In Praise of Honest Stratfordians (Part I)

Posted By on March 18, 2011


Charles Dickens: “The life of Shakespeare is a Fine Mystery, and I tremble every day lest something turn up.”

Defenders of the orthodox view of Shakespearean authorship  draw more and more attention to themselves these days through their incapacity to sustain a rational debate and ready recourse to straw man or ad hominem arguments, to mention only the two most popular fallacies of their arsenal.

Another critical element of their rhetoric, however,  is to patrol  the line between “Stratfordian” and “anti-Stratfordian” such that the public will not only continue to believe that one is synonymous with “scholarship” and the other with mental or emotional incompetence, but also that the two categories are mutually exclusive and absolute, like some sort of Platonic “ideal types.”

Going back a few years, many defenders of the status quo at first reacted in the opposite way, with angry denunciations that one could make such a distinction.

They did not like contemplating the fact that there could be two schools of thought about Shakespearean biography. Moreover, many very respected figures of intellectual culture have manifestly belonged to the “wrong” school. To admit that the term “Stratfordian” had a referent was to open the door to the idea that no-counts like Hermann Melville, Henry James,  Walt Whitman, or Charles Chaplin had an opinion about Shakespeare worthy of notice.

In the end, however, the energy consumed in a losing battle fighting the language wore them down. Nowadays the defenders of the orthodox position more and more depend on enforcing a rigid and uncompromising distinction between the two groups rather than denying the existence of one.

In the new model, Stratfordians are “scholars”  and everyone else is, well, something else. Their works constitute “RS” (Reliable Sources) on Wikipedia. Their word is sacrosanct. Their errors are to be ignored. Their questionable arguments are to be fortified with inflationary rhetoric rather than examined with deeper probing.  Their “qualifications” are to be trumpeted from every rooftop,  and, in case of emergency, their cvs  are to be forwarded to the Holy See in Rome with a recommendation for Sainthood.

And so forth.

The anti-Stratfordians, on the contrary, are still just as Richmond Crinkley described them in his 1985 Shakespeare Quarterly review of Charlton Ogburn’s Mysterious William Shakespeare. They are the legitimate objects of a kind of “bizarre mutant racism,” treated with the contempt of “lesser breeds before the law.”

A favorite expression of this creed is the overt or implied comparison between anti-Stratfordians and holocaust deniers or, in some cases, Nazis.  As one Wikipedia editor, Mr. Paul Barlow, put it in a talk page discussion as recently as this morning:

The “authorship question” is not an academic subject except as a rather marginal object of study. We don’t accept Alfred Rosenberg and Hans Gunther as experts on the “Jewish question”. We do accept historians who study the period.

Now, it would be possible to go through this impressive specimen of specious reasoning in detail line by line, word by word, to analyze the various applications of tunnel vision, reckless use of ad hominem, and argument by definition, on which it depends, including  — and especially – the use of the plural first person pronoun royal “we”  in an attempt to establish a sham relationship with uncommitted readers and to ostracize the individual to whom the writer is allegedly responding. This sort of verbal ostracism is a common feature of internet communication, as is the inflammatory rhetoric that has so greatly degraded our public discourse in many areas by  cynically  transforming the murder of 8 million people into a kind of political calculus, used here as in so many other instances  in  a vainglorious attempt to  illustrate the speaker’s intellectual and moral superiority.

But I have a better idea.

You see, I’m against “mutant racism.” I’m against it as much as my parents, in the 1950s and the 1960s, were against the more traditional kinds. They had problems, I admit, when my half-Tlingit adopted sister brought home an African American husband in 1965. And another one in 1968.

Still, my parents behaved with a dignity I can only aspire to, accepting both sons-in-law even though the first barely had a high school education and the second can only be described, generously, as a colorful con, who later spent several years in a federal penitentiary for bootlegging alcohol in the little Eastern Washington town of “Othello” (a subject for another post, believe me).

In  1978, the year I entered college, my father died. Two African American men attended  his Quaker funeral service at the University Friend’s Meeting house in Seattle.

