Some people may think this is kind of lame of me, like I am some kind of party pooper; the dude that doesn’t want to clap his hands to bring Tinkerbell back in Peter Pan. But frankly I don’t think it is in the nature of human beings to keep secrets. Heck, even Deep Throat from Watergate admitted who he was before he died, and that secret only involved three people. We love to tell secrets, and when we were children we each learned (quite easily and quickly) it is always more fun to share a secret than to… keep it.
So aliens, men in black, secret assassinations… yes, at all conspiracies I wag my skeptical finger and say “Nah, nah.” (In a very He-man masculine way, of course).
Yet, I admit I am addicted to one conspiracy, the biggest in literature. The same conspiracy that created doubters out of Mark Twain, Orson Welles, and many others. In many ways, it is a who’s who of readers and lovers of literature; making me feel anything but alone in my little basement filled with notebooks of random facts like a character from The X-Files.
Yes, I am talking about the dreaded Oxford Theory, the Shakespeare Authorship question. The one unjustly pooh-poohed by scholars every time it is brought up. (It doesn’t help that the first person who brought up this theory had the last name of Looney. Yes, you read that right. Looney.)
For those that don’t know Edward DeVere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, supporter of the arts, beloved poet of the queen, may have done more than just survive the back-stabbing courts of his day; he might have also created the greatest catalogue of literature we may ever know. He might have been the pen behind Hamlet, Juliet and Macbeth…
Except he did it in secret, all in secret. And if it is true, it is a conspiracy that would have involved the highest members of the British court, famous writers, publishers, and an entire theater company.
Back up little aliens, now that is a conspiracy!
I first discovered the Shakespeare/DeVere question while in high school thanks to an article in the Atlantic Monthly (You can still find part of it online here). Before I read the article I didn’t even know there was a question around Shakespeare writing his plays. It just didn’t dawn on me to even consider it. His name was on the big book in my room, right?
Well, this issue opened up my eyes, being the literary equivalent of someone saying, “There is no Santa, and let me give you a hundred reasons why. Let’s start with the elves that makes toys…”
The issue involved a debate between a pro-Shakespeare scholar and a Pro-Edward DeVere man, each getting a chance to state their argument. The Atlantic gave it to the challenger first. It was an eye-opening read to me as the writer for DeVere came out swinging. Point by point, starting with a dissection of my favorite play Hamlet to a breakdown of the history of the plays and the man who might be Shakespeare. I almost had to walk away from the magazine and come back to it later. It was such a revelation… Of course the worst was still to come.
See, then the stage was given to the Pro-Shakespeare writer and his entire argument could have been summed up with nothing but the word “Because.” Making him the five-year old with the hands over his ears and shaking his head, not wanting to hear anything (can you tell I have kids?).
I was stunned.
It’s shocking how little we actually have of Shakespeare. No mention of a library or his literary legacy in his will, not even an inch of handwriting related to his plays (not even a note like I make all the time as a writer/parent: “Character twist- have him fight pirates. Pick up milk.” Shakespeare had kids, he had to pick up milk once in a while!). The only piece of writing we have is some barely legible signatures. Signatures that left experts even wondering if he knew how to read or write at all. Whoa…
Now, here is a bit of honesty, I want to believe a poor kid from a random little village in England with only an elementary school education could emerge as the great Bard.
Yes, I truly want to believe, because of what a great story that would be!
It screams of destiny, and a talent like that demands a story of destiny, right? But when one considers the amount of references, books, historical knowledge, and context needed to actually create the plays… Argh.
In pains me as a fiction author to say this but logic always trumps fantasy in the real world. You can clap all you want, but Tinkerbell ain’t waking back up. Why? Because there are no such things as fairies, and a collection of plays like Shakespeare doesn’t just happen, no matter how great that education in that little classroom was.
Now when I took a Shakespeare class in college…
Let me back up and try again…
Okay, I went to Aquinas College, a Catholic private college for my BA in English. It’s a great school, with an amazing English department. One of my dreams while there was to return as a professor which I was able to do for one semester for a screenplay writing course, which was bliss.
I took this great class with a nun. Now for some this might immediately make people think of canes and punishment, but this nun was awesome. I hope this doesn’t come off as cruel, but she reminded me of Doc from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. She looked a little like him in a dress with a little gray sweater. And it was obvious from the first day that while “Doc” was a nun, her dream was to act.
Yes, an acting nun.
Each day in class she performed scenes for us, acting out roles. She had so much memorized, from comedy to drama and she did it all.
