The Week in Conspiracy (31 Oct 2011 edition)

October 31, 2011

Hello, hello from the city where pants are optional, New Orleans. I gave my talk about anti-Jesuit and anti-Catholic conspiracy theories yesterday, and then we bopped along Canal Street to the Smarti Gras party.

  • I know that when I need medical advice, I go to a strung-out, obviously intoxicated rapper. I mean, not me, Vigilant Citizen:

This week in straight to DVD:

Here is a compilation of reviews of Anonymous, a film in which Roland Emmerich does to Shakespeare what he does to little models of the White House.

“In London, the Flat Earth Society explains that we live on a giant disk. In Petersburg, Ky., the Creation Museum shows cave men and dinosaurs frolicking together. And in a movie theater near you, “Anonymous,” which opened Friday, reveals how the Earl of Oxford wrote Shakespeare’s plays.”

No week in conspiracy this week, folks! Tomorrow, I’ll be talking to Jon Ronson, who is Skyping into a few classes at Georgia Tech. Pretty exciting!


Very Superstitious: The Token Skeptic Podcast

October 28, 2011

Yo. We’re at CSICon, and you can’t make us not be. I had lunch with Eugenie Scott, Steve Novella and Richard Saunders.

Yeah, I’m just name dropping.

Let me do it again. Here’s a panel I was on with Steve Novella, Steven King and Barbara Drescher. Kylie Sturgess was the host.

Very Superstitious.


The Other 5 Reasons Roland Emmerich is an Idiot

October 24, 2011

Here beginneth Part the Second (see here for Part the First):

6. Not edumucated enough.

Considering the anti-intellectual slant of Shakespeare-deniers (expressed by a comment on this post from screenwriter John Orloff), this one is rich.  As Emmerich says, “no records prove that Shakespeare ever attended the Stratford Grammar School.” True, no records survive before the nineteenth century. “Yet the work of William Shakespeare the writer shows extensive knowledge of [a bunch of stuff] as well as aristocratic activities such as royal tennis and falconry. Call me a snob….” Yup, you’re a big snob…. “but even if he was a genius, he couldn’t have pulled that one off without leaving a trace of his learning.” I don’t get it. Aren’t all those examples Emmerich provided evidence of Shakespeare’s learning? Not just formal education, but a continuing interest in learning things and, you know, reading stuff? “William Shakespeare had the largest English vocabulary of any writer in history. Not quite grammar school level I would say.” Well, then, you would be wrong. Again. First of all, “education” in Shakespeare’s day meant classical education: Latin and Greek. They weren’t learning English composition, much less creative writing. Second, as Shakespeare scholars have pointed out repeatedly, Shakespeare’s education was perfectly sufficient. James Shapiro notes that a grammar school education “was roughly equivalent to a university degree today, with a better facility in Latin than that of a typical classics major” (Contested Will, p. 276).

And let us not forget the things Shakespeare got wrong. In The Winter’s Tale, Shakespeare provided Bohemia with a coastline and a desert that it doesn’t actually have. Ben Jonson considered such mistakes risible. If you click the link above, you can see how Oxfordians have danced around this issue, and, if you scroll down a bit, you can see the history of the word “dildos.” It has nothing to do with the authorship question, but it’s fun. Shakespeare also kindly bestowed a harbor on Padua in The Taming of the Shrew.

7.  “Here is a big one:” if Emmerich had been Shakespeare, he wouldn’t have retired so early.

So what? What does Emmerich’s interminable drive to make splashy, bad movies have to do with Shakespeare? Emmerich adds that, after Shakespeare retired to Stratford (which was not the tiny town Emmerich makes it out to be), he never wrote “a single poem, play or sonnet again.” Okay, first, sonnets are poems. Second, argument from ignorance. How do you know he didn’t write anything ever again? Just because they don’t survive doesn’t mean they never existed. Finally, Shakespeare’s last plays (all collaborations) were probably written after after Shakespeare had largely retired and been replaced as principle playwright by John Fletcher.

“I would never compare myself to Shakespeare.” Oh, good, then shut up. “But to me the idea of retiring from directing and moving back to my hometown and never to be associated with movies again is just completely unthinkable.” Do you have a wife and kids in your hometown? And as we’ve seen, Shakespeare did continue to be associated with the theater (see more here). So, no, the explanation is not that he ran out of “idears.”

8. There is no record of Shakespeare traveling abroad, but he mentions Italy and other foreign lands a lot in his plays.

Argument from ignorance: we have no records of Shakespeare traveling abroad; therefore he must never have traveled abroad. Actually, we just don’t know. Even if he never left England, there were ways of finding out stuff about other countries. In the Renaissance they had a primitive version of Google earth.  It was called a “map.” And while Shakespeare didn’t have access to Wikipedia, there were these things called “books.” Oh, and while he couldn’t watch the Travel Channel (Emmerich actually sarcastically suggests this) there were travelers that he could talk to. And let us not forget Bohemia’s coastline and desert and Padua’s harbor.

