When the film ‘Anonymous’ was released a few years ago it inflamed the authorship debate that had been smoldering for about a century. The film portrays Shakespeare as a layabout, not very bright, actor, and an aristocrat as the author of the plays, who pays the actor to cover for him. Unaccountably, the plot convinced some people who should know better.
The position of many of those who argue for a conspiracy base their argument on the idea that the plays contain too much knowledge of foreign and distant places and too much familiarity with court life and the affairs of court to have been written by someone as low down in the social order as William Shakespeare was. The author of these plays, the argument goes, writes with ease and familiarity about such aristocratic sports as hunting, falconry, tennis, and bowling. Moreover, he sets plays and scenes in places like the French court, a military camp in Cypress, a Viennese prison, a Mediterranean island and in several Italian cities. We know, they argue, that Shakespeare did not visit those places.
The conspiracists argue further that the plays have too wide a range of style to have been written by someone without the advanced education that most of the other contenders had, and that Stratford was too parochial and backward a place to have produced such a great literary genius.
Those who argue that Shakespeare is the author point to the evidence of comments and remarks from people who knew him and worked with him. Moreover, the candidates for Shakespeare authorship put forward by the conspiracists can be dismissed one by one. All of them are educated well-born men, some even university men, and none of them could have written the poetry from which the plays are made.
The fact is that the plays could not have been written by someone who had grown 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. The author of the plays and sonnets weaves his poetic magic with images derived from the very close observation of the plants, animals and insects of rural England, and often those that are to be found more abundantly in Warwickshire than anywhere else. For example, the author is particularly fond of violets and uses the flower, which he observes closely, in all kinds of ways and contexts in his poetry. Warwickshire is covered with violets, more so than most counties are. That is only one example – beetles, flies, spiders and other creatures feature as poetic images: ‘the shard-borne beetle, with his drowsie hums;’ ‘the wren goes to ‘t, and the small gilded fly … that quicken even with blowing;’ ‘My brain, more busy than the labouring spider, Weaves tedious snares to trap mine enemies.’ The plays and sonnets abound with detailed images from the countryside.
One of the main difficulties for the conspiracists is, if Shakespeare never travelled out of England, why did he set so many of the plays in other European countries, and particularly Italy, which the author clearly knew a great deal about?
Those who argue that obviously don’t seem to know that other Elizabethan, and particularly Jacobean, writers – of which Shakespeare was one – set their plays in Italy. One of the most prominent characteristics of Jacobean plays is their almost unpalatable violence. Elizabethan and Jacobean audiences associated Italy with heat, extreme emotion and violence. As soon as they realized that a play, for example Romeo and Juliet, or Middleton and Rowley’s The Changeling, or Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi, was set in Italy, they knew that they were going to be drenched in extreme heat, extreme emotions and treated to the portrayal of extreme violence.
It is unlikely that Middleton, Rowley or Webster visited Italy either.
Those playwrights would, like Shakespeare, have been acutely aware of the subtext of Italian settings in a play, just as they would have been aware that romantic love would be the subtext of a play set in Paris.
And how, you may ask, did Shakespeare know so much about the culture of such places as the Rialto Bridge and the Jewish quarter in Venice, enabling him to set convincing scenes in those places? The answer is that he, as did his fellow writers, read widely, conversed with travellers and was as immersed in the prejudices about the various European countries as his audiences were.