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.)
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.
He's one of the few playwrights who had his name on plays during his lifetime, but he was not a household name. If you didn't go to the theater, you would never have heard of William Shakespeare.
It was really only after the publications of his work after his death that people started reading him, looking at how wonderful these plays were.
Q: What do you think is the best argument that Shakespeare wasn't actually Shakespeare?
A: In 1599, Shakespeare writes a poem. He's 34, but he refers to himself as old compared to his mistress. That's the only real discrepancy. But it was a poetic device, and it was different to be 34 in 1599, when life expectancy was shorter.
Q: Or he just may have had a much younger mistress and felt old for that reason. I know I would have if that happened to me at 34. But moving on! Why do you think smart people believe these outlandish conspiracy theories?
A: Part of it is an unawareness of that time. They don't read other writers of the Elizabethan period, and they don't understand that we don't know a lot about any of the writers of the time.
They don't understand that Shakespeare used sources. The plots of his plays don't come from personal experience, even though he seems to be able to get inside the heads of dukes, earls and kings.
It's a failure of imagination and a failure of knowledge.
Q: A lack of imagination about his imagination?
A: That is really at the root of the authorship question and all of the conspiracy theories.
Q: This is all very interesting, but why does this matter who Shakespeare was?
A: It's reductive when you read the plays, and you think they're merely disguised political history, works of allegory rather than works of art. It alters what the plays are actually about.
Q. What do you think is really going on in the minds of the skeptics?
A: It's a bit of envy. I think of Pericles' funeral oration: "For men can endure to hear others praised only so long as they can severally persuade themselves of their own ability to equal the actions recounted: when this point is passed, envy comes in and with it incredulity."
Men can endure others to be praised as long as they can persuade themselves of their own ability. Then envy comes in and incredulity: if this ordinary guy can do it, I should be able to do it. But if I can't do it, then he must not have been able to do it.
Randy Dotinga is a regular contributor to the Monitor’s books section.