Thursday, October 06, 2005

A Tale Told By an Idiot

Crooked Timber informs me of a new campaign to tell the world who the "real" William Shakespeare was.

It is amazing how resilient is the idea that William Shakespeare, son of a Stratford glovemaker, couldn't have written the plays that are attributed to him. One of these so-called epiphanic breakthroughs arises every few years. The latest candidate for "real Shakespeare" is Sir Henry Neville, but of course the Earl of Oxford, Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe, and others have been nominated in the past. Each epiphany gets smacked down, but somebody else will come forward with another one before long.

I was glad to see that almost nobody among the commenters at Crooked Timber, who surely include some people more knowledgeable about the Bard than I am, gives this theory any credence either. (There's also the intriguing report that this Rubinstein person also retails anti-Darwin theories. An all-purpose debunker.) Someone at CT raises the pertinent issue of what authorship meant in Elizabethan times. Parts of that argument are over my head, but it seems clear that Shakespeare was at least influenced by Marlowe and other colleagues and patrons, and that the plays existed as performances for some years before they were published as texts. So it's likely there was a collaborative aspect to the creation of the plays in the Shakespeare canon. And there is little biographical data about Shakespeare the man, hence lots of room for speculation, lots of room for conspiracy theories.

Mostly what I detect, in these essays on why the Stratford man couldn't be the author of Hamlet, are inessential things. The ad hominem thing, for one: it's just evident in the rhetoric that some of these guys use that they hold the snobbish assumption that a man of humble social origins and little formal education could not possibly have written these great works of literature.

There's also the Occam's Razor verdict: People construct these elaborate schema for the Earl of Oxford's authorship: huge edifices of circumstantial evidence, how this scene in Henry V corresponds to some episode in the life of Edward de Vere, etc. All of which obscures the Oxfordians' enormous timeline problem: Oxford died well before many of the plays are believed to have been written. (Marlowe died even earlier.)

One argument the anti-Stratfordians always allude to is that a person of low rank like Shakespeare could never have had the knowledge of politics and court life that is reflected in the plays. But you never hear the reverse--you never hear anyone wonder how the Earl of Oxford could possibly have written realistically about gravediggers or household servants.

Anyway, some people think this stuff is great fun. I feel a teeny bit insulted on behalf of the Stratford man. Whatever.

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