This Week in Conspiracy…uh, I’ve lost count of the days. We’ll call it 25 Oct 2012

October 26, 2012

The hectic pace of a youngish professional on the way to… ever having permanent employment… remains, uh, hectic.

You just try to come up with an opening sentence so devastatingly painful, I dare you.

Anyway, I’ve been remiss in my duties as a crusader for truth (small t), justice, and critical thinking, and as we close in on the election, everyone is clearly getting dumber. I apologize for this and will try to set things right.

  • This week Donald Trump made yet more of a fool of himself. I didn’t think it was possible. He offered $5,000,000 to a charity if Obama released his college applications. This is part of the Birther conspiracy theory, that the President’s application materials will reveal something about the President’s citizenship. The theory is that they are “being kept secret,” when in reality FERPA keeps Columbia from releasing them. Some things you can’t buy, Donald, like respectability. For everything else, there’s gobs and gobs of inherited money.
  • Mark Dice is unfathomably unpleasant. Here’s his take on the upcoming (and delayed) Cleveland Show episode about the “Rap Illuminati,” and he seems to not understand that the show is basically mocking people like Mark and Vigilant Citizen who fail to perceive that marketing is driving the continued references to the Illuminati in rap and pop culture.
  • Occasionally, Mark Dice goes out and lies to people and then mocks them for believing him (because he is just that pleasant). He sent out this tweet: “Hope you are enjoying my retweets of the ZOMBIES who believe the SATIRE about Romney ‘banning tampons.’ #Idiots.” As long as he doesn’t ban douches, Mark, you’ll be just fine.
  • Veterans Today‘s Gordon Duff appeared on Coast to Coast AM talking about UFO disclosure.
  • In related news, this week I met George Noory:


Twit of the Week:

A new player is in town. Here are two tweets in order. I want to know what class this was and where it was at!

Molly Williams (@LookItsMolly) tweeted at 11:08 AM on Thu, Oct 25, 2012:
Professor: “The character says she called 911 instead of saying she called the police. We can assume that this is a reference to 9/11.”

Molly Williams (@LookItsMolly) tweeted at 11:08 AM on Thu, Oct 25, 2012:
… and then I realized that literary theorists and conspiracy theorists are uncomfortably similar.

Well played, Molly. Well played. I elaborated on a similar theme back in the day in my NeMLA presentation, “The Topography of Ignorance: Science and Literary Theory,” of which I am quite proud.

The least helpful, least insightful, most pathetic debate commentary came from Mark Dice:

Mark Dice @MarkDice
Both of these men think they are God. #Debates #Illuminati #SatanicScumbags

Just end it, man. You just aren’t cut out for…anything.

That’s all. Last week I was at the Paradigm Symposium on behalf of Skeptical Inquirer, and I will be writing that up over the next week or so. It was a hell of a time. Stay tuned!


Anonymous 2: This Time It’s Anonymous

March 22, 2012

As many of you are probably aware, I have been terribly harsh to Shakespeare deniers, er, I mean independent Shak-spear scholars. The very first post on this blog dealt with the Shakespeare authorship controversey. In particular, I have been quite mean and snarky about Roland Emmerich’s film Anonymous, as well as the propaganda educational materials released in association with the film. I have even been known to suggest that the title is a silly misnomer: if Edward de Vere produced plays under the name William Shakespeare, then those plays were by definition pseudonymous rather than anonymous.

I now realize that my support of the hidebound traditional theory was based on trivial reasons, such as the mountain of evidence that suggests that the works attributed to William Shakespeare were written primarily by William Shakespeare, actor and son of a Stratford glover, and the paucity of evidence that anyone else was the main author. I can now admit how closed minded I have been (or “close minded” as the more open minded often say). I have been a pawn of Big Shakespeare; I just wish I had been one of its better paid shills.

Yes, that’s right–the conspiracy theory is true. All Is True. But it goes so much deeper than anyone realizes. Shakespeare deniers skeptics often ask how Shakespeare could have had the knowledge to write all those nifty plays and poems. But, my golly gosh, how could any mere mortal? And how was Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, able to continue to write plays after he died?

Is it possible that the Earl of Oxford was a time-traveling alien? Could he have written not just the works of Shakespeare, but many other literary classics as well? Why the hell not?

I have a “theory:”* as a member of the nobility, Oxford was, of course, a reptilian alien. I believe that’s actually requirement. “Blue blood” isn’t meant figuratively, you know. Unlike many of his little alien friends, he wasn’t really into piling up big rocks into pyramids or putting them in circles. He liked words–not alien words, which tend to involve a lot of z’s and k’s. No, bless him, he liked English in all its forms, so he traveled through time, scattering classics around like the others scattered big rocks.

What, you want evidence? Fine, here’s some evidence: the Ellesmere Manuscript is one of the most important copies of The Canterbury Tales (along with the Hengwrt Manuscript by the same scribe).

Who was one of the early owners of the Ellesmere MS? John de Vere, 12th Earl of Oxford, (not quite direct) ancestor of our friend the 17th Earl. Coincidence? I think not.

Clearly Oxford lived in the 14th and 15th centuries disguised as his predecessor. He wrote great poetry and used the flunky Geoffrey Chaucer as a front.  I mean, how could Chaucer, the son of a vintner, have known Latin, French and Italian? How could he have had knowledge of the astrolabe? Hell, the guy couldn’t even spell his own name–he spelled “Geoffrey” “Galfridum”!

But wait, there’s more! The 17th earl was briefly a pupil of Lawrence Nowell. And who the hell was Lawrence Nowell, you ask? Well, there were actually two cousins, both named Lawrence Nowell. One was a churchman, and the other was an antiquarian who at one time owned and added his name to the Nowell Codex.

