Monday, 5 September 2011

Anonymous from Stratford

There's a new film out called Anonymous, which puts forward the well-discussed theory that Shakespeare's plays were actually written by Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford (the so-called Oxfordian theory). This is not a widely-accepted theory, by the way, and the film has caused a bit of a ruckus among people that care about this kind of thing.

I'm not one of those people, as it happens. I'm happy to go with the prevailing view (that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare's works) and if scholars end up agreeing on something else, I'll go with that instead. Call me lazy if you like, but I prefer to leave this kind of research to people that know something about it. People who know me will also suspect that this stance is partly borne out of my utter apathy regarding Mr Shakey and his feted plays. I don't like them. I've never got the point. Someone once told me I shouldn't say I don't like Shakespeare because it makes you sound stupid, but I just don't. I'm allowed to not like Charles Dickens, Tolkien and Dan Brown (I don't like any of them, though I've only read one of Mr Dickens' works so I'll give him another go one day. Dan Brown is compellingly awful, so I've read most of his. Tolkien just bores me to death) so why can't I not like Shakey? (For the record, I do like Shakin' Stevens.)

Anyhow, the point is that the theory has a bit of a problem of ambiguity. I was wondering why people kept referring somewhat circumlocuitously to 'the man from Stratford', and put it down to a lazy effort to sound clever by using lots of different words. However, this is not so.

The author of the plays and things, whoever he may be, is referred to as Shakespeare. This is a label that stands for 'the author of the plays and things'. Then the man who is usually credited with their authorship can't be referred to as Shakespeare by the Oxfordian theorists, because that would identify him as the author of the plays and things (he would be co-indexed with 'the author of the plays and things'). So they call him 'the man from Stratford', which is a label meaning 'the man from Stratford who was called Shakespeare and who is usually credited with writing the plays and things but didn't necessarily do so'.

Therefore, if you're an advocate of the Oxfordian theory, 'Shakespeare' is synonymous with 'Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford', and not with 'the man from Stratford'. Scholars often argue over the definition of a term or use it in different ways (and say 'I use the term X to mean Y' at the start of their papers) but not normally to this extent, where the term has two opposing and mutually exclusive meanings.

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