9. The Stratford monument may have been altered to show Shakespeare as a writer.

Shakespeare’s monument was erected sometime between his death in 1616 and the publication of the First Folio in 1623 (the Folio mentions the monument). It shows Shakespeare with his arms resting on a cushion and holding a quill in one hand and a piece of paper in the other.

Emmerich points out that there were renovations to the monument. This is true. It was also repainted several times. He points out that in an early “engravement,” Shakespeare isn’t holding quill and paper; instead he is holding a “sack of grain.” The engraving appeared in William Dugdale’s Antiquities of Warwickshire published in 1656. Here it is:

First of all, while historians agree that the monument was renovated, I don’t think they believe it was renovated as early as 1656 (only a few decades after its erection). Secondly, the “sack of grain” is pretty clearly an awkward representation of the cushion, which is cut from the same hunk of stone as the bust (including the forearms and hands that rest on it). Why there is no quill and paper, I don’t know. Here is a discussion of the Dugdale engraving.

Also, you will notice that, even in the engraving, there is an inscription beneath the bust. This is what it says: “IVDICIO PYLIVM, GENIO SOCRATEM, ARTE MARONEM, TERRA TEGIT, POPVLVS MÆRET, OLYMPVS HABET.” Translation, “In judgment a Pylius [Nestor], in wit a Socrates, in art a Maro [Virgil]; the earth buries [him], the people mourn [him], Olympus possesses [him].” Not the inscription of a grain merchant. Although it is not visible in the engraving, there is also an English epithet (on the same slab as the Latin and so necessarily contemporary with it). It says (in modernized spelling): “Stay passenger, why goest thou by so fast? Read if thou canst, whom envious Death hath placed within this monument, Shakespeare, with whom quick nature died, whose name doth deck the tomb far more than cost, sith all that he hath writ leaves living art, but page, to serve his wit.” In other words, quill or no, the monument absolutely identifies Shakespeare as a writer, as is clear even in Dugdale’s rather bad drawing.

10. The bloody will.

“Can you believe that the last will of William Shakespeare of Stratford does not mention any books or manuscripts?” Why, yes, Roland: I can believe that, and if you can’t, your disbelief is merely an argument from incredulity. “Didn’t he care what would happen to his life’s work after his death?” Okay, I’m just going to copy and paste what I said about the will in my first post on this blog:

As for the will…well, Oxfordians get very excited about the will.  Shakespeare doesn’t mention his library, his books or his plays.  True, but he didn’t personally own the plays: they belonged to the acting company.  Those that were published became the property of the publisher.  He doesn’t mention books, but nor does he mention many specific items: the bulk of his estate was entailed.  Shapiro, citing  James Orchard Halliwell-Phillipps, notes that when Shakespeare’s son-in-law John Hall went to prove Shakespeare’s will, he apparently had with him “an inventory of the testator’s household effects” (qtd. in Shapiro, p. 50).  Shapiro continues:

Whatever valuable books, manuscripts, or letters Shakespeare owned and was bequeathing to his heirs would have been listed in this inventory rather than in the will itself (which explains, as Jonathan Bate has observed, why the surviving wills of such Elizabethan notables as the leading theologian Richard Hooker and the poet Samuel Daniel fail, like Shakespeare’s, to list any books at all).  (p. 50)

So, there you have it: arguments from ignorance, arguments from incredulity, arguments from snobbery and romanticism and arguments from what Roland Emmerich would have done if he’d been Shakespeare. And not a single iota of evidence to support the case for another author. [Emmerich mode] I chust don’t buy it [/Emmerich mode].



The Norton Shakespeare.  Gen. ed. Stephen Greenblatt.  New York and London: Norton, 1997.  Texts based on the Oxford Edition, gen. eds. Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor.

The Riverside Shakespeare.  2nd ed.  Text. ed. G. Blakemore Evans.  Boston: Houghton, 1997.

Shakespeare: Life and Times. Palomar College.

Shapiro, James.  Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare.  New York: Simon, 2010.

Shapiro, James. “Hollywood Dishonors the Bard.” New York Times 16 Oct. 2011

Wells, Stanley.  Shakespeare & Co.: Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Dekker, Ben Jonson, Thomas Middleton, John Fletcher, and the Other Players in His Story.  New York: Vintage, 2006.

Good news! Roland Emmerich’s stinker Anonymous release limited!

