Review of Shakespeare’s Beehive, Part 1

April 26, 2014

George Koppelman and Daniel Wechsler. Shakepeare’s Beehive: An Annotated Elizabethan Dictionary Comes to Light. New York: Axeltree Books, 2014. Kindle ed.

beehive-title

Last week, Shakespeare fans celebrated the Bard’s 450th birthday, and two New York antiquarian booksellers announced that they had discovered a copy of an Elizabethan dictionary annotated by the birthday boy.

In 2008, George Koppelman and Daniel Wechsler purchased a copy of the second edition of John Baret’s Alvearie, or Quadruple Dictionarie, containing four sundrie tongues: namelie English, Latine, Greeke and French on Ebay for over $4000. This copy was annotated in what Koppelman and Wechsler believe is a late Elizabethan or early Jacobean hand.

alvearie

Over the years, several scholars, particularly T. W. Baldwin (in William Shakespeare’s Small Latine and Lesse Greeke) have suggested that Shakespeare was probably familiar with and may have owned a copy of Baret’s Alvearie*, along with Thomas Cooper’s Thesaurus. Koppelman and Wechsler go one step farther: they believe Shakespeare owned their copy of the Alvearie and that the annotations are in his hand. If this were true, the volume would be of immeasurable value to Shakespeare scholars; in a more literal, monetary sense, it would also be of immeasurable value to Koppelman and Wechsler.

Baret defines each word or phrase in English, then provides the equivalents in Latin, French and Greek. He also includes quotations and aphorisms in all languages. The annotator has added two types of annotations. Koppelman and Wechsler call the first type “mute” and the second “spoken.” The mute annotations include underlined words and phrases, slash marks by major headwords, circles by subsidiary headwords, and other marks. The spoken annotations are additions: words and phrases as cross-references to other entries, corrections, or additional quotations and aphorisms, including biblical quotations in English.

On their website, shakespearesbeehive.com (free registration required), Koppelman and Wechsler have provided a zoomable digitized copy of the Alvearie, as well as a compilation of all the annotations. Regardless of the identity of the annotator, this is of huge value to scholars. A complete digitized copy is useful in itself, and the annotations provide valuable insights about how such a dictionary was used in the Early Modern period.

Why do Koppelman believe the annotator was Shakespeare, and how strong is their evidence? They present their case in their newly published book, also called Shakespeare’s Beehive, which they present as an (extremely) extended catalog description of the their copy of Baret.

Although I wrote my MA thesis on The Tempest, and Shakespeare was a test area on my Ph.D. written and oral exams, Shakespeare and Renaissance literature are not my primary areas of study. I am not an expert on paleography or textual studies. However, I know enough to be profoundly skeptical of Koppelman and Wechsler’s argument and deeply unimpressed by their evidence. Even before examining the evidence in detail, I noticed some red flags that caused me to question their methodology. In their introductory chapters, they are extremely defensive about arguments that no one, as far as I know, has actually made. Of course, when mounting an argument, it is necessary to anticipate possible objections, but Koppelman and Wechsler’s arguments have a strong whiff of straw about them.

For instance, Wechsler is quoted in several stories as saying that scholars “were extremely helpful giving advice, but it was also clear that they weren’t about to jeopardise their reputations with such a claim.” He and Koppelman make similar comments in their book. They even suggest that they won’t be taken seriously because they are booksellers, not scholars:

For two booksellers in Manhattan to purchase, out of the blue, a heavily annotated book from the library of all libraries, on Ebay… it’s understandable that no one would give that a chance.

Much the same thing is said by proponents of Bigfoot, Young Earth Creationism, psychics, Reiki, or any other fringe belief. Why don’t experts in the relevant field back the fringe-proponent up? Because they wouldn’t get tenure, they wouldn’t get published, they’d be mocked and ostracized, they’re in on it, they’re pawns of Big Whatever, they’re closed-minded, they don’t pay attention to amateurs.

But who are these scholars who won’t support Koppelman and Wechsler? They don’t say. In general, they have gotten sympathetic coverage, and scholars have been cautious but not dismissive. Stephen Greenblatt is quoted in the Sydney Morning Herald as saying, “It would reinforce, in a fascinating way, Shakespeare’s passion for language. We know that Shakespeare had an eye out for unusual words – but we have only limited knowledge of where he went to find them.” He adds, however, that he has “not had time to weigh the evidence.” Shakespeare scholars would love to find a copy of absolutely anything annotated by Shakespeare. Seriously, they would be absolutely giddy with delight over the Elizabethan equivalent of “roflmao” next to a dirty joke.

But just because they want something to be true doesn’t mean it is true. Good scholars are cautious. Good scholars do not accept an extraordinary claim within days of its announcement. Michael Witmore and Heather Wolfe of the Folger Shakespeare Library responded to Koppelman and Wechsler’s announcement:

Even the most skeptical scholar would be thrilled to find a new piece of documentary evidence about William Shakespeare. Scholars, however, will only support the identification of Shakespeare as annotator if they feel it would be unreasonable to doubt that identification. This is a fairly high evidentiary standard, since it requires on to treat skeptically the idea that this handwriting is Shakespeare’s and to seek out counterexamples that might prove it false.

This is exactly how scholars in any field should respond to an extraordinary claim. They go on to explain the research methods that will likely be used to assess Koppelman and Wechlser’s claims. These are rigorous and time-consuming, as they should be. Such a high evidentiary bar diminishes the possibility of confirmation bias and cherry picking.

Koppelman and Wechsler also use straw man arguments when discussing the the handwriting of the annotator. The only universally accepted genuine examples of Shakespeare’s handwriting are six signatures on legal documents. All of the signatures are in Secretary hand. Other examples of handwriting that are sometimes attributed to Shakespeare–some other signatures, including signatures in books, and Hand D of the manuscript of the collaborative play Sir Thomas More–are also in Secretary hand. Most of the “spoken” annotations in the Alvearie (and almost all of the annotations in English) are in Italic script. As far as paleography is concerned, this is problematic, but not in the way Koppelman and Wechsler suggest. They argue at length against the suggestion that Shakespeare couldn’t possibly have been capable of writing in Italic script. They don’t, however, quote or cite anyone who has actually made this argument.

They even compare this supposed insistence on Shakespeare’s exclusive use of Secretary hand with those who deny Shakespeare’s authorship:

The overriding question…is whether Shakespeare should forever be categorically denied an ability to use both scripts based principally on his Stratford background. Does this not seem oddly in perverse harmony with someone who argues that a provincial boy from Stratford as author is incompatible with one of the great speeches in, say, Henry V?

