Who Wrote All The Plays?

I recently had the misfortune of watching the film ‘Anonymous’.

For those who’ve not seen it, it’s a kind of weird Elizabethan conspiracy flick. There’s intrigue, there are moody scenes in darkened manor houses, there are illegitimate children, and there’s rebellion.

A plot is afoot to topple Queen Bess, and to defraud posterity. It’s all very gloomy.

Obviously, it’s complete shit. It’s basically two hours of Rhys Evans trying to gouge out your brain. Like a bad episode of 24 crossed with a Tudors blooper reel.


The film is directed by Roland Emmerich. The same Roland Emmerich responsible for the Fox News turdfest that is The Patriot.

The same Roland Emmerich whose most realistic film involves an alien invasion and a US president waging a successful war.

The premise, essentially, hinges on that one question every 16th century specialist hopes they’ll never get asked. Did William Shakespeare, the glover’s son from Warwickshire, really write all those terribly clever plays?

So it doesn’t, it has to be said, bode well.

But the film has some serious names. It starts with a spiel from Derek Jacobi – yes, the Derek Jacobi – on how we’ve all been deceived by a great conspiracy.

Now, Jacobi has a bit of form on this. In 2007 he was involved in setting up an internet petition, called the ‘Declaration of Reasonable Doubt’. This document, a sort of Magna Carta for Morons, was a call to make the ‘Authorship Question’ an area for serious academic enquiry.

To be fair, I’m not really that surprised by all this.

In a world of anti-vaxxers, Britain First, and Made in Chelsea; in a world where CNN journalists confuse Arabic letters with dildos, and where the Daily Express exists, the idea that some people are basic plonkers isn’t that shocking a revelation.

But I am a bit disappointed about Derek Jacobi, I have to say. I’d thought better of a serious actor.

I smell, a Conspiracy!
I smell, a Conspiracy!

Just look at the company he’s in. The list of Shakespeare deniers includes, for example, the notorious numpty Sigmund Freud, Enoch Powell (yay), and that famously-successful detector of frauds Hugh Trevor-Roper.

All the list needs is James Delingpole and David Icke and it would be a perfect roll-call of prominent brain-vacuums.

So where does all this nonsense come from?

The original doubters came from that reservoir of truth, The Nineteenth Century. One of the early proponents was a man called ‘Looney’, which is about as wonderfully subtle as – well – giving a buffoonish character in a play the name ‘Bottom’.

The doubts essentially fall on four points.

1) He was just a poor boy, from a poor family. He thus can’t have Known Stuff. Specially not about the Romans and Greeks, or about the English court. He makes jokes about Latin grammar, yet his father was illiterate. Well fishy.

2) There’s not actually a lot of documentary evidence for him. Famously, most of the stuff unearthed involved fairly mundane business dealings. He bought a house in London; he got the right to collect some tithes in Stratford; he was a witness in lawsuit in the Court of Requests; and he got in trouble for hoarding grain. That sort of thing. Obviously, being a theatre-y type would clearly disqualify him from all this, as he’d have been too busy reading the Guardian.

3) He couldn’t even spell his own name! In manuscripts, he spells his name variously as ‘Shaksper’, ‘Shakspere’, and ‘Shakspeare’ (along with various abbreviations). In print, he usually appears as either ‘Shake-speare’ or ‘Shakespeare’. Conspiracy! Treason! Ug!

4) There are lots of other cool people who could’ve written the plays.

The Earl of Oxford. This is the lead guy. He was a courtier, a poet, and posh (so he’s allowed to be clever). The theory is that he used a pseudonym as a way of avoiding the ‘stigma of print’, and that the erudition in the plays reflects Oxford’s travels around Europe, and his knowledge of court politics – even, perhaps, his life.

Christopher Marlowe! Yes, his death in 1593 was a fake, organized by ‘Top Men’. He then continued to write plays under a pseudonym (for some reason). The evidence for this is that, er, some of the Shakespeare plays have a few stylistic similarities to those of Marlowe.

William Stanley, Earl of Derby, ‘The Lancashire Luvvie’. He’s got the initials, he’s got the education, he’s been on some travels. His elder brother has got a theatre company, and there’s even a Jesuit who says he’s been writing some ‘comedies’ in 1599 (no, I don’t know what the Jesuit sense of humour is like either). Oh, and he was actually alive for the whole span of the plays (he died in 1642), which is nice.

Francis Bacon. Basically along the lines that the plays must have been written by a genius. Anyone know a genius from the period? Francis Bacon! Yay! Must’ve been him. There’s lots of legal stuff in Shakespeare, so it  had to have been written by a lawyer. And there are similarities between aphorisms in the plays and those written by Francis Bacon. A-ha!

A Committee. This is my absolute favourite. It’s like a management consultancy firm were asked to come up with a theory for authorship that was both stupid and boring. And I love it – it’s actually kind of genius. Their idea was clearly that good stuff only comes from properly organized meetings. This means getting together a bunch of ‘colleagues’ over a shitty powerpoint presentation, boring them to tears for an hour, and then only letting them leave once they have obtained a suitably dire sense of the futility of human existence. Come to think of it, though, if anyone’s ever seen a bad Hamlet….

The thing is, these are all easily countered by anyone who knows anything much about the period.

Let’s give it a go.

1) He was poor. Well, he wasn’t. His dad was a wealthy glover. He almost certainly attended Stratford Grammar School where he would’ve learnt, er, grammar. Lots of it. In Latin. In fact, the curriculum of your average Tudor Grammar School provided plenty of scope for all that cheeky Latin banter (Hang-hog is Latin for bacon, I tell you! and, of course, the ‘What is the fuckative case, William?‘). And as for knowledge of the Romans and Greeks – he’s actually a bit dodgy. He puts ruined monasteries in Titus Andronicus, for Joe Root’s sake.

