On The Significance of the Longevity of the Shakespeare Authorship Question

Posted By on October 31, 2011

We are pleased to offer another guest post from Dr. Heward Wilkinson. His previous post, on Professor Shapiro’s use of the concept of “imagination,” may be found here. -Ed

Heward Wilkinson, Phd.

Our modern canons of rational textual criticism slowly emerged during the roughly four centuries of what we call the Mediaeval Age, from around 1050 to 1450, the end date, not coincidentally, being the time of the development of the printing press by Gutenberg. This Mediaeval development created the mentality for, and opened the way to, the Renaissance, and the Reformation, the beginnings of the Modern Age.

Modern criticism begins with Erasmus, Luther and others, coinciding with the take off of printing, and the increasingly ‘mass’-based communications that opened up, for instance with the vernacular editions of the Bible, such as Tyndale’s. Relevantly to the Authorship Question, this is all well established, and in place, by the time Shakespeare comes to be educated, and is completely factored in to the Humanistic education of this author. It begins to be systematically applied to Bible Studies by Spinoza and other pioneers, such as Descartes, Hobbes, and Locke, of modern scientific naturalism in the Seventeenth Century.

In England, in the mature Enlightenment period, the Eighteenth Century, the great critical systematiser was Samuel Johnson. Having created the foundational Dictionary of the English Language, the greatest single analytic systematisation of the English language ever achieved, and one of the greatest scholarly feats of any epoch (published in 1755), he moved on to his edition of Shakespeare.

The bard was already becoming a classic, and Johnson contributed to his canonization in Preface to Shakespeare, published in 1765. Johnson’s total achievement, which eventually also included critical biographies of, and commentary on, all the English poets from Abraham Cowley onwards, ran parallel to the systematisations of such French Enlightenment Encyclopaedists as Diderot and Voltaire, and was therefore a central part of the consolidation of the Enlightenment.

Writing  about Shakespeare in the Preface to Shakespeare (1765), Johnson sagely remarks,  at this time when systematic criticism had come of age in the English Enlightenment:

The Poet, of whose works I have undertaken the revision, may now begin to assume the dignity of an ancient, and claim the privilege of established fame and prescriptive veneration. He has long outlived his century, the term commonly fixed as the test of literary merit. (my italics)

Johnson, then, attaches enormous importance to survival over time, and considers it an epistemic criterion of established valid authority. He further writes:

To works, however, of which the excellence is not absolute and definite, but gradual and comparative; to works not raised upon principles demonstrative and scientifick, but appealing wholly to observation and experience, no other test can be applied than length of duration and continuance of esteem.

What mankind have long possessed they have often examined and compared, and if they persist to value the possession, it is because frequent comparisons have confirmed opinion in its favour …… Demonstration immediately displays its power, and has nothing to hope or fear from the flux of years; but works tentative and experimental must be estimated by their proportion to the general and collective ability of man, as it is discovered in a long succession of endeavours. Of the first building that was raised, it might be with certainty determined that it was round or square, but whether it was spacious or lofty must have been referred to time.

The Pythagorean scale of numbers was at once discovered to be perfect; but the poems of Homer we yet know not to transcend the common limits of human intelligence, but by remarking, that nation after nation, and century after century, has been able to do little more than transpose his incidents, new name his characters, and paraphrase his sentiments. (Preface to Shakespeare)

Discussions of provenance were by this time becoming common, Johnson himself forcefully putting sceptical arguments about the, wildly popular Europe-wide, Ossian epic writings, published by MacPherson, whom Johnson accused of fabricating a bogus oral tradition.

But historically based criticism was, by the end of Johnson’s life, being systematised, particularly in Germany, as the Higher Criticism, and it was the development in Germany of this historically based critical methodology that led to systematic attention being paid to the really big beasts, the Old and New Testaments, Homer, and Shakespeare, themselves. This historical development coincided with the process of the shifting of the centre of gravity of European philosophical thought from Britain to Germany, beginning with the polymathic Leibniz, and culminating in the great critical systematiser of the Enlightenment, Immanuel Kant.

Despite partial reservations in the Anglo-American sphere, Kant has retained his authority, and his position as the most important modern philosopher, the modern Aristotle, ever since, and neither phenomenological existential philosophy, nor analytic philosophy, nor post-modernism, have seriously challenged it. And likewise the impact of the post-Higher-Critical methodology of the modern critical-historical examination of texts has been irreversible in our modern scholarly world, however it is applied, and to attempt to by-pass it is like trying to by-pass Darwin in biology.

