And then he points me to the evidence: “Anybody who wants to know about Shakespeare can just walk into 201 East Capitol Street in Washington.” I’m hoping this is where Dan Brown discovered the Freemason’s Pyramid, but it turns out to be the Folger Library, the largest repository of Shakespeare material in the world.
The Folger’s director is a sharp, affable man who claims his name is Michael Witmore. We sit on university chairs in his book-lined office, and he seems like someone with nothing to hide. (He’s that good.)
“As a Shakespeare scholar,” he tells me, “I do not lie awake at night worried about who really wrote these plays.” No, of course not. Not with Bigfoot on the loose and the world about to end Nov. 11. “It’s intellectually dishonest to doubt documentary evidence on the assumption that other evidence will show up to disprove what we have. But if you feel, against all possible evidence, that you can find a piece of paper saying that Shakespeare could write about events that occurred after his death, you can go ahead. But I wouldn’t get very excited about your proposal. In the same way that I wouldn’t get very excited about your proposal to prove that Shakespeare based his comedies on 1970s TV sitcoms.”
Of course . . . I hadn’t even thought of that before: The Henry Winkler Theory.
Eric Rasmussen, a professor of English at the University of Nevada, is a regular Robert Langdon of the Shakespearean world. He’s spent years sleuthing around the globe for rare Shakespeare documents. Why, I ask him, do we persist in arguing about who wrote “Hamlet” and “Twelfth Night” and “Midsummer Night’s Dream”?
“You have these sublimely beautiful creations that you think only a supernatural being could have created,” he says. “It immediately suggests, ‘Could it really have been a country hick that didn’t go to college?’ The best analysis, I think, is: A welfare mother couldn’t have written ‘Harry Potter.’ And maybe 400 years from now, someone will say that.” (You heard it here first, folks.)
There’s something almost religious about the de Vere argument, he suggests. “It’s foolish to say, ‘Prove to me that your God exists.’ And that’s the way it is with this. There’s no proof that de Vere wrote these plays. But you can’t disprove it; therefore, it’s plausible. How can I respond to that?”
I know someone who can. Harvard professor Stephen Greenblatt’s biography of the Bard was a bestseller for months in 2004. He hasn’t seen “Anonymous,” but he knows the enemy well.
“It seems hilarious for Americans to buy this argument,” he says. “Why would we think that only people who have the right bloodlines can write these plays? It’s a strange but familiar quality of the human imagination that you can write about kings and presidents without being related to one. Why Americans are drawn to this is a mystery to me.”
Ah, a mystery. I like the sound of that.