Tuesday, 29 January 2013

The Theoretical Types of the Seventy-odd Shakespeares

                So, Sir Francis Bacon, in addition to all that empiricism, philosophy, judicial and legal considerations, histories of assorted monarchs, natural history and everything else, also found the time in his busy schedule to write the finest plays and poetry ever composed in the English language. Because, and I kid you not, writing the finest plays and poetry in the English language was beneath him. It would have mucked up his political ambitions if it ever got out he was writing plays and poems and all that arty bejesus because that would have called his elevated credibility into question. Hence, he cooked up this cunning plan of attributing his Finely Wrought Plays And Poems Ever Written to some geezer from near Birmingham, as you do. 

William Shakespeare's First Folio - or is it?

That’ll fool everybody, and he just had to get his works on the stage, darlings, at any cost, even if it meant that posterity would never know what a sacrifice he’d made. God forbid that it ever got out that a nobleman of his high stature was soiling his paws by concocting wee conceits for the entertainment of the rude mechanicals. But Bacon was way, way too smart for that. Because he used all these Finely Wrought Plays And Poems Ever Written (©) to let it be known (to the initiated) that he was in fact the illegitimate child of Queen Elizabeth I, the Virgin Queen, and thus the heir to the throne of England. And how, I hear you ask, did he manage this? Well, obviously, by a hidden cipher within the text, you numpty. This is where we begin to shuffle towards the really meaty stuff. 

Ignatius Donnelly - The Great Cryptogram - 1888

Let’s dolly back to that letter from Theta in Notes and Queries from 1853. Why was it that Bacon and Shakespeare didn’t mention each other? To the Baconians the answer is simple, they were one and the same person and it wouldn’t do to draw too much attention to that fact. Bacon had written the plays himself, and had overseen the printing of them, how else could the hidden codes have been placed? I’ll give you the full-on crackers later, but don’t go there unless you can handle the sort of textual analysis that makes Kabbalists seem rational or any other cliché that seems apt here. 

Catalogue of the Plays in the First Folio - 1623
Naturally, the conspiracy deepens, because barmy knows no bounds. There weren’t enough hours in the day for Bacon to have written the plays and the poems and all that other stuff he spent his time doing – being Attorney General or Lord Chancellor and such – so what did he do? Obviously, he gets a few of his mates in to give him a hand with the heavy lifting. You know, Sir Walter Raleigh (when he wasn’t busy circumnavigating the globe), the 6th Earl of Derby, the 17th Earl of Oxford, the 5th Earl of Rutland and just about any other Elizabethan aristocrat that knew which end of a quill to hold. Or other playwrights who weren’t busy wrighting plays of their own – Kit Marlowe, Ben Jonson, Colley Cibber, Thomas Nashe, Robert Greene – indeed, almost any Elizabethan playwroughter who wasn’t called William Shakespeare. 

Roger Payne's bill for Binding the First Folio by William Shakespeare - allegedly

If you count them all up, there are just over seventy candidates for the post of the ‘real’ William Shakespeare but of them all, Sir Francis Bacon remains in pole position. Delia Salter Bacon’s article of 1856 questioned Shakespeare’s authorship of the plays but she didn’t, at that time, name any other names, but she was swiftly followed into print by William Henry Smith (yes, that W H Smith, of the newsagent shops fame), who actually named Bacon – Smith had written a letter to Lord Ellesmere which was circulated initially as a privately printed sixteen-page pamphlet during late 1856, before being reprinted in Littel’s Living Age in November 1856. 

W H Smith

This was the cause of a bit of a spat when Nathaniel Hawthorne accused Smith of plagiarising his countrywoman’s work without having had the good grace to give her a mention. Smith refuted Hawthorne’s slight by claiming to have no knowledge of the good lady’s work and if he had, he would certainly have acknowledged it, so Hawthorne apologised and Smith accepted that apology and everything was tickety-boo between them thereafter. 

W H Smith - Bacon and Shakespeare - 1857

In 1857, both W H Smith and D S Bacon published books about Bacon’s authorship of Shakespeare, and a convention soon developed that Shakespeare was used to refer to the man from Stratford-upon-Avon and Shake-speare was used to refer to the man who had written the plays. There were, of course, writers who rushed to the defence of the Swan of Avon; one of the first was George Henry Townsend’s William Shakespeare not an imposter (1857), which takes Smith’s arguments to task, in particular. 

George Henry Townsend - William Shakespeare not an Imposter - 1857

If anything comes over in this work, it’s how personally Townsend takes Smith’s effrontery and how he responds in the sort of language you’d expect from a wounded Victorian gentleman – with phrases like ‘rambling sentences’, ‘cheap literature’ ‘pestilent vapour’ or ‘this fungus’ bandied around with evident relish. Splendid stuff. And so the claims and counterclaims were made, points raised and refuted, coincidences noted and differences found and if all these books have anything in common, other than their subject, it is the very size of the things. 

Sir Francis Bacon

It’s almost as if there was a tacit background wager going on as to who could write the thickest book. 'Weighty tome' doesn’t begin to describe some of these literary doorsteps – Delia Bacon started it with a mere 582 pages, to be beaten by a nose by William Shakespeare a Literary Biography by Karl Elze (587 pages), Nathaniel Holmes’s The Authorship of Shakespeare ups the stakes to 696 pages but the prize pot must be handed to Ignatius Donnelly and his The Great Cryptogram (1888) which contains a length-and-a-half winning 998 pages. Crickey.

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