An Oxfordian Journal: Wasn’t Shakespeare a “Conspiracy Theorist”?

I keep seeing blogs that accuse anyone questioning the traditional biography of Shakespeare as a “conspiracy theorist.”  I know what they mean.  I felt the same way back in 1987 when it was suggested to me that the guy from Stratford didn’t really write the great poems, plays and sonnets.  I didn’t much like that suggestion.

Conspirators arrive at the Senate House, having plotted to kill Caesar.

Probably the first thought that came to mind was that the whole concept was simply too staggering, too unbelievable, too overwhelming.  I had gone through four years of college (in English and Theater Arts) and had never heard the slightest hint of any problem with the Stratfordian authorship view.  This was probably the greatest writer who ever lived – how could it be possible that he had not been the man who everybody thinks he was?

I’m not sure if I used the word “conspiracy” at the time; but I probably did consider (loosely) that such a cover-up or hoax would have taken what my dictionary calls a “treacherous or surreptitious plan formulated in secret by two or more persons.”   If there had been such a plan to disguise the true author of the “Shakespeare” works and attribute them to someone else, it would have involved the creation of the First Folio of Shakesepeare plays — published in 1623, long after Oxford and Shakspere had died respectively in 1604 and 1616.  (Prior to 1623 there is no discernible linkage between “Shakespeare” and Shakspere.) That publication would have indeed required at least several individuals engaged in a surreptitious plot.

When a previously arranged signal was given, the conspirators carried out the murder of Caesar

As I now ponder this subject, it occurs to me that regardless of his identity Shakespeare was a “conspiracy theorist” – both as a dramatist and as an Elizabethan.

It’s a given that many of his plays involve conspiracies, the most famous being the plot to kill Julius Caesar.  Then, of course, there’s the plot by Macbeth and his wife to murder King Duncan, not to mention Iago’s plot to entrap Cassio with Roderigo’s help.  Plots of one kind or another abound in the plays, even in the comedies.

And why not?  During the Elizabethan reign itself there were always conspiracies against the Queen’s life.  Three of the most famous ones revolved around Catholic attempts to kill Elizabeth and replace her with Mary Queen of Scots – the Ridolfi Plot that surfaced in 1571, the Throgmorton Plot of 1583 and the Babington Plot of 1586.  The so-called Essex Rebellion of 1601 involved a plot to remove  the Queen’s closest advisors, notably Robert Cecil; and when James became king in 1603 there was the Bye Plot and then the Gunpowder Plot, for starters.

There was virtually never a time when there wasn’t some conspiracy afoot…

Actor Mark Rylance, left, has been a vocal public figure on the Shakespeare authorship question — here with actor Colin Hurley, holding the Declaration of Reasonable Doubt in Chichester on September 8, 2007

For court poets and dramatists of the time, the very act of writing was a kind of conspiracy.  The anonymous author of The Art of English Poesie (1589) wrote:  “I know very many notable Gentlemen in the Court that have written commendably, and suppressed it again, or else suffered it to be published without their own names to it.”  In other words, at times they used someone else’s name or some made-up pen name.

Who was that infamous author in 1588-89 calling himself Martin Marprelate?  Here was an obvious pen name, sometimes printed as Mar-prelate, indicating an author or authors intent upon “marring the prelates” of the Anglican Church; and no one has ever learned his identity for sure.  Whoever that writer was, it’s unlikely he could have acted entirely alone.

Are there political conspiracies even now?  Of course – just about every day.  And even as I write this, I’m getting an alert from the New York Times that “the most powerful men at Penn State failed to take any steps for 14 years to protect the children” victimized by Jerry Sandusky.  Wasn’t that some kind of conspiracy?

In upcoming blogs I’ll have comments about the Shakespearean authorship “conspiracy” in particular.

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6 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Conspiracy specialist? I am sure that having lived for nearly a lifetime with the Cecils would qualify any person such as Edward de Vere/ Shakespeare in several levels of conspiracies, and methods to hide the truth in plain sight. After all, even now ferreting out information about the earl is near impossible.

    This is a time when Kings, Earls, etc managed to keep family records meticulously — inheritance was paramount, and land ownership was crucial. Yet, John de Vere has a somewhat incoherent marital/ parental record, and Edward de Vere is a cipher were it not for a mention of a baptismal gift mentioned in a letter. Then, the 17th Earl of Oxford is made out to be a ruffian, and drops out of sight midst the ebb and flow of Elizabeth’s court.

    It stretches the imagination that the son-in-law of William Cecil would be a cipher no matter what kind of person he was, except for a conspiracy.


    • You’ve said it best! Thanks, Liz.

  2. Thanks for these pertinent observations, Hank. Sometimes, we get so immersed in our Oxfordian work that we lose sight of our own personal pre-Oxfordian history. I’d suggest we all try to recapture how we used to see this matter, just as Hank has done. That will help us empathize with traditionalists, and be more effective in understanding and overcoming their objections.

    It’s also sometimes helpful to wonder if projection plays some role in Stratfordian attacks on our theory. In a sense, there is indeed a loosely organized “conspiracy” in this field. But it’s a conspiracy of the traditionalists not to acknowledge any reasonable doubt about the authorship question. A mainstream Shakespeare publication sent me a book for review. Once they got my review, they candidly admitted their “blunder,” and they explained that they would never publish anything written by an Oxfordian. I also think of the tenured English professor who admitted to me that if any graduate student took the Oxfordian theory seriously, it would amount to “professional suicide” for that student.

    Most poignantly, the founder of a Stratfordian listserv bans any discussion of the authorship question, but he asked a few months ago to be reminded of the ostensibly incontrovertible evidence that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare.

    • Thanks very much, Richard. Your points are devastating and reminders of what we are up against. In my blog I was going to say that undoubtedly the reason I’d never heard of the authorship question, much less of Oxford, was a conspiracy of sorts within academia. Not necessarily at all among my college professors, who were probably the “victims” of it as well as acting unconsciously to perpetuate it. It was so off-the-table that they probably never even thought about it. (It was Notre Dame — I should go back and see what they had in the library back in the day.) I did ask a director in the theater what we knew about Shakespeare — the answer was simply “an actor who started writing for the theater.” No mention of him publishing by name first as a poet. (I’m sure the director was telling what he thought was true, period.) Thanks again.

  3. Enjoyed reading your blog post, I play professional golf and on my free time like researching the Shakespeare authorship debate. If you could let me know some good info to read on the subject, it would be greatly appreciated. Thanks for writing on this very important debate/subject.

    Max Miller

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