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.”