Last Post on Shakespeare (for now)

January 12, 2011

I don’t harbor any illusions that any post or comment I make will quell dissent from the Oxfordians. Nor do I believe that I will be able to answer every question or point raised. As I said in my first post on the topic, fringe theorists in general nitpick: they present a barrage of questions, counterarguments and niggles (and repeat ones already made). I look forward to hearing from them a coherent explanation of how the Oxford-as-Shakespeare conspiracy actually worked, why it was put into place and who was involved in it. I also eagerly await evidence for the conspiracy and Oxford’s authorship.

Until then, I will attempt to explain why William Shakespeare (with help from John Fletcher, George Peele, Thomas Middleton and George Wilkins) is likely to be the author of the works attributed to William Shakespeare. In the first place, the simplest answer to the question, “Who wrote the plays and poems of ‘William Shakespeare’?” is William Shakespeare, son of a Stratford glover, actor and shareholder in the Lord Chamberlain’s/King’s Men. We know such a person existed. Plenty of official records survive that refer to him. He is named as the author on the title pages of Venus and Adonis, The Rape of Lucrece, many quartos of plays published during his lifetime and the First Folio of his plays, published seven years after his death by colleagues in his company. There were also many references to him and his works in his lifetime and within a decade after his death. Occam’s Razor would suggest that this man was exactly who the evidence says he was: a middle class man who wrote a bunch of really impressive stuff. If someone wishes to argue otherwise, that person must present very compelling evidence that explains not only “who,” but also “how” and “why.”

Oxfordians such as Charlton Ogburn often say that there is no documentary evidence to tie Shakespeare to his works. The proper response to this contention is a befuddled look and the words, “Yes there is—lots of it.” The Oxfordians then explain that somehow that evidence doesn’t count: those are merely references to a name on a title page. Even assuming this were true, so what? References on title pages are very strong evidence indeed. Again, where is the compelling evidence that someone else was using the name “William Shakespeare,” a name that belonged to an actual living human, as a pseudonym? In addition, this argument is simply not true. There are a number of contemporary references to plays that had not been published yet. The best, but not only, example of this is Francis Meres’s Palladis Tamia, which mentions, among other works, Shakespeare’s sonnets and the (probably) lost play Love’s Labor’s Won.

There is also Robert Greene’s indictment of Shakespeare as an “upstart Crow,” who thinks himself “the only Shake-scene in a country.” It is hard to imagine how this could refer to anyone but the actor Shakespeare, who was also the author of 3 Henry VI, which is parodied. Yet Stratfordians maintain that this statement is ambiguous. In his comments on an earlier post, Howard Schumann has quoted a “skeptic’s [presumably Diana Price’s] paraphrase of the ‘Upstart Crow’ diatribe:”

Beware of one untrustworthy actor, the “Upstart Crow”. We make him look good in the roles we write, but this player is callous, duplicitous, and arrogant. ; he fancies himself able to extemporize lines in blank verse that are as good as any of yours (the three playwrights Peele, Marlowe, and Nashe). He even passes off some of your material as his own. And this know-it-all thinks he’s the most important actor around…So while you still have a chance to escape my fate, find some playmasters with more compassion and integrity. Stay away from actor-paymasters and usurers (like Johannes Factotum) because you three are too talented to be exploited by such contemptible knaves.

This is not a paraphrase: it’s a wildly speculative interpretation. It does not represent what the passage actually says. Mr. Schumann also cites Stephanie Hopkins Hughes who argues that the Upstart Crow passage refers to Edward Alleyn, the lead actor of the rival Lord Admiral’s Men. There is absolutely no evidence for this and no reason to think it might be true.

Oxfordians also make a great deal of fuss about the six Shakespeare signatures. These signatures prove, say the Oxfordians, that Shakespeare was barely literate: he spelled his name several different ways, and the writing is almost illegible. This argument is frankly ludicrous. Spelling is irrelevant. Since spelling was not standardized, people spelled according to preference or whim or space requirements. Bob noted in the comments that Sir Walter Ralegh at one time spelled his name “Rawley.” In Christopher Marlowe’s only known signature, he spelled his name “Marley,” though his baptismal record reads “Marlow.” Contemporaries sometimes spelled his name “Morley.”

