Having spent long hours arguing with Oxfordians , I can’t help coming to the conclusion that they don’t actually enjoy Shakespeare. His ambiguity and wordplay unsettles them, the power of the language doesn’t excite. The characters don’t come alive in their imaginations. The plays seem to exist only as an ammo box from which to pluck debating points to hurl at ‘orthodoxy’. They get no pleasure from reading a play or sonnet for its own sake. It’s much more fun to go rummaging around in historical cul-de-sacs looking for the glittering piece of evidence that will demolish orthodoxy and turn them into the greatest literary detectives of all time.
Now here’s the funny thing. Oxfordians snarl at orthodoxy but everything about them seems profoundly orthodox and conservative. Next to the Puritans, they must be the most strait-laced subversives in the history of cultural dissent.
As respectable and reasonable people, they bitterly resent the ‘crank’ label , and convince themselves that De Vere, like Samuel Clemens, merely used a pseudonym which everyone knew about but nobody, not even the most gossipy luvvie of the time, thought worth mentioning. At the moment, they are desperately hunting for a suitably anodyne euphemism for ‘conspiracy theory in order to liberate themselves from association with moon landing and other deniers.
They like pretty handwriting and correct spelling; they are deeply impressed by qualifications and prestigious universities; they don’t just quote John Gielgud and George Greenwood at you- it’s always SIR John and SIR George. The language they use to describe Will betrays an ultra-orthodoxy which will often exceed mere snobbery and transmute into class hatred. He’s a social climbing malt dealer ; he’s a ‘thug’ and ‘street hooligan’. He’s the ‘bumpkin’, the ‘illiterate’ and the ‘butcher’s boy’. Some Oxfordians are never happier than when referring to the ‘dunghill’ outside John Shakespeare’s home.
In their discussion groups you will find some of them referring to Shakespeare’s time as ‘The Middle Ages’ . This error won’t be corrected by the more scholarly members because it’s useful to the Oxfordian case to ignore the economic and cultural dynamism of Early Modern England and tolerate instead a false perception of a society that was still rigidly hierarchical and feudal.
They are genuinely aghast at the idea that a play like Coriolanus might contain a Marxist sub-text because Oxfordians are united by a core dogma that the plays express an overarching ‘aristocratic point of view’ based on the ‘logic’ that the central characters are mostly of royal or noble birth. This dogma is expressed in its most extreme form by the hard line and supra- elitist Prince Tudor wing who seek to invest their author with ultimate hegemonic glamour by putting him in bed with the monarchy - literally. Consequently, a factionalism is developing amongst Oxfordianis which ironically resembles the ideological implosions that occurred in fringe left–wing groups in the early 1980s
My guess is that somewhere along the line, maybe at school, the typical Oxfordian struggled to understand Shakespeare and just didn’t appreciate what the fuss was about. He did very well in Mr Gradgrind’s class because he excelled at learning facts and regurgitating them on demand. But the trouble with making judgements about poetry was that it all looked the same to him. He could define a metaphor perfectly but he just couldn’t tell the difference between one that sparkled and one that was as dull as the ditchwater in the River Avon near Bilton Hall.
Years later, a Shakespeare sonnet still doesn’t seem that different from the pedestrian tum-ti tumness of a De Vere piece of ‘juvenilia’ written in his mid twenties. We shouldn’t though blame Oxfordians too much for this because it’s more than likely many of them were exposed to the kind of teaching which intimidates by banging out the mindless mantras of bardolatory and genuflects constantly to the notion of genius. Add to this the concept of a sacred national heritage and subtract any historical context whatsoever. Then think of a classroom of pupils spending an hour or so reading a play aloud round the class in stumbling monotone and it’s not difficult to work out where the seeds of Shakespeare denial are planted.
It is essential for teachers to put across the fact that Shakespeare was a product of a white-hot middle class entrepreneurial revolution and that he shared a near identical social profile to the other great playwrights of the era. If we teach the big history of the wood properly, we won’t produce another generation of Oxfordians wandering around looking for strange markings on individual trees.
