Conspiracies about the authorship of Shakespeare have fascinated for decades, but ultimately 'only foolish snobs don't believe in Shakespeare'

Although this might seem a frivolous subject, I maintain that nothing that concerns Shakespeare can ever be considered frivolous. As readers probably know, there is a new film out, made by Sony Pictures and produced by Roland Emmerich, called Anonymous which allegedly “presents a compelling portrait of Edward de Vere as the true author of Shakespeare’s plays.” This, as Allan Massie points out, writing in the Telegraph yesterday, is utter nonsense. He comments, “Never mind that Oxford died in 1604, some years before Shakespeare’s last plays were written and produced…Never mind that nobody at the time attributed the authorship to anyone but he man from Stratford. Evidently they were all fooled, even Ben Jonson, a fellow playwright who knew William Shakespeare…”

This notion of De Vere’s candidacy only gained credence in 1920 when someone called J Thomas Looney produced the argument that only an aristocrat would possess the culture, knowledge and education to write the plays; a local lad from Stratford could not possibly have possessed the necessary sophistication etc. Massie puts this absurd idea in its place. Shakespeare’s literary sources for his plays are well-known and as his biographer Peter Ackroyd points out, he had the preternatural sensibility and imaginative capacity to transform what he read into the dramas that we know and love. As Massie puts it, playwrights and novelists “pick up bits and pieces of information and put them to use… Shakespeare had no need to have travelled or to have studied law, or been active in politics, to write the plays. Works of literature are made from memory, experience (which includes what you have read), observation and imagination…and if you have the last of these, a little of the others can be made to go a very long way.”

It seems that Looney has had his supporters, including Sigmund Freud. Now that Freud’s own preposterous ideas, such as the Oedipus Complex, have been exploded, it is time to put Looney in his place as a crank, snob and a conspiracy theorist. Of the film, Shakespeare scholar James Shapiro writes in the New York Times that “Mr Emmerich has made a film for our time, in which claims based on conviction are as valid as those based on hard evidence.” I am surprised that author Dan Brown hasn’t (yet) taken up this theme.

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I blogged about this subject earlier in the year when Sir Derek Jacobi, acting the part of King Lear at the Donmar Warehouse, pronounced that, “legend, hearsay and myth have created [Shakespeare].” Well, Jacobi is only a thespian, if a very fine one; Looney, aside from his unfortunate name, was trying to escape the anonymity he richly deserved; and this new film, Anonymous, ought to be ignored by all Shakespeare lovers. As Massie observes, “Only foolish snobs don’t believe in Shakespeare.”

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