In October 2011 a highly respected and state-sanctioned charity committed an act of subversion. It wasn’t exactly revolutionary but it had the desired effect of attracting attention. Following the release of Roland Emmerich’s execrable film, Anonymous, which attributes Shakespeare’s works to Edward de Vere, the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust temporarily taped over the “Shakespeare” in the road signs that welcome visitors and jaded residents alike to “Warwickshire: Shakespeare’s County”. It wasn’t exactly Greenham Common but it’s the closest such an august institution comes to an act of civil disobedience.
When you claim Shakespeare didn’t write the works of Shakespeare, you can expect some impassioned responses. Why? Because the SBT is, in an act of brazen self-interest, protecting its brand against attack? Because the SBT and the Royal Shakespeare Company are in cahoots to get a small market town scarred by the recent closures of shops and restaurants - Stratford is no stranger to recession - on a Unesco shortlist? The real if rather less exciting reason is that Shakespeare’s plays were written by…William Shakespeare. Sorry to be boring but Mark Twain, Henry James, Sigmund Freud et al. were at worst being mischievous or, at best, just wrong.
In Shakespeare’s Education, the eminent anthropologist Robin Fox attempts to make the case for de Vere. As reviewer of this book, I feel as though I am watching a fish swim cheerfully around in a barrel and I’ve been presented not with a shotgun but a nuclear warhead. This is a book that abounds in the usual inane, prejudiced, historically unsound and unfeasible suggestions. Inconveniently for Fox, Shakespeare’s plays kept appearing for a decade after de Vere was pushing up daisies.
My gloves are off not merely because Fox is wrong but because he is high- handedly so. Here he is on eminent scholar Stephen Greenblatt: “Stratfordian pornography like Will In the World continues to gush forth and be the subject of uncritical hype. One can only wonder at the depth of human gullibility.” Here he is on de Vere’s respected biographer, Alan Nelson, who has the nerve to maintain that his subject did not write Shakespeare’s plays, “Nelson has a chapter [on de Vere’s disputed inheritance] that is not much help, being largely quotations from one witness to the lawsuit. (Also, although he cites [Daphne] Pearson in his text and notes, her book does not appear in his bibliography.)” The mean- spiritedness of parenthetically pointing out a copy-editing error speaks for itself. Small wonder that the only academic authority Fox is prepared to trust is…Fox. He is the most frequently cited in the text and bibliography - no danger of omission here.
The pro-Shakespeare evidence is too ample to summarise in this review. Suffice to say that he is mentioned as writer of the plays by at least a dozen contemporaries, all of whom must have conspired (why? how?) to cover up the alleged fraud. Fox’s “method” goes like this - Timon of Athens is about dispossession; de Vere had recently been dispossessed, therefore de Vere wrote Timon. The Earl was in debt for £3,000; that is why he wrote a play in which Antonio borrows 3,000 ducats from Shylock.
Even more tenuous is the suggestion that because one of de Vere’s ancestors was heavily fined by Henry VII, the piqued aristocrat deliberately did not immortalise the monarch by writing a play about him. In other words, the evidence that de Vere wrote Shakespeare is the fact that the play Henry VII does not exist. Of the (far-fetched) conspiracy theory surrounding the publication of the first folio, Fox writes: “The whole thing is very rum indeed.” You can say that again.
Shakespeare’s Education: Schools, Lawsuits, Theater and the Tudor Miracle
By Robin Fox
Laugwitz Verlag, 182pp, £10.00
Published 1 September 2012