The Future of History

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Paradigms Lost

It's the cruellest month, according to T.S. Eliot.  For me, though, it's a month of teaching, talking and signing.

The big one will be Stratford Literary Festival, where I'm appearing on Tuesday 29 April.  Naturally, I've been giving some thought to what I'll talk about on that occasion.

All being well, I'll be showing a lovely, large, blown-up poster of the "Wadlow" portrait, around which I based my paper given at Goldsmiths, University of London, last month (see left: we made Page 2 of the South London Press).  That, in itself, will probably be pretty controversial - introducing a "new" portrait of Shakespeare to the town.

But there'll be more to the talk than a discussion of the portrait.  I'm currently inclined to talk about the pendulum of history, and the way that a false view of history is often maintained for political reasons.

There are two major periods I'm tempted to analyse.  I opened my book Who Killed William Shakespeare? with an examination of the second half of the 18th century and the process by which Shakespeare was quite deliberately forgotten.  Of course, Shakespeare wasn't forgotten - we've all heard of him - but who he was, that was forgotten.

I'll talk about Shakespeare's mulberry, which was chopped down by an intolerant clergyman, who then went on to demolish New Place, Shakespeare's grand home in Stratford.  I'll talk about the discovery of the Jesuit Testament of the Soul, which had been signed by Shakespeare's father, John, and hidden among the rafters of the Shakespeare Birthplace (the testament vanished from the study of the Shakespeare scholar, Edmond Malone, probably because it's existence was somewhat embarrassing).  I'll also talk about David Garrick's farcical "Shakespeare Jubilee" and its impact on our understanding of Shakespeare - more than anything, the Jubilee established Shakespeare as the national poet, the "Immortal Bard", while simultaneously cutting him off from his roots - and raise the matter of the Rev. James Wilmot, a vicar who retired to a village near Stratford and first put forward the silly theory that somebody other than Shakespeare must have written the plays.

So - between 1755 and 1785, the real Shakespeare was forgotten, and a national myth erected in his place.  But there's another period I find interesting.

One hundred years on from the time in which the real Shakespeare was determinedly forgotten, attempts were being made to establish who he really was.  The death mask, found in Germany, which Professor Richard Owen, superintendent of the Natural History Department of the British Museum, concluded was the model for the Shakespeare funerary monument in Stratford, was exhibited in the town as Shakespeare's Death Mask on the 300th anniversary of his birth.  The discovery of the death mask had prompted numerous scholars to call for Shakespeare's grave to be opened, and his skull extracted so that it could be compared with the death mask.

At the height of this furore, Rev. Charles Jones Langston published his story of How Shakespeare's Skull was Stolen and Found.  Found, that is, in the private family crypt beneath the Sheldon Chapel at Beoley Church, 12 miles from Stratford.

The powers that be in Stratford currently refuse to discuss the death mask or the skull and pour scorn on the very idea that either might have anything to do with Shakespeare.

However, there is no evidence that anyone connected with the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust has taken the trouble to investigate the death mask (now in Darmstadt Castle) or the skull at Beoley.  To put it simply, they're not remotely interested in the death mask or the skull.  And they don't want anyone else to be interested in them either.

Rev. Charles Jones Langston published the first half of his extraordinary account of How Shakespeare's Skull Was Stolen in October 1879.  That same year, the Comedie Francaise came to London, bringing with them a play entitled Davenant.  The play was based on the long running rumour that Sir William Davenant was Will Shakespeare's natural son.

I find it odd, looking back, to see that some of the finest minds throughout Europe were so concerned with exploring possibilities - that the death mask was Shakespeare's, that the rogue skull in the crypt at Beoley was Shakespeare's, that Davenant was Shakespeare's son - and were willing and eager to put those possibilities to the test, scientifically-speaking.  I'm currently researching Sir William Davenant for a new biography (it'll be published by The History Press in 2016) and have just received a copy of a short book published in 1905; based on a dissertation he had written, John David Ellis Williams' book is entitled Sir William Davenant's Relation to Shakespeare: With an Analysis of the Chief Characters of Davenant's Plays.

At around the same time as Ellis wrote his dissertation, other experts were carefully studying and measuring the Darmstadt death mask and comparing their measurements - broadly successfully - with those of the Shakespeare effigy in his Stratford funerary monument.