To illustrate the implications of all this for the Authorship Question, I turn now to James Shapiro. In one of those frequent, and yet inexhaustibly astonishing, ironies of his book on the Authorship Question, Contested Will,  Shapiro himself applies the biographical methodology, which he outlaws as applied to Shakespeare, only to those he opposes, including to those very writers who devised the biographical methodologies! But those who are useful to him are exempt from it.

If he had been even-handed in this, then the critique would have even-handedly ‘divided through’ both opponents and allies, forcing him into a more balanced approach, is but one of the many ironies here.

And so, with his light conversational style of communication, it is easy to pass over one of the most extraordinary of these exemptions, one with the most stunning implications, his discussion of Samuel Mosheim Schmucker, who, Shapiro tells us, was a Lutheran Biblical scholar fiercely opposed to the sceptical Biblical criticism of David Friedrich Strauss, author in 1835 of The Life of Jesus, arguably the inaugural text of modern New Testament criticism. To make his challenge to ‘Modern Infidel’ criticism more graphic, Schmucker applied it systematically, with deliberate and crushing irony, to the parallel case of Shakespeare, whom he considered unassailable. In his vivid dramatic way, Shapiro continues  in Contested Will:

The result – Historic Doubts Respecting Shakespeare Illustrating Infidel Objections against the Bible – is almost unknown, but it probably tells us more about the Shakespeare authorship controversy than any other book, though without setting out to. Remarkably, before that controversy even broke out, Schmucker, who never for a moment doubted that Shakespeare was Shakespeare, anticipated and carefully mapped out almost all the arguments subsequently used to question Shakespeare’s authorship. [86, my italics]

Clearly, because Schmucker ‘never for a moment doubted that Shakespeare was Shakespeare’, his position is the paradigm of which Shapiro totally approves, and will exempt from both criticism and biographical analysis, and Schmucker’s prior mapping of the arguments is accordingly bequeathed almost godlike authority.

The consequent corollary implication almost numbs us with disbelief.

It is this:  if Shapiro approves of Schmucker’s methodology as applied to Shakespeare, he must by extension approve of it as applied to Homer and the Bible as well.

Thus, without realising what he has done, Shapiro, as an argument of convenience, repudiates the whole trend of modern Higher Critical thought and methodology, and has painted himself into a position as obscurantist as the most extreme American Evangelical Fundamentalist Creationist.

To bring the implications of this point home, we must return to Samuel Johnson, and his longevity criterion for the validity of a valuation. Ostensibly, of course, Shapiro deprives himself of the consequences of his alliance with Schmucker regarding Biblical criticism, and regarding the Homeric problem. On the former he does not comment; but it is unlikely in practice, however, that he, as a state-of-the-art Professor of English in a major American University, would want to embrace Biblical Literalism, which is where Schmucker, of course, would necessarily take him.

And, of the latter, he conveys, by implication, that it is a dead problem (but overtly, he seeks to imply, only because there cannot be an authorship problem):

The battle over Homer’s identity, though no longer the struggle it once was [my italic], continues to this day. Classicists now have a better understanding of how oral poetry was transmitted; almost all accept [my italic] that there was no Homer in the traditional sense which all readers for over two thousand years had imagined. Happily, since no one was advancing alternative candidates from ancient Greece – what contemporary rival, after all, could even be named? – there wasn’t anything to fuel an authorship controversy, and the problem was more or less ignored; the less said the better. Still there are those who refuse to give up on the traditional story…( 81)

Here, however, it is in practice clear,

a. that Shapiro actually does think it is a dead problem, and,

b. that he believes it to be so, because traditional concepts of individual authorship have collapsed, in virtue of Higher Critical understandings we have acquired concerning oral tradition, and the analysis of the layering of text. (And of course, he further leans in this direction vis a vis Shakespeare and his ‘team-writer’ solution to the ‘biographical’ dimension, c.f., for details.)

His appeal to the absence of an authorship problem, as contingent on ignorance, is sophistical, and an equivocation; he knows perfectly well that that is not the argument against Homer the individual author. Nor is it the reason why this is, apart from the occasional diehard (he mentions the translator, EV Rieu), a dead problem. It has been resolved.

In this, following Johnson’s criterion in reverse, the problem of Homer is a solved problem, and it had been solved completely within about seventy years of its formulation by Wolf (1795), as Shapiro’s mention (79-80) of Nietzsche’s Inaugural Address at Basel (1869) demonstrates.

And, in this, it follows the pattern of the solution of major problems of thought in the modern age, in the Humanities, as well as the Natural Sciences.

One thinks of Wegener’s theory of continental drift (formulated 1915, confirmed by 1950, though well after Wegener’s death) or Darwin’s theory of evolution, which was accepted in major outline by the scientific world within about thirty years, and rejection of which has indeed become a standard criterion of obscuranticist rejection of the implications of modern critical and scientific thought. And likewise, as already indicated, the implications of what Moses Mendelssohn called Kant’s ‘all-pulverising’ critical thought were broadly accepted by philosophical Europe within forty years of the publication of the Critique of Pure Reason in 1781.