I suppose it is possible that scholars have argued that Shakespeare couldn’t have ever used Italic script because of his humble background, but Koppelman and Wechsler provide no evidence that this is so. The association between conventional scholars and Shakespeare-deniers is particularly ironic, since Shakespeare-deniers rely, to a large extent, on confirmation bias and cherry-picked evidence. As we shall see, these are techniques at which Koppelman and Wechsler also excel.

This straw man argument also disguises the real paleographic problem: it is very difficult to compare two different styles of handwriting. With only six rather variable signatures to use as comparison, study of Shakespeare’s handwriting is ridiculously difficult anyway. But Koppelman and Wechsler skirt the issue by focusing on irrelevancies and side issues. They lament, for instance, that people (presumably scholars) will demand scientific proof. They also hint that the general public may be more sympathetic:

Understandably, things bend heavily, even necessarily, under the burden of proof in the quest for any namable [sic] annotator, because we live in an age where an enormous amount of trust is placed in the ability to test and prove something scientifically. In the absence of scientific proof, evidence – no matter the strength – is often deemed unreliable, regardless of how it registers in the court of public opinion. It follows, then, that an inability to precisely test ink from the Elizabethan period will make for a wobbly case in the quest for answers as to the exact age of the annotations in our Baret, let alone to the still more complicated determination of who has added the ink to the pages.

I hardly know where to begin. There is the idea that “scientific proof” is somehow different from–and more definitive than–“evidence.” When a formal distinction is made between “proof” and “evidence,” mathematics and law usually get custody of “proof.” Scientific conclusions–no matter the strength of the evidence–are always provisional. In addition, why would anyone expect “scientific proof” when the relevant field is not a science? One could certainly make the case that the methods and evidence used in the Humanities are often unfairly denigrated in comparison to those used in the sciences, but that is not the issue here.

Scientific testing of the ink would only be relevant if the annotations were suspected forgeries. Again, this does not seem to be the case. Even so, scientific testing would be of limited value–it could show a forger used ink not available during the Renaissance, but precise dating of the ink would be much trickier. There are many non-scientific methods for dating texts, manuscripts, literary works, and handwriting. They have been around for ages and have become refined over time. They do not rely on scientific testing. They are not always 100% reliable, but they work fairly well. In some cases they can provide a narrower date than C14 dating, and they are less destructive. Again, this focus on science is a straw man.

The real issue is the difficulty of comparing Shakespeare’s hand to the annotator’s hand. Because of the different scripts, the comparison may be impossible. More accurately, it may be possible to say with a degree of certainty that Shakespeare did not write the annotations, but the chances are vanishingly small that an examination of the writing will suggest the likelihood that Shakespeare is the annotator.

Let’s consider why the accepted signatures are accepted: they are on official legal documents. That’s pretty much it. It’s the nature of the documents that assures authenticity. They form a pathetically small and poor sample for handwriting comparison. No other alleged example of Shakespeare’s handwriting has been accepted based on a comparison with the signatures. Let us look for a moment at Hand D in Sir Thomas More. For many years, many scholars have suggested that this handwritten passage is the work of Shakespeare: that it matches his style and some of his idiosyncratic spellings, and that it is consistent with his handwriting. The corrections suggest that it is an authorial hand: if Shakespeare is the author, it is his hand; if it is his hand, Shakespeare is the author.

Hand D has been studied and studied and studied. It has been subjected to two computational stylometric studies (that’s sciencey). One, by Hugh Craig and Arthur Kinney, concluded that it was the work of Shakespeare; the other, by Ward E. Elliott and Robert J. Valenza of the Claremont Shakespeare Clinic, concluded that it was not.** All that study, and the jury is still out.

That’s how high the evidentiary bar is. That is how high it should be. Koppelman and Wechsler’s straw man arguments attempt to lower the bar, to trump objections that haven’t even been made yet. Bias in favor of science or against amateur booksellers doesn’t matter. Evidence matters. In my next post, we will examine the evidence.

*Latin for beehive. His students, like bees, went off to find the nectar of words and then returned to him with the fruits of their labor.

**For a discussion of the stylometric studies, see MacDonald P. Jackson, “Authorship and the evidence of stylometric,” in Shakespeare beyond Doubt: Evidence, Argument, Controversy, ed. Paul Edmondson and Stanley Wells. Cambridge UP, 2013.

ES

Note: this essay is cross-posted at Skepticality.


Yes, Virginia, There Is a Dragon in Beowulf: Review of When They Severed Earth from Sky

January 3, 2013

In 1988, folklorist Paul Barber published an excellent book about vampire belief, Vampires, Burial, and Death: Folklore and Reality. In it he posits that historical belief in vampires and revenants depended, at least in part, on ignorance of the ways illness is transmitted and the ways dead bodies can decay. In looking at accounts of vampires, he separates actual observation of the bodies of alleged vampires from interpretations based on observation. For instance, according to the official report on suspected vampire Peter Plogojowitz:

Not without astonishment, I saw some fresh blood in his mouth, which, according to the common observation, he had sucked from the people killed by him. (Barber’s translation, Vampires 6)

The blood–or reddish liquid–is an actual observation. The assumption that the blood comes from the vampire’s victims is an interpretation of the physical evidence. This method works very well when Barber is discussing eye-witness accounts. If there is a weakness to the book, it is a tendency to treat all accounts equally: Barber applies the same method to literary works as he does for official accounts. For example, he makes several references to draugar, the undead of Old Norse sagas, particularly Glámr, an especially nasty draugr who appears in Grettis saga:

[While the appearance of Glam's corpse resembles that of vampires, his] activities have little in common with the vampire, because he robs people not of their blood but of their consciousness and their sanity, merely by appearing, diurnally as well as nocturnally, in their presence. Note the the disparity between the assertion and the evidence: we are told that “terrible things happened,” but they consist solely of someone walking about or beating his heels against a roof. (Vampires 85)

This is an oddly cherry-picked account of Glam’s activities. He also kills both animals and people, sometimes breaking every bone in their bodies. The battle between Glam and the protagonist Grettir is described at some length and is very similar to the fight between Beowulf and Grendel. Before Grettir cuts off Glam’s head and burns his body, Glam makes a speech, cursing Grettir. There is no naturalistic explanation for this corpse’s behavior, and it can’t be dismissed as an interpretation of physical evidence. Glam’s activity is integral to the story and crucial to the formation and understanding of Grettir’s character.