October 24, 2011

Heheh. I just saw news that the release of Anonymous has gone from 2000 theaters to 250. Eve and I would be happy to take credit for this if it weren’t for the fact that the whole world instantly realized that the entire premise was ridiculous. Also, I haven’t seen a positive review yet. Rollo is saying that it’s his idea. Go with that, kiddo. Embrace the fail.

So, what is to be made of this apparent straight-to-DVD upcoming box office failure? Other than “fun of”?


This Week in Conspiracy (23 Oct 2011)

October 23, 2011

I won’t have time to do everything that I need to in the few days that I have before CSICon. But I make a point of doing this, even if it hurts a little.

So, given the time crunch, I’m going to do as much as I can in an hour. GO!

  • In additional Shakespeare news, Forbes’s Alex Knapp wrote a piece, “Yes, Shakespeare Wrote Shakespeare” and got inundated with…enthusiastic correspondence. He contacted me and Eve about coming up with a reply to the specific claims of Shakespeare deniers, and we’re happy to help. Also, John Orloff, the screenwriter of Anonymous, left a smudge in the comments on my post about his indignation at the HuffPo.
  • Holy crap! I thought Ron Paul reminded me of someone! It’s Pat Buchanan!
  • Godlike Productions stepped in it this week when they tweeted:

They actually tweeted the word "Negro".

Conspiracy Theory of the Week:

You win! Please! Stop sending me this! Everyone I have ever met since I got out of short-pants has sent me this at least twice! Are you guys coordinating this??? Hey, I’m “just asking questions.”

Hey, not bad for an hour.


The First Five Reasons Roland Emmerich Is an Idiot

October 23, 2011

Roland Emmerich, as you may know, is coming out with an interpretation of a screenplay that many in academia say was written by John Orloff (but we’re not sure). It will be called Anonymous. And other things. We have already linked to Roland Emmerich’s promotional video “10 reasons  why (Roland Emmerich believes) Shakespeare is a fraud.” Here it is again. Sorry. In previous posts on the subject of Shakespeare denialism, we have answered most of his ten reasons; however, it seems pertinent to go through the arguments point by point.

We should first address the elephant in the room: Shakespeare denialists sometimes claim that Shakespeare scholars have an invested interest in the Official Story. We want to be clear that we receive no monetary benefit from Big Shakespeare: Bob is an Americanist who becomes queasy when he sees the word “color” spelled with a “u;” Eve is a medievalist who considers Shakespeare to be dangerously modern. We do our shilling for free in our spare time.

Emmerich’s ten reasons are punctuated by animation. A memorial statue of Shakespeare is being tended to by a love-struck duck (or possibly a pigeon) in an academic cap and bow tie. After Emmerich makes each specious point, he throws a black quill. The real quill becomes animated and does surprising damage to the monument, causing the increasingly hysterical duck to apply emergency medical assistance. By the end of the video, the duck walks off in high dudgeon, giving the Bronx cheer to a now-animated Emmerich. Emmerich is twirling a quill and looking as smug as he does in real life. He blows on the monument, and it collapses, revealing the poster for Anonymous. This seems to be Emmerich’s opinion of scholars: hysterical ducks in bow ties.

So, let’s look at his devastating arguments against Shakespeare:

1. No manuscript or poem exists in Shakespeare’s own handwriting, not even a letter.

Very few Elizabethan/Jacobean plays exist in authorial manuscripts. As we have mentioned repeatedly, one of the few exceptions is the play-by-committee, Sir Thomas More. Hand D is an authorial hand; it is very possible that that hand is Shakespeare’s.

Emmerich suggests that because Shakespeare lived in London while his wife and children lived in Stratford, he would have produced “a vast amount of correspondence.” Of course, as Emmerich will later point out, Shakespeare’s wife, daughters and parents were all illiterate, and his son died at the age of eleven. The fact that his family members were illiterate doesn’t mean that Shakespeare couldn’t have written letters to them. A literate person could have read the letters to Shakespeare’s wife and family. Similarly, a literate person could have written messages to Shakespeare from his wife. We know, for instance, that actor Edward Alleyn wrote to his illiterate wife. These were included in letters to her father, theatrical entrepreneur Philip Henslowe. But why would we necessarily expect Shakespeare’s letters to survive? Shakespeare’s direct line died out with his granddaughter Elizabeth. His house was sold and eventually demolished.

Emmerich says, “the largest literary hand in history produced not a single handwritten note of William Shakespeare.” Ignoring for the moment the awkwardness of this sentence, the statement is not true, or is, at least, an argument from ignorance. The fact that we haven’t found any letters does not mean that there were no letters. It simply means that we have found no letters.

