Three years ago the Atlantic published an article entitled “Was Shakespeare a Woman?” I read the essay while tucked into bed with two pillows and a blanket after a long day. A day when I found the bathtub strewn with hair after a child’s quick dip, the towels (all of them??) forgotten on the floor. A day when I had not said very interesting things and very interesting things were not said to me. Mostly I had repeated myself, and gazed off absently during circular story telling.
Reading the essay, I fell for the theory–well articulated and curiously substantiated–as into a hammock after a long day’s work. It only took one read for me and I was laying back, swinging within it, gently back and forth between the what and the if. Holding it in my mind as a possibility seemed to shift everything.
I told my daughters about the idea over breakfast the next day, and then referenced it in the weeks to come. Referenced the idea of a woman who had penned brilliant things and never received any credit for it, but watched the work be received, and maybe held their reception in her heart. Almost immediately there was a reason to reference it: while researching a paper on Laura Ingalls Wilder, Lux and I learned that there was substantial proof that her daughter Rose significantly rewrote her mother’s manuscripts to achieve the storybook-like, moral-and-simplicity focused style that is consistent throughout (arguably the very style that sells the books). In addition, Rose left journal entries that seem to show she felt unseen by the success that poured out onto her mother’s shoulders.
The points of proof that really pulled me in to the female Shakespeare theory? 1/ The fact that Shakespeare’s daughters didn’t learn to read. How could someone who invented Katherine Minola, “the shrew,” not have his female children educated? 2/ The way in which the plots seemed to understand and elevate complicated, rebellious females, even as rebellious complicated females had so little status in society. 3/ Winkler’s argument that Shakespeare left almost no documentation showing he was anything beyond an actor.
Months later, I thought to go back and look up what the reception of the article had been, outside of my personal tale of discovery. Caustic. Refuted. The Atlantic printed five subsequent rebuttals.
Okay. She probably wasn’t Shakespeare. He probably was. Did it still matter? I had floated on the boat for awhile, and seen things differently, revised a version of history I had taken for granted and took a closer look at what any of it meant to me anyhow. Felt refreshed by the whole thing. Wanted to re-read Shakespeare, actually.
Looking back, I wonder how much of my reaction to the theory flowered from the fact that I felt like an unseen Shakespeare? Perhaps mid the tawdry cycle of toasted bread slice crumbs, hair scattered across the bathtub, order, sorting, emails, missed voicemails, forgotten appointments, and trafficked errands; beyond how convincing the argument was–I was drawn to the idea of the credited one, the one history chose and raised up, as being the poseur, and the hidden one, the one who left nothing behind, being the genius.
Conspiracy theories have turned sour in the United States on the whole. Between people claiming that Sandy Hook parents weeping over their lost children were actors, to a pie slice of the population claiming the recent presidential election was fraudulent, to people declaring that airplane contrails are in fact malicious chemtrails, the mood has shifted. There was a time was when contemplating a conspiracy theory meant you had to learn more about something in order to have a theory about it in the first place.
Despite this sour turn, conspiracy theories will continue to flourish in my own heart, because they create the brilliant spark of a feeling that you know better. Some think that, but you know this. As Winkler writes in the essay, “The idea felt like a feminist fantasy about the past–but then, stories about women’s lost and obscured achievements so often have a dreamlike quality, unveiling a history different from the one we’ve learned.” I’d loved the suggestion of the mystery, the shape of a cloak within a dark doorway, the invitation to believe that maybe we don’t know absolutely everything about how history had happened.
Note: the Atlantic’s paywall is quite jumpy–you only get three free articles. Use your first click on Winkler’s essay. It is also available to read in the book 2020 Best American Essays.
Film photo finishing off a roll on a disposable camera.