I’d never seen them and did not know who they were. But they came bearing a gift containing the lesson of a lifetime.  During the 1940s, they said, my father had been among the first white members of the Seattle Chamber of Commerce to speak up to support their application for membership.  As a teenager, I often didn’t respect my father enough. That day, however, I respected him — and I was grateful to those two men, who had probably not seen my Dad for twenty years, because they honored his life as he had at least tried to honor theirs, long before Mr. Barlow started editing Wikipedia pages on racism.

Mr. Barlow accuses me, like other Oxfordians, of being a Nazi.

Isn’t he a big man?

The accusation  reminds me of another story. Even though my dad was a pacifist, he was  also a committed anti-Nazi.  I like to think it may have been Leslie Howard who inspired him. But however it came about, he applied for the medical corp so that he could do something tangible to stop the advance of the fascist ideology and the advance of Hitler’s shock troops.

He was turned down for having flat feet, an impressive example of cosmic irony, without which I might not exist and Mr. Barlow would have call someone else a Nazi. Just out of curiosity — and this is a question directed at the high levels of Wikipedia officialdom: is that sort of vulgar hate speech really supposed to be allowed in Wikipedia talk?

I’m just asking — I’m no expert on the niceties of Wikipedia etiquette — but it just seems a bit odd to me when professionals like Dr. Richard Waugaman or Dr. Heward Wilkinson get  summarily ejected from Wikipedia whilst  blokes like Barlow are  not only tolerated but, so it seems, coddled when they deploy this kind of verbal violence against them.

Unlike many of my current friends, I didn’t lose any family members (that I know of) in the holocaust. But that doesn’t change the fact that Barlow’s accusation is hurtful not only because it avoids the real issues that should be discussed, because it strikes deep in the heart. It’s intended to — for when logic fails, dogma will be defended with force, and in the end with violence — and Barlow’s words truly are an eloquent manifestation of the violent “mutant racism” Crinkley, then the library’s Director of Educational Programs, diagnosed at the Folger in the 1980s.

One learns from such experiences as I had growing up in a multi-ethnic family in the 1960s how weak our labels can be, and how easily what seems like a rational distinction can be perverted into a species of idolatry and bolstered by various misleading suppositions that effortlessly harden into outright stereotype, progress to prejudice, and end in literal or metaphorical obliteration of “the other.”

Hence it is perhaps not surprising that when Anti-Stratfordians quote Charles Dickens on the authorship question, the retort all too often is, “Dickens was NOT an anti-Stratfordian!”

So what?

Who said he was?

Dickens was not only the greatest 19th century British novelist (one of them, anyway), he was also a founding member of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust Fund, the non-profit arm of the Stratford-Upon-Avon tourist industry.  Therefore, according to this line of reasoning (to which I have no objection), he was not an “Anti-Stratfordian.”

Does that change the significance of what he said?

Only to someone who views the world through the black and white only spectacles of Mr. Barlowe & Co.

“The life of Shakespeare is a great mystery,” wrote Dickens,  “I tremble every day lest something should ‘turn up. come out.’”*

Now I suppose that James Shapiro could have saved himself a lot of time, and his financiers a lot of money, if he had just paid attention to that statement and modified his book accordingly. He would not be getting all of the grief he’s getting now. It’s one thing to make an honest mistake. It’s quite another to write a book that makes a bunch of foolish errors while  the people who could have saved you from them if you’d only had the decency to talk to them first are assailed, effectively,  as “lesser breeds”  within the pages of the same book.

But since Shapiro, like Mr. Barlowe, is so much smarter and more well-educated than Dickens was, he knew full well that Dickens was not an anti-Stratfordian. In fact the only thing Shapiro says about Dickens in his book is that he, like Virgil and Milton, is one of those writers who have “achieve[d] a kind of immortality by speaking to us from beyond the grave.”

Think about that one for a minute.

To be Continued……

*Hope and Holston (1991),  who give the version “come out” (152), not “turn up” (apparently a common misreading),  attribute the quote to an 1849 letter to William Sandys, which reads more fully and in part: “It is a great comfort, to my thinking, that so little is known concerning the poet. It is a fine mystery; and I tremble every day lest something should come out. If he had had a Boswell, society wouldn’t have respected his grave, but would calmly have had his skull in the phrenological shop window.”


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.


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