Monthly Archives: December 2009

Whalen reviews Hope & Holston

Review of The Shakespeare Controversy: An Analysis of the Authorship Theories, Second Edition by Warren Hope and Kim Holston. Jefferson NC: McFarland & Company, 2009.

Richard F. Whalen

This second edition of Hope and Holston’s Shakespeare Controversy expands and brings up to date their selective survey and analysis of the literature on the authorship issue over the past 280 years. Well-written and well-researched, this book is not only an entertaining, good read but also a valuable reference work.

At the outset, the authors state that they are Oxfordians and “. . . what we track in this book are the efforts of a number of people which culminated in that recognition of Shakespeare’s identity, and the consequences, thus far, of that recognition. . . . Our aim is to be critically selective, not exhaustive.”

To cover the years since their first edition, published in 1992, the authors have added three chapters and extended their “Chronological Annotated Bibliography” with selected books and articles published in the past seventeen years.

In the first of the new chapters, the authors expand on works treated briefly in their first edition. They devote five pages to an admiring review of Hamlet Himself (1997), Bronson Feldman’s booklet published in 1977 that is out of print and almost impossible to find. The first edition gave Feldman four paragraphs. They follow with reports on the 1987 debate before three justices of the Supreme Court of the United States and the Frontline Public Broadcasting System television program on the authorship controversy, “The Shakespeare Mystery”, that was first broadcast in 1989.

The second new chapter, “The Stratfordian Response,” contains new, post-1991 material, including books by Irvin Matus, an independent researcher, and by Alan Nelson, an English professor emeritus. The authors devote five pages to Matus’s earnestly Stratfordian Shakespeare In Fact (1994), a book rarely cited by Oxfordians today. In the end, they say, Matus aims “to urge ‘the actor’s Shakespeare’ at the expense of ‘the scholar’s Shakespeare.’”  Alan Nelson’s anti-Oxfordian, archival biography of the earl of Oxford, Monstrous Adversary (2003), gets four pages, mostly on Nelson’s handling of three minor characters in Oxford’s life, George Brown, Orazio Coquo and William Hunnis. “His book,” say Hope and Holston, “is a piece of propaganda posing as scholarship.”

The third of the three new chapters reports on the work of various contemporary researchers of various persuasions. They include:

  • Peter Moore on the circumstances and votes for Oxford for membership in the Knights of the Garter, The Lame Storyteller, Poor and Despised;
  • Daphne Pearson on Oxford’s inherited income, “Edward de Vere (1550-1604): The Crisis and Consequences of Wardship”;
  • Roger Stritmatter’s dissertation on Oxford’s Bible, “The Marginalia of Edward de Vere’s Geneva Bible”;
  • Elliott Baker’s shortened edition of Delia Bacon’s book, Shakespeare’s Philosophy Unfolded;
  • Diana Price’s biography of Shakespeare, Shakespeare’s Unorthodox Biography;
  • William Rubinstein and Brenda James’s case for Henry Neville, The Truth Will Out;
  • Robin Williams case for Mary Sidney, Sweet Swan of Avon;
  • Mark Anderson’s detailed and fully annotated biography of Oxford, Shakespeare by Another Name;
  • and Bill Bryson’s informal, popular defense of the Stratford man, Shakespeare: The World as Stage.

Two of the chapters carried forward from the first edition are valuable essays on important early figures in the authorship controversy. They are the book’s opening chapter on Delia Bacon, the often unfairly maligned first Groupist, followed by a chapter on Mark Twain, quoted at length, and Walt Whitman with his friend William O’Connor.

The flamboyant, Baconian cryptologist Ignatius Donnelly gets a twelve-page chapter. The skeptic Henry James shares a chapter with Joseph Skipsey, the disillusioned custodian of the Stratford Birthplace. Grouped together in the next chapter are the respected anti-Stratfordian George Greenwood and two writers they call “rebels:” Samuel Butler and Frank Harris, who are not often heard from. Then comes one chapter entitled “Many Candidates: Marlowe, Rutland, Derby, and So On,” and an excellent, full chapter on J. Thomas Looney’s life and ground-breaking identification of Oxford as Shakespeare.

The last of the original, pre-1991chapters covers works of numerous researchers and witnesses, including John Galsworthy, B. R. Ward and his son B. M. Ward, Gerald Rendall, Eva Turner Clark, Charles Wisner Barrell, S. Schoenbaum, Percy Allen, Gerald W. Phillips, Dorothy and Charlton Ogburn, and Ruth Loyd Miller. For whatever reason, Clark, the Ogburns and Miller — major, influential Oxfordian authors — are not treated as fully as some of the more obscure writers.

