Was Shakespeare Shady?

Recent studies show that conspiracy theories are highly democratic. These loony beliefs “cut across gender, age, race, income, political affiliation, educational level, and occupational status.” So despite all the evidence, there are people who maintain that President Obama wasn’t born in the U.S., and just as tendentiously, there are people of all kinds who fervently believe that Shakespeare didn’t write his plays.
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They’ll present a blizzard of proofs that melt  under close inspection and have suggested dozens of candidates as the “true author” over the last 150 years including Ben Jonson, Sir Francis Drake, Sir Philip Sydney, The Freemasons, Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe, The Rosicrucians, a whole assortment of nobles, poets and playwrights—and even Queen Elizabeth.There are many ferocious arguments and they start with a bogus negative. The Refuseniks simply cannot believe that someone who wasn’t upper class and a world traveler could have been a brilliant writer. This shows a gross misunderstanding of the creative mind and contemptuous snobbery. What about Jane Austen, the Brontës, James Joyce, and Dickens?

The  Shakespeare Deniers make lots of flimsy claims, as well as assertions that are anachronistic. These might look solid at first glance, convincing people who don’t know the period Shakespeare wrote in. Deep-fried Doubters want you to believe that there have always been suspicions about “authorship,” but that’s completely false.  Nobody in Shakespeare’s time and for years afterwards every doubted that he wrote the plays. The “controversy” started in the middle of the 19th century.

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And one of the main “proofs” that he didn’t write the plays is this: we don’t have any of his manuscripts or his handwriting. Well, guess what? That doesn’t mean anything at all. University of Chicago’s David Bevington, a Professor of English, notes that “the lack of manuscripts, of handwriting samples . . . are what one would expect of a playwright of the period, even the most famous. We don’t read and preserve movie scripts today, and often do not even know who wrote a movie we particularly like. Play scripts were like that in the Renaissance. They existed to enable an acting company to put on a play. The wonder is that so many of Shakespeare’s plays were published at all. We have no manuscripts of plays by Marlowe or Jonson or Webster, even though some of their plays rival Shakespeare’s in their literary and dramatic qualities.”
The Nonbelievers also argue that Shakespeare was barely mentioned in his own time. But that’s simply not true if you bother to read that great Shakespeare scholar James Shapiro’s book Contested Will. There was solid contemporary commentary about Shakespeare. People who claim otherwise are discounting inconvenient evidence that shakes and topples their conspiratorial Tower of Babel.
Shapiro dives deeply and amusingly into the slumgullion of falsehoods and half-truths cooked up with rabid intensity by a thriving industry that can easily convince the gullible and the uninformed.  But let’s face it: going against the settled truth of a few centuries is a good way to gain notoriety and generate headlines. A few years ago, the widely distributed magazine Reform Judaism devoted a badly edited cover story to proving Shakespeare was actually an obscure Jewish woman poet. It ignored the highly inconvenient fact that she wasn’t really Jewish because Jewish descent has traditionally been matrilineal and her mother was not a Jew. It also side-stepped her authorship of a viciously anti-Semitic poem that’s a stone dud and shows nothing like the artistry of his plays whatsoever. But hey, why let any of that that get in the way of a good, sexy theory? I’m surprised the story didn’t throw in Queen Elizabeth and the whole Tudor court as secret Jews for extra points. That could have been the real reason Spain sent the Armada….
It’s probably exciting to uncover a “secret,” to feel like a hero, to connect disparate dots as if the fate of the world depended on your dazzling acumen. It likely gives people a sense of power and control, and can make any life seem like a Dan Brown thriller. And as in The X Files, these people see, to desperately want to believe—for reasons of their own—that the truth is out there. So Shakespeare Skeptics and the legion of cranks who think our moon landing was faked might have more in common than you’d think.
Lev Raphael is the author of The Edith Wharton Murders and many other books in genres from memoir to writer’s guide.
This blog was adapted from an article in Bibliobuffet.

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