There's such a huge sense of a missed opportunity.  The second half of the nineteenth century appeared to be edging close to several breakthroughs: the formal identification of the death mask, the (re-)discovery of Shakespeare's skull, the true nature of the Shakespeare-Davenant connection (as late as 1913, Arthur Acheson was confidently identifying Sir William Davenant's mother, Jane, as the "Dark Lady" of the sonnets).  All of these developments could and should have transformed the way we think about William Shakespeare.

But they didn't.  Something went wrong, and I suspect that something was the Great War.  England, desperate to preserve its sense of self, abandoned all the new research (a lot of which was German) and reverted to its comfy, cosy national myths.  In other words, the national myth of William Shakespeare - a humble, Protestant lad, beloved of that wonderful monarch, Elizabeth I - was reinstated.  All the advances of the previous decades were swept aside.  We went back to the reactionary view of Shakespeare as the national poet of a Protestant constitutional monarchy.  This was the Whig historian's notion of Shakespeare, and it was utterly unrelated to Shakespeare the man.

We've been stuck with that false idea of Shakespeare ever since.  The propagandist myth of Shakespeare, which was formulated in the late-18th century with the intent of removing any trace or taint of Catholicism in Shakespeare's background, has continued to be taught as if it was historically accurate - nay, as if it is the only known version of the Shakespeare story.  It is this Whiggish myth that the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Stratford propagates with ruthless determination.

As if those great minds of the late-19th century had never even considered the death mask, the skull, or the likelihood that Sir William Davenant was Shakespeare's son.  No; all that must be forgotten.  We were making progress, until the reactionaries took control.  And now generations of children, the world over, are subjected to an irrelevant and misleading account of Shakespeare's life.

It is time to resume the brilliant work done by so many scholars in the second half of the nineteenth century, before the devastating tragedy of the First World War sent us all running back home to Mamma.

It is time to continue their efforts, to achieve the goals that they were making for, and to reveal the reality of Shakespeare and his world.

None of that will happen if the Shakespeare "experts" have their way.  But we owe it to Shakespeare, and to Stratford, and to every child who must encounter Shakespeare at school.  If we want to understand Shakespeare's words, we must understand his life.  And for that to happen, we must explode the asinine myth created in the late-18th century, and resurrected in the 20th century, and pick up where the genuine experts left off.

Now - how do we think a talk like that will go down in Stratford?

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Shakespeare's Crab

Bought from my local Tesco supermarket: an Old Ordnance Survey Map of the Vale of Evesham & Stratford, dating from 1892.

What caught my eye about this little map was the presence of a landmark - the so-called Shakespeare's Crab.  It is marked on the map about a mile outside the village of Bidford, on the road towards Stratford, very close indeed to Hillborough.

The story goes that the young Shakespeare and his mates were disposed to walk to Bidford one day and challenge a group known as the "Topers" to a drinking competition.  When they arrived, however, they discovered that the "Topers" had gone to Evesham Fair.  But they were invited to drink with another group, this one known as the "Sippers".  Even this proved too much for the Stratford lads, who drank so heavily that, on the way home, they all fell asleep under a crab apple tree on the wayside.  The next morning, Shakespeare's friends were eager to pit themselves against the "Sippers" again.  They roused young Shakespeare who, rather than heading back into Bidford to resume the drinking match, composed an impromptu epigram on the surrounding villages:

Piping Pebworth, dancing Marston,
Haunted Hillboro', hungry Grafton,
Dodging Exhall, papist Wixford,
Beggarly Broom, and drunken Bidford.

Frankly, I've never believed that this little rhyme was made up by Shakespeare.  And when we find that the earliest known use of the word "Toper", meaning a heavy drinker, came from 1661, we have to query the factuality of the legend of Shakespeare and the Crab-tree.

What fascinates me about the legend is that, as with so many local traditions regarding the Bard, it might be a polished and prettified account of something more intriguing.

For a start, Shakespeare's Crab is just a field or two away from Hillborough Manor.  In previous posts, and of course in Who Killed William Shakespeare?, I have suggested that Will Shakespeare's first Anne - Anne (or Agnes) Whateley - was a resident of Hillborough Manor.  This is indeed what local lore remembers: Shakespeare's "White Lady", his jilted lover, eked out her existence as a sorrowful recluse in the secluded manor house which belonged to a man with whom Shakespeare would later do business.

