THE theory that Shakespeare did not write the plays attributed to him inspired the recent Hollywood film, Anonymous, and it will be the subject of a public lecture in Newcastle today.
The idea that Hamlet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the rest were actually written by the Earl of Oxford is the legacy of a Gateshead teacher called John Thomas Looney.
Arguing against that idea today will be Dr Paul Barlow, of Northumbria University, who will explain how Looney’s book, Shakespeare Identified, created a movement with sometimes fanatical followers.
Dr Barlow, a senior lecturer in art and design history, says he became fascinated by the debate over the plays’ authorship through his study of contested portraits of Shakespeare.
He explains that efforts have been made over the years to show that paintings said to depict the man from Stratford are actually of the Earl of Oxford.
John Thomas Looney was born in South Shields in 1870. He moved to Gateshead as an adult and worked as a teacher.
But during the First World War he worked on his pet project in the Lit & Phil library in Newcastle. His book, Shakespeare Identified, named Edward De Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, as the true author of the plays attributed to Shakespeare.
Believing it to be literary dynamite, Looney sent his completed manuscript in a sealed envelope to the librarian at the British Museum with the stipulation it should not be opened until the war was over.
The book was eventually published in 1919 and had the desired effect. While people scoffed at his theory, others took it up, among them descendants of the 17th Earl of Oxford.
Looney resisted his publisher’s attempt to use a pen name, explaining it was Manx and saying: “I have no vanity about things of this kind.” The book was published as the work of J Thomas Looney.
The debate between Shakespeare supporters, the Stratfordians, and the Oxford camp, the Oxfordians, rages to this day with the latter’s views getting big screen exposure in Roland Emmerich’s film.
Dr Barlow is firmly in the Stratford camp, saying of Looney: “I don’t believe in his arguments at all. I consider them to be absurd.”
But he says the Roland Emmerich film, which stars Rafe Spall as an inarticulate, drunken Shakespeare and Rhys Ifans as the Earl of Oxford, had caused alarm in academia.
“It’s certainly true that a lot of Shakespeare professors were terrified of this movie coming out because they thought it would be dangerous.
“They feared these ideas would become mainstream and students would be asking about them and wanting to have them discussed.
“The film does have some wonderful scenes in it, including the best scenes of Shakespeare’s plays in performance with them presented as popular drama rather than high art.
“But the film has been a bit of a flop. Despite good performances it is a rather confusing film.”
Dr Barlow argues that Looney’s book was connected to his attraction to an alternative secular religion devised by the 19th Century French philosopher Auguste Comte.
Comte’s “religion of humanity” involved secular gods and a secular priesthood. Looney, says Dr Barlow, although brought up a Methodist, became its organiser in the North East.
It didn’t last long here, though, because it appealed to so few people.
Dr Barlow suggests: “Having put in a huge amount of effort to organise it, I think Looney wanted some new baby to replace it, so he began to apply Comtean principles and analysis to analysing the works of Shakespeare.”
This led to his theory that the great plays could not possibly have been the work of a common fellow from Stratford.
According to Dr Barlow, many of those who were attracted to Looney’s theories were much more wild and radical than he was.
“It is time,” he says in promoting his lecture, “to look at the origins of this story and the way it developed into an epic myth about the foundation of modern British culture.
“In exploring this we will enter a strange world of secret affairs, spiritualist mediums and a visionary ideal of national struggle which comes to the fore in the Second World War when Looney’s theory is even enlisted in British propaganda to fight the Nazis.”
Enlarging on that last extraordinary notion, Dr Barlow points to a British wartime propaganda film called Pimpernel Smith, starring Leslie Howard, which counters a German claim that the author of Shakespeare’s plays was, in fact, German by having its hero wield a copy of Looney’s book.
The inference, says Dr Barlow, was that an author called the Earl of Oxford could not possibly be German.
Clearly a debate that has raged for a century isn’t going to go away.
Dr Barlow’s lecture takes place at 4.30pm today at Northumbria University’s Nixon Hall, Wynne Jones Building, Ellison Place. It’s free and open to the public.