Ex-director of Globe Theatre doesn’t believe in Bill
Mark Rylance signing the so-called Declaration of Reasonable Doubt.
A side effect of the ingrained cultural tradition of praising the unique greatness of Shakespeare is the question of the “real” authorship of the plays attributed to the bard. The idea is that, if the literary and intellectual qualities of the plays are so far beyond that of any dramatist before or since, someone much more sophisticated than a mere actor from the provinces must have written them. The element of snobbery in this debate has always been blatantly obvious. Hence, even before the proliferation of misinformation brought by the internet, there have always been efforts to promote the authorial claims of various court figures and aristocrats like Edward de Vere, Seventeenth Earl of Oxford, Francis Bacon, Lady Mary Sidney, James I, Michelangelo Crollalanza, and – why not – Lord Peter Wimsey or Yvette Mimieux.
The authorship question is in the news at the moment because Mark Rylance, the first artistic director of the Globe Amusement Park and Ye Olde Gift Shoppe in London, has recently made apparent his own scepticism about the Shakespeare myth. In a recent feature in The New Yorker, to promote his appearance on Broadway in the classic tragicomedy Boeing-Boeing, we discover that “He thinks now that Shakespeare was likely a front for a small band of writers, perhaps headed by Francis Bacon, which included, among others, Lady Mary Sidney.” Indeed, he claims that his challenge to received ideas, along with his opposition to the Iraq war (a political stance unique in theatrical and academic circles), made his position at the ersatz theatre untenable and obliged him to resign.
What’s so special about Bill anyway?
Of course, if Shakespeare was seen as just another dramatist, we wouldn’t feel obliged to come up with elaborate explanations for his presumed greatness. In working on the representation of Italy in early modern drama, I have come across the authorship question a lot because many people seem to think that Shakespeare’s plays display a distinctive knowledge of the literature, history, and geography of the peninsula – a knowledge that only a widely travelled aristocrat or renowned period intellectual could have attained. Even among professional scholars who would feel embarrassed spouting crackpot historical conspiracy theories, we get grandiose claims about how Shakespeare must have visited Italy and spent an extensive amount of time in Venice in particular. However, it is worth remembering that we are talking the dramatist behind The Tempest, a play which depicts the landlocked city of Milan as a seaport (I have seen Italian productions of the play that silently changed the locale to Genoa to avoid inappropriate laughter in the stalls). What comes to the fore in looking at Shakespeare in the context of early modern drama as a whole, as I will do in my forthcoming book Shakespeare, Politics, and Italy: Intertextuality on the Jacobean Stage, is that everyone in the theatre was writing about Italy – and, for the most part, they were doing it by cribbing from books readily available in England.