Posted By Roger Stritmatter on April 18, 2010
In case you were wondering if the internet is going to make us any smarter, the evidence is now in.
The answer is, “no” – at least if one may draw any conclusion from the depressingly conformist hallelujah chorus which has issued from so many mass media internet reviewers in response to James Shapiro’s Contested Will.
This is not to deny that there have been some excellent parries of the pretzel logic, factual lapses, and subtly malicious innuendo of Professor Shapiro’s book. One skeptical review, William Niederkorn’s Brooklyn Rail analysis, even received notice as the National Book Circle Critics April 7 Review of the Day.
Among other merits of his review which might lead one to conclude that investigative journalism is not quite dead, Niederkorn points out that Shapiro’s most widely self-touted “discovery” that the Wilmot Manuscript may well be a forgery is largely if not wholly derivative of the research of two anti-Stratfordian scholars, Daniel Wright and John Rollett, whom Shapiro does not mention in the body of his work. In fact only Wright’s contribution is acknowledged at all by Shapiro, and that only in an obscure “bibliographical essay” disconnected from the body of his narrative.
Shapiro’s attempt to pass the discovery off as his own should be a red flag for any reader capable of processing factual information from a perspective of even modest skepticism. “As we all know,” contemporary academicians are often tempted to seek the limelight for themselves by appropriating the labor of others who may be less powerful or well-connected – or even, remarkably, as in this case, as a prelude to slamming them in absentia as retrograde mental defectives.
Heward Wilkinson, in one of the more sophisticated Oxfordian responses to Shapiro, sees that “Shapiro’s neglect of contextual reading is astonishing,” and laments “the degree to which Shapiro’s own position, and those he repudiates, as formulated by him, simply mirror one another, take in one anothers’ washing, and readily reverse, flip over, and mutate into one another.”
Wilkinson does an excellent job of doing what a good psychoanalyst does: seeing the world from the point of view of his patient’s subjectivity, and pointing out some of the internal contradictions and limitations, concluding that Shapiro (more than once, actually) “completely violates his own criterion [of interpretation], without noticing he does.”
To Warren Hope, PhD, the author of a book which actually does what Shapiro claims to be doing, by offering an objective scholarly history of the authorship question, the hero of Shapiro’s narrative is the anonymous fourth grader who motivated Shapiro to write his book by saying, “My brother told me that Shakespeare really didn’t write Romeo and Juliet. Is that true?”
As Hope notes, the fourth grader “cited his source, quoted him fully and accurately, and then asked the most relevant question he could think of.”
Would that Shapiro’s reviewers could live up to these modest standards.
Instead, such critically-aware reviews as Niederkorn’s, Wilkinson’s, or Hope’s have been few and far between, written on the margins of the mainstream discourse. And perhaps the most striking characteristic of many others is how effortlessly they manage combine star-struck gullibility about Shapiro’s accomplishments with savagely uninformed attacks on authorship skeptics.
Clearly the race is on to see which reviewer in which periodical can outdo the other in falling all over himself to sing Shapiro’s praises and heap contempt on anyone who would dare to question whether Shapiro’s book is really all its cracked up to be.
A few examples will suffice to illustrate the tone of the present operation:
Peter Conrad, writing in The Guardian, assures us that he has it on the best authority that the Oxfordians are a gabble of “cranks” and a “reprehensible reactionary lot,” unable to adapt themselves to the post-modern reality, in which “Literary theory delights in…the ‘death of the author,’ because the writer’s annihilation licenses the critic’s self display.” Hmm…
The Irish Times gushes that “Contested Will brings in the forensic skills of the academic researcher—Shapiro has visited archives all over the US and British Isles.” Gosh.
