New York Times Magazine Piece by Stephen Marche — Attacking Snobbery With Snobbery!

Here’s a wonderful example of someone with what appears to be a superficial grasp of the Oxfordian theory trashing that theory based on a few favorite straw men —  Oxfordians are snobs, Shakespeare “wrote” plays after Oxford’s death in 1604, Looney was “aptly named,” etc.

But the amazing thing to me about this piece is how much it depends on snobbery as a way to attack the snobbery of Oxfordians.  Maybe Marche should devise an exam for “undergraduates” that counts how many unfounded assumptions and appeals to snobbish expertise his article contains.  Anyway, it’s worth reading.  He does make several good points about the historical inaccuracies of Anonymous.  Hey, I’m not here to defend Anonymous the movie.

But attacking the movie’s flaws should not be allowed to be a substitute for attacking the Oxford theory in general.  That’s too broad a brush.  It continues to amaze me that the traditional assumption — and it’s nothing more than that — that “Shakespeare” continued to write plays after 1604 — some with partners? — is presented so often as the slam dunk refutation of the Oxford theory.  The hard evidence for this is … what exactly?

The fact that so many so-called experts accept the traditional “narrative’ as fact is not the same thing as real evidence.  And I love that Galileo is invoked without any sense of irony since Galileo was punished — forced to recant what he knew to be true — by an establishment view of the world that was … well … flat wrong.  Sometimes those who come up with alternative theories that challenge orthodox opinion turn out to be right after all.  Not always.  But sometimes.  And resorting to emotional appeals, reckless ad hominem attacks, branding them as heretics, etc. is neither constructive or productive.

It’s not particularly helpful to make an argument based on historical analogies.  Those can easily cut both ways and don’t really advance the state of the debate.  They usually inflame the debate and only serve to generate much more heat that light.  There may be lots of legitimate reasons to question the validity of the Oxfordian theory, but the alleged snobbery of Oxfordians, Rick Perry’s anti-climate change or anti-evolutionary views, the “aptly named” proponent of the theory, or the unfounded assertion that Shakespeare “wrote” plays after 1604 are not among them.  Why do anti-Oxfordians so often stoop to these specious lines of attack?  Can’t they muster a real case against Oxford without injecting these bogus and logically challenged arguments?  Apparently not.

the good news about this article … and other reviews of the movie … is that the authorship question is being discussed widely in the media.  It would be a shame if various parties to the debate simply resort to their tried-and-true arguments to put down the other side.  This isn’t an election campaign.  We don’t have to “go negative” to get votes.  We should be evaluating and assessing evidence, not trying to score debate points.  Maybe one day we’ll evolve to that stage in this discussion.  Matthew

Wouldn’t It Be Cool if Shakespeare Wasn’t Shakespeare?

Published: October 21, 2011

“Was Shakespeare a fraud?” That’s the question the promotional machinery for Roland Emmerich’s new film, “Anonymous,” wants to usher out of the tiny enclosure of fringe academic conferences into the wider pastures of a Hollywood audience. Shakespeare is finally getting the Oliver Stone/“Da Vinci Code” treatment, with a lurid conspiratorial melodrama involving incest in royal bedchambers, a vapidly simplistic version of court intrigue, nifty costumes and historically inaccurate nonsense. First they came for the Kennedy scholars, and I did not speak out, because I was not a Kennedy scholar. Then they came for Opus Dei, and I did not speak out, because I was not a Catholic scholar. Now they have come for me.


In the movies, a few mistakes don’t matter, but the liberties with facts in “Anonymous” become serious when they enter our conception of real history. In scholarship, chronology does matter. And the fatal weakness of the Oxfordian theory is chronological, a weakness that “Anonymous” never addresses: the brute fact that Edward de Vere died in 1604, while Shakespeare continued to write, several times with partners, until 1613. “Macbeth” and “The Tempest” were inspired by events posthumous to the Earl of Oxford: the gunpowder plot in 1605 and George Somers’s misadventure to Bermuda in 1609. How can anyone be inspired by events that happened after his death?


