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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    Supreme Court in a tussle over Shakespeare

    Since the Supreme Court is made up of nine justices, a hung jury is a fairly unusual event. But it’s happened. Believe it or not, the highest court in the country can’t decide whether or not William Shakespeare really wrote his plays.

    Justice John Paul Stevens, the senior member of the Court, told the Wall Street Journal this weekend that he thinks “”Hamlet,”” “”King Lear”” and the other plays were written by Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford. Stevens, like other “”Oxfordians,”” finds it unlikely that an ordinary man like William Shakespeare could have known all that he did about history, let alone been possessed of such an extraordinary writing talent.

    For once, conservative Antonin Scalia agrees with the liberal Stevens, telling the Journal that he thinks “”a democratic bias”” motivates the “”pro-Shakespearean”” belief that a man with Shakespeare’s undistinguished background could have written the greatest works in the English language. How could a nobody with no background have written Hamlet’s monologues, or the Sonnets? Only an aristocrat like the Earl of Oxford would have possessed the necessary background and sophistication necessary.

    Justices Anthony Kennedy and Stephen Breyer think Stevens and Scalia are dead wrong, and contend that the man born in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1564 was the real deal. Of the remaining justices, John Roberts, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito declined comment, while Ruth Bader Ginsburg and David Souter said they weren’t sure either way. The single living retired justice, Sandra Day O’Connor, told the Journal she thought it was possible that Shakespeare “”might well”” not have been the real author.

    It’s certainly possible that Shakespeare wasn’t the real author of his immortal plays. He lived long enough ago -ÿand was considered unimportant enough at the time – that we don’t really have a great deal of evidence either way. And people have been arguing over who “”really”” wrote the plays since the 18th century. Popular candidates include Sir Francis Bacon, King James I, and even Queen Elizabeth I. Some have even argued that the plays were written by a committee. The problem with all these theories is that they require a lot more evidence than the simple, obvious theory that Shakespeare wrote the plays, and most of that additional evidence is pretty unconvincing.

    My personal favorite theory is that the real author was Christopher Marlowe, who supposedly died in 1593, when Shakespeare only had a handful of underwhelming plays under his belt. According to this theory, Marlowe faked his death, Elvis-style, and wrote “”Hamlet”” and the other plays under his rival’s name. Where was Shakespeare? Off writing lyrics for Jim Morrison?

    In a way, this is just harmless fun. To quote an old joke, Shakespeare’s plays were not written by Shakespeare but by “”another man of the same name.””

    But the attitude that appears to lie behind the Supreme Court Oxfordians’ conviction isn’t harmless or funny at all. It’s downright ugly.

    “”A lot of people like to think it’s Shakespeare because … they like to think that a commoner can be such a brilliant writer,”” Stevens told the Journal. “”Even though there is no Santa Claus, it’s still a wonderful myth.””

    The presumption that a “”commoner”” could not possibly have written Shakespeare’s plays is elitist codswallop of the worst kind. In fact, the history of literature offers precious few examples of geniuses who belonged to the landed aristocracy. (The only exception I can think of is Leo Tolstoy.) It’s disgraceful to find a Supreme Court Justice spouting this bunk.

    The claim that Shakespeare wouldn’t have known enough to write his plays is equally without merit. In fact, his plays reveal no special knowledge of history – nothing he couldn’t have learned from reading Roman historians like Tacitus, or Raphael Holinshed’s history of England. Since Shakespeare is known to have received a standard education for his time, including training in Latin and the classics, there’s no reason he wouldn’t have been able to read those books.

    Furthermore, for all their shimmering brilliance, Shakespeare’s plays hardly display the attitude you might expect from an aristocrat. There’s nothing snooty about them. Rather, they delight in low and even bawdy humor. More importantly, their attitude toward elites is anything but elitist.

    Significantly, Shakespeare never portrays a truly admirable king. From the vain and foolish Lear to the murderous Richard III, his monarchs are a sorry lot. The one potential exception to the rule is King Henry V, but Shakespeare portrays him as a manipulative cad who betrays his best friend, the magnificent and witty Falstaff -ÿarguably Shakespeare’s best character.

    Falstaff is utterly lacking in the virtues that aristocrats and Antonin Scalias admire. He thinks war an idiotic pastime and bravery a fraud. He has not a whit of pragmatism or ruthlessness. He is thoroughly disrespectable. And Shakespeare clearly adored him. When Henry banishes Falstaff, it breaks the audience’s heart -ÿand it was meant to. Shakespeare is on his side, not Henry’s.

    Would a Sir Francis Bacon have written it that way? We cannot know for sure, but I think it much more likely that a “”commoner”” wrote it that way. A man with no background and no title, and a man who would have utterly disappeared into the dustbin of history had he not been the best writer who ever lived. There is no explaining why a random man happened to possess such an awesome talent, and we don’t need an explanation. Aristocrats are not better or smarter than the rest of us. Recently, Justice Thomas complained to an audience of students that Americans were too concerned with their rights, suggesting that we ought to have a “”Bill of Obligations”” and a “”Bill of Responsibilities”” to go along with our Bill of Rights. I doubt Clarence Thomas would have liked Falstaff very much.

    Justyn Dillingham is the editor in chief of the Daily Wildcat. He can be reached at

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