The Stratfordian Ethic and the Imprisoned Innocent

Posted By on February 9, 2011

“Do the right thing” — Spike Lee

This is going to be perhaps the most important post I’ve made to I put a lot of effort into the two detailed posts on James Shapiro’s hyphen error, and several other posts may be of some long term interest as well. Certainly its worthwhile to find a larger audience for articles originally published in somewhat obscure professional venues.

But the truth is that when I read Shapiro’s book — and especially when I read all the claptrap of the fawning reviewers — I got depressed.

Here’s the good news: I’m not depressed any more.

One reason I’ve given it up is that this evening I watched an impressive documentary, After Innocence, which chronicles the experiences of several wrongfully convicted men through the process of their exoneration, often achieved through the recent intervention of The Innocence Project, a program affiliated with the Benjamin Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University. The Innocence Project has successfully fought for the freedom of  at least 214 men (and women?) convicted in the United States for crimes they did not commit, including rape and murder.

There is nothing like the sobering realization that some of your fellow citizens have spent 6, 10, or twenty years behind bars for crimes they didn’t commit to remind you that your own life isn’t as bad as it could be.

The key to the freedom of these wrongfully convicted men and women isn’t moral indignation — although moral indignation, passion, and intelligence were all necessary. It’s DNA testing.

As Innocence Project activist Eddie Joe Lloyd used to say,  “DNA is God’s signature. God’s signature is never a forgery, and His checks never bounce.”

There are a lot of ways to try to wrap your mind around how it could happen that several thousand English literary professionals could be so blinking wrong about something so important as Shakespeare as they, by all appearances, are. But one of the most natural metaphors for the condition of these sad folks is that of the Prosecuting Attorney who put someone away for twenty years based on eyewitness evidence.

News Flash!

For well over a century, eyewitness identification has been recognized, by anyone who knows anything about forensic methods,  as one of the least reliable forms of evidence on the planet. What is the prosecutor who is suddenly confronted with DNA evidence proving by an overwhelming preponderance of evidence not only that the convicted party may be innocent, but can’t possibly by any stretch of the imagination be guilty, supposed to do? I mean, some of these cases are so far beyond “reasonable doubt” that you have to wonder what kind of drugs the prosecution is still on.

What are you supposed to do?

When you put the proposition in that way its easy to feel sorry for the Stratfordians. They’ve had the wrong guy in jail for more than four hundred years, and it’s not hard to imagine how difficult it might be to just “do the right thing” and say “I’m sorry.  Will you forgive me?”

Still, when one reads the sort of, um, creative rearrangements with the truth that James Shapiro published about me and my PhD dissertation in his  Contested Will, it’s easy to recover from feeling depressed by getting hopping mad. Trust me. A self-righteous prosecutor who spends taxpayer money fighting against  any attempt for an evidential hearing using the kind of smart-ass deceptions Shapiro brings to bear in his book is not someone for whom it’s easy to feel sorry.

Now, you may be wondering, dear reader, why I’m only putting this out on the internet more than a year after the publication of Shapiro’s book.  Well, there are several valid answers.

One is that when Shapiro’s book came out I was so dumbfounded by the lies mistakes he repeated about my PhD dissertation that it rendered me speechless for eighteen months.  Then again, I already admitted that I wasn’t just speechless. I was also depressed.

As anyone who has been falsely convicted of a capital crime can (I’m sure) attest, its not easy to have your name dragged through the mud by a guy who works for “the law” but has only half of the ethics gene in his DNA makeup.

So it was easier to write about Shapiro’s more public mistakes, like his inability to open a facsimile of Venus and Adonis to check whether his memory about hyphens was correct.  In that case no one could accuse me of being partisan. I like it when Shapiro makes those kinds of mistakes — it only shows the world how little the emperor is really wearing.

The truth is, though, I’ve known about how bad eyewitness identification is since about 1966, when I was eight years old. That’s because my Dad, who was a special education teacher, kept a book, Edwin M. Borchard’s Convicting the Innocent, which attracted my attention at an early age. The book documents the conviction and imprisonment (and, in some cases, execution) of sixty-five men who were undeniably innocent.

My father had read the book and understood very well not only its implications  for criminal law and justice, but its larger lessons about the fallibility of human cognition and the dangers of placing too much arbitrary trust in authority, which tends when institutionalized to take on a life of its own and to defend its erroneous presuppositions against any challenge, even — as in the case of criminal law — when it means keeping innocent men and women in jail indefinitely just to avoid admitting that you may have been wrong.

I was glad to see, just tonight, that the University of Albany library recognizes the importance of this classic work, first published in 1932, and has made it freely available on the internet.

