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Last weekend, Hollywood released Anonymous, a costume drama whose promotional materials ask "Was Shakespeare a Fraud?" They're not really asking the question; the movie clearly promotes the argument that it was "really" Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, who wrote the plays. The studio has also sent out course materials to schools, so that teachers can teach students to
think critically about embrace the idea that Oxford wrote Shakespeare.
If you followed media coverage of the movie, you'd be forgiven for thinking that the "authorship controversy" is a lively and interesting debate. If you looked at the documentary record from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, you'd find that actually it's pretty boring. We have a large stack of historical documents that explicitly name William Shakespeare, the actor from Warwickshire, as the author of those plays and poems. No one from the time shows any doubt about this. We have lots of witnesses who identify Shakespeare, by name, as the writer. We have no witnesses who name Oxford, or Bacon, or anybody else. The math isn't hard.
Now, some Oxfordians will tell you that when a historical document from the sixteenth century says "William Shakespeare" that actually means "Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford," because "William Shakespeare" was his pseudonym. (I'm not making that up. That is a standard Oxfordian claim.) Why do they believe this? Because they really, really want to.
(I'm not going to go further into this issue, but if you wish to hear fuller arguments you might go here, here, here, or here; the comment thread in the last link features screenwriter John Orloff's angry and not-thoroughly-competent attempts to argue back. And the best book on this subject is James Shapiro's superb Contested Will.)
Why does this matter? Because ultimately, this conspiracy theory is about the desire to claim that Shakespeare was in the 1%. Only an aristocrat, the conspiracy theorists say, someone in a tiny elite on top of the social and economic pyramid, could have created such art. The stakes here are to make William Shakespeare's works the property of the inherited elite.
The Oxfordian argument is, in short, a crasser and crazier version of a process that is going on all the time, in which the small elite of the super-wealthy are given credit for the achievements of the rest of society. Not only are they allowed to hog the fruits of everyone else's industry and ingenuity, but they demand to be given credit for that intelligence and labor as well. (See, for example, the "job creators" meme, which imagines wealth creation in a capitalist marketplace as the gracious gift of Lord Bountiful.) The claim, ultimately, is that we NEED to coddle the 1%, because that 1% creates everything good, such as the works of Shakespeare. All those middle-class actors, poets, and audience members were just obstacles to aristocratic genius.
And the Oxfordians' campaign displays a lot of the standard features that we see in pro-elitist propaganda campaigns:
There's the fake populism, that poses as an attack on the smug "elite" of university professors, although the actual point of the whole enterprise is to take credit away from William Shakespeare and give it to someone more elite. (And for the record, I'm not asking you to take my word for any of this because I have a Ph.D. I'm simply pointing out that there's a whole pile of evidence that you could check out yourself.) Part of the point, as always, is that middle-class professionals are to be attacked when they don't serve the super-elite agenda, like those greedy, lying climate scientists.
There's the false-equivalence press coverage, with the "on-the-one-hand" lead-in, which makes each "side" of any controversy sound equally plausible even when one of those sides has, basically, nothing.
There's the paranoid shifting of the burden of proof, so that questioners demand proof that there is not a conspiracy instead of offering any proof that there might be. Can you prove that when people said "William Shakespeare" they didn't mean someone else? Can you prove that George Soros isn't behind this?
And, of course, there's the character assassination. The historical William Shakespeare can't just be presented as a middle-class man of middling education. He has to be a completely illiterate and unprincipled buffoon. (It always blows my mind that these conspiracy theories portray Elizabethan actors, who typically performed six different plays a week and tended to have two or three dozen roles in their head at a time, as unable to read. How the hell would they learn their parts?) Anyone who's not in the 1% must be lazy, stupid, and so forth. Because meritocracy, of course, is for the lazy.
Because of that, the historical inaccuracy that most enraged me about Anonymous had nothing to do with Shakespeare. It had to do with the Essex Rebellion, an actual (documented) historical event that took place in 1601. The glamorous Earl of Essex, the Earl of Southampton, and a bunch of other aristos decided to have a coup against Elizabeth. They paid Shakespeare's acting company to put on his Richard II, which is about deposing an English monarch, before the balloon went up. (Emmerich's movie gets the play wrong, but never mind.) The idea was that the people of London would rally to Essex's cause.
And in Emmerich's movie, that's what happens. The common people get so moved by watching a Shakespeare play that they charge across London Bridge as a mob, hoping to put the Earl of Essex on the English throne. (In Emmerich's movie Essex is secretly Elizabeth's son, as are Southampton, Oxford, and heaven knows who else. Can you prove they weren't?) And then Elizabeth's soldiers massacre them with cannon, on London Bridge.
That is a lie. No one rallied to Essex. No force was used against the citizens who rallied to his side, because none of them did. Angry crowds had formed in London before, and they would again, but no one ran into the streets to fight for the right of an over-entitled aristocrat to get even more of his way. Essex was in fact counting on the public to rally behind him. They did not. His revolt was over before the afternoon was.
So whatever else you choose to believe, let's amend that historical lie. Essex, the entitled aristocrat, was not the hero, and the people of London did not view his botched revolution as heroic.
Some of the wealthy and privileged have done great things with their wealth. Others have not. But there's no need to rewrite history to suit the fantasies of the uppermost class.