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Shakespeare’s Real Identity: The Stupid Conspiracy Theory That Just Won’t Die

By Hannah Sole | Think Pieces | November 1, 2017 |

By Hannah Sole | Think Pieces | November 1, 2017 |

The ‘anti-Stratfordians’ are back with some new ‘proof’ that Shakespeare’s plays and poetry were written by someone who wasn’t Shakespeare, and for the love of Hecate, why won’t this nonsense end?

There are two parts to this new proof: the first suggests that Shakespeare’s remains were re-interred at Westminster Abbey under his monument in Poets’ Corner, and that they actually belong to Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford. This is based on the “mysterious dedication” to Aspley’s edition of Shakespeare’s sonnets of 1609, and a “riddle” in the Shakespeare monument in Stratford, and has been put forward by Alexander Waugh.


This is a new development in a conspiracy theory that should have faded away long ago. It’s been knocking around for so long that there has to be a name for those who believe that William Shakespeare was a famous writer, other than ‘normal’; I’m Stratfordian and proud,

Who else was Shakespeare if not, uh, Shakespeare? Don’t worry, the anti-Stratfordians have plenty of candidates. Trouble is, none of them hold up to scrutiny. De Vere is the preferred author for many people, despite the fact that he died in 1604. Christopher Marlowe has his own ‘Real Shakespeare’ following, despite the fact that he died in 1593. Marlovians and Oxfordians believe that this isn’t a problem though; to them, it’s perfectly credible that Marlowe faked his own death and De Vere just had lots of unpublished plays lying around that could be rationed out for years after his death. The case for De Vere is not helped by the fact that one of its cheerleaders is a chap called John Thomas Looney, whose book on the subject convinced Sigmund Freud, at least. There are some jokes there, right? There’s a ‘Freud loves Looney idea’ gag, and a penis envy/ John Thomas joke too, but I’ll try to rise about those.

There are more potential ‘Real Shakespeares’ though! The argument in favour of Sir Fancis Bacon was put forward by Delia Bacon (no relation), and was supported by Mark Twain. Mary Sidney’s name has been suggested by some fans as well. So has Elizabeth I, who died in 1603, and so faces the same problem as Marlowe and De Vere, except there’s absolutely no way she faked her death, and she was definitely too busy to have left lots of unpublished work lying around when she died… Some theories go further and claim that Shakespeare was a front for a group of these people, who worked together secretly, hiding behind their group nom de plume. Either William Shakespeare does not exist at all in this case, or he is just the ‘face’ of the operation.

Mark Rylance is a renowned anti-Stratfordian. Rylance is brilliant in so many ways that his stance on Shakespeare is highly disappointing:

Rylance, who wears two hats, actor and director, with Elizabethan ease, is a celebrated refusenik. He believes that the person he insists on calling “the Stratford man” was little more than a front for a powerful literary cabal that almost certainly included Bacon. “There is a genius at work in here somewhere”, he says when we meet, “but it’s not William Shakespeare. A lot of other people were gathered around those plays.” Rylance finds a compelling logic in the Shakespeare conspiracy theories: “The nature of authorship was different then,” he argues.

Rylance is a fascinating case. On closer examination, his belief in the Bacon theory is an assertion of the value of theatrical collaboration, against the tyranny of a single artistic source. Rylance, who has the ideas and demeanour of a countercultural guru from the 70s, finds “the idea of the single genius at work here very damaging to the confidence of younger playwrights”.

Rylance says he wants “the Stratford man” to be admired as a theatrical wrangler, a kind of super producer. He is publicly supported by Sir Derek Jacobi, and even Vanessa Redgrave who, in her recent Bafta speech hinted at a sympathy with the “anti-Stratfordian” position. (From The Guardian)

Derek Jacobi appeared in the prologue to Anonymous, a 2011 movie that tried to sell the De Vere story as ‘The Truth’.

(This is not a good movie, but I guess a Stratfordian would say that, huh?)

Where did all of this come from? Well, there isn’t much information on Shakespeare, because he was a fairly normal person who didn’t leave much in the way of a trail of documents. That’s pretty much it. But for anti-Stratfordians, that means much more: it means a conspiracy.

Most conspiracy theories are based on mistrust of a ‘system’ that wields political or ideological power, and posit an alternate version of a familiar story, one replete with Machiavellian plots and complex intrigues which were designed to manipulate the masses. They can be fun to read; they show more about the mood of the people and their faith in institutions than they do about the actual content of the theories themselves. The delight that many take in reading about conspiracy theories is that the ridiculous stories seem both plausible and preferable to those who believe and espouse them. These theories are meant to show the believer as cynical, more insightful, more perceptive than the ‘sheeple’ who accept the ‘official’ narrative, but they usually show the opposite, which can be entertaining. It’s fun to roll your eyes at the tin-foil hat brigade, right?

