Last week I would not have had a clue that several very different things were in any way connected. I would have looked at the Church of Humanity, a Comtean religion of the 19th Century, Mark Twain, Sigmund Freud, Homer, the Old Testament, and the Higher Criticism which sent shock waves through the Christian worlds of Europe and America, as occupying totally separate spheres of inquiry.
Just to pick up on one unlikely pairing, Twain, the Mississippi river pilot and irreverent humourist, and Freud, the humourless founder of psychoanalysis, do not at first sight seem to have anything in common except the writing of books.
He places Delia Bacon and her advocacy of Francis Bacon (no relative) as the writer of Shakespeare’s plays in their full context. Firstly he unpacks their links with some unsettling deconstructions. There was the work that suggested that ‘Homer‘ might not be a real historical figure and the sole author of the Iliad and the Odyssey. Then came the doubts about the core of the Bible: it just might not be the unmixed work of Moses. Lastly the gospels were demonstrated to be a less than coherent account of Christ’s life.
He goes on then to explain the way this context interacted with her deeply disappointing personal life to shift her thinking about Shakespeare in the direction it finally took.
To explain here how Mark Twain got involved might be a bit of a spoiler for those who don’t already know, but it makes fascinating reading, not least because Helen Keller, the immensely popular writer who had overcome the double handicap of being blind and deaf from the age of 19 months, played a key part in the process.
John Thomas Looney (and, before the cheap shots come flying in, this was pronounced to rhyme with ‘bony’) had other reasons which Shapiro explores for needing to prick the balloon of Shakespeare’s status as an icon of the Comtean ‘Church of Humanity.’
Shapiro disentangles very clearly why Looney’s case for the Earl of Oxford as the author of the plays solved some awkward problems for Freud, while at the same time creating others that were equally uncomfortable.
To simplify the situation slightly, Freud had made Hamlet a key plank in proving his Oedipal theory. This ‘evidence’ was somewhat devalued by the later discovery that Shakespeare’s father didn’t die until after the play was written. Oxford’s father, on the other hand, not only died before the play was written but his mother had also conveniently remarried by that stage.The shift to Oxford’s authorship neatly solved this first problem.
The fact that Oxford died before all the plays hit the public gaze could be explained away to Freud’s satisfaction, but Looney’s somewhat reactionary ideology, and possibly his less than sympathetic attitude towards the position of Jews in society, posed problems that Freud, as a Jew who had fled Nazi Germany, could not face up to let alone resolve. So, his allegiance to the Oxford theory came at an inconvenient price.
Shapiro is clearly in no doubt about Shakespeare’s being the true author of his plays. None the less he manages to convey, in a thoroughly engaging fashion, a sympathetic view of why it seemed so plausible to some otherwise intelligent and well-informed people that he could not have written them.
His journey covers issues of identity, reality, scholarship and literature that are of concern to us all. It sheds much light on how any of us could come to entertain misguided ideas. That these ideas about Shakespeare do not directly entail patterns of action that threaten anybody’s life does not devalue this investigation of them. In fact, the Looney advocacy of Oxford’s authorship cannot be separated completely from his views about how society should be organised.
This is a very good read indeed for any one concerned about these things. It is not just for Shakespeare fans like me!