Sadly, this minor flaw has become the foundation of When They Severed Earth from Sky: How the Human Mind Shapes Myth, co-written by Barber and his wife, archeologist and linguist Elizabeth Wayland Barber. This book has garnered a certain amount of interest among skeptics: Michael Shermer reviewed it for American Scientist and invited Wayland Barber to speak as part of the Skeptics Society’s Distinguished Speakers Lecture Series. According to the blurb on the lecture’s video:

How could anyone think that mortals like Perseus, Beowulf, and St. George actually fought dragons, since dragons don’t exist? Strange though they sound, however, these “myths” did not begin as fiction. Barber shows that myths originally transmitted real information about real events and observations, preserving the information sometimes for millennia within nonliterate societies.

Considering their focus on oral cultures, the very short-shrift the Barbers give to some of the most important scholars of oral tradition is somewhat disturbing. Neither Walter Ong nor his extremely influential book Orality and Literacy merit a mention. Nor do Eric A. Havelock or John Miles Foley. Even Milman Parry and Alfred Lord receive only the briefest of mentions, and Lord’s monumentally important work, The Singer of Tales, is not mentioned at all. On the other hand, they seriously cite other works of a slightly more fringey nature, such as Hamlet’s Mill, by Giorgio de Santillana and Hertha von Dechend.

In seeking to find explanations for mythological stories in natural phenomena or real events, they seem to give credence to highly questionable tales. Take, for instance, their discussion of the Golden Calf: “What’s that all about? Why a calf?” (Barber and Barber, chap. 3). They gently nudge us toward the correct answer through the Socratic method:

Where had the Children of Israel been living? In Egypt, of course–the country from which they were escaping after centuries of servitude. One can reasonably conjecture that in all that time they had absorbed something of their captors’ culture. (Barber and Barber, chap. 3)

The Golden Calf, they suggest, derives from the Egyptian conception of the sky as a giant cow-goddess, “which could well have been known by folk who had lived in ancient Egypt for centuries. . . . In worshipping [sic] a Golden Calf at dawn, the Children of Israel would simply be reverting to Egyptian sun-worship: they were probably relieved that the sun finally came up, after all that thundering during the night” (Barber and Barber, chap. 3).

They seem to be suggesting that the story of the Exodus is historically true to some significant degree: the Children of Israel were kept enslaved in Egypt; they escaped during a time of dark portents; they wandered in the desert, and, in difficult times, they began to worship the deities of their captors.

There’s just one teeny-tiny problem with this: the stunning lack of documentary, historical or archeological evidence that a large number of Israelites were enslaved in Egypt or that they wandered through the desert for forty years.

The Barbers make a number of dubious arguments (flood stories are really about the precession of the equinoxes), and, even when there may be some truth to their theories, their interpretations are monolithic and reductive, suggesting that there is a single source for a given myth, a single answer to a complex question.

In the last chapter, they discuss fire-breathing dragons, including the one in Beowulf. According to the Barbers, there is no dragon in Beowulf. I imagine that this would come as rather a shock to the poet, who went to such great pains to tell us about the dragon. The Barbers summarize the story and then use “the stripping procedure,” isolating actual “observations” and removing the “explanations,” as Paul Barber does in his vampire book. But how do you decide which are actual observations and which are added explanations in a poem? Apparently, you remove anything that doesn’t agree with your theory. Here are the “observations” that are left after they’ve stripped away the “explanations”:

(1) Someone steals a cup from an old barrow.
(2)  Fire erupts from the barrow and spreads.
(3) Near the stone entrance, our hero stabs blindly at the source of flames while shielding himself (ineffectively) from them.
(4) It smells bad.
(5) People stab deeper, and eventually the flame goes out.
(6) Inside the barrow is treasure but no trace of a dragon’s body. (Barber and Barber, chap. 18)

One might argue that the Barbers themselves are adding “explanations” when they say that Beowulf stabbed “blindly,” and they have certainly left out a whole lot of detail. Why, they’ve left out an entire dragon.

They argue that the “dragon” is merely ignited gases produced by decomposition in a tomb that had been sealed until broken into by a thief:

We don’t know the dragon’s appearance, however, because while it’s alive all you can see is flame and once the fire is out there is nothing left. No one ever saw it–they saw only flames and smelled a bad smell. The dragon must be a figment of Explanation: a Willer invisible except for its fiery exhalations, postulated to explain the presence of that barrier of flames. (Barber and Barber, chap. 18)

Except that’s not exactly true. The dragon is not visually described in detail, but it is described. It is referred to several times as coiled (hringbogan, l. 2561, coiled creature; ða se wyrm gebeah/snude tosomne, ll. 2567b-2568a, then the worm quickly coiled itself together; Gewat ða byrnende gebogen scriðan,/to geschipe scyndan, ll. 2569-2570, then, coiled in burning, it went gliding, rushed to its fate).

The Barbers’ argument rests, to a large degree, on the argument that the dragon’s body seems to disappear–that it is nowhere to be seen when Wiglaf, Beowulf’s young kinsmen who came to Beowulf’s assistance in the battle, inspects the hoard:

                        Næs ðæs wyrmes þær

onsyn ænig,     ac hyne ecg fornam. (ll. 2771b-2772)

As they translate it, “not of the Worm was there any sign, for him the [blade's] edge had destroyed.” In slightly simpler language: “There was no sight of the worm there, for the sword had carried him off.” Does this mean the corpse had disappeared? Does it mean there never was a dragon. Well, according to the Barbers,

The storykeepers are so sure that a tangible creature must have existed that, four hundred lines later, the poet hedges his bets by explaining the lack of dragon bones a second and contradictory way. When the frightened retainers returned, he says, they pillaged the mound, “shoved the dragon, the Worm, over the cliff, let the wave take–the flood enfold–the guardian of the treasure” [ll. 3131-3133] then carried the dead king to his pyre. (Barber and Barber, chap. 18)

So, that would be a “no.” The poem mentions the corpse and what happens to it. Okay, so we have two passages: one says there’s no dragon body; the other says there is. The Barbers identify this as a contradiction and explain the latter passage as “explanation,” an interpretation rather than an observation. And, of course, they are the arbiters of which is which. Now no one claims that Beowulf is free of inconsistencies or contradictions, but I’m not really sure this is a good example. Let’s look at another passage:

                        Bona swylce læg,

egeslic eorðdraca     ealdre bereafod,

bealwe gebæded.     Beahhordum leng

wyrm wohbogen     wealdan ne moste,

ac him irenna     ecga fornamon,

hearde heaðoscerpe     homera lafe,

þæt se widfloga     wundum stille

hreas on hrusan     hordærne neah.