As to handwriting, Shakespeare, like many of his contemporaries, wrote in secretary hand, which is very difficult to read because we no longer use it. It is also possible that Shakespeare was ill at the time he signed his will (which contains 3 of the 6 signatures). This is speculative, but he died within a month of signing it, and there is evidence that it was revised hastily. More importantly, however, since when has handwriting, especially in signatures, been an indicator of literacy or intelligence? I know squirrels with neurological impairments that would be ashamed of my handwriting.

A major premise of all anti-Shakespearean theories is that the author of the plays must have had great knowledge of/first-hand experience in [fill in the blank], and semi-literate, business-obsessed, middle class Shakespeare couldn’t possibly have had that knowledge/experience. This premise is based in part on our friend the argument from ignorance: the author of the plays must have traveled widely, especially in Italy; we have no record of Shakespeare traveling abroad; therefore, Shakespeare never traveled abroad and couldn’t have written the plays. Well, we actually don’t know if Shakespeare ever traveled outside England–maybe he did; maybe he didn’t–we just don’t know, so we can’t really say that he didn’t travel abroad. On top of that, sometimes he was wrong. In The Taming of the Shrew, he gave Padua a harbor, and Ben Jonson complained that “Shakespeare in a play [The Winter’s Tale] brought in a number of men saying they had suffered shipwreck in Bohemia, where there is no sea by some 100 miles” (qtd. in Stanley Wells, Shakespeare & Co., p. 159). The thing is, Shakespeare didn’t need to be a world traveler to avoid these mistakes: they had these things…they were kind of like Google Earth but without the Google part. Granted, there were bits of these maps that were a bit sketchy, but Italy and Bohemia had been fairly thoroughly explored by then. Did he not realize his mistake? I don’t know, but it’s possible that he just didn’t care that much. If it served his dramatic purpose for Padua to have a harbor, then Padua got a harbor.

It is, of course, a mistake to assume that the author must have had personal experience of all the things he wrote about. Shakespeare presumably used the tools modern authors use: personal experience and observation, study, reading and discussions with people who did have personal experience. Shakespeare did not have to be an expert in falconry to be able to write accurately about falconry. Also, rumor has it that many creative writers are known for their imaginations.

Anti-Shakespeareans also point out that some of Shakespeare’s sources were not available in English translation and assume that he was not sufficiently fluent in Latin, French and Italian to read those sources. Again, this is an argument from ignorance. We can’t assume Shakespeare couldn’t read Italian just because we don’t have a receipt from an Italian tutor. As we’ve said previously, it is very likely that Shakespeare attended a grammar school and got a good Latin education. If you know Latin, figuring out Italian and French isn’t that hard. I have personally wrestled with languages that I have not studied formally, and, while I won’t claim that I won every bout, I at least managed a draw.

Oxfordians–and others, frankly–just aren’t very happy with what we know about Shakespeare. We have a fair amount of information about him, but most of it comes from legal and business documents. This is hardly surprising: those are the sorts of official documents that one would expect to survive, while more personal items may be lost or destroyed. Would it be nice if there were a treasure-trove of personal letters? Well, heck yeah. Such a discovery would make Shakespeare scholars absolutely giddy. Sadly, we have to deal with what we do have. The odd thing is that anti-Shakespeareans sometimes assume that business and money were all Shakespeare was interested in. Again this strikes me as patently ridiculous. Who among us is defined by the contracts we’ve signed? Most people care about finances and business, and most people care about other things as well. Why should we assume Shakespeare was so different from the rest of us?


Bug Girl reports on a different type of infestation…

January 12, 2011

If you visit Bug Girl’s Blog today, you’ll find a useful discussion about the Christian Identity movement, a peculiar racist subculture that holds the peculiar religious belief that the real Chosen People are America’s white males.

The Real Chosen People

The roots of this delusion can be traced back to beliefs that surfaced in England during the Empire, when believers saw their nation, as the colonial governor of Palestine, playing a special role in the fulfillment of divine revelation. This slightly patronizing view of Jews mutated in this country into the extremely racist theology that it is today. A great source on this uncanny evolution is Michael Barkun’s Religion and the Racist Right. I also recommend Chip Berlet’s extensive work on conspiracy and American politics.


