The snob theories about Shakespeare

April 23, 2016 at 6:09 am (class, conspiracy theories, literature, posted by JD, theatre)

.Credit: PA

This week marks 400 years since the death of William Shakespeare. Just as with his birthday, the exact date of death is a mystery. It is widely believed that he died on April 23rd 1616, but no official record exists. However his funeral took place two days later.

In an article first published in Solidarity (Feb 2012) Sean Matgamna examines the motives of those who seek to deny that “the Stratford man” really authored the works attributed to Shakespeare:


Many years ago I read with riveted fascination a big book on the history of the “who wrote Shakespeare” controversy: Shakespeare’s Lives, by S. Schoenbaum.

The controversy has more than a little interest for citizens of a socialist movement that has reduced itself to a sprawling archipelago of self-sealing, self-intoxicating, self-blinding sects.

The dispute about “Who wrote Shakespeare?” has raged for well over 100 years now and rages still.

Shakespeare wrote “Shakespeare”, you say? Very little is known about William Shakespeare of Stratford upon Avon. What little is known about “the Stratford man” deepens the mystery that must attach to “Shakespeare”, whoever he was. How could anybody be so universal, know so much about so many different sorts of human beings and human situations?

Those who believe that William Shakespeare of Stratford upon Avon did not write the works of “Shakespeare” are called the “anti-Stratfordians”.

How, they ask, could the small town petty-bourgeois, with at best a grammar-school education, have known courts and palaces and the secrets of the princely exercise of state power? How could he have known the things which the author of “Shakespeare” knew, and knew so amazingly well that plays he wrote about the politics of a different world can still talk to us — Richard III, or Hamlet, or Macbeth, or Coriolanus, for example — about the essentials of our own political world, 400 years later?

However you look at it, there is, as well as a dearth of hard fact about the man, an awe-inspiring mystery about the genius of Shakespeare. It is the same sort of mystery as you confront in Mozart, but far greater and with no obvious solution.

From early childhood Mozart produced a wonderful profusion of musical patterns, as if he were a medium for some force outside himself. But Shakespeare dealt with character, situations, history.

Where Mozart can, perhaps, be explained by the qualities of a unique but more or less self-sufficient musical-mathematical mind trained from infancy by his musician father, Shakespeare did not deal with patterns in his own mind, or only with patterns of sound, but with patterns in society, psychology and history. How did he know? How could he know? Where did he learn what he knew? What experiences shaped and instructed, honed and stocked that wonderful mind about the world and its inhabitants?

For now, the mystery of Shakespeare is irresoluble, and maybe it always will be. We simply do not know. And that not knowing is very unsatisfying.

Enter the anti-Stratfordians. Their game is to find the most likely “alternative Shakespeare” from among public figures who were Shakespeare’s contemporaries, men about whom, unlike “the Stratford man”, much is known, and who had a background that might explain Shakespeare’s knowledge of power, people, kings and cabals.

Was “Shakespeare” the Jacobean pioneering philosopher of science and one-time Lord Chancellor of England, Francis Bacon? Or Christopher Marlowe? Marlowe died more than 20 years before Shakespeare — but can you prove that he really died in a tavern brawl in Deptford? Maybe he, a sometime government spy involved in plots and political intrigue, went into hiding on the continent and there wrote “Shakespeare”?

Or was it, perhaps, the Earl of Oxford? Or of Southampton? There are other “alternative Shakespeares”, among them Queen Elizabeth I. Shakespeare outlived her by a dozen years. But if you know, with burning conviction that “Shakespeare” couldn’t have been Will Shakespeare, you won’t let petty details like that clutter up your theory. They are easy to explain away.

Sects have formed around favoured candidates — Marlovians, Oxfordians, Baconians. All of them try to prove the unprovable, sometimes by way of sifting through texts for secret encrypted messages from the “real Shakespeare”.

Rejecting chaste scientific restraint, and the unsatisfying, “I don’t know”, all of them have gone on from the paucity of information to passionate conviction, even to certainty taken to the point of obsession. But they have only subjective grounds of intuition, inclination, sympathy and antipathy on which to mount their conclusions. It is probably no accident that one of the founders of the first, Baconian, school of anti-Stratfordians was named… Delia Bacon.

The anti-Stratfordians, inevitably, depend on the suppression and arbitrary selection of evidence, and on an impatient dismissal of what science tells them or, to the point here, what it can’t tell them, and on special pleading for their own candidate. They fill the void in what we know and can hope to know with fantasies and projections, thrown up arbitrarily and subjectively.

And thus, over more than 100 years, the anti-Stratfordians have created a paranoid sub-culture of warring sects that parallels and overlaps with both religious and political sectarian formations, of which they are, I suppose, a hybrid specimen.

One of the beauties of the game is that anybody can play. All you need to “know” is that “Shakespeare” could not possibly have been the man fools have called “the Bard of Stratford-on-Avon”. After that. your opinion is as good as that of anyone else. Sigmund Freud was an anti-Stratfordian; so was the arch-Tory, Enoch Powell. Anybody can play!

One man, a once-prominent Tory, Duff Cooper, wrote a whole book about it — he was an Oxfordian — after it came to him in a flash of intuitive knowledge, one day in a World War I trench, that that yokel Shakespeare couldn’t possibly have written those plays. Class snobbery, rampant class conceit, seems to be a prime component of all the anti-Stratfordian schools — the gut conviction that “Shakespeare” couldn’t have been that pleb from the hick village in Warwickshire.

In his own time, Shakespeare was sneered at by some of his university-educated rivals — whose denunciation survives — as a mere grammar-school upstart crow trying to steal the plumage of his betters. The anti-Stratfordians are their still-snobby descendants.