Nalles æfter lyfte     lacende hwearf

middelnihtum,     maðmæhta wlonc

ansyn ywde,     ac he eorðan gefeoll

for ðæs hildfruman     hondgeweorce. (ll. 2824b-2835)

[Beowulf's] slayer also lay dead, the terrible earth-dragon, bereft of life, oppressed by evil. The coiled worm could no longer control the ring-hoard, for iron edges had carried him off, hard battle-sharp remnant of hammers, so that the far-flyer, stilled by wounds, fell on the ground near the hoard. Not at all did he go flying through the air in the middle of the night, glorying in treasures, showing his form, but rather, he fell to the earth on account of the handiwork of the war-chief.

For three hundred years, no one could inspect the hoard, in part because no one knew it was there, but also because there was a big old dragon lying on it. Wiglaf, however, is able to examine the hoard and bring back selected items to show the dying Beowulf because the two of them had killed the dragon. The passage above says that the dragon fell dead near the hoard. Near it, not on it. Wiglaf can inspect the hoard because the dragon is lying dead nearby. He is not on the hoard as he had been for the last three hundred years.

The passage above makes it quite clear that there is a dead dragon lying around: bereft of life, it rests in peace. It’s shuffled off this mortal coil. It’s run down the curtain and joined the choir invisible. This is an ex-dragon!

Is it possible that marsh gases from sealed graves played a role in the evolution of the fire-breathing dragon? Maybe, but I think it’s clear that there is more to the story than this. More importantly though, the Barbers “strip down” Beowulf to a point that it is no longer Beowulf. They are not simply removing interpretation from observation, as Paul Barber did in his examination of official accounts of vampire exhumations. They are stripping away anything that doesn’t fit their theory and overemphasizing anything that they think does support their ideas. They are cherry-picking and, to a large extent, they are telling their own story, not the one the Anglo-Saxon poet told.

I recently wrote about the ways some Young Earth Creationists interpret the monsters in Beowulf to support their worldview. What the Barbers are doing seems precious little better. Unlike the Creationists, though, they are real scholars–they should do better.

ES

References:

Barber, Elizabeth Wayland and Paul T. When They Severed Earth from Sky: How the Human Mind Shapes Myth. Princeton UP, 2004. Kindle edition. No page numbers.

Barber, Elizabeth Wayland. When They Severed Earth from Sky: How the Human Mind Shapes Myth. Skeptics Society Distinguished Speakers Lecture Series, California Institute of Technology, Mar. 6, 2005. DVD.

Barber, Paul. Vampires, Burial, and Death: Folklore and Reality. New Haven: Yale UP, 1988.

Klaeber’s Beowulf and the Fight and Finnsburg. 4th ed. ed. R. D. Fulk, Robert E. Bjork, and John D. Niles. U of Toronto P, 2008. All translations are mine, except where indicated.

Siebert, Eve. “Monsters and Dragons and Dinosaurs, Oh My: Creationist Interpretations of Beowulf.” Skeptical Inquirer Jan./Feb. 2013.


Video Proof of Our TAM Panel!

September 27, 2012

For those of you who were skeptical that the James Randi Educational Foundation would allow Bob and me to appear on a panel at The Amazing Meeting 2012, we have evidence!


Jesus H. Christ (Mrs.)

September 27, 2012

Adapted from my segment on Virtual Skeptics. That’s Virtual Skeptics, available now for all your skeptical needs on YouTube or virtualskeptics.com.

Last week, Karen L. King, the Hollis Professor of Divinity at Harvard Divinity School, dropped a bombshell at the tenth annual International Congress of Coptic Studies in Rome: she had found Mrs Jesus.

Specifically, she had studied a small, roughly rectangular scrap of papyrus that contains a Sahidic Coptic text. The fragment is torn on the top, bottom, left and right, so it is difficult if not impossible to get a good idea of the entire context of the passage. The one thing that got people’s attention, though, is the phrase, “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife…'” Jesus also says that a woman, possibly the wife, will be able to be his disciple. He also mentions his mother and a woman named Mary, although it is not entirely clear if “Mary” refers to the wife, his mother or another woman. Although it is common in Christian texts to refer to the Church as Jesus’ wife, the personal context of the passage makes a literal interpretation of “my wife” more likely.  According to King, “The meaning…’my wife’ is unequivocal; the word can only have this meaning. Given that Jesus is the speaker, the possessive article indicates that he is speaking of his wife” (King 18).*

Oh. My. Married. God! The Da Vinci Code was right!

Hang on a sec. First, The Da Vinci Code was not right. Not in any world. Jesus and Mrs. Jesus, YHWH and Asherah, Buddha and Buddhessa, the Vishnus,  Zeus and Hera, Odin and Frigg could all come down from on high and proclaim in a variety of languages that The Da Vinci Code was right, but that still wouldn’t make it right: it would just prove that those gods are fallible and unworthy of worship. Such a declaration would immediately remove a god from the God Stakes.

More importantly, while King, who is not herself a papyrologist or Coptic linguist,** admits that “Coptic paleography is notoriously difficult to date” (8), she places the handwriting of the papyrus in the second half of the fourth century and suggests that the original (in Greek, presumably) was probably written in the second half of the second century (based on similarities to the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Mary and the Gospel of the Egyptians. So, assuming the fragment is authentic and assuming these dates are correct, the fragment is relatively late, and there is no particular reason to assume that it represents The Truth.™

King calls the fragment The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife, even though she admits that there is no clear evidence that the work is a gospel (not enough text survives to determine genre); there is no indication that Mrs. Jesus is the putative or pseudonymous author; and there is no evidence that she is even the primary subject of the work. King also uses the words “recto” and “verso” in a way that strikes me as nonstandard. Usually those terms  indicate (respecitively) the front and back of a leaf from a codex. Here it is not even clear that the work comes from a codex, and even if it does, the paucity of text and the damage to one side makes it impossible to determine which side comes first. For King, “recto” means “along the fibers” and “verso” means “against the fibers.”

The provenance of the fragment is murky at best. The owner has chosen to remain anonymous, although he or she apparently also owns a 2nd- to 4th-century fragment of the Gospel of John in Coptic. This fragment came from the same batch of Coptic and Greek papyri as the “Take my wife” fragment (King 2). Where these fragments came from originally, no one knows. The anonymity of the owner and the murkiness of the provenance raise concerns that the fragment could have come from the illicit antiquities trade.

King makes several arguments in favor of the fragment’s authenticity. She notes that the papyrus seems to be genuinely old but admits that it is possible to acquire blank scraps of ancient papyrus. However, she believes that the condition of the ink argues for authenticity: it is badly worn and in some places illegible. The “verso” is particularly badly damaged, with only a few recoverable words. There are also minute traces of ink at the edges of the fragment, suggesting that the text was cut off from a larger original. Where the papyrus is damaged, the ink has faded or disappeared. King argues that if the fragment were a modern forgery on old papyrus, we would expect to see the damaged areas filled with ink.

