In defence of Shakespeare

First aired on Q (31/10/11)

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Should Shakespeare be known as "the Fraud" rather than "the Bard"? According to the film Anonymous, the author of all those plays and sonnets was really a nobleman, Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford. Forsooth!

Stephen Marche, a novelist, columnist for Esquire magazine and the author of How Shakespeare Changed Everything, took issue with the film in an article in the New York Times Magazine, calling it "not only ridiculously wrong, but damaging to reason itself."

He recently spoke with Q host Jian Ghomeshi about his objections to Anonymous, which he described as "the Da Vinci Code treatment for the Bard."

Marche is scathingly dismissive of the possibility that de Vere is the true Bard. "There's not a single scrap of documentary evidence from the period connecting Edward de Vere to Shakespeare," he said. "Edward de Vere died in 1604, while Shakespeare wrote until 1613, and was inspired by events that happened posthumous to the life of Edward de Vere."

He also scoffs at the suggestion that scholars and playwrights have conspired to conceal the truth of de Vere's authorship. "Anyone who has been in an academic committee meeting knows that they squabble constantly about stuff that is totally insignificant," Marche said. "The idea that they could organize some massive conspiracy is frankly hilarious."

Anonymous is just a film, of course. So does it really matter if it's a flight of erroneous fancy?

Marche argues that it's presenting itself as the truth — and that's what he objects to. "It exists to promote this Oxfordian thesis, which is nonsense," he said. "The film would not exist unless it wanted to prove that Shakespeare was a fraud."

Marche contends that the Oxfordian theory of authorship, which has been around since the 19th century, is based on snobbery. They believe that a "poor boy from Stratford who was a hustler...could not have written these works. And that essentially [they] had to have been written by an English lord," he said.

What alarms Marche most about Anonymous, though, is that the renewed popularity of the Oxfordian theory — and its disregard for the facts — seems symptomatic of a deeper problem. "I think this hatred of expertise, this hatred of people who know things, has just gone way too far," he said.

Marche believes that in the wider culture, there is "an absence of basic literacy" and an erosion of respect for knowledge. "I believe that when people work to learn the skills of expertise and learn what methodology is...and when they take effort to learn the facts, their opinion is worth more than some random person's opinion," he explained. "I think we've really abandoned that, and we absolutely have to get back to it."

Nevertheless, Marche isn't too worried that universities are losing ground to the Hollywood version of history. "Those institutions are quiet, but they're actually pretty powerful," Marche said. "That's where people get educated, not the cinema."

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How Shakespeare Changed Everything

by Stephen Marche

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From the publisher:

"Shakespeare is all around us. From nightclubs to Broadway musicals, in voting booths in the American South and the trees of Central Park — William Shakespeare's literary power is so intense and widespread that it intrudes into the material world. Esquire columnist Stephen Marche takes us on a delightful tour through the continuous stream of Shakespeare's influence, summoning up the Bard in the most unexpected places..."

Read more at HarperCollins Canada.

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