This will be the first year since leaving high school that I am not on a course which wants me to understand Shakespeare. It is a pity, because I do enjoy most of his works. I’ve written about him in the past, but now seemed like a good time to talk about one of my favourite topics: Shakespeare conspiracy theories.
I’m hoping this will help any GCSE or A-Level students studying Shakespeare. I may do more posts like this in the future. If you have a question or request, send me a message via the Contact Me page!
The Authorship Question
There are those who believe that Shakespeare never penned the poems or play attributed to him. These people are called Anti-Stratfordians. The Authorship Question is one which aims to prove whether or not Shakespeare did write these things, and if he didn’t, reveal who did.
J Thomas Looney is amongst the most famous for this in his book The Shakespeare Identity, but many have questioned the authorship. Even recently, the movie Anonymous (as awful as it was) tried to address this question.
Popular true author theories include: the 17th Earl of Oxford, 6th Earl of Derby and Francis Bacon. My personal favourite is the belief that Christopher Marlowe, the playwright responsible for Doctor Faustus, faked his own death and continued writing as William Shakespeare.
There are many reasons why people believe that Shakespeare wasn’t the true author. The main reason is that Shakespeare was a glove-maker’s son. He did not have a university education, but he wrote plays which surpassed those who did. Not only that, but he makes references to things and places which he could not have seen.
The assumption that anyone other than an upper-class man who wrote as well as Shakespeare did is a fraud is a classist argument. Shakespeare spent years around theatres, and one can learn to do things by immersing themselves in to the environment. Great art does not have to come from a classroom. More than that, while Shakespeare references France and Padua, he also thinks France has lions and Padua has a dock. He creatively interprets what he has heard of these places.
Another reason why people think Shakespeare didn’t write the plays is because there are few existing records of his life. There are legal documents, his birth certificates etc. but no written letters. In the absence of biography, many take to his works to gleam information about his personal life. It can lead to contradictory information and it spawned the belief that the man could not exist. But this is not evidence of absence; it is absence of evidence.
A final comment on this theory is that it fundamentally misunderstands the theatre as it existed in Shakespeare’s times. We have his folio and it is easy to mistake it for the set-in-stone words of William Shakespeare. However his plays would have always been changing. Jokes would be added or scenes removed based on audience reaction. The plays were not written for any actor, but a specific actor within a specific acting troupe. The playwright had to be someone who worked with the troupe, who knew what kind of characters would work and who knew the kinds of stories the actors were competent at telling. This is difficult to accomplish when one is a nobleman using a poor man as a mouthpiece.
I think Kat says it best:
To me, it is obvious that Shakespeare penned his own works.
This is not the only debate which occurs when studying Shakespeare. Here are some more popular ones:
Shakespeare was secretly gay
A good one hundred plus of Shakespeare’s sonnets are addressed to the Fair Youth. We do not know who this youth was, but we know Shakespeare thought he was a very pretty boy. So this begs the question: was Shakespeare gay?
The answer is no. He had a wife (more on her later), and he had other female lovers, most noticeably the Dark Lady. Shakespeare was, going off this evidence, not gay.
He was very likely bisexual though.
While his works were not autobiographical, it was common to write poetry to those you were pursuing. One of the more famous sonnets of Shakespeare is Sonnet 52, which has this verse:
So is the time that keeps you as my chest,
Or as the wardrobe which the robe doth hide,
To make some special instant special-blest,
By new unfolding his imprison’d pride.
Shakespeare is talking about his lover’s erection. The sonnet is full of innuendo and euphemism. Some argue that he only admired the man, others claim that it was not autobiographical. It is a raging debate still.
Shakespeare created thousands of new words
Many words we use today—eyeballs and alligator for example—did not exist before Shakespeare’s time. You can find many words like this in Shakespeare’s work.
But Shakespeare did not create them. He popularised him. He is a playwright after all, and his plays needed to be understood. He had to use terms which would be understood by the masses.
For who did revolutionise language, the answer, as always, lies in teenage girls.
The Second Best Bed
In Shakespeare’s Will (the best joke in this post by far), he left to his wife Anne Hathaway “his second best bed”.
So was this a final insult to Anne after years of adultery?
The argument is certainly there. The idea of the second best bed presents to a modern audience the idea that his best bed was the one he shared with his mistress (or a male lover. I’m standing by bisexual Shakespeare). Shakespeare was a renowned philanderer who spent decades away his wife and had many affairs.
But when Shakespeare was writing, there was an interesting practice afoot. The best bed of the house did not serve the master. It was for guests. Instead, the master and his wife would spend their nights in the second best bed. Arguably, the bestowing of the bed is a symbolic gesture: here is the place we were once happy, and I bequeath it on to you. It is sentiment and memory, not material wealth. This is the line of thought taken by Carol Ann Duffy in her poem Anne Hathaway.
There are just some things addressed when studying Shakespeare. Are they all conspiracies? No. But they are interesting. And I felt like talking about Shakespeare tonight.
And so, dear readers, we reach the end of another post.
Let me ask you this: which play is your favourite? Do you think Shakespeare wrote his works? And what do you think of the works?
Let me know your thoughts.