A rose by any other name …

I’ve never really engaged with the question of whether or not Shakespeare actually authored the plays attributed to him – until this last week. Sure, I knew there were various claimants, but I shrugged ‘the authorship question’ off as unimportant. That I can no longer do. In fact, ‘a mote it is to trouble the mind’s eye’ …

The run-up to the BIG anniversary has been an eye-opener.

I like an insane conspiracy theory as much as the next person. Ask the class who I recently introduced to the suggestion that the Apollo landings were staged in Area 51. That truly was a lesson that people will remember in years to come: it resulted in conversations – and arguments – at home, debate in other subjects (especially Physics, apparently), and with one pupil being literally dragged away from her research homework to get to bed (as her mum told me in the local shop).

But I’ve never really engaged with the question of whether or not Shakespeare actually authored the plays attributed to him – until this last week. Sure, I knew there were various claimants, but I shrugged ‘the authorship question’ off as unimportant. That I can no longer do. In fact, ‘a mote it is to trouble the mind’s eye’ …

Online, various respectable sites did the decent thing and held commemorative articles or series thereof: variations on the well-worn themes of the extraordinary genius of a man we know so little about; the ability of the plays to almost magically transcend time and geography; or the insight they give us into the Elizabethan and Jacobean worlds. Hearty and nourishing fare. Until you looked ‘below the line’.

Comments sections quickly became overran by what I’ll choose to call ‘Shakespeare deniers’. Incredibly, none chose to discuss the works themselves, simply to assert that William Shakespeare’s authorship was a naive fiction and then smugly sail off, believing somehow that they had landed some killer blow on the whole proceedings. It was bizarre. I and several others challenged them, sometimes on evidence of authorship, but in my case simply on their being utterly off-topic. I asked one particularly obnoxious specimen repeatedly if he had actually read or seen any of the plays. No response.

So why?

Why the hell were these people here, like a convention of atheists gatecrashing a Baptist Church singathon? Why were they trying to piss on our parade without engaging in any debate? Why did they think it was enough to declare ‘De Vere’, ‘Oxford’, ‘Bacon’ (or one from a list of another 75-or so pretenders to the throne) and then run off into the safe anonymity of cyberspace?

The best retort by far, came from a Guardian UK reader with the username ‘vernacula’. I choked when I read their perfect comment:

“people who don’t actually read or watch the plays no longer have to stare mutely down at their mashed potatoes” [when Shakespeare is discussed at the dinner table]

And, you know what? As last week went on, I became convinced vernacula was absolutely right. At school, I delivered a number of seemingly well-received assemblies on why we should (and how we could) commemorate the anniversary. Staff whose names I didn’t know commented in the corridor, asked questions, engaged with the idea. Then a member of my own faculty (for shame) commented: ‘Of course, you know he didn’t actually write the plays’, and left without waiting for a response: the typical ‘argument won’ attitude. At the end of the week, a senior manager asked me how I would be celebrating De Vere’s birthday when it came round, smirked and disappeared into their office, closing the door! Just like, I reflected (but silently, because I value my job), someone getting a kick out of telling a child that Father Christmas does not exist. Except you’re not going to make me cry. Malicious, wanton cruelty. How do you feel about flies?

It’s embarrassing. You’re embarrassing. I’ll be honest: I genuinely have an open and tolerant mind on many, many issues. Shakespeare deniers, however, can push off. Don’t bother coming here to try and troll me on the subject. It’s not that I can’t face the prospect of your ‘truth’. Were Shakespeare to be unequivocally discredited as the author of the plays in the future, I wouldn’t care at all. At the end of the day, someone (and I choose to think it was he) said:

“a rose by any other name would smell as sweet”

and, indeed:

“the play’s the thing”

I’m not interested in your boorish playground bully antics. You’re implying that we should somehow enjoy Julius Caesar less because someone else might have written it? Come back when you have read and can appreciate the play.

This was a great opportunity to celebrate the works.  Because I think they’re brilliant – whoever wrote them. I always will …

Author: Boar's Head, Eastcheap

Hyperactive English Teacher and Tutor; Shakespeare-obsessed 'Villainous abominable misleader of youth'; 'old white-bearded Satan'; Friend of the Orangutan

4 thoughts on “A rose by any other name …”

  1. It’s funny, I have the opposite experience, Oxford deniers seem pompous, dismissive and confused, though of course not all. I prefer the plays to authorship questions, but it can grip the mind if you hit a tipping point. I mean could there be a bigger literary hoax? The context is important. Can you imagine being ashamed of being a playwright? The Puritans took over for a while. And now the academy defends Shakspeare over de Vere, as though he sprung into the world without any education.


    1. Thanks for commenting. We seem to live in an increasingly polarised world, where sensible debate is at a premium: not least in the UK :/ I suppose the point is – for me – that it’s largely incidental who wrote the plays, and when I contextualise them for analytical purposes, I use broader social context rather than incidents from our (largely unknown) playwright’s biography. This particular debate holds about as much interest for me as whether Conan Doyle or Edgar Allen Poe wrote the Sherlock Holmes stories. It’s that frequent expression that a change in provenance somehow equates a change in quality that irks me.


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