Richard Waugaman (l) and Hank Whittemore (r) talk with another attendee during break time in the Great Hall.

Richard Waugaman (l) and Hank Whittemore (r) talk with another attendee during break time in the Great Hall.

It’s now two days later, and I’m gathering my thoughts after attending a remarkable three day conference at the Folger Shakespeare Library, “Shakespeare and the Problem of Biography.” About 150 attendees packed the small Folger Theater to hear some of the major names in Shakespeare studies speak on a topic that those of us involved in the authorship debate have grappled with for years. In addition to myself there were a handful of other Oxfordians present, including Roger Stritmatter, Hank Whittemore, Peter Dickson, Richard Waugaman, James Warren, and Shelly Maycock. The authorship debate itself was barely mentioned, although on several occasions Delia Bacon and Baconians came up, most notably in a presentation on the final day, “Secrets and Ciphers; Decoding the Decoders,” that had much fun showing Baconians getting lost in cipher codes, and concluding with William Friedman taking them on and taking them down in 1954 with his The Shakespearean Ciphers Examined.

 

Prof. Graham Holderness (University of Hertfordshire)

Prof. Graham Holderness (University of Hertfordshire)

The word Oxfordian was spoken once, at the very end of the last day, when Graham Holderness (University of Hertfordshire) mentioned the movie Anonymous during a Q&A and noted that the depiction of Oxford in it was a disservice to Oxfordians since it showed a Shakespeare who was not a man of the theatre. Holderness also made a statement that I have been using for years to characterize the real problem inherent in having no biography of the author in hand, namely that interpretations can go all over the map when they are unbounded by any facts about the author: “What’s to be done if anything can mean anything to anyone?” he asked. John Drakakis (University of Stirling), to whom the question was directed, replied, “Yes, it’s a problem … the debate will go on, it won’t ever end.” [and at this point I wrote in my notes, “how about replacing the wrong author with the right author? … that would help]

My initial take on the whole event is that it represents a real attempt to deal with the authorship debate, but only by indirection, to borrow a phrase from one paper, “Anne by Indirection,” in which the life of Elizabeth Quiney (wife of the guy who once wrote but never sent a letter to the Stratford man) was parlayed into a “probable” portrait of Anne Hathaway—believe it or not—and that “probable” portrait could then tell us things about her husband. Over and over during the three days the same themes kept popping up, in one form or another: can a text be interpreted and understood without a lot of facts known about the author? Is the author “in” his works somehow, whether he means to be or not? Does the biography of the author matter at all? Why are there so few facts available to us about this particular author, Shakespeare? What is the role of generations of critics and their criticism in understanding Shakespeare? What is the relationship between biographies of an author and criticisms of his/her work? This is a short list that I think touches on the highlights of what was said most often.

Let’s remember, it was thirty years ago this year that Charlton Ogburn published The Mysterious William Shakespeare, and re-ignited the authorship debate for a new generation. Just a year later William F. Buckley featured Ogburn and his book on Firing Line. A couple of years after that came the Moot Court debate in Washington DC (1987). And two years later came the Frontline documentary, The Shakespeare Mystery (1989). The debate has raged on since then. But through it all the mainstream scholars have stood firm on two things: they had the right guy, and biography doesn’t matter that much in literary criticism anyway.

Well, at this “Shakespeare and the Problem of Biography” conference they continued to hold firm on having the right guy, but the whole notion that biography doesn’t matter came up in talk after talk, and, in my humble opinion, it is definitely under seige and may be on its way out. And that’s a big deal, especially if your guy (Stratman) has no real, factually-based biography to speak of (and this “problem” of having few facts was spoken of and commented on throughout the conference, almost like a confession). Several speakers did say quite openly and clearly that biography doesn’t matter (most notably Brian Cummings, University of York, in his opening talk, when he said, “Biography is not necessary for literary criticism” and “biography is not necessary to historicism”). The same line was echoed by Jack Lynch (Rutgers) the next day when he too said, “Biography is not necessary for literary criticism.” Yet Joseph Roach (Yale), in a short, powerful presentation that highlighted the power of Shakespeare’s words centuries after they were written, stated in his conclusion, “Shakespeare’s life is in his works.”

And that is the authorship dilemma in a nutshell: Biography doesn’t matter vs. the author’s life is in his works.

There is much more to say about some of the statements made in each of the separate talks, and I will return to that over the coming weeks (drawing on the many pages of notes I took down).

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