The Nowell Codex is the Beowulf Manuscript proper (at some point it was bound together with a later MS, the Southwick Codex; the combined text is called British Library MS Cotton Vitellius A xv). How did the Beowulf MS get into Nowell’s possession? Oh, I don’t know, maybe he had a time-traveling alien pupil who gave it to him. Hmmmm? I mean, how could Anonymous, the son of a ??, have written Beowulf? Not only could he not spell his name, he didn’t even have a name! How could he have written the poem when we don’t even know if he could write?

It’s all making sense now, isn’t it? Well it would, if you’d just open your mind. I find that a chainsaw helps.

*”Theory”: Wild speculation or insane declaration, proclaimed loudly and drunkenly. Not to be confused with anything known to scientists or scholars as a theory.

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.

Dr. Taylor sends us the Shakespeare foul papers!

April 2, 2011

We wrote to Dr. Taylor about the discovery of the foul papers, and even though he is inundated with requests, he sent us scans from the Folger. We’ll let you decide if these are genuine. It is, after all, best left to the masses to decide for themselves than to have “experts” tell them what they should believe based on evidence:

Click to embiggen

Click to embiggen

Click to embiggen


Shakespeare’s Foul Papers Found

April 1, 2011

The essence of responsible skepticism is to adjust one’s beliefs to accord with the evidence. Hand-in-hand with this principle is the guiding maxim that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. With the Shakespeare authorship question, we have often said that for us (Eve and Bob) to credit anyone but Shakespeare of Stratford it would take something on the order of the “true” author of the works signing a letter or a manuscript explaining exactly why and how he (presumably) took the pseudonym. Even then, we’d have to cross-check and verify this new evidence with multiple lines of converging evidence.

Everyone knows that Shakespeare’s plays were performed at the Globe Theater, but his company also performed at a small indoor theater called the Blackfriars, built on the site of a Dominican friary. The Globe has been reconstructed as Shakespeare’s Globe, and from the beginning, there was always a plan to reconstruct the Blackfriars as well. Indeed, the shell of the Blackfriars was built before the Globe opened, and the Globe is now raising funds to complete its sister theater.

There were actually two theaters built on the site of the monastery. The first theater was built on the site of the former buttery and produced plays featuring boy actors. In the 1580s, Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, whom many believe wrote the plays attributed to Shakespeare, was involved with this theater. He may have been its patron, and he placed the running of the theater under the control of his secretary, playwright John Lyly, and William Hunnis. This theater was shut down by legal entanglements in 1585.

In 1596, James Burbage, impressario of Shakespeare’s company the Lord Chamberlain’s Men and father of the great tragic actor Richard Burbage, purchased the friary’s refectory and the rooms below it. Burbage had the space renovated into a theater; however, the residents of the area were unhappy, and even Lord Hunsdon, the patron of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, signed a petition to prohibit the company from performing there. In 1600, Richard Burbage was able to lease the theater to Henry Evans, and the Children of the Chapel began performing there. Finally, in 1608, Burbage reclaimed the lease and his company, now called the King’s Men, took over the Blackfriars Playhouse. Shakespeare was one of the theater’s owners. The King’s Men performed seven months of the year at the Blackfriars and five months at the Globe. Although the Blackfriars was smaller, the company earned more revenue from it because they were able to charge a higher admission price. Many of Shakespeare’s late plays were written to be performed at the Blackfriars. In addition, Shakespeare owned a property in the Blackfriars area, which he left to his daughter Susanna in his will.

It is interesting that both Shakespeare and Oxford have an association with the old monastery and the surrounding area, since recent excavations have unearthed a treasure trove of manuscripts which some have identified as Shakespeare’s “foul papers,” the rough, handwritten copies of plays produced before a fair copy. The manuscripts, found in a trunk, are damaged and dirty, and it will take some time for scholars to assess what they have. Early indications, though, suggest that they are not a hoax or forgery. The paper, ink and handwriting seem to date from the late 16th century. According to Professor Stanley Jay Taylor of the Folger Shakespeare Library, if the manuscripts are genuine, they are authorial works: they are rough and show evidence of revision. It is not clear from the release how many or which plays have been found (Taylor only mentions two, Two Gentlemen of Verona and The Tempest), but the foul papers may cause us to rethink our view of the plays if the manuscripts represent a version substantially different from the texts we have. Furthermore, snippets from what seems to be an early draft of The Tempest has been carbon dated to 1599, within Oxford’s lifetime! (Give or take 3 years.) This is important because The Tempest is considered to be one of the author’s later plays. That–and the prospect of abandoned literary projects–boggles the mind!

The discovery of the foul papers could also settle once and for all the question of “Who wrote Shakespeare?” If the handwriting matches Shakespeare’s six signatures, then we will know that he was indeed the author. If not, or if there is any question, Oxfordians will finally have their day. Of course, it may not be as easy as that: it may be difficult to make a definitive assessment of the handwriting by comparing it to just six signatures. Luckily, we have numerous, mutually consistent examples of Oxford’s hand, so we will have a firm answer on that account likely very, very soon.

More to come!


Do We Need to Involve Shakespeare in this Argument?

