Time and the Shakespeare authorship debate march on


Folger_InteriorLast week I was in Washington DC to attend a conference at the Folger Shakespeare Library, “Shakespeare and the Problem of Biography.” I wrote later that it was an historic moment in the authorship debate. In thinking more about it this week I found myself recalling another historic authorship debate moment that also occurred in Washington DC (and one which I also had the privilege of attending back in my early Oxfordian days), the Moot Court Trial at American University in September 1987, featuring three sitting Supreme Court Justices (Harry Blackmun, William Brennan and John Paul Stevens) passing judgement on the authorship question (see the my post “Revisiting the 1987 Moot Court Trial” for some history of this event).

And then, lo and behold, as if right on cue, one of those Justices — Stevens — was suddenly in the news this week because of his views on the authorship of Shakespeare, expressed during an interview published in the The New York Times Sunday Book Reviews.

In the interview Stevens refers, three different times, to the “author of the plays attributed to William Shakespeare,” clearly alluding to someone other than the Stratford man while at the same time not naming anyone. Washington Post columnist Ron Charles (whom I’d written about just a few weeks ago for his over-the-top embrace of Stanley Wells recent e-book on the authorship debate, Why Shakespeare was Shakespeare), weighs in again on the authorship, laying into Stevens (The Justice Doth Protest Too Much) for being out of his depth. I think that all Charles really does, though, is demonstrate his own profound ignorance about both the authorship issue itself and the true story behind those who — like Stevens — have abandoned the Stratford story. Charles lets loose with the usual, all in just a few paragraphs:

Oxfordians and others who insist that someone besides Shakespeare must have written those immortal works will be encouraged that the former justice manages to emphasize his theory two more times in this brief interview. Asked to name his literary hero, he says, “The author of the plays attributed to William Shakespeare.” Asked to imagine his ideal literary dinner party, he invites “Samuel Clemens, Charles Dickens and the author of the Shakespeare canon.”

There is such a thing as scholarship, [Gary] Taylor [general editor of “The New Oxford Shakespeare”] argues, even expertise. “Conspiracy theories about the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays all depend upon a failure to respect the simple distinction between literature, which rightly belongs to everyone, and literary history, which, like legal history, is not a hobby, but a specialist discipline, best debated and adjudicated by experts. Don’t rely on my opinion of case law, and don’t rely on John Paul Stevens’s opinion about the authorship of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream.’”

For scholars this is a wearisome distraction from real work. Harvard professor Stephen Greenblatt wrote a bestselling biography of Shakespeare in 2004, but that’s done little to quell the Flat Earth speculation about who really wrote “Hamlet.” Perhaps, for some people, this question is beyond all rational evaluation. Every piece of evidence is only more proof of just how elaborate the Shakespeare deception is. At this point, Greenblatt seems resigned to let them have their fun.

Funny thing is, Prof. Greenblatt was one of the featured speakers at the Folger event last week, where he let loose with a few gems of his own. In checking my notes I think the best was his lament that the public was demanding “popular” biographies of Shakespeare, even as experts such as himself kept insisting biography didn’t matter (“interest is high,” he said … despite our teaching our students that all that matters is the text). Oh, that cursed public, wanting to know what the story was about how Shakespeare became Shakespeare. So Prof. Greenblatt writes Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare (2004), leads off on page one with “Let us imagine,” and then finds that the authorship debate still won’t go away! Go figure. Here’s a quote from the Preface (p. 12):

This is a book, then, about an amazing success story that has resisted explanation: it aims to discover the actual person who wrote the most important body of imaginative literature of the last one thousand years. Or rather, since the actual person is a matter of well-documented public record, it aims to tread the shadowy paths that lead from the life he lived into the literature he created.

“A story that has resisted explanation?” “actual person?” “…shadowy paths that lead from the life he lived into the literature he created?” I wonder why Prof. Greenblatt didn’t quote his own lines at the Folger last weekend. Couldn’t have been more “on topic.” Well, thereby hangs a tale.

Also note that Prof. Taylor brings in the bugaboo word “conspiracy,” right in sync with Charles’ own use of the ad hominem chestnut “Flat Earth.” Well, at least we’re beyond the “Holocaust deniers” meme, something which Greenblatt himself had once used but has now disowned … see the Oberon Shakespeare Study Group’s post on this (Greenblatt Sez Sorry to Oxfordians), posted just yesterday by Linda Theil. But Greenblatt still can’t resist taking some sort of shot, so he’s quoted saying, “I see no reason to deny anyone a guilty pleasure that is, as this one seems to me, in the category of speculations that the moon landing was staged in a Hollywood film studio or that extraterrestrials crashed in Roswell, New Mexico.”

