Shakespeare is owed an apology

Colby Cosh on why Shakespeare’s critics will never be satisfied

AP Photo / University of Leicester

AP Photo / University of Leicester

Maclean’s has, in more than a century of life, occasionally covered the various species of controversy over Shakespeare’s identity. Now, me, I take the radical minority position that the author William Shakespeare was also the historical person from Stratford-upon-Avon who appears in a few legal documents as “William Shakespeare.” But alternative theories number in the dozens. “Shakespeare” was really the earl of Oxford; Francis Bacon; Christopher Marlowe.

Someone is always trying to argue, generally by the use of abstruse textual hints or even anagrams, that Shakespeare was secretly a Catholic or a spy or a woman—anything, really, other than a backwater bourgeois with a decent education, a large ambition, and a remarkable imagination. It was at about Shakespeare’s time when cynical, hustling, free-thinking “creatives” began to invade the big cities of the English-speaking world, and they are still doing it. The Bard should not really be so hard to recognize.

At times, the moves in the revisionists’ identity game are so ludicrous, they become good arguments that Shakespeare is Shakespeare, showing how far you have to reach to imagine otherwise. “Shakespeare” had to have been a lawyer, say the amateur scholars, because the court scene in The Merchant of Venice is so true-to-life—totally something that could actually happen! “Shakespeare” couldn’t have written the “procreation” sonnets as a young man, because their narrator complains of advancing age, and we all know people don’t start doing that in their 30s! “Shakespeare” must have travelled widely on ships, because people use them in his plays, mostly eschewing hovercrafts and bullet trains!

By an amusing irony, the English King Richard III, whose popular image was created by Shakespeare, is another historical figure who has prejudices projected onto him more often than he is just looked at soberly. Richard always had a bit of a cult—certainly in the north of England, which never regained the huge helping of political power he gave it, and among people who have objections or beefs with the house of Tudor that ousted him, notably Roman Catholics.

In 1951, when the author Josephine Tey published The Daughter of Time, these happy few were joined by a mass wave of people who simply love conspiracies and historical secrets—the sort who adore getting the long-suppressed real poop, which, in this case, is that Richard III was a benign, gentle soul, and not the malformed usurper of legend. Tey had, apparently, studied his face—i.e., a painting of it—and concluded that no one who glowed with such sweet thoughtfulness could be a vicious killer.

Needless to say, because Richard was actually the Darwinian distillation of several generations of mafioso homicide, this required a big pile of omissions and absurdities. The planet-sized one is those princes in the Tower, Edward V and his brother Richard, who were entrusted to Richard’s care. Richard declared them illegitimate by a shabby contrivance, and they disappeared without notice or investigation while Richard was still in power, power he had consolidated with a sequence of open legal murders. But we are asked to believe without evidence that it was Henry VII who ordered the princes’ deaths.

This astonishing tradition of delusion is alive and well. You have all heard how the remains of Richard III were discovered under a car park in 2012. Last week, researchers at the University of Leicester announced that they had made a 3D model of Richard’s spine. For decades, good old Shakespeare has been accused of concocting the idea, in service to Tudor propaganda purposes, that Richard was a deformed “hunchback.” (The word he used was actually “bunch-back’d.”) But many other contemporaries and near-contemporaries referred to some kind of Ricardian spinal deformity.

And this “tradition” was right, just as analogous traditions had been right about Richard’s last resting place. Richard did not have kyphosis, which causes the classic hunched back, but the more familiar scoliosis. The degree of curvature would not have incapacitated Richard, but would definitely make you pause if you saw someone on the street with it tomorrow. The dude’s back was, well, bunched.

Yet the official reaction from the Richard III Society, whose members and fellow travellers called the king’s deformity an “invention” for decades, is not that Shakespeare was right and is owed about a billion apologies. It is: “See? It wasn’t kyphosis!” If you have built an entire society and a cottage industry around a premise, you do not let go easily. So spare a thought for poor Shakespeare. He has certainly been vindicated by this discovery—whoever the heck he was.


Shakespeare is owed an apology

  1. Shakespeare was obviously, then, an olden style chiropractor.

    Who knew.

  2. Ahh Shakespeare….hot stuff 400 years ago. The Steven Spielberg of his time.

    Born the same year as Galileo.

