As conspiracy theorists continue to claim William Shakespeare did not write his famous works — with a film on the subject released today — Professor Stanley Wells explains why we should all have faith in the man from Stratford-upon-Avon
I’m sorry to see two of the finest Shakespeare actors of our time, Derek Jacobi and Mark Rylance, biting the hand and the fingers that have fed them for many years by leading a campaign to disprove Shakespeare’s authorship of the plays that have given them so many opportunities to display their genius.
Their support for Roland Emmerich’s film Anonymous, which opens in UK cinemas today and which portrays the greatest writer of all time as a drunken, illiterate buffoon, is only the most recent episode in this campaign.
Both support the ‘Declaration of Reasonable Doubt’ which appeared on the internet in 2007 under the banner of the Shakespeare Authorship Coalition, a registered charity “dedicated to public education to increase awareness of long-standing doubts about the identity of William Shakespeare”.
Also in 2007, they were involved with a play co-authored by Rylance which was performed at Chichester and elsewhere, called I Am Shakespeare. I’m told that I was cast as the pro-Shakespearian villain — and even that in some performances I appeared on stage — but they didn’t ask me to see it.
Happily, however, many other luminaries of the theatrical profession — Simon Callow, Gregory Doran, Stephen Fry, Tina Packer, Janet Suzman, Antony Sher and Harriet Walter — join a host of Shakespeare scholars and writers on 60 Minutes with Shakespeare as part of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust’s Shakespeare Authorship Campaign.
In Anonymous, Jacobi speaks a prologue, apparently in his own persona, in which he sonorously declares that “Shakespeare didn’t write a single word”. In at least one version of the trailer now available on the internet and elsewhere, he says Shakespeare wrote “several epic poems”. This can only possibly refer to the Ovidian narrative poems Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece. Anyone who thinks, or even allows himself to be made to say, that they are epic poems reveals shaky knowledge of their author.
In the film, Rylance gives a delightfully fresh reinterpretation of the prologue to Henry V while the Earl of Oxford, who has anonymously written the play neither for fame nor for money but because, like Shaw’s Saint Joan, he has been inspired by “voices”, lurks modestly in the audience, seeking no recognition for his genius. His manuscripts are lined up on his shelves in his study, ready for posthumous performance of many of them between the date of his death, 1604, and 1613, when Henry VIII (then entitled All is True) was first acted at the Globe.
Of course, no one is likely to take Anonymous seriously as a contribution to Shakespeare scholarship. Even many Oxfordians, I gather, are keen to dissociate themselves from it because of its ridiculous portrayal of Queen Elizabeth I (played by another great actor, Vanessa Redgrave). As the result of an affair with the Earl of Oxford, she gives birth to the third Earl of Southampton, the dedicatee of Shakespeare’s “epic poems”. But a bizarre twist of narrative also reveals the Earl of Oxford to be her son, so Southampton was begotten between Hamletian “incestuous sheets”. With luck, the film, whatever its qualities as entertainment, will bring derision for its storyline rather than approbation, even from the Shakespeare dissenters.
The first thing that anyone wishing to cast doubt on Shakespeare as author has to do is to disprove the multitude of evidence that he was. When, also in 2007, I wrote a piece about the subject for The Stage, Rylance responded with a courteous ‘Point-by-point rebuttal to Professor Wells’ specific objections to the Declaration’ which in turn I should be happy to rebut.
All too often he fell back, as many of his fellow doubters constantly do, upon the mantra of the absence of evidence linking Shakespeare of Stratford as the author of his plays “in his lifetime”, as if posthumously derived evidence were of no value. If this were true, we should, for example, have to disbelieve most of what we know about Samuel Johnson from James Boswell’s Life or about Anne Frank from the posthumous publication of her diary.
As for suggestions that the plays of the Shakespeare canon were written by an aristocratic amateur in his spare time, anyone capable of reading them as scripts for the theatre ought to be able to see that they are the work, not of a courtier preoccupied by affairs of family and state, but of a dyed in the wool man of the theatre, working not from intuition but from a profound familiarity with the theatrical practices of the time. This is apparent in, for example, the ways in which they are crafted to suit the resources of the theatre companies of the period.
They are the work of a man who knew how many actors he had at his disposal, who was aware that a single actor might have to take on several roles, that actors need time to change their costume, to move from the lower to the upper stage, to rest before the final stretches of a heroic role. He knew that he did not need to write detailed stage directions because he would be actively involved in the production process. We can see from the original texts of his plays that he wrote with specific actors in mind for certain roles — in Much Ado About Nothing Will Kemp for Dogberry, Abraham Cowley for Verges. He knew that he was working not just to be read but to be spoken, building into his speeches numerous implicit directions for pauses, for stage business, for changes of address from one character to another.
He was, like Jacobi and Rylance, a consummate professional, steeped in the colours of his trade — not a posh, aristocratic amateur dabbling in theatrical composition with one hand while tickling up the Virgin Queen with the other.
Professor Stanley Wells CBE is Honorary President of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.