Be Skeptical of Shakespeare’s Skeptics

William Shakespeare, the man and the author of Shakespeare's plays

Shakespeare, the man and the author of Shakespeare’s plays


I follow up yesterday’s post about Shakespeare’s social climbing with some further thoughts. I mentioned that a researcher has discovered “smoking gun” evidence that Shakespeare really was Shakespeare. After reading the New York Times article, I’m wondering whether many of the Shakespeare skeptics aren’t themselves driven by class anxiety. Perhaps they resent Shakespeare because they detect in him their own anxieties.

Regarding the smoking gun evidence, Heather Wolfe, curator of manuscripts at Washington, D.C.’s Shakespeare Folger Library, uncovered an attack on “Shakespeare the player” in a 1602 document at the College of Arms. There we see Shakespeare attacked by William Dethick, the “Garter King of Arms,” for having the audacity to apply for gentleman status and his own coat of arms.

Dethick recognized Shakespeare for who he was—a man connected with the theater—and wasn’t impressed. The many doubters have been impressed by the theatrical work but haven’t been willing to admit that Shakespeare wrote the plays. It would be reductive to paint all the doubters as driven by status anxieties, but that’s a strain that one can see in some of the more famous ones.

For instance, there’s Charlie Chaplin, who was raised in poverty and whose feisty little tramp longs to be something higher, even as he is kicked in the gutter. Chaplin’s genius lay in creating a figure that achieved dignity in the midst of his poverty, yet he doesn’t think that a commoner could achieve the “aristocratic attitude” found in the plays:

In the work of the greatest geniuses, humble beginnings will reveal themselves somewhere, but one cannot trace the slightest sign of them in Shakespeare … I am not concerned with who wrote the works of Shakespeare … but I can hardly think it was the Stratford boy. Whoever wrote them had an aristocratic attitude.”

Then there’s the gentry-obsessed Henry James, embarrassed by his own identity as a vulgar American and therefore put off by the “few sordid material details” that we know of Shakespeare’s life:

The absolute extermination and obliteration of every record of Shakespeare save a few sordid material details, and the general suggestion of narrowness and niggardliness which ancient Stratford makes, taken in comparison with the way in which the spiritual quantity ‘Shakespeare’ has mingled into the soul of the world, was most uncanny, and I feel ready to believe in almost any mythical story of the authorship. In fact a visit to Stratford now seems to me the strongest appeal a Baconian can make.

And elsewhere:

The divine William is the biggest and most successful fraud ever practiced on a patient world.

Mark Twain, for all his pride in being a homespun American, was defensive about his lack of a university education. Therefore, he believed an educated man like Sir Francis Bacon was more likely to have written the plays than Shakespeare:

So far as anybody actually knows and can prove, Shakespeare of Stratford-on-Avon never wrote a play in his life.” … Shall I set down the rest of the Conjectures which constitute the giant Biography of William Shakespeare? It would strain the Unabridged Dictionary to hold them. He is a Brontosaur: nine bones and six hundred barrels of plaster of Paris. I only believed Bacon wrote Shake-speare, whereas I knew Shaxpere didn’t.

Walt Whitman’s certainty that he himself contains multitudes seems a little less certain—is he really as confident as he seems in Song of Myself?—when he doubts whether another baseborn man could have contained multitudes. Only a nobleman could have written the plays, Whitman concludes:

Conceived out of the fullest heat and pulse of European feudalism — personifying in unparall’d ways the medieval aristocracy, its towering spirit of ruthless and gigantic cast, its own peculiar air and arrogance (no mere imitation) — only one of the ‘wolfish earls’ so plenteous in the plays themselves, or some born descendent and knower, might seem to be the true author of those amazing works — works in some respects greater than anything else in recorded history.”

In the past I have argued that elitism prompted people to doubt the non-university trained Shakespeare, but upon further reflection I think people’s own defensiveness about not being elite triggers their doubting. Since Shakespeare at times exudes this same defensiveness, it’s not surprising that he would draw attacks from those he resembles.

Put another way, there is something about this “upstart crow” (to quote Robert Greene’s early assessment) that compels other defensive crows to pull him off his perch. That’s no reason to conclude that he didn’t write the works attributed to him, however.

Better to apply Occam’s razor than to engage in Donald Trump-type conspiracy theories involving Francis Bacon or Edward de Vere. Assume that the simplest explanation is the right one: the man from Stratford-on-Avon wrote those plays and poems.

Further thought: One thing that puts people off about Shakespeare is how career-minded he was. We have a romantic view that authors shouldn’t care about money, but Shakespeare always had an eye on the box office. If he didn’t make money on a certain kind of poem (Venus and Adonis), he wouldn’t try that genre again, and he would tailor plays for his audiences (such as Macbeth for the witchcraft-obsessed James I). This may be part of what Henry James found sordid, even though (or rather, because) he himself longed to write bestselling plays and novels.

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