Applying this to the authorship controversy, it is indeed striking that, in Johnson’s terms, it has indeed well outlived its century.

Peter Dickson, in his Bardgate: Shake-speare and the Royalists who Stole the Bard, points out both that this is virtually unprecedented in any modern era unresolved problem; but, further, that it remains true of the most completely established, and the greatest, of all authors is absolutely unprecedented. This is the only ‘big beast’ of a critical problem that has not yielded to modern critical method. This degree of longevity about a largely factual historical problem, and one of this scale, is apparently unique.

And that means that the longevity of the problem as an unresolved problem is itself evidence.

Shapiro is too intelligent not to realise this.  His equivocation and bad faith regarding the Homeric problem, which, as we saw, he tries to bring into parallel with the Shakespeare authorship controversy, thus off-setting the uniqueness of the latter, illustrate the point. But he cannot do this without introducing either the gross tacit inconsistencies and self-contradictions with which, as is clear, his work is in fact riddled [c.f., also, on this, again], or, alternatively, equating the conclusions he wishes to establish as positions of Faith, analogous to Schmucker’s Biblical Literalism, which is to be pronounced exempt from both criticism and reductive biographical analysis.

Again, from Preface to Shakespeare:

The Poet, of whose works I have undertaken the revision, may now begin to assume the dignity of an ancient, and claim the privilege of established fame and prescriptive veneration. He has long outlived his century, the term commonly fixed as the test of literary merit. ( my italics)

The wisdom of Samuel Johnson is powerful still. Applying his criterion, The Shakespeare authorship controversy has long outlived its century, the term commonly fixed as the test of the assimilation of a valid solution of a scientific or critical problem.

Epistemologically, then, Johnson has proposed an extremely powerful criterion, and, in its status as an unsolved problem, the Shakespeare Authorship Controversy meets it.  If the Stratfordian hypothesis were satisfactory, it would be a dead problem by now, as the  cases of Wegener, the acceptance of Kant, the understanding of the mode of writing of Homer and so on, were laid to rest well within their century. But this hypothesis has signally failed to achieve this.

Shapiro’s tacitly obscurantist attempt to turn it into a matter of faith, by his invocation of the Ghost of Samuel Schmucker, itself might have turned into one of those amazing radical sidesteps, by which the fideistic giants of the period from Descartes onwards, such as Pascal, Newman, Kierkegaard, and Barth, sought to sidestep the impact of Humanistic Criticism.

Fortunately, or unfortunately, Shapiro is not aware of this; if he was, he would be a greater, more systematic, mind, and we would have more respect for him. His implicit repudiation, when it suits him, of critical methodology, and his appeal to faith, is concealed in highly characteristic textual equivocations.

So, as it is, he is not a man of faith, but merely one of bad faith.



About the author

Heward Wilkinson, BA MA, MSc Psychotherapy, UKCP Registered Integrative Psychotherapist, studied English and Theology at Cambridge, and Religious Studies at Lancaster. Originally a psychiatric nurse, he practices psychotherapy in London, with a special interest in the interface between religion, philosophy, the arts, and psychotherapy. He has developed the poetic analogy in his new book The Muse as Therapist: a New Poetic Paradigm for Psychotherapy and in chapter 4 of Beyond Post-Modernism: New Dimensions in Clinical Theory and Practice, edited by Roger Frie and Donna Orange. He is Fellow of United Kingdom Council of Psychotherapy. He runs Philosophy Courses relevant to Psychotherapy in both UK and Ireland. His interests include: the interface between art and psychotherapy; Shakespeare and the authorship question; and the philosophical roots of our modern understandings of the world. He tries to bring jest and humour to serious matters without dismissing their seriousness.


One Response to “On The Significance of the Longevity of the Shakespeare Authorship Question”

  1. helenhgordon says:

    Hi, Heward. I very much admire the way you have interwoven the methods of scientific reason with the methods of literary criticism which were just beginning to take shape in the 18th century, notably with Alexander Pope and Samuel Johnson.
    As for Shapiro, your analysis is “spot on,” as we Americans would say. His attempts to discredit the movie “Anonymous” and demonize the whole anti-Stratfordian movement are not only self-contradictory (as you astutely observe), but also dishonest. I have written a rebuttal to Shapiro’s column in the New York Times; the NYT did not publish it, but it is now posted on the blogs of Hank Whittemore and Roger Stritmatter.
    Keep up the good work.
    Vere-ily yours,
    Helen H. Gordon

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