William Shakespeare was apparently an illiterate actor used as a front man for the purpose of anonymous publication by Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, a true born English noble, or perhaps not. Intimations of incest with the Virgin Queen are also part of the tale. The first person to develop the Oxford theory in 1918 was J Thomas Looney who didn’t take his publisher’s advice to use a pseudonym. Looney is not responsible for the Queen Elizabeth as Oxford’s mother & / or lover aspects of the storyline as that was developed by later loons.
What the anti William Shakespeare crew really object to is the idea that a mere provincial bourgeois could have written works which resonate down the ages. It must have been a nobleman they say; a commoner would not have the breadth of education to devise such stories. Never mind that Shakespeare, in common with other playwrights of the era, begged, borrowed and stole from other texts and plays quite freely without much effort to cover his tracks. There was no copyright law, and plays were not necessarily printed and preserved for a general readership (there wasn’t much of a market) or for academic study when Cambridge and Oxford University’s concentrated on the Greek and Roman classics. The loons fail to understand that Shakespeare lived in a performance economy where there was virtually no such thing as a secondary market for his plays as books, no residual royalty payments to be had, no film or TV tie in fees, and no provincial tours for the hit London plays. William Shakespeare, playwright, made his money from bums on seats at the Globe. That’s why he kept turning them out. To reverse the onus of proof back to the Loons: could an aristocrat with so many other responsibilities to take care of in his day job have produced so many good quality plays on a part time basis? No doubt it became even more difficult for him after he died in 1604.
Becoming Shakespeare by Jack Lynch tells the story of Shakespeare’s life after death: how the plays came to be published, how they were received through history, and how Shakespeare’s reputation as a playwright continued to grow and grow for the 200 years after his death. Needless to say a history of this sort features a few crazed and bitchy writers, the odd drama queen (of both sexes) and a few entrepreneurs, moralists and politicians all looking for a piece of Will.
Some of the more entertaining stories relate how writers and theatre producers in the 17th and 18th centuries did their own remakes of Shakespeare’s plays adding bits where required as well as removing inappropriate or inconvenient characters and scenes to meet the audience expectations. Apparently there were two concurrent versions of Romeo and Juliet playing on alternate nights: the traditional version and the “happily ever after” version on the following night. You can see why there would be a demand for Romeo, Juliet and a nice sunset, but the need for a happy ending to King Lear escapes me. Lynch does point out that our era likes to run with textual fidelity while playing fast and loose with costumes and props. The MTC did a great production of Julius Caesar in the late 1990’s with John Stanton as the political alpha male in modern dress dispensing soundbite grabs to the assembled media chorus. There are plenty of other modern dress up Shakespeare productions which are a source of consternation for some.
And as with all good art there have been at different times competing “readings” of his plays. An Englishman playing Macbeth on the opposite side of the street to an American in New York in 1849 led to the Astor Place riots, one of the most significant pre Civil War convulsions in the city. Poles in the Communist era cheered wildly at Hamlet saying “Denmark’s a prison”, while a London production of Henry V in 2003 led to debates about dubious foreign wars.
I was inspired by Lynch’s book to have a look at King John because it was more popular in the C19 and I wanted to see how Shakespeare had portrayed one of English history’s top two cartoon villain kings. Did he come out as badly as the Robin Hood shows portray him, or was there something more to the king who, under duress, signed the Magna Carta. Unfortunately I haven’t got past the dodgy history of military technology in Act 1 Scene 1 where John tells the French ambassador they will hear his cannons roar. This was only one hundred and forty years before the Battle of Crecy.
Lynch’s final conclusion on Will Shakespeare, poorly educated provincial playwright, is that over time he forced the revision of the standards of literary excellence as the elements in his work that sixteenth century critics marked him down for came to be seen as less important, and his strengths came to be increasingly valued. He changed the rules of the game. Lynch tells us we can be sure Shakespeare was a genius because, quoting Jonathan Bate, ‘genius’ was a category invented in order to account for what was peculiar about Shakespeare.