The wonderful thing about the authorship story is that it’s never over, and it won’t be until the academy either provides some good answers to some tough questions, or — better yet — concedes the point that they’ve got the wrong guy (stay tuned). The current impasse is perfectly described in David Ellis’s The Truth About Shakespeare: Fact, Fiction and Modern Biographies (2013), a book not mentioned once at the conference last week. It’s main point, about the current biography craze that still leaves many readers empty, can be easily summarized by noting that there have been 20 plus biographies (and counting) published over the last few decades, with none of them really making sense of this key “how did Shakespeare became Shakespeare” question. Yet over these same years all the books published about Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford — depicting him as a real-life Hamlet who became “Shake-speare” for very specific, understandable reasons — do make sense about this same key “how and why” question, in overplus.

It might be said, in fact, that the question of “How and why Shakespeare became Shakespeare” is something we all have in common, Stratfordians and anti-Stratfordians alike. But to get down to some good, understandable answers one does need to have the right author in place.

I will be posting some detailed notes about what was said at the Folger’s “Problem of Biography” conference in the coming weeks. Some of the papers will apparently be made available to attendees in the near future, and a podcast of the opening lecture by Brian Cummings will also soon be available.

(NB: I had included in the original version of this post a long reprinted story about the Moot Court Trial, but decided later in the day to make that a separate post. That story (posted April 14th) can now be found under: “Revisiting the 1987 Moot Court Trial.”


Authorship by Indirection


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).

Pete Seeger and the power of song

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Pete-Seeger-SongleadingAs I sit here working on different things on my computer the TV is on in the background, and PBS is re-broadcasting its American Masters segment on folk singer Pete Seeger (Pete Seeger: The Power of Song). The last time I saw it Seeger was alive, but he died in late January and this re-broadcast is now part history and part memorial. I can’t help but turn to the broadcast and immerse myself again in the music and the story of Pete’s life. It was a remarkable life spanning nine decades and touching on everything that has happened in our own history for nearly a century. You probably all know the story … artist, poet, singer, political activist … a genuine icon, and a hero. Late in the filmed segment his son (or maybe a grandson) remarks on how the song “Turn, turn, turn” reflects his long active life, where finally everyone has come to realize that his whole life was an act of love for everyone, and that song was the unifying force that allowed everyone to share that love. And yet … all that love and poetry was much more about taking a stand than romancing someone. And take a stand Pete did, over and over. He stood with unions against management, with protesters against war, and even as late as 2011 with Occupy Wall Street against banks. He never had commercial goals and was forever giving of his time and talent to help a cause. By the end of the show I had chills and tears. Where have all the flowers gone indeed?

I found myself thinking that somehow Seeger’s story is also about what I have come to believe about Shakespeare (i.e., Edward de Vere), that the Shakespeare Canon exists as an act of love coupled with the purpose of speaking truth —poetic truth— to power,  a kind of “power of poetry” not unlike protest songs. The idea that the Canon exists because one man was hell bent on making some money is wrong, simple as that.

There are tons of Seeger videos on YouTube, but here are two that are close to my heart: “Where have all the flowers gone?”, well, just because, and 2) “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy,” because here is our American Bard on center stage (after 17 years in banishment!) singing a war protest song —in  the midst of a war— that immediately got all political hell breaking loose, and undoubtedly hastened the end for the Smothers Brothers who had dared to put him on. Some things never change. I remember clearly watching it live in late February 1968. Two months later I was drafted, and 18 months later that was me in the big muddy, pushing on, none too happy about it, but in the end learning some important lessons about the reality of things.

Peace Pete.

“Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”

“Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” (original broadcast on CBS, February 25, 1968)


Jarmusch’s “Only Lovers Left Alive” plays with the Shakespeare authorship

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Here’s an early review of the latest Jim Jarmusch film (‘Only Lovers Left Alive’ | Under the Gun Review) which is of special interest to all anti-Stratfordians because right in the middle of the film British actor John Hurt turns up playing Christopher Marlowe, who goes off about “Who wrote Shakespeare” question and ends up calling the Stratford man an “illiterate swine.” We first heard about this last summer, when during a press conference at the Cannes Film Festival (while the film was in production) this moment in the film was discussed, and both Jarmush and Hurt weighed in with their thoughts. Here (below) is a clip of the press conference, from YouTube (with the Shakespeare authorship exchanges running from 3:50 to 6:20). John Hurt is asked about his role in the film (he plays Marlowe) and he goes straight into how much Jim Jarmusch believes that Christopher Marlowe wrote Shakespeare. The discussion goes on for several moments, with Jarmusch enthusiastically expounding on the issue while Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston look on with goofy grins. It concludes with Hurt also expressing his anti-Stratfordian views and informing Jarmusch that Sir John Gielgud should also be counted as an anti-Strat who — in the end — was an Oxfordian. The interviewer finally jumps in to get things back on track.

