This Ruthless World

Adventures in absurdity

The Other Birther Movement

Oh, shut up, birthers. There was only one man who wrote the works of William Shakespeare. His name was William Shakespeare.

One of the most puzzling and maddening non-controversies in literature is the spurious question of the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays. Since Shakespeare’s life is pretty well-documented for a 16th-century commoner, and since there is not a shred of evidence (not a single inscription, not one letter) suggesting that anyone else wrote any of the works attributed to him, the anti-Stratfordian movement (as the birthers are formally called) revolves entirely around Shakespeare’s background and personality, his supposed personal lack of fitness to wear the laurels as the immense colossus of English-language poetry and theater, the inventor of modern English in all its glory and one of the greatest artists in all of history.

Anti-Stratfordian arguments are invariably ludicrous. It is suggested, for instance, that Christopher Marlowe wrote Shakespeare. There is, of course, the little matter of Marlowe predeceasing Shakespeare by over twenty years. Plus, since I’ve actually read both Shakespeare and Marlowe, I can’t help but suspect that anti-Stratfordians, busy as they are with conspiracy theories, haven’t even deigned to familiarize themselves with the subject matter: although both playwrights wrote in the same tradition and followed the same technical conventions, their expressive styles are completely different. But no matter: Marlowe must have faked his death! And he must have completely changed his style, to sound like a totally different person! Surely, this is a far, far saner and more reasonable explanation than the fantastical idea that a well-known and popular actor and playwright actually wrote the works attributed to him by his contemporaries.

Then there is the matter of Shakespeare supposedly not being educated enough to have inserted all that text in French and Latin and talked about places in Italy and the Mediterranean. Once again, I suspect the anti-Stratfordians haven’t bothered to read Shakespeare’s plays. In terms of trivia, these plays demonstrate a smattering of academic knowledge, a word here, a phrase there, with occasional name-dropping. As for geographical issues, Shakespeare never went beyond naming cities and giving his characters foreign-sounding names. His plays set in far-away lands are in the realm of pure fantasy, devoid of anything that may be perceived as factual. What erudition he did demonstrate would have been consistent with having a 16th-century equivalent of a high school diploma and living in a cosmopolitan port city with plenty of opportunities to pick up foreign names and phrases; and, moreover, writing for the masses, no matter how highbrow these works may be considered today. Then again, I don’t equate lacking a university education with being stupid.

Amazingly, Shakespeare is the only writer (besides Sholokhov, but I think there is some merit there) whose authorship is relentlessly attacked. No one questions whether Homer wrote Homer, although we have no historical evidence that Homer even existed; the fact that works were attributed to a man by that name seems to be enough to establish both that he was a real person and that he wrote his epics. No one questions the authorship of Plato’s dialogues, despite not a single scroll surviving that we know to be in Plato’s hand. But with Shakespeare, there is a singular bending over backwards — not even so much to prove that someone else wrote his plays as to prove that he didn’t. As Harold Bloom, a preeminent Shakespearean scholar once observed of the birther movement, almost any contemporary of Shakespeare’s could have written Shakespeare, except Shakespeare himself.

People have long picked up on the fact that the problem here is Shakespeare’s humble background. Every other candidate put forth is either an aristocrat or a university graduate (or both). But I would submit that the resentment Shakespeare inspires in a small minority of people goes much deeper than that. It’s not just that Shakespeare was of a humble background — his background, besides being not distinguished enough, was not humble enough either. It’s not just that he was not rich — he wasn’t poor enough either. It’s not just that he was not particularly handsome — he wasn’t ugly in an interesting way, either. In other words, Shakespeare was depressingly ordinary.

The Bard was born in a provincial town, one that would have been just another stop on the commuter rail, if not for the fact that it is his birthplace. His father was a glove merchant — a man not altogether poor and not exactly well-to-do, but just prosperous enough to send his boy to a grammar school and no further. Portraits and sketches of Shakespeare show a bland-looking man with a big head and a receding hairline. His funerary effigy reveals that towards the end of his life he had grown a tad fat. It is curious that every movie to portray Shakespeare (except for the latest Anonymous, which sounds like a shameful calumny, anyway) makes Shakespeare appear considerably more attractive than he was in real life.