Not to be outdone, The Independent‘s Boyd Tonkin admires “the absolutely high speed express of modern research,” which is modernizing the romantic view of Shakespeare as a “lofty demigod” by transforming him into a “shrewd creative industry entrepreneur” – that is to, say, someone not unlike Shapiro himself, who surely has the shrewdness of a canny entrepreneur, easily able to swim past the big fish in the shark tank without blinking, and even reportedly received a million dollar advance for his book!
Talk about licensing the critic’s “self display….”
Over the next few weeks and months, doubtless there will be many more such screeds. And just as doubtless, I’ll have a lot to say about Shapiro’s book – which certainly contains enough striking instances of error of one kind or another to keep scholarship employed for some time mopping up the mess he’s made of things.
As I remarked in this interview with the Chronicle of Higher Education, in a comment which did not make the cut into print, from the point of view of the intellectual historian, Shapiro has just made the biggest blunder of his long and successful career.
Contested Will is a work of tragi-comic overreaching, the result of a “perfect storm” of opportunism, cheering from the Shakespeare industry (especially its real-estate theme-park wing headquartered in Stratford-upon-Avon), and a growing fear among Shakespearean scholars that they may have been dupes in a cosmic joke which is about to take an abrupt turn for the worse.
History beckoned for Shapiro to write a truly significant book on the Shakespearean question – a book that might have helped lead his colleagues out of the mess they’re in as a result of nearly two hundred years of failing to honestly confront the limitations of their own knowledge, or to admit the real and significant discrepancies in their narratives which have contributed to widespread public distrust of their scholarly bona fides.
Now, more than ever, the Shakespearean industry needs leadership of this kind.
Instead, Shapiro elected to take the easy way out. The result is a book which deprives readers of the opportunity to experience critical thinking, promotes Shapiro’s own career at the expense of a failure to grapple honestly with the real perplexities of the case he purports to examine, and apparently has fooled an awful lot of gullible reviewers into thinking that the mythology from Stratford has any future.
Sure, the Oxfordians have done their share of playing into Shapiro’s deceptions, but that is another story for another day.
For now, on the other hand, let’s start by conceding a point made by Shapiro-pumpers like Tonkin. Shapiro’s book indeed contains a number of startling revelations, the fruits of his industrious scouring of archives on that jet-pack-driven “high speed express of modern research” which so thrills Mr. Tonkin’s intellect.
These revelations are, indeed, remarkable for what they illustrate about the “state of the debate” in Shakespearean authorship studies. Indeed, if anyone should require examples of why Shapiro insists, a little like Al Gore was doing just last summer about Global Warming, that “the debate is over,” and that the only thing left to be done is to dissect the brains of the non-conformists to determine what was wrong with them, then surely Shapiro’s original archival discoveries qualify.
Nor should we lose sight of the fact that Shapiro’s high-tech whizz-bang discoveries were not only supported with generous grants from the Guggenhiem foundation, and the Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullmen Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library, among others, but were cheered on by a host of Shapiro’s luminary literary colleagues who are generously thanked in the acknowledgments section of the book.
With this critical context in mind, let us begin by considering what is perhaps the single most original and impressive example of Shapiro’s discoveries (we’ll get to some others in subsequent blog entries).
Unknown to two hundred and five years of scholarship, Shapiro reveals to us for the first time in his book that the first printing of the name “Shakespeare,” attached to the dedication page of the first quarto of Venus and Adonis (1593) (discovered by Edmund Malone in 1805), contains the “notorious hyphen,” about which so much ink has been spilt.
As Shapiro intimates, this little hyphen is truly “notorious.”
It might even easily be blamed as the root of all authorship evils, a typographical glitch even more deleterious in its long term consequences than the naiveté of Edmund Malone about biography, Delia Bacon’s insane search for the real meaning of Shakespeare’s works, or Mark Twain’s plagiarizing (on which see, again, Mr. Niederkorn) of that liberal freak and animal lover, Sir George Greenwood.