It is of course impossible to include every book and article or do justice to any of the writers in a short survey of the immense literature on the authorship controversy by Oxfordians, Stratfordians and others. In most cases, but not all, Hope and Holston select one or two aspects of the writer’s work for discussion, instead of providing a generalized summary of each. This makes it more interesting reading but at the expense of a more comprehensive, if brief, description of the work.  They do an admirable job, however, of weaving together claims by Stratfordians and Oxfordians, showing the back-and-forth of the debate over the centuries. They have little patience for most Stratfordian claims.

The “Chronological Annotated Bibliography” picks up in November 1991 with “The Nose Job,” an episode from the TV program, Seinfeld. (A landlord contends that “Shakespeare was an imposter.”) The longest entries from 1991 to 2008 are on books by Ian Wilson, Irving Matus, John Michell, Joseph Sobran, Jonathan Bate, Diana Price, William Rubinstein, Rodney Bolt (a conjectural Marlovian,) Mark Anderson, Scott McCrae, and Robin Williams. The extended chronology also includes entries on the Harper’s Magazine (April 1999) collection “The Ghost of Shakespeare” that includes five articles by Stratfordians and five by Oxfordians and The Tennessee Law Review Vol. 72, No. 1 (Fall 2004) devoted to the authorship debate. (Full disclosure: This reviewer’s books and articles are included.)

Readers new to the book and its organization would do well to start with the chapters on Delia Bacon, Whitman, Twain and Looney; then browse here and there; and then keep the volume handy as a reference tool, consulting the index to find information on a specific author. Hope and Holston are especially good on biographical background.

Oxfordian readers will find anomalies. Some notable works receive scant attention while some obscure works are treated at length. Some bibliographic entries seem less than consequential. Major authors are covered in both chapter narratives and annotated bibliographic entries that sometimes run to several hundred words, so both should be consulted. Missing are any of the more significant Oxfordian research papers published in the Shakespeare Oxford Newsletter, the De Vere Society Newsletter, Shakespeare Matters, The Oxfordian annual journal, and the book Great Oxford, published in 2004 by the De Vere Society.

The chronological sequence is unusual for a bibliography. Rarely will readers have occasion to seek works published in a specific year. Nor does the sequence of entries convey any particular insights.

But these are quibbles. The authors state at the outset that they do not aim to be exhaustive. The book’s idiosyncrasies and the sidelights that caught the authors’ attention are a large part of its appeal. The book’s achievement, the result of an incredible amount of reading and thoughtful interpretation, is impressive. Warren Hope and Kim Holston have produced a worthy, if quite selective, survey of an immense subject — 280 years of literature on the Shakespeare authorship controversy in 227 pages.

Stritmatter uses ALIAS to pursue authorship

Roger Stritmatter, PhD is working with Buffalo State University’s CEDAR Forensic Handwriting division and with Carole Chaski, PhD — executive director of the Institite for Linguistic Evidence (ILE) — to determine the author of an 1846 document  known as the Hydrachos Manuscript using ALIAS Technology linguistic-analysis software to determine document authorship. The single-page Hydrachos Manuscript contains several drawings and news commentary that may be an unknown work of nineteenth-century, Shakespeare-authorship doubter Herman Melville. An October 19 press release from ILE, available at Stritmatter’s Shake-speare’s Bible Internet site, says:

This collaboration between the Institute for Linguistic Evidence and Dr. Stritmatter will be the first time that author identification methods developed for the forensic setting, having repeatedly met legal standards for admissible scientific evidence, will be applied to a literary puzzle. This particular document is perfect for this new collaboration because it is brief, just like the typical threat letter or suicide note or nasty letter to the SEC.

Stritmatter said this type of scientific, forensic analysis may be applicable to the Shakespeare authorship question:

Dr. Chaski and I intend to develop a long term collaboration to apply ALIAS software to the examination of  several pseudonymous or contested early modern texts. Some of
these — such as the prefatory materials of the Shakespeare first folio, which are signed by “John Heminges” and “Henry Condell” but have often been attributed to Ben Jonson — have direct bearing on the authorship question.  We look forward to applying the sophisticated forensic linguistics of ALIAS technologies to such historical and literary questions.

Whalen on Greenblatt’s review of Bate in Dec. 17 New York Review of Books

Review of a review: For Harvard’s Stephen Greenblatt, Shakespeare biographies must be boldly imaginary.

Richard F. Whalen

Since Shakespeare biographies must necessarily be mostly imaginary, they should be written without anxiety, inhibitions or fear, argues Harvard’s Stephen Greenblatt, a leading Shakespeare scholar and author of his own imaginary biography of the Stratford man as Shakespeare.

In a long review of Jonathan Bate’s Soul of the Age (2008), Greenblatt contends that Bate’s biography, although also mostly imaginary, falls short of his standard of uninhibited, anxiety-free, fearless confidence. “Do it with local color,” Greenblatt commands. “Work in all you know. Make them [your readers] accomplices.”

