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.

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  • Hank Whittemore  On December 7, 2009 at 4:16 PM

    Thanks for reprinting this, Linda, and thanks to Julia for her report! Pinch me — am I dreaming? From this “selective” report it would seem that the very foundation of Stratfordian biography is on the verge of breaking apart and that the Great Paradigm Shift is about to appear on the horizon. Okay, I’ll calm down. Meanwhile — quietly, calmly — the news is pretty good.

  • Michael Egan  On December 8, 2009 at 5:05 PM

    I’m just an observer here, but it seems to me that the quote from Holderness is a swinging gate through which Oxfordians ought to immediately drive their full coach and horses.

  • RICHARD DuBRUL  On December 12, 2009 at 9:01 PM

    What’s this about W.S. & deer poaching?

  • hopkinshughes  On February 3, 2010 at 2:27 AM

    Thanks Linda and Julia for this report. Very detailed and interesting.


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