The ink will be subjected to non-destructive tests. These will not provide a definitive date but should show if the ink is consistent with that of other ancient papyri. A more definitive test, such as Carbon 14, cannot be used because that would destroy too much of the tiny fragment.

On the other hand, the references to “my wife,” “Mary” and a female apostle seem almost too good to be true. It’s not just Da Vinci Code fans who are hungry for this kind of evidence. Perfectly normal, literate people have become interested in the gnostic gospels that suggest the crucial role women played in some sects of the early church. References to an intimate if not necessarily sexual relationship between Jesus and Mary have sparked a great deal of interest among feminist bible scholars and Christian women. And, boy howdy! this tiny, tiny fragment hits all the sweet spots, without containing a single complete sentence.*** Several other religious artifacts that seemed to good to be true, such as the James ossuary and the Jordan lead codices, were rather quickly declared likely forgeries.

The Gosple of Jesus’s Old Lady appears to be headed in the same direction. In the peer review of King’s article, two of the three readers questioned the fragment’s authenticity, and King’s article shows that there are anomalies, such as non-standard grammatical forms. King defends these by reference to the Gospel of Thomas, but its similarity to that text may be problematic. Within days of the momentous announcement, New Testament scholar Francis B. Watson of Durham University argued that the Gospel of Jesus’s Main Squeeze was cobbled together from bits and pieces of the Coptic Gospel of Thomas. While he makes a compelling case, it is difficult to judge, without knowing Coptic, whether the similarities result from a modern forger lifting scraps from Thomas, or whether, perhaps, the two works merely share verbal parallels.

Many of the scholars at the Coptic conference where King revealed the fragment have also questioned its authenticity, suggesting that neither the handwriting nor the grammar looks right. Indeed, the backlash has been so immediate and so widespread that the Harvard Theological Review has walked back its commitment to publish the article in the January edition.  On Friday, one of the co-editors said that they had only “provisionally” accepted the article for publication, pending the results of scientific tests and “further reports from Coptic papyrologists and grammarians.”

So, it seems King’s announcement may have been premature, but she notes that she was looking for comment and criticism. In the draft of her article, she freely mentions the reservations of her readers. The media reaction to her announcement, however, has been predictable. Headlines scream that there is new evidence that Jesus had a wife or that King claims Jesus was married. Neither of these statements is true. It is well-known that early Christians held widely diverse views, even about Jesus’s nature (was he fully divine, fully human, or both?). The fragment doesn’t provide evidence that Jesus had a wife; if it is authentic, it merely provides evidence that some early Christians thought he had a wife, a view that doesn’t come as much of a surprise to scholars who study the early church.

A minority of Christians has reacted predictably as well, declaring the fragment inauthentic simply because they don’t like what it says. A commenter on a post called “Christian Scholars Not Fazed by ‘Gospel of Jesus’ Wife ‘” somewhat ironically declares:

This fragment is little more than another attempt to discredit Jesus and hence Christianity. Any impeachment upon Jesus’ character would be fuel to the devil which if this parchment were true would have been evident by now the devil would not have let an opportunity like that go begging. You [another commenter] blaspheme when you say that He was “kissing on Mary all the time” not  only is that not scriptural but it defames His character. For Jesus to have a  wife is to suggest that there was a passion within His nature which His Deity  could not overcome thus diminishing His ability to overcome for the world. He  would not have had the desires of a human in this regard because He came to do  the will of the Father which was to live a pure and sinless life and die as  God’s sacrifice for sin to atone for the sins of the world.

This is for you, “An Evangelist”:

References:

King, Karen L., with AnneMarie Luijendiik. “‘Jesus said to them, ‘My wife…”‘: A New Coptic Gospel Papyrus.” Draft. http://news.hds.harvard.edu/files/King_JesusSaidToThem_draft_0917.pdf

Watson, Francis. The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife: How a fake gospel fragment was composed.” Revised. http://markgoodacre.org/Watson.pdf

*The Coptic word can mean either “woman” or “wife;” the use of the possessive suggests that “wife” is the more appropriate reading.

**Stop laughing, Brian and Bob. You’re adult men with beards–it’s not that funny.

***This isn’t entirely fair. There are a couple of complete independent clauses (e.g., “Mary is [or is not] worthy of it”). They may or may not be complete sentences, but they aren’t complete thoughts.


This Week in Conspiracy (9 Sept 2012)

September 9, 2012

Apparently, the entire Internet did not appreciate the meaning of last week’s conspiracy-related snark. What I was trying to say was that you should not take conspiracy theories at face value because they are often unreliable. So I’m going to do another week, and I would very much appreciate it if the entire Internet would give me its full attention. Surely that is not too much to ask? Please try to keep up, Internet.

Nope.

Twit of the week:

Alex Jones, who just couldn’t be more of a scam artist:

My gut tells me #Gold is only going up. Call Midas Resources & Ask about the ‘Alex Jones Specials’ 800-fwe-f2w7 — Alex Jones (@RealAlexJones)

As Carl Sagan said in the reading I just assigned my students, “I try not to think with my gut.”

That’s what I have. We’ll have another episode of the Virtual Skeptics live on Wednesday night at 8:00PM Eastern. Keep your eyes here or watch for the #virtualskeptics hashtag.

RJB


A Brief Note on the Sokal Hoax

January 31, 2012

Yesterday, chum of the Skeptical Humanities site, Sharon Hill of the Doubtful News blog, posted a generally excellent piece about skeptics putting on hoaxes. Go read it. But be ye warned, she ventures like a deer into the barreling Mack track that is Skeptical Humanities when she says:

Many other hoaxes can be found on the Museum of Hoaxes website including the famous Sokal hoax where Alan Sokal sent in a paper full of gobbledegook words to a journal to see if it would be accepted. It was. He succeeded in dramatically demonstrating the decline in standards of humanities journals and embarrassing his field into reaction.

Well, not exactly. Sokal was a physicist, who was attempting to make a point about certain critics’ misuse of scientific terminology and a sort of absurd posturing that one often sees in the postmodern camps of literary theory.

In the schools of thought that concerned Alan Sokal, all language is basically a game and meaning is never absolute. He was prompted to perpetrate the hoax after he read Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science, by Gross and Levitt. In Higher Superstition, the authors, both working scientists, look at a lot of the big names in critical theory, including Lacan, Derrida, Kristeva, and others and show in excruciating detail how utterly unqualified to have an opinion about the scientific matters on which they publish. Most of what they find is gobbledegook, not unlike the science word-salad of newage gurus like Deepak Chopra and Ramtha, the guy from outer space who lives inside a lady.

