31 October 2011


There is a movie being advertised that is based on the premise that Shakespeare did not write his plays but instead was a front man for someone more sophisticated, presumably the Earl of Oxford. This is an old theory that might work as fiction but it is not history. Indeed the film makers are doing to Shakespeare what he himself often did to historical figures- fabricating nonsense to make good drama. The theory is based on the assumption that someone with Shakespeare's ordinary, middling background could not have written so well.

But Shakespeare in fact is relatively middle-brow, and certainly in his own time, produced popular entertainment. But as the language has become more and more antiquated, and thus more difficult, it has been lifted to an intellectual level that is not there. I have often thought that non-English speakers may get a better read on Shakespeare because it is unlikely that he would be translated into arcane language.

Shakespeare had an undeniable gift for language and the stage, but this does not require a higher education and there is nothing miraculous about this. What does show through is a vague understanding of history that is not well-developed. When Shakespeare relies on sources like Plutarch he is relatively on the mark in, say, Julius Caesar, or Antony and Cleopatra. His historical figures are otherwise pretty consistently distorted, i.e. Richard III was not a hunchback, and often reflect Tudor propaganda.

Shakespeare is one of the most well-known persons in history even though parts of his life may be obscure, but the absence of information does not support fanciful conjecture. Given the passage of enough time things that we know to be true today may become hazy in future reference. Shakespeare had remarkable gifts, but his work does not require that he be an aristocrat. Shakespeare wrote his plays.

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