Monday, January 08, 2007

Who wrote the Works of Shakespeare?

All right, I won't keep you in suspense. The answer is William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon with the occasional help of some collaborators. Some readers might be surprised to hear that for the last 150 years shelves of books have appeared arguing that Francis Bacon or the Earl of Oxford or Christopher Marlowe actually wrote the plays. Of course, this is all so much pseudo-scholarly garbage. If you want chapter and verse then look up Brian Vicker's destruction of the "anti-Stratford" position in August 2005 in TLS or Jonathan Bate's excellent The Genius of Shakespeare.

The question of the authorship of Shakespeare's works is interesting to this blog, not because of any real doubt about the answer, but what it teaches us about another pseudo-scholarly conspiracy theory - whether Jesus existed. Both theses are pushed by amateurs or people expert in other fields. Anti-Stratfordians are often novelists because they imagine writing a play is the same sort of process as writing a book. Shakespeare was an actor who drifted into writing and his plays were obviously written by a man intimately involved in the production of theatre. Jesus Mythers usually have some literary training too, but they are never professional historians. They misunderstand the way historical evidence is analysed and replace it with literary constructs not supported by the facts.

Also, anti-Stratfordianism and Jesus Mythology are both based on a silence. In the case of Shakespeare, the whole edifice is constructed on the lack of any original manuscripts by Shakespeare. The reason they don't exist today is that they never did. All there ever were were the working copies used by Shakespeare's theatre company. The printed editions of the plays were put together from performances and eventually gathered together by Shakespeare's colleagues after he died. With Jesus Mythers, the missing evidence is Paul talking about the historical Jesus. Again this is based on the misconception that Paul ought to have discussed such matters at length in letters that set out to answer specific problems and provide encouragement to converts.

The bad news from the anti-Stratfordians is that they never go away. After a century of scorn from the academy, long, bad and sad books claiming so and so wrote Shakespeare continue to appear. From this, we can be sure that the Jesus Myth will not die either. We are stuck with it so may as well get used to it. A full-length scholarly refutation is now long overdue.

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