2. Shakespeare’s daughters Susanna and Judith were illiterate.

Emmerich muses that it seems incredible that Shakespeare wouldn’t want his children to read his works. “Doesn’t work for me,” he says. Whether it works for Emmerich or not is really irrelevant. The illiteracy of Shakespeare’s family has no bearing on the question of Shakespeare’s authorship. Is it disappointing that the creator of some great (literate) female characters didn’t teach his daughters to read? Perhaps, but it was pretty typical. Women of Shakespeare’s class were not routinely given extensive formal education. The school Shakespeare presumably attended would not have been open to his daughters. I assume that a tutor would have been necessary had Shakespeare decided to educate his daughters. I suppose Shakespeare could have afforded a tutor, but he seems not to have employed one–again, this is fairly typical for his class. And again, it has absolutely no bearing on the authorship of the works attributed to Shakespeare.

3. Shakespeare wrote “obsessively” and knowledgeably about the aristocracy.

First of all, not all of Shakespeare’s plays center on royalty and nobility: Merry Wives of Windsor focuses on middle-class characters. The main characters of The  Comedy of Errors and The Merchant of Venice are also non-noble. It is true, however, that a majority of Shakespeare’s plays feature royal and aristocratic characters. It is also true that some of his contemporaries (particularly later contemporaries) did focus more on the middle classes in, for instance, city comedies and satires.

So what does this prove? Exactly nothing. Christopher Marlowe and Thomas Kyd also seem to have focused primarily on the upper classes (although Kyd is usually named as the author of the domestic tragedy, Arden of Faversham. According to some scholars, particularly Arthur Kinney, Shakespeare is responsible for portions of this play).

If Emmerich is suggesting that Shakespeare didn’t have sufficient knowledge to write about the aristocracy and court life, then he is wrong. Shakespeare could have gained the knowledge he needed by study, observation and rumor. But privileged knowledge isn’t what Emmerich is primarily concerned about. Instead, he wants to start some kind of Renaissance class war. He contrasts Shakespeare to Ben Jonson whose works “pretty much reflect the perspective of the working man.” I guess Emmerich forgot all those Jonson masques that were written for and performed by members of the royal court. Shakespeare, says Emmerich, “apparently mocks his peers by giving them silly names, like Bottom, Dull, Mistress Overdone. Was Shakespeare a traitor to his own class? No way.”

I agree: Shakespeare was not a class-traitor. The tradition of giving silly and descriptive names to comic characters, usually (though not always) of lower social rank is a very old one. But surely Ben Jonson, Mr. Middle Class, wouldn’t do something like that. Let’s see, what are some of the character names in Bartholomew Fair? Well, there’s Littlewit, Quarlous, Winwife, Grace Wellborn, Adam Overdo and Dame Purecraft. Oh dear. Well, how about The Alchemist? There’s Lovewit, Subtle, Face, Dapper, Drugger, Sir Epicure Mammon (a nobleman), Surly, Dame Pliant and Dol Common. Feel free to peruse the name in Every Man in His Humour and Volpone for yourselves.

4. “Check this one out:” Shakespeare had bad handwriting and couldn’t spell his name.

We’ve been over this one several times, so briefly: 1. secretary hand 2. non-standardized spellings. Here is a signature of Sir Walter Raleigh:

The spelling is “W. Ralegh.” Here he signed his name “W. Rawley.” Illiterate yobbo swine. Also notice the handwriting of the document: it’s quite neat, but very hard to read. It may also be useful to compare the one letter addressed to William Shakespeare (original here; facsimile here): more hard-to-read secretary hand. And just one more–the handwriting of Sir Thomas Wyatt the Elder.

5. “I believe writing comes from the heart,” and Shakespeare’s writing doesn’t reflect that.

“Call me a romantic, but I believe great artists are inspired by their life” Emmerich says. Well, okay, I can think of other words, but for now I’ll just say, yes, your notions of authorship reflect concepts that arose in the Romantic Era.

Emmerich complains that Shakespeare didn’t write a poem on the death of his son. Jonson wrote about his dead kid, after all. Well, if Ben Jonson jumped off London Bridge….never mind. Of course, it’s possible that Shakespeare did write about his son’s death but that the poem was never published and did not survive. Maybe he decided to keep his personal poems personal. Or maybe he didn’t write about his son at all. We don’t know. And guess what? It has nothing to do with the authorship question.

But, just for the moment, let’s follow Emmerich’s thought-process: the fact that the plays and poems don’t reveal Shakespeare’s innermost feelings proves that Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare. Okay. So, what about the guy who did write the works? If the works don’t reveal Shakespeare’s inner life, how is it that they do reveal the inner man if that inner man is someone else? I guess the works do reveal the inner life of the “real” author if we just read them the correct way, which, I presume, is cross-eyed and and hanging upside down.

