That School Debate: Tolkien, Shakespeare, and Anti-Stratfordianism
Today, I am responding to one Philip Lowe, who back in August 2019 produced an interesting but flawed piece, looking at the way in which Tolkien viewed Shakespeare:
Specifically, I want to address two key aspects of Lowe’s article – his reference to Tolkien taking the Anti-Stratfordian position in a school debate, and the notion that Tolkien hated Shakespeare more generally. I definitely think Lowe is over-egging this particular pudding, to a degree that he is inadvertently assisting Anti-Stratfordians in their campaign to find important figures sympathetic to their cause.
But first off… what is an Anti-Stratfordian? Simple. Someone who believes that the works of William Shakespeare were not written by William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon, but rather by someone else – using William Shakespeare as a pseudonym. By contrast, Stratfordians believe that William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon wrote the plays and poems commonly ascribed to him. I myself am a Stratfordian (as is Lowe).
Why is this dispute even taking place? Again, simple. By the mid-nineteenth century, there was a serious disconnect between the way people viewed Shakespeare (as a transcendental genius), and the established biography of the man. The Romantic Era thought that transcendental genuises ought to be scandalous, exciting, and educated men of taste and refinement. William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon was such a disappointment – mundane, lacking university education, and a money-lender. Oh, and he hoarded grain during a 1590s famine as well. This just wouldn’t do.
So from the 1850s onwards, people went looking for the “real” author – someone with the prestige to actually produce the greatest literary works in the English Language. And, yes, if you can detect an implicit snobbery to Anti-Stratfordianism, you would be quite correct. That the author of the Shakespeare plays was sufficiently lacking in geographical knowledge that he thought Bohemia had a sea-coast (The Winter’s Tale) is generally ignored.
But to cut a long story short, the Baconian Theory, the notion that Francis Bacon wrote the works (and disguised his authorship via elaborate cryptography) was the pre-eminent form of Anti-Stratfordianism from the 1850s up until the 1920s. As a nineteenth century theory, it actually got a fair amount of attention… up until no hidden cipher in the plays could be found. So things rather died down after that. The 1920s saw the rise of a new candidate, the 17th Earl of Oxford, as result of the work of J.T. Looney (rhymes with boney)… only for enthusiasm to vanish again after the Second World War. For some reason, the twenty-first century has seen something of an Anti-Stratfordian renaissance. But that is outside the scope of this essay.
So when J.R.R. Tolkien attended King Edward’s School in Birmingham, during the first decade of the twentieth century, the Baconian Theory of Shakespearean Authorship was still going strong. It was a contentious enough question to spur heated argument (see the satirical 1885 painting above)… and as such, prime fodder for a school debate. Tolkien was Secretary of the Debating Club, and so, to quote Lowe:
At school Tolkien showed himself to be a Baconian. He took part in a debate (becoming Secretary of the Debating Society) involving the motion, “That the works attributed to William Shakespeare were written by Francis Bacon.” The school Chronicle says, “J. R. R. TOLKIEN [who spoke…on the Affirmative], poured a sudden flood of unqualified abuse upon Shakespeare, upon his filthy birthplace, his squalid surroundings, and his sordid character.”
Now, much of this is self-explanatory, given what has been described above. Anti-Stratfordians think Shakespeare was too much of an oik to have written the plays. Tolkien was arguing the Baconian position… therefore, he’d want to portray Billy as a boorish country bumpkin, unable to understand high themes or pen great literature. Well and good.
What puzzles me is that Lowe seems to take this as evidence that Tolkien actually believed the Baconian Theory. School debates do not work like that – you are assigned a position to argue, regardless of whether or not you agree with it. Tolkien was assigned to argue in the affirmative for Bacon… so he did. This says nothing about what Tolkien – even young Tolkien – thought about the matter, and I would bet good money that had Tolkien been on the negative team, he would have brought up the sea-coast of Bohemia issue. Francis Bacon – one of the most educated men of his time – would not have written Bohemia as having a sea-coast.
From this, Lowe slaps schoolboy Tolkien around a bit:
It grieves me to think that Tolkien was quite wrong here. Then again, he was still at school. But that’s no excuse for snobbishness.
Yes, the Anti-Stratfordian position is snobby. Yes, Tolkien was arguing the Anti-Stratfordian position. But since this was a formal school debate… we cannot say that schoolboy Tolkien’s snobbery was anything other than enforced (and maybe tongue-in-cheek) role-playing. Sure, Tolkien may have believed the snobbery. We’ll never know. But if so, it never once comes up in his Letters – the place where he expresses his adult opinions. Besides, bashing someone for something their teenage self may have said in jest is utterly stupid.
(As an aside: Anti-Stratfordians are extremely keen on producing lists of people who agree with them, as a way to bolster their intellectual credentials via appeal to authority. Never mind that Mark Twain would probably have never heard of the Earl of Oxford… he has become something of an Oxfordian Patron Saint. So by labelling schoolboy Tolkien a Baconian, Lowe isn’t simply doing Tolkien a disservice, he’s inadvertently assisting the very camp he opposes).
Moving away from the school debate to the wider question of what Tolkien thought of Shakespeare, Lowe takes it as a given that the former hated the latter. Seemingly because Tolkien thought Real English Literature ended with Chaucer. As evidence of this, Lowe cites non-Shakespearean sources for “All that is Gold does not Glitter”. He does note though the well-known examples of Tolkien playing around with motifs from Macbeth. The Ents marching on Isengard is a reference to Birnam Wood. Eowyn killing the Witch-King is a shout-out to Macbeth and Macduff.
Now, it would not surprise me if Tolkien thought Shakespeare was a bit newfangled and Frenchified. Or at the very least, a primary producer of drama, as distinct from literature. However, I would suggest that if Tolkien genuinely hated Billy, he would not have engaged with him in the manner he did. If you hate an author, you either don’t engage with their work at all, or you find a way to rebut and ridicule it. Outside that school debate, Tolkien never once ridicules Shakespeare. Rather he uses the older writer as a jumping-off point for a couple of his own creations. Would a Shakespeare-hater refer to the Sam and Gollum dynamic as Ariel and Caliban (The Tempest)? I do not think so.
The best insight we have, so far as Tolkien’s view of Shakespeare goes, comes from Letter 76 (28th July, 1944):
Plain news is on the airgraph; but the only event worthy of talk was the performance of Hamlet which I had been to just before I wrote last. I was full of it then, but the cares of the world have soon wiped away the impression.
But it emphasised more strongly than anything I have ever seen the folly of reading Shakespeare (and annotating him in the study), except as a concomitant of seeing his plays acted.
It was a very good performance, with a young rather fierce Hamlet; it was played fast without cuts; and came out as a very exciting play. Could one only have seen it without ever having read it or knowing the plot, it would have been terrific. It was well produced except for a bit of bungling over the killing of Polonius. But to my surprise the part that came out as the most moving, almost intolerably so, was the one that in reading I always found a bore: the scene of mad Ophelia singing her snatches.
So Tolkien preferred to read Shakespeare in conjunction with seeing an actual performance. It is actually a very common view of Shakespeare among aficionados – the idea that his works were meant to be watched, not read. It is also a very far cry from Lowe’s assessment that Tolkien was a Shakespeare hater. Lowe does enough biographical digging to follow up Humphrey Carpenter’s work, and the school debate… would it have killed him to check Tolkien’s Letters before jumping to conclusions?