    Nice one Colby….thank you.

  3. I’m so tired of the constant efforts to dumb down Shakespeare. It’s positively anti-Shakespearean! Any time there’s good evidence of his astonishingly profound learning, personal familiarity with Italy, etc., you can bet than some “scholar” will come along and dumb him down, finding alleged “errors” in his specialized knowledge. Sir George Greenwood discovered that Shakespeare had a knowledge of law that strongly suggests he had legal training. Before long, others claimed that Shakespeare made a lot of errors in his legal references. Nope! Only when the error was in his source material, or spoken by a comical character. The other errors were on the part of the revisionists.

  4. I think the author owes the many scoliosis sufferers of today an apology–forget Shakespeare. The osteologists don’t have an ‘axe to grind’ and the most recent reports indicate any deformity, other than the raised right shoulder, would have been hidden by clothing. This is quite true for most sufferers of this disorder, of which there are many–and I am sure they resent perjorative name-calling as much as those with other physical ailments. Shakespeare wasn’t ‘wrong’ per se but he exaggerated, as all FICTION writers do…he was not,after all, a historian. That is something people tend to forget. And please, if you are going to comment on historical matters, please learn something of it first. The ‘shabby contrivance’ may well not be; it is, after all, not as if Edward hadn’t made a ‘secret marriage’ before, as is well known. It was certainly believable enough to have convinced parliament, and hence the document Titulus Regius…oh and indeed I remember how THAT document was once thought to be mythical, another ‘shabby contrivance’ …until one turned up, just like ‘Richard was going to marry his niece’…until documents turned up showing that he was in negotiations for a Portuguese princess. And no m atter what he may or may not have done…it all rather pales in comparison to the tyranny of ‘blue King Hal, looked upon, it seems as some kind of jolly Tudor good-time boy (good on ya,mate, all those wives!) despite being responsible for the deaths of up to 70,000 people!

  5. In truth, a person with the amount of scoliosis would not make you pause if you saw him/her on the street. You wouldn’t even notice unless he bent over in front of you or his shirt was off. I’m sure you wrote that part tongue-in-cheek, or at least I am hoping you did. Shakespeare was a writer and he told a good story, but you can’t say he was right. He also said that Richard III had a withered arm and that he poisoned his wife.

  6. The writer tells us that Shakespeare was wrong about the type of spinal condition Shakespeare suffered with and then suggests he is owed an apology for being accused of being wrong. I’m not sure how that works.

    Many contemporaries referred to a spinal deformity? A Silesian knight noted slightly uneven shoulders. Near contemporaries? Tudor subjects, then.

    A shabby contrivance? Presumably this refers to the evidence shown to a Parliamentary Committee that convinced all of those gathered that Edward V was illegitimate and therefore legally incapable of claiming the crown? It’s veracity is a matter of conjecture and opinion, not fact as the writer would have us believe.

    It is a shame that such sensationalism should pass for the imparting of fact.

    • ‘. . the historical person from Stratford-upon-Avon who appears in a few legal documents’

      You failed to mention that this fellow, who also evidently went by Cornelius, SIGNED HIS NAME WITH AN X in some of those legal documents. The contents of his will reveal that he didn’t leave behind any books or manuscripts of any kind, including his own.

      It doesn’t take much thought to realize that facts like these are difficult to reconcile with the greatest writer in the history of our language.

      There’s almost no information about the man from his own lifetime, which in itself is rather unusual. Much of what does exist, like his signature or his estate, is not exactly compelling in favor of the actor from Stratford.

      It may be true that some people go to ridiculous lengths to contrive reasons why he could not have been the author, but to just blindly accept the traditional biographical sketch (especially when what evidence there is tends to put holes in it) is, frankly, stupid.

      I’ve long been a fan, Cosh, and I think this may be the first time I’ve ever applied that word to an opinion of yours.

      Lacking an empirical foundation, the only thing that can really be said in defense of the Stratfordian theory is that it has been passed down uncritically all these years. That it remains the orthodox consensus opinion says a lot about the quality of intellect to be found among scholars who choose to focus on one of the most widely studied figures in english literature and then fail to say anything new about the man.