October 26, 2011
I understand there’s a movie coming out about “who really wrote Shakespeare’s plays.” I’m deeply torn, because on the one hand I can go see it for all the yummy handsome men in full Elizabethan clothing in renaissance London — so many of my favorite things in one package! On the other hand, the “who really wrote Shakespeare’s plays” question makes me furious. You want to know who I think wrote Shakespeare’s plays? A middle-class dude from Stratford-upon-Avon named William Shakespeare. There’s no actual, concrete evidence to suggest otherwise. Nobody from Shakespeare’s own time questioned the authorship of his plays. Other famous playwrights, like Ben Johnson, commented on Shakespeare’s writing without ever suggesting the plays and poems were written by someone else.
The “questions” of the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays didn’t begin until a couple of hundred years after his death, and they didn’t begin with any hard evidence. They began with an assumption: a non-aristocratic, middle-class dude from a provincial backwater couldn’t possibly have had the education and genius to write the most brilliant plays in the English language. This is elitist, bigoted, condescending nonsense. This stance ignores the fact that one of the trademarks of the renaissance was how the middle and merchant classes (of which Shakespeare’s family was a part) gained access to higher education, assumes that no one can ever be self-educated or that no genius can ever come from humble beginnings, and believes that only the elite are capable of making art. Bad assumptions, all of them.
The best book I’ve read on the topic is Stephen Greenblatt’s Will in the World, which makes the argument that the plays could only have been written by a middle-class dude from a provincial backwater: the well-rounded and sympathetic portrayal of lower-class characters and women, the kind of insider knowledge of noble circles that would have been gained by playing in an aristocratic-sponsored theater company for many years, odd gaps in knowledge (such as geography) that suggest the author didn’t have a thorough education, and so on.
I think I’ll have to skip this film. It’ll make me angry.