In defence of the Upstart Crow

All writers have a voice, and Francis Bacon is not Shakespeare – not even Shake-spear

By Philip R. Hall

Shakespeare is the author of his own work, not anyone else. Why should people try to separate Shakespeare from his own work? My rationale for this is quite simple; it’s a miguided attempt to hoard intellectual capital for the elites.

Claims that Shakespeare did not write the plays of Shakespeare are explained quite easily. Cultural wealth is acquired and hoarded by the upper class just like any other wealth. What are the elite universities if they are not great devices for hoarding cultural capital? But some of these cultural hoarders go too far. They are an embarrassment. They are evangelical cultural snobs.

Baconites (the people who claim Sir Francis Bacon, the First Viscount St. Alban, wrote the works of Shakespeare) have their pants undone and their flies open. Their motives are more powerful than their reasoning. They remind me of neo-liberal economists; shoddy literary critics who match up with the ratocinators and apologists for inequality.

We read how some Baconites think that Bacon was ‘the True King of England’ and that, as he couldn’t be the actual king, he ploughed his divine vocation into the spiritual reclamation of the whole of humankind, by establishing Rosicrucianism. Then we see what this is about.

As long as there are wealth hoarding elites we will see the same elites rewrite history; Wellington fought and won the battle of Waterloo, not the soldiers who died on the battlefield. The cathedral craftsmen are anonymous, though they built the greatest artifacts of the middle Ages, but the aristocracy are not forgotten and their tombs are in marble inside.

The beautiful objects of all the craftsmen from the former colonies, from Latin America to Africa to India to Asia, are all anonymous. The best of their art sits, or hangs nameless in the halls of the wealthy. The songs and music of the people, unattributed, inspire symphonies. Their songs are like honey made by bees, or cream from the milk of cows: wealth to be consumed by an elite. Covent Garden, not the ENO. The Royal Ballet, not the Urdang Academy.

The food of ordinary people is there for chefs to work up into exquisite dishes,; for the predators who sit above society, hidden and guarded; for the delectation of those who have domesticated the rest of humanity.

Cultural wealth is stolen from the workers, the real wealth creators, the craftsmen and women of song, buildings, objects, food. The source of wealth emerging from labour and nature. Just like any other wealth.

Academics in France acquire objects from Egypt and its cultural wealth flows out. The Elgin marbles fetch up in London and The US academics reinterpret the Mayan culture to Mayans and its museums become the hoards of a new imperial atomic fire-breathing dragon.

For the evangelicals of the ruling class (though most of them couldn’t care less) Shakespeare must be separated from his plays and the plays made the property of the ruling class. At the time this was not possible. At the time, Shakespeare was lauded and praised; his friend Samuel Johnson said that Shakespeare was ‘for all time’.

But long after his death, overenthusiastic chancers at the service of cultural accumulation for the elite tried their luck. They said that Shakespeare was no longer Shakespeare. After all, he was a nobody from the provinces and not properly educated. He only went to a small grammar school in a regional town.

In the same way, Jesus was not a poor carpenter at all, you see, but a king and the priests and bishops and royalty were put there by his grace, by the grace of the King of Kings. Do we really have to go into why people like Peter Dawkins are so insistent that almost anyone else who wrote at the time was more Shakespeare than Shakespeare? ‘After all, where are the leather-bound and embossed collections of Shakespeare’s letters?’ asks Mark Rylence as he raises an eloquent actor’s eyebrow .

The proof, the explanation for why Bacon is not Shakespeare, is obvious. It is his voice. All writers have a voice and Francis Bacon has his voice and William Shakespeare has his voice. The premise of Edouard Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac is that Roxanne does not know the handsome Christian’s voice. When we do hear Christian’s voice we can plainly hear he is no Cyrano. We are, many of us, Familiar with Shakespeare’s voice. When we hear Bacon, we understand that Bacon has another voice.

Textual analysis has shown this; the vocabularies they use are overlapping, but different. A forensic linguist, if we needed one, would show that the words Shakespeare chooses to use differ from Bacon’s. To be precise, the  have different idiolects. At the same time, it’s clear, they shared a frame of reference. They were living in the same time; they knew the same people. Sometimes, (Haven’t you experienced this?) when you talk to a friend constantly over years then you sound a little like each other.

All of this makes the idiolects of people living alongside each other into a sociolect, a dialect of class and region and court. It is the shared language of a community of intellectuals. But for all this, people come from different backgrounds and their experiences and characters are different and, inevitably, everyone has their own voice.

The matter is confused further when people imitate each other or echo each other’s thought and, as both Bacon and Shakespeare were so influential, there was certainly a lot of cross-pollination going on there.

Shakespeare read Bacon and Bacon heard Shakespeare. Who influenced whom? Who borrowed ideas from whom? People were less precious about plagiarism in those days. It must have been a close and intense circle of friends, even more so than the regulars in a pub or colleagues, or you and I communicating in this medium through text. Would you recognise me from my writing voice? Would I recognise you? I think so. And this is why there are so many candidates presented to supplant Shakespeare. They were contemporaries, sharing and talking to each other and imitating each other, part of the same circle.

So, having said that, let us look at two poems, without deriding Sir Francis Bacon or insulting William Shakespeare. Put on your ear trumpet. Listen carefully. Listen to the separate voices of Bacon and Shakespeare in two long – and very different – poems. Perhaps, as you do, you can conjure up a vision of them in the pub by the Rose, reading their poems to each other inbetween pints of ale, sitting facing each other, smiling across the boards.

It will be a long night of poetry. Let’s have a drink after every ten stanzas. Set your coffee or tea aside. Get out your tankards and shot glass. We may not be able to compare ourselves with these two great thinkers, these titans, but we can do them the grace of sitting next to them at the table. We can listen to them and drink with them, and try not to nod off.

For me, Shakespeare writes like a nightingale, and in Bacon I hear the sharp insights and reasoning of an academic, not a poet. Judge for yourself.

Judge for yourself

Venus and Adonis, William Shakespeare

The Interpretation of Nature, Francis Bacon

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