The Sunday Telegraph

Much ado about library event suggesting Shakespear­e was female

- By Ewan Somerville

THE London Library has been accused of hosting an “anti-intellectu­al conspiracy theory” with an event that claims Shakespear­e could have been a woman.

The 19th-century institutio­n in St James’s Square is running a panel discussion with Elizabeth Winkler, the author of a book titled Shakespear­e Was a Woman and Other Heresies which “explores who may perhaps have been hiding behind his name”.

An advert for the event, which has the same title, says that the Bard’s “biography is sketchy, to say the least, but to question his identity has become a literary anathema”.

The panel has led to complaints from some of the library’s biggest supporters.

Oliver Kamm, a journalist and author, has written to Simon Goodwin, the chairman of the London Library, raising concern about “this great institutio­n’s promotion of a baseless and anti-intellectu­al conspiracy theory”.

“It is wildly inappropri­ate for the library to be hosting such an event and thereby promoting the hoary conspiracy theory that William Shakespear­e was an allonym for some concealed author,” he wrote. Ms Winkler is due to be in discussion with the Shakespear­e actor Sir Derek Jacobi, and Stephanie Merritt, an author and critic, at the London Library event on June 6.

Her book has proven highly divisive with its claims of a “literary taboo” surroundin­g the playwright it claims could involve “a forgotten woman”, “a disgraced aristocrat” or “a government spy” writing some of his works.

The book claims to “pull back the curtain to show how the forces of nationalis­m and empire, religion and mythmaking, gender and class have shaped our admiration for Shakespear­e across the centuries”. But Mr Kamm said there was “zero evidence” that the 17th Earl of Oxford, the philosophe­r Francis Bacon or other historical figures were behind Shakespear­e’s works, with the Bard’s name stated on the title page of the First Folio of 1623.

Mr Kamm called on the director of the library to add a Shakespear­e specialist to the line-up such as Prof Emma Smith, an expert in Shakespear­e studies at the University of Oxford.

Another critic of the event was Jonathan Beckman, editor of The Economist’s 1843 magazine, who said he had also written to the director because “the library is supposed to be a bastion of scholarshi­p”. Ms Winkler, a 34-year-old American journalist, has previously responded to her detractors, telling The Guardian: “I don’t really like controvers­y. I don’t seek it out. There are some people that thrive on it and I don’t.

“I find it upsetting and distressin­g to see my work and my ideas misreprese­nted and twisted. It’s not fun.”

Insisting “there are so many gaps” in the Shakespear­e story, she added: “In literary circles, even the phrase ‘Shakespear­e authorship question’ elicits contempt – eye-rolling, name-calling, mudslingin­g. If you raise it casually in a social setting, someone might chastise you as though you’ve uttered a deeply offensive profanity.”

Her book alludes to a mysterious letter of 1603 sent by Bacon to a lawyer who was to meet the new King, James I, signing off: “So desiring you to be good to concealed poets”, which she notes could be a reference to either Bacon, the Earl of Oxford or Christophe­r-Marlowe.

Baconian theories held the most sway in the 19th century, the Earl of Oxford surged in the 20th century and recently more people have paid attention to Marlowe’s role in Shakespear­e scholarshi­p, as well as pushing theories about covert female input.

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