Historiann on the attack on liberal arts

January 11, 2011

Historiann has a humdinger of an article on the popular perception of the liberal arts:

“History Under Attack”: Tony Grafton is spoiling for a fight



Scientists discover art is rewarding…

January 10, 2011

A group out of Emory headed by senior researcher Krish Sathian has published an article announcing that art is rewarding. Sure, it sounds a bit like discovering, “Hey, Sgt. Pepper is a pretty good album,” but the Emory team is studying the mechanics behind the experience of art and have used fMRI to image the specific areas of the brain that activate when one looks at a piece of art. The paper, entitled “Art for reward’s sake: Visual art recruits the ventral striatum,” appears in the journal Neuroimaging, and suggests that viewing art objects triggers a reward center deep in the brain, the ventral stratium. Interestingly, similar reward activity influences other behaviors, like addiction, gambling and financial decision making.

It’s a very small study, only 8 subjects, so I suspect that art and science afficionados will have to wait for further research into the neurological mechanisms underlying the artistic experience. It is my personal hope that this neuroimaging study will ultimately lead to a cure for abstract expressionism.


That new music the kids are listening to

January 8, 2011

I swear I don’t understand the kids’ hippity-hop and their wicked crazy doggerel. You can’t hardly understand what they’re saying even, but I presume that they are angry youth rapping about life on the hard streets. Between London and Canterbury.


Skepticism and the Humanities

January 7, 2011

Over the last five years, I have become increasingly involved in a community intensely interested in the popularization of science and critical thinking, the skeptic movement. Innumerable skeptically-oriented meetup groups have appeared in cities all over the world, and they are coordinating with one another. If you survey the skeptical movement, you will see that we cluster around (or at least frequently walk past) many of the same online water coolers–Phil Plait’s Bad Astronomy blog, the JREF site, the National Center for Science Education, the Skeptics’ Guide podcast, Brian Dunning’s Skeptoid, the Skeptic Zone Podcast, Skepticality and any number of other podcasts. We attend The Amazing Meeting Las Vegas, The Amazing Meeting London, The Amazing Meeting Australia, Dragon*Con, NECSS, and numerous other regional, national, and international conferences on science, skepticism and critical thinking. We have collectively taken up a number of political causes that are opportunities to reintroduce science and critical thinking into the daily lives of our fellow citizens, including combating antivaccine wackloonery, debunking the bizarrely popular holographic wristband phenomenon, and checking the often dangerous claims of self-proclaimed natural health gurus.

A major part of what binds all of these people together is a deep appreciation of the importance of evidence and reason, to which I subscribe without reservation. However, something that is often missing from the discussion is an appreciation of the critical thinking that goes on in the humanities. In fact, I occasionally even encounter outright hostility to the humanities (often, I think, in association with the hilarious Sokal Hoax). And don’t get me wrong, there is some woo in the humanities (you will hear a lot about that on this site in the months to come), but most academics in the humanities strive to come to a better understanding of the human experience through examining evidence. Critical thinking, that is, is not the exclusive domain of the sciences, and we want to gently remind fellow skeptics of that.

Another reason to recognize the close relationship of skepticism and humanistic inquiry is that much of the formal training that high school and college students receive in critical thinking and argument is in English classes. Through the nineteenth century, the skills associated with argument (on most topics) were folded into a topic known as “rhetoric” and were geared at creating men (yes, just men) who would participate in public life. The humanities have since fractured and specialized (perhaps as a reaction to the simultaneous specialization of disciplines in the sciences), and courses in rhetoric and argument have become increasingly focused on producing and reacting to written texts. This is why students receive so much of their formal training in argument in English classes, communication departments and writing programs. After freshman English, students practice producing extended syllogistic arguments, finding and citing reliable sources, and developing style and a sense of audience in term papers for their history, theology, philosophy, cultural studies, and literature classes. We must cultivate an appreciation of these skills across the disciplines, and instructors should keep these goals in mind as they train students to become capable, independent learners.

