The “Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare” movement has its roots in nineteenth-century elitism. In Shakespeare’s own time, no one had any doubt that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare. Some of his contemporaries may not have been very happy with him, calling him an “upstart Crow,” for example, but they knew that he was the genius behind the money-making plays coming out of the theater companies with whom he was affiliated. Printers in Shakespeare’s time made a decision in the late 1590s that putting Shakespeare’s name on the cover of an edition of one of his company’s plays was a way to make it especially marketable.
Shakespeare’s genius may be a product of his commoner upbringing. It’s possible that this kind of genius could not have come out of the elite of his age, simply because the elite might have felt more bound by tradition and convention and literary precedent. Shakespeare was a remarkable absorber and reformulator of potential source material, creating new, fresh, different dramatic productions from familiar sources. Take A Midsummer Night’s Dream, for example: Shakespeare is drawing on Greek and Roman myth (Theseus, Hippolyta, Helena possibly Titania, Egeus), Roman history (Lysander, possibly Demetrius), medieval French legend (Oberon), middle English classics (Philostrate, possibly Hermia), to identify just a handful. Shakespeare does not feel bound to any source, though: if Hippolyta appears to be a blend of Hippolyta and Ariadne, but adhering to neither’s source stories, so be it; the idea is there, and that’s enough. As any amateur historian can—and will!—tell you, Shakespeare’s Richard isn’t history’s Richard, and Shakespeare’s Henry isn’t history’s, and with Lear and Cordelia, Shakespeare toys with his audience’s expectations: which source story will he use, and will she live, or will she die? Ahhhhh! She dies!
Noble blood doth not a genius make. Genius comes from that mysterious alignment of abilities that produces . . . genius. Insisting that such genius could come only from the nobility is a relic of our historical past. It’s a relic of an outdated social structure. In the periods in which it rears its ugly head, we should look around to see if other evidence of a desire to reinforce class divisions is evident. Look around today: we have politicians on multiple sides tossing around the term “class warfare” capriciously, all the while insinuating into popular discourse an attempt to reaffirm class difference and class differentiation.
I’ll be wearing my “William Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare’s Plays” t-shirt at least once a week in the coming weeks. I can only hope that Anonymous either spurs a permanent rejection of the spurious and elitist claims against Shakespeare’s authorship or slides into anonymity itself.