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Shakespeare's Authorship Instead of Disproving Other Candidates Hot

J. A. Macfarlane
Written by J. A. Macfarlane     November 24, 2011    
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Shakespeare's Authorship Instead of Disproving Other Candidates
  • Shakespeare's Authorship Instead of Disproving Other Candidates
  • by Scott McCrea
  • Publisher: Praeger Publishers
  • Published in 2005
  • 5

Unfortunately the subtitle to Scott McCrea's The Case for Shakespeare: The End of the Authorship is both inaccurate and hopelessly optimistic, as it is impossible to put an end to a conspiracy theory whose devotees possess unbridled fanaticism. But it is a deeply valuable book, one that may help with those who have doubts on the authorship question but need only some evidence to realize that doubts about Shakespeare’s authorship are about as reasonable as the proposition that the moon is slowly eaten by a dragon once a month.

What is particularly handy about McCrea’s book is that despite his irritated antagonism to the Shakespeare-denying camp, he is willing to make the case for Shakespeare from a blank slate, even referring to him as "the Author" to avoid the risk of bias. It is one of the failings of Shakespeareans that this case has rarely been as completely made before; rather than present a clear, concise summary of all the evidence that points at Shakespeare as the author, his defenders have tended to either take apart the cases of the proposed "real" authors (not a difficult task) or dissect the psychology of the deniers (just as easy) – or simply mercilessly mock them (the easiest task of all and, it must be admitted, a deeply pleasurable one). James Shapiro, for instance, in his best-selling Contested Will, does marshal several facts in favor of Shakespeare’s authorship, but only does so at the very end of his book. McCrea instead spends the first half of The Case for Shakespeare bringing out piece by piece the incontrovertible evidence for Shakespeare and the ways in which the claims against him are erroneous, before then briefly demolishing the arguments for the major claimants. In doing so, he also manages to lay to rest several suppositions that Shakespeareans also sometimes take for granted without considering them in depth.

Other than the purely biographical evidence, which has often been studied but rarely in the specific context of proving his authorship, McCrea offers a great deal of literary analysis that provides the best and most original part of his work. It has often been noted that Shakespeare-deniers tend to show few signs of actually enjoying the works, being too caught up in searching for hints supporting their own pet theory; what is even more evident is that they rarely read other works from the same time period, and are therefore unable to recognize when something is simply a commonplace of the era. McCrea seizes on this and offers a series of refutations to the argument that certain specialized details in the plays prove that Shakespeare could not have written them, mostly by pointing out that few of these details are actually specialized and can be found in the works of dozens of other authors of the period – and only the genuinely lunatic fringe has ever believed the proposition that a cabal wrote the works of all the writers of the time.

For instance, it is often argued that the "true" author of the plays must have visited Italy; but not only is Shakespeare’s geography generally atrocious (and recognized as such at the time by Ben Jonson) – he apparently believes that Milan is on the seaside – there are also curious lacks. Why would an author with a clearly visual mind make no mention of the canals of Venice in either of his two plays dealing with that city, or in The Merchant of Venice take the opportunity to mention the Ghetto? Beyond this, McCrea points out that England was fascinated by Italy at the time, and a large proportion of plays and tales by other authors who had never visited Italy are set there (e.g. Ford's Tis Pity She's A Whore, Webster's Duchess of Malfi). Likewise, while it is clear that the author had some knowledge of French, not only were there many opportunities for a Londoner to learn the language, at the time Shakespeare lodged in a very French area. He even lodged with a French family named Mountjoy (as discussed by Charles Nicholl in The Lodger), the name of the herald in Henry V. This is the sort of coincidence between candidate and play that tends to make Shakespeare-deniers weak at the knees. (Fortunately, Shakespeareans are aware that Shakespeare did not meet the Mountjoys until after that particular play was written, and it is therefore nothing more than a coincidence.)

Even more pointedly, McCrea disproves the theory that Shakespeare must have been trained in the law, a belief often embraced by serious scholars as well. Quite aside from the fact that Shakespeare’s era was a litigious time, McCrea proves that not only does Shakespeare refer to the law less often than several other writers – including Ben Jonson, who was definitively not a lawyer – but his references are either little more than commonplaces that everyone would know, or taken directly from his sources. Even more tellingly, the most detailed references are to exactly the sort of law that we know Shakespeare had to deal with in his lifetime. In the same way, McCrea looks at the access that players had to the aristocracy, at Shakespeare’s references to war, and a host of other, smaller details, all pointing to one conclusion: that the author of the plays matches someone equivalent to William Shakespeare of Stratford, and that all the contemporary identifications of that man as the author should therefore be taken as true.

The second half of The Case for Shakespeare is not as thorough as the first, as McCrea takes on the various major claimants; but that work has been done well elsewhere, and is therefore less important here. Taken together, however, both parts form an excellent primer for all skeptics who can rightly ask for the evidence for Shakespeare. This is not to say that McCrea’s book is perfect: he often falls into the same sort of trap as do anti-Shakespeareans, presenting opinions as fact without evidence – his repeated, casual insistence that Shakespeare was Catholic, a theory that is at the very best unproven, comes to mind – but this does not detract overly from the force of his facts-based case. It is also unfortunate that in a book denouncing a conspiracy theory he admits to some belief in the equally ludicrous JFK assassination theories, but luckily he only does this in an endnote, which not everybody reads.

Despite these minor quibbles, The Case for Shakespeare is a fundamental book and a prime part of the kit for battling anti-Shakespeareans. What it especially offers is an invalidation of one of the anti-Shakespeareans’ major fake assumptions. The "authorship question" is not a blank slate where all theories are equally valid; questioning Shakespeare as the author is not the same as debating whether Homer existed or who wrote Beowulf or, more topically, Arden of Faversham. This is not a game of Clue, where a body has been found and everyone present is equally suspect. We already know who is responsible: Colonel Mustard has been found in the library, standing over the body with a bloody candlestick in his hand that perfectly matches the wound in the corpse’s head. The identity of the author is as blatant: William Shakespeare of Stratford, in the playhouse, with an inkpot and quill. But Shakespeare-deniers want us to believe that not only does the wound not match a candlestick, but the candlestick had no blood on it, the good Colonel was not found holding it, and for that matter the body wasn’t actually in the library. Anti-Shakespeareans ignore fact and history in the same way as does the supporter of Colonel Mustard. The point is that before an anti-Shakespearean can be allowed to present an alternative candidate – any alternative candidate – he or she must disprove all the evidence for the conclusion that it was Shakespeare. The Case for Shakespeare is an excellent compendium of all the facts that anti-Shakespeareans must convincingly refute, on the basis of facts as demonstrable as those McCrea presents, before they can have any claim to being taken seriously.

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