I just got a new tablet computer. Yay! Of course, that means I’ve been downloading free books like a crazy woman. One of the first ones I downloaded was J. Thomas Looney‘s “Shakespeare” Identified in Edward De Vere the Seventeenth Earl of Oxford (1920). You can read it here, if you really want to. Looney was not the first to suggest that someone other than Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare. Far from it; indeed, he borrows heavily from the Baconians. His work, however, is the basis for the claims that Oxford wrote Shakespeare. That’s right, without Looney, there would have been no Anonymous.
A word about the man’s name: it’s pronounced “loney” (rhymes with “pony”), so I won’t tolerate any childish “loony” jokes. Well, all right, but no more than a dozen or so.
I’ve only gotten through the first chapter, but the Introduction was extremely instructive. In it, I found this gem:
I do not maintain that any single objection, to what for convenience sake we must call the Stratfordian view, afforded by itself sufficient grounds for regarding it as untenable; for most of these objections have been stoutly combated severally, by men whose opinions are entitled to respect. It was rather the cumulative effect of the many objections which, it appeared to me, made it impossible to adhere with any confidence to the old view of things, and so gave to the whole situation an appearance of inexplicable mystery. (p. 3)
I reread that several times thinking, “he can’t really be saying what I think he’s saying. Surely not.” I even emailed Bob to ask “Is he saying what I think he’s saying?” Yes, that was the subject line. Eventually I came to the conclusion that he was indeed saying that no single objection to Shakespeare’s authorship has any real validity as they have all been “stoutly combated.” But put all these invalid objections together and–hey presto!–you’ve got yourself a reasonable argument. Wow. That’s almost exactly what critical thinking isn’t.
So, you may ask, what qualifications did Looney have in literary/historical investigation? Well, there’s this:
For several years in succession I had been called upon to go through repeated courses of reading one one particular play of Shakespeare’s, namely “The Merchant of Venice.” This long continued familiarity with the contents of one play induced a peculiar sense of intimacy with the mind and disposition of its author and his outlook upon life. (p. 2)
Ah. He read ONE play and felt he understood the author intimately. Makes perfect sense. More importantly, his lack of qualifications make him the right man for the job:
That one who is not a recognized authority or an expert in literature should attempt the solution of a problem which has so far baffled specialists must doubtless appear to many as a glaring act of overboldness; (p. 4)
I don’t know what “specialists” were baffled by the authorship question. I imagine if you asked the specialists of the day, “Who wrote Shakespeare?” They’d answer “Shakespeare.” If they looked baffled, it would probably be because they were puzzled that someone would ask such a silly question.
…whilst to pretend to have actually solved this most momentous of literary puzzles will seem to some like sheer hallucination. A little reflection ought, however, to convince any one that the problem is not, at bottom, purely literary. That is to say, its solution does not depend wholly upon the extent of the investigator’s knowledge of literature nor upon the soundness of his literary judgment. (p. 4)
Well, I suppose that’s true. A person who is not trained in literary analysis and research could theoretically discover documentary evidence that proved that Oxford wrote Shakespeare, especially if that person was trained in historical research (which Looney was not). But Looney discovered no such evidence. All the documentary evidence (and there’s a lot of it) is on Shakespeare’s side.
This is probably why the problem has not been solved before now. It has been left mainly in the hands of literary men, whereas its solution required the application of methods of research which are not, strictly speaking, literary methods. (p. 4)
Suck it, experts! I’m not sure what Looney thinks “literary methods” are, but they do involve looking at historical context. He adds, “The imperfection of my own literary equipment…was therefore no reason why I should not attempt the task (p. 4).” It’s no reason why he shouldn’t make the attempt, but it may be a reason some of his conclusions are faulty: he looked at poems ascribed to Oxford and thought they fit Shakespeare. In fact, in many ways, the styles do not match at all. His opinion of actual experts is not high:
The common sense of the rank and file of Shakespeare students, when unhampered by past committals, leads irresistibly towards the rejection of the old idea of authorship: and only the doctors of the ancient literary cult hang in the rear. (p. 11)
Yay! I’ve always wanted to be in a cult. Wait, does this mean that if Stephen Greenblatt tells me to drink poison-laced Kool-Aid, I have to drink it? No, I’m a medievalist; I think I’m safe from Greenblatt’s evil cult-leader charisma.
But Looney’s comments on literary cults and literary men are typical, not just of Shakespeare-deniers, but also of conspiracy and fringe theorists the world over: you can’t trust experts; they are too invested in the “official story.” Either they are too stuffy and closed-minded to see the Truth, or they are actively suppressing it. Ancient alien proponents, 9/11 truthers, Holocaust deniers–they all sing the same tune.
A look at Looney’s biography may help explain why he needed to find a different author for the Shakespeare works. He grew up in an evangelical Methodist household, but he later became a leading light in the positivist Religion of Humanity. They placed great, almost worshipful, emphasis on Great Men (and women), even proposing to rename the months after important thinkers. From Looney’s point of view, Shakespeare-the-poet was a Great Man, but Shakespeare-the-man didn’t fit the bill, so he had to find someone else. Why he picked a murderous profligate, I don’t know. According to Looney’s Wikipedia page, his family claimed to be descended from the Earls of Derby, one of whom, William Stanley, the sixth Earl, is another candidate for the “real” author of Shakespeare’s work.
In assigning a “Great Man” to the Great Work, Looney thought he was performing another Great Work.
The transference of the honour of writing the immortal Shakespeare dramas from one man to another, if definitely effected, becomes not merely a national or contemporary event, but a world event of permanent importance, destined to leave a mark as enduring as human literature and the human race itself. (p. 1)