There are all
sorts of theories about conspiracy theories, especially
about how and why they start, and why some endure. As a
connoisseur of what I call “meta-conspiracy theories,”
I have invented several of my own. Two examples stem from
the Bacon-Shakespeare theory and ‘pizza-gate.’
The B-S theory
posits that Francis Bacon was the author of the plays attributed
to William Shakespeare. The gist of the theory is that the
plebeian genius, Shakespeare, was less likely to have written
the sublime plays attributed to him than the high-born polymath,
Sir Francis Bacon.
this theory, Bacon’s authorship was kept secret because
his rise to high public office would have been hindered
if his peers found out he had stooped to the low calling
of dramatist, and written plays with seditious content (like
Richard II). The Baconians allege numerous similarities
of thought and expression between the plays and Bacon’s
“other” writings. They also find many legal
and other learned allusions in the plays that are unlikely
to have come from Shakespeare, who had no legal, or university,
education. Finally, they point to autobiographical details
in the poems that connect them with Bacon’s life,
rather than Shakespeare’s.
the Baconian theory is alive, not least on the Internet
—alive, but not well. For the theory finds many summarizers,
but few defenders.
the B-S theory is unpopular is that the political landscape
has changed so much over the last four centuries. In 2022,
there is a chasm of belief between those who embrace conspiracy
theories and those who condemn them. A specific corollary
is that anti-conspiracy theorists tend to be progressives.
The B-S theory affords legitimacy to Tudor-Stuart absolutism:
it smacks of the Star Chamber.
In an attempt
to buttress the B-S theory, I want to suggest an alternative
explanation for its origin. I would maintain that Shakespeare
did not exist. Like many other heroes of foundational nationalist
myths, he was invented to fill a need. To mask weaknesses
in the idea of a unified “Britain” (let alone
Great Britain), English propagandists invented the story
of a Warwickshire commoner who made his fortunes in the
demimonde of the London theater. From polymath actor, director
and producer, it was a short step to making him the author
of immortal plays.
Shakespeare did not exist, was it any wonder that, shortly
after his death, his reputation was eclipsed for two centuries?
Or that its revival was owed largely to the efforts of one
S.T. Coleridge, who did exist, but whose own poetic oeuvre
was given to extravagantly neurotic flights of fantasy?
By my lights, Coleridge did not reinvent Shakespeare; he
through the shameful era of England’s industrialization
(those “dark Satanic Mills”) and the equally
shameful colonial exploitation of a host of Calibans, which
ended in the dissolution of the Empire and England’s
subsequent economic decline, the popularity of this mythical
author never waned, least of all across the Empire.
of the national-myth phenomenon was the Bacon-Shakespeare
theory. Given the Shakespeare craze of the nineteenth century,
was it any wonder that there arose Shakespeare skeptics
to suggest the somewhat plausible theory that the plays
must have been written by a person whose educational and
other experience was reflected in them? These theorists
were oblique publicists for the national myth. In other
words, it was Shakespeare who brought home the bacon.
wrote the plays? I would suggest that, like the King James
Bible, they were probably written by a committee. If the
Bible committee created a foundational myth for the belief
system that sustained Great Britain for four centuries,
the Shakespeare committee created a myth that still endures.
For what motive(s),
you may ask, do I deny the existence of the man, Shakespeare,
and in his place, invent the theory of a Shakespeare committee?
Like the Baconians and other conspiracy theorists, and their
acolytes, my motive(s) is/are complex and personal. The
best way to explain it/them will be through a mini-memoir.
Born into a
plebeian family, myself (father, a printer; mother, a beautician),
I spent my early years under the expectation that I would
be the first member of my family to go to College. As my
father put it, during one of his worried harangues about
who would pay for this, “You can pay us back, Ron,
when you’re a (har har) successful attorney or physician.”
did not verbally contradict this speech, my actions contradicted
it. I majored in Psychology and, upon graduation, set out
on my life’s path as a do-gooder. That is, I got an
entry-level job in what was then called the Welfare Department.
During the decades that followed, in addition to life’s
usual landmarks (marriage, fatherhood, divorce, death of
parents), I slowly climbed the ladder in the Welfare Department
(which became the Department of Social Services, under the
umbrella of the Human Resources Administration).
