Anonymous Shakespeare?

By Berry, Ralph | Contemporary Review, December 2011 | Go to article overview

Anonymous Shakespeare?

Berry, Ralph, Contemporary Review

AT intervals which are probably regular, governed by the motion of the planets or the gap between epidemics, a plague visits the intellectual life of the world. It is called denial of Shakespeare, and leads to the question which every Shakespearean dreads, currently mortalized in the film Anonymous: did Shakespeare write the plays of Shakespeare?

Yes, he did. To curtail a ridiculous elongation of the story, there was once a man called William Shakespeare. His life is well documented from baptism to burial. He was famous by his mid-thirties, and was universally accepted as the author of the plays and poems bearing his name. He was the house playwright of the King's Men, and played often before King James himself. Not till the mid-eighteenth century did anyone raise the smallest doubt about his life and accomplishment. Of the many supporting arguments for the authentic Shakespeare, I take this one to be cardinal: the plays were written by a technician. It is enormously difficult to write good plays, especially for a Company with only 14-16 players. A few sample problems: how do you get actors on and off the stage? If the main actor wants a breather in Act 4 before his Act 5 climax, how is this managed? What about doubling (the actor who plays Marcellus in Act I may have to be available for Voltemand and Player King later)'? What special effects (The Tempest, especially) are available? And costumes? What stage directions should be written into the text? Crucially, what actor gets which parts? These problems can only be resolved by a continuous and intimate involvement with the Company, both in rehearsal and performance. They cannot conceivably be settled by a nobleman writing in the peace and seclusion of his library.

These and many parallel arguments failed to convince a dedicated core of anti-Stratfordians. In the nineteenth century they included a number of Americans, who at some level wished to overthrow the founding father of the English literary hegemony: Delia Bacon (who for a while persuaded Nathaniel Hawthorne, then U.S. Consul in Liverpool), Mark Twain, Henry James. In the twentieth century the deniers were joined by Sigmund Freud, and that austere logician Enoch Powell. They were reinforced by a group of Southerners from Texas and South Carolina, who profess a mystic attachment to the Earl of Oxford. Since he died in 1604, twelve years before Shakespeare's death, belief in his authorship requires a degree of faith that can only be termed religious. But really, the entire anti-Stratfordian pageant belongs to the history of conspiracy theories and no other. If the CIA had been around in Shakespeare's day, they'd be in it.

There is however another and perfectly serious side to the matter of Shakespeare's authorship. How much precisely of the Shakespearean texts that have come down to us was written by Shakespeare himself, and how much can be attributed to other writers? The fact which scholarship has been slow to acknowledge is that playwriting in Shakespeare's day was often a shared affair. This means that the Romantic notion of a solitary genius working alone has to be discarded. Shakespeare worked with others, and we have many proofs.

Collaboration, which was a province of co-authorship, was a settled practice of playwrights in that era. It is comparable to what now happens in TV scriptwriting, with the 'plotter' (the story editor, as we would say) in charge of assembling various contributions. With two writers of a play, they had only to agree on their respective tasks and roles. Since the basic unit of drama was the scene, it was convenient to assign scenes and even plot-lines to different writers. No question of principle was involved. All playwrights were jobbing playwrights. They took the work as it came along. They needed the money.

Let's take further this potentially misleading word, 'collaboration'. Henry VIII is now known to have been co-written by Shakespeare and Fletcher, as was The Two Noble Kinsmen and the lost Cardenio. …

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