Enough with the conspiracy theories, says one author: Shakespeare really was Shakespeare
Despite theories like those in the new movie 'Anonymous' that William Shakespeare was someone else entirely, drama professor Scott McCrea says conspiracy theories surrounding the playwright are all false.
This weekend, thousands of moviegoers will get their first glimpse of the theory that the playwright and poet named William Shakespeare wasn't a balding guy named William Shakespeare. "Anonymous," starring Vanessa Redgrave, suggests a grand conspiracy obscured the true identity of the Bard of Avon. (Well, make that the Bard of Not-Avon.)Skip to next paragraph
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The Will-wasn't-Will idea isn't ancient, but it's not entirely new either. Ever since the 19th century, skeptics have been questioning whether an upper-middle class man with a rather ordinary background could have become one of the most influential humans of all time.
Recent books have debunked the doubters, including 2010's "Contested Will," by Shakespearean scholar James Shapiro (you can read my review here) and 2005's "The Case for Shakespeare: The End of the Authorship Question," by Scott McCrea, a drama professor at Purchase College, State University of New York.
This week, I asked McCrea about the history of Shakespeare conspiracy theories and why he thinks they're, to borrow a phrase, "the stuff that dreams are made on."
Q: When did people start wondering if Shakespeare was actually Shakespeare?
A: In the mid-19th century, when there was a guy who wrote a book and claimed that Shakespeare lacked erudition and could not have been very well educated, so it must have been [famed writer] Ben Jonson must have been the real writer of the plays. He writes these plays about dukes and earls, yet he was a commoner, a son of a glover. How could he have written these plays? Then people thought it must have been Francis Bacon. He was the most learned man of his time, and Shakespeare was the most learned man of his time, so they must have been the same guy.
Q: Why was his real identity so important to people?
A: Shakespeare had became almost a god of sorts. He became great, he became idolized, and he became a superhuman because of his impact on the culture.
We do this: There's a psychological need for people to displace in some way people who seem to be superhuman.
Q: For it to have been worthwhile to create a fake Shakespeare, it seems like he would have had to be incredibly appreciated in his own time. Was that the case?
A: There's this assumption that people knew during his own time that he was this writer for all time. In fact, he was regarded as a very good playwright, but by the time he died, he was considered a bit passé.