The most shocking thing about Borchard’s book, however, is that after more than twenty five years of DNA identification as a forensic tool, prosecuting attorneys are still fighting the reopening of cases, for which significant DNA evidence is available, by citing eyewitness testimony and delivering the kind of sarcastic temper tantrums documented on film in After Innocence.

As Lenin asked, “what is to be done?” (No, I’m not a Marxist — I just think its a good quote — and even if what Lenin did was the wrong thing, he did ask the right question).  Well, the good people at the Innocence Project aren’t sitting around — when it comes to reforming the US criminal justice system, they have a plan, and they’re implementing it, one person at a time (it’s a start, and it has the advantage of being the right thing even if larger strategic reforms are slow to implement). So if you haven’t seen the documentary, I highly recommend, as a first step, doing so. Its an educational experience.

My dilemma is perhaps more difficult. For some time I wondered if should write to Shapiro’s publishers, laying out in excruciating detail the astounding lapses of scholarly method that led him to publish the things he did about me. I may still do so — and if I do, you can be sure I’ll release a copy of the letter on the site.  Meanwhile, you’ll just have to take my word for it that almost the only true things on the page Shapiro devotes to to discussing my dissertation are the commas and the periods.

Meanwhile, the beat does go on even if Shapiro has no sense of rhythm:

Politicians have a phrase, apropos of the dilemma faced not by the Oxfordians, but by the guardians of public morality about Shakespeare who are so adamant that it would be a betrayal of professional ethics to even admit that the authorship question  exists:  they like to talk, when it gets really necessary to do so, about “getting out in front of the story.”

You’ve really got to wonder how much longer institutions like the Folger or Harvard are going to sit idly by while the story escapes them entirely and they begin to take on the air of irrelevancy that the Catholic Church knows so much about from the days when its inquisitors refused to look into Galileo’s “looking glass.”  At what point in the elaborate charade game known in modern parlance as “Shakespeare scholarship” are those responsible for protecting the public image of the academic institutions going to realize that its time to….

“Get out in front of the story”?

Your guess, dear reader, is as good as mine.

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, forensic literary studies, MS studies, renaissance literature, and the history of the Shakespearean question, the latter a field in which he has published extensively.


16 Responses to “The Stratfordian Ethic and the Imprisoned Innocent”

  1. Bacchus says:

    Stratfordians have thier own bibles, a couple of which are, even to this day I believe, Samuel Schoenbaum’s Shakespeare’s Lives (1970), and Shakespeare: A Documentary Life (1974). Before his rise to eminence, possibly while still laboring at Brooklyn College, he published an article entitled ‘John Day and Elizabethan Drama’ (Boston Public Library Quarterly 5 (1953)). On page 146 in discussing Day’s THE ISLE OF GULLS — a play that should be of interest to Oxfordians — he refers to the “clever dialogue” in the “extended double entendre of the tennis scene”. There is only one problem; there is no tennis scene. True, several generations of scholars had called it a tennis scene — Bullen, possibly the first — then Symons, Bayne in the Cambridge History, and maybe others — and Schoenbaum followed their lead. The scene in question does go to great lengths using sports jargon, but the sport, obvious one would have thought even to the most cloistered academic, is bowls.The terms recur quite often in Elizabethan drama. The conclusion one draws is that Schoenbaum commented on the play without reading it. He seems to have read the brief inducton, and that seems to have been about all. Yet his scholarship is taken as a byword in Shakespeare biography. Is that prudent? Fast forward a couple of generations and we have Shapiro, also economical with his research. Are we surprised? Certainly anti-Stratfordians are not immune from the accusation of sometimes cutting corners, but shouldn’t we expect better of the establishment brandishing their Ph.Ds?

    • Roger Stritmatter says:

      Welcome Bacchus,

      And thanks so much for the astute commentary on the history of Stratfordian scholarship.

      Everyone makes mistakes, but there is a difference between making a mistake and admitting that you did so, and pretending to be above criticism and while treating those who are capable of setting you right like mental morons who are beneath your contempt — which pretty much summarizes the attitude of Shapiro and other leading Stratfordians in the 21st century. Schoenbaum, before his death, had already gone far beyond them and started to realize that the authorship question was real and that some of his past positions and statements were in need of modification. I have been told, indeed, on reliable authority, that Schoenbaum and Ogburn had a number of phone conversations during the 1980’s or 1990’s which were very cordial and open — which is remarkable considering how much was at stake for each of them in the resolution of the debate. As a result of reading Ogburn’s book — something I can’t tell that Shapiro has bothered to do (and he certainly never bothered to read my dissertation, or speak to members of my committee, or he would not have written the silly things he did about it), Schoenbaum made material alterations of more than passing interest to the 1991 2nd edition of Shakespeare’s Lives.

