Brunel’s Leahy to New Historicists et al.: Stop the Irrational Arguments, The Shakespearean Question is Legitimate

Posted By on December 20, 2009

Discovering ShakespeareIn his article, “The Shakespeare Authorship Question: A Suitable Subject for Academia,” which first appeared in Concordia University’s Discovering Shakespeare: A Festschrift in Honor of Isabel Holden (2009), William Leahy,  Shakespearean scholar, poet, and fiction writer  at Brunel University (and editor of Elizabethan Triumphal Processions (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2005), recounts his journey from  being a “true believer” in the traditional bard to his current position of skeptical advocate for the authorship question as a legitimate and even necessary component of Shakespearean studies.

The article is now available in .pdf online, and must be considered “required reading” for anyone interested in the critical intellectual intersection between academic scholarship and the Oxfordian “heresy.”

The turn to Shakespearean biography represented in works such as Greenblatt’s Will in the World (2004) or Shapiro’s 1599: A Year in the Life (2006), as Leahy points out, is, from the point of view of a traditional history  of Shakespearean criticism (which is to say, one that denies that the authorship question exists), a paradox:

Many academics and, I am sure, non-academics were surprised at the publication in 2004 of Stephen Greenblatt’s biography of Shakespeare, Will in the World. This surprise was based in a perceived about-turn in Greenblatt’s critical practice in the sense that he seemed to legitimate a type of discourse which has traditionally been considered by academia as lacking in scholarly rigour. Scholars generally agreed that details of Shakespeare’s life were sketchy to say the least and that to fill in the gaps to the extent that Greenblatt does is questionable. Greenblatt has not been alone in this, however.

2005 saw the publication of James Shapiro’s 1599: A Year In the Life of William Shakespeare, another text which, to all intents and purposes fills in the one enormous gap that is the known movements and events of Shakespeare’s life in this particular year with pure supposition. Shapiro manages to do this by inserting many historically verified occurrences in and around the supposed important events of Shakespeare’s day-to-day existence for this one-year. Greenblatt is much more ambitious in that he fills in the gaps for the entire life of Shakespeare (and, indeed, Shakespeare’s father, wife, children and a couple of neighbours). However, the important point that needs to be made here is the fact that these academics, among the most renowned of their generation, have turned to this genre at this point in time.

What is new is that they are dropping the old pretence of academic objectivity, laying to rest the idea that fact should, at the very least, outweigh supposition in academic treatises, rejecting what has become the conventional, unquestioned belief in the idea of the “Death of the Author.”

…. However, a brief review of Greenblatt’s earlier work reveals that, while espousing the “Death of the Author,” he always found a special place for Shakespeare. One need merely reconsider, for example, the implications of Greenblatt’s assertions that Shakespeare’s drama was “a primary expression of Renaissance power” (“Invisible Bullets” 45), or that his plays functioned to “impose normative ethical patterns on the urban masses” (Renaissance Self-Fashioning 254).

In these assertions, Greenblatt is providing Shakespeare with agency; stating that, as an author, Shakespeare is attempting to do certain things with his writing and furthermore, that he succeeded. In this scenario, the author is not dead; he is very much alive and attempting to manipulate his audience according to his own ideological agenda. Greenblatt’s latest work carries this idea to its natural destination. For, with his production of a biography on Shakespeare, Greenblatt merely makes explicit what had been sub-textual in his earlier work. Like the biographies written by Shapiro and Wilson then, Greenblatt’s text marks an explicit acknowledgement of the primary place of the writer in academic criticism, and in doing so heralds the “Return of the Author.”

(Leahy 5-8)

Despite my enormous respect for Leahy’s courage, not to mention his candor, and appreciation for his penetrating analysis of this contradiction, I admit to not being entirely satisfied with the implication that Greenblatt’s renewed emphasis on Shakespeare as a “real author” is merely a reflection of tendencies already implicit in his own earlier work (this may not be what Leahy is saying, in a larger sense, but it does seem to be his emphasis in this particular passage).

From the point of view of those who have followed the authorship question for some time, the “return to biography” represented in the works of Greenblatt and Shapiro, among others, was in fact neither surprising nor unpredictable. We would say that it is a delayed but inevitable response to the publication, in 1984, of Charlton Ogburn’s Mysterious William Shakespeare, and the resulting intellectual ferment that book began to stir among the scholars whom Leahy writes to defend. As such, it is really impossible to write about the paradox of Greenblatt’s career without someone invoking this larger historical context. One must, as it were, historicize Greenblatt.

When the true intellectual history of Shakespearean studies is told, we would suggest, it will show something even more heretical than the theory that the Earl of Oxford wrote the Shakespearean works:  namely, that  the authorship question has long served as a concealed but potent influence on traditional academicians, shaping their  intellectual postures and stimulating not only some of the worst, but also both some of the best  of the scholarship that has been completed under the orthodox banner.

I would argue that this is true, for example, of a whole series of books and articles that appeared starting in the late 1980s – among them Marjorie Garber’s Shakespeare’s Ghostwriters (1987), Leah Marcus’ Puzzling Shakespeare (1988), and the collection of Neo-Freudian essays, Shakespeare’s Personality (1989). Each not only explicitly mentions the authorship question, and de Vere, but also explores the terrain of early modern studies in a manner that shows the clear imprint of the maligned heretics.

