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On Shakespeare’s Birthday
by [?]

My florist has standing orders to deliver early on the morning of this day a chaplet of laurel. With it in my hand, I reach by a step-ladder the nobly arched embrasure that is above my central book-case, and crown there the marble brow of him whose name is the especial glory of our literature–of all literature. The greater part of the morning is spent by me in contemplation of that brow, and in silent meditation. And, year by year, always there intrudes itself into this meditation the hope that Shakespeare’s name will, one day, be swept into oblivion.

I am not–you will have perceived that I certainly am not–a `Baconian.’ So far as I have examined the evidence in the controversy, I do not feel myself tempted to secede from the side on which (rightly, inasmuch as it is the obviously authoritative side) every ignorant person ranges himself. Even the hottest Baconian, filled with the stubbornest conviction, will, I fancy, admit in confidence that the utmost thing that could, at present, be said for his conclusions by a judicial investigator is that they are `not proven.’ To be convinced of a thing without being able to establish it is the surest recipe for making oneself ridiculous. The Baconians have thus made themselves very ridiculous; and that alone is reason enough for not wishing to join them. And yet my heart is with them, and my voice urges them to carry on the fight. It is a good fight, in my opinion, and I hope they will win it.

I do not at all understand the furious resentment they rouse in the bosoms of the majority. Mistaken they may be; but why yell them down as knavish blasphemers? Our reverence, after all, is given not to an Elizabethan named William Shakespeare, who was born at Stratford, and married, and migrated to London, and became a second-rate actor, and afterwards returned to Stratford, and made a will, and composed a few lines of doggerel for the tombstone under which he was buried. Our reverence is given to the writer of certain plays and sonnets. To that second-rate actor, because we believe he wrote those plays and sonnets, we give that reverence. But our belief is not such as we give to the proposition that one and two make three. It is a belief that has to be upheld by argument when it is assailed. When a man says to us that one and two make four, we smile and are silent. But when he argues, point by point, that in Bacon’s life and writings there is nothing to show that Bacon might not have written the plays and sonnets, and that there is much to show that he did write them, and that in what we know about Shakespeare there is little evidence that Shakespeare wrote those works, and much evidence that he did not write them, then we pull ourselves together, marshalling all our facts and all out literary discernment, so as to convince our interlocutor of his error. But why should we not do our task urbanely? The cyphers, certainly, are stupid and tedious things, deserving no patience. But the more intelligent Baconians spurn them as airily as do you or I. Our case is not so strong that the arguments of these gentlemen can be ignored; and naughty temper does but hamper us in the task of demolition. If Bacon were proved to have written Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets, would mankind be robbed of one of those illusions which are necessary to its happiness and welfare? If so, we have a good excuse for browbeating the poor Baconians. But it isn’t so, really and truly.

Suppose that one fine morning, Mr. Blank, an ardent Baconian, stumbled across some long-sought document which proved irrefragably that Bacon was the poet, and Shakespeare an impostor. What would be our sentiments? For the second-rate actor we should have not a moment’s sneaking kindness or pity. On the other hand, should we not experience an everlasting thrill of pride and gladness in the thought that he who had been the mightiest of our philosophers had been also, by some unimaginable grace of heaven, the mightiest of our poets? Our pleasure in the plays and sonnets would be, of course, not one whit greater than it is now. But the pleasure of hero-worship for their author would be more than reduplicated. The Greeks revelled in reverence of Heracles by reason of his twelve labours. They would have been disappointed had it been proved to them that six of those labours had been performed by some quite obscure person. The divided reverence would have seemed tame. Conversely, it is pleasant to revere Bacon, as we do now, and to revere Shakespeare, as we do now; but a wildest ecstasy of worship were ours could we concentrate on one of those two demigods all that reverence which now we apportion to each apart.