      Alas, I fear that Shapiro is no Schoenbaum. Perhaps he will prove me wrong — which I would welcome. But I wouldn’t bet on it

  2. Bacchus says:

    Yes, difficult to see Shapiro abandoning ship, as he now has more to lose than most.
    Incidentally, interesting essay on Cuddie & Willy. Perhaps it’s not premature to point out that if Sidney can be identified with Willy as he was indeed in the eclogues written shortly after his death and published in 1602 in Davison’s POETICAL RHAPSODY, we may be at liberty to wonder whether he may not also participate in a number of variations of that name, such as Will and William. For example, in 2 HENRY IV, Act III scene ii,
    By yea and nay, sir, I dare say my cousin William is become
    a good scholar: he is at Oxford still, is he not?
    Indeed, sir, to my cost.
    A’ must, then, to the inns o’ court shortly….”
    Sidney did indeed attend Oxford, and later the Inns of Court (Gray’s Inn, enrolled 1566/7). Looney identified Shallow in MERRY WIVES as Leicester, Sidney’s uncle. Perhaps in this instance Silence represents Sidney’s father, Sir Henry, who bore the cost.

  3. Roger Stritmatter says:

    Indeed that is an amusing speculation.

  4. Paul says:


    1. “The key to the freedom of these wrongfully convicted men and women isn’t moral indignation — although moral indignation, passion, and intelligence were all necessary. It’s DNA testing.”

    2. “How far that little candle throws his beams!
    So shines a good deed in a naughty world”

    The two quotes suggest an approach to objectively shine light on the Shakespeare authorship debate. Multispectral and hyperspectral light imaging are powerful optical techniques now utilized to analyze ancient manuscripts. For example the Archimedes Palimpsest was deciphered in detail allowing new insight into the thought process of a long gone mathematician. Recently Thomas Jefferson’s correction of “subject” to “citizen” in the Declaration of Independence was revealed. Indeed even the correspondence of the African explorer David Livingstone was read illuminated by multispectral light. In a sense this technology is the DNA forensics for textual material. Shakespeare’s bible at the Folger Library could be analyzed with several obvious aims in mind.

    Was Oxford the true annotator of the bible?
    Does cryptic writing (or erasure) present on the bible pages suggest text from Shakespeare?
    Can cryptic fingerprints in latent ink be those of Oxford? Comparison can be made to letters known to have been written by Oxford.

    I wrote to you and Mark Anderson suggesting this study be established. Mark answered that “now is not the time”. But on second thought perhaps now is the time.

    The study would be expensive and complex but your thesis offers a road-map to the research in that the literary analysis has already been completed. Yes, the grant application is a long shot, but worth the try. Let me know what you think.

    • Roger Stritmatter says:

      Hi Paul,

      This is a great idea. Unfortunately it would require the consent and permission of the Folger library. In 1995 Mark and his father — a professional chemist — approached the Folger about doing ink testing to simply establish the chronology of the inks and rule out the possibility that — as has been frequently rumored by people who don’t have the slightest idea of what they are talking about but seem to think that they are authorities of some kind, the handwriting is 17th century and not by Oxford (its also been rumored, as it to make sure that all the possible bases have been covered, that Oxford bought the bible (and then spent the equivalent of probably a couple of thousand dollars having it custom bound with silver plates over maroon velvet) already annotated.

      The Folger refused unconditionally to even consider the proposal. At least at the time, they were so dedicated to preserving the orthodox view of Shakespeare that they would rather promote ignorance than take the risk that these foolish scenarios could be ruled out. Have things changed at the Folger? Maybe. I’m certainly ready to move forward and give it another shot. I doubt there are invisible or erased markings of significance on the Bible, but surely some kind of advanced forensic analysis is appropriate and I’m sure the funds could be secured in some way if the Folger was willing.

      Tell me what you think.

  5. Paul says:


    The optical techniques differ from chemical analysis in that they are not destructive to the document. Therefore the Folger might agree to this research.

    For now I have tried a rapid thought experiment. I have again withdrawn a copy of your thesis from the college library. This time I simply looked at the figures and asked where Oxford could have been “sloppy” and might have smudged the page, for example figure 83, page 219, the extensive underscoring. The penned line is quite long and using an ink-well with a quill pen the possibility for stray marks is great. Figure 77, page 204, showing the annotator’s correction to the bible’s printed text required writing an entire phrase and stray markings could be present here as well. The same idea applies to figure 100, page 237 where Oxford appears to have sketched an ear. This few examples were simply a lunch time exercise. The copied reproduction lacks the visual texture of the original writing. Closer visual examination of the bible itself could identify additional marked areas for analysis.

