Springtime for Shakespeare

Some people find the world so various and so interesting that they can never fix their attention on anything long enough to become truly expert. They therefore never amount to anything much intellectually -- alas, I am of their company. It is too late to change now.

Among my many desultory interests is the Baconian theory of Shakespearean authorship. It is interesting mainly from the psychological point of view. Many erudite men and women, and even brilliant ones, have wasted their substance or ruined themselves on trying to prove that Bacon was Shakespeare. They have constructed elaborate cipher machines, they have dredged the River Wye for manuscripts, they have consulted spirit mediums to contact Shakespeare and Bacon directly, all to prove their darling theory. Next to Man’s love of dog, it is perhaps Mankind’s most endearing quality, that he should be prepared to devote himself utterly to a futile but harmless quest.

It was only to be expected, therefore, that I should buy Professor James Shapiro’s book, Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?, the moment I saw it in the bookshops. His erudition gave me intense pleasure, despite a vague guilt that I had that I was wasting my time and energy on so trifling a matter in a world of catastrophes and disasters, past, present and to come.

Professor Shapiro too, is interested in the psychology (and the sociology) of those who oppose the Stratfordians, as those who continue stubbornly to believe that William Shakespeare was the author of the plays commonly attributed to him are known by assorted company, or monstrous regiment, of Baconians, Oxfordians, Marlovians, Rutlandians etc.

There is one thing, however, that I think Professor Shapiro gets wrong, as many people do, though this in no way detracts from the overall value of his book. He describes the social ideas of the man, J.T. Looney, who first put forward the hypothesis that Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, was the author of the plays. Looney believed that the author of the plays (and this would be so whoever he was) subscribed to a medieval rather than a modern view of society, preferring monarchy, strict social hierarchy, and the role of guilds to anomic democracy, social mobility, and capitalism.

Sigmund Freud, a lover of the plays, became an ardent Oxfordian, having been converted by reading Looney’s book. But, says Shapiro:

Looney’s retrograde vision comes too close for comfort to Freud’s account of the Nazi rise to power when he described "the ideal of Hitlerism" as "purely medieval and reactionary."

That year Freud had also written to Ernest Jones that "We are in transition toward a rightist dictatorship…"

This seems to me to be confusion. On the evidence that Shapiro himself supplies, Looney was not a democrat, but he was not a Nazi either. He did not want the Nazis to win the war; he preferred that the Allies did so. He thought the Nazis were barbarians, and his criticism of modern democratic society appears to have been made on civilizational grounds, not racial or economic ones. This criticism might have its dangers, but is not wholly preposterous or malicious, especially if you judge a civilization by its highest artistic products (which might not be a correct view, but is not an utterly contemptible one either). Medieval Siena, for example, probably had a tenth of the population of Akron, Ohio, but it is difficult to believe that in 600 years’ time people will find the remnants of modern-day Akron as beautiful, inspiring, or worth preserving as those of medieval Siena today. Of course, I might be wrong: it will rather depend on the general state of Mankind in 600 years.

The worst thing about the passage that I have quoted is its apparent endorsement, or uncritical acceptance, of Freud’s characterization of the Nazis as "right-wing." This seems to me simplistic to the point of dishonesty, or at least symptomatic of a desire that complex social and political realities should be located on an analogue scale from right to left or left to right. If such a scale must be used, it seems to me that there is as much, if not more, reason to place Nazism on the left of it rather than on the right.

Not that this would be satisfactory, far from it. As Bishop Butler said, every thing is what it is and not another thing; Nazism was what it was and not another thing. If it could not, and cannot, be fitted neatly on to a political analogue scale, so much the worse for the scale. To change the figure of speech, we must not construct Procrustean conceptual beds.

Does it matter, however, if Nazism -- being what it was and not another thing -- is routinely characterized as being right-wing? I think that it does matter, for the following reason. There is a false syllogism that has a profound psychological effect:

  • Nazism was right-wing.
  • Conservatism is right-wing.
  • Therefore Nazism was conservative and conservatism is Nazi.

But Nazism was not conservative; when the Nazis called their advent revolutionary, they were right. There was nothing conservative about their movement at all. But the "syllogism" above has insinuated deeply into the minds of our intelligentsia, which is why so many of them are afraid of the supposed taint of conservatism.

Let me just repeat, however: this, in the context of Professor Shapiro’s book is all en passant: if you are in any way interested in pedantic eccentricity and mad erudition, this is the book for you.