Emma Smith

Shakespeare sceptics are the new literary heroes

Anyone who doubts Shakespeare’s authorship is brave, open-minded and intellectually explorative, compared to the uptight, shifty ‘Stratfordians’ in Elizabeth Winkler’s view

Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, one of many candidates proposed as the author of Shakespeare’s plays. [Bridgeman Images]

Let’s start with the basics. Despite widespread disinformation, including in Shakespeare was a Woman and Other Heresies, there is in fact ample historical evidence from the period that a) attributes the plays and poems to William Shakespeare, b) registers the same William Shakespeare as an actor and shareholder in Lord Chamberlain’s, later King’s Men, and c) connects this William Shakespeare with the William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon. Only if you believe that all this evidence is fabricated does the authorship question become a question. And once the question is admissible, all that mass of documentation is no longer sufficient to answer it.

Anti-Stratfordians operate almost entirely outside the academy of professional Shakespeare study

Faced with this unwinnable argument, Shakespearean scholars (‘Stratfordians’, as the doubters dub them) overwhelmingly prefer not to engage. They respond with hostility to any question about the authorship of the works, sometimes raising the ethical stakes by comparing the sceptical, anti-expert bias of the authorship question to conspiracy theories, to anti-vax campaigns or Holocaust denial. Or, as Elizabeth Winkler puts it with a certain sado-masochistic frisson, at the mention of this ‘unspeakable subject’: ‘Tears may be shed. A whip may be produced. You will be punished, which is to say, educated.’ Whip or no, the general response of scholarship might be characterised as complacent gate-keeping or defensive self-interest. And this in turn feeds the doubters. If the professionals are so rattled by this, surely there must be something to it after all.

Reviewing this engaging and wrong-headed book is thus a challenge. Too contemptuous, and I am simply one of the ‘Shakespearean priesthood’, that purblind queue of ‘orthodox believers in the one true church’ who do not ‘take kindly to the denial of [their] god’. Too engaged by the argument, and it has already won by establishing itself as worthy of academic debate.

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