    My physicist colleague is also willing to look at your thesis in order to study the authorship issue. He has a background in optical and fluorescent research. He does best with digital files. Would you be willing to send a pdf copy?

  6. Roger Stritmatter says:

    Cool, Paul, it’s a green light as far as I’m concerned. It’s true that the “destructive” aspect of chemical testing was a large part of why the Folger felt enabled to deny the request for testing. I don’t for a minute think this was the real reason, given the incredibly small amount of “destruction” involved in the test, which according to my information was about a pinprick’s worth of ink. But it gave them an excuse, so perhaps having the kind of techniques you are now using would be something they might be persuaded to allow. I’d be happy to send him a .pdf of the dissertation. Email me at and I will send one.

  7. Paul says:

    Thank you. I have just sent you the email, cc’d to the phyicist. Let’s consider a formal research proposal.

  8. Roger Stritmatter says:

    Look for it tonight. On the present dynamic of communication, see Clay Shirkey,
    Here Comes Everybody:

  9. richard waugaman says:

    As they say, don’t get mad– get even!

    We have all been outraged by Shapiro’s one-sided exploration of the ‘evidence.’ Most reviewers have naively trusted his authority. Many Oxfordians have been encouraged, though, by what’s happening on Amazon’s website for the hardback version of Contested Will. For nearly two weeks, a critical review has been ranked Number One as the most helpful review, as rated by customers. There’s been only a token Stratfordian protest, so far. For those of you who wish to cast your ballot, go to
    It’s one small way to get the word out, and to push back against Shapiro.

    My full review of Shapiro’s book was just published in The Psychoanalytic Quarterly. That’s one of 20 Oxfordian publications available on my new website,
    Perhaps you could post a link to it on your website, Roger?

  10. Roger Stritmatter says:

    Thanks Richard. I look forward to reading your review. That now makes at least four informed reviews of Shapiro’s book — yours, Niederkorn’s, Hope’s and Cutting’s. At some point in the future I’ll do a post linking all of them and commenting on the critiques they each offer. Collectively they should be pretty damning. I just added my own review on Amazon. I had delayed doing so for the reasons mentioned in this post, but it seemed now to be time. I focused solely on Shapiro’s deceptions regarding the handwriting of the de Vere Bible.

  11. kenkap says:

    Roger and Richard,

    I read your review Richard. Very good but with one problem. I got into trouble with this with Tom Reedy on this over at the Fellowship last year. You wrote, “If Shapiro seems extreme in denying an autobiographical element in Shakespeare’s works, it is because he admits that “enough elements in Oxford’s life uncannily corresponded to events in the plays to support…claims that the plays were barely veiled autobiography.” (pg 176)

    I too initially thought this was what Shapiro wrote. But it isn’t. I went back and found the quote. As I remember Shapiro wrote that OXFORDIANS BELIEVE that…

    Shapiro admits nothing. My replies to Reedy were based on Shapiro’s extreme position which did not fit the evidence of authors including and shaping works influenced by their lives (of which evidence is plentiful) and that Shapiro himself had argued against this position in 1599. Shapiro entire book is set up against straw man arguments and is quite contemptible. That the MSM fawns over this garbage is nothing new on any issue and is part of the degradation of intellect so prevalent in America today.

    But we have to be careful. If you have misquoted Shapiro to advance a cause, then you are guilty of cherry picking and misattribution. We must be completely clean. Otherwise, credibility is lost.


    Ken Kaplan

    • Roger Stritmatter says:

      Good catch, Ken. Shapiro is a wily one with words – one has to be careful in dissecting his statements. Sooner or later, he will probably wish that he had said what Richard implies. But for now he’s only willing to put it in “quotation marks” before calling the speaker a crypto-Nazi.

      Thanks for posting the correction. I hope this blog will always be open to corrections – even to my own mistakes. “Errare humanum est” — as Ben Jonson wittily inserted into the mouth of one lost knight, Puntarvolo, who tries to woo his own wife while she’s standing on the balcony, in his Every Man Out of His Humor.

      However, as Bill Boyle also wittily said some years ago, “the thing about Kathman and Ross (and now we might add those who follow in their footsteps like Shapiro) is that they are 100% right, 100% of the time.” Deduce what you will, as you like it.

  12. knitwitted says:

    “… is that they are 100% right, 100% of the time.”

    Which leaves the man 0% left, 100% of the time.

  13. Roger Stritmatter says:

    Now now, logic is not allowed.

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