Gross and Levitt notice that there are some similarities between the schools of thought that accrete around these academic gurus. In these cliques, you are generally rewarded for exaggerating the socially liberating potential of… whatever text you are looking at, whether it is Finnegans Wake or the back of a Happy Meal. (I’d rather read the back of a Happy Meal, to be honest.) They notice a particular ritual vocabulary, the presence of which seems to validate whatever is being said by the critical theorist, but which is impenetrable to mortals. And, lastly, they especially focus on the ways in which critical theory has presumed to critique not only the language in which science is communicated, but the content of the science itself, that is, that in the extreme forms of this criticism, all reality is merely a linguistic construct, often one that somehow offends the political principles that motivate the cultural critics. Therefore, the critic concludes: “Science is wrong. I just recreated the entire world. I’m pretty much a genius.”

You’d like to think that I’m joking, but take Sandra Harding’s closer to her book, The Science Question in Feminism:

“When we began theorizing our experience…we know our task would be a difficult though exciting one. But I doubt that in our wildest dreams we ever imagined that we would have to reinvent both science and theorizing itself to make sense of women’s social experience.”

So, this sort of self-important posturing by the scientifically illiterate does exist, and this is what Gross and Levitt demonstrated in spades in their book. How far can it go, wondered NYU physicist Alan Sokal?

Pretty far, it turns out.

Sokal submitted a paper to the postmodern critical journal, Social Text, called, “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity.” It’s a screamer. It makes no sense. The editors of Social Text accepted it without any changes (they had asked for some, but Sokal refused, and they ran it anyway). It seems they were excited to have a physicist speaking their language and trusted him.

Oops.

When “Transgressing the Boundaries” went to press, Sokal released yet another article in a different publication exposing the hoax. I was an undergraduate at the time and missed the controversy the first time around, but it was intense and still ignites fierce debate about the meaning of the hoax, academic honesty, and a whole range of other issues, many of which Sharon identifies with respect to other hoaxes. I discussed this hoax in a paper I gave in April, “The Topography of Ignorance: Science and Literary Theory.”

What is important for the purpose of this post is that the Sokal Hoax does not actually demonstrate what people have said that it demonstrates. A sample size of one does simply does not qualify all-inclusive statements like “[Sokal] succeeded in dramatically demonstrating the decline in standards of humanities journals….” He did, after all, only show that one journal of a specific academic bent, postmodern criticism, was WAY too uncritical about what it accepted, not that humanities journals are in decline.

The type of problem that Social Text represented back in the day (it is not often noted that the editors re-schooled themselves in science after the hoax was revealed, much to their credit) should not reflect on the myriad of other journals that use accumulated evidence and genuine expertise to make statements and meaningful arguments about history, linguistics and languages, literature, rhetoric, media, music, ethics, philosophy, theology, and all the other fields of study that fall under the purview of the humanities writ large. Yes, critical theory sometimes is wacky, but sometimes it’s sensible, even enjoyable. No, critical theory is not the humanities, though by the grandiose posturing that some practitioners have adopted, you might be tempted to think that they were.

This is the point of this blog, to show that there is more to the humanities than theorizing feminist algebra, whatever that is, and to remind our friends in the sciences that we are doing serious, scholarly work as well.

RJB


Skeptical Humanities Panel at Dragon*Con

January 15, 2012

We’ve been out of commission for a few weeks. I am working on another edition of the conspiracy theory round up this evening, but to tide you over, I’d like to direct you to a video that just went up, our Skepticism and Humanities panel at Dragon*Con, featuring Eve, Massimo Pigliucci, Jenna Marie Griffith, Joe Nickell and me.

Much thanks goes to Derek Colanduno, who runs the SkepTrack, and Mark Ditsler of Abrupt Media, who records every second of SkeptTrack in high-def on a minimum of five cameras.

RJB


Spot the Looney: A lot of bad evidence=good evidence

November 10, 2011

I just got a new tablet computer. Yay! Of course, that means I’ve been downloading free books like a crazy woman. One of the first ones I downloaded was J. Thomas Looney‘s “Shakespeare” Identified in Edward De Vere the Seventeenth Earl of Oxford (1920). You can read it here, if you really want to. Looney was not the first to suggest that someone other than Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare. Far from it; indeed, he borrows heavily from the Baconians. His work, however, is  the basis for the claims that Oxford wrote Shakespeare. That’s right, without Looney, there would have been no Anonymous.

A word about the man’s name: it’s pronounced “loney” (rhymes with “pony”), so I won’t tolerate any childish “loony” jokes. Well, all right, but no more than a dozen or so.

I’ve only gotten through the first chapter, but the Introduction was extremely instructive. In it, I found this gem:

I do not maintain that any single objection, to what for convenience sake we must call the Stratfordian view, afforded by itself sufficient grounds for regarding it as untenable; for most of these objections have been stoutly combated severally, by men whose opinions are entitled to respect. It was rather the cumulative effect of the many objections which, it appeared to me, made it impossible to adhere with any confidence to the old view of things, and so gave to the whole situation an appearance of inexplicable mystery. (p. 3)

I reread that several times thinking, “he can’t really be saying what I think he’s saying. Surely not.” I even emailed Bob to ask “Is he saying what I think he’s saying?” Yes, that was the subject line. Eventually I came to the conclusion that he was indeed saying that no single objection to Shakespeare’s authorship has any real validity as they have all been “stoutly combated.” But put all these invalid objections together and–hey presto!–you’ve got yourself a reasonable argument. Wow. That’s almost exactly what critical thinking isn’t.

So, you may ask, what qualifications did Looney have in literary/historical investigation? Well, there’s this:

For several years in succession I had been called upon to go through repeated courses of reading one one particular play of Shakespeare’s, namely “The Merchant of Venice.” This long continued familiarity with the contents of one play induced a peculiar sense of intimacy with the mind and disposition of its author and his outlook upon life. (p. 2)

Ah. He read ONE play and felt he understood the author intimately. Makes perfect sense. More importantly, his lack of qualifications make him the right man for the job:

That one who is not a recognized authority or an expert in literature should attempt the solution of a problem which has so far baffled specialists must doubtless appear to many as a glaring act of overboldness; (p. 4)

I don’t know what “specialists” were baffled by the authorship question. I imagine if you asked the specialists of the day, “Who wrote Shakespeare?” They’d answer “Shakespeare.” If they looked baffled, it would probably be because they were puzzled that someone would ask such a silly question.

