The Beginning of the End for the Stratfordian Legend? Dr. Richard M. Waugaman’s Review of Anonymity in Early Modern England

Many thanks to Dr. Richard Waugaman for posting this excellent review on Amazon.com of a new book titled Anonymity in Early Modern England.  Dr. Waugaman highlights Professor Bruce Danner of St. Lawrence University’s chapter, “The Anonymous Shakespeare: Heresy, Authorship, and the Anxiety of Orthodoxy.”   As Dr. Waugaman states:  “The implications for the Shakespeare authorship question are immense.”  Read more below!

The Beginning of the End for the Stratfordian Legend?

This intriguing and provocative book originated in a 2004 Shakespeare Society of America seminar. It joins several other recent works that are enlarging our understanding of the crucial role that anonymous authorship played in early modern England. The implications for the Shakespeare authorship question are immense. Orthodox Stratfordian scholars have such unshakeable preconceptions that they often seem blind to the subversive implications of their own discoveries. Most early modern English literature was anonymous, but scholars have nevertheless gravitated toward attributed texts, making them less conversant with the conventions of anonymous authorship.

It is the final section of the book, The Consequences of Anonymity and Attribution, that I found most interesting– specifically, Bruce Danner’s chapter, `The Anonymous Shakespeare: Heresy, Authorship, and the Anxiety of Orthodoxy.’ Danner, of St. Lawrence University, is a widely published mainstream Shakespeare scholar. He claims anonymity for the plays attributed to Shakespeare because he views `the construction of Shakespeare as a vague, colossal abstraction so capacious as to become undefineable’ (p. 215).

Like an Old Testament prophet, Danner is eloquent in rebuking his fellow Stratfordians for their evil ways: `the Shakespearean profession itself is the author of anti-Stratfordianism. In its vision of Shakespeare as author, professional scholars can neither portray nor theorize the figure beyond the sphere of anonymity’ (p. 156). And Danner has an explanation of why orthodox scholars persist in their irrational attitudes toward the author–`perhaps because resisting [`the eulogistic construction of Shakespeare’] would imperil the status that we currently enjoy’ (p. 156).

One of Danner’s first lines of attack is against the foundation stone of orthodoxy, the 1623 First Folio. Without it, the orthodox case collapses. Danner admits that `the First Folio falsifies a number of key facts’ (p. 144); its `omissions, errors, and outright lies have long been common knowledge’ (p. 147). He singles out Stephen Greenblatt for scathing criticism of Greenblatt’s specious and contradictory discussion of other literary evidence. He says Greenblatt `ventures into novel avenues of myth-making that undermine his position in creative new ways’ (p. 155) and that `Greenblatt’s views look less like theories than desperate overreaching’ (p. 156). But Danner then clarifies that Greenblatt is just the tip of the Stratfordian iceberg: `In their efforts to discover a Shakespearean presence in resistant or inconclusive evidence, orthodox scholars have fashioned theories that resemble their own worst caricatures of anti-Stratfordianism’ (p. 156).

Danner lists some of the central problems with the legendary author: Stratfordians have not established the chronology of the plays; they are ignorant as to the author’s political, religious, and cultural opinions; they cannot establish the authorial text for the plays. `Such facts provide the foundations of literary study… and yet these are just such definitive issues that the Shakespearean profession cannot resolve’ (p. 152).

It is difficult to ponder the full implications of Danner’s attack on Shakespearean orthodoxy without surmising that he is on the journey toward intellectual freedom himself. If so, his chapter might offer a rare view of a paradigm change in statu nascendi. It is an inspiring sight. An `anonymous’ Shakespeare may be a necessary transition that will one day allow Stratfordians to discard their discredited theory.

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