“Given the paucity of evidence,” Greenblatt says, “that enterprise demands speculation, imaginative daring and narrative cunning.” In effect, if there are not enough biographical facts, dare to trick the reader by cleverly making them up. If Greenblatt prevails, future Shakespeare biographies will have to be shelved in the section for fiction.

Greenblatt’s stinging and provocative critique of Bate’s biography for being insufficiently imaginary appears in the December 17, 2009 issue of The New York Review of Books (56:20) as “Shakespeare in No-Man’s-Land.” Greenblatt’s own imaginary biography, Will in the World (1997), follows his prescriptions for a Shakespeare biography. It opens boldly and unapologetically with the words in capital letters, “LET US IMAGINE”.

In Greenblatt’s opinion, Bate’s imaginary Shakespeare biography is too timid: “The spectacle of anxiety in Bate’s book goes well beyond the ordinary signals of caution.”

Greenblatt notes correctly that the usual qualifiers such as “could have” and “may well have” are the “stock-in-trade of Shakespeare biographies.” He adds that biographers are subject to “professional policing” by scholars intent on catching mistakes and “shaming those guilty of carelessness, rashness, or ignorance.” This threat, Greenblatt says, “can produce a painful aura of fear and inhibition, especially among those whose very gifts make them most sensitive to criticism.” That is to say, Jonathan Bate.

In this belated review of Bate’s 2008 book, Greenblatt complains about Bate’s “skittishness” and his “uneasiness about his own project.” He says Bate’s “nervous” shifting of tenses from dramatic present to historical past “suggests a writer uncomfortable with what he is doing.” Bate tries to use “action prose” of sentence fragments “but his heart is clearly not in them.”

“Where does this leave the beleaguered biographer?” asks Greenblatt. He answers: “In a no-man’s-land of swirling hypotheticals and self-canceling speculations; stillborn claims that expire at the moment they draw their first breath.”

Greenblatt gives what he calls a brief sampling from Bate’s book:

It is not outrageous to imagine…
Could it have been at the same age…?
Could he be the voice not only of Guy but also of William…?
Could he have been Shakespeare’s apprentice in the acting company?
It seems more than fortuitous that…
It is unlikely to be a coincidence that…
Guesswork of course, but I have a hunch that…
I have an instinctive sense that…
It is hard not to notice…
We cannot rule out the possibility that…
Could it then be that…?
One of the two could easily have been…
He may well have been there…
The players may well have been…
This could have been the occasion…
It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that…
…requires us to countenance the possibility that…

It is not very clear, however, how Bate’s alleged anxiety, inhibition and fear as demonstrated above differs that much from Greenblatt’s own style of imagining and hedging. Here is a brief sampling of the way Greenblatt wrote his Will in the World (2004), with emphasis added:

In the summer of 1585, William of Stratford “may have been working in the glover”s shop, perhaps, or making a bit of money as a teacher’s or a lawyer’s assistant. In his spare time he must have continued to write poetry, practice the lute, hone his skills as a fencer – that is, work on his ability to impersonate the lifestyle of a gentleman. His northern sojourn, assuming he had one, was behind him. If in Lancashire he had begun a career as a professional player, he must, for the moment at least, have put it aside. And if he had a brush with the dark world of Catholic conspiracy, sainthood, and martyrdom–the world that took Campion to the scaffold – he must still more decisively have turned away from it with a shudder.

As it happens, Greenblatt and Bate, both leading establishment Shakespeare scholars, are head-to-head competitors in academic publishing. Greenblatt is a chaired professor of humanities at Harvard University. Bate is a professor at the University of Warwick. Each is general editor of a complete, annotated works of Shakespeare: Greenblatt’s from Norton in 1997 and Bate’s more recently from Random House, in 2007. Shortly after its publication, the queen awarded Bate the honorary title of Commander of the British Empire (CBE).

In his own Shakespeare biography, Greenblatt laid claim to frankly imaginary biography that for all its speculations is uninhibited and anxiety-free. “It is important,” he wrote in the preface to that book, “to use our own imagination” since “nothing provides a clear link” between Shakespeare”s works and the life of William of Stratford. (See my review of his book in the winter 2005 issue of Shakespeare Matters.)

Greenblatt repeats that theme in his review of Bate’s book:

. . . despite feverish attempts to comb the archives and find further documentary records of Shakespeare’s life, very little has turned up in the last century. . . . The paucity of new discoveries has not inhibited the constant writing of new biographies. (I am guilty of one of them.) The lure is almost irresistible, and with good reason.

The irresistible lure of course is the enduring cultural importance and the aesthetic power and intensity of the Shakespeare plays and poems. Everyone wants to know more about the poet-dramatist.