What is more, I have argued that Shakespeare fell in love with Anne ("Agnes") Whateley when he was recovering from an accident, as he seems to have indicated in his poem, A Lover's Complaint.  Anne, I believe, was a sort of unofficial or "underground" nun, serving the local Catholics in much the same way that her brothers, John and Robert, served as secret priests in their hometown of Henley in Arden.  Essentially, Anne Whateley nursed the young Shakespeare back to health.

It is worth noting that the marriage licence issued by the Bishop's court at Worcester to allow William Shakespeare to marry Anne Whateley referred to Anne as being "de Temple Grafton".  Hillborough Manor is indeed in the parish of Temple Grafton, the manor of which belonged to the Sheldon brothers of Beoley (there is a very important Shakespearean connection there, involving a skull, and the surname Whateley is much associated with Beoley and its church).  The vicar of Temple Grafton at the time was John Frith, "an old priest and Unsound in religion".  Frith's main interest in life, it would seem, lay in curing injured or diseased hawks.

My theory goes, then, that sometime in 1582, when Will was eighteen, he suffered an accident and was taken to the Catholic safe house of Hillborough Manor, a short distance downriver from Stratford, to recuperate.  His nurse on this occasion was the "sacred nun", Anne Whateley of Temple Grafton, who fell for the winning ways of the young poet.  They arranged to marry, but Shakespeare found himself dragooned into marrying another local woman, Anne Hathaway of Shottery.

The "accident", I always suspected, was the result of violence.  For the first part of 1582, young Shakespeare was on the run, hiding out (probably at Earl's Common in Worcestershire) and avoiding the government crackdown on Catholics who were suspected of having trafficked with the Jesuit priests, Father Campion and Father Persons.  By the late summer, though, he was back in the Stratford area, where he got Anne Hathaway (and possibly Anne Whateley) pregnant.

If Anne Whateley was a Catholic, as were most of her family, then Anne Hathaway was almost certainly Protestant, her father and brother expressing rather puritanical inclinations in their wills.  In the light of this, it might be worth reconsidering those twin gangs, the "Topers" and the "Sippers", especially as the word "Toper" does not seem to have been in use at the time.

A toper is a heavy drinker.  A sipper is someone who drinks one sip at a time (and yet, somehow or other, Shakespeare and his friends lost their drinking match against the "Sippers").  Could it be that these innocent-sounding names - "Topers" and "Sippers" - have been substituted for something else?

Let us suppose that the legend really recalls a kind of gang warfare - something along the lines of the deadly rivalry between the Capulets, and their retainers, and the Montagus, along with their retainers, which is dramatised in the opening of Romeo and Juliet.  Those two families are, respectively, Protestant (the Protestants wore little black caps in church) and Catholic (the Montagu family, from which Shakespeare's patron, the Earl of Southampton, was descended, were notable Catholics).  The gang warfare between those two tribes reflects the situation in and around Stratford during much of Shakespeare's lifetime.  It should be remembered that Richard Quiney, Shakespeare's "loving good friend and countryman", the mayor of Stratford and father to Shakespeare's future son-in-law, was murdered in Stratford by thuggish members of the puritanical Greville family in 1602.

In addition to the Greville gang, there were Sir Thomas Lucy of Charlecote and his men.  The Lucys and the Grevilles deliberately made life very difficult indeed for anyone tarred with the "papist" brush, and it is not too difficult to imagine Shakespeare and his little gang having various run-ins with either mob - the Grevilles or the Lucys.  Any such sectarian violence would not have reflected too well on the Bard, and so his battles with the Lucys and the Grevilles were remembered, a little more bucolically, as hard drinking competitions with groups known as "Topers" and "Sippers".

That may or may not have been so.  But I find it intriguing that young Shakespeare was long said to have taken shelter, while very much the worse for wear, under a crab-tree a mere stone's throw from Hillborough, where I have argued that young Shakespeare was patched up after an "accident".  He was already torn between two different sorts of gang - the Catholics, which included his own family and the "sacred nun", Anne Whateley, and the Protestants, including the woman he was destined to marry.  In that regard, "Sippers" might refer to Catholics, who sipped communion wine, while "Topers" might be a code word for Protestants, who showed contempt for the Catholic mass.

Of course, if Shakespeare had taken a fall, or been knocked on the head, he might have seemed a little drunken when he was found sprawled beneath the crab-tree.  I know of at least one scar, running immediately above his left eyebrow, which was there for much of his life, and which caused his left eyebrow to droop somewhat.  He also referred to his lameness in his poems, and so we have to entertain the possibility that he was so badly beaten at one stage that he spent the rest of his life with a limp and a pronounced facial disfigurement.