Let’s allow Shapiro himself to resume the thread of our search for the origins of this pernicious piece of typographical mischief:
Early in his career Shakespeare showed great care in seeing into print his two great narrative poems, Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece, bestsellers that went through many editions. While his name didn’t appear on the title pages of these volumes, dedicatory letters addressed to the Earl of Southampton and signed ‘William Shake-speare’ are included in italics in the front-matter of both. It’s the first time that the notorious hyphen appeared in the printed version of his name, a telling sign, for sceptics, of pseudonymous publication. (225 “advance reader’s edition”)
Now, I have a confession to make.
When I first read this – and I thank Robert Detobel for directing me to the passage in the first place and getting me started thinking about it – I thought I must have stumbled into an alternate universe. I’m thinking of the kind of world in which people are given PhDs for criticizing books they’ve never read, in which the Guggenheim foundation supports literary research which takes place in a bar on 5th Avenue, and major publishers hire fact checkers who have never made it out of high school.
I even imagined that in this alternate universe, Ivy League professors were in the habit of sticking both their feet in their mouth at the same time, and then not only trying to get everyone to laugh about it, but actually succeeded in doing so, and were afterward praised for their wit.
What do you mean it doesn’t sound so “alternate”?
As the facsimile reproduced below shows, there is no hyphen in the name on the dedication page to Venus and Adonis.
One has to wonder how Professor Shapiro, in his twenty-five years teaching Shakespeare at Columbia, not to mention all that time he spent with Guggenheim grant money writing this book, can have failed to miss this elementary point.
But the reviewers are not worried.
James Williams from “PopMatters,” who teaches English Renaissance literature in Illinois, assures us that Shapiro’s work is “deeply informed,” and opines that “it would be difficult to imagine a better work of scholarship than this.”
Well, sorry, guy: with all due respect, I have no trouble at all imagining a better work of scholarship. I know it may be difficult, but how about “imagining” with me, even for a few seconds, a work of scholarship which does not initiate a fairly extensive discussion of a significant factual and interpretive problem with an unfortunate error of this kind?
Is that so unreasonable or impossible to imagine? Or am I the only one who thinks that just maybe this little literary faux pas might constitute a basis for reconsidering the merits of the rest of Shapiro’s o-so-brilliant work of scholarly detection?
Now, in case anyone of a skeptical bent of mind is reading this (“art thou there, truepenny?”), I hope you’ve already asked yourself the next obvious question: is there some other copy of the first edition of Venus and Adonis which contains the “holy hyphen”?
There’s only one copy.
And no, the hyphen isn’t in the first edition (1594) of Rape of Lucrece, either.
So it is obvious that it required an indomitable exercise of the scholarly will to arrive at the brilliant conclusion that the hyphen was there, when opening any copy of any number of books housed in hundreds of libraries all over the world, or even dropping in on the digitized copy of the Folger Library’s own online archive – shows that it isn’t. Nor is it, to the best of my knowledge (which would appear to be shockingly far in advance of that of the learned Professor Shapiro), on any subsequent quartos of either poem, which for most part fastidiously reproduced, down to the last colon and comma, all the introductory matter of the first editions of both poems for the next several decades.
Now that we’ve settled that little problem, there is a deeper question which deserves to be answered: does this even matter?
After all, we all make mistakes. To err is human, isn’t it?
While it may seem shocking to some of Professor Shapiro’s more fervent acolytes, climbing fortune’s hill a little below him but still scrambling to reach the summit where the big checks are written, even college Professors at places like Columbia have from time to time been known to lose their car keys or write books about “notorious hyphens” which on closer inspection just don’t exist.
So, perhaps this is just, after all, just an innocent mistake – which, however embarrassing it may be to Professor Shapiro, his acolytes, and the fact checking department at Simon and Schuster (wake up!) – is really a red herring. Perhaps Stritmatter is mischievously diverting attention from the obviously superior merits of Professor Shapiro’s larger analysis by focusing on a trivial and inconsequential detail.