Thanks to the
Department's concern for the welfare of its own employees,
in 2008, I retired, and have since lived, on a generous
fixed income. More than generous, in fact, owing to life’s
ironies: of my two children, my daughter is a successful
(corporate) attorney; my son, a successful physician (a
dermatologist). My ex-wife is also successful -- a real
estate agent -- which may, or may not, be ironic, since
I live (illegally) in the same three-bedroom, rent-stabilized
apartment that previously housed our family of four.
are you going to move to a smaller place, Ron,” scoffed
my old friend, Jules, “so your apartment can be given
to a family that really needs it? The kind of family you
were supposed to be serving all those years?” Jules
and I are a Mutt-and-Jeff couple. I’m “Mutt,”
six inches taller, but I forget which of them was the straight
In 2009, Jules
also retired, at the mandatory age of 65, from the Post
Office. He had risen from mail carrier to a supervisory
position that he waggishly called, “Supervisor of
Non-Delivery.” Ever since his retirement, Jules has
been a devotee of progressive causes -- a gadfly whose hero
is Socrates, and whose principal oeuvre are hundreds of
letters-to-the-editor of The Paper of Record.
third bedroom is my study, the place where I pursue my idle
speculations into such matters as who wrote “Shakespeare’s”
plays. On a hot summer day, as we sipped iced decaf in a
park near my building. I confided my thoughts on the subject
my god, Ron!” he exclaimed, in the midst of my exposition
of the point about Shakespeare and the British national
myth. “Do you really believe that kind of shit?”
And he spilled a bit of his coffee onto his lap, making
it look as if he had pissed himself. Then, he added, “You
really need to get a life.”
What with the
Covid era, which had increased my isolation (and that of
billions of other people), I realized he was right. And
that, poor Reader, is my central insight about (other) conspiracy
theorists: they need to get a life. (Or is it ‘lives’?)
But I do have
a life: I read, write, and see friends. I work out at a
gym and go for long walks (on off-days from the gym). Yes,
I read —viz, as I was developing my Shakespeare theory,
I read Freud’s The Future of an Illusion
(1927). I found two sentences particularly salient:
cut off from experience, is a form of wish fulfilment, we
disregard its relation to reality, just as the illusion
itself abjures confirmations.
We believe it
is possible for scientific work to learn something about
the reality of the world; through such knowledge we will
be able to increase our power, and in accord with it we
will be able to arrange our life.
us, finally, to pizza-gate. I think Freud was wrong to say
that science could replace religion. Instead, our stubborn
affinity for illusion has replaced religion with addiction
to social media, the new Church of Socio-Political Illusion.
Pizza-gate is a prime example.
You may already
be familiar with the broad outlines of this conspiracy theory.
During the 2016 presidential election cycle, hacked and
‘de-coded’ emails alleged the involvement of
high Democratic officials in kiddie-porn, and child trafficking,
rings. (The name of one of the alleged principals even sounds
like ‘Pederast.’) The motive behind this theory
seems obvious, and the theory was quickly discredited. Yet
it is still alive and well on social media.
the rub: pizza-gate has migrated from right-wing, proto-Q-anon
groups to sites such as Tic Toc, where it remains viral
for people whose usual posts are about hot dance moves and
“Black Lives Matter. Try to decode that one.
Since the sociopolitical
motivations behind the endurance of pizza-gate seem vexed,
to put it mildly, I would suggest an alternative origin
theory. The initial rumor centered around a Washington D.C.
establishment that offered both pizza and ping-pong. My
theory is that, like my Shakespeare-Bacon origins theory,
this one had an underlying xenophobic motive. The ping-pong
world is dominated by the Chinese, Japanese, and other east
Asians, whose economies have, for several decades, taken
turns bashing ours. And the pizza craze in the U.S. goes
back to the early 20th-century immigration wave, and reached
full flood with the return of U.S. troops from Italy, at
the end of W.W.2. I would suggest that pizza-gate was, at
least in part, a gastronomic expression of the xenophobia
that has more recently spawned the equally paranoid “replacement”
But why, you
ask, has pizza-gate migrated to champions of new dance moves
and racial justice? For the same reason recent generations
of Americans seem to prefer virtual reality to “RL.”
Call it solipsism; call it despair. And call me Cicero Redux:
o tempora, o mores.
Or just call
me a grumpy old man? Maybe, Jules is right. I should move
to a smaller apartment, without a spare room in which to
hatch meta-theories. That way, I could spend more time IRL.