Shakespeare: the funny bits

Macduff. Not in the legions
Of horrid hell can come a devil more damn’d
In evils to top Macbeth.

Malcolm. I grant him bloody,
Luxurious, avaricious, false, deceitful,
Sudden, malicious, smacking of every sin
That has a name: but there’s no bottom, none,
In my voluptuousness.

I must admit that I’ve found it harder to make light of the last few plays, and not just because I’ve got a new job and other things on my mind, or because they’re tragedies. One of the most interesting things about reading Shakespeare in chronological order (or at least some estimate of it) is that you can see the playwright’s works improving, with the disappointing result that there is a lot less to make fun of in the later works.

This suggests a neat answer to one of the candidates in a silly debate which I’ve been careful to avoid so far: the Shakespeare authorship question.

If we suppose that Christopher Marlowe did not die in a tavern brawl, but rather faked his own death and fled England rather than face prosecution for being the most flaming atheist in London, and, furthermore, that once safely in Scotland, he continued writing plays and sending them to his mate William Shakespeare, who would then stage them, does it seem likely that Marlowe, who already knew how to write plays, would have started out with a snoozefest like Henry VI? Why not, say, Macbeth? It’s a cracker, and he could have worked in lots of local colour.

Borges resolves the Marlowe problem by a psychological analysis of the authors’ respective characterisations, but I believe that my answer has the virtue of simplicity.

The other popular candidate, the seventeenth Earl of Oxford, seems to appeal to snobbery, via the argument that no mere glover’s son could possibly have written plays which manifest such genius and learning. We may simply observe that none of the other nineteen Earls of Oxford could, either.

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