Well, let’s look at what Shapiro does with this error and see if this explanation is a sound one.
First we might need to clarify one niggling point. Does the name appear hyphenated on any early texts, or is this something the anti-Stratfordians made up, maybe to embarrass the real scholars like Professor Shapiro?
Of course it does, and no they didn’t. Instances include Hamlet Q1 (1603), Richard II Q2, Richard III Q2, the Sonnets, and a number of other texts dated 1594-1623 (If anyone cares, I’ll publish a complete census within the next few weeks as we examine this subject in greater forensic detail).
How does Shapiro explain this hyphenation of the name – even though it doesn’t exist where he says it does and it does exist in other places which he omits to mention?
Elizabethan compositors, trying to protect valuable type from breaking, would have smiled at the explanation [that the hyphen was a sign of pseudonymous publication]. They knew from experience that Shakespeare’s name was typesetter’s nightmare. When setting a ‘k’ followed by a long ‘s’ in italic font – with the name Shakspeare, for example – the two letters could easily collide and the font might snap. The easiest solution was inserting a letter ‘e’, a hyphen or both; as we’ll soon see, compositors settled on different strategies. And as the title pages of the 1608 quarto of Lear and the 1609 Sonnets indicate, it’s a habit that carried over when setting roman font as well. (“Advance Readers Edition,” 226)
To rephrase the essential point for the sake of clarity, Shapiro argues that the name Shakspeare (without the medial “e” after the k) was “a nightmare” for compositors; set in an italic font, the long italic s might easily collide with the k, producing big problems in the print-shop, with the result that “the font might snap.”
As even a reader uninitiated into the arcana of early modern printing can see by this example from the 1623 Shakespeare first folio, in the title of a poem by “I.M.,” Shapiro’s argument does have a veneer of plausibility:
It’s an unfortunate sign of the lack of attention to detail and logic, not to mention the weak grasp of intellectual history, which lies behind many of the more effusive endorsements of Professor Shapiro’s genius that none of his reviewers can interrupt their hymns of praise long enough to ask, whether the plausibility is any more than skin-deep, or whether Shapiro’s theory of the origins of the “notorious hyphen” (like many similar sleights of hand in his book) is really just a species of condescending sophistry.
Heward Wilkinson, for one, seems convinced of Shapiro’s sincerity. But the more one grants Shapiro sincerity, the less plausible his knowledge of early modern typography becomes.
Notice, for example, that Shapiro’s theory as he frames it depends on two critical caveats: the name must not only be in italic, but must also be spelled without the -e– after the –k-. Otherwise the -e- itself takes care of the problem, without any need for the superfluous hyphen. Both conditions are clearly necessary according to Shapiro’s formula.
It seems apparent, even from the “I.M.” sample above, that Shapiro’s formula is at best dubious correct. Even in this instance, the hyphen is, by Shapiro’s own terms, superfluous from the typographical point of view, since the name is spelled with the medial -e-.
Any doubt as the accuracy of Shapiro’s logic on this point can easily be assuaged with a little photo-shopping of the original image.
Although it may not show too clearly in the above image, the k is not touching the s.
As long as the name is spelled with that medial -e-, even if it is in italics, there is no typographical necessity for the hyphen.
If the arrangement seemed too close for comfort, any 16th century compositor would have reached into his bin of “spacers” – thin blanks of lead designed for exactly such exigencies as this – to supply a little margin to offset the descender of the k from the long “s.” A hyphen was not required.
This conclusion is proved by a second example, from the same First Folio poem by “I.M.,” where the name appears in Roman type and there is obviously no danger of the typographical disaster which Shapiro fears.
As we have seen, Shapiro is mistaken about the origin of the hyphen in Venus and Adonis.
These two examples alone make it pretty clear, also, that his global explanation for the hyphenation phenomenon is bogus.
The reason the hyphen appears in the first instance is shown by the second. The compositor was working from a manuscript in which the name was hyphenated.