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Shakespeare and the deniers

February 14, 2011

I mention in my ‘Note on the title’ the fact that the plays of Shakespeare were written by William Shakespeare. I thought I should write a brief piece about this in order to avoid arguments.

 

Title page of the First Folio of Shakespeare's plays.

 

I have decided to refer to anti-Stratfordians as Shakespeare deniers to make clear that their views are as historically valid as those of Holocaust deniers and often rely on similar techniques. (More detail on the historical evidence can be found here.) One technique used is to invent a controversy. In both cases we are dealing with questions of historical fact. There is no evidence that any of his contemporaries doubted Shakespeare’s authorship of the plays and it is only in the nineteenth century that the question was even raised. A common myth is that we know very little about Shakespeare’s life. In fact, we know more about him than we do about almost any other common person of the period. His biography is fairly well established (the ‘missing years’ notwithstanding). Remember we are talking about someone who lived 500 years ago. We cannot check his Facebook page to find out what he had for breakfast on Tuesday. He was famous and highly regarded as a playwright and particularly as an actor by his contemporaries and his career certainly brought him financial success.

It is notable that the Shakespeare deniers cannot even agree on an alternative author, but they do often seem to share a certain snobbery. They are rather uncomfortable with the idea that our national poet was the son of a provincial glove-maker who did not even attend university. They would prefer someone with Earl or Lord before their name, or at least a Cambridge man like Christopher Marlowe. Shakespeare’s sympathy for working class characters and evident interest in their lifestyles surely suggest a man who had met a few peasants. Some of the terminology he uses for plants can in fact be traced to Warwickshire dialect. Nothing about the plays suggests an aristocratic author.

There is one important factor for me, however, which has nothing to do with history: Shakespeare’s craft. Without actually directing or performing Shakespeare it is difficult to appreciate what a great craftsman he was. His sense of drama, timing and pacing are impeccable. With a good cast, staging Shakespeare is easy because he has done all the work for you. The plays play themselves. This craft is something learnt by experience (which Shakespeare as an apprentice player had plenty of) and cannot be theoretically arrived at by a dilletante courtier. Shakespeare knew what worked and what didn’t because he had years to try out ideas in front of audiences night after night. He performed in plays by other writers and saw how they worked from the inside. Shakespeare survives not only because of academics, but, more importantly, because of actors. Actors love Shakespeare because Shakespeare knew how to write for them. For all their faults, actors do know something about theatre and they all know that Shakespeare is the greatest test of their art and also the greatest reward.

I would like to add one small but telling example of Shakespeare’s craft and attention to detail. Music was used at various points in the plays and the musicians played from the balcony. Obviously they were given cues for their playing. In addition to this Shakespeare cleverly worked in cues for the cues, i.e. a similar word or phrase which told the musician that now was the time to pick up their instrument because the real cue was coming up. Do you really imagine the Earl of Oxford just came up with that idea while sitting in his study. The only contender who knew anything about theatre is Marlowe but there are two good reasons for dismissing him. Firstly, there is no evidence that he possessed Shakespeare’s gift for comedy and, secondly, he was dead when most of the plays were written.

Shakespeare denial might be dismissed as just a crack-pot fad but it should be fought because it is a libel. To suggest that Shakespeare was not the author of his plays removes the credit which he is entitled to and posthumously labels him a fraud. This is simply unjust and, in my opinion, immoral.

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