Greenblatt says:

Never mind that he left so few traces of himself. Never mind that that none of his personal letters or notes or drafts survive; that no books with his marginal annotations have turned up; that no police spy was ordered to ferret out his secrets; that no contemporary person thought to jot down his table talk or solicit his views on life or art. Never mind that Shakespeare–son of a middle-class provincial glover–flew below the radar of ordinary Elizabethan and Jacobean social curiosity. The longing to encounter him and know him endures.

“Given the paucity of the evidence,” Greenblatt asserts that writing a Shakespeare biography “demands (emphasis added) speculation, imaginative daring and narrative cunning, but these are all qualities that arouse the scholar’s suspicion and anxiety. Bate’s attempts to enter the life-world of his subject are underwhelming.”

As a committed Stratfordian (so far), Greenblatt never questions whether “the paucity of evidence” might suggest that Will Shakspere of Stratford was not the great poet-dramatist and that someone else must have been. He never raises the issue of William Shakespeare’s identity, an issue of which he is fully aware. In this 3,300-word review of Bate’s book, he argues from his position of authority at Harvard that biographies of the Stratford man as the great poet-dramatist can only be imaginary. Oxfordians can certainly agree with that.

The Greenblatt review may be purchased for $3 or by subscription at:

SOS officers assigned duties

The Shakespeare Oxford Society board of trustees elected officers on December 12. President John Hamill was elected by the board at their November meeting during the annual meeting and conference in Houston. New officers are First Vice-president Richard Joyrich and Second Vice-president Matthew Cossolotto. Incumbent officers Secretary Virginia Hyde and Treasurer Susan Grimes Width were also re-elected.

President John Hamill reported today that a new committee has been formed, and will be headed by Second Vice-president Cossolotto:

Matthew Cossolotto has been selected as the Second Vice-president of the Shakespeare Oxford Society, and chairperson of the newly created Publications/Public Relations Committee.   Publications and public relations are very much related to each other, and we want to increase our public relations outreach, and expand the use of the SOS newsletter and The Oxfordian in this effort.  This will be a very challenging task for all of us.  Matthew is full of ideas as to how to improve both our publications and outreach.

First Vice-president Richard Joyrich will continue to be in charge of membership development.

Six new BC editors

Brief Chronicles General Editor Roger Stritmatter reported this news about the publicaton:

Editors of the Shakespeare Fellowship’s new online peer reviewed scholarly journal of authorship studies, Brief Chronicles, are pleased to announce that six new distinguished scholars have joined the journal’s team of editorial consultants, which now numbers twelve in all.
The new members include a Research Professor in Economics from the University of Hertfordshire, a specialist in historical codicology and textual dating from Harvard University, a former editor of the Wellesley Index to Victorian Periodicals with an established expertise in 19th century anonymous publication, a Professor of Shakespearean studies from Blackburn College, and a widely published Professor of theater history from the University of Missouri. The sixth new member of the board is a pioneer in the use of biometric linguistics to establish authorship of disputed documents, a regular legal consultant in forensic linguistics, and a nationally recognized expert on the Daubert Standard.

The six new members are:
Geoffrey M. Hodgson, PhD, a Research Professor in Economics at the University of Hertfordshire in England. He is an Academician of the Academy of Social Sciences in the UK and the author or over 12 books and over 100 articles in academic journals.

Donald Ostrowski, PhD, a Research Advisor in the Social Sciences and a Lecturer at Harvard University’s Extension School, where he teaches World History and survey courses, including the plays of Shakespeare. Although his research focuses primarily on early Slavic history, he has an extensive publication record in comparative history and methodology. He has expertise in codicology, text dating and attribution, and textual criticism.

Mike Hyde, PhD in English from Tufts University, an MA from Tufts, and a BA in English with high honors from Harvard College. While completing a dissertation on Shelley, he also took many courses in Renaissance and Shakespeare studies. At Harvard he studied with Harry Levin’s Shakespeare course group, and at Tufts with Sylvan Barnet.
Hyde served as the sub-editor for Walter Houghton on The Wellesley Index to Victorian Periodicals (from 1974-1980), a massive five volume compilation of more than thirty leading British-Scottish-Irish magazines published between 1800-1900. In that capacity he conducted extensive research on anonymity as well as the use of pseudonyms, initials, pen names, and other authorial disguises. He successfully identified Mary Shelley as the anonymous author of dozens of magazine articles, including one in New Monthly Magazine(1829) titled “Byron and Shelley on the Character of Hamlet.”

Ren Draya, PhD, a Professor of British & American Literature at Blackburn College, a small liberal arts school in central Illinois, where she teaches, among other courses, Shakespeare, Craft of Writing, and Twentieth-Century British Literature. Ren received her doctorate in dramatic literature from the University of Colorado, working under J.H. Crouch, founder of the Colorado Shakespeare Festival. Her B.A. in English is from Tufts University, where she studied under Sylvan Barnet, editor of the Signet Shakespeare series.

