In a lively market town in Warwickshire during the 1570’s, a leather merchant and glovemaker, formerly very prosperous, was edging toward financial ruin. The courts prosecuted him–or perhaps only threatened to–for illegally trading in large quantities of wool and for usury, money-lending. By 1576 he had to forfeit his public office. There is almost no trace of him in the town records after that until his death, twenty-five years later.
This minor crime would be forgotten if it hadn’t been for one of the man’s children. Not Gilbert, or Mary, or even Joan, though she lived a long life to tell stories about her brother. No, the market town was Stratford-upon-Avon; the father was John Shakespeare; the son was William.
I bring this up because, unless he truly fled to London to escape charges of poaching the deer of a local landowner (a traditional but unlikely story), or participated secretly in the highly illegal Catholic church of the day (intriguingly possible), his father’s misdemeanors were likely the closest that Shakespeare ever came to criminal activity. But a new and intensely stupid movie, Anonymous, which theorizes that the Earl of Oxford was the true author of Shakespeare’s plays, thinks differently. In it, Shakespeare extorts the Earl for money to build the Globe Theater–thus clumsily trying to find a reason for the fact that in the film’s deranged worldview, a near-illiterate would have taken the time to construct the two most successful theaters in London during his lifetime–and, in the movie’s least dignified moment, is implied to have slit Christopher Marlowe’s throat. Never mind that another group of fringe cranks believe it was Marlowe, not Oxford, who wrote Shakespeare.
Since the unimprovably named Dr. J. Thomas Looney first proposed the idea with a specious, academic-seeming book, there have generally been two elements to the anti-Shakespeare crowd: a strong taste for conspiracy (how could his life have been so uneventful?) and a strong taste for snobbery (how could a bumpkin be our greatest author?). The first people can’t be addressed; to the second it is useless to point out that Shakespeare’s elementary education in Latin and theology would have been first-rate, and that other great poets of the age were the sons of far less successful men than John Shakespeare, including cloth-makers, like Edmund Spenser, bricklayers, like Thomas Middleton, and scriveners, like Thomas Kyd. Virtually none of the great Elizabethan writers had a title. In fact, even some of the university poets were of extremely modest means; Thomas Nashe had to work as a sizar at Cambridge, cleaning the other students’ rooms, to earn his keep. He never got over the ignominy.
Anonymous is guilty of both the snobbery and the conspiracy-theorizing. In service to these impulses, it accepts the customary stupefying alterations in logic. Just for example, the Oxfordians–those who believe, as the movie does, that the Earl of Oxford wrote Shakespeare–have to somehow navigate the fact that Oxford’s own, surpassingly mediocre poems survive; that he never showed any talent for play-writing; and that he died nine years before Shakespeare stopped producing plays.
This means that in addition to his extensive courtly and baronial duties, his own published work as a poet, and his secret work before 1604 of writing the work of a playwright famous for his speed in writing works like, oh, Hamlet, that Oxford would have had to have pre-written plays like Macbeth, King Lear, and The Tempest, also demonstrating in them a slowly growing maturation just in case he died. (Luckily, the number he wrote ran out exactly when the real Shakespeare died.) Then, he would have had to have the good fortune for the dozens of theater owners, actors, and playwrights necessarily involved in the conspiracy to remain totally and completely silent about it to the grave. Really, nobody would have talked? Or left a hint, in an age when every work seemed to contain little puzzles of identity? Then, there is the final absurdity: many of Shakespeare’s final works, written after Oxford’s death, are known to be collaborations with other authors.
And this is the most plausible of the anti-Stratford theories?
The mystery series I write is set three hundred years later, in the Victorian period, but I’ve always had a sneaking desire to write a similar series set in Shakespeare’s London. Ultimately I think the language would be too difficult—too easy to fake badly, too hard to get right—but what a world! We tend to view the march of history as growing from more strict, barbaric, bigoted, and sexist to more generally tolerant, culminating at around Woodstock or thereabouts. In fact, the Elizabethan era was far more fluid and transgressive than the Victorian fiction. John Fletcher and Francis Beaumont, two of Shakespeare’s most famous contemporaries, lived in the same house and shared a common-law wife; Fletcher, Marlowe, and even Shakespeare may have been bisexual; many of these writers were also spies. Why invent intrigue when there is so much of it already in place?
When he was in his ascendancy in the 1560’s, before his financial difficulties and his possible crimes, John Shakespeare applied for a coat of arms, to consecrate his status as a gentleman. He let the application fall fallow after his troubles began. Only in the 1590’s did his son, William, successfully renew the application.
I find that very moving, in the tale it tells of a prickly insecurity, of a father’s recuperation by his son. By the end of his life, Shakespeare was one of Stratford’s greatest landowners. (Edmund Spenser was always after proof of his rank, too, and finally it landed him a wild “castle” in a dangerous part of Ireland. Nice letterhead, though.) What the anti-Shakespeare crowd has always accused him of, not being of high enough birth, Shakespeare felt in his own heart; as ever, he was a step ahead of his audience. There is the irony. Bullies that they are, the Oxfordians and the Baconians, desperate for class to account for genius, are replicating a sneer William must have experienced over and over in his own life, and to which he was perhaps all too vulnerable.
That, to me, is criminal.
Charles Finch is the author of the Charles Lenox mysteries, including The Fleet Street Murders, The September Society and A Stranger in Mayfair. His first novel, A Beautiful Blue Death, was nominated for an Agatha Award and was named one of Library Journal’s Best Books of 2007, one of only five mystery novels on the list. He lives in Oxford, England.