The Shakespeare biographies keep coming …sometimes it feels like almost every week. But in fact it’s only a couple each year, but still, in the past 20 years or so, that adds up. One of the more recent is Bill Bryson’s Shakespeare: the World as Stage (2007), which has received numerous good reviews from the media and the public (see reader reviews at Amazon.com for a sampling). Recently on this blog there were several commentaries on Bryson posted under Touchstone’s Recommended Reading which I wished to comment on at the time, and will do so now. These two commentaries (“Bravo Bryson” from  Stratfordian Terry Gray and “Bryson’s Folly” from Oxfordian Hank Whittemore) are a neat little capsule summary of the state of the authorship debate, circa 2009.

First off, we should begin towards the end of Terry Gray’s piece. He writes:

“It is a sad commentary on our time, and we should expect more of ourselves, having more access to facts, that Bryson must add a final chapter to his book dealing with ‘claimants’ … that is, the crackpot modern notion … that someone else wrote Shakespeare. Redressing these ridiculous claims does become a biographic imperative. And Bryson is the man to do it. Gray then quotes Bryson, ‘So it needs to be said that nearly all of the anti-Shakespeare sentiment –actually all of it, every bit– involves manipulative scholarship or sweeping misstatements of fact.’ Bravo Bryson [emphasis added].”

Gray continues a few lines later,

“They [i.e., anti-Stratfordians] join that scourge of the information age, the conspiracy theorists with their wayward and unsubstantiated stories about the Lincoln or Kennedy assassinations, deniers of the holocaust, promoters of chariots of the gods, alien abductions, the Protocols of Zion, and so on. The stagnant swill that chokes the marginal banks of the turgid river of serious scholarship. But I digress.

Well, gee, who could argue with that? In his comments on Bryson, Oxfordian Hank Whittemore cuts right to the chase:

“Looking through Bill Bryson’s book Shakespeare: The World as Stage … I just couldn’t help wondering how he managed to get through writing it without recognizing his own contradictory statements and outright falsehoods, not to mention his snide, snickering dissimulation.”

Whittemore, quoting from the same section of the “Claimants” chapter as Gray [above], cites Bryson’s line:

“There is an extraordinary — seemingly an insatiable —  urge on the part of quite a number of people to believe that the plays of William Shakespeare were written by someone other than William Shakespeare.”

To which Whittemore replies,

“… you are begging the question — assuming the truth of the very point being challenged!

Indeed! And that is the bane of the authorship debate, and has been from the beginning. No one, of course, is saying that the author of the Shakespeare Canon was not the author of the Shakespeare Canon. That would be absurd. What is being said is that the warm body from Stratford may be the wrong warm body, and that the name “Shake-speare” (often hypenated) may have been a pseudonym. There are myriad reasons why both those suppositions are reasonable, which in turn in why so many intelligent people (including “scholars,” whether Gray or Bryson can bring themselves to acknowledge it or not) have kept this issue simmering away for 150 plus years, and why it will never go away until there is some reasonable
resolution.

There is an interesting tipoff in Bryson’s concluding chapter on the “Claimants” as to how he and Gray — and all Stratfordians — play their roles in the authorship game. In writing about Delia Bacon’s 1857 book he cites the title as: The Philosophy of the Plays of Shakspere [sic] Unfolded. Note the bracketed “sic,” an editorial note to the reader that the spelling “Shakspere” is not a typo. This is interesting because, as
anyone at all familar with this issue knows, the “Shakspere” spelling was used by many scholars writing about Shakespeare throughout the 19th century (check out this title page at Google Books; in fact, search “Shakspere” there and see what you get). It was, as I understand it, their way of “honoring” the true author from Stratford by using the “correct” spelling of his name, and not the spelling that appeared on title pages. Go figure! Of course once anti-Stratfordians began to exploit the spelling difference to argue that the man from Stratford (“Shakspere”) and the author named on title pages (“Shakespeare”) were two different people (i.e. two different warm bodies) …well, guess what? Bye-bye spelling differences. And so the man from Stratford is now “Shakespeare” all the time, spelling differences be damned. And so now, any time the name “Shakespeare” is found anywhere …it’s him! it’s him! Stratman! And that is that.

Does Bryson address this point? No, he does not. And further, he freely cites instances of the name “Shakespeare” appearing anywhere as being equivalent to the known documentary records concerning the life of the man from Stratford. On page 183 he claims that a professor at the University of Wales (William Rubenstein) is wrong to say none of the records concerning the Stratford man’s life mention him as an author, and he then proves his point by going on to cite instances of the name “Shakespeare” cited in the Master of the Revels accounts for 1604-1605 as the author of plays as proof that the man from Stratford was therefore identified as an author. Well, no he wasn’t.

When Whittemore wrote about Bryson’s “snide, snickering dissimulation,” this is what he meant. Not much we can do about it except to keep pointing it out. They’ll never change.