Felicia Hardison Londré is Curators’ Professor of Theatre at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and Honorary Co-Founder of Heart of America Shakespeare Festival. She was the founding secretary of the Shakespeare Theatre Association of America. She was inducted into the College of Fellows of the American Theatre at the Kennedy Center in 1999 and elected to the National Theatre Conference in 2001.

Carole E Chaski, PhD, the President of ALIAS Technology LLC, Executive Director of theInstitute for Lingustic Evidence, the first non-profit research organization devoted to linguistic evidence, and the Executive Director of the Marylee Chaski Charitable Corporation, a private foundation supporting the life cycle of literacy through grants and scholarships. Dr. Chaski earned her A.B. magna cum laude in English and Ancient Greek from Bryn Mawr College (1975), M.Ed. in Psychology of Reading from the University of Delaware (1981), and M.A. and Ph.D. in Linguistics from Brown University (1987).
Dr Chaski developed –and continues to develop– ALIAS: Automated Linguistic Identification and Assessment System in order to provide objective measurements for statistical analysis. In 1995 she won a three year Visiting Research Fellowship at the US Department of Justice’s National Institute of Justice, Office of Science and Technology, Investigative and Forensic Sciences Division, where she began the validation testing which has become an increasingly important aspect of forensic sciences since the Daubert ruling. Dr Chaski has served as an expert witness in Federal and State Courts in the United States, in Canada and in The Hague.

– For further information, please contact Brief Chronicles General Editor, Dr. Roger Stritmatter, at

Nina Green translates 16th earl’s inquisition post mortem

Nina Green reports that she has just completed a lengthy transcription and translation of the inquisition post mortem of Edward de Vere’s father: John de Vere, sixteenth Earl of Oxford. This and more primary source material is available at no cost on her website, The Oxford Authorship Site. This particular document is valuable because it shows the extent of the seventeenth earl’s inheritance. Nina said:

The English translation of the inquisition post mortem taken at Stratford Langthorne in Essex on 18 January 1563, five months after the death on 3 August 1562 of John De Vere, sixteenth Earl of Oxford is now on my website, along with a fairly lengthy summary in which I’ve explained and simplified two potentially very confusing issues.

The first is that the revenues for certain manors are put under slightly different headings in the inquisition post mortem and in WARD 8/13, and I’ve sorted that out for readers of the summary so that it’s clear that in the end the two documents provide the same figures, and that the totals in the two documents come within a few pence of each other.

I’ve also explained in the summary the structure of the inquisition post mortem, which appears haphazard on the surface, but takes the unusual form it does because of the 16th earl’s peculiar legal situation, which resulted from Somerset’s extortion against him in 1548 and the private Act of Parliament of 1552 by which Somerset’s extortion was rectified.

Latin transcription:

English translation:

Update 2/16/10:
Readers may contact Nina Green at <>

Facebook, etc.

The Shakespeare Oxford Society Facebook page, set up by SOS board member Brian Bechtold in July, has been useful in reaching a wider audience. Every time we post a message to the blog, we also post a link to Facebook. That link shows up on the Facebook page of each of our Facebook fans and is broadcast to all of their contacts on Facebook.

That is why they call it “networking” and that is why it’s useful for those who are interested in the Shakespeare authorship question to join the SOS Facebook page and the new Shakespeare Authorship Coalition Facebook page created for SAC by Martin Hyatt, and Roger Stritmatter’s Oxfordian Friends.

Anyone who is interested in learning more about the uses of Facebook and other social media can check out Nonprofit Tech 2.0: A social media guide for nonprofits. This blog features articles on all social media and how to use them to promote nonprofit organizations.

Yesterday’s blog entry at Nonprofit Tech 2.0, “Google’s Real-Time Search for Nonprofit Organizations”, began:

Many nonprofits still struggle with how to measure Social Media ROI and are not so clear on what exactly the benefits are of utilizing social media. An obvious benefit is about take front and center stage in a few days when Google launches their Real Time Search to the public. If your nonprofit is not utilizing social media, then the only content that will show up is what others are saying about your organization. Nonprofits that do utilize social media will have more control and will show up in real time results more often. . . .

For more information, visit the Nonprofit Tech 2.0 blog and sign up for their email newsletter that announces free webinar training sessions and links to new articles on the topic of social networking for nonprofit organizations.

Hughes on Oxford’s education

Stephanie Hughes reports on information about Edward de Vere’s education now on her blog at, Politic Worm:

The question of Oxford’s education is crucial to his authorship of the Shakespeare canon. Unfortunately it’s not the “smoking gun” everyone is hoping for, largely because not just one, but two things have to be accepted before its significance can be appreciated. A reader has to understand 1) why William can’t possibly be the author, and 2) what an astonishing education the author actually had.

