Any columnist worth the name will from time to time get a flea in his ear. And quite often he’ll deserve it. That’s what happened to me in June, after I’d written an article here mocking the notion that ‘Shakespeare’ was actually not written by William Shakespeare, but by sundry English earls, by the lawyer-philosopher- essayist, Francis Bacon, or the dramatist, Christopher Marlowe.
My piece was pegged on the publication of a verse novel by Ros Barber, an academic and poet, certainly not a nutter, which imagines that Marlowe survived his alleged death in a brawl in 1593 and was smuggled out of England to mainland Europe, where he served his masters as a spy and his instincts by writing many of the plays that we now think of as ‘Shakespeare’. I’d read not a word of this, nor of Dr Barber’s doctoral thesis on the subject, and admitted as much, before going on to make fun of a dog-Latin word found in Shakespeare, honorificabilitudinitatibus, which Baconians have ludicrously turned into an anagram supposedly supporting their case. For nuttery, complete with some bogus numero-alphabetical cryptography, this Baconian claptrap makes fun reading. Dr Barber’s Marlovian notions are a different matter. Marlowe was, for a start, a true playwright, while nothing suggests that Bacon could have been anything of the sort. But I made a mistake, saying that Dr Barber took the fantasy of her novel “basically for fact and has written a PhD thesis to prove it”.
The aforementioned flea duly landed amid my email. Was it really “responsible or wise,” Dr Barber enquired crisply, “to leap to conclusions about a book of which you admit you have read not a line?” Nor did her thesis seek to prove the Marlovian case, she told me; she simply thought it, like the case for William Shakespeare, a possibility. To which I replied that I had felt it fair enough, since my sharpest barbs were aimed at the Baconian nonsense, to knock her ideas without reading them, if I admitted as much, as I had; but that later (as now) I thought this mistaken.
In contrast, I added, having by then read a good deal of her doctoral thesis, I doubted that I’d have come to much different conclusions even if I had read it first. But Dr Barber must be allowed to know what her own intentions were, and I don’t dispute them. Happily, what began as a crackling exchange of fire quite soon became much friendlier; very different from a dispute I once had with an Australian academic. May that last.
I still find the Marlovian case over the top. One may, if one chooses, accept a faked death, a rigged inquest, a smuggling abroad to spy. But I find it psychologically incredible that a major dramatist should continue for years supplying the plays and boosting the fame (and income) of a lesser rival.
And there’s a real point here. If you make your living, let alone your reputation, as a user of words, those words, to you, are in a very special sense your own. I worked for years on the Economist, a magazine which still imposes on its writers the anonymity that most of the press gave up years ago. And pretty difficult it was, even for a jobbing journalist with no literary ambitions. Those are my words, I felt, why should some institution get the credit for them? Most reporters must have felt that way at times — even if the subeditors who handle their copy invariably improve it. Now imagine one famous dramatist or novelist or poet ghost-writing for years, in total anonymity, for a lesser one. I just don’t believe it.
This esteem for one’s own words works the other way too. Imitation is notoriously “the sincerest form of flattery”. Not so among writers, when it becomes plagiarism. To us that really is a capital offence. I’ve met it quite often in my journalistic career. That’s a topic I shall return to.
In my own words, I promise you, not that I can swear blind that capital offence applied to plagiarism is in fact a phrase original to me.