‘Explaining the authorship controversy isn’t a job for a  Shakespearean scholar: it’s a job for a pathologist’. Michael Dobson

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’.