Skeptical Humanities Panel at Dragon*Con

January 15, 2012

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

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


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

November 10, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Looney continues,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

November 7, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But remember,

The Essex Rebellion Was an Inside Job!

The Other 5 Reasons Roland Emmerich is an Idiot

October 24, 2011

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

6. Not edumucated enough.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

10. The bloody will.

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

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

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

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



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

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

Shakespeare: Life and Times. Palomar College.

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

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

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

The First Five Reasons Roland Emmerich Is an Idiot

October 23, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here endeth Part the First.


“Anonymous” Screenwriter John Orloff: Name Dropping and Wrong

October 18, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yawn. Appeal to false authority. Sorry.

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

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

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

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

And we can add Sigmund Freud in there as well.


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

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

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

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

He meant the Shakespeare myth.

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

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


Shakespeare 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.