Another reason that the apparent exclusion of the humanities from skeptical circles seems forced and artificial to me is because the most skilled communicators in the movement, including James Randi, Pamela Gay, Phil Plait, the Mythbusters, and innumerable podcasters, authors, bloggers and educators are all participating in the production of culture–they are immersed in and generating the stuff that researchers in the humanities groove on! In many cases, they actually are professional artists, like George Hrab and “Surly” Amy Davis Roth. And the easy fit of a Skeptical track into the cultural carnival that is Dragon*Con suggests to me that the producers and consumers of pop culture (and so-called “high” culture, if you care to make the distinction) and the people who are interested in critical thinking overlap substantially. And I can even think of a couple of high profile skeptics who have advanced academic degrees in the humanities, including Karen Stollznow (linguistics) and Joe Nickell (a Ph.D. in English).

My interest in developing this site is both professional and personal. Professionally, I look forward to forging relationships with other scholars across the disciplines and benefiting from their expertise and enthusiasm. Personally, I derive immense satisfaction from my research into fringe and unorthodox areas of study and find the urge to share what I learn with others almost impossible to resist.

If you are a researcher in the humanities or artist who would be interested in joining or contributing to this project, contact us through this website or via my gmail address, rjblaskiewicz. A sample of the sorts of the topics that we plan to cover include:

  • Freud and the Academy
  • Are memes real things?
  • Postmodernism and science.
  • Academic fetishes
  • So, which writers and artists were actually gay, and how much does it matter?
  • Conspiracy theory and pseudoscholarship
  • Biblical authorship (David’s Psalms, Moses and the Torah, Gospel writers)
  • The rhetoric of science.
  • Was Shakespeare Catholic? Jewish? Shakespeare?
  • Did Dan Brown get anything right?
  • Creationists and the abuse of non-Christian mythology
  • Monsters in history, art, and literature
  • Psychology and literature
  • Isn’t oral history just anecdotal evidence?
  • Enemies foreign, domestic, and imagined
  • Persuasion and propaganda

And lots more, including book reviews and commentary on the depiction of the humanities in popular culture. Additionally, if you have a topic that would like to see added to these, we’ll be happy to add it to the queue.


Spear Shaking!

January 5, 2011

In the first post of this brand-spanking new website, Eve Siebert addressed some of the problems that have dogged the arguments of people who do not think that the William Shakespeare who everyone at the time referred to was really “THAT” William Shakespeare. And we are immensely gratified to see people visiting and commenting on the site. We want to reply to one commenter in particular, Howard Schumann, who left a long list of questions for us to answer.

It is important to remember, of course, that ours is not the extraordinary claim. We know this because it is in accord with the best evidence that we have. Not questions about things we don’t know, but documents that point to a particular guy named named William Shakespeare, the broad strokes of whose life we can sketch out using business and legal documents, contemporary commentary, and an understanding of the history and culture of London and England during the period in question. Howard has asked us to answer a number of questions that he harbors, and that’s fine. But I do this as a courtesy, not because it is an obligation. It is always the responsibility of the person making the extraordinary claim to demonstrate the truth of their proposition with positive evidence for the claim. I’m still waiting for that. Regardless, Schumann says:

Thanks but please don’t try to force an answer where the thing is simply shrouded in mystery. Some of these questions may never be answered.

It’s true, some things won’t be answered, but that’s true about all sorts of historical events and literary creations and…everything. But in case, I would contend that there is a lot less mystery than Oxfordians seem to think there is.

So, on to the commentary and questions.

My point is that we have so much documentation for lesser writers, do not you think it a bit odd that we have none for the greatest writer in the English language?

You are factually wrong here. Factually. Wrong. I have in front of me 30 pages of documents from the time. Did you look at the appendices of the Norton Shakespeare? What about the line from William Basse’s elegy, “Mr. Wm. Shakespeare/he dyed in Aprill 1616”? He says: “Sleep, rare Tragaedian Shakespeare, sleep alone.” Actually says the guy was a tragedian and attaches a name and a date of death. Why does that not count as evidence? This is what I meant by “positive evidence for the claim.” The will and testament that we have is dated 25 March 1616. We have the royal Letter Patent that names Shakespeare at the adoption of the Chamberlain’s Men as the King’s Men. And there are pages of the stuff in the back of Norton edition (and that’s not even the good edition!). Look at it. Heck, even Greene famous snitty “upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers” comment is complaining in 1692 about how this guy without a formal education is doing so dang well–and he makes an allusion to Henry the Sixth, 1.2.138. He’s linking the guy (whose name he puns in “the only Shake-scene in a country”), his rise (despite his lower social status) and the plays–he also calls him a Johnannes fac totum a “jack of all trades”! This suggests the broad expertise that you say he can’t have. 30 pages worth of the primary documents you say do not exist can be found in Appendix B of the Riverside Shakespeare.

