Last week a couple of unlikely events came together to reveal how we deal with the improbable and the unique.
Not long ago I saw an article in The Atlantic called “Was Shakespeare a Woman?” I didn’t read it right away, because I’ve become convinced that searching for anybody else but the actor from Stratford-upon-Avon as the creator of some of the world’s greatest literature is a wild ghost chase.
There is a lot we don’t know about Shakespeare, probably because he rose from relative obscurity and was never quite one with the college-educated playwrights of his time. We’ve got some idea of the things he read, but his library has never surfaced.
Bill Bryson has written an entertaining and pleasant account of who Shakespeare was for general reader. Stephen Greenblatt’s “Will in the World” engages in a lot of speculation, but most of it is plausible.
Back in 1991 The Atlantic ran competing articles, one defending Shakespeare’s authorship, the other asserting that of another claimant, the Earl of Oxford. I remember reading those way back in the days when magazines came in the mailbox, not the inbox.
What got me started on this issue was coming across the rebuttals, the best of which is in Quillette. I’ve long considered the urge to find an alternative author for the plays the sort of conspiracy theorizing for which I’ve got little sympathy.
The search for the “real” Shakespeare arises in the 19th century, which is the same time a great Shakespeare revival, guided by Queen Victoria’s love for the Bard, swept Britain and America.
As Oliver Kamm writes, “The notion that a commoner lacking a university education could have written the greatest literary works in the language offended the Victorian sense of propriety and order … ”
Which brings me to another encounter I had last week.
There’s a fellow I know who works at the school where I just completed a long-term assignment. He’s a bright guy but not formally educated. He suffers some of the typical defects of the autodidact. He’s likely to think there are truths that the “experts” don’t know or don’t tell. Like too many under-educated people, he buys into conspiracy theories.
He showed me a book he said I should read, one about the Kennedy assassination. It had a blurb by Oliver Stone on the front cover.
My friend and I got into an impromptu debate during the passing period. He said, “You know the CIA doesn’t follow rules.” I replied that political paranoia does not count as evidence. We parted without rancor; he’s a good fellow.
There’s a natural tendency to believe that great events must result from great causes. The idea that a nobody like Lee Harvey Oswald could murder the president of the United States on his own seems inadequate.
I’m not about to get into those arguments once again. The last argument my ex-communist ex-friend and I had involved both 9/11 and the JFK assassination.
Sometimes small things end up mattering greatly. Benjamin Franklin and others repeat the proverb that “for want of a nail, the shoe was lost; for want of a shoe the horse was lost; and for want of a horse the rider was lost.”
We cannot adequately explain the eruption of genius, or evil, into the world. We want satisfying stories more than we want truth.
Besides, Shakespeare’s language is more interesting than his identity.