Finally, I find it interesting to note that the word "crab" can mean to criticise or to grumble, or to do something which spoils something else - the term originally having been used of hawks fighting (from the Middle Low German krabben).  John Frith, the "old priest" of Temple Grafton, was renowned for setting the broken bones of hawks.  And the inn where Shakespeare and his mates are alleged to have suffered at the hands of the "Sippers" was known as the Falcon.

The hawks in question were surely troublemakers.  Like today's "hawks", they went looking for a fight.  Their enemies were rivals in religion and local politics.  And Shakespeare, it would seem, took a pasting.  He had to be nursed back to health nearby at Hillborough, where his "White Lady" fell in love with him.  But he bore the scars for the rest of his days.

Monday, 24 March 2014

Revealing Shakespeare

Last Thursday (20 March) I gave a paper at Goldsmiths College, University of London.  The subject was "The Faces of Shakespeare".  And I enjoyed it immensely.

Here's how the Goldsmiths website reported one of the key elements of the talk: the unveiling of the newly-discovered "Wadlow" portrait.

Monday, 17 March 2014

My Writing Process (blog tour)

I was "tagged" to take part in this blog hop by the wonderful Margaret Skea, whom I have known since the Authonomy days, and who posted about her writing process on her own blog last week.

Margaret passed on to me the four questions that writers are invited to answer as part of this blog tour.

So, here goes ...

1. What am I working on?

Right now, I'm finishing one project and starting another.  The Grail; Relic of an Ancient Tradition has been occupying my time now since January 2013.  I was looking to do something of a follow up to The King Arthur Conspiracy, partly because I had been doing some more research - especially into the location and circumstances of Arthur's last battle - and partly because I wanted to address some of the (very minor) objections to Artuir mac Aedain having been the original Arthur of legend.

Thanks to Trevor Greenfield of Moon Books, I was given the opportunity to write The Grail in an unusual way.  Each month, from January to December 2013, I would write a chapter, which would then by uploaded onto the Moon Books blog.  That meant that, each month, I would send my draft chapter to my associate, John Gist, in New Mexico, who would read it and comment on it for me, and I would visit my friend Lloyd Canning, a local up-and-coming artist, to discuss the illustration that would accompany the chapter.  There would be a final rewrite, and then I'd submit the chapter and the image to Trevor at Moon Books.

It was a long process, and an odd one (I wouldn't normally submit anything less than a complete manuscript).  I've spent the last couple of months revising the full text and adding a few more illustrations.  And, well, it's about finished.  John contacted me from the States last night to say that he had read through one of the more recent drafts of the full thing and he really liked it.  It's not all about the distant past - there's a lot about how our brains work, and how a certain type of mind tends to ruin history (and other things) for everybody else.  That type of mindset seeks to prevent research into figures like Artuir mac Aedain so that the prevailing myth can be maintained.  The same type of mindset will cause us no end of problems in the immediate future, and the book ends with something of a prediction.

Coming up ... Sir William Davenant.  I published a piece on The History Vault, a couple of days ago, about Shakespeare's Dark Lady.  It could be read as a sort of introduction to my biography of Sir William Davenant.  I've only just signed the contract for the Davenant book, and it's due to be handed in to The History Press in June 2015.

2. How does my work differ from others of its genre?

History for me is an investigative process.  I lose patience very quickly with historians who do nothing more than repeat what the last historian said.  It's a major problem: a consensus arises, and woe betide any self-respecting historian who challenges that consensus.  But the consensus is often based, not on historical facts, but on a kind of political outlook.  It tends to be history-as-we-would-like-it-to-be, rather than history-as-it-was.

There are similarities with archaeology.  Dig down anywhere within the Roman walls of the old city of London and you'll hit a layer of dark earth.  This was left behind by Boudica when she and her Iceni warriors destroyed Londinium in about AD 60.  But if you don't dig down far enough, you won't find that layer.

Too much history - certainly where Arthur (and the Grail) and Shakespeare (and Davenant) are concerned - gets down as far as one layer and stays there.  In the case of Arthur, that layer is the 12th century; with Shakespeare, it's the late 18th century.  In both instances, that's when the story changed.  New versions of Arthur and Shakespeare arose, reflecting the obsessions of the particular era.  When historians dig down to that layer, and report on what they've found, they're not writing about Arthur or Shakespeare - they're writing about what later generations wanted to think about Arthur and Shakespeare.

