Folger Library Enters Authorship Fray: Thoughtful Tone But Flawed Logic

Posted By on October 30, 2011

The Folger Library's Shake-Speare Theatre. Note that I did not write the "Folger Shake-speare" library. I understand that the library can be testy about missing or misplaced hyphens.

Michael Witmore, the new director of the Folger Shakespeare Library, is interviewed by the L.A. Times in this exceptionally fair October 27  L.A. Times article by Rebecca Keegan.

Considering some of the outlandish attacks that have come from the Birthplace Trust, from James Shapiro, and from other representatives of the orthodox view, Dr. Witmore’s remarks are refreshingly temperate and thoughtful.  On one level, they are a credit to the Folger.

But are they, closely analyzed,  really valid?

Let’s take a look. Here’s the quote:

“Scholars have not been debating this question,” said Michael Witmore, director of the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., the largest collection of materials on the playwright’s life and theatrical career. “This was a man who knew about history, warfare, theology, travel, courtship, flowers. Some of it was experience, some of it was reading. It’s astonishing that anyone could have produced a body of work this powerful — noble or commoner — but there’s no new evidence that suddenly says to us, oh, everything else we thought was wrong.”

Witmore is certainly right that the bard was a man who knew about all those things.

But how can the Director of the world’s most important Shakespeare research omit from that list “law” or “music” or “language” or “literature”? – all things which, so it seems to me from my lowly perch at Coppin State University, are even more central to the bard’s knowledge base.

For instance, is it really possible that the man who wrote Lear was unfamiliar with at least the Latin sources of the Oedipus motif of blinding?  To my ear, he must have read Sophocles – at least he got a Sophoclean sense of irony from somewhere – but I wouldn’t want to insist on it based on my own undeveloped knowledge of this highly particularized region of study. I’d probably ask Dr. Showerman what he thinks.

However, this was just a brief interview,  and naturally one will forget important things in any given sentence. All things considered, one has to respect the thoughtful tone and realistic content of both Ms. Keegan’s article and Dr. Witmore’s remarks.

So, I’m not carping….I’m just “saying,” as the saying goes.

On the other hand, it does occur to me that unlike most of those things in Dr. Witmore’s list, law and music, at least, are not something one picks up in a grammar school.   In Elizabethan England, both of those skills required advanced and specialized training. And it is manifest that the author of the plays has mastered both.

How central are legal concerns to the Shakespearean plays, and how often does he make relevant and detailed reference to “some of the most abstruse proceedings in English jurisprudence?” – to cite former English Lord Chancellor John Campbell’s opinion, one shared by the vast majority of legal experts who have considered the matter?

Pretty often.

Often enough that the omission from Dr. Witmore’s list indicates a conspicuous problem with our collective comprehension of Shakespeare as a literary artist.

But perhaps the most remarkable of Witmore’s claims  is that “there’s no new evidence that suddenly says to us, oh, everything else we thought we know was wrong.”

This is a carefully crafted statement – indeed,  one that doubtless commends Dr. Witmore for higher office.

There are, however,  at least two good answers to it.

The first is that made by Dr. Warren Hope, PhD, English, who wrote in a 1978 letter to the editor of College English: “there is…no need for new [Oxfordian] evidence until ‘the academy’ deals with the evidence that has been gathered in the last sixty years” (cited in Stritmatter, 2001).

The fact that most of Witmore’s colleagues have over the three intervening decades  since Hope’s statement not  made much progress in familiarizing themselves with the evidence to which Dr. Hope alluded is certainly not the fault of the Oxfordians.

In other words,  Witmore’s argument is a familiar species of logical fallacy.

It depends on the reader’s uncritical acceptance of the logical warrant that already existing evidence is insufficient to make the case that 1) the orthodox view is wrong, and 2) an abundance of mutually corroborative evidence suggests that the real author was almost certainly Oxford.

Why should we accept this warrant, according to Dr. Witmore?

Because we – the almost invisible “us” who “aren’t convinced”  in Witmore’s rhetoric  — say so.  Sorry, that’s it. “We” tell you what to think. “We” are the experts.  So far as I can tell, there’s no more “there” there in that statement.

But there’s a second and ultimately more interesting way of deconstructing Dr. Whitmore’s canny position.  He says “there’s no new evidence that suddenly says to us, oh, everything else we thought was wrong.”

This implies that the Oxfordians are asking the general reading public to accept that “everything else we thought was wrong.”

This is of course absurd and, ipso facto, proves that Dr. Witmore is on the side of the correct people, and rest of us must be idiots — possibly endearing ones, but idiots nevertheless. So if your goal is to stop, rather than encourage, inquiry and debate,  this  is almost as good as saying, “there’s no new evidence.”

Put them together and you have the hat trick of the official story of Shakespeare as reconstructed in the face of Anonymous.

But this is not what the Oxfordians are saying.  They have never said it.

In fact, if Dr. Witmore would deign to take a few minutes out of his busy schedule and read some of Shakespeare Identified, he would understand that the Oxfordian movement has for the last ninety years effectively built a case based not only on the logical, methodological, and historical failings of the orthodox critical tradition, but on the factual findings and fruitful speculations of that same tradition.

Oxfordians, in fact, have historically been “strong readers” – to use Harold Bloom’s term – of the orthodox tradition of Shakespearean scholarship.

For example, Oxfordians agree with the majority opinion of orthodox scholars that the “fair youth” of Shake-Speare’s Sonnets is Henry Wriostheley, 3rd Earl of Southampton.

Oxfordians agree with the majority of those scholars who have looked closely at the historical basis for the character Polonius that he is modeled on William Cecil.

Oxfordians not only agree that Arthur Golding’s translation of Ovid left a profound imprint on Shakespeare and that, in the words of Sir Sidney Lee,  it “had been one of Shakespeare’s best-loved books in youth” and that he  “knew much of Golding’s book by heart” – we can even tell you why. But, somehow, your team keeps telling us you don’t want to know.

Oxfordians, at least, love this sort of stuff. Reinventing the wheel is so boring. No intellectual movement that begins from a wholesale rejection of the past is likely to have a very long shelf life.

We didn’t make these things up, Dr. Witmore, and we can cite many more examples.

Not to mention that the list is growing at a steady pace, and I feel personally confident in publicly informing you that you are soon going to have to cross Francis Meres off your list of witnesses. He went over to the Oxfordians when they discovered Pythagoras.

That list is looking shorter and shorter.  Maybe its time to “make a move.”

We aren’t asking the orthodox party to reject these things any more than we want you to reject Pythagoras, whom we dearly love (even if we sometimes get a bit carried away with him) – we’re asking you to join in helping us to understand why they might be so.

So, do you think it would be too much to ask for a public discussion about Shakespeare that doesn’t start off by declaring irrelevant or taboo the most exciting literary and historical question of the lifetimes you and I’ve both got to share on this little speck of dust in this vast cold cosmos?

Could we, just possibly, share a mutual respect for Hamlet’s cry to Horatio to “report me and my cause aright to the unsatisfied” — and, together, ask why his creator gave him those lines?  I’ll bet Sir Derek Jacobi, Mark Rylance, Michael York, or even — if we could get him –James Newcomb, would be available to help.

Or is that not in your job description?

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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