We seldom know what our adversaries are doing behind our backs until it’s too late, but sometimes, when we are fortunate, they expose themselves without realizing it.
Writing in the Washington Post, Stanley Wells, doyen of Shakespeare scholars, asserts that there is “overwhelming evidence” that “William Shakespeare from Stratford-upon-Avon wrote the plays and poems for which he is famous.” To prove this, he devotes much of his argument to pointing out that those who disagree with it don’t always agree with each other! Wells cites an American lawyer who expressed doubts about the Stratfordian’s authorship in 1848. Then,
“The [anti-Stratfordian] heresy grew in force in the following years, and since then at least 60 candidates, including Queen Elizabeth I, have been proposed as the ‘real’ Shakespeare. In recent times the most popular have been [Francis] Bacon, playwright Christopher Marlowe, and Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, but the list increases year by year and has been extended recently with Sir Henry Neville and Lady Mary Sidney.”
Wells doesn’t see how easily this trite argument could be turned around. A Baconian might with equal logic point out, “The anti-Baconians have never been able to agree; they have proposed over 60 candidates, including the Stratford man, Christopher Marlowe, the Earl of Oxford, and even Queen Elizabeth I, and their list keeps growing every year.”
Any number can play this game. Hitler might have argued that the opponents of National Socialism were inconsistent: they included Bolsheviks, Christians, democrats, monarchists, libertarians, and so on. Or think how President Bush could use the same kind of reasoning against critics of the Iraq war, if he’s not already doing it.
According to Wells’s way of thinking, the greater the number of people who disagree with you, and the more various their reasons and alternatives, the stronger your own position must be. Wells goes on: “It often seems as though the anti-Stratfordians don’t really care who wrote the plays so long as he was a well-educated and well-traveled man (or, rarely, woman), preferably of aristocratic birth.”
No, Mr. Wells, I think I speak for everyone you want to ridicule: we care very much who wrote the plays, and it’s far from a matter of mere pedigree or even education. The authorship question comes down to the individual characteristics of the author, many of which seem to be disclosed in his Sonnets. Do all those who reject the Stratford man have a duty to be unanimous?
To most people nowdays, who barely think at all, bigotry means hating people of other races. But bigotry doesn’t always mean that sort of hate, or indeed any sort of hate. More basically, it means a sort of stupidity: indignant bafflement that others can disagree with you, along with an inability to comprehend why they do and a refusal to deal with the reasons they actually give.
The term may apply to any side in any argument — to the liberal believer in evolution as well as to his fundamentalist opponent, and to the Stratfordian professor as well as to the anti-Stratfordian amateur (who has at least had to learn how his opponents really do think). The loose ascription of bigotry is itself a form of bigotry. I sometimes think bigot has become the real bigots’ favorite word.
Sorry, Mr. Wells, I can’t accept responsibility for those who believe Queen Elizabeth I was the real Shakespeare. The Sonnets would seem to point to a man — an aging man, by his own description “old,” “in disgrace,” “despised,” “poor,” “lame,” despairing, worried about his “name,” expecting and hoping to be “forgotten” after his death (though he also expects his poetry to have “immortal life”), probably bisexual.
Why, it sounds very much like what is known of that Earl of Oxford, doesn’t it? It doesn’t quite seem to fit Bacon, Marlowe, Elizabeth I — or the Stratford man. Maybe this is why so many of your colleagues dismiss those Sonnets as “fictions,” useless to biographers — and of course inadmissible evidence in the authorship debate.
Yes, some anti-Stratfordians are outlandish. Does it follow that all anti-Stratfordianism, of every sort, is inherently outlandish? Only if the belief that some authors use pseudonyms — and that William Shakespeare was a pen name — is a bizarre conspiracy theory.