Personally, I believe that allusions to the Cotswolds and detailed technical knowledge of glove-making, not to mention a scene in which a cheeky but clever schoolboy called Will is given a Latin lesson by a Welsh schoolmaster, suggest that the plays were written by a glover’s son from middle England who went to the local grammar school where there was a master of Welsh descent. Or, as Vladimir Nabokov put it, recanting his playful questioning of Stratfordian orthodoxy, “the fact that the Warwickshire fellow wrote the plays is most satisfactorily proved on the strength of an applejohn and a pale primrose.”
Winkler unravels a wealth of cryptograms, anagrams, canards and conspiracies of the kind beloved of “anti-Stratfordians”, but studiously ignores testimony from Shakespeare’s contemporaries – Jonson, Leonard Digges, William Camden, Sir George Buc and several more – in which the actor from beside the Avon is identified as the author of the plays. Nor does she address the compelling evidence for collaborative playwriting that is a stumbling-block to those who believe that Will was merely the front man for an aristocratic amateur such as Bacon or Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford. Did Shakespeare write all his own plays? Not entirely, since other writers, such as brothel-keeper George Wilkins and Francis Beaumont’s erstwhile writing partner John Fletcher, had a hand in some of them.
Like many a journalist, Winkler is sometimes cruel. She doorsteps the venerable Shakespeare scholar Stanley Wells – at the time of writing, 93 years old – then chides him for lapses of memory that would be excusable in someone half his age. But she is also incisive: an evocative account of a visit to Evelyn Waugh’s grandson Alexander, an arch-Oxfordian, ends with the revelation that his belief might have something to do with his descent, via his grandmother Laura Herbert, from the daughter of the 17th Earl himself. The unflappable Waugh retorts that he is also descended from Francis Bacon, Mary Sidney and Henry Neville – “So I’ve got a choice, OK?”
The Rylance chapter is the best because it is the least antagonistic. With the diplomatic cunning of the Thomas Cromwell whom he portrayed so memorably in Wolf Hall, Sir Mark conjures the image of an “authorship utopia where everyone existed harmoniously,” enabling us to see that “we’re all children of Shakespeare”. The ultimate explanation for the authorship controversy is that everyone – schoolboy, lover, soldier, justice, lean and slippered pantaloon, tyrant, aristocrat, woman, outsider – can find themselves in Shakespeare, and that this phenomenon leads those with an obsessive turn of mind to pin his identity to some particular aristocrat, woman, outsider or whoever. You can find Bacon, de Vere and Emilia Bassano in Shakespeare not because any of them actually wrote the plays, but because Shakespeare was, as Ben Jonson recognised, the “Soul of the Age”.
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