Imagining a world where Shakespeare isn’t Shakespeare

In A New Take on the Authorship Saga, I described my long-standing fascination for the Shakespeare authorship controversy, and how it led me to wonder what might happen if the matter were one day settled in the sceptics’ favour.

The conceit – which became So Long, Shakespeare – was rich with fictional possibilities. How would the news break? What would be the implications for cultures saturated by Shakespeare’s influence? Who would ‘own’ the discovery, and what form would that ownership take? What of the centuries of Shakespeare scholarship? How much would still be relevant, and how much would need discarding in light of the ‘new’ author’s biography? What about the Shakespeare industry – Stratford-upon-Avon, say, or Shakespeare’s Globe in London? Above all, what would happen to the plays and poems? Would they still be as rich, as powerful, as well-loved as before – or might a new author change even the works themselves?

As I say: it was a tale worth telling. But in terms of understanding the authorship debate, what really excited me was that my scenario focused on an imagined future – something which crops up surprisingly little in anti-Stratfordian discourse.

You might argue this is simple pragmatism – why bother thinking beyond the immediate challenge of gathering proof? Well, perhaps. But given the stakes, surely even the most determined realist ought to get carried away occasionally? And since most Shakespeare-sceptics are hardly averse to flights of hypothetical fancy, it’s odd that the debate so rarely runs away with itself: that Baconians aren’t continually dreaming of a world in which Francis Bacon becomes the new Shakespeare; or that Oxfordians aren’t busy re-publishing Shakespeare’s plays with Edward de Vere’s name on the cover. It’s like the debate is so fixated on the ever-malleable past that no-one ever stops to process what it all might mean for the future.

Perhaps that’s just a measure of the perceived unattainability of definitive proof – something which, given the murkiness of history, plus the impossibility of time travel, is so unlikely as to censor all thoughts of a future spent gloating in Stratfordians’ faces. But if the debate is indeed irresolvable, why bother arguing in the first place? What is the point of it all?

This was what gave my conceit potential. Faced with a controversy so resolutely focused on the past, I was going to challenge the debate by giving it a future. A future, specifically, which would deliver the one thing anti-Stratfordians least expect: resolution.

What would they feel then? Would their joy be uninhibited, or would there be sorrow amid the celebration? Would those who were wrong about the true author envy those who were right – or would the ‘rightness’ about Shakespeare overcome all? Might they suddenly see that, deep down, they were quite fond of the ‘Stratford man’ after all?

Absorbing questions. But before I could explore this brave new Shakespeare-less world, I needed to do the very thing that seemed so far-fetched: devise a means by which the true author of Shakespeare’s plays could be established.


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