Now I don’t know the sister’s backstory; I have no idea why she became a nun, but she had a passion for acting and it entertained me and also made me a little sad, wondering if this old woman had given up on a dream so long ago…
Anyway, near the end of the semester, she actually discussed the Shakespearian question. I didn’t say my opinion, too shocked to hear the wonderful woman’s personality change. You think the very idea of questioning Shakespeare was affront to her and everything she held dear. Now, I had seen her perform scenes from Macbeth (which were damn good), but it was nothing to the performance she gave arguing why it was wrong to question the great Bard.
Sadly, most of her argument was… Because.
After the class I met with my advisor who was also an English professor. I discussed my surprise of the nun’s venom and also brought up my own concerns about the authorship question. He politely listened to me, nodding from time to time, and then asked if I wanted to work in academia.
I said yes. My plan at the time was to go on for MA in Literature followed by a PhD (I ended up dropping out halfway through my MA program to get my MFA at a different school, by the way).
Well, he argued, if you want to work in an English department, you need to side with Mr. Shakespeare of Stratford. He didn’t say it in a mean way or as a threat, he just said it as a truth. To voice a different position on the Bard is to invite ridicule of your own research and knowledge in the English arts; something an English professor doesn’t want.
Like I said, I didn’t go on to chase that dream, but about ten years later I ended up at a party at the house of a professor from Michigan State University. There were some drinks and a nice meal and I brought up Edward DeVere, not remembering the nun or my good professor’s advice.
The hostess of the party exploded. It was startling to see. She criticized my intelligence. Even when I said let’s move on to another conversation, she didn’t stop, attacking and attacking. My wife and I almost got up to leave before she stopped. It was that bad.
Later she apologized for her outburst, but beyond criticizing me and others that question Shakespeare of Stratford, she gave little argument to support her cause.
Shakespeare has been dead for almost 400 years. 400 years of stardom and everyone keeping their eye outs… for something, anything.
How is it that they had manuscripts available to make the First Folio but those manuscripts have since disappeared? More than that, where is there anything that we know belonged to him that showed or even hinted at his greatness? Recently, there was a archeological dig of The New Place (Shakespeare’s last home which burnt down in Stratford) looking to see if there were any remnants from his time on the property; and nothing was found worthy of any news.
The silence of the years is maddening and a little frustrating. I remember once reading an article quite a few years ago from one crackpot claiming that inside Shakespeare’s tomb in the Stratford church is actually the hidden manuscripts (and possibly the lost plays). He had it all worked out, proving that the epitaph over him is a hidden message making an X. (Yes, X marks the spot). The sad thing is as crazy as that sounds we are all so desperate to find something of the great Bard’s, even that sounds a little reasonable.
Why not bury all of Shakespeare’s great works in a fake grave in a church? And until we can find something that proves that the Shakespeare from Stratford was even literate (remember we don’t even have that!), all we have are conspiracies and bad movies. (Shakespeare in Love and Anonymous… yeah, I didn’t like Shakespeare in Love and to be honest Anonymous doesn’t help any of the DeVere arguments since there is so much fiction mixed in with the facts. Frankly, the episode of Doctor Who where Shakespeare takes on witches with the Doctor and Martha Jones was more plausible.)
The best thing I have to point to is a wonderfully rich and detailed book.
Shakespeare by Another Name by Mark Anderson is amazing, just amazing. In the book, Mr. Anderson breaks down not only a historical argument for DeVere being Shakespeare but also lines up each play right in a pretty row. He also, in the appendices, takes on some of the arguments pro and con for DeVere (his Bible, for example).
I love this book because it doesn’t mince words, it just lays out the facts we have. And after 600 pages it’s hard to argue against him or his research.
So what does this mean for me?
Well, I will continue, from time to time, to search through some of the DeVere sites, see if there is any new news. And, I might even pick up and read Anderson’s book again… but all I can do is wait just like everyone else… and in some people’s eyes they may see me waiting right along with the those looking for aliens and Lee Harvey Oswald’s second gunman. But if any human being in history could have pulled off a conspiracy on this scale… well, only Shakespeare, right?
(Oh, and if I ever try to teach on the academia level again, let’s pretend I never wrote this editorial, deal?)
If you liked reading this post, why not check out one of my books? I’ve had three novels published in the last few years, the new A Jane Austen Daydream, Maximilian Standforth and the Case of the Dangerous Dare, My Problem With Doors and Megan. You can find them via my amazon.com author page here, or as an eBook on Google eBooks here. Thanks for reading!…