Here endeth Part the First.


Welcome to the end of the world…

October 21, 2011

Shatner did “Bohemian Rhapsody.” It’s worse than Camping could have hoped for:

RJB (who blames Eve)

“Anonymous” Screenwriter John Orloff: Name Dropping and Wrong

October 18, 2011

John Orloff, who wrote the screenplay for the badly titled Anonymous (as Eve points out, it should be Pseudonymousout-stupided the Huffington Post on their own turf, which is no mean feat. He took issue with the phrase “urban legend.” I agree. They should have used the phrase, “unfettered clacking bollocks.” I intend to use his little screed in future classes to teach logical fallacies. His letter went as follows:

I’d like to think current and past US Supreme Court Justices don’t believe in Urban Legends. Namely, Justices Stevens, Blackmun, O’Connor and Scalia all think there is reason to doubt the validity of the actor William Shakespeare having written the plays history ascribes to him.

Wow. Not a Shakespearean scholar among them. Ok, you’re name dropping, but the sad fact is that just because you don’t like to think about it doesn’t mean it’s not true. This is the appeal to personal incredulity. “I can’t believe that these smart people would believe an urban legend, therefore, Shakespeare wasn’t Shakespeare.”

As does historian David McCullough. As do authors such as Mark Twain (whose last book, “Is Shakespeare Dead” is dedicated to the issue), Henry James (who said he was “haunted by the conviction that the divine William is the biggest and most successful fraud ever perpetrated on an unsuspecting Public”), and Walt Whitman (to name a few).

This is a classic appeal to false authority. You could fart sonnets like an angel and still not have a rollicking clue about the reams of scholarship backing the mainstream view.

As do Shakespearean actors Sir John Gielgud, Sir Derek Jacobi, and Orson Welles (who directed and starred in several Shakespeare plays).

Yawn. Appeal to false authority. Sorry.

And Mark Rylance, who is not only perhaps the greatest Shakespearean actor of his generation, but a man who was also the Artistic Director of the Globe Theater in London for ten years. Think about that last name; the man who ran the Globe theater for a decade doesn’t think Shakespeare wrote a single word.

Wow. I’m willing to bet if I look in my university databases I’ll find he never had to publish a goddamned thing under peer review:

  • Academic Search Complete ( 0 )
  • Research Library ( 0 )
  • Project Muse ( 0 )
  • MLA International Bibliography ( 1 )
  • Essay & General Literature Index ( 0 )
  • Arts & Humanities Citation Index ( 0 )
  • Humanities Int’l Index ( 0 )

That single entry is in a book about the resurrection of the Globe Theater, and it does not address authorship. And it’s not you like are citing an independent authority, since he’s in the freaking movie. “Well, my friends think so,” is as unconvincing as, “My mom says I’m smart.”

And we can add Sigmund Freud in there as well.


An Urban Myth is something proven to be false. I’m not sure we’re there on this particular issue.

Well, I disagree with your definition of urban myth, but the burden of proof is not on mainstream academia. We don’t default to the position that you know your head from your ham hocks.

And how do you know that someone wasn’t scared by Eddie Murphy in an elevator?

Either way, I am reminded of Winston Churchill’s statement on the subject when he was asked about the Authorship Issue. His response? He replied he wasn’t that interested in Oxford because, in his words: “I don’t like to have my myths tampered with”.

He meant the Shakespeare myth.

He meant, “Get stuffed, bozo. I’m not interested.” It doesn’t matter how many amateurs you say you surround yourself with, you’re still sitting on the short bus. (Yes, the actors and directors have a skill set that is completely unrelated to scholarship.)

Your software is broken, kiddo. Don’t try to contribute to the Great Discussion, because you’ll only embarrass yourself.


Shakespeare and Skeptoid Redux

October 18, 2011

Brian Dunning has dedicated his most recent episode of Skeptoid to the manufactured Shakespeare “authorship controversy.” The last time he discussed Shakespeare, I applauded his conclusions but questioned some of his premises (see here). Again, I find myself in agreement with his conclusion (Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare), but feel the need to quibble with some of his statements.

To begin with, Dunning says that Shakespeare

overcame his ordinary middle-class station and relative lack of formal education to compete with the finest noble playwrights of the day, and trump them all.