The original Oxfordian, the aptly named J. Thomas Looney, who proposed the theory in 1920, believed that Shakespeare’s true identity remained a secret because, he said, “it has been left mainly in the hands of literary men.” In his rejection of expertise, at least, Looney was far ahead of his time. This same antielitism is haunting every large intellectual question today. We hear politicians opine on their theories about climate change and evolution as a way of displaying how little they know. When Rick Perry compared climate-change skeptics like himself to Galileo in a Republican debate, I dearly wished that the next question had been “Can you explain Galileo’s theory of falling bodies?” Of all the candidates with their various rejections of the scientific establishment, how many could name the fundamental laws of thermodynamics that students learn in high school? Healthy skepticism about elites has devolved into an absence of basic literacy.

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  • Bronwyn Fryer  On October 23, 2011 at 5:56 PM

    I wrote the following to the Times magazine. I suspect they will hear from many, but here is what I said:

    Methinks Stephen Marche doth protest too much. Because Oxford was a lord and not a commoner, Marche accuses Oxfordians of “snobbery,” which is the “surest sign of their ignorance,” while accusing them of “anti-elitism” in the same breath. I’m not sure how one can be an anti-elitist snob, but there it is. Indeed, Marche’s effort to debunk Oxfordians by invective backfires, in large part because he assumes that he, as a duly-anointed “legitimate” scholar, knows the truth, and all else is apostasy (“Not everyone does deserve a say,” is a point often made by religious extremists and those who would love to see Occupy Wall Street go way as well. Talk about snobbery).

    I, for one, am interested in the De Vere theory (among other possibilities) because people like Marche have never closed their case for authorship. (Obviously smart people like Dickens, Freud, and Mark Twain, who also had trouble with the notion that the glover’s son from Stratford could have written the plays, were anti-elitist snobs too.) Faced with scant physical proof of the Stratford man’s genius (a line in a will about a “secondbest bed” doesn’t really cut it), they simply shut their ears and sing “la-la-la” at the top of their lungs (in Marche’s case, apoplectically) when anyone questions their saint’s legitimacy. I suspect that Marche’s fears of undergraduates coming to him for the next ten years to “waste…time explaining the obvious” will come true, and good for them. Anything that gets undergraduates — or anyone else, for that matter– to read the plays and ask questions is something profoundly to be wished.

    Bronwyn Fryer

  • Bronwyn Fryer  On October 23, 2011 at 6:06 PM

    By the way, I did a little research on Stephen Marche. Most famed for articles in Esquire and titillating novels, and his book about Shakespeare is “over the top” (not in a good way) according to a prof. at U of Toronto. It does sound awfully….strange, because Marche makes wholesale connections out of context, like the fact that Othello “caused” the civil rights movement in the U.S, etc., like the butterfly effect….. But hey, he sure loves his Shakespeare……! Post a review, anyone?

  • Bronwyn Fryer  On October 23, 2011 at 6:17 PM

    Here is a review of Marche’s book (great illustration of the usual suspect with a bird on his head, BTW) posted on

    The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 22.0162 Tuesday, 19 July 2011

    From: Holger Schott Syme
    Date: July 18, 2011 10:15:33 PM EDT
    Subject: Stephen Marche, _How Shakespeare Changed Everything_

    I don’t believe this recently published piece of “popular history” has been discussed on SHAKSPER. I just posted a rather lengthy review/critique of Marche’s claims on my blog, which I think would be of interest to fellow SHAKSPERians. Here’s the opening paragraph (the rest can be found at

    It would be nice to start this post with a semi-snappy line like “Stephen Marche has written a monumentally stupid book about Shakespeare” or “_How Shakespeare Changed Everything_ may be the most ignorant book about Shakespeare published this century.” Neither statement would be inaccurate, exactly. But Marche’s book is so preposterous in its claims, so poorly researched, so ludicrously over the top, and so slight that it’s hard to see it as anything other than a bad joke, a deliberate (if potentially lucrative) send-up of the excesses of Bardolatry. I don’t think I’d find the joke especially funny, but at least its author could lay some claim to the intelligence one might expect from someone who was, until recently, a professor at a major US university. Taking this book at face value seems almost impossible to me.

    All the best,

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