The Neverending Will Shakespeare Conspiracy Theory

File:ShakespeareRandy Dotinga writes for the Christian Science Monitor that despite theories like those in the new movie Anonymous that William Shakespeare was someone else entirely, drama professor Scott McCrea says conspiracy theories surrounding the playwright are all false:

This weekend, thousands of moviegoers will get their first glimpse of the theory that the playwright and poet named William Shakespeare wasn’t a balding guy named William Shakespeare. “Anonymous,” starring Vanessa Redgrave, suggests a grand conspiracy obscured the true identity of the Bard of Avon. (Well, make that the Bard of Not-Avon.)

The Will-wasn’t-Will idea isn’t ancient, but it’s not entirely new either. Ever since the 19th century, skeptics have been questioning whether an upper-middle class man with a rather ordinary background could have become one of the most influential humans of all time.

Recent books have debunked the doubters, including 2010′s “Contested Will,” by Shakespearean scholar James Shapiro (you can read my review here) and 2005′s “The Case for Shakespeare: The End of the Authorship Question,” by Scott McCrea, a drama professor at Purchase College, State University of New York.

This week, I asked McCrea about the history of Shakespeare conspiracy theories and why he thinks they’re, to borrow a phrase, “the stuff that dreams are made on.”

Q: When did people start wondering if Shakespeare was actually Shakespeare?

A: In the mid-19th century, when there was a guy who wrote a book and claimed that Shakespeare lacked erudition and could not have been very well educated, so it must have been [famed writer] Ben Jonson must have been the real writer of the plays. He writes these plays about dukes and earls, yet he was a commoner, a son of a glover. How could he have written these plays? Then people thought it must have been Francis Bacon. He was the most learned man of his time, and Shakespeare was the most learned man of his time, so they must have been the same guy…

[continues in the Christian Science Monitor]

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  • Liam_McGonagle

    All good points.  General historical ignorance, social prejudice, jealousy; sure, they’re all powerful reasons for why a person might refuse to be persuaded by the evidence.  But I sometimes wonder if there isn’t an equally powerful yet benign explanation:  the desire to keep the fantasy going. 

    It’s kind of a let down to find out that the wordsmith that an entire culture has latched its collective imagination to was an ordinary man, subject to the banalities of gas, dandruff and foot odor just like the rest of us.  Kind of kills the magic of the moment when your mental image of the Henry V’s speech before Agincourt is interrupted by a vision of bald, pot-bellied Shakespeare being hounded by his wife about what they should have for dinner.

    I can accept that rationalization.  Allow the fictional work to take on a life of its own, independant of the mundane biographical details of its author’s life.

  • Anonymous

    All good points.  General historical ignorance, social prejudice, jealousy; sure, they’re all powerful reasons for why a person might refuse to be persuaded by the evidence.  But I sometimes wonder if there isn’t an equally powerful yet benign explanation:  the desire to keep the fantasy going. 

    It’s kind of a let down to find out that the wordsmith that an entire culture has latched its collective imagination to was an ordinary man, subject to the banalities of gas, dandruff and foot odor just like the rest of us.  Kind of kills the magic of the moment when your mental image of the Henry V’s speech before Agincourt is interrupted by a vision of bald, pot-bellied Shakespeare being hounded by his wife about what they should have for dinner.

    I can accept that rationalization.  Allow the fictional work to take on a life of its own, independant of the mundane biographical details of its author’s life.

  • Anonymous

    All good points.  General historical ignorance, social prejudice, jealousy; sure, they’re all powerful reasons for why a person might refuse to be persuaded by the evidence.  But I sometimes wonder if there isn’t an equally powerful yet benign explanation:  the desire to keep the fantasy going. 

    It’s kind of a let down to find out that the wordsmith that an entire culture has latched its collective imagination to was an ordinary man, subject to the banalities of gas, dandruff and foot odor just like the rest of us.  Kind of kills the magic of the moment when your mental image of the Henry V’s speech before Agincourt is interrupted by a vision of bald, pot-bellied Shakespeare being hounded by his wife about what they should have for dinner.

    I can accept that rationalization.  Allow the fictional work to take on a life of its own, independant of the mundane biographical details of its author’s life.

  • Redacted

    ” Ever since the 19th century, skeptics have been questioning whether an upper-middle class man with a rather ordinary background could have become one of the most influential humans of all time”

    Thats true. It’s not like a failed painter, a seminary school dropout, a history teacher, farmer, or hermit has ever done anything influential.

    • Redacted

      Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Mao, Zhuge Liang for those wondering.

      I could also add Lao-Tzu as a hermit. Jesus as a Priest (Rabbi), along with Muhammed as a Shepherd.

  • Anonymous

    ” Ever since the 19th century, skeptics have been questioning whether an upper-middle class man with a rather ordinary background could have become one of the most influential humans of all time”

    Thats true. It’s not like a failed painter, a seminary school dropout, a history teacher, farmer, or hermit has ever done anything influential.

  • Malaclypse the Younger

    Plz bitches. Everyone knows Shakes-man was Francis Bacon. 

    • Andrew

      Don’t be ridiculous.  Francis Bacon was born in 1909.

      • Anarchy Pony

        Might wanna check your math on that one.

        • Liam_McGonagle

          I think it was a joke, referring to the 20th century Irish painter.

          Or is there another layer here that I’m missing?

          That’s the fun thing about Disinfo–like playing a game of Star Trek 3-Dimensional Chess.  A double entendre here would be regarded as a crude instrument indeed.

  • Malaclypse the Younger

    Plz bitches. Everyone knows Shakes-man was Francis Bacon. 

  • Anonymous

    Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Mao, Zhuge Liang for those wondering.

  • Andrew

    Don’t be ridiculous.  Francis Bacon was born in 1909.

  • Wlater

    You´re the theorist, your brain knows nothing. You´re an imbecile. 

  • Wlater

    You´re the theorist, your brain knows nothing. You´re an imbecile. 

  • Anti-Citizen1

    Might wanna check your math on that one.

  • Anonymous

    I think it was a joke, referring to the 20th century Irish painter.

    Or is there another layer here that I’m missing?

    That’s the fun thing about Disinfo–like playing a game of Star Trek 3-Dimensional Chess.  A double entendre here would be regarded as a crude instrument indeed.

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