William Shakespeare: The Conspiracy Theories – Part 5

(Continued from Part 4) It is the set of a new Hollywood production by Roland Emmerich. The title of the film is ‘Anonymous’. This time it is not a disaster film, but a thriller about the political intrigues of Elizabeth’s court and the question ‘who was Shakespeare?’.

Roland Emmerich: “I find the topic very compelling. After all, Shakespeare is still the most frequently enacted author of the world, and this after 400 years, which makes you wonder ‘who was the man who wrote all this?’ And suddenly you realise that there is a huge controversy, if it really was the man of Stratford.”

This controversy has been around for more than two hundred years and has produced many candidates. Apart from Christopher Marlowe, there is the philosopher and stage-man Francis Bacon, the 17th Earl of Oxford, Edward De Vere, or Amelia Bassano. They’ve all been suggested to have been William Shakespeare.

Roland Emmerich: “The more and the longer I think about it, the clearer it is to me it wasn’t him and I find myself in good company with this opinion. I am thinking of Sigmund Freud and other writers. One isn’t exactly alone with this view. For me, I think, the most plausible candidate is Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford.”

De Vere was one of the most brilliant minds of the Elizabethan court. He came from a noble family, highly educated, and travelled through the entire continent and had made himself a name as an author. He also had all of the qualifications that seemed to be missing in the man from Stratford. But what reason would Edward De Vere have to hide behind the pseudonym ‘William Shakespeare’? Defenders of the theory that De Vere authored Shakespeare’s plays assume that it was inappropriate for aristocrats to write plays for the common people. Moreover, only a pseudonym would of allowed De Vere to criticise politics in Elizabeth’s reign. But are the doubts about the authorship of William Shakespeare, the man of Stratford, really justified, or are the Marlowe theory and the other theories about the true authors of Shakespeare’s work merely conspiracy theories?

Giles Milton, historian: “No poems, no plays, no letters exist in William Shakespeare’s own handwriting. All we have are six slightly shaky signatures, all spelt differently. A recent author of Shakespeare’s unorthodox biography drew up a paper trial between Shakespeare and his fellow writers. Shakespeare’s contemporaries left behind a trail: evidence of education, manuscripts, verses they had written. Of Shakespeare, precisely nothing. So I believe there is room for reasonable doubt that the Shakespeare from Stratford is indeed the Shakespeare that wrote Shakespeare’s plays.”

And what become of the man from Stratford upon Avon, perhaps the most successful businessman of his town? In 1597, already, he had bought the second biggest house in Stratford. In the year 1610 he retreats there and, like his father earlier, trades wool and property. His wife, Anne Hathaway, from whom he had been separated by the long distance for many years, can now take care of him. It is said that colleagues tried to lure him back to London. The last trace of Shakespeare in London is the entry in the land register. In 1613, William Shakespeare bought the gatehouse of Blackfriar monastery near the theatre of the same name. After a night of excessive drinking with his friends, it is said that Shakespeare had a fever and felt his death approaching. He writes his last will and testament. Pedantically, the document lists every detail in his belongings, only those things that would be most valuable to a writer in those days – books, paper, manuscripts – or not mentioned. Nevertheless…

Extract from the will: “I give unto my wife my second best bed, with the furniture. Item: I give and bequeath to my said daughter Judith my broad silver gilt bowl, and I do entreat you, Francis Collins, to be executor of my will. In witness thereof, I have here unto, put my hand.”

It is a testament of a businessman, which give no hint whatsoever of any literary activities of its author. Shakespeare dies on April 25th, 1616, and is buried at Holy Trinity Church in Stratford. A monument is erected on the wall above his tomb, but isn’t this unambiguous proof for his identity as a writer?

Giles Milton: “It seems so. It shows a bust of Shakespeare, holding a quill and parchment, and above him are the Shakespeare coat of arms, the allegorical figures of labour and rest. But there is a problem: this is not the original monument. We know from an engraving that there was an earlier one, and in the earlier one, Shakespeare has neither quill nor parchment. Indeed, he is clutching a big sack of wool. Is this really a monument to Shakespeare the great poet? But how then do we account for Ben Johnson’s eulogy of Shakespeare in the first folio, the first publication of Shakespeare’s plays that appeared seven years after his death?

Ben Johnson: “Triumph my Britain, thy hast one to show, to whom all scenes of Europe homage owe. He was not for an age but for all time.”

Ben Johnson’s exulted eulogy of Shakespeare comes fairly late, seven years after his death.

Giles Milton:“Yet Ben Johnson never mentioned Shakespeare during his lifetime, but one thing is sure, this is the face that launched the Shakespeare industry.”

Culturally speaking, William Shakespeare is the biggest export hit of the United Kingdom… besides the Beatles. The British Empire has faded but through its favourite author, its still spans the entire globe. Translations into more than 80 languages; film adaptations of almost all the 37 plays; reproductions of the Globe theatre in all continents; monuments of the bard in Weimar, Chicago, New York, Sydney and London. Nobody can pass William Shakespeare.

Giles Milton:“Somewhere in some archive in France, in Italy or in Spain, we might yet find the document that proves that Christopher Marlowe outlived his supposed death in 1593 and went on to write in exile, and write under the name of William Shakespeare. That would certainly be death to the Shakespeare industry. But until that document is found, or until there is proof that any of the other candidates might have written these plays, the world will continue to celebrate William Shakespeare, the man from Stratford, as the greatest literary genius of all time.”

Every year on April 24th, the population of Stratford gathers to celebrate the birthday of their renowned citizen. Ambassadors from all the countries of the world are invited. The young, and the young at heart, enjoy the biggest public festival of their town. The name William Shakespeare is a blessing for its citizens, and a guarantee for the future of their town. Even the star actor of the 18th century, David Garrick, was well aware of it. He invented the anniversary celebrations in 1769. Festival guests appear relatively unimpressed by Henry James’ convictions that: “The divine Shakespeare is the biggest and most successful fraud ever practised on a patient world”.

Giles Milton:“Does it really matter who wrote Shakespeare’s plays? Well yes, I think it does. Of course in a way the plays stand for themselves in a universe of their own, but if we knew the mind behind them, how much that would enrich our understanding of them. I think we need to continue the search for what is, and remains, the greatest literary enigma of all time.”

Those who find they can no longer be part of a community that believes that a man entombed at Holy Trinity Church of Stratford authored William Shakespeare’s plays, but that it was perhaps Christopher Marlowe, or Edward De Vere, or another great spirit of his age, to those, perhaps entirely different perspectives on this timeless work will be opened up.