What Shakespeare can teach us about conspiracy theories today

The internet is awash in conspiracy theories. In this lecture SFU English professor Paul Budra examines conspiracy theories as an art form, using the long-running conspiracy theories over Shakespeare as a test case.

English professor applies literary theory to conspiratorial thinking

Authorship theories attached to English poet and playwright William Shakespeare come in a variety of forms. Some are simply benign — that the name Shakespeare was a pen-name. Others argue he never existed. Despite these theories being false, they still persist today. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

*Originally published on March 31, 2020.

The world is awash in conspiracy theories. From Qanon to a person landing on the moon, it seems there's a shady, secret conspiracy behind every major event in history. 

There are even conspiracy theories behind seemingly ordinary things, English professor Paul Budra attests. 

"Open Google. Type in any random noun, followed by the word 'conspiracy' and something will show up. I tried it. The word I used was 'dog.' I found several conspiracies about Barack Obama's dog."

Budra teaches at Simon Fraser University and has a particular interest in how and and why conspiracy theories emerge.

And as an English professor who teaches Shakespeare, he is familiar with the varying conspiracy theories surrounding the English playwright. He looks to the Shakespearean era for insight into how styles of discourse and strategies might play into modern conspiratorial thinking.

There are a few conspiracy theories out there about the Obama family dog, Sunny. One connects her to Sunni — the branch of Islam — the religion some conspiracy theorists think the former U.S. president adheres to. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

"Conspiracy theories, even ones as ultimately insignificant as the Shakespeare authorship one, flatten out reality and impose upon it a simplistic moral rhetoric, reducing reality to good guys vs bad guys, us vs them," Budra explains in his recent lecture at the Shadbolt Centre in Burnaby, B.C., called The Shakespeare Conspiracy.

Authorship theories contend that Shakespeare's plays were written by other people, including, according to Budra, "Sir Walter Raleigh... Sir Francis Bacon... and Queen Elizabeth I herself. The late Muammar Gaddafi argues that Shakespeare was actually an Arab named Shaykh Zubayr."

As a literary critic, Budra analyzes conspiracy theories as an art form and literary genre, trying to find the themes and literary devices that are used. His conclusion was that conspiracy theories rely on three factors — allegory, a lack of imagination, and a lack of empathy.

Failure of imagination

The modern conspiracy theories that exist today and those about Shakespeare are both a product of what Budra says is "a failure of imagination." 

"That might sound counterintuitive because so many conspiracy theories are wildly fanciful and imaginative," Budra tells the audience, referring to what's known as the reptile conspiracy theory. David Icke argued that the world was essentially run by shape shifting alien reptiles. 

The British conspiracy theorist published his theory in a book in 1999, called The Biggest Secret.

British conspiracy theorist David Icke argues shape-shifting reptilian humanoids from the Alpha Draconis star system are involved in a worldwide conspiracy against humanity. (YouTube)

"The failure I'm talking about is an inability or willful disinclination to think beyond one's own preconceptions, experience or culture -- responding instead to the exceptional the foreign and the inexplicable with disbelief," Budra explains.

"A disbelief that can morph into a paranoia that imposes patterns on reality patterns that are sometimes presumed to be the product of some controlling agent."

Lack of empathy

It's not surprising to Budra that conspiracy theories are flourishing in the U.S. right now, given that the encompassing narrative tends to involve having to pick a side.

"That country is profoundly divided along ideological lines. It's simply easier to explain away the intentions of people on the other side of that divide through a conspiracy theory than it is to engage with their reality," says  Budra.

Conspiracy theories also shut out compromise and acceptance of another way to think, leaving plenty of room to buy into a demonizing narrative. 

If one can imagine what it must like to be the other, Budra warns, that can lead to empathy.

"This is why great literature, great art like Shakespeare is important because it continually makes us  imagine another time, imagine another culture, imagine understanding reality in a different way."

The role of allegory 

There is a long tradition of using allegorical reading to understand the world. The Bible is full of allegories, says Budra. "Christ's parables are small allegories." 

For many religions resorting to allegorical reading is necessary. Sacred texts are seen as inviolable and perfect — the Word of God or one of his prophets. But when things are not clear, many refer to what's written as symbolic or allegorical, says Budra.

"Further, many believers read history allegorically, believing that if we read human events correctly, we will see revealed the plan of God. History is a sort of benign conspiracy, an unfolding revelation of God's purpose, his plan, his-pre-ordained narrative."

Conspiracy theorists believe film footage of astronauts landing on the moon, such as this 1969 NASA picture of astronaut Edwin E. Aldrin Jr. were made using sets similar to the training mock ups of the Moon and the Apollo Lunar Module. (Nasa/Getty Images)

So history is considered a type of allegory and the religious text can be read allegorically — supporting each other, says Budra.

How this folds into conspiracy theories is generally that the narrative is not perceived as "the real story," such as events like 9/11 or the moon landing.

"The received narrative points to the real underlying narrative that they as expert critics see so they're reading those events allegorical."

As conspiracy theories look at events historically, they import contemporary assumptions and cultural values into the past so they can pass judgment, Budra says.

"It's a sort of corrective hindsight."

* This episode was produced by Matthew Lazin-Ryder.