Implausible cover-ups, deceptions

Does Shakespeare deserve the credit?
Does Shakespeare deserve the credit?
Disregard the uncontextualised facts, twisted half truths, and outright misrepresentations, writes Prof Evelyn Tribble, of Dunedin. There is no doubt William Shakespeare did write those famous plays.

Did Shakespeare really write those plays?

As a researcher and lecturer on Shakespeare, this is already the most common question I hear.

The question is likely to become even more widespread in the wake of the release of Roland Emmerich's film Anonymous, which suggests the plays were written by the Earl of Oxford.

This is but the latest example of Shakespeare Authorship Conspiracy Theory; at least 77 other possible candidates have been proposed since the mid-19th century.

Prof Evelyn Tribble.
Prof Evelyn Tribble.
In a word, the answer is yes.

There is no reasonable doubt that the actor-playwright William Shakespeare of Stratford wrote the plays ascribed to him.

Anti-Shakespeareans use a farrago of uncontextualised facts, twisted half truths, and outright misrepresentations to create the appearance of a "Shakespeare mystery". Behind the smoke and mirrors, there is only one central assumption: that a man of Shakespeare's background could not possibly have written the plays.

This assumption is patently false. Shakespeare's background is absolutely typical of the extraordinary range of gifted young playwrights in the period.

His father was a glover - at the high end of the artisan profession - and an active and prominent member of the Stratford community. Shakespeare's contemporary, Christopher Marlowe, was the son of a cobbler; the playwright and poet Ben Jonson the stepson of a bricklayer. All three men benefited from the excellent Tudor grammar school system, which afforded sons of the middle class a thorough classical education emphasising Latin poetry and drama.

The Tudor elites intended that such young men might enter the church; instead many of them sought to earn their bread with their pens and their wits. It takes only a little reflection to recognise that many of our finest writers have come from ordinary backgrounds.

Anti-Shakespeareans also assert that the plays reveal knowledge of the court, of noble households, of foreign lands, and of professions such as law that only someone with direct experience of such matters could possess. This charge first exaggerates the extent of Shakespeare's knowledge; in Romeo and Juliet old Capulet behaves much more like a provincial burgher than a nobleman with a retinue of hundreds of servants; the Italian settings of many of his plays are only superficially realised; and his knowledge of law and medicine is similar to that of many of his contemporaries.

But more to the point, there is a way of learning about subjects that one has not directly experienced: it is called reading.

Shakespeare seems to have done rather a lot of it. In fact, many of the books he employed were printed by his Stratford contemporary Richard Field, who with a virtually identical background to Shakespeare became the most prominent literary publisher of his day.

Finally, anti-Shakespeareans suggest that the historical record is patchy and inconclusive, and that no evidence links William Shakespeare the actor to the plays. This, too, is absolutely false. A wealth of contemporary evidence, beginning with Robert Greene's envious reference to "an upstart crow beautified with our feathers" in 1587 attests to the player's growing reputation as a playwright.

The First Folio of the plays was seen through the press by fellow players and sharers in the King's Men John Hemmings and Henry Condell, who wrote a preface describing Shakespeare's composition techniques.

Shakespeare left these men memorial rings in his will as testimony to their fellowship as players and theatrical businessmen. In that same volume, Ben Jonson refers to Shakespeare as the "swan of Avon".

I could go on, but the simple fact is that in the tight-knit gossipy community of theatrical professionals, Shakespeare's authorship was absolutely undisputed.

I do not expect to convince anti-Shakespeareans of the validity of my position. In fact, many no doubt are poised over the keyboards right now composing irate refutations to my every point.

Theirs is a conspiracy theory, involving implausible cover-ups, intrigues, and deceptions.

Like all conspiracy theories, it is a closed system.

Inconsistencies and implausibilities, such as the fact that the current pretender, the Earl of Oxford, died in 1604, prior to the composition of many of the plays, are explained away or become further grist for the conspiratorial mill. But I hope that those of you with an open mind will agree that Shakespeare's accomplishments are testimony to the enterprise, skill, and knowledge of the man from Stratford.

Prof Tribble is a published authority on Shakespeare and head of the English department at the University of Otago.


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