Along the coast, it was the sort of morning one can describe only as “Homeric.” You know what I mean: rhododactylic Dawn rising from her loom to spread her shimmering gossamers over the shadowy mountains and echoing sea, dark-prowed fishing-barks drawn up on the milky strand and caressed by the golden foam, the distant thunders of ennosigaean Poseidon and argikeraunic Zeus vying above the wine-dark waves, and so on. Or so I imagine. I was actually a few hundred miles inland, in a montane grove of loblolly pines and mixed deciduous trees, awash in flickering sunlight, drinking coffee and reading a newspaper. But I had Homer on my mind just then, for various reasons, and so was in a somewhat epic mood: overflowing with an unwonted sense of animal vitality, the world about me all joy and power, terror and fluent beauty, I was Diomedes upon his day of glory . . .
Such moods are fleeting, alas. As Chmei knew, even the remotest mountain retreat cannot keep the pains of transience at bay. My eyes alighted upon a report that Roland Emmerich (director of such cinematic masterworks as Independence Day and 2012) had just released Anonymous, a movie all about how the works of Shakespeare were really written by Edward de Vere, a very minor poet and the 17th Earl of Oxford. All at once, the world had lost its glowing vigor; rosy-fingered Dawn was now a scowling crone with withered talons, laboriously carding the coarse wool of the dreary clouds; the sea had turned to molten lead; Poseidon and Zeus had long ago retired to a managed care facility. I set my coffee aside and went to fetch the gin from the cupboard.
If you are unacquainted with the “Oxfordian hypothesis,” count yourself blessed. It was born in 1920, in a book by a demented English Comtean whom Fate, with her unerring sense of poetic justice, had given the name J. Thomas Looney—a man whose ignorance was so profound it verged on a kind of genius. Looney offered no actual proof for his claim; instead, he attempted to divine the private philosophy of the author of the Shakespearean corpus and then sought out a highborn Elizabethan gentleman who seemed to fit the portrait he had drawn. He also asserted that Oxford was the true author of the works of John Lyly, Anthony Munday, and Arthur Golding (an incoherent farrago of disparate styles, true, but—hey—in for a penny, in for a pound).
Patently worthless as it was, Looney’s book inaugurated yet another conspiracy theory concerning the nonexistent mystery of the “true identity” of the author of Shakespeare’s plays, and, since then, the Oxfordians have elbowed themselves to the front of the “anti-Stratfordian” mob. What is fascinating about the theory itself, in a purely morbid way, is not only that it lacks even a shadow of a scrap of documentary evidence, but that in fact all the real documentary evidence, which is quite substantial, shows it to be incontestably false (and, indeed, leaves no room for rational doubt that the true author of Shakespeare’s plays was Mr. William Shakespeare of Stratford).
Now, to say that the Oxfordians have no evidence for their beliefs is not to say they have no arguments. The devout Looneyite can produce a 900-page tome in defense of his delusion at the drop of a lavender-scented handkerchief. But to venture into one of those unwholesome volumes (say, Charlton Ogburn’s psychedelic rhapsody The Mysterious William Shakespeare or the ghastly Joseph Sobran’s Alias Shakespeare) is to wade into a swamp of misstatements, insinuations, suppressions, confusions, historical blunders, and quasi-occult cryptology. Even so, the sheer weight of all that claptrap has the power to sway the credulous, even among persons otherwise competent in their own fields (actors, journalists, statisticians, Supreme Court justices, and so on) who simply lack enough knowledge to sift the truth from the nonsense. Oxfordianism is to Shakespearean studies what The Chariots of the Gods is to archaeology or The Da Vinci Code is to Christian history, and genuine scholars of Elizabethan and Jacobean literature routinely publish unanswerable demolitions of its claims. But, in a media-addled age, mere scrupulous scholarship is rarely a match for shameless intellectual dishonesty or emotional derangement.
