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.

“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.