I’m not sure what the puns on the name Will are about but they are certainly not strong evidence that the author was William of Stratford. De Vere was also called Will.

Do you know who was also called Will? Will Shakespeare. And in Sonnet 136, he distinctly says his name is Will:

Make but my name thy love, and love that still,
And then thou lovest me, for my name is Will.

I would agree, however, that based on the content of the poems, you can glean almost no actual biographical material (for reasons I will discuss below), but it’s not nearly as clever unless his name is actually Will.

Perhaps you could address the following questions:

Sure. I’ll take a swing at ‘em.

1. The Sonnets were published in 1609 bearing the most personal and intimate details of a man’s life. At a time when the author was allegedly still alive, he offered no dedication, took no part in its publication nor did he attempt to stop publication. How is that possible?

OK, publishing was different then, but, the Norton Shakespeare makes a good argument that he may have been involved (p 1921). Basically, they make the case that they came out through a respectable publisher who had a good relationship with the acting company, it was registered officially at the Stationers’ Register: “Unauthorized publication would have jeopardized those connections. Moreover, a publisher did not have a right to include the author’s name without the author’s permission, and hardly any texts of the time that were registered for copyright violated this regulation. If Thorpe had done so, he would have risked a significant financial penalty that he could ill afford.” Now, there are some assumptions here, but only that “Thorpe was a good enough business man to not get sued poor.”

2. The dedication to the Sonnets is written to our “ever-living author”, a tribute almost always reserved for someone who is no longer alive. Please explain?

The dedication on the sonnets is as follows:



So, to the “begetter”, the publisher is wishing eternal happiness, and who grants that? Oh, yeah, that’s God. The “ever-living poet,” or immortal creator.

3. In Sonnet #125, the author claims to have “borne the canopy”. This refers to carrying the canopy over royalty during a procession. Oxford was known to have done this on several occasions. A commoner such as Shaksper would not have been allowed within 1000 feet of the monarchs. Please explain.

This is an example of cherry picking. Even quote-mining, actually. If you read the whole sentence you’ll find that it actually confirms the opposite of what you think it means:

“Were’t ought to me I bore the canopy,
With my extern the outward honouring,
Or laid great bases for eternity,
Which prove more short than waste or ruining?”

This is saying, in essence, “Would it matter to me if I had the status to carry the canopy”? You see, it’s in the conditional, doesn’t say that he has carried the canopy, and even if it did, it’s not an autobiography.

4. The first 100 or so verses of the sonnets entreats a fair young man to marry. Scholars agree that the fair young man refers to Henry Wriotheseley, the 3rd Earl of Southhampton. No commoner such as Shaksper of Stratford would be allowed to address an Earl in such a manner. Please explain.

Scholars, in fact, do not agree on this. Now, some may jump the gun and accept that it was Southampton, but we don’t have any real evidence linking Southampton to the sonnets (now, to the narrative poems, yes, but only as dedicatee, not necessarily as patron). And, again, not autobiography.

5. Shakespeare without question was one of the greatest if not the greatest writer in the English language, yet his daughters were illiterate. How is this possible? I know the rate of literacy of women in that time was very low, but this is not a logical explanation.

Why is that not a logical explanation? It would be more extraordinary if they had been literate. Also, my father is an obstetrician, yet I rarely perform surgery. Furthermore, we don’t have any reason to think…almost anything about his home life. But for most of his professional career he was in London and the daughters were in Stratford. End of story, really.

