The random witterings of Jonathan Morris, writer.

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Shakey Ground

A few years ago I started to write a 'guide to Shakespeare' book. I never finished it; I think I'd probably bitten off more than I could chew.

Here's what would've been one of the chapters, kind of topical given the release of the film Anonymous.

Did Shakey write Shakey’s plays?

Yes of course he bloody did.

But some people don’t think Shakey wrote his plays. They’re not convinced he even existed. They think the plays were written by someone better-educated, someone from the ruling classes, someone who decided to hide their identity behind a pseudonym. If you ever meet one of these people, give them a slap, because they’re not merely wrong – they’re snobs as well.

Of course it’s unlikely that the son of a glove-maker from Stratford would be the greatest writer of all time. It’s unlikely that an Austrian patents clerk would come up with the theory of relativity but somehow he managed it. Or his wife did. The thing is, no matter how unlikely it may be that Shakey wrote all those plays, it’s still a hell of a lot more likely than any of the alternatives.

Shakey was a real person. There’s as much evidence of his existence as there is of anyone else around at the time – more so, in fact, because we’ve spent so long looking for it. We have everything from the record of his baptism to his marriage certificate to his will to the record of his burial, his signature appears on a court deposition and he’s named in a summons for threatening behaviour, he’s listed on tax records as ‘in arrears’, he’s in the cast of Ben Jonson’s Every Man In His Humour and Sejanus, he turns up on a contemporary list of ‘my top twenty-seven favourite poets, in order’ – at number thirteen - and he’s the victim of character-assassination in Robert Greene’s Groatsworth Of Wit. We have records of him receiving payments as a member of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. He’s a beneficiary in the will of one of his fellow actors, he’s named on the deeds for the Globe, a house in Blackfriars and New Place and we have his application for a coat of arms. We have records of the births and deaths of his parents, siblings, wife and children. He’s the subject of tributes shortly after his death and there are accounts of tourists visiting his monument at Straftord-Upon-Avon from 1630 onwards. If that weren’t enough, there are all the poems and plays bearing his name and, in the case of the Folio, a large picture of him on the front.

There wouldn’t be all this evidence if ‘Shakespeare’ was a pseudonym.

But assuming that an actor called Shakespeare did exist – is that enough to prove he wrote the plays? Well, it seemed enough at the time. If it was a scam, it’s a scam that took in – or required the collusion of – his fellow author Ben Jonson and his fellow actors John Heminges and Henry Condell.

That’s the problem with the conspiracy theories. Why would someone spend so much time and effort writing the plays and poems only to allow a lowly Stratford actor to take all the credit?

None of the theories has a convincing answer to this question. They have, however, come up with various candidates for the shrinking violet in question.

Number one in our list of people who didn’t write Shakey’s plays is Francis Bacon. His name was put forward by the not-entirely-coincidentally-named Delia Bacon. Apparently Francis led a team of top scribes, including Edmund The Faerie Queen Spenser and Sir Walter ‘More than a sailor’ Raleigh on a mission to improve the morale fibre of the nation. The main drawback with this theory is that we have examples of Francis Bacon’s writing - and he was crap.

Candidate number two is Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford. In his favour, he was very well-educated. Problem is, he died in 1604, which means he’d have had trouble putting references to the gunpowder plot into Macbeth or hearing about the shipwreck for The Tempest. There’s also the snag that if he did write the plays, he’d have been writing for the Lord Chamberlain’s Men – rivals to his own theatrical troupe. All this notwithstanding, it’s hard to take this theory seriously because it was dreamt up by a guy called John Thomas Looney. Who thought there was nothing remotely amusing about his name.

Third on the list is Christopher ‘Kit’ Marlowe, who would not only have to had to adopt an entirely new literary style in order to have written Shakey’s plays, he would also have to had to survive being stabbed to death in 1593.

Number four... well, to be honest, the list goes on forever. The thing is, no matter how persuasive each case may be, the best candidate for the author of Shakey’s plays always turns out to be the Bard with the beard himself.

Although he was the son of a glove-maker, he had, by our standards, an extremely thorough classical education, an average school day consisting of Latin, more Latin, and extra double Latin. It’s not implausible that a young actor would become a proficient playwright after a decade or so of touring – particularly as he’d have been learning a new play every couple of weeks.

There’s also the sheer number of references in Shakey’s plays to rural life. While you can imagine a young Stratford lad learning all about courts and Kings through play-acting, it’s hard to imagine a member of the upper classes picking up Warwickshire slang for flowers or the jargon of leather tanners.

But what really marks Shakey out as the writer of his plays is the stuff he doesn’t know. A more well-travelled writer – such as Edward de Vere – would’ve known that Venice is famous for its canals, that Bohemia hasn’t got a coastline, that Verona and Milan aren’t seaports and that the quickest way of getting from France to Spain is not by going through Italy.

And that’s the proof that Shakey wrote his plays, and not somebody better-educated from the ruling classes. Because only the son of a glove-maker from Stratford could have had such a poor grasp of basic European geography.

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