February 20, 2011

Recently, novelist and attorney Scott Turow and other members of the Authors Guild wrote an op-ed piece for the New York Times called “Would the Bard Have Survived the Web?” in which the authors bemoan the prevalence of copyright infringement and piracy on the Internet. They warn of a dire future if copyright is not strictly protected:

Certainly there’s a place for free creative work online, but that cannot be the end of it. A rich culture demands contributions from authors and artists who devote thousands of hours to a work and a lifetime to their craft. Since the Enlightenment, Western societies have been lulled into a belief that progress is inevitable. It never has been. It’s the result of abiding by rules that were carefully constructed and practices that were begun by people living in the long shadow of the Dark Ages. We tamper with those rules at our peril.

Oh noes!!!1!!1 teh internets will send us hurtling back to the barbarity of the time before teh movable type printing press! I can’t imagine what relevance the early Middle Ages could have to the question of modern copyright law except to suggest an over-dramatic sense of Badness. Oh, and they also talk about Shakespeare for some reason. I say “for some reason” because, as the authors make clear, the first copyright law was enacted in 1709, almost 100 years after Shakespeare’s death. I don’t know, there’s something about the playhouses’ admission charge being a “paywall.” Plus, hey, Dark Ages=Bad; Shakespeare=Good.

The Turow piece has inspired a response from Kevin L. Smith, the Scholarly Communications Officer at Duke University. According to the Scholarly Communications Office, Smith is “both a librarian and an attorney experienced in copyright and technology law.” Smith says,

It seems a little bit unfair to critique these editorials because they are usually manifestly uninformed; several critiques of Turow have already appeared, and I don’t want to seem to be piling on.


…he does so. And I’m afraid I have to say, “A plague o’ both your houses!” On the one hand, I admit that my immediate reaction is “Oh, boo hoo, Scott Turow isn’t making enough money.” In addition, using a writer who made a nice living without modern copyright protection as an example of why authors need copyright protection is definitely a bit problematic.  Also, they were rude about my beloved Middle Ages.

On the other hand, Smith actually strikes me as “manifestly uninformed” and perhaps a bit hard of reading. For one thing, he attributes the New York Time piece to Turow alone. In fact, Turow has two co-authors, Paul Aiken and James Shapiro. Shapiro is the Larry Miller Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. Among Shapiro’s publications are the books Rival Playwrights : Marlowe, Jonson, Shakespeare; Shakespeare and the Jews; 1599: A Year in the Life of Shakespeare and Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? He is currently working on a book called The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606. Granted, Turow is the best-known of the three authors, but under the circumstances, it seems borderline dishonest to ignore the contribution of so eminent a Shakespeare scholar. Who do you think knows more about Shakespeare, Smith or Shapiro?

Smith summarizes Turow, Aiken and Shapiro’s argument as follows:

The core of the argument is that Shakespeare and his contemporaries flourished because their work was rewarded financially, owing to the innovation of producing plays in an enclosed environment and sharing the income from theater admissions with the playwrights.  Turow then analogizes this physical barrier to theater admission with the “cultural paywall” of copyright in order to argue that the Internet threat to copyright must be addressed with stronger laws.

This is a fair summary, as is Smith’s criticism of the analogy between theater admission and copyright. However, Smith goes on to say,

First, Shakespeare lived before there were any copyright laws in England….so his productivity is evidence that there are ways to support authorship other than with copyright.  In truth, it was not so much his share of theater revenues that paid Shakespeare’s bills as it was patronage.

In the first place, it should be noted that Turow, Aiken and Shapiro themselves note that the first copyright law was not passed until well after Shakespeare’s time. Secondly, the assertion that “patronage” was Shakespeare’s main source of income is simply not true. The acting company to which Shakespeare belonged had a patron. It had to: according to the 1572 Act for the Punishment of Vagabonds and for the Relief of the Poor and Impotent, any acting troupe that lacked an aristocratic patron was regarded as a group of vagabonds. Shakespeare’s livelihood, however, did not depend primarily on the company’s patron; he made a good living from the company’s earnings and business deals.

We don’t really know if Shakespeare himself ever had a patron. He dedicated two poems to the Earl of Southampton (perhaps significantly, he produced these poems when the theaters were closed because of an outbreak of plague), but we don’t know whether or not Southampton actually was Shakespeare’s patron. Regardless, any money he may have received from Southampton for these two poems is trivial compared to the income he earned as actor, shareholder and principal playwright for the Lord Chamberlain’s/King’s Men.

Smith further argues that

The second reason Turow’s choice of a hero for his piece is unfortunate is that Shakespeare was, himself, a pirate (in Turow’s sense), basing most of his best known plays on materials that he borrowed from others and reworked.  If Boccaccio, or Spenser, or Holinshed had held a copyright in the modern sense in their works, Shakespeare’s productions could have been stopped by the courts (as unauthorized derivative works).

While it is certainly true that Shakespeare’s plots are not original, Spenser and Boccaccio also borrowed material. Since none of them were affected by modern copyright law, it seems unfair to imagine what would happen if only Shakespeare were constrained by it. In addition, Boccaccio’s work would, I assume, have been out of copyright by the time Shakespeare was writing. Holinshed was writing non-fiction, so I don’t think he could have won a lawsuit against a playwright (think about what happened when the authors of the non-fictional Holy Blood, Holy Grail tried to sue novelist Dan Brown for plagiarism).

What I suppose I find most odd about both the Turow et al. piece and the Smith piece is that neither discusses the publication of Shakespeare’s works. We know there were pirated editions of Shakespeare’s plays printed in his lifetime; we also know that the acting companies, which owned the plays, weren’t too happy about such piracy. Shapiro discusses the publication process in Contested Will, so he knows all about it, and it seems more germane to the issue than the performance of those plays.

Shakespeare, what do you think of these two articles calling on you to defend two opposing positions?

That’s what I thought.


