Wednesday, 10 March 2021

Bill Bryson and the Shakespeare authorship question

I’ve just finished reading Bill Bryson’s Shakespeare: The World as Stage. It’s a fun, short book.

The interesting thing about it is that it’s written by an amateur rather than a Shakespearean scholar, so the author writes about what he has found about the life of Shakespeare—he writes about what is known with certainty, what is commonly believed but not definite, what is pure myth, and what is not known. And we know very little about Shakespeare the person. 

Here is my full twitter thread about the book:

The book makes me fancy Shakespeare even more (which makes things rather awkward, considering that the man’s been dead for over 400 years).

Anyway, one of my favourite parts of Shakespeare: The World as Stage is the final chapter, “Claimants”, which is about the authorship question. 

“So it needs to be said that nearly all of the anti-Shakespeare sentiment – actually all of it, every bit – involves manipulative scholarship or sweeping misstatements of fact. Shakespeare ‘never owned a book’, a writer for the New York Times gravely informed readers in one doubting article in 2002. The statement cannot actually be refuted, for we know nothing about his incidental possessions. But the writer might just as well have suggested that Shakespeare never owned a pair of shoes or pants. For all the evidence tells us, he spent his life naked from the waist down, as well as bookless, but it is probable that what is lacking is the evidence, not the apparel or the books.” (Ch.9) 


After he talks about Francis Bacon and Edward de Vere:

“A third – and for a brief time comparatively popular – candidate for Shakespearean authorship was Christopher Marlowe. He was the right age (just two months older than Shakespeare), had the requisite talent and would certainly have had ample leisure after 1593, assuming he wasn’t too dead to work.” (ibid.) 

I like that. 

In the same chapter, Bill Bryson writes about the words and word forms that Shakespeare prefers: “hath” more than “has”, “doth” and then “dost” rather than “does”, “brethren” more than “brothers”, etc. 

Then he says:

“In short it is possible, with a kind of selective squinting, to endow the alternative claimants with the necessary time, talent and motive for anonymity to write the plays of William Shakespeare. But what no one has ever produced is the tiniest particle of evidence to suggest that they actually did so. These people must have been incredibly gifted – to create, in their spare time, the greatest literature ever produced in English, in a voice patently not their own, in a manner so cunning that they fooled virtually everyone during their own lifetimes and for four hundred years afterwards. The Earl of Oxford, better still, additionally anticipated his own death and left a stock of work sufficient to keep the supply of new plays flowing at the same rate until Shakespeare himself was ready to die a decade or so later. Now that is genius.” (ibid.) 


Bill Bryson also argues convincingly against the idea that the plays must have been written by an aristocrat because Shakespeare lacked the background or the education to become such a great writer. In an earlier chapter, he writes about the mistakes in the plays, such as geography:

“He was routinely guilty of anatopisms – that is, getting one’s geography wrong – particularly with regard to Italy, where so many of his plays were set. So in The Taming of the Shrew he puts a sailmaker in Bergamo, approximately the most landlocked city in the whole of Italy, while in The Tempest and The Two Gentlemen of Verona he has Prospero and Valentine set sail from, respectively, Milan and Verona, even though both cities were a good two days’ travel from salt water. If he knew Venice had canals, he gave no hint of it in either of the plays he set there.” (Ch.5)

Why do Oxfordians keep insisting that the true author must have been Edward de Vere, who travelled around Italy for a while and knew all important Italian locations?

Bill Bryson writes more later on:  

“Shakespeare lacked a university education, to be sure, but then so did Ben Jonson – a far more intellectual playwright – and no one ever suggests that Jonson was a fraud.

It is true that William Shakespeare used some learned parlance in his work, but he also employed imagery that clearly and ringingly reflected a rural background. Jonathan Bate quotes a couplet from Cymbeline, ‘Golden lads and girls all must,/As chimney sweepers, come to dust,’ which takes on an additional sense when one realizes that in Warwickshire in the sixteenth century a flowering dandelion was a golden lad, while one about to disperse its seeds was a chimney sweeper. Who was more likely to employ such terms – a courtier of privileged upbringing or someone who had grown up in the country? Similarly, when Falstaff notes that as a boy he was small enough to creep ‘into any alderman’s thumb-ring’ we might reasonably wonder whether such a singular image was more likely to occur to an aristocrat or to someone whose father actually was an alderman.

In fact a Stratford boyhood lurks in all the texts. For a start Shakespeare knew animal hides and their uses inside and out: his work contains frequent knowing references to arcana of the tanning trade – skin bowgets, greasy fells, neat’s oil and the like – matters of everyday conversation to leather workers, but hardly common currency among the well-to-do. He knew that lute strings were made of cowgut and bowstrings of horsehair. Would Oxford or any other candidate have been able, or likely, to turn such distinctions into poetry?

Shakespeare was, it would seem, unashamedly a country boy, and nothing in his work suggests any desire, in the words of Stephen Greenblatt, to ‘repudiate it or pass himself off as something other than he was’. Part of the reason Shakespeare was mocked by the likes of Robert Greene was that he never stopped using these provincialisms. They made him mirthful in their eyes.” (Ch.9) 

If an anti-Stratfordian tells you that the author of the plays must have been someone like an aristocrat, give them that.

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