Because Jonson was forced by the Stratford biography to portray the author as poorly educated (“small Latin and less Greek”), generations of Shakespeareans have assumed, despite all evidence to the contrary, that he was, as Milton saw him, or at least portrayed him, “Fancy’s child, warbling Nature’s woodnotes wild.” Milton should have known better, and perhaps he did. His patroness, Alice Spencer, Dowager Countess of Derby, the probable original of Kate from Taming of the Shrew, certainly knew the truth about Shakespeare.

In any case, for those of us who care about the truth, knowing how Oxford got educated, by whom, and what connection his education has with the works of Shakespeare is fundamental to understanding why he, and only he, can possibly be Shakespeare. More than that, it gives the richest material for the origins of the works.

New titles should appear on your screen in color. A fair amount of background is necessary to understand how and why things happened as they did, but a blog is not a book. Hopefully there’s enough here to make sense but not so much as to overwhelm. If otherwise, please ask questions. I’m grateful to those who do.

Stephanie Hughes

SAT trustee Julia Cleave reports on Shakespeare bio conference at The Globe

Shakespearean Authorship Trust Trustee Julia Cleave gave SOS permission to reprint her report on the conference: “Shakespeare: from Rowe to Shapiro held Nov. 28, 2009 at The Globe in London. This report appeared initially in Nina Green’s email list, Phaeton on December 3. Her report supplements an earlier report by De Vere Society Secretary Richard Malim.

A selective report by Julia Cleave on an event held at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London on 28 November entitled: Shakespeare: From Rowe to Shapiro – a one day symposium on the function and critical value of Shakespeare biographies to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the first biography of William Shakespeare by Nicholas Rowe: Some little account of the man himself may not be thought improper. (1709)

About 100 people attended the symposium, including, to my knowledge, at least a dozen anti-Stratfordians – though Patrick Spottiswoode, Director of Globe Education, later claimed in an interview on the BBC Radio 4 programme ‘Today’ that 99.9% of those present were ‘non-dissenters’!
My own impression of the day was that all eleven speakers, to varying degrees, were haunted by the elephant in the room – given the paucity of evidence for a ‘life’ which matches the ‘works’ – the spectre of an alternative authorship. Three speakers, in particular, appeared to be re-positioning themselves, post New Historicism, in anticipation of a paradigm shift on the whole issue. Speaking from the heart of the academic establishment, the concessions they made, both implicit and explicit, to the case for ‘Reasonable Doubt’ were both refreshing and, I would suggest, unprecedented!

Brian Cummings

Brian Cummings, Professor of English at the University of Sussex, spoke in sub-texts. Responding to a question put to all the speakers about extrapolating the life from the works, he came out with a stream of observations, requiring much reading-between-the-lines. These are, presumably, points he will be expanding on in his forthcoming book – a debate on literary biography and Shakespeare entitled: Shakespeare in the Underworld.
  • “In contemporary publishing it is much easier to write / publish / sell books of biography than any other kind of writing about writing. (He cited Homer as a counter example of impersonal authorship).
  • People react to changes in chronology!
  • What is Thomas Nashe doing with his mischievous references?   – provides a terminus ad/ante quem to various of Shakespeare’s plays.
  • There is a chronological time-bomb under Shakespeare!
  • How much difference does it make to say a play written in 1603 / 05 / 08?
  • The historiography we use to explain works of literature links with biography.
  • The Tempest is placed at the front of the First Folio – Why?
  • Has to have been a very late work?
  • Issue of chronology is problematic because the ‘new Shakespeareans’ in the nineteenth century were eccentric and wrong-headed.
  • Twelfth Night and Winter’s Tale created back-to-back?
  • It wouldn’t be impossible to find a document which proves Malone right. Terminus ad and ante quem – still not accuracy – more than a year or two either side.
  • Shifting of ground methodologically is happening anyway – Re-examining historicism – When is a fact a fact?
Cummings talk had the ‘playful’ title: Anti-Biography
  • “I’m going to voice the secret doubts we all share about the ‘life’ which has been problematic since before Rowe.”
  • All Shakespeare biographers know what is missing!
  • We cannot precisely date any play.
  • We have created a ‘life’ because a modern author is somehow incomplete without a life.
  • Shakespeare’s life especially impossible to tell because of the paucity of the evidence and the gaps in between.
  • Conclusion:  “Maybe we should write more openly about the nature of the problem.”