You have to go down further.  Otherwise, you're just repeating propaganda.

I'm also a bit fussy about how my books read.  That's my dramatist background, I reckon.  But I read a great many books - history, mostly, of course - and too many of them are, frankly, boring.  I seek to write exciting, accessible history that has been more diligently researched than the norm.  I don't seek to shock, but real history often is shocking.  Maybe that's why so many historians prefer to keep telling the "consensus" story.

3. Why do I write what I do?

The work I do now started because I was intrigued and inquisitive.  The familiar legends of Arthur are all well and good, but I was more interested in the man who inspired them - who was he? what made him so special?  And the same with Shakespeare - how did a Warwickshire lad become the greatest writer in the English language?  (My own background is not too different from Shakespeare's.)  And what was the inspiration for the character of Lady Macbeth.

I'm still intrigued and inquisitive, but over the years I've found myself more and more determined to see justice done - to right the wrongs of the past.  Those wrongs are perpetuated by historians who don't ask questions.  And that's a betrayal, not only of the actual subjects (Arthur, Shakespeare) but also of the reader today.  It's a kind of cover-up, designed - I believe - to reshape the past so that it justifies certain policies today.  If you're a monarchist, for example, or an old-fashioned imperialist, you're going to want to believe that Queen Elizabeth I was marvellous.  And then you're going to have to believe that Shakespeare thought she was marvellous.  Which means that you'll have to turn a blind eye to what was going on during her reign, and to the criticisms which Shakespeare voiced.  Before you know it, you're ignoring the facts altogether in order to write a history that supports your own prejudices.  I can't believe how often that happens.

Both Arthur and Shakespeare were killed, and their stories were subsequently written up by their enemies.  Their real stories are much more interesting - and they deserve to be told.  If we cling to the myths, we allow demagogues to dictate our history to us.

4. How does my writing process work?

Well, it's not quick.  The research can take years.  Then there are usually a number of false starts.  Fortunately, I tend to have some sort of agreement with a publisher, these days, so when I say I'm going to write something, that means I have to get on with it.

I'll start at the beginning, with the long, slow process of getting words down on the page (it's long and slow because I have to go hunting for the information before I put it down).  But I always have a carefully worked out structure in my mind, and day after day a kind of rough draft takes shape.  It's usually fairly messy, and at some point I'll stop and go back to the start, smartening it up and giving myself enough momentum to plough on and get a few more chapters drafted.

After that, it's an ongoing process of revision (never less than three drafts).  For several months, I'll be revising the early chapters while I'm still drafting the later ones.

I have to work pretty much every day.  For a finished manuscript of, say, 100,000 words, I'll expect to write anything up to 500,000 words, which will be sifted and boiled down to fit the appropriate length.  I'll keep going back and revising different sections, here and there, and often, in the latter stages, I'll rewrite the chapters out of sequence (partly to keep them all fresh).  Then there's endless, obsessive tinkering, as I fuss over every full stop and comma.

The King Arthur Conspiracy took seven months to write (and rewrite).  Who Killed William Shakespeare? took nine months, and then some for the illustrations.  The Grail took me a year to write (a chapter a month) and another 2-3 months to revise (with illustrations).  With Sir William Davenant I want to create something special, so that'll take ages.

There are two things I couldn't do without.  One is coffee.  The other is my fantastically loyal, supportive and organised wife, Kim.

*****

I now get to tag a couple of authors who will pick up the baton and run with it, and I've chosen two great writers who are part of the Review Group on Facebook.  I'll let the first introduce herself:

I’m Louise Rule, my first book Future Confronted was published in December 2013, and I am now researching my next book, the story of which will take me travelling from Scotland to England, and then to Italy. I am on the Admin Team of the Facebook group The Review Blog which I enjoy immensely.

Louise's blog can be found here.

My other chosen successor on this blog tour is Stuart S. Laing.  Stuart writes about Scottish history - his posts on the Review Group Blog covering fascinating moments in Edinburgh's past are a joy to read, but it's his historical novels - the Robert Young of Newbiggin Mysteries - which really deserve attention.

Stuart's blog can be found here.

Finally, it remains for me only to thank Margaret Skea for inviting me to take part in this hop.  And to thank you, dear reader, for perusing my musings.

Ciao!

