Saturday, September 08, 2007

The Shakespeare conspiracy

I never said all actors are cattle; what I said was all actors should be treated like cattle.

Alfred Hitchcock
A group of British actors have signed a statement declaring William Shakespeare could not be the sole author of the plays attributed to him.
Acclaimed actor Derek Jacobi and Mark Rylance, the former artistic director of Shakespeare's Globe Theater in London, unveiled a "Declaration of Reasonable Doubt" on the authorship of Shakespeare's work Saturday, following the final matinee of "I am Shakespeare," a play investigating the bard's identity, in Chichester, southern England.

A small academic industry has developed around the effort to prove that Shakespeare, a provincial lad, could not have written the much-loved plays, with their expertise on law, ancient and modern history and mathematics.

The "real" author has been identified by various writers in the past as Christopher Marlowe, Francis Bacon, or the Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere.

"I subscribe to the group theory. I don't think anybody could do it on their own," Jacobi said. "I think the leading light was probably de Vere, as I agree that an author writes about his own experiences, his own life and personalities."
At the risk of hyperbole, this is the silliest declaration out of Britain since the Oxford Union declared "This House would under no circumstances fight for its King and country".

From their website:
SAC chairman John Shahan, principal author of the declaration. “Orthodox Shakespeare scholars would have the public believe that only deranged people in isolated fringe groups question the identity of William Shakespeare. Nothing could be further from the truth.”

The declaration itself names twenty prominent doubters of the past, including Mark Twain, Henry and William James, Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Sigmund Freud, Orson Welles, Tyrone Guthrie, Charlie Chaplin, John Galsworthy, Sir John Gielgud, U.S. Supreme Court Justices Harry A. Blackmun and Lewis F. Powell, Jr., Mortimer J. Adler, editor of the Great Books at the University of Chicago, and Paul Nitze, co-founder of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. “If orthodox scholars were correct, it would be impossible to come up with such a list,” Shahan said.

“One wonders, when orthodox scholars characterize all authorship doubters as ‘conspiracy theorists,’ or ‘snobs’ who cannot accept the idea of a commoner having the ability to produce great literature, exactly which of these outstanding individuals are they referring to? Was Walt Whitman, the poet of Democracy and the common man, just a snob? Charlie Chaplin? Twain? Reporters should ask them. When they say authorship doubters are all irrational, does that include the Supreme Court Justices? Now, they might also ask, if the “ignorant fools” could write such a declaration, why haven’t you?”
There is nothing to prevent anyone of prominence from falling prey to charlatans masquerading as academics. Good men with solid educations are prone to believe conspiracy theories as much as the next person. Possibly more so, as it takes a somewhat educated mind to want to believe in his own superiority because he's "in on the secret."

This is really more Professor John McAdams' territory, as this belief in a Shakespearean conspiracy is more akin to grassy knolls than it is to academic study. Better to let an expert on conspiracy theory psychology debate the issue.

However, if one were to seriously address the issue, I suggest starting with the history plays. Shakespeare's Henry VI plays and Richard III are from a different part of Shakespeare's career than his Henry IV plays and Henry V. Yet in all of them, is there really a doubt they were written with the same hand?

I'd also strongly suggest reading James Shapiro's 1599, A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare.

Men of genius have existed before, and will exist again, in every field of human endeavor. It may be counter to the egalitarian zeitgeist, but there was only one William Shakespeare.