Looney continues,

…whilst to pretend to have actually solved this most momentous of literary puzzles will seem to some like sheer hallucination. A little reflection ought, however, to convince any one that the problem is not, at bottom, purely literary. That is to say, its solution does not depend wholly upon the extent of the investigator’s knowledge of literature nor upon the soundness of his literary judgment. (p. 4)

Well, I suppose that’s true. A person who is not trained in literary analysis and research could theoretically discover documentary evidence that proved that Oxford wrote Shakespeare, especially if that person was trained in historical research (which Looney was not). But Looney discovered no such evidence. All the documentary evidence (and there’s a lot of it) is on Shakespeare’s side.

This is probably why the problem has not been solved before now. It has been left mainly in the hands of literary men, whereas its solution required the application of methods of research which are not, strictly speaking, literary methods. (p. 4)

Suck it, experts! I’m not sure what Looney thinks “literary methods” are, but they do involve looking at historical context. He adds, “The imperfection of my own literary equipment…was therefore no reason why I should not attempt the task (p. 4).” It’s no reason why he shouldn’t make the attempt, but it may be a reason some of his conclusions are faulty: he looked at poems ascribed to Oxford and thought they fit Shakespeare. In fact, in many ways, the styles do not match at all. His opinion of actual experts is not high:

The common sense of the rank and file of Shakespeare students, when unhampered by past committals, leads irresistibly towards the rejection of the old idea of authorship: and only the doctors of the ancient literary cult hang in the rear. (p. 11)

Yay! I’ve always wanted to be in a cult. Wait, does this mean that if Stephen Greenblatt tells me to drink poison-laced Kool-Aid, I have to drink it? No, I’m a medievalist; I think I’m safe from Greenblatt’s evil cult-leader charisma.

But Looney’s comments on literary cults and literary men are typical, not just of Shakespeare-deniers, but also of conspiracy and fringe theorists the world over: you can’t trust experts; they are too invested in the “official story.” Either they are too stuffy and closed-minded to see the Truth, or they are actively suppressing it. Ancient alien proponents, 9/11 truthers, Holocaust deniers–they all sing the same tune.

A look at Looney’s biography may help explain why he needed to find a different author for the Shakespeare works. He grew up in an evangelical Methodist household, but he later became a leading light in the positivist Religion of Humanity. They placed great, almost worshipful, emphasis on Great Men (and women), even proposing to rename the months after important thinkers. From Looney’s point of view, Shakespeare-the-poet was a Great Man, but Shakespeare-the-man didn’t fit the bill, so he had to find someone else. Why he picked a murderous profligate, I don’t know. According to Looney’s Wikipedia page, his family claimed to be descended from the Earls of Derby, one of whom, William Stanley, the sixth Earl, is another candidate for the “real” author of Shakespeare’s work.

In assigning a “Great Man” to the Great Work, Looney thought he was performing another Great Work.

The transference of the honour of writing the immortal Shakespeare dramas from one man to another, if definitely effected, becomes not merely a national or contemporary event, but a world event of permanent importance, destined to leave a mark as enduring as human literature and the human race itself. (p. 1)

ES


Review of “Anonymous:” The Essex Rebellion Was an Inside Job

November 7, 2011

So, we finally saw Anonymous. To begin with, the traffic sucked, the popcorn was disappointing and the soda machines refused to give me an adequate diet Coke (machine 1 was a mix of diet Coke and some red Hi-C-like substance; machine 2 mostly just gave me carbonated water). I suppose I can’t blame Roland Emmerich and John Orloff for these problems, but I’m not feeling generous.

One of the previews was for “William Shakespeare’s Coriolanus,” directed by and starring Ralph Fiennes. Shakespeare is listed as a writer on the IMDB page. Edward de Vere, seventeenth earl of Oxford, is not.

Anonymous begins with Shakespeare-denier Sir Derek Jacobi entering a modern-day theater (that sports “Anonymous” on its sign) and beginning to recite one of Ben Jonson’s poems in praise of Shakespeare in big-time over-the-top fashion. Then he stops and questions Shakespeare’s identity. He first lists the works attributed to Shakespeare, including “thirty-seven plays.” Almost all scholars now count thirty-eight plays. Why no love for Two Noble Kinsmen? Perhaps because it was written long after Oxford’s death?

All these plays, sonnets and miscellaneous poems and “not a single manuscript in Shakespeare’s hand.” Except–quite possibly–Hand D of Sir Thomas More, of course (which, naturally, Sir Derek doesn’t mention). All we have, says Sir Derek, are six barely legible signatures, each one spelled differently. We’ve been over this one repeatedly. See the fourth reason that Roland Emmerich is an idiot.

Shakespeare was the son of a glove-maker and had a grammar school education. Sir Derek doesn’t draw any conclusions from this, but the snobby implication is that it is unlikely that such a person could write the works attributed to Shakespeare.

Shakespeare’s daughters were “irrefutably illiterate.” Emmerich mentions this in his ten reasons Shakespeare is a fraud. I had a niggling suspicion about this, but since Susanna and Judith’s literacy has nothing to do with the authorship of their father’s works, I lazily ignored it. In the comments, Fretful Porpentine pointed out Emmerich’s error. Here is the signature of Susanna Hall (née Shakespeare). So, Sir Derek was irrefutably spouting a lie. Oh, but little facts don’t stop Shakespeare deniers. Apparently her signature is “painfully formed,” and she uses three different versions of the letter “a.” Thus she, like her sister, was functionally illiterate. Now since, as Fretful Porpentine notes and even Anonymous admits, reading and writing were two separate skills in Tudor England, this is highly dubious. If Susanna could write her name, she could read. One website contrasts the handwriting of Susanna and her father with that of her husband, John Hall: “His signature is what one would expect from a man who wrote in a clear Italian hand. Would that his father-in-law’s signatures had had such clarity and consistency.” John Hall wrote in an italic hand. Clearly, he was highly literate. Susanna and Shakespeare wrote in Secretary Hand. Clearly, they were functionally illiterate boobs.

Finally, Sir Derek brings up the will, which doesn’t mention Shakespeare’s plays or books. See reason 10 here. So, Sir Derek proposes to offer us a different story. At this point the film moves into the past. I should point out that I took copious notes, but even at the best of times, my handwriting is pretty horrible. That’s right: I am functionally illiterate. When I’m writing in a darkened movie theater, I am even more illiterater (see?).

The cinematography is rather beautiful, especially the scene of Elizabeth’s funeral procession. The facial hair is also extremely impressive. Also, the movie makes no fucking sense. It moves backward and forward in time, but Ben Jonson stays the same age and other characters age at significantly different rates. In particular, Elizabeth and William Cecil, Lord Burghley, seem to age at roughly 3 times the rate of everyone else. This is confusing.