From the movie review:

A veritable auteur of indie cinema, Jim Jarmusch has oft been described as a filmmaker ahead of his time. His latest picture however, the gorgeous Only Lovers Left Alive, feels more like a relic from a treasured past. Its depiction of supernatural companionship harks back to a time when such stories were rarities and not mass marketed products for young adult audiences.

The high point of the entire thing may be John Hurt popping up as Christopher Marlowe – an acquaintance of Eve’s in Tangier, fully embracing the conspiracy theories about Shakespeare’s authorship and dismissing him (fantastically) as an illiterate swine.

Posted from Diigo. The rest of my favorite links are here.

Authorship and authenticity

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If we find out that the Earl of Oxford wrote the plays we ascribe to Shakespeare, the plays won’t be any different, but people (not just English profs) really want to know the truth. This is a little odd, because we know so little about the historical Shakespeare that his biography can’t really affect our experience of the work much, but there are real insights to be gained about lots of art by knowing more about the artist and his milieu.

Posted from Diigo. The rest of my favorite links are here.

Shakespeare was Shakespeare, again.

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Shakespeare-DroeshoutOne of the more ill-informed little posts on the Shakespeare authorship that you are likely to see anytime soon popped up on a Washington Post blog yesterday. That it comes from an assistant editor might have been surprising once, but not in 2014 when anyone who knows anything certainly knows that the Washington Post of yesterday is long gone. The post (Why Shakespeare WAS Shakespeare) directs readers to the latest book (with the same title) from Stanley Wells, a $1.99 kindle e-book on amazon.com that lets us know (again) that “Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare,” so please ignore 150 years of controversy, and also please ignore the 2,500 individuals (many prominent actors, authors, jurists and scholars) who continue to disagree (e.g., see The Declaration of Reasonable Doubt). The Declaration site’s founder and chairperson John Shahan is engaged in an interesting set of exchanges in the reviews/comments section under the book listing at amazon.com. Check it out.

From the blog:

Pity the Shakespeare scholars. For more than a century now, they’ve been distracted from actual scholarship by zany arguments that the man from Stratford-upon-Avon did not write the plays we attribute to him.

All of this flared up (again) a few years ago when Roland Emmerich released a silly costume drama called “Anonymous,” which posited that Edward de Vere was the true (secret) author of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” et al.

Pity the Shakespeare scholars. For more than a century now, they’ve been distracted from actual scholarship by zany arguments that the man from Stratford-upon-Avon did not write the plays we attribute to him.

Readers interested in a brief summary of the claims and a strong defense of the Bard might consider Stanley Wells’s new Kindle single, “Why Shakespeare WAS Shakespeare” ($1.99). In about 60 pages, the esteemed scholar and editor considers the various anti-Shakespeare arguments (and some of their loonier proponents) and provides a quick, well-grounded rebuttal. Along the way, he also gives an overview of what is known about Shakespeare’s life.

Online, Wells’s essay has already attracted the opprobrium of skeptics. “It appears that Mr. Wells has simply copied old arguments from previous books on the subject,” writes a customer named Mark Twain. (Rumors of his death are, apparently, greatly exaggerated, but that’s a whole nuther conspiracy). “Worst, he keeps repeating various ‘facts’ that are simply long-held assumptions. When will modern scholars start thinking for themselves, or doing their own research?” Sigh.

Posted from Diigo. The rest of my favorite links are here.

New England Shakespeare Oxford Library booksale

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Fowler_Shakespeare RevealedAbout once every 12-18 months I do some fundraising for my library and database projects: the New England Shakespeare Oxford Library (NESOL) and the Shakespeare Online Authorship Resources (SOAR) database of Oxfordian and other authorship articles.

I’ve just updated the library’s Bookstore page and the Special Offer book sales page with the latest on books for sales (old and new), so check them out and see if there’s anything you might like. There are a few hard-to-find titles there, some good prices, and offers for gift books to accompany most orders.

If you haven’t visited the SOAR catalog/database site, please do. We now have 4,800 items cataloged, covering all Oxfordian publications dating back into the 1930s, plus entries for hundreds of other related authorship articles. There are links to individual articles in some records and/or links to online PDF versions of complete newsletters for the Shakespeare Oxford Fellowship publications. Our goal is to have individual article links in all the records in the near future.

Later this year a new Index to Oxfordian Publications will be published, covering all articles published through the end of 2013, plus many entries for such little known publications as the Shakespeare Pictorial, where Oxfordians such as B. M. Ward and Percy Allen published in the 1920s and early 1930s before the original Shakespeare Fellowship was founded. All these new records will also be added to SOAR later this year.

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