With all the grumbling on Twitter (admittedly, most of it from me) about the recent pro-Oxfordian film Anonymous, I finally decided to ignore it instead, and just read James Shapiro's history of the various conspiracy theories claiming Shakespeare didn't write the plays, Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? I'll admit this largely translates to preaching to the converted, because I'm firmly Stratfordian (i.e. I see no reason to think Shakespeare wasn't Shakespeare) as is Shapiro, but it's interesting to see how the numerous theories came about. It seems to me it takes a huge amount of rather large assumptions to come up with the idea that an actor from the Midlands could not have conceivably been one of the greatest writers who ever lived, and the first and biggest of these has to be that Shakespeare himself, or anyone else living at the time, thought he was going to be such an immortal icon. There's certainly some florid descriptions of him in the First Folio, but poets writing about their dead friend are likely to be a tad gushing. And there seems to be a lot of evidence that he was higly regarded as a writer, as he's often listed among the best working at the time. But I can say of living playwrights that I look forward to work by people like Anthony Neilson, Philip Ridley, Tom Wells etc - it doesn't mean I have any idea which, if any of them, will still be performed 400 years from now. Yet Shakespeare's name was praised alongside those of Middleton, Webster etc, those writers he's since overshadowed don't have the same effort put into disproving their authorship. Of the conspiracy theorists themselves there seem to be a lot of personal assumptions at work as well, the least surprising perhaps being Freud, who made a career out of telling everyone that his own personal hangups represented the ranked masses of humanity as a whole: Having based major parts of his psychological theories on Hamlet and how he believed it reflected on Shakespeare's own mental state at the time, new evidence revealed that the play wasn't written when they thought it was, and therefore didn't tally as conveniently with things like the death of Shakespeare's father. So rather than admit he was wrong Freud convinced himself the play's author was the Earl of Oxford, whose life story could be more easily shoehorned into his own theories.
I hadn't previously thought much about the arguments in defence of Shakespeare as I never particularly saw the need for it but it's interesting the things that you often see mentioned in theatre programme notes and take for granted, that form a good defence. For instance I've often seen mentions of who the original actor was who played a particular role, of the way Shakespeare adapted the way he wrote clowns when Armin replaced Kemp in the acting company etc. From a perspective of arguing that somebody else wrote the plays, it does make you wonder how a nobleman allegedly writing the plays miles away and secretly shipping them to the theatres knew how to tailor the roles so well to the ever-changing casts. (And of course the Earl of Oxford seems to have written a number of plays after his own death; if he did write them and hoard them to be performed posthumously, how did he predict that the fashion would change in favour of tragicomic fantasies, in the style of Shakespeare's later works?) Prior to reading the book I would say that the theories against Shakespeare came down to snobbery (the alternative candidates tend to be aristocrats) and considering how often Baconians and Oxfordians call him "the glover's son from Stratford" I still see that as at the heart of things. As I say, this was admittedly me reading a book that I already knew agreed with me but it certainly gave some interesting information on the debate and gave me more reasons to believe that sometimes things are as they appear to be.