On Anonymous

On Anonymous

Professor Michael Dobson

“Daft costume movie or no daft costume movie, why are we even asking whether Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare’s plays? In his own lifetime, everyone knew he had, some had seen him do it: he was a popular public figure, mentioned as the author of the works that would be collected in the Folio in 1623 by a large number of his contemporaries. Later in the seventeenth century, neoclassicism happened, and snootier commentators lamented that every page of Shakespeare’s work showed that he hadn’t been to university. He wasn’t very good at imitating posh conversation, he gave too much stage time to middle- and lower-class characters, he made silly mistakes about Continental geography. But despite this vulgarity he was the greatest playwright ever. So far — no story.

In the eighteenth century, nationalism happened. For many in Britain, Shakespeare was now great not despite but because he had comparatively little foreign book-learning. He was a son of the British soil, a native genius, a sort of English Robert Burns: his plays came to him in visions from the fairies. Absurd popular biographies retailed anecdotes in which Shakespeare did rustic folk-hero things such as stealing deer or drinking astonishing quantities of English beer.

In the nineteenth century Romanticism happened. Genius was now deemed divine and incompatible with recognition or respectability: really great artists were unacknowledged in their lifetimes, and they never wrote for money or worked in show business. True literary geniuses were those whose writings put you in touch with a kindred soul, a better version of your inner self. What some Victorian thought they knew about Mr William Shakespeare now wasn’t good enough for what they felt about the glamorous imaginative realm of his plays.

So a pseudo-problem had now been invented: and along came the pseudo-solution. An American called Delia Bacon felt that the plays championed modernity, democracy and scientific progress: she thought (quite rightly) that they were too clever for the ignorant rustic of folklore to have written them. So she looked for a more congenial author, and in 1856 she chose the lawyer and philosopher Francis Bacon. She spent the rest of her life going mad in an unsuccessful hunt for any evidence whatsoever to support this idea.

At last there was a story, and the popular newspapers of the time seized upon it. But, quibbled many, why would Bacon hide his authorship of the greatest plays ever? And how could he have mobilized the most elaborate and completely successful cover-up in history in order to do so? This problem was solved in the 1890s by an Ohio dentist called Owen, who sexed-up the new conspiracy theory by recourse to an older, royal one. Ever since her lifetime, there have been sectarian smear-stories, inventive gossip and lurid historical fiction about Elizabeth I: at one time or another she has been frigid, promiscuous, a hermaphrodite and a man in drag, and she has had secret love-children, legitimate and otherwise, by almost everyone. Owen argued that the plays were full of secret codes stating that Francis Bacon was secretly the son of the Virgin Queen from a secret marriage to the Earl of Leicester. So Bacon was not only the Attorney General, but also the real Shakespeare and the rightful King of England into the bargain. (It’s so obvious when someone points it out that you can’t imagine how you ever missed it).

By 1921, though, times had changed. To one reader, the passionately right-wing Thomas Looney, Shakespeare’s plays didn’t articulate a bourgeois desire for progress, but were the last great expression of proper feudal hierarchy. When Looney came across a poem that slightly resembled Venus and Adonis, published by a card-carrying Earl, he knew he had found the real author. When people pointed out that Oxford had died in 1604, before, for example, the real-life shipwreck that informs The Tempest, Looney simply declared The Tempest a fake. To his credit, though, Looney was horrified when some disciples, carrying on where Owen left off, declared that Oxford and King James I between them must have hushed up the true authorship of Shakespeare’s plays because, if you read them properly, they are really all about how Oxford was Elizabeth I’s mother, and the Earl of Southampton was the secret love-child produced by the secret incestuous affair they somehow managed to have later on.

How wonderful it must be, though, to feel, as one reads Shakespeare’s plays, that one is privy to such a dynastic secret! That one is among that persecuted minority fully in touch with a tormented, unacknowledged, aristocratic genius somehow robbed of his place on the throne! Given the choice between identifying with that fiction-enhanced version of the Earl of Oxford, and with a mere successful man of the theatre from the Midlands, which would you choose? The powerful, self-aggrandizing emotional appeal of an archetypal romantic daydream? Or the richly-documented, if more prosaic, obvious historical truth? I for one am very grateful to Roland Emmerich for perfectly underlining the very genre and character of what is called the Oxfordian case. It is no less, and certainly no more, than an absolutely terrific plot for a B-movie."