Such Stuff Dreams Are Made On?: My Thoughts on the Shakespeare Conspiracy Theories

Out of all of the movies I’m dreading coming out in fall, the one that upsets me the most is Anonymous, a big-budget period piece that claims Shakespeare wasn’t the Shakespeare we know, and all of that jazz.  If you haven’t yet heard of the movie, here’s the preview.

The reason why I’m absolutely dreading the release is is that it’ll start up the whole Shakespeare authorship debate on a whole new level.  At just about any social gathering, if you mention anything to do with Shakespeare, or even quote the bard, there’s always some reprobate who presses forward and says we’ve all been bamboozled, and that Shakespeare’s writings were by Marlowe, or several people, or the Duke of Oxford, and so on, then suddenly the conversation’s no longer about what Shakespeare wrote but who he was.  At that point, Shakespeare’s no longer a poet but a celebrity–one to be talked about in the same breath as Charlie Sheen and Tiger Woods.

To sum up my point in one sentence:  The conspiracy behind Shakespeare is that there is no conspiracy.   To elaborate, my theory on how the mind works is that the hardest thing for us to accept is the mundane side of reality, the banal, and the quotidian.  I think we generally like to fantasize, to extrapolate, and to escape into odd reveries.  We don’t like to believe in the everyday lives of our idols.  Along this line, what we can’t picture isn’t that Shakespeare was more complex than we imagined, but that he may have been considerably more normal than we give him credit for.

I would imagine that Shakespeare had a rather boring, prosaic life.  Kiss the missis goodbye in the morning, check on the kids, head off to the theater, and write at night… repeat, repeat, repeat.  Go out drinking now and then, read a few classics, and go to church on Sunday.  In popular belief, Shakespeare is seen as this dashing character who always speaks as beautifully as he writes.  Realistically, this is doubtful.  How many of us can really say in conversation things as brilliant as what we come up with in solitude, when we have ample time to craft sentences?  I would imagine Shakespeare mumbled and muttered and found himself at a loss for words like the rest of us.

In the conspiracist belief, Shakespeare was a front for Francis Bacon or Philip Marlowe or the Earl of Oxford, used by them so that they could avoid arrest for the subversion of their plays.  First off, in Shakespeare plays, the subversive ideals are so frequently curbed so as not to raise the alarm of censors, and even if they weren’t, would they incite revolt or anything bad enough to seriously annoy Queen Elizabeth or King James?  Hamlet itself, with the play-within-the-play, seems to suggest that plays themselves are ineffective as mediums for revolution, as the performace does little to raise suspicion about Claudius.

I can see where some of the conspiracy theorists are coming from.  Isn’t it more romantic to picture a man fearing public execution fervently writing plays in cloak-and-dagger settings than it is to picture a guy sitting around writing and talking to acquaintances about the weather?  If the conspiracy was no more than a fun deleusion I wouldn’t mind it so much, but there’s also an insidious negative component to the theory.

One of the main points conspiracy theorists bring up to support their claim that the man who was Shakespeare was a fraud was that he didn’t receive a high education, nor did he have a noble birth.  This makes the conspiracy vile.  They are saying because Shakespeare wasn’t rich and born to the elite, he couldn’t have written such beautiful plays.  Things take a weird turn here.  It now seems the Shakespeare conspiracy was itself started as a conspiracy by the elite.

For centuries, the very rich have been trying to claim Shakespeare as their own.  Now, when you mention Shakespeare, people usually attach to his name a certain high-falutin or hoidy-toidy quality, or say “too rich for my blood.”  This is unfortunate because in many ways Shakespeare was a friend to the working man.  At his plays at the Globe Theater, it’s been recorded that most of his audience was made up of commoners, specifically young male artisans were frequently in attendance, likely having snuck off from work to see a show.  The main part of the audience stood on dirt.  Food was sold and ate during performances.  Women brought their children.  If the rich did decide to come at all, they sat in a special seating section.  Now, Shakespeare is largely inaccessible to most.  Live theater is so rarely attended, and tickets for Shakespeare are at least $30.

To make matters worse, Shakespeare has been severely whitewashed over the years.  In school, if you’re taught Shakespeare, you’re probably not taught to notice his bawdy humor.  For example, I’ve heard the line “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them,” quoted frequently, without the speaker realizing it’s actually a raunchy pick-up line from Twelth Night.  So by glossing over the low-brow humor, Shakespeare doesn’t seem “low-class.”

The conspiracy itself suggestst then that someone cannot be a genius, artistic or otherwise, unless they are sufficiently rich or receive ample higher-education.  It doesn’t take into account that people can (and do) educate themselves from available reading sources, or that poetry has very little to do with education to begin with.

Was Shakespeare so well-read that it’s impossible he could’ve been the man we think he was?  From everything I’ve read of Shakespeare, it seems that he hadn’t actually read a huge amount of literature.  For instance, many of his plays’ source material trace back to two books: Lives by Plutarch (Antony and Cleopatra, Julius Caesar, and Coriolanus) and Chronicle by Raphael Holinshed (Macbeth, King Lear, and many of the Histories).  Those two books weren’t particularly hard to come by either.  I don’t think a man would have to be an Ivy league scholar to read two books.  I don’t think you have to be of the upper-class to know “little Latin and less Greek” either.

Jorge Luis Borges has a story called Everything and Nothing that suggests, if I understand it correctly, that Shakespeare was able to create so many personalities because he himself had none.  The story ends with God himself telling Shakespeare that he is “many, yet no one.”  While I wouldn’t go so far as to say Shakespeare was devoid of personality, I’d assume he led what was, for the most part, a quiet and happy life, free of the tumults that are depicted in Anonymous.

By the way, wouldn’t Anonymous, if anything, in the long run discredit the conspiracy’s verity since the director is the guy who gave us Godzilla, 2012 and Independence Day?

Another reason why I hate the conspiracy about Shakespeare is that it’ll prompt people not to read his work for the pleasure of it but to find hidden clues as to deeper secrets, like how The Da Vinci Code ruined Da Vinci for a couple years, or how people listen to The Beatles to prove that Paul is dead, or how people read Pynchon then say he’s actually William Gaddis or J.D. Salinger.

Also, it’s unfortunate a Radiohead song plays in the trailer.

To read aboud different movies coming out in the next couple of months, click here.

I’ve written a book (or have I?).

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One thought on “Such Stuff Dreams Are Made On?: My Thoughts on the Shakespeare Conspiracy Theories

  1. I was always under the impression that Shakespeare was in reality a code term for a group of writers called the illumini illuminaters (they were the illuminati behind the illuminati) who spent all their time talking to aliens and writing semi-controversial for its time plays about either old historical figures (that had actually been aliens) or loosely based of ancient mythology, and the only way to truly divine their meaning and appreciate their genius was to read the plays upside under water—and to have alien friends. But after reading your controversial theory I will have to re-think my ideas.

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