James Shapiro

James Shapiro – his forthcoming book on the Authorship Question: Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? due out next year – gave the final paper of the day: ‘When Shakespeare turned Autobiographical’.  He sought to defuse the authorship issue by arguing that all attempts at cradle to grave biographies are essentially misconceived:
  • “I’m here to look at How, When and Why Shakespeare was transformed into an autobiographical author.”
  • It’s time to abandon any hope of learning about Shakespeare’s inner life – irrevocably lost to us!
  • The anti-Stratfordian movement is a bi-product of a mainstream scholarly tradition.
  • In a few months, in 2012, Emmerich’s film ‘Anonymous’ will come out – arguing that Shakespeare did not write Shakespeare.
  • I have studied this more intensely than any other Stratfordian.
  • Minds are not really going to be changed on this subject.
  • Debate on both sides is circular and self-serving.
  • There is a history to how we think what we think.
  • “These debates are not going to be easily resolved.”
Graham Holderness
From an Oxfordian point of view, most startling of all was the declaration made by Professor Graham Holderness, University of Herefordshire.  In the middle of a discussion re the questionable facticity of tales of deer-poaching, calf-killing and horse-holding, he stated baldly – without further comment:
If you were to construct a biography which ticked all the boxes – if you were to read Shakespeare’s plays and infer a biography from it – it wouldn’t be Rowe’s, it would actually be the Earl of Oxford’s.

Speakers/Topics at “Shakespeare: from Rowe to Shapiro” conference:
Michael Caine: Can you trust Nicholas Rowe?
Rene Weis: From John Hall to Nicholas Rowe
Andrew Murphy: Chronology meets Biography: Edward Dowden’s Shakespeare
Brian Cummings:  Anti-Biography
Graham Holderness: Fact and Tradition in Shakespeare Biography
Stanley Wells and Paul Edmondson: The Plurality of Shakespeare’s Sonnets
Andrew Dickson: Starring Shakespeare as Himself: snapshots of the author on stage, page and screen
Helen Hackett: Was Queen Elizabeth 1 Shakespeare’s muse? Theories about young William at Kenilworth in 1575
Richard Wilson – Welsh Roots: The Bard and the Brits
James Shapiro: When Shakespeare Turned Autobiographical

Julia Cleave, Trustee of the Shakespearean Authorship Trust : MA (Oxon) is a member of the academic board of the Temenos Academy. She originally studied Shakespeare with Professor Hugo Dyson, the most puckish of the Inklings, the literary group based in Oxford which included C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. Subsequently, in her career as a teacher and teacher trainer, she taught Shakespeare in the context of training courses for foreign teachers and lecturers sponsored by the British Council. Since 1998 she has worked as an independent scholar, tracing the presence of Hermetic traditions in Renaissance and seventeenth century art and literature. Her interest in the Authorship Question was first piqued by reading John Michell’s Who Wrote Shakespeare? This interest has since deepened and developed through participation in Wisdom of Shakespeare workshops at The Globe, and the Shakespearean Authorship Trust conferences and lectures. She is a member of the Francis Bacon Research Trust and the De Vere Society.

Shapiro’s Contested Will

ARC of James Shapiro's Contested Will

Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? by James Shapiro
Simon & Schuster: New York, London, Toronto, Sydney
Publication date: April 6, 2010
ISBN-13: 978-1-4165-4162-2
Price: $26

Reviewed from advance, uncorrected reader’s proof (ARC) by Linda Theil

I like this book very much; it is interesting, even-handed, and lucid. Yes, James  Shapiro is a Stratfordian and he says things in Contested Will that anti-Strats will not like, but Shapiro presents an in-depth look at the history of the authorship question and I appreciate his efforts.

Although he seems to believe that there is some psychological crisis that drew brilliant men like Looney, Hawthorne, Freud and Henry James to the authorship question, that belief doesn’t prevent him from presenting their quest with fervor and conviction.

In his prologue, Shapiro says:

I became increasingly interested in why this subject (Shakespearean authorship) remains virtually taboo in academic circles, as well as in the consequences of this collective silence. One thing is certain: the decision by professors to all but ignore the authorship question hasn’t made it disappear. If anything, more people are drawn to it than ever. (ARC 5)

His moment of truth came when while giving a talk on Shakespeare’s poetry at a local elementary, a fourth-grader asked him about the authorship question.

Shapiro seems to think that if Shakespeare lovers truly understood the Elizabethan literary culture, the impossibility of concealing a writer’s identity and most important the false assumption of the autobiographical nature of the plays – the authorship question would disappear.

He discusses the first two elements in this book, but he puts the most energy into rebuking what he considers an anachronistic importance placed on the fact that the life of the Stratford man cannot be reconciled with the content of the plays. He chooses this aspect of the question with good reason since he says, without equivocation, that this discrepancy was the primary reason the authorship question arose — beginning with a frustrated Edmond Malone in the late eighteenth century who could find no primary sources for his biography of the great playwright.

Shapiro has divided his story into a prologue, four chapters, an epilogue and a bibliographical essay that serves as a reader’s resource, although – as is currently customary in a publication meant for general readership — no citations are given throughout the book. The four chapters are titled: Shakespeare, Bacon, Oxford, and Shakespeare (the evidence for Shakespeare). The first Shakespeare chapter leads the reader through the development of the Stratfordian history  including stories of Ireland’s and other forgeries, and what Shapiro call’s Shakespeare’s deification and a resulting unease with the biography of the man from Stratford.

