Friday, July 11, 2008

Shakespeare Authorship, Part Four: A Few Final Thoughts

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!


  1. The field of medieval drama studies is a very good example of how easily new evidence and convincing arguments can change the minds of academics, even those invested in the study of a subject and whose previous work becomes out-dated because of the new work. Once upon a time "we all knew" that every city in England likely had a "Corpus Christi Play," each produced by the town's guilds, but only four complete ones survived, and that they were all likely based on the same model (see Kolve, _The Play Called Corpus Christi_). But the last few decades of scholarship have overturned every point of that: only the York cycle is a true Corpus Christi play; only Chester and York had large-scale cycles produced by the guilds; the four large-scale sets of biblical plays are all very different in character, and so forth. And critics like Kolve who once thought otherwise will be the first to tell you that now they know they were wrong.

    Academia, in all its fields, thrives on the new. We fetishize it even, often claiming that an argument is "new!" "fresh" and "groundbreaking!," when maybe it's just a new twist to an old story. Yes, skepticism is a good part of any intellectual discipline -- and very well should be -- but we like to have our minds blown, too. We just need to be convinced first.

  2. Hello again, Bardiac,

    You write:

    "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."

    I'm not going to try to respond to all the points you make in your rather lengthy post, but I appreciate your affording me the chance to comment on this and a few of your other remarks.

    First, I am an academic. I hold a masters degree in Anthropology and a PhD in Comparative Literature. And I am personally familiar with a couple dozen individuals with Masters or PhDs in English or related feilds who agree with me that the authorship question is real, and that the only thing that is standing between full legitimacy of the issue -- which means that academicians such as you begin to drop your defenses (as, in fact, I feel you are doing by acknowledging that you were responding to the NPR show without knowing much about the history of the issue) and start dealing substantively with the realities of the case -- is lack of information in the right places.

    Gatekeepers, primarily but not exclusively academic ones, are spinning the debate in their own self-interest, to the detriment of truth and open inquiry, not to mention the future of Shakespearean and Renaissance studies.

    To someone who views the world primarily in tribalistic terms, it might seem surprising that a person of my background, who is also an assistant professor who teaches (among other things) Shakespeare, would be among those who feel a sharp "distrust of academics" on this subject. That distrust is the result of very particular and firsthand acquaintance with the amoral lengths to which some of those academics are willing to go in order to prevent rational and open discussion of this topic. I won't bore you or your readers with the gory details, but the long trail of threats, punitive grades, exclusion of qualified colleagues from association, opportunities to present academic papers and publish what otherwise would be regarded as significant contributions to scholarship, etc. will make the authorship controversy, when it is finally fully told, one of the more sordid chapters in intellectual history.

    If you are interested, I will at length recount for you, with specific examples, those elements of the public record that lend credence to these statements -- some of the many gratuitously vulgar things that have been said by leading academicians that are, in this instance, only the tip of the iceberg of what former Folger Library Educational Programs Director Richmond Crinkley categorized, in a 1985 Shakespeare Quarterly article, as "a bizarre form of mutant racism."

    Finally, let me address your claim about the alleged reliance of authorship doubters on "arguments from authority." It is true that in my brief response to your previous blog I listed a number of prominent Shakespearean actors and other major intellectuals who have either questioned the orthodox view of authorship or endorsed the Oxfordian paradigm.

    I did so because acknowleding in public these defections from the traditional paradigm is a shorthand way of indicating the weight of the serious intellectual arguments that have been made (which you admit you have not consulted) in support of the anti-Stratfordian and Oxfordian perspectives.

    You are right, of course, to emphasize that this is, strictly speaking, a logical fallacy. Perhaps since you have not yet studied the intellectual history of the dispute in which you are engaged, you are unaware to what extent your own majority view has been preserved substantially through variations on the argument that "all the authorities agree that this is so." And that's the polite version. Perhaps if you do deign to actually examine the arguments you are attempting to refute, you would realize that you can't have it both ways.

    Authority does matter. But so do reasoned arguments. And so, unfortunately, in a different way, does power. The Shakespearean establishment has not yet come to grips with the extent to which its own authority is precariously balanced on a razor's edge and about to go toppling into an abyss. It is reacting through the exercise of power, to try to control an intellectual controversy which it only dimly percieves but feels deeply threatened by.

    When ground starts to open up and the paradigm really begins to shift (we are now experience the pre-quake tremors), it will be bad for all those who maintain a rigidly dogmatic view. But believe it or not, it will be good for the study of Shakespeare, good for the wider world of Shakespearean studies (which is not bound by the Cartesian walnut shell of orthodox Shakespearean discourses found in the academies), and good for the tradition of liberal thought represented by such past thinkers as John Stuart Mill.

    I've gone on at greater length than I should have done.

    I appreciate the opportunity to exchange thoughts with you.