Really, the most hilarious aspect of Looneyism is probably its choice of protagonist. I say this not just because Oxford died about a decade too early to cover Shakespeare’s career (and Oxfordian attempts to re-date the plays accordingly fail dismally); nor because “stylometric” computer analysis (which is frighteningly accurate) repeatedly reckons the odds against Oxford being the “true” Shakespeare as roughly infinite; nor because the conspiracy would have required the complicity of an absurdly large range of Shakespeare’s associates, friends, and collaborators, as well as lawyers and Masters of the Revels and so on; nor because Oxford was a vicious, pompous, inane fop; nor because… (well, the list is endless).
I say it principally because Edward de Vere was almost sublimely devoid of talent. At least the Baconian and Marlovian factions in the anti-Stratfordian cult champion men who actually possessed literary gifts. Looney chose a man who was, if anything, the anti-Shakespeare of his age. But Oxford was an aristocrat, and Looney believed fanatically in class distinction and purity of blood. A few lesser critics had been claiming for decades that Shakespeare’s plays were written by some widely traveled man with a classical education and an intimate knowledge of the inner workings of Elizabeth’s court, rather than by some tradesman’s son, educated at a grammar school. Nothing could have been further from the truth, actually—unlike the plays of, say, Ben Jonson or the “University Wits,” Shakespeare’s show no signs of excessive classical or cosmopolitan culture—but Looney did not know that, having little education himself, and the idea of a Shakespeare with aristocratic pedigrees suited his social philosophy perfectly.
I suppose I should not really care. Oxfordianism is annoying and silly, granted, but in time will subside in popularity. But I find the whole phenomenon morally troubling. I cannot prove it (which should not bother the Looneyites), but I suspect that the most fervent Oxfordians are motivated principally by resentment: the capon’s envy of the cock, so to speak. Persons of mediocre talent, consigned to a middling rung on nature’s scale, but who imagine themselves tremendously gifted, often take violent offense at real greatness. And Shakespeare’s genius is so exorbitant, and the fecundity of his literary imagination so monstrous; the thought that such prodigious art was produced just by nature, unassisted by special advantages and attainments, must seem intolerable to a certain sort of person. Ah, but if in fact the “real” writer was a child of privilege, forged in the crucible of social eminence, possessed of secret inner knowledge—why, then, his genius is somehow more explicable. And that in turn makes more explicable the conspiracy-theorist’s own lack of achievement, for this too can be ascribed to a conspiracy—a conspiracy of circumstance, the connivance of fate, a cosmic miscarriage of justice.
Who knows, though? The real issue is one of common decency. When we talk about, say, the authorship of Homer, we know that the attribution is irreducibly uncertain: part legend, part conjecture, and part (but what part?) truth. In the case of Shakespeare, however—one of the few literary figures who can plausibly be said to be greater than Homer—we know exactly who he was, when he lived, how he earned his bread and reputation. To attempt to rob him of his posterity out of envy, foolishness, or callous indifference to the truth is simply pernicious. There is no mystery about Shakespeare other than the perennial mystery of genius, which is at once prodigal and parsimonious: a gift granted regardless of social station or just deserts, but to only a very few. This truth may be excruciatingly galling to some, but to persons of good will and healthy mind it should simply elicit grateful admiration and ungrudging recognition.
Anyway, if this lot really wants to make their conspiracy theory interesting, they need to fill in the cracks better. No Oxfordian has yet convincingly responded to the “stylometry” problem, for instance. If they were really on their game, however, they would argue that this merely exposes another conspiracy hitherto unsuspected, and that the works commonly attributed to Oxford are clearly products of another hand. I propose Francis Bacon. As for the inevitable discovery of similar incompatibilities between Bacon’s style and “Oxford’s,” one need only argue that, of course, “Bacon’s” works were really written by someone else altogether. As for who this might have been, the answer seems obvious: William Shakespeare of Avon, who it turns out was a far more cunning and mysterious figure than any of us ever suspected . . .
David Bentley Hart is contributing editor of First Things. His most recent book is Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies (Yale University Press). His other “On the Square” articles can be found here.