For years now, debate has raged over the true genius behind—well, no, I wouldn’t say debate has raged. Let’s see… Debate has flourished… No. Not quite. Debate has…existed?Yes, let’s go with that. For years now, debate has existed about the true genius behind the literary masterworks commonly accredited to William Shakespeare. It has not been an in-your-face controversy, like the rising tensions between the US and China, or the influence of Big Tech, or who was eliminated on the latest episode of Dancing with the Stars, but the question is there. It pops up in conversations, rarely, and randomly, and usually unasked for, always inspiring brief interest and guessed opinions. Like when Jean, a lady at my work, brings homemade vegan pancakes to the office every few months. Discussion is lively. What are vegan pancakes? Should I try one, just to see what they’re like? Can they really be classed as pancakes? Why bring pancakes to share for morning tea? They’re cold and unappetising. I wouldn’t eat a real pancake if it was three-hours-old. Do I need to eat one so Jean is not offended? Should I care whether Jean is offended? Everyone comes to the kitchen to see the vegan pancakes, and everyone theorises as to why Jean thinks vegan pancakes are a good thing to have, and then a few people each taste a pancake while the rest of us make excuses to get back to work, and then the pancakes are forgotten until the next time Jean brings them in. I think that accurately represents the debate over who really wrote Hamlet.
One theory suggests that William Shakespeare did not exist, and rather the name was used by a group of writers who each contributed to his body of work. But why would these gifted playwrights seek anonymity? Were they hideously ugly and smelly, and did they therefore fear the attention fame would bring? It is unlikely a group of extraordinarily talented writers would all be grotesque of appearance. And as for the smell, it was the sixteenth century, and I imagine people back then would have been tolerant of unpleasant odours.
Another idea is that William Shakespeare was the pen name of a poetic earl named Edward de Vere. His education and grasp of language certainly allow for writing talent, but writing plays for the common folk would have been considered “beneath” a man of his standing. A false name would have been necessary. One point of doubt for many people about this theory, though, is that the earl died in 1604, while Shakespeare continued to write plays for several years after. This is a weak argument, and it annoys me. If de Vere was smart enough to write Macbeth and King Lear and Othello and Romeo and Juliet and Richard III and all the others, and if he had all that earl cash, then it would have been no trouble at all for him to fake his death. Simple. Despite that, I do think the Edward de Vere theory is a load of crap.
A lesser-known theory, first put forward by Edwin Birch, says that Shakespeare did in fact exist, but he was a mere puppet of the true writer of those plays. Birch believed Shakespeare’s plays were written by an anvil salesman named Oliver Southshoe, who, in order to stir up interest and set himself apart from the other playwrights of his day, added to his performances the element of ventriloquism. Oliver would take to the stage before each play and introduce his work with the help of his friend, William Shakespeare. According to Edwin Birch, William Shakespeare was mute, and possibly had limited mental capacity after being kicked in the head by a horse. William would sit on Oliver’s knee and wobble about like a ventriloquist’s dummy while Oliver spoke in a funny voice, making it seem William was talking. So successful was Oliver at “throwing his voice”, and so eager was the audience to believe that the silent Billy Shakespeare could actually speak and write, William’s popularity soon eclipsed Oliver’s, and people began attributing the captivating sonnets and soliloquys to William. This theory is of course ludicrous. The truth is, Edwin Birch was friends with the guy who came up with the fake moon landing theory. Edwin was so jealous of the attention his friend was getting, he made up a theory of his own. We all do strange things.
Maybe we’ll never know who the real genius was behind the plays of Shakespeare. Maybe it was William Shakespeare. Now there’s a theory. Maybe, like a cold batch of vegan pancakes, the dilemma isn’t all that interesting.
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