Saturday, 15 March 2014

White Lady, Dark Lady

Sorry.  I've been a terrible blogger.  But I haven't been idle.

Last month, the excellent History Vault website published my article about Shakespeare's White Lady.

This month, the follow-up piece has just been posted.  So, with thanks to The History Vault, I'm proud to bring you ...

The Dark Lady!

And let's not forget my illustrated talk coming up at Goldsmiths, University of London, this week, about The Faces of Shakespeare.  Believe me, there's some interesting (and maybe even startling) material in this, so if you happen to be in London on the evening of Thursday, 20 March, why not come along?  It's free.

If you can't make it, I'll let you know how it went.

Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Shakespeare's (god)son

News!!!

I've just agreed with The History Press to write a biography of Sir William Davenant, the godson (and probably natural son) of William Shakespeare.

The provisional publication date will be February 2016 - just in time for the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death.  And it looks like it'll be published in paperback, which is good.

I really enjoyed researching and writing about Davenant for Who Killed William Shakespeare?  He's a sadly neglected and unjustly maligned character.  In short, I like him.

And I have a plan to approach this biography in a rather unusual way.  So keep tuned to this channel, readers - I'll be posting updates every now and then.

Monday, 24 February 2014

The Shakespeare Deniers

I was recently sent an electronic document - quite a large one, in fact.  The author had deconstructed the entire sequence of Shakespeare's Sonnets (in reverse order!) with the determined intention of proving that they were written by Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford (pictured).

Oxford is not the sole candidate for the enviable role of the "real" William Shakespeare, but he is certainly the front runner.  The point, though, is why should we even consider the possibility that a man who died in 1604 - twelve years before the death of Shakespeare - was the true author of the plays and poems we attribute to Shakespeare?

Let me first of all state that I have some sympathy with the conspiracy theorists who propose that Oxford (or one of fifty-or-so other candidates) actually did all the hard work, for which William Shakespeare took the credit.

I have some sympathy because the standard biography of Shakespeare is so woefully inadequate.  There does seem to be a disconnect between the picture of William Shakespeare presented by so many of his biographers and the genius behind the Complete Works.

However, it's one thing to suspect that the Shakespeare of countless biographies might not have been up to the task of creating some of the world's finest works of literature.  It's another thing altogether to leap to the conclusion that somebody else must have written them.  Such a wild leap in the dark overlooks a far more obvious, and more realistic, interpretation - that the standard biography of Shakespeare is grossly misleading.

Or, in other words, Shakespeare wrote the works of Shakespeare.  But the Shakespeare we're told about wasn't who Shakespeare really was.

The history of Shakespeare denial is long and far from honourable.  We can trace it back to Rev. James Wilmot, who left London and moved to Barton-on-the-Heath, near Stratford, in the late 18th century.  He began to have concerns about the authorship of Shakespeare's plays, wondering (in 1785) how the humbly-born Shakespeare of Stratford could have mingled so freely with the great and the good.  Clearly, it was impossible - and so somebody else must have been the real Shakespeare.

English society had changed a great deal between Shakespeare's and Wilmot's day.  The aristocracy had distanced itself from the peasantry, and to Rev. Wilmot the very idea that a middle-class lad could become friends with lords and ladies was unthinkable.

But let's consider this: Ben Jonson was more humbly-born than Shakespeare.  He went to Westminster School, but did not finish his education.  He became a bricklayer instead (although he hated it, and it haunted him for the rest of his days).  He attended neither of the universities.  And yet, Jonson freely mixed with the aristocracy, had various aristocratic patrons, lodged with a cousin of the king and became Britain's first (unofficial) Poet Laureate.

Going by Rev. Wilmot's logic, none of that was possible, and so Ben Jonson cannot have been Ben Jonson.  Somebody else must have written the plays, poems and court masques, for which Jonson took all the credit.

To the best of my knowledge, nobody has ever made that suggestion about Ben Jonson.  We don't seem to mind the fact that he - an overweight, alcoholic bully - could have made the journey from obscurity to celebrity and enjoyed the patronage of lords and ladies.  So why do we assume that Shakespeare could not have done so?

In fact, Shakespeare's dealings with the aristocracy were fairly limited, in comparison with Jonson's.  The only patron we know of, where Shakespeare is concerned, was the teenage Earl of Southampton, who came from a Catholic family.  Shakespeare dedicated two long poems to him (in 1593 and 1594) and appears to have written a number of sonnets to the young earl.  But it was not a notably long association, and it does not seem to have survived Southampton's coming-of-age.