Unlike kitsch-Trotskyist groups, which begin, or whose political ancestors began, as rational political formations, the anti-Stratfordians are not subject to the brutal but health-regenerating blows of experience. They start by discounting the only available “experience” — the evidence, such as it is — and take off from there.

Impervious to criticism, riding their intuitions, sympathies, antipathies, narcissisms, obsessions, as witches in Shakespeare’s time were said to ride their broomsticks, they can go on forever, for as long as Shakespeare is read and performed. And they probably will — “stretching out to the crack of doom”!


  1. kb72 said,

    Many of England’s literary greats came from the bourgeoisie. Dickens, George Eliot. The daughters of vicars – Jane Austen and the Brontes. And Kipling, son of an art teacher – here’s his take on how the imagination works. Take a power struggle or ruthlessness, take the pains of love and suicides among the common folk, read your Petrarch and Holinshed and then imagine:-

    The Craftsman

    ONCE, after long-drawn revel at The Mermaid,
    He to the overbearing Boanerges
    Jonson, uttered (if half of it were liquor,
    Blessed be the vintage!)

    Saying how, at an alehouse under Cotswold,
    He had made sure of his very Cleopatra,
    Drunk with enormous, salvation-contemning
    Love for a tinker.

    How, while he hid from Sir Thomas’s keepers,
    Crouched in a ditch and drenched by the midnight
    Dews, he had listened to gipsy Juliet
    Rail at the dawning.

    How at Bankside, a boy drowning kittens
    Winced at the business; whereupon his sister—
    Lady Macbeth aged seven—thrust ’em under,
    Sombrely scornful.

    How on a Sabbath, hushed and compassionate—
    She being known since her birth to the townsfolk—
    Stratford dredged and delivered from Avon
    Dripping Ophelia.

    So, with a thin third finger marrying
    Drop to wine-drop domed on the table,
    Shakespeare opened his heart till the sunrise—
    Entered to hear him.

    London wakened and he, imperturbable,
    Passed from waking to hurry after shadows …
    Busied upon shows of no earthly importance?
    Yes, but he knew it!

  2. Rilke said,

    The professional and middling classes are not by definition, the bourgeoisie. There were scribes, artists and apothecaries, smiths and so on in the ancient world, they were not shop keepers or owners and certainly not the owners and directors of captial or even trade routes The great writers tend to come for this middling class or the failed and hard up nobility. The Russians called them the raznoshets. Dosteoevsky’s father was an army doctor and a pretty poor one, so the lower middle classes not the bourgeois. The administrative caste are middling but not the bourgeois. Actually, the merchant castes were and are, pretty poor at producing artist of any kind. Are the clergy and medical practitioners, who have produced many of the great writers, the bourgoise? No. They are simply the middle classes of a bourgoise society from the modern point of view.
    We know a fair amount about Shakespeare now, more in fact than Chaucer and Dante, so all the Bardology and mystique stuff is for those that cannot stand literature and prefer pseudo detective mysteries. It is not merely class snobbery, a lot of the revenge tragedies that Shakespeare transformed were written by middling types, Marlowe was a sort of court lackey and employee, Kyde was the son of a hat maker I think, so not a bourgois. It is more to do with trying to limit the tremedous trasnformative power of Shakespeare’s work by diverting attention to worthless biographical ghost hunts. In ither words, Shakespeare’s work scares the bourgeois, it certainly does not belong to them.

  3. kb72 said,

    @ Rilke I used “bourgeois” VERY loosely, meaning “not aristocrat”. Good points though about the kind of class that produces artists. Also a lot of people can’t stand literature and prefer biography (as witness discussions of Sylvia Plath).

    I don’t want to read up on the Shakespeare pretenders. So vague knowledge only – but aren’t some diplomats and men of affairs and courtiers – the kind of men those days who’d be capable of knocking out good sonnets but not have much theatrical experience. And Shakespeare was a great exploiter of scenes – of what works in the theatre eg the opening scene in Hamlet and the dialogue of the Macbeths when Duncan is murdered. Also in writing for whatever actors were around and popular and had to be given a good part. So a scribbling fellow with a capacity for hard work having to knock up a scene for Will Kemp is my idea of him. As well as finding a good story and peopling it with distinct characters. & doing it with poetry.

  4. Political Tourist said,

    The Glasgow bigot will be along shortly to tell us it was all a Jesuit plot.

    • Glasgow Working Class said,

      Only a bigot would raise this. Jesuits were headcases in any case like Islamists.

  5. Steven Johnston said,

    “Shakespeare’s work scares the bourgeois, it certainly does not belong to them.”

    Tell that to the entertainment industry that has made millions, if not billions from his works! Scared of what? Getting run over whilst they laugh all the way to the bank?

  6. mark taha said,

    Has it occurred to some people that Shakespeare wasn’t writing history and had a good imagination?

    • Steven Johnston said,

      LOL, good point isn’t that what all play-writes should have?

  7. Rilke said,

    There is a difference between the substance of a work of art and what the culture industry attempts to do with it. The first is its essence, the other simply a function. The bourgeoise way is to turn everything into a commodity, but that cannot occur with the meanings of powerful works of literature. Only the function can be adulterated and turned into the culture industry. The functions of sex can be commodified as can affection by the romance industry, they laugh all the way to the bank too, but love is a very human substance that still resists these philistine conditions. The forceful meanings in Shakespeare iare the same. I recommend. Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory for you Steven, but you will have to read Hegel first.
    Then again…books actually cost money and are produced and distributed as well as written, so it could just be another pointless capitalist plot.

  8. Syna Flores said,

    Nice article!

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