Gloucester's blinding in King Lear is one of the most difficult scenes in all of Shakespeare to watch. I'm afraid that The Shakespeare Conspiracy, though magnificently narrated by Derek Jacobi, is likewise extremely difficult to encounter. The manipulation of the evidence is simply excruciating to endure.
Yet endure it we must. For one thing, it's good to know exactly what tunes the devil is playing. For another, it's important to stand up (or sit down and compose a blog post) to speak the truth. I'd like to take you through a few of the claims The Shakespeare Conspiracy makes and try to set the record straight about Shakespeare's authorship of the plays attributed to Shakespeare.
Let's start with a common suggestion regarding what Shakespeare's Last Will and Testament did or did not contain:
The documentary suggests that not having books or manuscripts listed in a will indicates that Shakespeare possessed neither books nor manuscripts and that it's inconceivable that the author of the plays and poems possessed neither books nor manuscripts; therefore, the documentary claims, Shakespeare cannot have been the author of the plays and poems.
Shakespeare's will does not specifically itemize books or manuscripts—or inkpots, ruffs, cash boxes, scissors, or chotchkies reading "I Survived the Great Plague Outbreak of 1593." Additionally, once plays were sold to an acting company during Shakespeare's time, they became the property of that company and not of their authors. There may (or may not, to be quite fair) have been unsold, unfinished, or rejected manuscripts and books of various sorts in Shakespeare's possession, but they would have fallen under the category "All the rest of my goods, chattel, leases, plate, jewels and household stuff whatsoever" granted to his daughter Susanna and her husband, John Hall.
Bill Bryson, whose Shakespeare: The World as Stage (New York: Atlas Books, 2007) has a concise chapter devoted to the authorship question, answers claims like this marvelously:
The argument about books is similar to the one the documentary makes about Shakespeare's education: “There is no evidence that he ever attended any school at all, let alone the local grammar school.” It is true that no evidence exists connecting Shakespeare to the Stratford grammar school—but the documentary fails to mention that the earliest extant records from the grammar school are from the 1700s. According to Oxfordian logic, the school must have stood empty—except for the evidence we have of schoolmasters—from its foundation until the 1700s. Just imagine those poor teachers, standing in an empty grammar school, year after year. On the other hand, they can’t have had much grading to do, so I suppose it works out all right.. . . we know nothing about his incidental possessions. But the writer might just as well have suggested that Shakespeare never owned a pair of shoes or pants. For all the evidence tells us, he spent his life naked from the waist down, as well as bookless, but it is probable that what is lacking is the evidence, not the apparel or the books. (182)
Please note that I cannot say that Shakespeare did attend the grammar school in Stratford (although I will say that it’s more likely than unlikely that he did); but neither can anyone make too much out of the fact that there’s no record of his attending the school. If we had records and his name failed to appear on them (a blank space appearing between “Shakebread, Rodney” and “Shakewood, Sidney”), it would be significant. Otherwise, the absence of evidence can’t be use to prove a point.
After one more quick note about the will, we'll move on to some stranger claims. The documentary posits that the first draft of the will was altered by Oxford supporters (who were still working hard, even though Oxford had been dead for twelve years, to make Shakespeare look like the author of the plays) to include bequests to two of Shakespeare's fellow players. But you can't have it both ways. Why would they go to all the time and trouble to insert bequests to players in the will and not insert (or plant) clearer evidence that Shakespeare wrote the plays?
But we'll let that rest while we look at two other claims. The clip below starts and ends with some material on the "pseudonym" of "William Shakespeare"; in the middle, the documentary raises a separate but related issue: the occasional hyphenation of Shake-speare's last name and its purported significance:
This is one of the oddest claims in the entire documentary. The conspirators, wanting to get DeVere’s plays into the public theatres, brainstormed until came up with the ideal nom de plume. They wanted something that would suggest a poet playwright, and they finally hit on the perfect one: William (which was a general name for a shepherd and / or a bucolic poet) Shakespeare (after the well-known spear shaker Pallas Athena—the patron saint of Athens—itself the birthplace of drama). Therefore the name “William Shakespeare” really means “Poet Playwright.” It’s a great pseudonym. But there’s something even better. The Earl of Oxford started looking for an actual person who had this great pseudonymous name—and, lo! They found a man with exactly the false name they had constructed!
I’m sorry, but that idea is just weird. It’s as if you had set out to find a good name for an anonymous author and you hit on the name “Annie Nominous.” And, as soon as you made up your mind that that would be a good name, a Google search revealed that the Nominous family were distant cousins of yours and that you could use Second Cousin Annie (Twice Removed) as a cover for your anonymous work. It’s bizarrely backward.
The speaker at this point is Charles Vere, Earl of Buford, a descendant of the Earl of Oxford. That may have something to do with the stake he has in the argument.
In the middle of that oddly upside-down and illogical idea is the notion that the occasional hyphenation of Shake-speare indicates beyond question that it is a pseudonym.
I often warn my writing students against making unqualified claims. A claim of this magnitude (“No author’s name would have been spelt with a hyphen unless it was a pseudonym”) can be undone completely if only one example to the contrary can be found. As you can see, the good people of The Shakespeare Authorship Page ("Dedicated to the Proposition that Shakespeare Wrote Shakespeare") have provided a substantial number of hyphenated names of real people—and the interesting example of Marprelate, an undisputably fictitious name, recognized in its own time as a pseudonuym, which is not hyphenated throughout the editions of the Marprelate tracts published by Robert Walde-grave, a real person’s real name that is really hyphenated in all the editions he published.
