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Did Ayn Rand Write Shakespeare?
a review of Who Wrote Shakespeare by John Michell
by Tom Radcliffe, writing as Sir Francis Bacon under the name of William Shakespeare

Date: 2000-08-13
Forum: Enlightenment
Copyright: Tom Radcliffe

Thames and Hudson Ltd. London, Paperback ed. 1999, ISBN 0-500-28113-0

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William Shakspeare, as opposed to William Shakespeare, was born in 1564 at Stratford-on-Avon, the son of a minor local businessman. He grew up, went away, and did we do not know what. When he would have been about 20 years old a pair of poems appeared in rapid succession, Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece, apparently bearing the mark of unmistakable, mature, poetic genius. They were published under the name of William Shakespeare.

Plays and the famous sonnets were to follow over the next twenty years, and the name of William Shak(e)speare -- an actor and principle of the Globe Theater -- was intermittently associated with them. A nice, simple, consistent story: native English genius nurtured in the pastoral country-side comes to the big city, possibly after serving as a soldier or sailor or law clerk or poacher, and sets forth the definitive works of English culture just as England herself has crushed her Continental enemies and, despite the coming civil wars, is poised on the brink of Empire.

But look more closely. John Michell gives us a wonderful walking-tour of the landscape of confusion, suspicion and mystery that surrounds the origin and nature of the greatest author of the English-speaking world. Conventionally, the central mystery can be boiled down to just this: how could the child of an illiterate small yeoman have grown up to write Hamlet?

There are more concrete mysteries too: why do we hear so little of Shakespeare in his own lifetime, and so little of that good? Why are there so few payments to Shakespeare as a playwrite recorded in the account books, still extant, of theaters he was known to have written for, and which record payments to contemporaries like Marlowe and Kyd? Why do early sketches of Shakespeare's monument at Stratford bear so little resemblance to the present-day one, despite the apparently unremarked fact that the coat-of-arms is identical to that known to be associated with the author of the plays?

When we look closely enough, the nice story starts to unravel. It gets complicated. And there is a certain type of mind that hates complication. There must, according to this mind, be one explanation for all the anomalies. Why this should be so, given the ordinary messiness of life, is never enunciated. But it has to do, I think, with the fundamental notion that nothing ever happens by accident, that all events have meaning in some ill-defined but ever-present larger scheme of things.

Michell gives a very even-handed summary of the various candidates for the authorship of Shakespeare's poems and plays, not neglecting the man from Stratford himself. He also reveals the awesomely strange cast of characters who have driven the Shakespeare industry, from cryptographic spirit-writers to legitimate scholars who have ground some very strange axes to a hone of sharpness.

But each alternative seems as fatally flawed as Hamlet himself. Shakspeare (as Michell calls the man from Stratford) was too rural and low class. Bacon was too refined, Oxford was too coarse and Marlowe was too dead. Furthermore, computational studies -- which Michell dismisses briefly -- have shown that none of these people is likely to have written the plays. The notion behind computational analysis is that anyone who speaks or writes a language uses some words more often than others. Either by looking at things like the average length of word or, in more recent work, looking at the frequency of otherwise rarely used words, it is possible to "fingerprint" an author. The science is inexact, but no more so than the science of imagining perfectly secret conspiracies to conquer the intellectual future, as Michell does so entertainingly in his summing up.

The continued, often acrimonious debate surrounding the author of Shakespeare's works indicates that none of the suggested candidates are the genuine article. If they were, then there would be eventual agreement amongst the various practitioners, just as there is in the sciences. The alternative -- that the practitioners are just nuts -- is obviously absurd.

If none of the current candidates are viable, we clearly need to cast a larger net. Now, there are those who would narrowly argue that we ought to arbitrarily restrict ourselves to candidates who might plausibly have been considered alive at the time, but as this criterion has already been discarded by Marlowe's supporters, I see no reason to be bound by it. Anyone who takes Marlowe as a candidate seriously must also take the person whom, to my mind, is by far the most obvious contender: Ayn Rand.

What can we consider as evidence for the claim that Ayn Rand wrote Shakespeare? On one interpretation Ben Jonson claimed that Shakespeare had "small Latin, less Greek", and I'm aware of no evidence that Rand had any more than this. None of her major works is in Latin, and her interpretations of Aristotle suggest she hadn't read him in the original.