Shakespeare denialists claim that Shakespeare had no formal education at all because the records from Stratford’s grammar school do not survive, but Shakespeare scholars point out that Shakespeare would have been eligible to attend the grammar school for free because of his father’s position. If he did indeed attend grammar school, his formal education would have been perfectly adequate. According to Shakespeare scholar James Shapiro,

Scholars have exhaustively reconstructed the curriculum in Elizabethan grammar schools and have shown that what Shakespeare…would have learned there…was roughly equivalent to a university degree today, with a better facility in Latin than that of a typical classics major.” (Contested Will, p. 276)

Dunning’s statement makes it sound as if most of Shakespeare’s colleagues/competitors were noble and university educated. While some did have elevated connections (such as Shakespeare’s collaborator John Fletcher), few if any writers for the public stage held noble titles (this fact is important to Shakespeare denialists). Christopher Marlowe, who was much more famous than Shakespeare during his life, was the son of a shoemaker (Shakespeare’s father was a glover), although Marlowe did receive Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from Cambridge. Ben Jonson, who famously said that Shakespeare had “small Latin and less Greek,” was the stepson of a bricklayer and, like Shakespeare, a grammar school boy who never attended university. In other words, Shakespeare’s grammar school education and middle-class origins were not that unusual among playwrights of his time.

In arguing that Shakespeare was not, as Shakespeare denialists claim, illiterate, Dunning says:

There are only seven surviving signatures of his, and oddly, some are spelled differently from one another, and all appear to be nearly illegible scrawls…. The style of writing common in Shakespeare’s time, known as secretary hand, often incorporated breviograms, shortened forms of words. Whether the various spellings of Shakespeare’s signatures are breviograms or the result of illiteracy or simple laziness, can’t be known. It does not prove that Shakespeare the man was different from Shakespeare the author.

Shakespeare did write in secretary hand which can be very difficult to read if one is not used to it. Some of Shakespeare’s signatures probably are intentionally shortened, but Dunning’s suggestion that the variation in spelling is a result of breviograms, illiteracy or laziness is a false dichotomy (trichotomy?). Spelling wasn’t standardized in Shakespeare’s day. He was not the only one who varied the spelling of his name. In Roland Emmerich’s video “proving” that Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare, he uses Shakespeare’s supposedly poor handwriting and spelling to suggest Shakespeare was nearly illiterate. He compares Shakespeare’s signatures to a single signature each of Francis Bacon, Ben Jonson and Christopher Marlowe. Bacon and Jonson were using italic hand, which is more familiar to us, so naturally they appear clearer. Marlowe did use secretary hand, and it’s really not that much clearer than Shakespeare’s. It should also be noted that in this, the only known signature of Marlowe, he spelled his name “Marley.”

Curiously, Dunning mentions seven Shakespeare signatures. Six signatures are generally accepted: one from a legal deposition, two related to the Blackfriars Theater and three from Shakespeare’s will (signed a month before his death). Presumably the seventh signature is the one which appears on a copy of William Lambarde’s Archaionomia. This signature is not universally accepted, but many scholars believe it is likely to be genuine. If it is genuine, it is important because it is in a book, which would mean that Shakespeare denialists could no longer claim that Shakespeare didn’t own any books.

Even more important is Hand D in the handwritten copy of the play Sir Thomas More. Hand D resembles Shakespeare’s signatures and the passage resembles Shakespeare’s style and contains spellings that are typical of him. Hand D is an authorial hand rather than a scribal hand–bits have been crossed out and other bits have been inserted. Again, not all scholars accept that Hand D is Shakespeare, but most agree that it is likely his work and his handwriting. If Hand D is Shakespeare’s handwriting, it destroys the denialists’ argument.

Dunning correctly notes that it is not unusual that no letters have survived in Shakespeare’s hand (though there is one letter to him, written by his future son-in-law, asking to borrow a rather large sum of money. It is not known whether the letter was ever actually sent). Dunning is, however, incorrect in saying that we don’t know very much about Shakespeare. We actually know a fair amount: it’s just not that interesting–most of it concerns business and legal matters. You know, the kind of documents that tend to survive because they are official.

Dunning also incorrectly compares what we know of Shakespeare to what we know of Marlowe:

Marlowe is well-documented largely because he was often in trouble with the law and was also murdered.

It is certainly true that Marlowe had a genius for getting into trouble. It is also true that he was killed. However, most of what we “know” about Marlowe actually raises more questions that it answers. Many things were said about him. How many of those things are true is a bit of a mystery. For instance, in the years after Marlowe’s death, several accounts were given of his death. Some were wrong. Gabriel Harvey suggested that he died of plague; Francis Meres said that he was “stabbed to death by a bawdy servingman, a rival of his in his lewd love” (see here).

In discussing the claims for the Earl of Oxford as the real author, Dunning says,

It’s well known that de Vere’s family did participate in the publication of Shakespeare’s works after his death, called the First Folio.