Big shout out to Maria Walters, a.k.a. Masala Skeptic, of for pointing me toward the Smith article.

Shakespeare and Skeptoid

February 8, 2011

In a recent episode of Skeptoid, Brian Dunning answered questions from students around the world. One student, Stephen from California, asked Dunning’s opinion about the Shakespeare authorship question. Briefly, Dunning concludes that “all available evidence supports Shakespeare as a real living author, and the only support for the opposing viewpoint is supposition.” He also notes that the authorship question “may be worthy of its own complete Skeptoid episode.”

I agree with Dunning’s conclusions, and think Shakespeare does warrant an episode to himself. If Dunning does choose to devote an episode to the authorship question, however, I hope he does better research and uses better sources than he did in this episode. The two sources he cites in this episode are from those two great literary heavyweights, Scientific American and*. Why must skeptics appeal to science even when discussing the humanities? The Scientific American article was written by Michael Shermer, who has a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology/Biology, a Master’s in Experimental Psychology and a Ph.D. in the History of Science. He also seems to want to make history into a science: “But reasonable doubt should not cost an author his claim, at least not if we treat history as a science instead of as a legal debate.” He was responding to former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens’ use of legalese in making his argument for the Earl of Oxford. But history is neither of these: it is its own field with its own methods and standards for scholarship. It may be messier than science and more open to interpretation, but that is largely unavoidable. It can’t be fixed by trying to make it into a science.

In introducing the article, Dunning says:

Perhaps the most compelling reason to accept Shakespeare as the real author is his unique and recognizable writing style, which does not match that of the authors to which his works have been attributed by doubters. And this is not merely an unreliable, subjective opinion: It’s backed by hard science.

Again there is a suggestion that the humanities are only trustworthy when science is involved. Of course science can be a useful tool in literary studies. In this case, literary scholars used computational stylistics to detect Shakespeare’s hand in various works. That is to say, they used a computer program to compare Shakespeare’s diction, syntax, etc. to other writers from the period. For instance, a scholar would look at a work whose authorship is disputed and use the computer program to compare it to works by many different authors. The frequency with which certain typical features of a certain author appear in the disputed work suggests a likely attribution.

Obviously, a computer can sift through a huge amount of data at great speed. Still, it builds on work done for years by literary scholars who have painstakingly studied the language and usage of Shakespeare and his contemporaries. In addition, it is wildly optimistic to assume that such computer analyses will actually settle many questions. Someone else is bound to say, “Oh yeah, well my computer program said Shakespeare wrote this unattributed play.” Indeed, some of the conclusions drawn by the group headed by Arthur F. Kinney, director of the Massachusetts Center for Renaissance Studies at UMass Amherst, have already been questioned.  Kinney, for example, claims in the article cited by Dunning: “I have now proven that Shakespeare is part-author of Arden of Faversham. They guessed that in the 19th century but no one would believe it in the 20th century. Now we know.” He makes this argument at greater length in Shakespeare, Computers and the Mystery of Authorship. Sir Brian Vickers, however, has argued, based on his own computer analysis of the play, that Thomas Kyd is the sole author.**

Based on the thumbnail descriptions of studies in the article, some of the conclusions just seem…odd. For instance, in regard to the play Sir Thomas More, we learn that

Timothy Watt at last proved that Hand D in the manuscript of a play called The Book of Sir Thomas More is Shakespeare’s own handwriting and so extends examples of his writing past the seven signatures which alone have been attributed to him.

In the first place, there are only six signatures that are more or less universally regarded as genuinely Shakespearean (I assume the seventh refers to a copy of William Lambarde’s Archaionomia. If that signature were considered genuine, it would prove that Shakespeare did indeed own at least one book. Although a number of eminent scholars have accepted the signature as likely genuine, the attribution is still in question). Moreover, how could a computer program that evaluates authors’ styles conclude that the passage was in Shakespeare’s handwriting? It seems, based on the article in Computers, Shakespeare and the Mystery of Authorship, that Watt concluded that Shakespeare was the author of the Hand D passage. At the end of the article, Watt argues that “[s]ince the nature of the manuscript indicates an author at work–correcting and amending along the way–rather than a scribe making a fair copy,” if Shakespeare is the author of the passage, it logically must be in his hand. In other words, the handwriting isn’t being used as evidence of Shakespeare’s authorship; Shakespeare’s authorship is used as evidence of his handwriting. At any rate, the study has not quelled questions about Sir Thomas More.

Another assertion in the article concerns one of Shakespeare’s putative sources:

Kevin Petersen noted that although people think Shakespeare was influenced by Montaigne’s skepticism in his work from Richard II through Hamlet to The Tempest, and was the source of his skepticism in parts of many of his plays, in fact there is no indication of any Montaigne – in French or in the popular English translation.

This article did not make it into the book, so it is hard to judge. It is possible that the brief description misrepresents the argument, but, as stated, it just doesn’t make sense. In the first place, while many of Montaigne’s essays have been suggested as sources for Shakespeare, very few of them are widely accepted. Many of the most compelling arguments for Montaigne’s influence on Shakespeare concern The Tempest. In 1781, Edward Cappel suggested that Gonzalo’s “commonwealth” speech in Act 2, scene 1 of The Tempest very closely resembles a passage in John Florio’s 1603 translation of Montaigne’s “Of the Cannibals:”