Shapiro says:

When desire outpaced what scholars could turn up, there remained only a few ways forward: forgery, reliance on anecdote, or turning to the works for fresh evidence about the author’s life. The impulse to interpret the plays and poems as autobiographical was a direct result of the failure to recover enough facts to allow anyone to write a satisfying cradle-to-grave life of Shakespeare.(ARC 45)

I found that statement to be a significant acknowledgment of a major anti-Stratfordian thesis, and I greeted it as such with joy. Although, to Shapiro, my interpretation is a false one based on a modern obsession with biography that did not exist in Shakespeare’s time.

I suppose I grasp his point, but I fail to see how a lack of interest in a personal story translates to not having one. Call it what you will, an English writer will not produce Sufi poetry unless he has been taught Arabic, trained in the methods of Sufi literature and imbued with the life and understanding of a Muslim. An artist can only express what his life has given him, and as Shapiro admits throughout this book, the work of Shakespeare was not the life expression of the Stratfordian.

In his book, Shapiro further links a growing willingness to question received wisdom about the authorship of the plays of William Shakespeare with F.A. Wolf’s 1795 book challenging “Homer’s” authorship of the Iliad and Odyssey. Wolf had used the methods of the “Higher Criticism” pioneered by Biblical scholar J.G. Eichhorn in the 1780s. According to Shapiro, the Higher Criticism used historical methods to study the origins, date, composition and transmission of the books of the Bible. Then D.F. Strauss’ used this method to demythologize The Life of Jesus published in 1835.

Shapiro says the Biblical controversy influenced thinking about Shakespeare authorship because Shakespeare had been deified by eighteenth century Englishmen.

Had the impulse to speak of Shakespeare as a literary deity been curbed or repudiated, Shakespeare might not have suffered collateral damage from a  controversy that had little to do with him. (ARC 73)

It seems that in 1848 an American, Lutheran pastor, S. M. Schmucker, in an attempt to ridicule Strauss, published A Life of Shakespeare – a parody meant to undermine Strauss that laid out the authorship question in all respects.

Shapiro quotes Schmucker:

Is it not strange that one individual, so ill prepared by previous education, and other indispensable requisites, should be the sole author of so many works, in all of which it is pretended that such extraordinary merit and rare excellence exist? (ARC 78)

In the next section on Sir Francis Bacon as Shakespeare, Shapiro explores his topic through the life and works of Delia Bacon, Mark Twain, Helen Keller and Henry James. He then segues into Oxford through Freud, then J.T. Looney’s Shakespeare Identified completed in 1918 and published in 1920. Shapiro treats Looney with great respect, although he disputes that Looney didn’t already have Oxford in mind before he began his work in 1910, and he says that Looney was not the romantic school master of his book, but a failed disciple of Auguste Comte’s Positivist philosophy.

Personally I never thought my interest in Shakespearean authorship was either religious or political, but I suppose there are those who see it as both, even though I maintain my innocence.

Shapiro covers the history of the Oxfordian movement in the twentieth century wherein all our friends and neighbors are mentioned. He writes a wonderful pretend letter to Oxfordians, saying:

Imagine the disbelief that would have greeted a contributor to the Shakespeare Oxford Newsletter in the early 1980s, who, rejecting all the hand-wringing, urged fellow Oxfordians to be patient and predicted that in twenty-five years their movement would be thriving: . . . (ARC 202)

And he follows with a long, long list of all that has been accomplished in the past 20 years.

From Oxford, Shapiro finally makes his way to the evidence for Stratford Will. He hauls out the usual suspects: George Buc and Ben Jonson, and the published references to the writer that – oops — don’t actually relate to the Stratford man unless you make the assumption that he is the writer William Shakespeare. His fall-back position is that the playwright could not have been anonymous in the milieu of Elizabethan England, and we would all be convinced if we were just a bit better informed (and maybe a little less spiritually deformed).

Shapiro will not give up Stratford Will because denying him would be tantamount to stripping Shakespeare of his most magnificent attribute – his imagination. I say allowing Shakespeare an aristocrat’s experience gives him the tools to detonate his imagination into a nuclear reaction of the mind – for Shakespeare, imagination equals experience times the speed of light squared.

This is a fascinating book by a fine writer who loves his work. There is a lot here to think about, consider and dispute; but to my way of thinking James Shapiro has made in Contested Will, a stride toward armistice in the “trench warfare” of authorship inquiry. (ARC 7)

James Shapiro is Larry Miller Professor of English at Columbia University. He is the author of four books, most recently A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599, which won the BBC Samuel Johnson prize in the UK, given annually for the outstanding work of nonfiction. His next book will be The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606.

Note: This review was edited March 20, 2010 to reflect changes in the final proof of Shapiro’s book when available. LT