The infinit’th monkey

Shakespeare using Mr PicassoheadWhy do people get so aeriated about the question of who wrote Shakespeare? I’ve been listening to the Shakespeare-on-ipod podcasts (website / iTunes) and finding them increasingly unsettling.  Which is, surely, rather odd?  What does it matter who wrote the plays?  What matters is the plays themselves.  You’d think.

It does matter, though.  The traditional version is that a relatively uneducated midlander walked to London some time towards the end of the 16th century and, once there, he fell in with a rag-tail bunch of players and hustlers and wrote poetry of such startling humanity and expressiveness that it tops anything anyone else has ever written, anywhere.  Ever.  (Personally I find the plays bloody hard work, and only manageable on stage performed by really good players, but there you go).

The traditional version is demotic.  The Bard was of the people.  He was one of us.  The infinit’th monkey.  So the argument which says that whoever wrote the plays and sonnets must have been better educated, more aristocratic, had more political access and been better travelled than Shakespeare, is an argument which means that Shakespeare is no longer Everyman.  He’s no longer one of Us.  He’s one of Them.

I think the fact that it’s a conspiracy theory in doublet and hose is a side issue even though conspiracy theories are designed to be unsettling.  We like certainties, us monkeys.  If we didn’t, then we’d accept the answer “nobody knows” and conspiracy theories wouldn’t gain any credence.

You see, the dispute over who wrote the plays and sonnets of Shakespeare is about History, and evidence, and whether or not there’s enough of it to know for sure that a thing happened or didn’t happen. Its not just about the 16th and 17th centuries, it’s about History as a whole.  There’s the unsettling implication that most historical “facts” are merely hypotheses and ones which cannot be tested at that.

What history and science have in common is their reliance on evidence; but there’s no direct evidence to tell us who wrote the plays and sonnets and no possible experimental test.   What’s important isn’t who wrote the plays and sonnets, it’s that there isn’t enough evidence to answer the question.  This suggests that just about anything you learned in a history lesson could have been made up.  Now that’s subversive.  It’s also probably true, which makes it spectacularly unsettling.

If you want to know more, then Wikipedia has an accessible and well written entry on the dispute, and several on William Shakespeare himself.  By contrast, the Shakespeare-on-ipod podcasts focus on the pros of de Vere and the cons of “Shaksper”: unfortunately Mark Anderson argues from incredulity – he cannot believe that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare, he fails to mention anything that counters his argument and doesn’t admit that he’s speculating.  By contrast, the Shakespeare Authorship site is more credible because it’s much clearer about the limitations of the evidence.  What recently re-ignited my curiosity about the subject was the (reduced) summary of the authorship question by the Reduced Shakespare Company.

3 responses to “The infinit’th monkey

  1. I think that the works of Shakespeare were written, either by Shakespeare, or someone who called himself Shakespeare.
    What’s wrong with being an uncultured midlander: many of my friends are just that!

  2. I couldn’t have put it better myself, JD. It’s the inherent snobbery of the conspiracy theorists that gets me.



  3. SonofRojBlake

    If you really want to know more, Bill Bryson has just written an excellent book on Shakespeare, which I will give to you on Saturday.

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