This one’s different. Shakespeare isn’t an institution or a system; nothing is served by obsessing over his identity. There is no supposed greater awareness that comes from ‘unmasking’ him. Unlike the (also ridiculous) 9/11 or moon landing conspiracy theories, questioning Shakespeare’s identity doesn’t come with a mission to expose propaganda, or to encourage people to question powerful systems.

It also requires massive leaps of faith and hugely elaborate plots for no real reason. Pen-names and ghost writers are nothing new, but there are normally motives for this: like marketability, privacy and safety. The most common motive given for this literary conspiracy is protection from criticism and persecution. But that would suggest that Shakespeare’s play are treason in code, and while there are moments that could be read as politically controversial, they aren’t that frequent, and they weren’t enough to upset the censors at the time.

Is it important then? Can’t we just agree to disagree? No. The question of Shakespeare’s identity is important, not because of the question itself, but because raising it as a question in the first place says a lot about people’s attitudes to skill, talent and achievement. The theories about his identity are rooted in snobbery against the “upstart crow”. Snobbery is how the arguments all begin, with the idea that an ‘ordinary, provincial man’ could never be such a genius. Delia Bacon described Shakespeare as a “stupid, illiterate, third-rate actor”, who was little better than a “pet horse-boy at Blackfriars”. The alternate contenders are high born and rich, which is meant to make them ‘more likely’, and this is an argument that I have no time for. Genius does not belong to privilege and rank. Certain conditions may nurture and develop intellect, but a silver spoon is not a writing instrument, it’s just a head-start.

Shakespeare had less of a head-start than De Vere, Bacon, Sidney, Marlowe and, uh, the Queen, but that doesn’t make him a barely literate country bumpkin who didn’t know which end of the quill he was meant to dip in the ink. And this is where the anti-Stratfordian snobbery really exposes a misunderstanding of the social system of the era. For them, English society was split into two: the rich and powerful elite, and the ignorant peasants. Shakespeare was neither.

Shakespeare wasn’t born with a silver spoon in his mouth, but he was afforded a particular type of privilege. He was educated; his father, for all the snooty references to his profession as a ‘glove-maker’, was a business man who became the equivalent of the mayor. If he were around now, we would call him middle class; he’s hardly the yokel that Bacon paints him as, or the lairy idiot of the Anonymous movie.

He was an actor and learned his craft on the front line. He was a prolific writer, and yes, he collaborated with other writers because that’s how the industry worked at the time. He worked with accomplished companies of players, in one of those almost magically fertile eras of creativity and artistic experimentation. These are all perfect conditions for nurturing and developing talent. Is it such a surprise that these conditions gave us a genius?

There’s a warning inscribed on Shakespeare’s (actual) burial place:

Good frend for Jesus sake forbeare,
to digg the dust encloased heare:
Bleste be the man that spares thes stones,
and curst be he that moves my bones.

For anti-Stratfordians, this is evidence that there’s Something Funny going on, that the grave is empty and the curse is meant to scare people away before they uncover the secret. But to me, it sounds like something Gertrude would say: “Do not forever with thy veiled lids seek for thy noble father in the dust”. Don’t look for him there; look for him in his writing. Obsess over his work, not his bones. Pore over the words, and you get more of a sense of the man than you do from any historical sources. (You might notice he’s a man who uses loads of Warwickshire slang, too. Score another point for the Stratfordians.)

Now, if you want to examine his work and talk about secrets that Shakespeare might have been hiding, bring it on! Was he a secret Catholic? That’s an interesting one. Think about how Hamlet had been away studying at Wittenberg, Protestant-central, but back home in Denmark, he meets proof of Catholic Purgatory in the form of his father’s ghost. Food for thought? Or let’s talk about how he was probably bisexual. How you can read the sonnets and not notice that is beyond me. (I mean, just look at Sonnets 20 and 144.) Those are fun theories. These take evidence from the texts and use that evidence to shed new light on his work. They aren’t wildly imaginative Dan Brown-style ramblings presented as fact.

Shakespeare’s story is inspiring, dramatic and highly unlikely; becoming the most famous and well-loved writer in the world is no mean feat. Isn’t that story even more fascinating when his origins were so very ordinary? Looking down on the “upstart crow”, and assuming that he could never have achieved this because of where he came from — well, that’s just elitist.

P.S. Commenters who can sneakily work Shakespeare quotations into their posts get bonus points today.

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Hannah Sole is a Staff Contributor. You can follow her on Twitter.