The distinguished Shakespearean actor, Dame Janet Suzman has just published a book entitled Not Hamlet, about the treatment of women in theatre. One of the chapters addresses the Shakespeare conspiracy theory/authorship debate. She takes the traditional scholarly view that it was one Master William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon who wrote the plays.
In her book Dame Janet has attacked two other distinguished Shakespearean actors, Mark Rylance and Sir Derek Jacoby for, as she puts it, ‘giving succour’ to conspiracy theories that someone else wrote the Shakespeare plays. Rylance has suggested that de Vere was the author because of his intimate knowledge of Italy, a country where several of the plays are set. Jacobi was more forthright, positively identifying de Vere as the author. The film, Anonymous, in which both Rylance and Jacobi appeared, presents the case for de Vere being the author. Dame Janet accuses the film’s producers of wasting their money in making it and calls the production ‘a far-fetched film …. with no facts to back it up.’
All this shows how fiercely the debate still rages.
We at NoSweatShakespeare agree with Dame Janet. Quite simply I accept all the arguments in favour of Shakespeare’s authorship and reject those opposing it (and the people put forward as writing Shakespeare’s plays). Two reasons, in addition to those arguments, convince me.
The first is somewhat oblique – not a reason for Shakespeare having written those incredible plays, but a reason why it’s not improbable. The argument has been made that Shakespeare came from an illiterate family, had an inadequate formal education, and that Stratford-upon-Avon was a cultural backwater, unable to germinate such wonderful literature. My reply is that genius is something we don’t understand: it’s something we just see from time to time and it springs up in unexpected places. Yes, Beethoven’s father was a musician, allowing his son to grow up in a musical environment, but he was small time, mediocre and never sober. But the genius of his son, Ludwig, is seriously unbelievable. Monet’s family had contempt for art – his father was a businessman, artistically illiterate – and he actually disowned his son because of his lack of interest in the world of business and his unsuitable marriage to a woman considered to be beneath him. Where did Monet’s artistic genius come from? We will never know.
One could cite geniuses forever but it wouldn’t help us to understand what genius is or where it comes from. One doesn’t usually find that the artists or writers or scientists who stand out in history as giants in their field come from fathers or mothers distinguished in the areas where their child becomes immortal. Moreover, it’s very rare for one of the giants’ children to become renowned as a genius. Geniuses of the Mozart, Michelangelo, Shakespeare kind are rare, unusual and inexplicable. That’s my first reason for dismissing the arguments against the Shakespeare authorship.
My second reason is more specific and, to my way of thinking, utterly convincing. To me it’s inconceivable that the plays could have been written by anyone growing up in an aristocratic environment, surrounded by tutors and classical books. It’s also inconceivable that they could have been written by anyone growing up in an urban environment. They could have been written only by someone who was surrounded by countryside and knew it intimately. And, more specifically, the Warwickshire countryside, where Shakespeare grew up.
Let us return to the subject of genius for a moment. There are two English geniuses who stand out above most of the others. They are William Shakespeare and Charles Darwin.
The two men have one distinctive mental quality in common. Darwin used his unusual powers of observation to tell us how life itself works: Shakespeare used those same powers of observation to create some of the most beautiful poetry ever written in the English language. As he was growing up the young William wandered around the Warwickshire countryside, taking note of plants, animals and insects, observing them closely, taking a detailed interest in the way bushes, trees, fruit and flowers developed and grew, what they looked like and how human beings interacted with them. Like Darwin was to do, he observed birds and insects closely – how they flew and crawled, their colours and their behaviour.
Shakespeare’s sonnets, plays and, indeed, all his other poems, are full of poetry made from those observations. Notice the detail in such a passage as this one from A Midsummer Night’s Dream:
“I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite overcanopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses, and with eglantine:
There sleeps Titania sometime of the night,
Lulled in these flowers with dances and delight.”
The Bard seems to have particularly loved violets – Warwickshire is covered with them. He drew on his love of the flower again and again throughout his work: “Daisies pied and violets blue and lady-smocks all silver-white;” “Like the sweet sound, that breathes upon a bank of violets;” “Welcome my son: who are the violets now that strew the green lap of the new come spring?” and “From her fair and unpolluted flesh may violets spring!” are just a few examples of the violets that infuse his verse.
He also encountered some of the less pleasant things that lived in the Warwickshire countryside.
“You spotted snakes with double tongue,
Thorny hedgehogs, be not seen;
Newts and blindworms, do no wrong,
Come not near our fairy Queen.”
The author of the plays was familiar with country sports:
“As wild geese that the creeping fowler eye, Or russet-pated choughs, many in sort, rising and cawing at the gun’s report, sever themselves and madly sweep the sky”
The insects that inhabit Warwickshire fill the poetry: Such things as “the shard-born beetle with his drowsy hums” and the famous insult, “Thou art a saucy beetle-headed boar-pig!” are everywhere in Shakespeare’s poetry. And what would we do without the phrase “beetle-browed?”
Country people, too, fill Shakespeare’s pages, from the rural constabulary, gravediggers and ploughmen to the harvesters – “sun-burnt sicklemen and sedge-crowned nymphs.”
Not one of the other contenders for the authorship of the Shakespeare plays grew up in Warwickshire: they were all men who had enjoyed the more sophisticated pleasures of the educated and wealthy than the simple country wanderings of the boy who eventually grew up to write the plays.
So rather than go into the arguments for and against the Shakespeare authorship I ask you just one question – the author of the Shakespeare plays was someone who grew up in a village in the heart of Warwickshire. And which of the contenders was that?