    Best Regards,


  3. I've been reading your posts skimmingly, as I've been abroad, and only just had a chance to look at them more carefully--thanks for all of them. Needless to say, probably, I agree with you on pretty much all your points, including my general lack of interest in the authorship controversy: if hard evidence comes to light, awesome. But my reading of the plays and my teaching of them probably wouldn't change either way, since the identity of their author just isn't central to the texts themselves (in the way that, say, Milton's identity IS rather central to a lot of his writings).

    So, I'd ask BenJonson, in response to his last comment, for evidence that Shakespearians or Early Modern scholars more generally actually benefit from identifying Shakespeare as the author of those plays. I don't mean that snarkily--I'm genuinely interested in what the actual or perceived benefit to us might be (and for the record, BJ, I teach Shakespeare but do not write on him; my scholarship in on nondramatic works).

    Because as you wrote in an earlier post, Bardiac, very few scholars actually DO biographical criticism, either in print or in the classroom. We do not talk about how Shakespeare (the man from Stratford, specifically) could have known X, or how Life Experience Y affected what he wrote. With the exception of biographers of Shakespeare--who are a TINY number of Shakespearians (and not always academics), the only benefit we get from identifying Shakespeare's plays with Shakespeare is that the name itself is well-known and there's a huge cultural and pop-cultural industry around it. BUT: that industry is ultimately based on the plays, not on the biography of the man from Stratford.

    All those tourists at Stratford (where I hope never, ever to have to go again)? Don't put money in our pockets.

  4. The field of medieval drama studies is a very good example of how easily new evidence and convincing arguments can change the minds of academics, even those invested in the study of a subject and whose previous work becomes out-dated because of the new work.

    As an aside, I note the I skim Science and Nature every once in awhile and come across these articles saying that "we've found a new fossil and now we've got to re-write a whole section of the taxonomic tree for XY&Z." It's quite astonishing what one chunk of hard evidence can do for some fields.

  5. Just a couple issues -- I don't understand how those who question Stratford authorship can be both distrustful of academics AND reliant on arguments from authority. It seems to me that those points-of-view might tend to be opposed. And just for the record, I am an authorship skeptic but I am not distrustful of academics nor do I rely on arguments from authority. In fact, I would find it difficult to argue from authority since most people who consider themselves authorities don't agree with me. Also, I understand that many people, some of your readers included, believe that it doesn't matter who wrote the plays of Shakespeare, but if it is true that it doesn't matter -- Shakespeare's work is the only production of any artist that this is held to be true of.

  6. "Shakespeare's work is the only production of any artist that this is held to be true of"


  7. Hi, William -- yeah! Homer. Think about that. Besides, no one ever said it doesn't matter WHO wrote the works attributed to a creator called "Homer". Everyone agrees it's impossible to know who the creator of the I and O is. I'd consider such a POV an advance on the status of Shakespearean authorship.

  8. Dr. Virago, Oh, the Corpus Christi plays are a nice example, thanks.

    Ben Jonson, Thanks for your comment. I'm interested to hear that an academic has taken up the authorship question; I'll look forward to seeing the evidence you bring forward.

    Flavia, Thanks. Your question about what we have to gain is helpful, I think.

    I appreciate your point about teaching without reference to biography. I refer relatively little to biography, though having a name to hang things on is helpful. But I don't talk to my students much about Middleton, Webster, Donne, even. And I'm not interested in treating plays as elaborate puzzles or roman a clefs, generally. But the tourists at Stratford are WELCOME to put some money in my pockets!

    Bill Benzon, Yes, hard evidence can open things up amazingly!

    Linda Theil, If you look at Ben Jonson's comment on an earlier post, you'll see that s/he refered to an actor as an authority. I've also seen Freud and politicians referred to at various times. All are "authorities" on some level, but not necessarily academics, and none that I've seen are academics trained as phuds in Shakespeare or early modern lit. Actors know a heck of a lot about acting, and some are amazing with texts.

    So, when I said that some arguments rely on authority, that's what I was refering to. The distrust of academics is different, but was apparent to me on some of the sites that were referring folks here.

    William, Homer would just be one on a long list.

    Linda Theil (again :), Are there two issues here, one being the presence of a name and the other being the practice of reading biographically? I can think of lots of poets whose names we don't know at all: The Beowulf Poet, The Pearl Poet, the Gawain Poet, the Anonymous Author of Arden of Faversham. But mostly, I teach folks whose names I "know" but without much interest in reading their works biographically. I really don't care much about Marie de France, Middleton, Webster, etc, except for their texts. And I don't teach their biographies at all beyond basic dating (because it helps to know that someone was born in the 16th century and not the 19th).

  9. Bardiac,

    The issue has now been joined over at The Valve:


  10. Conspiracy Theories abound because they are more entertaining than the world we actually live in. Snarla Husayn parodies the Shakespeare authorship question with a line of "Shaykh Zubayr" collectibles:

    A Bard by any other Name