In an early scene, when the queen is very old, she is told that she is to be presented with a play written by “[pregnant pause] Anonymous.” She’s thrilled because she loves plays and “[pregnant pause] Anonymous.” I suppose this is the justification for the film’s title (rather than the more appropriate Pseudonymous). Except it doesn’t make any fucking sense. The play in question is Midsummer Night’s Dream, which, it transpires, Oxford wrote for the court when he was an adolescent. He also played Puck. Everyone at court knows he wrote the play. There was nothing hidden about it. It seems Oxford wrote a whole bunch of plays for court in his youth, including the Prince Hal plays. Again, none of this is hidden, so there is no real reason to refer to him as “[pregnant pause] Anonymous.”

At some point, Oxford attends a public performance of a Jonson play with Southampton (who, we will eventually discover, is his son by Elizabeth; Oxford is also Elizabeth’s son [ick], as is Essex). Shakespeare is AWI (Acting While Intoxicated). Christopher Marlowe has the hots for Southampton. Playwrights Thomas Nashe and Thomas Dekker are essentially non-entities: one’s fat and the other’s skinny, if that helps. All the playwrights, including the highly educated Marlowe, have noticeably less educated-sounding accents than the court characters. All the playwrights seem to be untalented hacks compared to the Incomparable Genius that is Oxford. Marlowe’s a conniving dick; Jonson is kind of a sniveling weasel, although he has integrity and a genuine love of great poetry (i. e. Oxford’s).

Perhaps now is the time to mention how excessively unpleasant all the characters are. Elizabeth is petty and solely driven by emotion. When she discovers that she is pregnant by [her son] Oxford, she declares that she will marry him, even though he is already married: “I LOVE HIM!!!! she screeches, in all caps). She seems utterly useless at statecraft, no more than a pawn of the Cecils. The Cecils (William,  Lord Burghley, and his son Robert) are practically mustache-twirling villains (they plot to murder Oxford, Essex and Southampton; when that fails, they connive to make it appear that Essex and Southampton are in open rebellion against the queen. That’s right, the Essex Rebellion was an inside job). They are also poetry/pleasure-loathing Puritans (“plays are the work of the devil,” says Burghley), a characterization that is simply incorrect, as far as I can tell. Southampton and Essex are pretty and uninteresting (the same is largely true of Oxford as a young man, but he is more actively unpleasant).

And then there’s Shakespeare. He is a drunken, unscrupulous, moronic, conniving, self-aggrandizing, semi-literate (can read but can’t write), inarticulate, barely coherent, petty, malicious, blackmailing, murderous (kills Marlowe for threatening to expose him) little toad. It’s hard to imagine anyone more unappealing. Yet, somehow Oxford manages to be worse. I suppose what makes Oxford so thoroughly reprehensible is the filmmakers’ attempts to make him seem a paragon of, well, everything. Oxford certainly seems to think he’s wonderful. Toward the end of the film, he admits that he’s failed at pretty much everything. But it’s not really his fault, you see. It’s the Cecils’ fault. Also, it’s because of his single-minded devotion to his poetry. The only thing he didn’t fail at is the one thing he didn’t do (write Shakespeare’s poetry). He points out that he had been one of the richest peers in England, but at the end of his life, he is impoverished. Why? Because of his devotion to his Muse. How the fuck much did parchment cost in Elizabethan England? Oh, also he claims Burghley stole his inheritance. Whatever. When he witnesses a performance of Henry V, he silently mouths the St. Crispin’s Day speech and weeps at the beauty of his own words. Barf.

Anyway, after seeing the Jonson play, he has an idea: he can use the public theater to spread his ideas and, somehow, win a kingdom for his son. In this, of course, he fails miserably. Oxford wants Jonson to produce the plays under his (Jonson’s) name. Oxford can’t be seen to write plays in his position (except for all those plays he’s already known for writing; sure, they were written as court entertainments, but you’d think someone might notice some similarity. Nuppers).

Oxford assures Jonson that his plays will make him the richest and most popular playwright in London. He’s modest like that. Jonson doesn’t really want to do it. He has integrity, you’ll remember, and he wants to be known for his own work. But for the sake of the wonderful plays, Jonson agrees. Shakespeare, of course, has no integrity, and when the crowd begins chanting “playwright, playwright” after Henry V, Shakespeare leaps forward and takes credit, to Oxford’s horror: “An actor, for God’s sake.”  Jonson, of course, was also an actor for a time (in real life), but in the film, he tells Shakespeare that playwrights don’t have time to act. Tell that to Nathan Field.

Oxford’s next play is Romeo and Juliet. He announces to Jonson that it’s in iambic pentameter. “What, all of it?” exclaims Jonson, “Is that possible?” Everyone’s amazed that it’s completely in verse. It’s not, of course. And A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which was ostensibly written decades earlier, is also predominantly in verse (in reality, the two plays were probably written close together in time, along with Richard II). There were plenty of plays before Shakespeare that were in iambic pentameter, as well. The first English drama in blank verse was Gorboduc or Ferrex and Porrex from 1561.

Some other stupid things: I’ve hinted that there are some problems with the chronology of the plays. Here are some more: Hamlet appears to be written shortly after Romeo and Juliet, and Marlowe is still alive when it is performed. He sneaks off to tattle to Robert Cecil about it. Everyone explicitly makes a connection between the character of Polonius and Lord Burghley. Later, Jonson will similarly tattle about Richard III (which therefore must have been written after Hamlet), though he agonizes over what he’s done. Richard III is supposed to satirize Robert Cecil, who was apparently somewhat hunchbacked. The film suggests that Richard was never portrayed as hunchbacked before the play.

This tendency of rival poets to go around accusing Shakespeare/Oxford of writing seditious plays is, of course, preposterous. Edmund Tilney held the position of Master of the Revels. He was the official censor, and all plays had to be approved by him. If the plays were as obviously seditious as the film suggests, Tilney would never have approved them.

Oxford writes Richard III specifically to achieve…I have no idea what…in his struggles against the Cecils and his plots to promote his son. His plan backfires spectacularly, and the Cecils use it to manufacture the Essex Rebellion. In fact, shortly before the rebellion, some of the conspirators paid the Lord Chamberlain’s Men to perform Richard II (that’s 2nd, not 3rd) at the Globe. The play was not new at the time. Augustine Phillips, a member of the company, testified at Essex’s trial.

There are more things in the movie that are stupid. So many more. But thinking about it makes me sad and stabby, so I’ll leave you with this brief précis of stupidity.

But remember,

The Essex Rebellion Was an Inside Job!


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].

ES

RESOURCES:

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. http://shakespeare.palomar.edu/life.htm.

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.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,574 other followers