I was shocked and embarrassed that I did not know this well-known fact. Actually, it appears to be Oxfordian propaganda. The argument is as follows: the First Folio was dedicated to William Herbert, third Earl of Pembroke, and his brother Philip Herbert, first Earl of Montgomery (and later fourth Earl of Pembroke). Montgomery married one of Oxford’s daughters and Pembroke was briefly engaged to another. That’s it. That’s the de Vere family connection. The Herberts came from a very literary family–many members were writers and most were patrons of the arts. One Oxfordian site adds another supposed connection to Oxford:

The First Folio publication was a de Vere family affair with Oxford’s other son-in-law, William Stanley, Earl of Derby, being a highly literary man with his own company of players, quite possibly taking a hand in the preparation of the collected plays of his father-in-law.

That’s clearly just a made-up connection. The Herbert connection isn’t much better. And if Oxford’s sons-in-law (and almost-son-in-law) were behind the publication, why weren’t all the plays in the First Folio based on Oxford’s own handwritten copies instead of the mish-mash of sources the compilers actually used? Denialist propaganda should not be repeated as fact.

Dunning ends by suggesting that new techniques of computational analysis “prove” that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare:

But let us not speculate. It turns out that technology finally did evolve to the point where we’ve been able to conclusively exclude all of these nominees, Edward de Vere the Earl of Oxford included, as having written Shakespeare’s works. Computational stylistics is a branch of computer science in which a “literary fingerprint” can be determined for any author, based on computational analysis of his writing. As detailed in their 2009 book, Shakespeare, Computers, and the Mystery of Authorship, professors Arthur Kinney and Hugh Craig proved during their 2006 research at the University of Massachusetts Amherst that Shakespeare was the author of his own works, and nobody else. These computational techniques also made it possible to determine which plays influenced which later authors, and many other subtleties that escape conventional study of the texts. Hollywood movies to the contrary, we now know for a fact that neither de Vere of Oxford nor anyone else deserves credit for William Shakespeare’s life’s work.

First of all, computer analysis is not as cut and dried as Dunning suggests. Scholars have already quibbled with arguments made in some of the articles in the collection edited by Kinney and Craig. Other authors who have used computer analysis to identify Shakespearean works have had to admit errors. Donald W. Foster had argued that Shakespeare wrote a funeral elegy for a man named William Peter (“A Funeral Elegy,” Norton Shakespeare, pp. 3303-3305). He has since admitted that his attribution was premature. The poem may have been written by John Ford. (In a comment on a previous post, I mentioned Foster’s attribution, but was not aware at the time that he had recanted).

More importantly, there is no way such analysis could prove that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare. It can very strongly suggest that Christopher Marlowe and Francis Bacon didn’t. But to prove Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare, one would have to compare Shakespeare’s disputed works (all of them, from the point of view of denialists) to his acknowledged works (none, again from the point of view of denialists). The argument that the Hand D passage matches the characteristics of the rest of the works attributed to Shakespeare is the strongest argument, but it is hardly conclusive. At least it’s hardly conclusive IF you don’t believe the mountain of documentary evidence that suggests that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare. It also doesn’t really eliminate Oxford because many of the works attributed to Oxford are of questionable authorship, and I believe that all of them are considered juvenilia.

Perhaps one of the most frustrating aspect of the episode is that Dunning does not include James Shapiro’s excellent book, Contested Will among his references.



Dawson, Giles E. “A Seventh Signature for Shakespeare.” Shakespeare Quarterly 43 (1992): 72-79.

Dunning, Brian. “Finding Shakespeare.” Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, Inc., 18 Oct 2011. Web. 18 Oct 2011. <;.

Evans, G. Blakemore, text. ed. The Riverside Shakespeare. Boston, Houghton, 1974.

Greenblatt, Stephen, gen. ed. The Norton Shakespeare. New York: Norton, 1997.

Nicholl, Charles. The Reckoning: The Murder of Christopher Marlowe. London: Jonathan Cape, 1992.

Shapiro, James. Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010.


Shakespeare Denialism: The Roland Emmerich Study Guide

October 17, 2011

The very first post on this-here blog was inspired by news of the upcoming Roland Emmerich film, Anonymous, an action-packed, incest-filled, conspiracy-fueled Elizabethan thriller that suggests that Edward de Vere was the real author of the works attributed to Shakespeare. He was also the son of Elizabeth I. He was also her lover. Ew.

If you have been waiting with bated breath for the release, your breathing will soon return to normal: Anonymous will be released later this month. Huzzah.

