began to doubt, not his own theory, but the idea that Shakespeare wrote Hamlet.
The book gives us the great psychiatrist, a Jew in Vienna who ended up having to escape Nazism to live in London , pressing on his reluctant friends a book by Looney, a man who was certainly not exactly a Nazi but whose political philosophy shared some of Nazism’s sentimentality about mediaevalism, and who wrote about solutions to The Jewish Question. A case worthy of analysis if ever there was one.
Does any of this matter to anyone who doesn’t care for Shakespeare?
Shapiro says it does – it’s a “canary in the coal-mine argument” to him. He’s alarmed by the resurgence of the Bacon and Oxford arguments in the internet age, and even more worried about a film in the pipeline from the blockbuster director Roland Emmerich:
“Movie beats book every time. And I know that teachers around the globe will go into their classrooms the day after that movie is released and – the movie doesn’t only claim that Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare but Oxford did, but provides a motive for that. That motive is that the Earl of Oxford was secretly Queen Elizabeth’s son, and then when he was older, her lover as well. And this sordid incestuous story explains why his authorship of the plays had to be suppressed.”
There are plenty of theories that never quite die. There seems to be an irreducible (though tiny) number of people who refuse to believe, against all the eyewitness testimony and all the documentation, that millions of Jews died in the Holocaust. Some are convinced that the 1969 Moon Landing was staged on a Hollywood backlot. There are people who say, regardless of the thousands who watched two planes fly into the World Trade Centre towers, that the towers were blown up by the CIA or Mossad. Many thousands of children have gone unvaccinated because their parents believed in an abusive and dishonest British doctor; a surprising number still support him even though he’s been convicted and struck off.
The good news is that no-one’s going to die, or be persecuted, or attacked, because of a sensationalist film about Shakespeare. But if a lot of people believe in it, it will be a step back for scholarship, rationalism and a culture in which evidence is judged on its merits, not on how well it fits our favourite theory. And as James Shapiro says, it will damage what matters about Shakespeare: the work.
“All those arguments to say that these plays are encoded biographical stories, as every anti-Stratfordian believes, diminish the one thing that I love about Shakespeare – and value in him – which is his extraordinary imagination. And every attempt to wrest the plays away and say that they’re coded stories that reveal somebody else’s authorship takes handfuls away from that imaginative capacity. I’ll just fight that till the end”.
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