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Claiming that the Shakespeare plays were not written by Shakespeare is nothing new, and books "proving" the identity of the real author are ten a penny. In many of the books, the usual suspects (Bacon, Marlowe) are put forward time and time again. Here, a new suspect is put forward. Not only that, but Nield goes even further by claiming that not only was this person the real author of the Shakespeare plays, he was also the illegitimate son of Elizabeth I and the Earl of Leicester. I guess if you're going for a conspiracy theory, you might as well make it a big one!
What's perhaps most noticeable about this book is not so much its content as the breath-taking arrogance of the author. He is right. End of argument. If you disagree with him, it's because you are stupid and don't have the intelligence to appreciate the full force of his arguments. A prime example of this stunning arrogance occurs early on when he accuses academics of running scared from the truth - something which pleases him, because it means that he, and he alone, has been able to use his clearly superior intellect to "solve" an issue that no-one else has had the intelligence to work out.
Like many conspiracy theorists, the author has a rather flexible approach to information. Anything which doesn't suit his argument is ignored, dismissed as weak (without any real explanation as to why) or waved away as pure speculation and gossip. Of course, when that same weak evidence, speculation or gossip suits his argument, it's suddenly produced as cast iron evidence in support of his thesis.
Nield can't resist seeing hidden clues everywhere in both Shakespeare's own works and those of contemporaries and near-contemporaries. If you believe him (and he is at great pains to show you he is right), these writings are littered with hidden anagrams which not only point to the fact that there is a mystery, but conveniently solve it for you too. The idea that there are hidden messages in Shakespeare's works is not a new one, but the trouble is, language is so flexible that once you start looking for anagrams, you can find them pretty much anywhere and make them say anything you like. The contorted way he creates anagrams smacks of an author desperately trying to find evidence to support his theory, rather than natural clues which have been seamlessly hidden in the text.
There's no doubt that Shakespeare's life is something of a mystery and there are elements which give pause for thought. Yet in his desire to see conspiracies everywhere Nield overlooks the fact that sometimes the obvious answer is the right one, e.g. that William Shakespeare of Stratford was the author (or at the very least, one of them). To perpetuate such a massive conspiracy that has remained undetected for over 400 years would require such a monstrous effort that it becomes exceptionally unlikely. For absolutely no solid evidence to have emerged in all that time is almost inconceivable, particularly since - if Nield is to be believed - the conspiracy was well-known at the time and the works of Shakespeare themselves contain clues as to the truth for anyone intelligent enough (i.e. Nield) to understand them.
Despite regular protestations to the contrary, a large of Nield's book rests on the tired old chestnut of intellectual snobbery: that a commoner from an obscure Warwickshire village could not possibly have written the works attributed to him. He has a deeply offensive and annoying habit of constantly denouncing Shakespeare as a "yokel", a "bumpkin" and other derogatory terms. These reinforce the baseless, age old stereotype (still prevalent today) that if you don't exist in London, you don't exist at all.
Shakespeare's opponents constantly use this "humble background" theory to "prove" he couldn't have written some of the greatest works of English literature. A "yokel" like him could not possibly have displayed the legal, linguistic, geographical and other knowledge displayed in the plays. The fact that nothing is known about his early years "proves" that they were lived out in obscurity; the lack of any information "proves" he couldn't possibly have done what history says. Conveniently, Nield also overlooks the fact that very often, Shakespeare gets things spectacularly wrong (particularly in relation to geography), suggesting that he is basing his writing on hearsay, rather than first-hand experience.
Of course, there's a problem with this theory. Record keeping and information for the 17th century on anyone but the monarchy and leading families is notoriously sparse. To draw a parallel, another man, son of a Putney blacksmith and a near-contemporary of Shakespeare somehow managed to acquire an intricate knowledge of the courts of Europe, diplomacy, politics, languages, religion, the law and the arts; yet nothing is known about his early life. That man was Thomas Cromwell, arguably the founder of the modern British state. To achieve this position, Cromwell had to gain precisely those skills and knowledge that Nield claims it was impossible for a commoner to learn. If Cromwell could do it in the 1520s, why couldn't another commoner do something similar 60 years later?
The book isn't a complete dead loss. It does raise some interesting questions and highlights potential inconsistencies in the received wisdom. The real problem is, where these inconsistencies occur it's because we don't have the information to make a definite judgement, not because they point to a lie. Still, unlike many books, Breaking the Shakespeare Code will at least make you use the old grey matter whilst you are reading it and challenge you to think.
I'm not a Shakespeare apologist and I'm certainly willing to consider evidence that the true authorship lies elsewhere. The trouble is that this book presents the usual mish-mash of weak arguments, unconvincing conspiracy theories and dubious textual analysis which prove nothing. Sometimes the simplest explanation is the best (that a man called Shakespeare really did write the books by Shakespeare) and this book doesn't even come close to convincing me otherwise.
Breaking the Shakespeare Codes the sensational discovery of the Bard's true identity
CC Publishing, 2007
© Copyright SWSt 2013