The documentary also takes issue with the First Folio. Here, it comments on Ben Jonson's "To the Reader" and its use of the word "Figure," after which it weirdly takes issue with the Droeshout engraving:
The idea is misleading in the extreme. I checked the Oxford English Dictionary, which may be considered to have some little authority to speak to the definitions of words in use in the time of Shakespeare, and the only relevant entries I found for the word "figure" were these:
The argument that "figure" was closely related to "fiction" falls flat. The two words do not even share the same Latin root. Feel free to check the entry from the OED yourself—for the next three days (the link expires after three days, I'm afraid)—to see the evidence firsthand.I. Form, shape.
3. The proper or distinctive shape or appearance (of a person or thing).
II. Represented form; image, likeness.
9. a. The image, likeness, or representation of something material or immaterial.
10. esp. An artificial representation of the human form.
a. In sculpture: A statue, an image, an effigy.
b. In painting, drawing, etc.: A representation of human form (as opposed to landscape, still life, etc.). Now restricted to representation of the whole or greater part of the body.
The critique of the Droeshout engraving of Shakespeare smacks of grasping at straws:
"See? Shakespeare couldn't have written the plays because—because—well, because the illustrator of the volume published seven years after his death wasn't very good. He gave the engraving two right eyes? See? See? And two left arms! Can't you see it? I'm zooming in with mysterious music so you can see. Oh, and that line behind the jaw? That's not a double chin or anything—I mean, really! There no lineament of the human face there! It has to be a mask! No one would engrave someone with a slight neck roll, even if their subject were wearing a ruff that might push the flesh around the neck up a bit. Preposterous!"
Yes. Preposterous, indeed.
[Note: Some of the narration that accompanies the commentary on the engraving is drawn directly—and, as far as I can tell, without atrribution—from Charles Ogburn's massive book The Mysterious William Shakespeare: The Myth and the Realiy (New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, New York, 1984): "Then there is the line curving down from the unreal ear to the chin, paralleling the line of the cheek. It corresponds to no lineament of the human face" (224); "In current slang, the bottom line is indeed the bottom line: Don't look at the picture; read the plays. Sound advice" (225).]
Finally, I’d like to turn to a small point that has been a strangely large stumbling block for a number of people: the burial record. Shakespeare's burial record reads (with "William" and "gentleman" abbreviated and with "Shakespeare" spelled without a mid-nominal "e"), “Will. Shakspeare, gent.”
Leaving behind the "mysterious circumstances" under which he is supposed to have died (the documentary itself also never mentions them again), we find a presumption that the burial record ought to say “William Shakespeare, poet.” I’m not sure why. Shakespeare himself was clearly not around to object to whatever the clerk happened to write. The clerk may have been bound by conventions of data entry for his time. Anne might have been too distraught to say, “Please make the record say either ‘poet’ or ‘dramatist’ or ‘author’—Will would have wanted it that way.” Or she may have been angry enough at his having spent most of his working life away from her in London to say, “Make it say ‘gent.’ That’ll fix him.”
I’ve been interested enough in the question to do some research—and to ask some marvelous librarians to do some research for me. I’ve tried to track down the burial records of contemporary poets to see if any one of them says, “Ben Jonson, poet” or “Thomas Middleton, poet.” But I’ve been unable to do so. So many burial records have been lost—Sidney’s isn’t there, Jonson’s isn’t there, Middleton was buried at St. Mary Newington Butts Churchyard, but we haven’t been able to track down the parish register yet. [Update: We have, at long last, tracked down Middleton's burial record!] It seems that we’re quite fortunate to have a burial record at all for William Shakespeare, and we should be profoundly grateful that it survived!
I think the disappointment at the “gent.” must just be a case of modern expectations being let down by renaissance conventions. We would like it to read “Will. Shakespeare, poet” because that’s how we know him. But the parish register may have been far more concerned with official records—getting Shakespeare's social status down on paper—than on profession or legacy.
[Note: Additional research led me back to the massive and fabulous two-volume set entitled The Shakespeare Documents: Facsimiles, Transliterations, Translations, and Commentary (ed. and trans. B. Roland Lewis, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1940). In volume 2, Lewis has this to say on the subject:
It is to be noted that the entry very definitely accords Shakespeare social rating. "Gent," "Mr," "Knt," were the social ratings ordinarily used in Parish Registers; virtually never was there any reference to such matters as literary or dramatic prowess. (525)
Of course, "virtually never" isn't quite the same as "never." I wish Lewis had provided the exception(s)—if he knew of any and isn't simply avoiding an unqualified claim—but he does not. I apologize to the magnificent librarians helping me on this subject: The search continues.]
Critically considered, the claims of the documentary do not hold water. At best, they are misleading; at worst, they are deliberately false. Strangely enough, the Oxfordians skew the evidence in just the way they claim the Stratfordians do: trying to uncover a conspiracy, they engage in the act of conspiracy.
William Shakespeare of Stratford wrote the plays attributed to William Shakespeare. It's that simple.
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