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In the June 2019 issue of The Atlantic, Elizabeth Winkler published an article asking in the title “Was Shakespeare a Woman?”. In it, Winkler marshals evidence accrued from multiple sources including academics, one of Shakespeare’s contemporary literary critics, Jorge Luis Borges, and Shakespeare’s own texts making just that case. In short, Shakespeare was not the glover’s son turned actor turned Bard from Stratford-upon-Avon, but a Venetian, possibly Jewish, woman raised in England named Emilia Bassano. Winkler suggests that Bassano’s “remarkable humanist education,” Mediterranean family background, and “the plays’ preoccupation with women caught in forced or loveless marriages” greatly informed the massive scope of Shakespeare’s body of work and their uncommonly deep perspectives and themes.

Skepticism over Shakespeare’s authorship has existed since 1848. Suspects include Edward de Vere, Christopher Marlowe, and Francis Bacon, with Bassano’s authorship being first aired in 1973. Debates over who is the more plausible author has raged on and off among committed skeptics—which have included Sigmund Freud, Derek Jacobi, Joseph Sobran, and three former Supreme Court justices—with minimal attention from the mainstream, if at all.  

But the Bassano theory caused considerable, perhaps unprecedented, stir since the article’s publication. New York Times reporter Amy Harmon called the case “compelling” and noted also that it was “under attack from a Shakespeare-was-the-man-from-Stratford troll population I didn’t know existed.” We can attribute this, as I believe it has been, to a couple of the codependent usual suspects: the rapid-response tendency of Twitter; the heightened ideological tension in which anything and everything has Gamergate potential. But these, I think, are secondary to the wider phenomenon into which this article entered with such shrewd timing.

I am reminded of a fable of very recent times that is definitely real and not made up by me just now. A teen is standing in her front yard receiving a pizza delivery. Out of the darkness comes a cloaked wise man. “Theories,” the wise man says in the sonorous drone of an organ, “are like moles. Lots of people have them, some are interesting, more than a few should probably get looked at.” He recedes back into the darkness as quickly and eerily as he stepped out if it. “What the hell was that?” asks the teen in very teen-like fashion. “I don’t know,” the pizza delivery man replies. “But I don’t think that was a theory. That’ll be $14.98.”

We live in a platinum age of theory. But what, you might ask, do I mean by “theory”? Do I mean that middle passage in the scientific process between hypothesis and law? Not really. Do I mean the dialectical scaffolding or political or literary theory? No, but it’s perhaps a distant relative. Do I mean, then, the hallucinatory puzzles of conspiracy theory? A relative on a different tree, but I’ll get to that. The theory I’m speaking of is a bit ambiguous and idiosyncratic, but at the moment widespread. It is neither cloistered by authoritative protocol nor is it the happenstance discharge of idle speculation. There are maybe a few names for it, but this is what I consider “fan theory.”

Fan theory hardly needs introduction. If you, like me, click onto mainstream web outlets as a lab rat pushes for pellets, coverage of fan theories related to the popular prestige drama of the day are common enough. They’re not new, but their recent profusion is pretty straightforward. The internet gives users a didactic Midas touch that can theorize any object. Anyone can be a deconstructionist detective: breaking down scenes to the minutest, most overlooked detail for big picture clues; diving in between the lines of dialogue or even a single word for every subtle implication; or analyzing characters as if they’re lying on your couch baring their souls directly to you. You find these on Reddit, YouTube, blogs, and sometimes endless Twitter threads; places where strictures on duration and depth are relative. Whatever medium or subject, though, fan theories all come from the same impetus that seems not only possible in the present climate but encouraged.

There are some fan theories I have liked. If Twin Peaks: The Return was too mind-bending by half, David Auerbach’s “grand unified theory” of how the season and its final episode (probably) worked might soothe you. One of the earliest fan theories I encountered appeared in Slate, where David Haglund proposed that The Big Lebowski was about the rise of neoconservatism, which tracks with the Coen brother’s knowledge of mid-20th century intellectual history. Rob Ager, a prolific YouTube theorist, has multiple videos analyzing the unanswered questions of John Carpenter’s The Thing and how they impact its central mystery of who is an imitation and who is not. These examples encourage an active, close viewing or reading of a work of art among ordinary consumers. They encourage them to not take elements like cinematography, set design or the structure of a narrative for granted. They cull from orbiting disciplines, clarifying or illuminating less considered aspects of history or literature or some such. Art, the theorists say, allows them to think about what they’re being shown. Fan theory is perhaps the most ideal culmination of Barthes’s own theory on the “death of the author.” “To give a text an Author is to impose a limit on that text … to close the writing,” Barthes wrote. “Such a conception suits criticism very well, the latter then allotting itself the important task of discovering the Author … beneath the work: when the Author has been found, the text is ‘explained’—victory to the critic.” Fan theory lifts the practice of art appreciation above mere criticism into something more open-ended or, to use Barthes’s term, “liberating.”