I’ th’ commonwealth I would, by contraries,
Execute all things, for no kind of traffic
Would I admit; no name of magistrate;
Letters should not be known; riches, poverty,
And use of service, none; contract, succession,
Bourn, bound of land, tilth, vineyard, none;
No use of metal, corn or wine, or oil;
No occupation, all men idle, all;
And women too, but innocent and pure;
No sovereignty–
Seb.                                       Yet he would be king on’t.
Ant.  The latter end of his commonwealth forgets the beginning.
Gon.  All things in common nature should produce
Without sweat or endeavour. Treason, felony,
Sword, pike, knife, gun, or need of any engine
Would I not have; but nature should bring forth
Of it own kind all foison, all abundance,
To feed my innocent people.
Seb.  No marrying ‘mong his subjects?
Ant.  None, man, all idle–whores and knaves.
Gon.  I would with such perfection govern, sir,
T’ excel the golden age.  (2.1.145-66)

Here is Montaigne’s description of life among the Brazilian cannibals:

It is a nation…that hath no kind of traffic, no knowledge of letters, no intelligence of numbers, no name of magistrate nor of politic superiority, no use of service, of riches or of poverty, no contracts, no successions, no dividences, no occupation but idle, no respect of kindred but common, no apparel but natural, no manuring of lands, no use of wine, corn or metal. The very words that import lying, falsehood, treason, dissimulation, covetousness, envy, detraction, and pardon were never heard of amongst them. (“Of the Cannibals,” Bk 1, ch. 30 of The Essays by Michel de Montaigne, tr. by John Florio. Included in Orgel’s ed. of The Tempest, pp. 230-31)

No one claims that Shakespeare got his ideas for Gonzalo’s commonwealth from Montaigne–they were not original to Montaigne. It is the way those ideas are expressed: primarily in negatives. Neither Montaigne nor Shakespeare describes his Utopia in terms of what it is or what it has, but rather of what it is not and what it doesn’t have. In addition, many of the details are the same. And you do not need a computer program to point out the verbal parallels. Indeed, if a computer were to tell me that the verbal parallels did not exist, I’m afraid I would have to disbelieve it.

Computational stylistics is a useful tool, but it is naive to think that science can definitively answer questions that literary studies have failed to answer.  It can lend credence to arguments that Shakespeare had a hand in a particular work (or that a collaborator had a hand in a work generally attributed to Shakespeare alone), and it can question other attributions. It is less useful in the argument that Shakespeare wrote the works attributed to him. A particular disputed work, such as Arden of Faversham or Sir Thomas More, can be compared to Shakespeare’s acknowledged works, but when the entire corpus is disputed, to what can we compare it? One of the anti-Shakespeareans’ main arguments is that we have no works that can be definitively attributed to Shakespeare (this is not true, of course, but that’s the argument). Admittedly, we can compare “Shakespeare’s” works to those by Oxford, Bacon and Marlowe, but, with the exception of Marlowe, none of the main candidates wrote in the genres for which Shakespeare is known, which makes comparison more difficult. Not impossible, of course. Many idiosyncrasies are likely to be the same, regardless if the poet is writing drama or lyric poetry, but it’s certainly not going to be good enough to satisfy Oxfordians (not that anything is).


*This article is taken word for word from a press release from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

**I have not yet read this article (I have ordered it from Inter-Library Loan), so I am basing my interpretation of it on second-hand accounts.

Further Reading:

Craig, Hugh and Arthur F. Kinney, eds. Shakespeare, Computers and the Mystery of Authorship. Cambridge UP, 2009.

Hodgen, Margaret. “Montaigne and Shakespeare Again,” Huntington Library Quarterly 16 (1952-53): 23-42.

Montaigne, Michel de. “Of the Cannibals.” The Essays. Tr. John Florio. 1603. Included in Orgel’s ed. of The Tempest, pp. 227-238).

Paster, Gail Kern. “Montaigne, Dido, and The Tempest: ‘How Came that Widow in?’” Shakespeare Quarterly 35 (1984): 91-94.

Prosser, Elaine. “Shakespeare, Montaigne, and the Rarer Action,” Shakespeare Studies 1 (1965): 261-64.

Shakespeare, William. The Tempest. Ed. Stephen Orgel. Oxford World’s Classics. Oxford UP, 1987.

Vickers, Brian. “Thomas Kyd, Secret Sharer.” Times Literary Supplement 18 Apr. 2008: 13-15.

“Little English and No Sense”: The Shakespeare Authorship Controversy

January 5, 2011

Coming soon to a theater near you: Anonymous, another blockbuster from Roland Emmerich, who brought you 2012, 10,000 B.C., The Day after Tomorrow, The Patriot, Independence Day, Eight-Legged Freaks and many other fine examples of historical drama.  Anonymous promises political intrigue, conspiracy, a Not-Even-Close-to-Virgin Queen, incest and exciting, explosive quill action. Yes, that’s right, it focuses on the guy who really wrote Shakespeare.  Well, no not really: it actually focuses on Edward de Vere, the 17th earl of Oxford.

It’s interesting (or do I mean disheartening?) that the “authorship question” could have attained such acceptance that it has achieved Hollywood blockbuster funding, although it would be even more surprising to see advertisements for “Not Anonymous, the gripping story of how a competent actor and businessman who never killed anyone wrote the works attributed to him!”  While it’s possible, even likely, that Emmerich’s film will convince some viewers, what’s more disturbing is the sympathetic platform the Oxfordians have been given by such prestigious media outlets as PBS’s Frontline, which aired “The Shakespeare Mystery” in 1989 (transcript here); NPR’s Morning Edition, which ran a story called “The Real Shakespeare? Evidence Points to Earl,” (host Renée Montagne was later presented with the Distinguished Achievement in the Arts Award at the 13th Annual Shakespeare Authorship Studies Conference); and the New York Times, which has run a series of Oxford-leaning “teach-the-controversy” articles by William S. Niederkorn.

