Conspiracies are profoundly satisfying. They solve every problem, explain everything difficult and give form and shape to things that are otherwise untidily complicated. They provide the easy answer. Why did something bad happen? Because bad people conspired against the good who would otherwise have conquered. Usually, the theory reverses an incontrovertible but (to the conspiracy theorist) inconvenient fact. It is a growing state of mind that, once it takes hold, spreads easily from small things to big beliefs. It needs a firm rebuttal, even when it invades relatively unimportant-seeming things – such as was Shakespeare really Shakespeare?
This week the latest sample arrives with great media fanfare. Viscountess Clare Asquith’s book Shadowplay: the Hidden Beliefs and Coded Politics of William Shakespeare – featured on the Today programme, no less – promotes the conspiracy theory that Shakespeare used his plays secretly to promote the outlawed Catholic faith. If the Da Vinci Code strikes at Catholicism, here the Catholics strike back by laying claim to the greatest writer of them all.