Who Was That Man?

By Freed, Amy | American Theatre, May 2001 | Go to article overview

Who Was That Man?


Freed, Amy, American Theatre


WHY AMY FREED CAN'T STOP THINKING ABOUT SHAKESPEARE

TWO YEARS AGO I HAD A conversation with a friend who was a major conspiracy buff. He had a special penchant for two--the Kennedy assassination and the true authorship of William Shakespeare's plays. I mocked him privately for his eccentric theories. In public, though, I urged him on, so I could observe, fascinated, the rich workings of his monomanias.

The apex of my delight came when my friend submitted a book review of a minor Shakespeare biography to our local newspaper. His review (ultimately unpublished) contained one of the key trademarks of crank writing--a private lexicon of secret references completely confounding to the general reader. Oh, how I laughed at his cryptic line about the author's "obligatory reference to Greene's Groatsworth of Wit." Who in hell knows, I thought, what he's talking about?

I was not to have the last laugh. The time would come when I too, with flushed face and trembling hand, unable to gauge the tolerance of any listening ear, could quote at length from the 1592 deathbed harangue in which playwright Robert Greene warns his fellows not to associate with actors. (He mentions one in particular, an "upstart crow," who's widely assumed to be Shakespeare.) I could quote as well as from Francis Meres's Palladis Tamia, The Return From Parnassus, The Learned Pig--and all the other arcana that the Authorship Question has generated through the centuries. I came to know, for example, that the word HONORIFICABILITUDINATATIBUS, used in Love's Labours Lost, is clear proof (to some) that Francis Bacon wrote the plays--in Latin it's an anagram for "These Plays F Bacon's Offspring are preserved for the world." (However in English it's an anagram for "F Bacon! Cat-rot! I bid for this honor--donuts.")

I think it was Mark Twain's 1909 essay "Is Shakespeare Dead?" that flipped my switch and re-directed my interest from the Theorists to the Theory. In "Is Shakespeare Dead?" Twain (an anti-Stratfordian) writes with his customary irreverence and directness about the way in which every author acquires a signature language. After considering the extraordinary nature of Shakespeare's range--from the glittering polish of the first poems to the staggering scope of the plays--Twain found it inconceivable that the Player of the standard biographies could have produced such work. His arguments are funny, infectious and radiant with sense. In short, I caught the very plague that I had mocked, and became, well, curious about the identity of Shakespeare.

Since the beginnings of the authorship debate in the mid-18th century, there has been a wide selection of potential candidates for the Bard: Christopher Marlowe, Earls galore (Derby, Pembroke, Essex and Rutland, to name a few), Sir Walter Raleigh, Queen Elizabeth, the Rosicrucians and, for those who subscribe to the group-authorship theory, all of the above. But the current contender-in-chief is Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford. So it was to Oxford's case that I turned my attention.

Not that I was not much impressed with Thomas Looney's book Shakespeare Identified, which tops the required reading list of Oxfordian Theory (later authors have written more convincingly on the Earl's behalf) and is the first 20th-century book to champion De Vere as the true author of Shakespeare's plays. Shakespeare Identified contained plenty of interesting evidence, but it foundered on one awkward fact--the Earl couldn't seem to write. His few surviving poems go something like this:

Who do all wish to see?

Me.

And who do wish to be?

Me.

Who has more money than thee?

Again, again, 'tis ME.

And so on.

De Vere's extant writings make Sylvia Plath's juvenilia look like masterworks. His compositions exude a rich aroma of sadism, narcissism and unexamined privilege, seeming less proto-Shakespeare than anti-Shakespeare. …

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