I remember watching the Frontline episode when it was re-run and discussing it later with other English lit types.  We were all terribly worried about Frontline.  Was the quality of all their shows this bad?  Did we simply not recognize it because it wasn’t our field?  Would next week’s NOVA give a friendly ear to moon landing deniers?

I was also concerned because, while I was yelling at the screen about dubious assertions, part of me recognized that some of the arguments could sound convincing.  An educated person, familiar with Shakespeare’s works but not an expert, might be swayed by some of the claims, not because the person was stupid or ignorant, but because the program was slanted.  For instance, two scholars speak on behalf of Shakespeare in the show.  Samuel Schoenbaum appears twice to say, basically, “well, Shakespeare was a genius.”  I may be trivializing Schoenbaum’s contributions somewhat, but he doesn’t provide much of a counterargument to the Oxfordians, and he certainly doesn’t offer evidence in favor of Shakespeare’s authorship, which he was certainly capable of doing.  I suspect that this failing may have something to do with editing.  Both times he appears (briefly) on screen, he is followed by Charlton Ogburn, whose work inspired the episode, offering an impassioned rebuttal.  The other scholar, A. L. Rowse, actually manages to make a few reasonable points, but these are grossly overshadowed by his apparent arrogance, egocentricity and homophobia (he uses the word “homo” twice, once modified by “roaring”–no, really, I’m not kidding).  The points he makes are largely ignored in the program and probably would be by most viewers as well.  In 1992, Frontline aired “Uncovering Shakespeare: An Update,” a three-hour video conference moderated by William F. Buckley.  This program was more even-handed, featuring, among others, eminent Shakespeare scholars Gary Taylor and David Bevington.  Still, as the transcript linked above shows, the program ended with an “ANIMATION: of the Stratford statue breaking apart and revealing the 17th Earl of Oxford.”

In his book, Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? James Shapiro, the Larry Miller Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, traces the history of the authorship question.  He notes that by the early 1980s the Oxfordian theory was largely moribund.  It was revived partly through the ceaseless efforts of Charlton Ogburn, and it received a great deal of media exposure through two mock trials, one before American Supreme Court Justices William Brennan, Harry Blackmun and John Paul Stevens and one before three British judges, Lord Oliver of Aylmerton, Lord Templeman and Lord Ackner.  Oxford lost both cases, but the trials gave the theory media attention and legitimacy, especially since both Blackmun and Stevens showed some sympathy for the Oxfordian cause, although, since the burden of proof was on the Oxfordians, they did not feel enough evidence for his authorship had been presented.  Stevens has subsequently  decided that Oxford did indeed write the plays.

Certain elements of the Oxford theory are unlikely to be generally compelling except to those who are fond of conspiracy theories, but these elements tend to be missing or downplayed when the theory is mooted in such venues as the New York Times or on PBS or NPR.  According to the Prince Tudor Theory, Oxford and Elizabeth I were lovers, and Henry Wriothesley, the 3rd earl of Southampton, was their illegitimate child.  This theory allows Oxfordians to sidestep the homoerotic elements of the sonnets addressed to a young man: the speaker is addressing his son, not the object of his romantic or sexual affections.  Of course, there is a tiny problem: some of the poems are homoerotic, no matter how hard you try to get around it.  Here, for instance, is Sonnet 20:

A woman’s face with nature’s own hand painted
Hast thou, the master-mistress of my passion;
A woman’s gentle heart, but not acquainted
With shifting change as is false women’s fashion;
An eye more bright than theirs, less false in rolling,
Gilding the object whereupon it gazeth;
A man in hue, all hues in his controlling,
Which steals men’s eyes and women’s souls amazeth.
And for a woman wert thou first created,
Till nature as she wrought thee fell a-doting,
And by addition me of thee defeated
By adding one thing to my purpose nothing.
But since she pricked thee out for women’s pleasure,
Mine be thy love and thy love’s use their treasure.

Imagining that the speaker is a father addressing his son just adds a world of ickiness.

Speaking of ickiness, there is also the Prince Tudor Theory II (Attack of the Killer Prince Tudor Theory).  According to this theory, Oxford was himself an illegitimate son of Elizabeth I (there were several others as well), making him both brother and father to Southampton (and, based on the sonnets, possibly his suitor).  Who else wants a shower?  Good news! Both theories will feature in Emmerich’s film.  Ogburn was a proponent of at least the first part of the theory and Charles de Vere Beauclerk, earl of Buford, a descendant of Oxford’s who appeared in the Frontline episode as “Charles Vere,” supports both parts of the theory.  Yet, oddly, these soap opera elements did not make it into the Frontline episode.

Ciphers and codes don’t get a great deal of mainstream attention either.  Ciphers were particularly associated with the theory that Francis Bacon wrote Shakespeare, since Bacon did devise a cipher, but proponents of many candidates (and there are scores of candidates) have found coded messages “proving” that [fill-in-the-blank] wrote Shakespeare.  Therein, of course, lies the problem: codes and ciphers have definitively proven that Bacon, Marlowe, Oxford and many others wrote Shakespeare.  If you tried hard enough, you could probably even find evidence that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare.  Personally, I find it distressing that great works of art–Shakespeare’s plays or Leonardo da Vinci’s paintings–are regarded merely as coded messages.  The artistry and beauty of the work become lost in the secret message, as if they were a simple coincidence or accident of transmission.

