The Primacy of the Bard

SOS has a nice post over at her blog about the latest effort of anti-Stratfordians in claiming that Shakespeare didn't write the works of Shakespeare.

I thought about blogging about this yesterday, but decided against it. I just commented at Someday Satori, because this topic really makes my blood boil. I agree with SOS that the arugment that Shakespeare's illiterate family negates the possibility of his ability to become a poet is absolutely elitist and belies the fact that we are still uncomfortable with the idea that intelligent people come from all backgrounds. Plus people just love a conspiracy (the conspiracy has been around since the 18th century).

The arguments being made by the current group contains some of the usual. From the BBC online:

The 287-strong Shakespeare Authorship Coalition says it is not possible that the bard's plays - with their emphasis on law - could have been penned by a 16th Century commoner raised in an illiterate household.

The group asks if one man alone could have come up with his works. It asks why most of his plays are set among the upper classes, and why Stratford-upon-Avon is never referred to in any of his plays.

"How did he become so familiar with all things Italian so that even obscure details in these plays are accurate?" the group adds.


I am tired of hearing about the "illiterate household." As I mentioned in my comments elsewhere most early modern playwrights did not come from the elite: Jonson was a bricklayer; Marlowe's father's was a shoemaker; Webster's father hired and sold coaches; Middleton's step-father was a bricklayer and merchant. The playhouses offered job opportunities to young men who had access to excellent education in their childhoods. And many were of the first generation to have that access. Thus, Shakespeare had much more education than his father because Shakespeare benefitted from Elizabethan reforms creating education for all males of the middling sort. He was like a first generation college student (although he didn't go to college ... which I suspect bothers some anti-Stratfordians).

In the context of the other playwrights of his period, much of the rest of the argument falls apart. The idea that Shakespeare is so accurate in portraying the Italians and the upper classes doesn't really suggest anything, since most of the other playwrights wrote about these groups too.* Everyone wrote about Italians. That's just what was in vogue. Writing about Italy (and Spain) was exotic. And audiences at certain play houses wanted plays about the upper classes.**

The conspiracy over Shakespeare's authorship suggests to me our obsession with his work, an inability to move beyond cultural belief that Shakespeare created modern English literature. Don't get me wrong. I love Shakespeare's work.***

But I'm also stuck with the fact that in order to be taken seriously as an early modern drama scholar, I have to write about him. I included Shakespeare in my dissertation, even though the plays I write about -- Measure for Measure and The Merry Wives of Windsor -- don't fit within the genre I work on (city comedy ... ask me about it sometime and I'll bore you to tears with my vast knowledge of it ...). If what the anti-Stratfordians really want to do is to highlight that not-Shakespeare was writing in the period, maybe they should be promoting the work of other playwrights instead of going after a cultural lodestone.**** Perhaps we should spend more time revisiting the works of Jonson, Middleton, Dekker, Webster, Fletcher, Beaumont, Marston, Marlowe, Chapman, Rowley, and Ford, and on and on. Lots of playwrights were active in the period. It was a remarkable time for the stage, because the period was in the process of inventing the English stage -- and all of those authors had a hand in it, not just Shakespeare.


*I'm always bothered by discussions of Shakespeare's accuracy. He may have been accurate in details of law, but he sure missed on a lot of other things. Like geography. His geography is often terrible. The most glaring example of this is the seacoast of Bohemia in The Winter's Tale.

**If you want to see more of the lower classes, look especially at the histories.

***People who speak only of Shakespeare as a genuis may not have read everything. Some of it's pretty bad. Plus, there's absolutely no way that Shakespeare was, as Jonson claimed, "for all time." You go read that final speech Kate has in Taming and tell me how much that speaks to our modern situation. I'm not going to be putting my hand under Bradley's boot any time soon.

****Plus, the argument that we don't know much about Shakespeare in his personal life doesn't acutally suggest that he couldn't possibly have done the work. Records were often questionably kept. Quite possibly -- as Stephen Greenblatt suggests in Will in the World -- the simpler answer to that quandry is that Shakespeare, the guy, was kind of boring. Or just a good entrepenuer who didn't feel like going out to the taverns and causing problems the way playwrights like, say, Marlowe or Jonson did.

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