Much Ado about Shakespeare’s Merry Wives by Rosemary Loughlin

Much Ado about Shakespeare’s Merry Wives by Rosemary Loughlin

Recent media exposure on the Shakespeare Authorship Question (SAQ) has seen a brouhaha erupt over one of Shakespeare’s lesser known and performed plays.

On 20th May 2024 Michael Billington wrote for The Guardian newspaper that The Merry Wives of Windsor, currently being performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford-upon-Avon, “has an earth vitality that no aristo or scholar could have created“. The piece’s provocative byline is immediately followed by a description of the Earl of Oxford as a “capricious aristo“. Billington’s thesis is that a play featuring “the middle classes getting their revenge on a knightly predator, Sir John Falstaff…could only have been written by someone who understood the intricacies of a close-knit, provincial community“. But that statement is in no way synonymous with Oxford not being in a position to be its author.
 
The article continues with more ironies, e.g. that Shakespeare “had a fascination with the Welsh – think of Fluellen and Owen Glendower“. Again this in no way demonstrates Oxford’s non-authorship but – to be fair to Billington – he cannot be expected to be familiar with the research of Oxfordian Jan Cole, revealing that Welsh rebel Owen Glendower is the fourth great grandfather of Oxford. The hapless Billington then unconsciously reveals his confirmation bias by prefacing his view that the play is underrated with “But I cling to my belief“. Yes that’s the problem with arch Stratfordians – clinging to old beliefs instead of being open minded to constantly emerging new evidence!
 
No one probably thought anything more about this silly article until a letter appeared more than three weeks later in the Letters page of the newspaper. Sir Derek, having had the gauntlet thrown down at him by none other than a theatre critic, duly took up the cudgels on Oxford’s behalf, along with Margo Anderson, author of the wonderful biography of Oxford (‘Shakespeare’ By Another Name) which lays out the incredible parallels between Oxford’s life and numerous characters and events depicted in Shakespeare’s plays. In it they ‘wholeheartedly agree‘ with Billington’s statement that the play in question “could only have been written by someone who understood the intricacies of a close-knit, provincial community”, pointing out that Oxford actually lived in Windsor for a period and that around this time he was also embroiled in a series of marriage negotiations and real life dramas, which are played out on the pages of The Merry Wives of Windsor. They point out a dimension of Shakespeare that never gets talked about because failure to acknowledge the real author shuts it down: the author’s “relentless..self-satire”. They also refer to a biblical quote in the play referring to the term ‘weaver’s beam’, which term is underlined in Oxford’s personal copy of the Geneva Bible, held at the Folger Institute.
 
This was not the end of the matter, however, with veteran bilious commentator Oliver Kamm volleying back his own letter published on 20th June, replete with the usual ad hominem cliches and devoid of anything factual and useful: Oxford as “an aristocratic wastrel and minor poet“; SAQ being a “bogus controversy”, “denialism” and having a “175 year history” (of course ignoring the vital and compelling investigations of Alexander Waugh published in the ‘Who Knew?’ playlists on his popular YouTube channel); no one having offered “a shred of documentary evidence to associate De Vere or any other putative authorship candidate with Shakespeare’s works”; rounded off with chastising The Guardian for not being “responsible”.
 
Other letter writers furnished further upbraids: Adrian Blamires declared  Shakespeare was not written by “some hobbyist aristo dialling it in from the court. That idea is strictly for the Ninky Nonk”. Rik Edwards scornfully predicted that in 2250 the Beatles music will be claimed by “similarly qualified academics” as Sir Derek and Anderson to have been written by Prince Charles because “no one of …modest origin could have wrought such beautiful music”. Finally Peter Nockolds, in a possibly neutral stance, makes what would well be a useful contribution to scholarship with a question around a comment by the character Autolycus in The Winter’s Tale. We would be curious too for insights on this!
 

The Guardian Article by Michael Billington:

https://www.theguardian.com/stage/article/2024/may/20/proof-who-wrote-shakespeare-plays-see-the-merry-wives-of-windsor

The Rebuttal by Derek Jacobi and Margo Anderson:

https://www.theguardian.com/stage/article/2024/jun/13/the-merry-wives-of-windsor-offers-strong-evidence-that-shakespeare-was-not-its-author