What if Shakespeare was Shakespeare?
The latest theory of the bard's true identity says more about us than him
Harold Bloom, the noted literary critic, made his greatest critical innovation with the anxiety of influence, claiming that originality in poetry is the product of a struggle with the potentially overwhelming influence of predecessor poets. Victory in that struggle requires a creative misunderstanding of the predecessor, a misprision that opens up space for the new poet to correct the master's supposed mistakes or insufficiencies with her own work.
It's not theory for all seasons, or for all poets. It is of questionable use in approaching the extraordinary originality of Emily Dickinson, for example, or her relationship with her influences. But it is a handy go-to when confronted with the neurotic fantasies that have afflicted writers struggling with the overweening influence of the greatest poets.
Which brings me to a recent article by Elizabeth Winkler in The Atlantic, "Was Shakespeare a Woman?"
Winkler puts forth a novel candidate for the "true" author of Shakespeare’s plays: Emilia Bassano (married surname: Lanier), daughter of a Venetian court musician and the first published female poet in Renaissance-era England. A fascinating figure, she has previously been suggested as a possible candidate for the "dark lady" of Shakespeare's sonnets, as the inspiration for various characters named Emilia in Shakespeare's plays (e.g., Iago's outspoken wife), and was recently the subject of a modern play performed at London's Globe.
Why go further, and say she might have been Shakespeare himself? From reading Winkler's article, one might assume that there was a lively scholarly debate ongoing about whether Shakespeare wrote the plays attributed to him. In that context, it would make some sense to suggest Bassano as a possibility who had been overlooked for sexist reasons.
But this is not the case. There is no reputable scholarly argument about the subject, not only because the theories behind alternative authorship are so easily exposed as outlandish or absurd, but because there are no problems or inconsistencies that would prevent one from following Occam's Razor and concluding that Shakespeare was ... Shakespeare. Given the inherent limitations of literary scholarship and the relatively insignificant stakes, it'd be unfair to compare the authorship controversialists to scientific frauds like the anti-vaccination movement, or to historiographic travesties like the Holocaust revisionists. But their methods are similar in that they begin with a preordained conclusion and cherry-pick evidence to build a highly tendentious "case" against plainly established facts.
What led Winkler to travel down that path? By her own testimony, she found no evidence in Bassano's own writing to demonstrate an affinity with Shakespeare. She embarked upon this quixotic mission because Shakespeare did such an astonishing job in creating three-dimensional female characters, with full interiority and a remarkable degree of agency. How, she wondered, could a man have done that?
This scandal, that Shakespeare achieved what nearly all other writers could not, is what has nearly always motivated partisans of alternative authorship. Shakespeare famously had "small Latin and less Greek;" surely the true author was more cultured. Shakespeare was a country boy with a bourgeois yearning for gentlemanly status; surely the true author was more aristocratic. Great writers like Sigmund Freud and Mark Twain embraced the notion that someone else — Francis Bacon, Edward de Vere — wrote Shakespeare's works, because these men were already famously erudite and accomplished, or had romantically exotic and complex lives that could have inspired the plays. Either would be less depressing to contemplate than the idea that a glover's son from Stratford could have been the greatest writer in history, greater than them.
More fanciful are those who invent a Shakespeare in their own image. James Tyrone, the Irish thespian father in Eugene O'Neill's play, Long Day's Journey Into Night and a clear stand-in for the author's own father, claimed with all seriousness that Shakespeare must have been Irish. Spend a little time on the Internet and it's not hard to find crackpot theories that Shakespeare was secretly Jewish, or that his plays contained encoded messages comparable to those imagined by Bible Code aficionados. In Christian iconography, Jesus is generally depicted not as a realistic Palestinian during the reign of Tiberius, but as a man who suited the imagination of the community of worshippers, whether Ethiopian, Central Asian, Tuscan or contemporary American. If our relationship to Shakespeare is somewhat similar, in that we need to make him our own to accept his influence on us, then perhaps there's nothing strange about each of us having our own personal Shakespeare.
Perhaps Winkler thought she was doing precisely that. But such fancies are only constructive if they lead to genuinely new and interesting understandings of the plays, new ways to perform them and ways to read them that breed new work. If they let us imagine through ourselves to something beyond ourselves, as Shakespeare did. The problem with Winkler's piece is not just that she has confused desire for demonstration. It's that her aim is to reduce imaginative space, not expand it.
Consider the nature of her "evidence." She is not saying, as Stephen Greenblatt did in Hamlet in Purgatory, that some obscure language becomes both clear and powerfully evocative if you make certain assumptions about Shakespeare's identity (in Greenblatt’s case, that Shakespeare was secretly raised a Catholic — a supposition that he later expanded into a far more dubious biography of the Bard). She takes the plays as they are. Rather, she's saying that Shakespeare understood her, as a woman, in a way that astonished her, and she didn't want to believe that a man could know her that well. Making Shakespeare a woman would "correct" a historical error that allowed for the possibility of extraordinary male imagination. Her motivation bears uncomfortably close comparison to that of Confederate sympathizer Mary Preston, who, impressed with the nobility of Othello's character, and unable to believe that a Moor could be so noble, “corrected” the error she found in Shakespeare’s play, declaring, “Othello was a white man!”
The Atlantic should have to answer for allowing its standards to slip so far as to publish Winkler's piece. But the reason why they did so is surely clear: it was sure to attract readers, and for the same reason that it attracted its author. We believe we are expanding our imaginations by asking questions like Winkler's, imagining that Shakespeare was a woman, when in fact we are contracting them when we say, no one could have written that unless she first lived it.
There is a place for unbounded possibility. That place is poetry — and as the poet said, it's a fairer House than Prose.