Postscript as preface*

12 Aug

Anonymous is a film about the non-question “who wrote Shakespeare?” that has generated nuclear catastrophes of heat but very little if any light. Readers interested may pop over to this site:  I have been following the Interesting Literature blog for a while and the number of comments on the post far outnumbers any other in my experience. It shows how much interest there is in Shakespeare, I guess, but also how excited people can get about anything, especially if they are conspiracy theorists.

I took a small part in this pseudo-controversy and then opted out: the “Oxfordians” who think Earl of Oxford Edward de Vere really wrote Shakespeare’s work are so pugnacious and so willfully ignorant it is not worth trying to engage with them. I’m not a Shakespeare scholar but a Shakespeare lover, but no Shakespeare lover needs to be a scholar to know through a wealth of external and internal evidence that any theory that says that Will didn’t write his plays and poems is (as Sir Peter Hall says) “bonkers”.

To me this non-question is frustrating partly because loony-tune ideas like this work against any Shakespeare lover contributing to the understanding of Shakespeare’s work that enlarges our understanding of life, which is why we read and watch, and yes, play. Yet I am surely not alone in thinking that Shakespeare lovers have a great deal to offer in this way. Each of us has her or his own understanding; it is part of Shakespeare’s greatness that our response has the potential to add to the understanding of others.

So when Shakespeare scholars encounter rubbish like the de Vere “theory” and patronise its adherents, it’s understandable but painful too. The “Oxfordians” as they like to style themselves are missing out on what it really means to love Shakespeare** so it’s hardly surprising that those who know who wrote the plays and poems turn up their noses at them.

The scholars being human will find it hard to resist the temptation of tarring all Shakespeare lovers with the same brush, however, and that makes me uneasy, especially as I prepare, little by little, my post on Troilus and Cressida. Yes, I know I have been promising this for a long time, and it hasn’t surfaced…but I’ve started! The loose ends are slowly but surely tying me into knots, but my plan, to transform The Struggler into Houdini, is on course. Kind of.

There are, and probably always will be, unknowables about Shakespeare. For example: Prospero of The Tempest is usually taken to be modelled on Englishman John Dee and that is certainly possible. But I reckon that he is (at least partly) modelled on Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, and I wrote that theory into my novel Savonarola’s Bones***. But failing the discovery of some nice little notebook of Shakespeare’s that says, “Prospero: Pico” that’s actually never going to be known, any more than it is actually known that Prospero: Dee. The Dee hypothesis has logical force as Dee was a contemporary of Shakespeare, while Pico was not.

To me this question is a completely different one from the non-question of “who wrote the plays” because it raises issues about Shakespeare the man, about his religion (if any), the philosophical schools he may have been involved in, and more, and thus ultimately of what he was on about. It is part of the fascination of this great man that four centuries after he wrote we can continue to be intrigued – but by him, not a rude interloper from the upper echelons of Elizabethan society.

* With apologies to the spirit of Harley Granville-Barker

** Does this mean that the “Shakespeare lover” in her or his turn is also patronising those who think de Vere the author? Well, in my case it does: as some of those engaged in the culture war on the Interesting Literature blog have pointed out in many ways, to insist on de Vere fundamentally misses the point of too much of the “canon”. My post on Troilus and Cressida, when and if it arrives, will deal with that in more detail. If you are an “Oxfordian” please just regard me as incurable and turn your attention to the jousters on the Interesting Literature blog. Thank you.

*** So buy it and find out! Selling not telling!


Posted by on August 12, 2013 in Uncategorized


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2 responses to “Postscript as preface*

  1. Alasdair Brown

    August 14, 2013 at 11:47 am

    Dear Steve Evans,

    I admired your post . I found it intelligent and humane. The fact that you are also a novelist added credibility to what you had to say. You have opted out of this discussion and perhaps that is the sensible thing to do, even though you clearly think that Oxfordians sing loony tunes.

    I’m opting out too because I have work to do. But before I do, I want to say something to you.

    You made me feel guilty about patronizing Oxfordians. For about thirty seconds.

    I was an active member of an educational wing of the anti apartheid movement for over ten years. The reason I stayed in this ‘non-discussion’ as you call it is not just because I love Shakespeare and find nothing problematic about his background but because I feel exactly the same sense of repugnance towards Oxfordians as I felt towards that obnoxious South African regime.

    There’s the same meanness of spirit. The same depressing view of humanity. The same anti-democratic impulses. The same construction of fundamental human differences. The same smug sense of superiority. The same perception of a divinely sanctioned order of things. The same distortion of history. The same denial of human capability and potential.

    We’re not just talking about people who are bonkers or intellectually challenged. We are talking about people whose ideas are insidious, reactionary and dangerous.

    Steve, they seriously want their garbage taught in schools, for God’s sake.

    Have a look at a recent post on the Facebook Shakesvere group.

    It’s entitled: ‘When Genius and Privilege Collide’

    It’s followed by a fantasy of De Vere floating through ‘celestial realms of royal privilege’ and stroking ‘rare and valuable books’ in ‘his august library”

    Fatuous, purple prose perhaps, but I’m hearing those Nietzchean bells ringing rather too loudly there.

    Amongst the many enthusiastic comments that follow, the only cautionary note is that “there’s always the possibility that genius might randomly strike some bumpkin.”

    Please note the pseudo- reasonable tone which varnishes the virulent class-hatred.
    It reminded me so much of an argument I once had with an Afrikaaner businessman. “Look”, he said, “Maybe the black man can run our country one day. But before he draavs a car, he’s got to learn how to ride a bicycle.”

    Ultimately, the fact that that Oxfordians have a hopelessly muddled view of history and literature doesn’t matter to me. As you suggest though, it’s very sad that they can’t just read Shakespeare and allow him to inform a deeper understanding of the world.

    What does matter is the nastiness of the ideology that lurks behind every single word they say.

    • Steve Evans

      August 14, 2013 at 7:32 pm

      Dear Alasdair –

      Thank you for your kind words. I agree with what you say. I’m afraid I let myself go with my next post. Your comments on the Interesting Literature site have been very worthwhile. All the best.


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