More importantly, both Rand and the author of Shakespeare's plays produced a relatively small output -- 38 mostly mediocre plays and some poetry, versus a few novels and some minor essays. Both authors' work is focused on clearly drawn philosophic themes and laced with a penchant for melodrama, violence, and melodramatic violence. Both authors show a considerable breadth of learning once we've left the fold of dead languages. Shakespeare wrote knowledgeably about law, falconry, and military life of various kinds, as well as court manners and foreign countries. Rand wrote equally knowledgeably about architecture, railroads, and life in post-Revolutionary Russia.

The most compelling evidence that Rand wrote Shakespeare comes from their common use of archetypal characters to illustrate the extremes of their philosophy. When we start to examine the question from this angle, the answer becomes truly compelling. The parallels between Rand's characters and Shakespeare's indicate that not only did Rand write Shakespeare, she deliberately created him as a kind of tragic doppelganger to demonstrate the dark side of her philosophical credo. She apparently couldn't stand to reveal these truths under her own name, and so submerged them in a carefully fabricated historical persona.

Compare John Galt to Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Galt is perfectly decisive, never in doubt. He knows what is right and he does what is right, and he is never beset by any of the minor psychological conflicts that make life so interesting for the rest of us. He knows that there is only one Good, and pursues it relentlessly, and he knows that there are no conflicts between "men's" interests, so he never has to worry about compromise or trading off one value for another. Hamlet, on the other hand, is portrayed as good, but terminally indecisive; he is the opposite of Galt, the good man who fails to do good, and in a cleverly involuted move he is driven to fake reality by pretending his own madness. The Randian metaphor is clear: to fake reality is madness. And because he therefore implicitly fails to choose life, Hamlet ends in death.

On the female side of the ledger, compare Dagny Taggart to Lady Macbeth. Both are ambitious and driven to succeed. But one chooses to pursue her ambition by creation and production, while the other chooses the path of the looter. Significantly, Lady Macbeth doesn't even commit the crime herself, but leaves that to another. This demonstrates how the Randian theme of individual immolation is expressed in Shakespeare's tragedy: there isn't even enough of Lady Macbeth's self left to act; she must suborn her husband to carry out her will. Thus did Rand show the impotence of evil, by creating a counter-Dagny, an ambitious woman who tried to take rather than make, and destroyed herself by doing so.

Hank Rearden and King Lear are another obviously matched set, like bookends bounding the volumes of a single author's work. Both are good men beset by mooching families. Lear gives in to his, and madness and death follow by Rand's inexorable logic. Francisco's comments to Rearden at his party, thanking Rearden for protecting him from what is, in effect, the blasted heath, is a sly tip-off from the single author of the two works.

Finally, to round out a set of examples that could doubtless be extended indefinitely, Romeo is the romantically unsuccessful counterpart to Howard Roark. Both love women who for social reasons are placed beyond their reach, Juliet for reasons of the bad blood between Montesque and Capulet, Dominique Francon because of her marriage to Gail Wynand. Roark has better timing, and despite Dominique's near death experience after Roark dynamites his ruined housing project, the contrast between the two characters is intended to show the virtue of reason over emotion. If Romeo had just planned things out more rationally, he and Juliet would be alive today.

There is the answer to the mystery, then: Ayn Rand wrote Shakespeare's plays.

Or did she?

For herein lies a more fundamental problem. Could anyone have written Shakespeare's plays? How could the author of the comedies have written the unredeemably bloodthirsty Titus Andronicus? How could the author of so much commercially successful work have produced such an obvious dog as A Winter's Tale?

Is it reasonable to assume that an English country lad with a nearly illiterate mother, who only attended a small local school and possibly went to a few classes at a university where the mostly drunken professors never showed up to teach could put the best educated minds of England and Europe to shame? What is it reasonable to assume human genius is capable of? And how are we to know?

It's been conclusively proven by the various contenders that no one at all could have written Shakespeare's plays, which is why it's as reasonable, on the basis of the perfectly good arguments presented above, that Rand did it. Shakespeare is such an ideal foil for Rand's notions on so many levels that if he didn't exist she'd have had to invent him, which she obviously did (thanks to Carolyn Ray for this observation).

For myself, I will say that nothing has ever been accomplished by a reasonable person. Vannevar Bush, who was in charge of a good deal of the U.S. rocketry program after the War, said that human beings would never go to the Moon, because you'd have to take a rocket the size of a battleship, stand it up on end and launch it into space. Less than a quarter century later, the first Saturn V was launched by people who knew that simply because it was unreasonable didn't mean it was impossible.

And the English country lad I described a few paragraphs back? That wasn't Shakespeare, but rather someone who changed our world-view even more profoundly than the man from Stratford, despite almost equally humble beginnings. His name was Isaac Newton.