A look at his activities reveals someone who was decidedly mercantile and practical. There were some rumors shortly after he died (though they’ve never been verified) that he had worked as a butcher at one time. The very first birther article I read, as a child, argued that Shakespeare’s stint as a butcher is proof positive he did not write the works attributed to him — because butchering is such a rude, lowly, dirty trade. In his middle years, he lent money at interest. When his creditors fell behind on payments, he did not hesitate to take them to court. He wrote much about love, but married a woman eight years his senior and, as far as we know, was never in love in a proper romantic fashion. In his will, he left his elder daughter his “best bed” and to his widow, his “second best bed”. Shakespeare the Man is not lofty. What we have of his biography is full of such details, this small detritus of life, that reveals him to have been a shrewd money manager, a calculating businessman, a member of the lower middle class who knew how to stretch the pound. And unlike his flashy and cool contemporary, Marlowe, who spent his short life courting controversy, Shakespeare was in all likelihood sedately religious. He lived a very ordinary, quiet 16th century life, rising early, working hard and saving money.

How could someone so … common have written

In me thou seest the glowing of such fire
As on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the deathbed whereon it must expire
Consumed with that which it was nourished by.

and so forth and so on? Bloom has observed that one of the psychological reasons behind the Shakespeare-birther movement is that it is almost impossible to know what Shakespeare really thought in his heart. Was his poetry an outpouring of a beautiful soul, or was he merely a skillful and cynical manipulator of words, who treated his own masterpieces purely as commercial products and his calling as just a job? This is a man, after all, who invented comic relief, which speaks volumes about how keenly he observed his audiences and how intelligently he interpreted those observations. Was he then a rare philosopher or merely a cold and detached surgeon of human emotions?

Every fictional portrayal of Shakespeare or some man some would like to have been the real genius behind Shakespeare reveals exactly what we look for in our geniuses, especially ones with monickers like The Bard. Rich or poor, aristocratic or humble, we like our bards to be tortured geniuses who fall in love with hopelessly unavailable beauties, we want them to throw and break things in agony instead of rating their beds. We want them to face adversity and be misunderstood, and suffer ill treatment at the hands of stupid vulgarians. We want someone like Shakespeare (or “Shakespeare”) to be a tragic, melancholy figure with languid eyes, not some bald, pudgy guy who, had he lived today, would have been some Josh from Milwaukee.

Years ago, I saw a documentary about Jacques Derrida, a celebrated French philosopher. At one point, the film crew followed Derrida into his home, a dark and cluttered Parisian apartment (as all Parisian apartments are, except in Hollywood movies). He went into the kitchen to make himself lunch — some eggplant that his wife had pickled in a plastic container. He sliced the eggplant on a plate, he mumbled something silly to the cat. There was something fascinating and incongruous about this man, one of the greatest thinkers of the 20th century, doing something so banal, so ordinary. As much as I realized my reaction made no sense, the sight of all this — the plastic container, the basic utensils, the old man in a sweater slicing homemade pickled vegetables while mumbling some nonsense as if he were just like everyone else caught me by surprise and struck me as bizarre. I don’t know, perhaps somewhere in the back of my mind, I expected Derrida to always be dignified and articulate, and to say nothing but really deep things. Judging from the snickering in the audience, I wasn’t the only one who reacted this way. It is truly fascinating, the ordinariness of exraordinary people, and how it surprises some and unsettles others.

And then I thought of Shakespeare and how the banality of his background and personal life, which he never bothered to conceal, has led snobs to doubt his authorship. Shrewd and brilliant as he was, he clearly could use the services of a clever agent.

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6 thoughts on “The Other Birther Movement

  1. And then there’s the Sir Francis Bacon theory too!

    This is a great summary of the Shakespeare “birther” (!) controversy. I’m glad I stumbled across it. I love the tie-in with the Derrida documentary too. Thank goodness Shakespeare didn’t live like one of his characters, or we wouldn’t have such a vast library of works from him.

  2. mutantpoodle on said:

    The whole “who really wrote Shakespeare” meme is a pet peeve of my sister, the Early Modern England Scholar. I am pleased that Anonymous, the most recent cinematic tripe on this subject, failed miserably…

  3. Early Modern Scholar on said:

    As MutantPoodle’s sister, (alas, not Shakespeare’s), I’d like to thank you — there is something particularly delicious for a historian of early modern England in using a film about Derrida to reflect on the “Shakespeare couldn’t have…” trope. Using any standards of evidence that are usually accepted by historians, there is no doubt that Shakespeare was Shakespeare.

  4. Excellent piece. And I am sure you are right.

  5. Though I think it would have been normal to leave his daughter the best bed (the one they kept for visitors, I expect) and his wife the second-best (the one they had slept in together?).

    • Beds in the early 17th century were still luxury items, so the fact alone that the Shakespeares had at least three of them (judging by the wording of the will) shows that the family had achieved a fair degree of affluence. And so the bequest of any bed would have been very generous. Regardless of who slept in the best bed prior to Shakespeare’s death, leaving it to the daughter made sense because she and her husband were young and would do best with a newer, sturdier, more luxurious bed.

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