Monday, 28 January 2013

The Innumerable Identities of the Disguised Dramatist



             It was snobbery. Nothing more and nothing less. They’ll tell you otherwise and try to dress it up as something else but it was snobbery. Pure and simple. You see, we don’t really have that much information about him. We don’t know when he was born but we do know when he was baptised, so we can make a bit of a guess about his birthday. We know his father was a glove-maker made good, so good indeed that he became a local alderman. We know his mother came from land-owning farming stock and was worth a shilling or two. We think we know where he may have gone to school and we know he got married young to an older wife and had three children but he left them and went to live in London for a while, before coming back home, where he died, leaving a widow and two daughters. His son had died young, one daughter married a doctor and the other married a vintner, but neither had any surviving children so his direct line died with them. 

His Last Will and Testament

We’ve got his will and we know the date on which he died, and we know where he’s buried. We know a few other bits and bobs but that’s really the lot, more or less, and it’s not really all that much for the man who is generally thought to be the best in the world at what he did. And that’s where the snobbery begins. His old man made gloves, his old mum had a farm, he didn’t go to university, he ran off and left the wife with three little ones, so evidently he wasn’t much of a model for the World’s Greatest Writer, which is what most people would say he was, if you buttonholed them and demanded a name from them for that particular position. If you haven’t got it yet, I’m talking about William Shakespeare. 

William Shakespeare

That entire World’s Greatest Writer stuff began to pick up speed in the nineteenth century and if you want to give it a name, Bardolatry is as good a name as any. But if you’re going to elevate someone to such lofty heights then it would be nice if they were, well, a bit special. Not a glover’s son from the Midlands. A Lord would be much better, or a Prince even. Not a farm girl’s brat from Stratford. A Classical scholar or a varsity chap at the very least. Goodness me, neither of his parents could even write their own names, what sort of a provenance of that for Poet Number One. Snobbery, you see. Chap’s not up to snuff, don’t you see, can’t have been him, must have been somebody else. One of us, don’t you know, not one of the great unwashed. 

Joseph C Hart - The Romance of Yachting - 1848

The strange thing is that this idea first saw the light of day in book called The Romance of Yachting by Joseph C Hart published in 1848, a book which, despite its title, is a gossipy ramble about a merchant vessel’s voyage to Spain (It is in print, if hard to find, and worth seeking out.). 
Alas, Shakespeare! Lethe is upon thee! But if it drown thee it will give up and work the resurrection of better men and more worthy. Thou hast had thy century; they are about having theirs.” 
Then, four years later, an anonymous piece appeared in Chamber’s Edinburgh Journal titled Who Wrote Shakespeare?, which speculated that an avaricious, opportunistic Shakespeare may have ‘kept a poet’ who did the actual writing for him. 

Notes and Queries - November 5 1853

An enquiry from ‘Theta’ in Notes and Queries, November 5th 1853, raised the point that whilst Shakespeare and Sir Francis Bacon were cotemporaries, neither mentions the other and wonders why this might be. This letter is notable in that it marked the commencement of a series of articles that ran in N & Q for many, many years. 

Delia Salter Bacon

The ‘Was it Shakespeare or Bacon’ industry really got under way in 1856, when Delia Salter Bacon published an unsigned article in Putnam’s Monthly magazine ‘William Shakespeare and his Plays: An Inquiry Concerning Them.’ 

Delia Salter Bacon - William Shakespeare and his Plays: An Inquiry concerning them - Puttnam's Monthly - 1856

More about this gifted woman will follow on another day, but pretty soon everyone and his dog, it seems, was casting about with theories of their own regarding Bacon and Shakespeare. You may recall that I mentioned yesterday Bacon’s three ‘distempers’ to learning, one of which was ‘Fantastical Learning’, and this, as it turns out, is just what Bacon had in mind when brought the subject up himself. 

Francis Bacon ponders where all this will end

Fantastical Learning isn’t real learning; it just pretends to be. It’s self-referential, it’s circular and dresses itself up in arcane terminology, in an attempt to baffle to gormless and impress the educated, and it’s empty, self-important twaddle beyond the normal realms of twaddle. Baconiana is all that and more; think astrology, reflexology, graphology, phrenology (in fact, quite a lot of ologies, as it seems), anything that involves crystals and candles being together in the same place at the same time, homeopathy and management consultancy, all bundled together, mixed up in a big pot with the crazy stick and with an extra sprinkle of barmy thrown in just for good measure, and you just might be a quarter of the way there. 

There is craziness and woo, there’s daft and bonkers, and there is Baconiana. Seriously. I’ve walked about in this world and seen quite a bit of what’s going on out there but some of this gobshitery flabbers even my gast. And bear in mind, there’s also the other stuff that even your average run-of-the-mill Baconian finds just a tad weird and maybe needs a bit of a rethink.

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