6. None of Shaksper’s relatives from Stratford ever claimed that their relative was the famous author. Explain.

We don’t know that. How can you say that they never claimed that? All you can say is that we don’t have documentation. That’s a different matter all together. This is what we call the argument from ignorance, a logical fallacy that runs: “I don’t have evidence that X is true; therefore X is not true.” This is the opposite of having what I called “positive evidence.”

7. Dr. Hall was the husband of Susan Shaksper, daughter of William. In his journals he refers to famous men he knew and treated, yet never once mentions his wife’s illustrious father. Please explain.

People were generally not interested in biographies of Shakespeare at the time any of his immediate relatives were alive. James Shapiro (p 49 of Contested Will) mentions that a vicar (presumably in the Statford area, my source says “local”) who had an interest in Shakespeare intended to contact Judith, the younger daughter, about her father, but she died in 1662 before any meeting took place, it seems. Only one of Hall’s notebooks survived, and maybe he was in there. Maybe he never treated Shakespeare–these were, after all, medical journals and not literary journals. This is another argument from ignorance.

8. The sonnets are widely accepted to have been written in the early 1590s at a time when the man from Stratford would have been in his late twenties, yet his sonnets tell us that the poet was in his declining years when writing them. He was “Beated and chopped with tanned antiquity,” “With Time’s injurious hand crushed and o’er worn”, in the “twilight of life”. He is lamenting “all those friends” who have died, “my lovers gone”. His is “That time of year/When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang/Upon those boughs that shake against the cold.” Please explain.

Poems. Not autobiography. They may have been written in character, you know.

9. The sonnets that most contradict Will of Stratford’s life story are those about shame and disgrace to name and reputation. Here Shakespeare’s biographers have nothing to go on. The sonnets talk about a man who was in disgrace from fortune and men’s eyes. What biographical connection is there to the life of the man from Stratford that would have disgraced him and please don’t tell me that the Sonnets were merely literary exercises? It is not credible.

Are you saying that his poems have to be autobiographical? Because they don’t. I mean, how do you tell what’s real and what’s not? Why would the “greatest writer in English” be forced to only write autobiographically? I suspect that you need it to be true. Why not commit to this method of analysis and say that the author of A Midsummer Night’s Dream was a fairy because there are fairies in it?

10. Thomas Nashe and Gabriel Harvey were literary pamphleteers who wrote about the most prominent literary figures of the day and have many references to the Earl of Oxford, yet are strangely silent on any writer named Shakespeare. Why?

I see that Nashe wrote about 1 Henry IV, and Harvey wrote about that Hamlet, Venus and Adonis and Lucrece. You can find these reprinted in the Norton Shakespeare.

11. After two successful poems were published under the name of Shakespeare (Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece), all the plays were published anonymously for five years until 1598 when William Cecil died. Is there some cause and effect going on?


(In voice of Monty Python’s Bruces) THERE IS NO COMMENT NUMBER TWELVE!!!

13. Many of the known sources for the plays were books in Italian, French, and Spanish that were untranslated at the time. There is no evidence that Shakspere could read any language other than English and there is even some question whether or not he was literate since nothing of his writing remains. There is no literary paper trail of any sort. While Oxford was fluent in those languages, what is there in the known background of the man from Stratford that could explain this knowledge?

Yeah, another argument from ignorance. I don’t have my high school Spanish vocab quizzes, but I still speak Spanish. He would have had Latin (probably) and you are talking about latinate languages. I mean, it’s not that hard for someone who is actually a genius to teach himself a language. And literate? Really? That’s like saying because my grandmother didn’t leave any letters, she was probably illiterate. Or that because someone doesn’t know who their dad is is a reason to believe that they had no father. No. No.

Now, you could persuade me, but you’d need really good evidence. Like, any of Shakespeare’s poetry in Oxford’s hand. Or a single instance of a contemporary discussing the big funny authorship hoax. Or evidence that the Zombie of Oxford was producing smash hits almost a decade after he had died. A note by Francis Meres explaining why he mentions both Shakespeare and Oxford as the best poets for comedy in his Palladis Tamia, or Wit’s Treasury. Then we can talk. But first look at those sources I mentioned, otherwise, you will labor under the misapprehension that there is no documentary evidence for Shakespeare. That’s not fair to you and leads to dubious conclusions.