Given that we are the Pendley Shakespeare Festival and that I am the rather grandly titled Literary Advisor, it would be as well to lay my cards on the table regarding what, or more exactly who, I think 'Shakespeare' means. The film Anonymous brought the Authorship Question, as it’s sometimes known, fully into the mainstream. The film posits the theory, amongst others that are even more ludicrous, that the Earl of Oxford wrote the plays traditionally attributed to William Shakespeare.
This theory and other alternative author propositions have been gaining ground since Derek Jacobi, Mark Rylance and other senior Shakespeareans started jumping ship and considering alternative candidates. The Authorship Debate is also offered as a degree by some universities. Suffice it to say that it’s garnering respectability.
Before I fire off a broadside against mountebanks and charlatans everywhere, I should distinguish the two types of authorship studies. There are those that look at Shakespeare the collaborator and have yielded such interesting finds as the possibility that All’s Well That Ends Well was co-written with Thomas Middleton. These are academically rigorous, scientifically backed up and worth taking seriously. Renaissance theatre-writing was highly collaborative and whilst Shakespeare has a very specialised position as in-house writer for the Chamberlain’s/King’s Men, others may well have written scenes in traditionally ‘Shakespearean’ plays and he may well have jotted a couple of scenes for other people. We should all take note of developments in this area.
On the other hand, there are the conspiracy theorists, who would have you believe that the plays of William Shakespeare could not have been written by a grammar school boy. And from the country of all places! I mean, can you imagine? It simply had to be somebody better educated, from a wealthier background and ideally noble; Francis Bacon, the Earl of Oxford, Christopher Marlowe, anyone will do.
To put it simply, I (and I think I can speak for the Festival) do not regard the Authorship Debate as a debate. If it is a debate, it is a deeply unfair one because the evidence is hugely lopsided. William Shakespeare the man certainly existed and we have many legal and administrative documents relating to his life. The evidence that he wrote the plays in question consists of his name on the scores of printed editions that have survived and the references to him by people who knew him in the journalism and published paratextual material of the time. If you rehearse the argument that Shakespeare’s talent was met with incredulity by his contemporaries (‘not of an age, but for all time…’) and that we too should therefore be suspicious, I say unto you only that incredulity by contemporaries is a definition of genius.
Even if you could prove that Shakespeare didn’t write his plays, your work would still be all ahead of you, because you would have to have a credible theory as to who did. And here’s the knock-out punch: I have yet to see any evidence whatsoever from any school of alternative authorship that positively identifies their candidate. Pointing at the holes in the historical record of Shakespeare’s life (holes which are common to every writer and yet nobody suggests that Marlowe wrote Jonson, Jonson wrote Middleton, Middleton wrote Peele, Peele wrote Marston and so on down the line) will not do as evidence in favour of your elected messiah.
And if you don’t believe me, listen to my highly-esteemed allies, who include great actors, royalty and a veritable avalanche of academics with more degrees between them than a circle: http://60-minutes.bloggingshakespeare.com/conference/