Tuesday, October 18, 2011


I am delighted that war has broken out between the entertainment and academic worlds. The question, to which I give a frivolous answer above, is whether the plays attributed to William Shakespeare were authored by him. I like to sit on the sidelines, so to speak, and watch the ignoramuses and the intelligentsia duke it out.

Oh, yes, as a Shakespearean scholar, Ph.D’d and published, I have no doubts that the man from Stratford and the man in London are one and the same man—some people doubt that equivalence, so I mention it to overlook nothing—and that that man wrote all or large parts of the plays attributed to him (collaboration among dramatists was commonplace at the time).

However, my work on Shakespeare has almost nothing to do with his biography. Almost: I once favorably reviewed a clever book discrediting Shakespeare’s authorship without committing to proposing an alternative. Even so, an amateur wrote this book; indeed, only amateurs write articles and books advancing the thesis that someone else wrote the plays and poems attributed to my Main Man. I have nothing against amateurs, but I have much against those who come to Shakespeare’s text and the relevant historical documents with biases unrecognized or unacknowledged, with their minds made up, and with no expertise in reading them in their literary or historical contexts. A few amateurs, like the author of the book which I reviewed, try but fail to persuade trained scholars, not because of an academic conspiracy, but because of deficiencies in their scholarship. Most amateurs do not write to persuade scholars but to put forth erudite-seeming stuff to gull the public, for fun or profit or even politics.

As others have noticed, the emergence of the anti-Stratfordian movement, the name given the anyone-but-Shakespeare crowd, in the mid-nineteenth century parallels the rise of the detective story. Its existence today reflects a growing trend in anti-elitism, especially of the anti-authoritarian variety, unconsciously intended to exorcise personal demons (Freud, too, had his problems). The irony is that amateurs who are anti-elitist in rejecting Shakespeare’s authorship do so on an elitist assumption: no one from a small town and small school could possibly become more than a bumptious country bumpkin in the big city, could read widely, observe closely, and write well. It also reflects a burgeoning taste for conspiracies about almost anything about which adherents have a deficiency of information and a surplus of zeal. As a famous biographer of Shakespeare once observed, the good which comes of all this anti-Stratfordian fanaticism is that it is not channeled into politics. He made that observation long before the rise of the Tea Party. My prayer is that it stick with Agenda 21 and leave the Bard alone; on second thought, my prayer goes the other way around—welcome, Tea Party, to my field.

The reason why this contretemps amuses me is that the issue is both unresolvable and unimportant. It is unresolvable because the motives of the amateurs are akin to the promptings of faith, not reason; scholarly arguments are dismissed as special pleadings—just an anti-intellectual, ad hominem response. It is unimportant because the answer cannot change anything about our understanding of the plays themselves. For all the energy devoted to denial, no anti-Stratfordian has made the effort to show the identity of his or her candidate for authorship in anyway explains anything in any play or poem by “Shakespeare” or influences an understanding of it.

Even so, I have stooped to join the ruckus. What is at issue, as I hint above, is the larger question of dealing with reality and not denying it. In the case of Shakespeare, I suspect more ink than blood will be spilt; in the case of all else, the results may be quite different. We cannot make good decisions on bad or biased information, but we seem resolved to do so with our current array of some party candidates. (Does Perry think that Shakespeare might have fought against us during our revolt against England, as he dates it, in the “16th century”? As someone once wrote, “Madness in great ones must not unwatched go.”

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