While some skeptics have been having conniptions about the film, others have wondered what the big deal is. After all, it’s just a movie. Of course, so was Oliver Stone’s JFK, but like Anonymous, it was also propaganda for a genuine conspiracy theory. Anonymous features several prominent Shakespeare denialists, like Derek Jacobi and Mark Rylance, who will no doubt use the film’s release to promote their conspiracy theories, and since they sound more intelligent and less crazy than other conspiracists, like 9/11 truther Charlie Sheen, people will perhaps pay attention to them. After all, they’re Just Asking Questions.

Promotional materials for the film are also in the form of denialist propaganda. Emmerich has produced a video in which he presents ten reasons to doubt Shakespeare’s authorship. Most of his reasons are based on arguments from ignorance and have been refuted repeatedly (no letters, no school records, no mention of his works in the will, etc.). He also mentions that in an early illustration (1656) of Shakespeare’s monument in Stratford, Shakespeare appeared to be holding a bag of grain rather than a quill and parchment. Emmerich implies that the monument was changed to suggest that Shakespeare was a writer. He doesn’t consider the possibility that the illustration was just inaccurate.

For a number of reasons, this argument seems stupid. Even if Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare, by the time the monument was built (sometime between Shakespeare’s death in 1616 and the publication of the First Folio in 1623), Shakespeare was quite widely known for writing Shakespeare. Portraying him as a writer made sense. Portraying him holding a sack of grain seems a bit silly, unless it was meant to be an oh-so-subtle hint by someone in the know. Moreover, when the monument was actually restored in the eighteenth century, it was noted that the bust and the cushion (which supports Shakespeare’s hands, the quill and the parchment) were made from a “single piece of limestone.” The alteration would involve changing the sack to a cushion and entirely recarving Shakespeare’s lower arms–at a minimum. That’s a clever bit of alteration.

Despite the stale and silly nature of the arguments, Youyoung Lee of the Huffington Post finds them “powerful” and says that Emmerich “makes some pretty solid points.” Apparently screenwriter John Orloff found that praise insufficient and objected to Lee’s use of the term “urban legend.” The Huffington Post kindly printed his objection, which consists entirely of false appeals to authority. It should be noted that none of the authorities he pompously cites are or were Shakespeare scholars.

But wait: there’s more.  The film’s producers and educational marketing firm Young Minds Inspired (more here) have produced a study guide to accompany the film.* The “target audience” is “students in English literature, theater and British history classes.” It has been sent to college instructors who have been encouraged to copy the brochure and share it with colleagues. The first objective of the guide is “to encourage critical thinking by challenging students to examine the theories about the authorship of Shakespeare’s works and to formulate their own opinions.” That sounds great, but, of course, it’s just more JAQing off. While feigning objectivity, the brochure supports Shakespeare denialism.

The brochure says that authorship question has intrigued academics and inspired debate among experts for centuries. It doesn’t mention that there is, in fact, no real debate among actual experts. The denialist slant of the brochure is quite clear on the “References and Resources” page, which overwhelmingly favors Oxford-as-Shakespeare sources and gives scant attention to real Shakespeare scholars, such as James Shapiro, author of Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare. The brochure authors toss Shakespeareans a couple of bones: Samuel Schoenbaum’s Shakespeare’s Lives and E. K. Chambers’ William Shakespeare: A Study of Facts and Problems. I wonder if they think the latter is a denialist work or assume readers will think that it is.

While it is infuriating that conspiracist propaganda is being marketed as study material it is equally outrageous that a film advertisement is being palmed off as an educational guide. In the section on “How to Use this Program,” teachers are assured that “It is not necessary to see the film to complete the activities,” yet all the pages but the first feature the words “Uncover the true genius of William Shakespeare. See Anonymous–in theaters October 28, 2011″ in big, red, all-cap letters at the bottom. The first page is headed “Anonymous” and the brochure is followed by an enormous poster for the film.

Furthermore, the instructions for the follow-up activity for Activity 2 begin, “After the students have seen Anonymous…” so it is necessary to see the film to complete Activity 2. The instructions for Activity 3 include the words “Before seeing the film Anonymous…,” so it’s necessary to see the film to complete Activity 3. There are only three activities.

So, no, Anonymous is NOT just a movie: it is a huge propaganda machine that wants desperately to sway viewers and students. Oh, and I know that this is nitpicky, but I don’t get the title. Perhaps I’ll understand after I (cringe) see the damned thing, but surely it should be Pseudonymous. I want to make the sequel, Anonymous 2. This blood-and-guts, sexy action romp will argue that Anonymous was not the real author of Beowulf.

[spoiler alert] The real author was…the Earl of Oxford, who, it transpires, was (is?) a time-traveling reptilian alien. I mean, he’d have to be, right? He’s connected to the royal family after all. [/spoiler alert].

*Bill Blakemore of provides an interesting analysis of the study guide.


Update: James Shapiro has written an article on the film for the New York Times.


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