2) As anyone who’s tried to follow the lives of ‘middling sort’ folk in early modern England can tell you, there’s actually a reasonable amount of stuff about Will. But the main point is that nobody at the time did anything other than attribute the plays to him. This is crucial, and it’s the one, big, turd-flavoured chocolate-shaving on the conspiracy theorists’ ice-cream. Were this all to be a big cover up, it would basically involve all the people in the period being involved. And even FIFA would struggle to have organized that.

3) Erm. It was totally normal for people to spell their names differently, even within the same document. Any specialist in the period would tell you this.

4) All the other candidates are daft.

There is literally no reliable evidence linking Oxford to any claims of authorship, and by 1604 he was – er – dead. Marlow was very well-attestedly dead even before that. He died in a pub brawl in Deptford in 1593 and there were quite a lot of witnesses. Stanley, earl of Derby at least lived long enough to write the plays, but if he was still alive in 1642, and was such a genius, then why didn’t the plays continue?

Francis Bacon’s candidature is just ridiculous. This is a man who was already pretty busy as a career lawyer and politician, while in his spare time he was inventing modern science. The idea that he also nailed modern literature is silly. It’s more likely that he was also Batman. In any case, this was a litigious age – and Shakespeare was a property owner – so of course he knew a bit about the law. That argument about matching aphorisms? Well, isn’t the point about aphorisms, that they are, um, aphorisms.

* * *

Francis Bacon, Batman (possibly).
Francis Bacon, Batman (possibly).

But there’s another wonderful piece of evidence which argues strongly in favour of the Stratford man.

Marlowe was from Kent, Oxford grew up in Essex and – delightfully – attended Cambridge. Bacon was a Londoner, and Derby was from near Liverpool.

Yet the plays are full of references to the Stratford area. In The Taming of the Shrew, there’s a mention of Barton-on-the-Heath, and a ‘fat ale-wife of Wincot’ (Wilmcote). The village of Woodmancote gets a mention in Henry IV, part II, and even Southam gets referenced in Henry VI, part III. In fact, he’s the only dramatist of the age to set scenes in Warwickshire and Gloucestershire. He even gives us one of the earliest references to the ‘Cotswolds’.

And he mentions – with quite surprising regularity – the glove trade: ‘a great round Beard, like a Glover’s pairing-knife’, for example (in The Merry Wives of Windsor).

* * *

But I wonder if the most interesting thing is some peoples’ refusal to believe that an ordinary guy from small-town Warwickshire could be such a genius. I’m not the only one, I think, who detects a real element of snobbery in the anti-Stratfordian position.

An intruiging parallel is in our treatment of Robin Hood. In the original versions of the story, Robin was a yeoman, which is roughly the rural equivalent of being a glover. Since the sixteenth century, though, Robin has – increasingly – become a disgruntled aristocrat, something he’s tended to remain to this day.

Is this a reflection of our own world’s problem with social mobility? Perhaps. Or maybe, once again, we’re just patronizing the past. We assume that if there’s not enough social mobility today, there can’t have been any in the past.

But it’s just not true. Shakespeare’s age was one in which some men (and one or two women) did dramatically rise in social status. Shakespeare, you see, straddles the two centuries that gave us Thomas Wolsey (the son of a butcher), Thomas Cromwell (‘Putney Boy!’), Nicholas Bacon (the son of a yeoman), and – not least – Oliver Cromwell himself, a man of a very similar background to Shakespeare who rose to become the greatest statesman of the age.

So perhaps the weirdest thing is not that the sixteenth century saw a glover’s son rise to become literature’s greatest genius. It’s that our own age has such trouble believing it.

So zip it, Cadfael.

8 Comments Add yours

  1. actonbooks says:

    Sounds about right to me! “Oh for a stonebow, that I could hit him in the eye!”
    Just for the record my surname is Hedges. About 50 per cent of the time in the 16th century it was written as Hegges, with presumably the double gg generating the ‘dg’ sound. I am guessing that the es part was a genitive case hangover from latin, but that’s another story.

  2. Ford Cornell says:

    Excellent! I have always considered the scourge against Shakespeare to be class related. Of course, Andrew Carnige could not have really risen from poverty to wealth as well as founded a major university and hundreds of libraries. Albert Einstein was a middle class kid who couldn’t have been one of the greatest minds of his generation. Finally, let’s not forget Leonardo DaVinci. This so-so painter could never invent those silly war machines without ever having been in a single battle. William wrote the plays…any other idea is a waste of time.

  3. This is an entertaining read! Thank you! Here’s an excellent book made by a couple of Shakespeare scholars, in collaboration with Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, explaining exactly why the conspiracy theories are just conspiracy in some more details. Might be of interest! http://bloggingshakespeare.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/Shakespeare_Bites_Back_Book.pdf

    1. By book, I mean, it’s more of an e-pamphlet.

  4. I think the people who believe Shakespeare didn’t write the plays (or didn’t exist?) are the same sorts of people who believe the moon landing was a hoax: their arguments are all easily disproved by either a Google search or plain common sense. Really good points here. Also, I saw a trailer for Anonymous and it looked like crap, so I’m happy to hear it was worth avoiding.

  5. halfwit36 says:

    I quite agree with you concerning Shakespeare, but all those ad hominem arguments don’t prove anything. They just make you sound waspish. Stick to the logic.

  6. elizabethmaddenlitblog says:

    Reblogged this on elizabethmaddenlitblog.

  7. Noirfifre says:

    This film has be on my To Watch List for awhile.The trailers look interesting, I must give it a good soon. I like how you used the arguments against his writings spin it around to give your point of views.

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