Poor teaching can mean that many students don’t ‘get’ Shakespeare and actively dislike him. Most don’t let this worry them and just find something else to rock their boats. But your proto- Oxfordian, being socially aspirant and acutely status conscious, is wildly impressed by the enormous cultural capital which has accumulated around Shakespeare.
A cognitive dissonance sets in and there’s a conflict between the desire to embrace Shakespeare’s unique kudos and a feeling of inadequacy at the inability to engage with his work. The process of Bard Denial begins when these feelings of inadequacy are displaced into emotions of anger and resentment at those seen as responsible for provoking the insecurity in the first place: the teachers, the academics, ‘The Shakespeare Industry’.
It’s only a matter of time before festering resentment finds validation in an established alternative authorship theory and a chance to exact unconscious payback on that English teacher who always withheld the A grade.
Oxfordianism has an immediate appeal because it offers a life story which has all the ingredients of a TV costume drama but one which, on a deeper level, provides the imaginative and emotional response which Shakespeare’s writing failed to produce when first encountered. Oxfordians will say, in all seriousness, that they actually feel sorry for ‘Strats’ who do not have a full life story of the author to enrich their understanding of the works. This is tantamount to declaring that they cannot imagine anyone being profoundly moved and intellectually stimulated by the words alone. Or to comparing the plays to the strange words drifting from the psychiatrist’s couch which cannot possibly be comprehended until the patient’s actual lived experiences are fully known.
With the aid of Oxford’s biography however, ( not Nelson’s !) they discover a new, invigorating enthusiasm for Shakespeare, especially as they now have a personal stake in the cultural capital from which they were once alienated. They explicitly identify with Horatio, believing they are on a romantic mission to tell their master’s tale ‘aright’ and to restore a golden piece of literary real estate back to its rightful owner.
Say not the struggle naught availeth just because it involves re-dating all the plays, discovering new sources, finding ambiguous statements and hidden codes everywhere, hinting darkly at conspiracies but never explaining how they worked, confidently calling inference evidence, and molding the past into a shape which more closely reflects typical Oxfordian social prejudices. Not to mention enduring the slings and arrows of outraged Strats and finding bucket-loads of dosh to pay the vanity publishers and keep the websites going. Such is the long and winding road to victory for the wannabe new orthodoxy.
But it’s strange how this hoped for orthodoxy sounds so similar to the old one. David Garrick’s deification of Shakespeare is joyfully resurrected by Oxfordians for whom Shakespeare is always the greatest writer in the history of the entire universe and a mysterious, supernaturally endowed genius but this time with aristocratic genes, added X ray vision and dressed in a great outfit that makes him look like Elvis at Las Vegas.
The ‘greatest writer ever’ shibboleth will only be demolished when Shakespeare is taught firmly within the context of the poetic creative imagination and it’s clearly demonstrated that Will’s wisdom and linguistic brilliance are to be found everywhere from Chaucer to Bob Dylan.
Until that happens and everyone begins to see Will in a sensible literary and historical perspective, the tedious table tennis match could carry on for ever with criticisms Shakespeareans level at Oxfordians being batted straight back at them, by the copycat players virtually word for word. Strats have blind spots. They just won’t look at the evidence. Their minds are closed. They have made a right old myth of things. Everyone from Stanley Wells to ice cream salesmen in Stratford is involved a disgraceful conspiracy of denial.
Projecting your own shortcomings on to others is all very therapeutic but the most rewarding thing about being an Oxcentric is probably the opportunity it presents to allow the inner exhibitionist to come charging out of the closet. The pupil who felt too shy and confused to make contributions in the Shakespeare lessons becomes the adult who can hijack a dinner party and grab the limelight, making jaws drop with a few choice nuggets from Ogbourne or Whittemore.
And there are even greater thrills. You can attract world-wide attention by going into on-line discussions and arguing with academics who have spent years of their lives teaching Shakespeare and thinking and writing about him. And you can tell them straight out that they need to read a few books and that they haven’t the faintest idea what they are talking about. How cool is that?
‘And thus the whirligig of time brings in his revenges’.