So which bits of the Oxford theory are compelling?  Well, the fallacies, mainly.  Sometimes fallacious arguments can be presented in a way that seems quite convincing.  Oxfordians often cherry pick evidence that seems to support their point of view while ignoring other evidence or the general context.  In particular, they try to find correspondences between incidences in Oxford’s life and details of Shakespeare’s plays and poems.  Individually, many of these correspondences seem weak or coincidental: King Lear had three daughters; Oxford had three (legitimate) daughters; Hamlet was on a ship overtaken by pirates; Oxford was on a ship overtaken by pirates.  Put all these correspondences together, though, and you’ve got…well, strictly speaking, you have a bunch of mostly weak or coincidental apparent correspondences, but it seems as if they have greater cumulative weight, even if you can dismiss some of the claims (for instance, some of the details in the works actually appear in Shakespeare’s known sources).

Cherries are not the only things Oxfordians pick: they also pick nits.  While not strictly a fallacy, nitpicking is beloved of many fringe theorists, such as creationists, 9/11 truthers and those convinced that the moon landings were a hoax.  They attempt to pick as many holes as possible in the conventional viewpoint.  When one point is dismissed, they move on to the next (often without acknowledging that the first point has been disproved): “Well, what about this?  Okay, but what about this?”.  This tactic puts proponents of the conventional view on the defensive.  As with cherry picking, the sheer number of nitpicks gives the impression of weight, however flimsy the individual points may be.  This tactic also helps to hide the fringe theorists’ lack of a single, coherent explanation of an alternative view.  This lack is particularly noticeable amongst anti-Shakespeareans: the vast number of people who have been brought forward as the “real” Shakespeare shows that there is no single coherent counter-theory.  Even among Oxfordians, there are those who accept the Prince Tudor Theory and those who reject it; those who accept Prince Tudor Theory I but not II and those who accept both.

Anti-Shakespeareans, again like many fringe theorists, also employ a combination of argumentum ad populum (AKA the appeal to popularity or the appeal to numbers) and the argument from false authority.  In other words, they compile lists of people who support their point of view, particularly people who are thought to have great credibility in some area or another.  This list-making tendency has led to The Declaration of Reasonable Doubt, vigorously promoted by actors Derek Jacobi and Mark Rylance, who both appear in Anonymous.  The Declaration not only lists “verified signatories,” but “notable signatories” and “academic signatories,” as well as “past doubters.”  The numbers and some of the names seem impressive, but again, there is no consensus.  Among the past doubters and some of the present signatories, there are Baconians and Marlovians as well as Oxfordians.  Some of the past doubters expressed more of a vague discomfort with what they saw as the disconnect between the known facts of Shakespeare’s life and the grandeur of the plays than a firm conviction that someone else was the author.  The same likely holds true of some of the signatories: the document’s name expresses doubt rather than conviction.

It may also be noted that there are very few prominent scholars of Early Modern drama and poetry among the academic signatories.  This is unsurprising as there is a strong democratic and anti-intellectual element to the anti-Shakespearean movement (although it is not democratic when it comes to the actual author: he must have been aristocratic or at least university-educated).  Conventional scholars are portrayed as stodgy and hidebound, and, indeed, both Schoenbaum and Rowse came off as stodgy in the Frontline episode.  Such scholars may even be in on it.  As Shapiro says,

I’ve spent the past twenty-five years researching and teaching Shakespeare’s works at Columbia University.  For some, that automatically disqualifies me from writing fairly about the controversy on the grounds that my professional investments are so great that I cannot be objective.  There are a few who have gone so far as to hint at a conspiracy at work among Shakespeare professors and institutions, with scholars paid off to suppress information that would undermine Shakespeare’s claims.  If so, somebody forgot to put my name on the list.  (Contested Will, pp. 4-5)

While some Shakespearean scholars may indeed be stodgy or hidebound, they have also intensely studied the era, the works, the texts, theatrical history, printing history, and the typical and comparative vocabulary, grammar, spelling, punctuation and metrical tendencies of various Early Modern poets.  In other words, they are the best qualified people to make judgments about the authorship of Elizabethan and Jacobean works.  It is because of the work of such scholars that we now understand to what degree Shakespeare collaborated with other writers (less than many other playwrights of his day, but much more than was previously admitted).

Another fallacy often employed by anti-Shakespeareans is the argumentum ad ignoratiam or appeal to ignorance.  They make positive assumptions based on lack of evidence.  We have no documentary evidence that Shakespeare ever attended a school or university; therefore, he must not have had any formal education.  We have no books that we know belonged to Shakespeare, so he must not have owned many books.  He didn’t mention his books in his will, so he must not have owned many books.  We have no plays in his hand, and he did not mention his plays or poems in his will; therefore, he must not have written those works.

Of course the fact that we lack this information means…that we lack this information, nothing more.  Is it terribly surprising that 400 year old school records don’t survive?  Not really.  There’s certainly nothing suspicious about it.  No, there are no copies of Shakespeare’s plays in Shakespeare’s hands (with the possible exception of Sir Thomas More, which is in several hands, one of which may be Shakespeare’s).  Of course, there are no copies of Shakespeare’s plays in Oxford’s hand either, but then that’s all part of the plot.  No really, anti-Shakespeareans have a history of wanting to open tombs and monuments (and dredge rivers) looking for the lost manuscripts.  The possibility that they are hidden behind Shakespeare’s monument is even mentioned in the Frontline episode.  In reality, very few plays from the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras survive in manuscript copies written by the author.

