An upstart crow

Once upon a time, I was at a party. I began talking with a young lady, and the conversation turned to Shakespeare. ‘Oh’, she said. ‘Francis Bacon wrote that.’

The conversation continued thus:

Me – I don’t think he did.

Her – He did.

Me – I know a bit about Shakespeare, and I don’t think he did.

Her – No, he did.

Me – Hmm. I teach Shakespeare at university, and I’m pretty sure it was Shakespeare.

Her – No. You’re wrong. It was Bacon.

Me – Hmm. I know a little bit about Bacon, and I don’t reckon he wrote Shakespeare.

Her – He did.

Me – Ok. I know a lot about Bacon, and I’m sure he didn’t write Shakespeare.

Her – He did.

Me – Right then. I have a phd on Bacon, and I can categorically state there is no evidence whatsoever that Bacon wrote Shakespeare. For one thing, he wouldn’t have had time.

Her – You’re wrong.

Me – So … er, what do you do for a living?

Her – I’m a waitress.

Me – Well, it’s been lovely.

Now, I don’t mean to insult waitresses anywhere, but this is the single-minded idiocy that emanates from the so-called anti-stratfordians.

The release of Roland Emmerich’s Anonymous has started this all over again. Now let’s get this straight. Shakespeare was not written by the Earl of Oxford or Francis Bacon, and Marlowe did not fake his death and then write under the pseudonym Shakespeare. Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare.

I contributed a couple of things to the Guardian post on this today ( The first was this:

The problem here is simple, really. We suffer from a post-Romantic notion equating artistic genius with the tortured artist pose. Shakespeare seems to have died fat and happy. Which utterly denies the way we want to view artists.

That the greatest writer the world has produced wasn’t a Kit Marlowe (Spy, ‘homosexual’, ‘atheist’ etc), or a Ben Jonson (cantankerous git), or even a Francis Bacon (polymath, serial underachiever, genius, practically written out of the history he began) simply will not do.

Shakespeare was too great to have been a normal bloke.

Except that he quite plainly was. Get over it, people – the author of all those great plays was … William Shakespeare.

Are we done now?

It’s all getting rather dull, this. The argument turned to Shakespeare’s ‘illiteracy’ (yes, the ‘upstart crow’ was illiterate).

This was my reply to one commentator’s asserting of the following:

My evidence that Shaxspere was illiterate :

1) His letters – there aren’t any. Can you defenders of the status quo tell us why?

2) His library – he didn’t have one.

The quill on his monument – where he was inexplicably writing on a woolsack – was added later.

This is high-level intellectual stuff, as I’m sure you can see. I got a little sarky at this point:

Wow! I’m utterly convinced suddenly.

A lacuna proves nothing – even King Lear worked that out

No letters … hmm, let me have a think. Ok. No-one kept them. They all burnt with the Globe in 1614 or whenever it was. They were eaten by rats. They perished in the Great Fire. The paper was recycled – or ‘put to posterior usage’, as one wag had it.

HIs library – how do you know he didn’t have one? Have you evidence of people writing to each other saying ‘cor, that Will, he doesn’t have any books, you know …’?

Sorry, but this is non-evidence of the highest calibre.

One anti-stratfordian told me that the Merchant of Venice contained specific legal stuff Shakespeare could never have known. But Shakespeare knew Ben Jonson, who knew Francis Bacon, who was Lord chancellor and knew a bit about the law. But not Venetian law! he crowed … well, yes, but if you think that Bacon only knew English law, and knew nothing of any other country, you’d be a bit daft – he had clients all over the place, Henry Wotton in Vienna, for example.

Just get over it. So far as we know, Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare. With a little help from his friends, yes … but nothing wrong with that.

Jeepers. Can we all get on with something sensible now, please?

Thanks …

The fact is that some people are desperate to believe that Shakespeare wasn’t just an actor manager who wrote the plays because he did it best. It was Jonson who started this ‘I’m an author’ nonsense …

Now, I once taught a class full of anti-Stratfordians, and jeepers were they a pain. Clever. Very clever. Well-informed. Totally single-minded.

I was teaching palaeography, or reading old handwriting. As the final test I gave them a really tough letter from 1611. After a few minutes I went to see how they were doing.

‘Stuck on the first word.’

‘I’ll get you started, then …

[blank] whereunto J referr you, sence [blank] J have [blank] of the

12 August, the which was most welcome unto me; and by the contents

thereof do rest fully satisfyed of all former doughts, wherewith

J was (before the receipt therof) much intangled, for [blank] …

They looked at me askance. But what about that word?

Can’t read it – we’ll work it out later …

but, what about that word …

And I realised the problem. They spot one tiny thing, and that’s it. The pivot point around which everything revolves.

Sorry, but like life, literature and bibliography simply don’t work like that.

The one thing may look momentous, but is the result of tons of other stuff – at least, if it’s truly significant it is.

Bacon wrote that the human mind is predisposed to find order where there isn’t any. He was a clever bloke. And a great writer. But he didn’t write Shakespeare.

The rest is silence. Isn’t it?

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