So the theory that Shakespeare couldn't have been Shakespeare because he lacked the appropriate social standing is utter nonsense.  Poets had aristocratic patrons; they hung around noble households.  What seems surprising about Shakespeare is that he kept his contacts with the nobility to a minimum.

The real issue, when it comes to the various "Alternative Authorship" theories, is something else.  It starts from a desire to make Shakespeare - the best writer we've ever had - into something that he wasn't: an aristocrat.  Behind this lies a very strange assumption - that only those of noble birth are capable of marvellous things.  Realistically, we know that to be untrue.  But not everybody has reconciled themselves to democracy, and there are still plenty of people out there who harbour the delusions of an earlier age.  And, if you believe that blue blood is inherently better than any other kind, it will follow that you want to claim Shakespeare for the ruling elite.

So the denialists start out with a fundamental belief (the aristocracy are universally brilliant; everyone else is an idiot) which they then seek to prove.  We call this sort of thing "confirmation bias".  You start out with a theory and then bend the evidence to suit it.

Sir Derek Jacobi - one of the more consistent anti-Stratfordian voices - once claimed that there is absolutely no evidence that Shakespeare wrote the plays.  Well, you can make that claim if you decide to exclude every bit of evidence that he did.  But you have to ignore the testimonies of Robert Greene (1592), Richard Field (1593/4), Francis Meres (1598), William Jaggard (1599), the students at Cambridge University (1601) and a host of others, including John Fletcher, Michael Drayton and Ben Jonson.  Or, rather, you have to conjure up a conspiracy of epic proportions, so that the churchman Francis Meres could praise both Oxford and Shakespeare in his Palladis Tamia without realising that they were (allegedly) one and the same, and Ben Jonson could collude in a ridiculous plot without giving the game away (this is probably the best argument against all the Alternative Authorship theories: Ben Jonson wouldn't not have been able to keep the secret).

Basically, everybody at the time knew that Shakespeare wrote the plays.  It wasn't until more than 150 years after Shakespeare's death that anybody began to imagine that he didn't.  And the basis for that imaginary claim was groundless - it grew out of the refusal to acknowledge the social realities of Shakespeare's time.

But here's the problem.  The Shakespeare denialists are very much like climate sceptics (or "contrarians", as they're sometimes called) or Creationists.  They've started out with a fixed idea based on a kind of blind faith, and nothing will shake their conviction.  No amount of evidence will force them to rethink.  They'll just adapt their theory, regardless of how far from reason and reality they have to travel to accommodate the inconvenient facts.

You can't argue with them, because they made up their minds before they started.  Everything becomes some strange kind of "proof" that they are right (and, consequently, anyone who points to the facts is engaged in the original conspiracy - the reasoning becomes decidedly circular).

It's all incredibly frustrating, because the denialists can lose the argument one hundred times but will still come back claiming that they've won.  Just as with climate sceptics, who get very creative with the facts, they won't give in.  Why should they, you might ask.  Well, for the simple reason that they're absolutely wrong!

There is no evidence - none at all, not a shred - that somebody else wrote Shakespeare's plays.  They were written by William Shakespeare, gent, of Stratford-upon-Avon (although others had a hand in a few of them).  There is no argument about this, and it is facile to pretend that there is.

But the big worry is that the obsessives who want to believe that Shakespeare simply wasn't posh enough to be Shakespeare will keep misleading the public.  If we're honest, there isn't a debate.  There are a few loud voices continually trying to shout down the experts.  There is, as it were, a "tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."

These people are trying to drag us back to a past which we ought to have got rid of.  No one in their right minds believes that only aristocrats can write well.  So let's be honest: nobody in their right minds believes that the Earl of Oxford wrote the plays of Shakespeare (including those plays which were written after Oxford's death).  It is a kind of madness to imagine that he did, and it's a madness we could all do without.

Please, devote your energies to researching who William Shakespeare really was, because that's where the Stratfordians have let us all down.  But don't take the lunatic view that Shakespeare was "illiterate".  That simply shows that you left your reason at the door when you blundered into the debate.

And stop trying to mislead people.  In my book, that's an unforgivable sin.  Whether it's climate change or who was William Shakespeare - there is no excuse for trying to force people into believing things that are not true.

Keep your madness to yourself, and stop trying to take Shakespeare from us.