But anything so liberating is also vulnerable to excess that undoes the liberation. The best-known fan theories are the ones that tend to bite off more than they can chew. The 2012 documentary Room 237 showcased the many ways Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining could be interpreted. It is not just a horror film about a troubled family in isolation, it is about the Holocaust or the genocide of Native Americans, Kubrick’s confession of faking the moon-landing, or a retelling of the myth of the Minotaur. Rob Ager, who shockingly was not included in the documentary, gained some popularity with his spatial analysis of some of scenic inconsistencies in the film, which are barely noticeable in casual viewing but glaring once pointed out. More audaciously is Ager’s theory that The Shining is actually a telling of “the historical role of gold reserves in US monetary policy.”

I looked at the “Jack’s scrapbook” prop, which is barely shown in the film, but is full of articles relating to the First and Second World Wars, the creation of the Federal Reserve bank and the US abandonment of the Gold standard. The various black-and-white photos adorning the walls of the Overlook Hotel in the film are also still housed in the Kubrick Archives and virtually all of them show bankers, business tycoons, movie stars, and US presidents ranging from Woodrow Wilson to Lyndon Johnson.

Ager is nothing if not thorough. He’s had access to Kubrick’s archives and can back up the spatial analysis with some evidence. He also revises previous theories when he discovers an error and lets his viewers make up their own minds in any case. But a horror film as a subliminal treatise, let alone on monetary policy, taxes credulity and risks contorting the art. It is no longer a character-driven narrative but a symbol-strewn puzzle in search of the most formidable puzzle master.

This approach has often led to a confusion of fan theories with conspiracy theory, which Ager rejects:

The word “conspiracy,” by definition, refers to an attempt to commit an illegal act and requires an agreement between two or more people. So if Kubrick did encode hidden messages in his movies without the knowledge of his cast and crew then it doesn’t qualify as a “conspiracy” being that Kubrick was an individual and what he was doing was not a crime.

This is fair in a technical sense, and a linguistic failure on the part of the critics. When something is deemed “conspiratorial” it is less in reference to an actual conspiracy than it is to the conspiracy theorist’s belief in the intricate order of things and absolute control of all variables and contingencies, where there is no such thing as a mistake or a coincidence; every success and every tragedy is a small part of a larger, hidden whole. It’s not, then, that Kubrick left out his entire crew and cast from his designs or did something illegal, but that it heightens Kubrick from a very meticulous film director to a master manipulator of perception itself. Though they work with different materials and seek different ends, they are guided by the same sort of obsession of fitting things neatly into place as they see it. This obsession is the bloody crossroads where pedantry and enchantment crash Ballard-like into each other.

Shakespeare skepticism, however, does manage to combine the two types of theory. There is the apparent conspiracy to maintain the fiction of “William Shakespeare,” and there are the counter-theories of who Shakespeare actually is from the skeptics. To an outsider, it appears like a miserable multi-front battle, with the spoils of its victory by any of the counter-theories seeming rather unappealing.

William Shakespeare is among the most universalized—that is to say authorless—authors in the literary canon. The relative biographical obscurity has had little impediment to the mass enjoyment of Shakespeare’s output. The obscurity, in fact, might aid in the timelessness of the work. Skeptics for whatever reason seek context, and not just any context but a particular context based on their particular reading of the available evidence or even just a simple hunch. From there, a simple answer that ties everything into a coherent and solid place of origin is expected to emerge. But in so doing, and whether they are conscious of it or not, they impose limitations on the work. The adventurousness with which theatre and film have approached Shakespeare’s plays may be discouraged, as we are not reframing classic works for new generations but imposing our wills on one person’s now-hallowed vision. The multiple theories each bring their own baggage of reorientation, different ways in which Shakespeare will no longer be for everyone.

The one saving grace of fan theories is that they are optional. There seems to be some inherent design that many of these theories stop just short of conclusiveness. To conclude that a theory is correct is, like Barthes’s Authored text, to close it off, to assimilate into reality. A theory is more potent as an alternative to reality rather than a representation of it. It is an escape hatch from tedium rather than a solution to a mystery.

This is best illustrated in David Robert Mitchell’s film Under the Silver Lake. It centers on Sam (played by Andrew Garfield) who scours the hipster enclaves of Los Angeles in search of a mysterious woman (Riley Keough) who disappeared from his apartment complex overnight. When online searches turn up nothing, he relies on clues he sees all over the city: hobo symbols, coded messages in pop songs, a map on the back of a cereal box, a puzzle in a back issue of Nintendo Power (that he happens to own), women who always appear in threes, wild coincidences, etc. The film is two hours and 19 minutes long, and lacks the stylish cohesion of Mitchell’s earlier masterpiece It Follows, but it does go some way into depicting the obsessive, anxious worldview of the theorist and his consuming certainty of the secret workings of an unfair world. It’s an entrancing dream away from a reality where he is unemployed, days away from eviction, and ceaselessly horny. The film was received coolly, and not altogether unjustly, by critics but of course has its own fan theorists.

For all its faults, however, Mitchell at least offers a simple enough motive with wide applicability. For what is the theorist, whether of Kubrick’s confession or Shakespeare’s gender or of @dril’s fursona, horny? I’m sure someone, somewhere has a theory.

Chris R. Morgan is a writer from New Jersey. His Twitter is here, his blog is here.