The Zombie Argument that Refuses to Die

While it gives more credence to the naysayers than it should, Shakespeare Beyond Doubt excellently marshalls the evidence over the authorship of the bard's plays

We live, it seems, in a world of zombies. The economic crisis has created a host of metaphorical zombies-zombie banks, zombie companies, zombie households, all kept moving, if not exactly alive, by artificially low interest rates. The life of the mind also has its metaphorical zombies. In particular, there are zombie arguments, which can never be finally killed. No matter how often they are — you might think — overwhelmed by evidence to the contrary, these arguments find new advocates, are reanimated, get unsteadily to their feet, and stumble groggily onwards.

A prime example of such a zombie is the denial that the plays of Shakespeare were written by William Shakespeare, and the accompanying claim that in fact they were written by Francis Bacon, or the Earl of Oxford, or Christopher Marlowe, or even Queen Elizabeth I. It’s worth just pausing for a moment, as we stand on the brink of an engagement with these assertions and before we have begun to consider their glaring weaknesses, to summarise the evidence for the straightforward view that William Shakespeare of Stratford wrote the plays attributed to him.

In the first place, in Shakespeare’s lifetime plays were often written in a collaborative manner involving other playwrights, and also at moments drawing on contributions from the actors in the company which would perform the play (and which would also then own the playbook). This open and collaborative mode of composition would have made it virtually impossible for someone to pass off their work as that of someone else. The process of creating a play in Shakespeare’s age was too public and involved too many people for a conspiracy over authorship to be sustained.

Secondly, many of Shakespeare’s contemporaries — Robert Greene, William Covell, Richard Barnfield, Francis Meres, Gabriel Harvey, John Weever, William Camden, William Drummond, John Webster, Michael Drayton, Francis Beaumont, and, most extensively, Ben Jonson — all wrote or spoke about Shakespeare as the author of the plays which bear his name. If there was a conspiracy over Shakespeare’s authorship of his plays, then it either involved or took in a very large number of well-placed contemporaries, a number of whom (such as Robert Greene) would have been delighted to discover that Shakespeare was a fraud. But there is in fact, as James Shapiro observed in his astute and perceptive book on the Shakespeare authorship controversy, Contested Will (2010), much more evidence that Shakespeare wrote King Lear and Hamlet and Henry V than there is that Marlowe wrote Tamburlaine or that Kyd wrote The Spanish Tragedy. Yet — strangely — there is no Marlowe or Kyd authorship debate.

Nor was there a Shakespeare authorship debate for more than two centuries after his death. Nobody before the mid-19th century ever doubted that Shakespeare was the author of the plays that bear his name (documents seeming to show that similar doubts were present in the 18th century have been shown to be forgeries). Why did this curious heresy suddenly spring up?  

“What is poetry,” says Coleridge, “is so nearly the same question with, what is a poet? that the answer to the one is involved in the solution of the other.” It is this Romantic approximation of the poet and the poem that laid the foundations for the doubts over Shakespeare’s authorship of his plays. Readers of those plays who had imbibed such Romantic notions of authorship — notions quite foreign to the milieu in which Shakespeare wrote — concluded that a humbly born boy from an obscure Midland town could never have written these dramas, many of which bring on stage kings and nobles, and are set in foreign lands. There had to be some counterpart in the life of the playwright to these aristocratic features of his work. Hence the theory of a nobly born author who was obliged to disguise his authorship because of the indignity of writing for the public stage. However, for those blessed with deeper insight the true authorship of the plays was concealed within them, either in a tissue of hints and obliquities, or in codes and ciphers which, when handled by an adept, could be made to yield up the identity of the genuine playwright. It is hard to write in measured language about the snobbery which underlies these theories, and the confusion of mind which accompanied their articulation.

The Bible warns us of the difficulty that lies in wait for any attempt to cleanse the minds of others. Proverbs 26:4-5 offers us wise, but also bafflingly contradictory advice:

Answer not a fool according to his folly,

Lest thou also be like unto him.

Answer a fool according to his folly,

Lest he be wise in his own conceit.

For a long time the academy was more anxious about becoming “like unto” the folly of the Shakespeare deniers, and so the various assertions of the Baconians, the Oxfordians, and their motley associates went largely unchallenged.

More recently, alarmed by the revival in, if not exactly the strength, then at least the activity of the Shakespeare deniers, the academy changed its stance to one of engagement. Suddenly, the greater harm seemed to lie in allowing the Shakespeare deniers to be “wise in their own conceit”.  Shakespeare Beyond Doubt marshalls the evidence for the conventional view of Shakespeare’s authorship, and examines the arguments of the deniers with (one often feels) more care and meticulousness than they really deserve — certainly, with more care and meticulousness than the deniers have ever shown to the arguments of others. Will this salutary book, however, succeed in mortifying the conceit of the Shakespeare deniers?  Unlikely, I fear.

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