One essay in Shakespeare’s Personality for example, refers to Ogburn’s work as a “lunatic book,” without providing a bibliographical citation — which suggests that at least some contributors to that volume were more familiar with, and more concerned about, the heresy than they generally cared to admit.  Marcus is more direct in her antagonism, arguing that the “conclusions [of the anti-Stratfordians] wildly disrupt the efforts of Shakespearean historicism”;  the Oxfordian “fringe movement….has dogged topical approaches to Shakespeare like a dark shadow,” and has “been more corrosive than we have been willing to admit (it convinced Sigmund Freud, for example)” (35).

Perhaps the most revealing element of Marcus’ rhetoric in this passage is the ready assumption of a “we.”  She is clearly writing to and for only those who already share her prejudices.  After all, who would want to belong to a “fringe movement” which seeks to “corrode” the Freudians?

I don’t wish, however, to leave the impression that my opinion of any of these works is solely, or even largely, a negative one. Garber and Marcus are two of the most perceptive early modern literary scholars on the contemporary scene, and I highly recommend both their works to anyone ready for some serious scholarship.

In each case, precisely because they are responding to the authorship question, these scholars are forced to consider issues they would perhaps prefer to ignore. The results are sometimes irritatingly defensive, but just as often they can be instructive and sometimes, as in Marcus’ discussion of the dedicatory apparatus of the first folio (2-32),  or Garber’s acknowledgment of the theme of “ghostwriting” in the Shakespearean canon, are  profoundly enlightening. And they are even more enlightening when read from the perspective of 2009, on the eve of Shapiro’s much ballyhooed Contesting Will. From our present perspective, such late 1980s attempts to grapple with authorship are much easier to “historicize” now than they would have been in 1988.  It is now clear that lamenting how much damage the Oxfordians have done is neither a scholarly method of engagement nor an effective public relations gambit.  More and more readers are too smart for it.

Ironically, Marcus’ book was among the first to sound the note which has led to the present juncture, when she announced “the demise of the transcendent bard.”  Of course, the trouble with this from a Stratfordian perspective is that the transcendent bard is really all you’ve got. Once you start authorizing “local readings,” Oxford’s life starts popping up in all sorts of unexpected and even embarrassing places, as Graham Holderness has recently acknowledged.

I would submit that Shapiro’s forthcoming Contested Will confirms my theory that orthodox Shakespeareans, without wishing to admit it even to themselves, have been responding to the Oxfordian “dark shadow” for decades now.  The cover story may be that the Oxfordians are a bunch of rabid dogs howling at a full moon, but underneath those defenses, a growing number of academicians are starting to get really uneasy (as they should be!) about the history of attempting to conduct scholarship by means of these kinds of ad hominem metaphors and encoded assumptions about “us.”

As John Vyvan would say, if  the Shakespeare plays teach us anything, they teach us that killing off a heresy just won’t work. It will come back as a ghost.

Let’s listen a little more to what Leahy, who seems to understand Vyvan’s point better than most of his colleagues,  has to say:

If we continue to concentrate on this point a little longer, we come to realise that, in fact, much academic Shakespearean criticism is, at the very least, highly questionable. Indeed, one need merely revisit Greenblatt’s defining and hugely influential work to understand this. Is he really saying, as he seems to be in Renaissance Self-Fashioning, that given the evidence, in plays such as, for example, The Merry Wives of Windsor, Shakespeare is writing in order to “foster psychic mobility in the service of Elizabethan power” (253)?

Is he certain, again given the evidence, that in writing plays such as Coriolanus, Shakespeare approached “his culture … as dutiful servant” (253), content to support the reconstitution of State power? As many academics would say when considering the works generated within the field of the Shakespeare Authorship Question, the evidence does not, it would seem, support the conclusions except, perhaps, in the mind of the critic. That would be fine and we could leave it at that, of course. Except, as we all know, Greenblatt’s work and his conclusions have been enormously influential, indeed they very much determined what it was possible to say within academic Shakespearean criticism for a couple of decades at least.

While Greenblatt had his many supporters, there was academic criticism both of his methodology and his conclusions throughout the 1980s and 1990s. However, he was never marginalised or ridiculed by his critics and his conclusions were not dismissed out of hand. Rather, countless academic essays and articles appeared refuting Greenblatt’s conclusions using alternative evidence and drawing alternative conclusions.

Thus, although Greenblatt’s initial conclusions could be said to be both questionable and extraordinary in many ways, they were taken seriously and argued against rationally. It is precisely this that I wish to demand for the Shakespeare Authorship Question.

What an extraordinary proposition.

Check out the rest of Leahy’s exceptional article.

About the author

Roger Stritmatter is a native liberal humorist who lives in Baltimore, Maryland. Contrary to rumor, he does not live on North Avenue. He does, however, work on North Avenue. A pacifist by inclination, one of his heroes is John Brown. But he thinks that Fredrick Douglass, another of his heroes, made the right decision. Stritmatter's primary areas of interest include the nature of paradigm shifts, the history of ideas, and renaissance literature, the latter a field in which he has published extensively


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