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)

It is also true that Shakespeare probably did not go to Oxford or Cambridge, but then, neither did a number of other playwrights of the time, including some, like Ben Jonson, who were more classically-inclined than Shakespeare.  We have no documentary evidence that Shakespeare attended grammar school, but that is because enrollment records from the King’s New School in Stratford do not survive.  Because Shakespeare’s father John was an alderman and later High Bailiff, his son would have been eligible to attend the school for free.  According to 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” (p. 276).

At this point I can sense someone thinking, “Aha!  But Ben Jonson said Shakespeare had ‘small Latin and less Greek.’  What about that?  Huh?  Gotcha!”  Sometimes people take poetry way too seriously.  In the first place, it is fairly common, when an artistic person is being memorialized, to suggest that his or her genius was innate.  You’re unlikely to read a poem praising Beethoven for the scales he played as a child or memorializing Michelangelo’s time as an apprentice to Domenico Ghirlandaio.  It’s also entirely possible that Shakespeare’s knowledge of Latin was less impressive than Jonson’s, but to most of us, it would seem more than sufficient.  At any rate, Jonson followed up his comment on Shakespeare’s deficiencies in classical languages by comparing him favorably with classical poets.

Finally, it’s important to have an understanding of Jonson personality.  He was a talented writer and ferociously well-educated, although, like Shakespeare, he attended only grammar school, not university.  He and Shakespeare were friends and rivals.  Shakespeare is listed as a principal actor in Jonson’s comedy Every Man in His Humour and his tragedy Sejanus (the printed edition of this play gives an idea of just how proud of his Latin Jonson was.  He included footnotes indicating his classical sources.  See Stanley Wells, Shakespeare & Co., pp. 141-2).  He also had an ego the size of all outdoors.  In 1616, he produced an expensive folio edition of nine of his plays and many of his other poems.  He called the folio Works.  To include plays, which were considered pop culture ephemera, in such a format elicited some mockery.  An epigram appeared addressed “To Mr Ben Jonson, demanding the reason why he called his plays works.”  The epigram reads, “Pray tell me, Ben, where doth the mystery lurk; / What others call a play you call a work.”  Another epigram answered the question: “Thus answered by a friend in Mr Jonson’s defence: / Ben’s plays are works, when others’ works are plays” (qtd. in Wells, p. 158).  Had Jonson not produced his folio, however, it’s possible that Shakespeare’s colleagues John Hemmings and Henry Condell might not have produced the First Folio of Shakespeare’s works in 1623, in which case, roughly half the plays we know would have been lost.  Fortunately, Hemmings and Condell had the sense not to call the Folio “Works.”

Jonson said a lot of things about Shakespeare, not all of them complimentary.  He told Scottish poet William Drummond that “Shakespeare wanted art;” he also made disparaging comments about Pericles and The Winter’s Tale.  He said derogatory things about many other poets as well.  It’s possible that, even when praising Shakespeare, he couldn’t quite resist a tiny criticism.  Still, in the same poem he calls Shakespeare “Sweet swan of Avon” and declares that “He was not of an age, but for all time!”

Jonson’s tendency to both criticize and compliment Shakespeare can also be seen in a more intimate setting.  Many years after Shakespeare’s death, Jonson wrote in his diary,

I remember, the Players have often mentioned it as an honour to Shakespeare, that in his writing, (whatsoever he penn’d) hee never blotted out line.  My answer hath beene, would he had blotted a thousand.  Which they thought a malevolent speech.  I had not told posterity this, but for their ignorance, who choose that circumstance to commend their friend by, wherein he most faulted.  And to justifie mine owne candor, (for I lov’d the man, and doe honour his memory (on this side Idolatry) as much as any.)  Hee was (indeed) honest, and of an open, and free nature: had an excellent Phantsie; brave notions, and gentle expressions: wherein hee flow’d with that facility, that sometime it was necessary he should be stop’d…. His wit was in his owne power; would the rule of it had beene so too.  Many times hee fell into those things, could not escape laughter…. But he redeemed his vices, with his vertues.  There was ever more in him to be praysed, then to be pardoned.”  (Jonson, Timber: or, Discoveries; Made upon Men and Matter, included in Appendix B of The Riverside Shakespeare)

Jonson knew Shakespeare well.  They had worked together frequently, since Shakespeare was a shareholder in and chief playwright for London’s pre-eminent acting company, a company that paid for and staged several of Jonson’s plays.  It’s inconceivable that Jonson would not have noticed that his friend and rival was a semi-literate dolt (and, yes, Oxfordians do characterize Shakespeare as barely literate) who had no concept of playwriting or stagecraft.  Given Jonson’s ego, it’s hard to imagine he would have been happy keeping the secret of the true authorship of the plays (assuming he was in on the secret) and give credit to someone undeserving.


N.B. The title of this post is adapted from E. Talbot Donaldson’s fine book about Shakespeare’s use of Chaucer, The Swan at the Well.  In it, Donaldson shows how even perfectly respectable Shakespearean scholars can fall into folly.  Shakespeare would have known Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde from William Thynne’s The Works of Chaucer.  Thynne also included  Robert Henryson’s The Testament of Cresseid in this edition, with no indication that it was by a different author.  Some Shakespeare scholars have concluded that Shakespeare would have thought that the Testament was Chaucer’s continuation of Troilus, even though Troilus is dead at the end of Chaucer’s work and alive again in the Testament, which takes place many years later.  According to Donaldson, “It seems to me that to suppose that Shakespeare thought Chaucer wrote The Testament is to attribute to him not only little Latin and less Greek, but minimal English and no sense” (p. 76).

Further Reading:

Donaldson, E. Talbot.  The Swan at the Well: Shakespeare Reading Chaucer.  New Haven and London: Yale UP, 1985.

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.

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

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.


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