Parts One, Two, and Three, if you're interested.
Thanks for the comments on previous entries, folks. And for the links from elsewhere.
Once in a while, I remember to look at where people come from when they visit the blog; I did that the other day, and saw that some folks were coming to visit from one or another site or discussion board dedicated to questions of Shakespeare's authorship, and sometimes to the promotion of a specific alternative to William Shakespeare. So I read a bit on those sites.
First off, in their critiques of my comments on the NPR bit, they were remarkably kind and generous, and I appreciate that. The comments that I'm clearly not really versed in or well-read in the Oxfordian claims are quite right. I did these posts as a reaction to the NPR bit because I think some people are likely to wonder what to think of that bit, and maybe, just maybe, they'll google about it and find me. Or maybe just writing it down will help me sort my thoughts when some friend of a friend says that s/he heard on NPR that Shakespeare didn't write Shakespeare, and did I know? I know I'm really not going to convince someone who's already convinced to change his/her mind. Also, the comments are quite right that there's nothing new in what I'm saying; I'm merely explaining in a blog why people who think a guy named William Shakespeare authored (in that complex way I talked about last time) the texts associated with his name.
I also noticed a couple things about the arguments on the authorship sites. First, there seems to be a general distrust of academics, especially those of us with phuds who teach in traditional academic departments. Second, there's a tendency to rely on arguments from authority.
Let's think about the first. As K8 and Dr. Virago have noted in other comments, any academic who could say something really convincing about Shakespeare's authorship would be in good shape. Seriously, I'd LOVE to find the one piece of evidence that proved X or Y definitively. But I haven't seen that evidence; what I've seen hasn't convinced me. It hasn't even convinced me to spend more time looking.
It's worth asking, though, if academics, and English phuds in specific, have earned the distrust. Are we so dogmatic that we're closed to new arguments, or are we unwelcoming to unconvincing arguments? I have no illusions that I'm perfect, nor that my colleagues are, but I think there's evidence that academics do adopt new arguments, theories, and positions when they're convincing enough. For example, the first folks who made arguments based on feminism or queer theory met with serious opposition, counter arguments, and dismissal (we still do, often enough). But the power of those arguments convinced other folks, and now there's a good deal of work being done in both areas, on Shakespeare and on other cultural productions, and not much dismissal. Top notch journals and presses regularly publish essays and books that work from these positions, though individual scholars may dislike them or disagree that they're useful or interesting.
Are anti-Stratfordian arguments held to a different, more rigorous standard of argument? I haven't seen evidence of that, but someone could point out some, perhaps?
That's not to say no one has ever been told their full of crap for suggesting that X is the author of Hamlet, not Shakespeare. I've been told I'm full of crap for suggesting a feminist idea; but, if the argument's good enough, it convinces people. It's also not to say that grad students haven't been steered away from doing dissertations suggesting different authorship. Authorship issues might be the sort of thing one addresses more successfully in a second book, rather than in a dissertation. Lots of folks are steered away from something for a dissertation who later take it up, or force it through when the power of the argument has demonstrated it's validity. Look at Radical Tragedy for an example of that.
Here's a paper idea that might work, if you're really interested in, say, de Vere as a potential attribution. Transcribe de Vere's letters (which exist in some numbers, according to Wikipedia). Make the transcription available (through MRTS, the web, whatever), and do a really solid analysis of vocabulary and such (see Don Foster's work). Then, whatever the findings, get the results out there.
I can think of a long tradition of distrust of academics, but, off hand, I can't think of any cases where a group of academics has been shown to be utterly wrong without changing positions. The change doesn't usually take long once the arguments for change are really convincing, either.
And the second: We all make arguments from authority. But in and of themselves, arguments based on what Freud or Greenblatt or some other person said aren't that convincing. An argument based on why Freud or Greenblatt says something is considerably more convincing. But there's not really much point to dueling with famous names. (Don't believe anything you read on the internet. Even this!)
Arguments from authority also sometimes include "what we all know." At one point, "we all knew" that girls/women in "Shakespeare's day" married young, at 14, to use Juliet as the example. And then some historians came along, looked at parish records, and found that no, the average age for women at first marriage was about 25-26. (Have I mentioned, yay historians?) And so instead of seeing Juliet as typical, we began to read her as purposefully atypical; we asked ourselves why the play makes a point about her youth. And that's interesting to ask.
In the authorship issue, "we all know" that upper class people couldn't have let their names be associated with the theater as authors. Is it worth asking how we know that? What sorts of evidence do we have for that assertion?
I think that's a worthwhile question because the "we all know" position is that it couldn't be done for social reasons, but more and more these days, we critically look at how all sorts of people tested and broke the rules of social norms, and seeing how those challenges were handled helps us think about early modern culture. (David Cressy's work, for example, often looks at social norming and how norms were challenged.) It would be really interesting to know what sorts of social pressures were put on writers to produce one genre over another. I can think of aristocratic authors who were involved in writing entertainments and such, but most did so before the professional theaters were really flourishing. And I can think of upper class folks who wrote for academic performances. We know that various aristocrats "sponsored" theatrical companies (Pembroke, Hunsdon, etc); do we really know that an aristocrat just couldn't have authored a play under his/her own name?
We also know that some aristocrats circulated poems and such under their names. Were there limits on acceptable genres for such circulation?
I can easily see that it wouldn't be financially worthwhile for an aristocrat to try to make a living writing plays; there's more than an order of magnitude difference between the sorts of financial requirements of the aristocracy and what someone like Shakespeare could make selling even 4-5 plays a year. But does that mean an aristocrat couldn't have authored a play under his/her own name?
That pretty much exhausts my interest in the authorship question at this point, because I still don't think it's much of a question. Feel free to disagree and bring forward some convincing evidence!
So, I'm moving on again to learning more about the other and early modern drama and rereading Chaucer. I'll also post pictures soon of a very cool lunch guest!