After watching an interesting but slightly confusing movie called Anonymous, I started reading a book on a topic I’ve wanted to know more about for a long time: the authorship of Shakespeare. John Michell’s Who Wrote Shakespeare? takes a neutral approach, tracing the history of the question and laying out the arguments for each of the candidates. Since most of the negative arguments have elements of rationality while most of the positive arguments smack of the kind of theory that might come out of a shed covered with paper and criss-crossed with a hundred taut strands of red yarn, Michell almost has me convinced that no one could have written the famous plays and poems. And yet there they are, and my only other option – the infinite number of monkeys with their infinite number of typewriters – has yet to be found. So I suppose some human or humans did actually write them.
In a nutshell, the case against the actor from Stratford-upon-Avon rests on the seeming unlikelihood that a man from a country town with a country school, a man whose father and daughter were illiterate, could have written the most elegant, complex, moving, creative, beautiful expressions in the history of the English language – perhaps of any language. To expand just a bit, anti-Stratfordians ask how the country rube, even going to London for a few years to act on stage, could have known about court life, hunting, falconry, mythology, music, seamanship, the law, horticulture, and fifty other esoteric subjects. Several answers come to mind. (1) He read about all these topics in books and, with his inarguably brilliant mind, became fluent with their terms and ideas. (2) Some of these topics – hunting, law, and horticulture, for instance – don’t seem surprising at all for a landowner from a rural town. (3) Brilliant minds can come from small towns. (4) Brilliant minds generally find a way to succeed in spite of their schooling.
But I also wonder just how knowledgeable Shakespeare actually was on all these topics. I can only speak with any certainty about music, and there he uses enough vocabulary to show that he had met with music theory, but doesn’t really say enough to be either accurate or inaccurate. Mercutio, for instance, uses musical terminology when complaining that Tybalt fights tepidly: “He fights as you sing pricksong – keeps time, distance, and proportion; rests me his minim rest, one, two, and the third in your bosom!” I can’t tell from this whether Shakespeare could be called an expert in music, whether, for instance, he could have taught a beginning class competently. But I have no doubt he read a book and picked up terminology that satisfied his interest in “words, words, words.” After all, did he really need to know what pricksong was in order to see the potential for a ribald pun in the term? “Time, distance, and proportion” could represent a faulty memory of the trio of metrical terms from Renaissance music theory: mode, time, and prolation. But even if that’s true, I don’t know if I should ascribe the mistake to Shakespeare or to Mercutio. Maybe Shakespeare knew what he was talking about, but he certainly didn’t prove it. How many of the Bard’s allusions to other subjects sound like expert knowledge to me without truly indicating any more mastery than Mercutio does of music?
Then, too, I also wonder, after all the questions of how a laborer’s son could have depicted royalty so faithfully, how the Earl of Oxford or Sir Francis Bacon or any of the other aristocrats put forth as the “true” author could have depicted lower-class patter so well. Baconians ask: How did the man from Stratford know how to write the lines of Henry VIII? But I haven’t yet read that anyone asks the Baconians: How did the Lord Chancellor of England know how to write the lines of Mistress Quickly?