In the Land of the Blind the one-eyed man is King….

Posted By on November 1, 2011

Touchstone has read only 70 books and is especially deficient in the Aristotelian syllogism. His knowledge of Italian would fit in the little finger of the average Shakespeare professor.

In the first act of As You Like It — among the most intellectual plays of the Shakespearean canon — Celia remarks on the exile of the fool Touchstone, who has been cast out of the court for his bad manners and taken refuge in the forest of Arden:

Since the little wit that fools have was silenced, the little foolerie that wise men have makes a great show.

In a recent online edition of the Montreal Gazette, wise men are making a great show of something.

Toronto University’s Professor of bardology Holger Syme, an expert in Shakespearean scholarship,  has entered the lists against Keir Cutler.

Oxfordians may not be be “mad,” says  Professor Syme (in one polite word covering  a series of  extenuating insults that would make any sailor blush to acknowledge) — but they are “demonstrably misguided.”

Phew. And we thought they were mad — demonstrably, north by northeast.

Syme’s reasoning?

According to him, Shakespeare really wasn’t as smart or as well educated as Cutler suggests he was.

Why is this important?

Syme  apparently believes that a smart Shakespeare is dangerous. As an expert in Shakespearean scholarship, Syme has dedicated his life  to the proposition that “Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare” and he doesn’t want you to waste any time on second thoughts about something he wouldn’t think about either.

He’s noticed that those who point out that this is a tautology may be too smart for their own good, and he wants to rescue these misguided fools  from the  unfortunate but understandable slings and arrows of Ron Rosenbaum, Stephen Marche, and the rest of the Occupy Anonymous gang — with his own genteel brand of death by condescension.

Syme is especially anxious to let his readers in on a big secret: whatever we may have thought back in the dark ages when Touchstone and Rosaline were cavorting around in Arden making jokes about fools and wise men, our current generation of bardographers are  quite certain that Shakespeare was a good bit dumber than you or I may once have  imagined.

Gone are the primitive days when Lord Chancellor Campbell could confidently inform us of Shakespeare’s intimate familiarity with “some of the most abstruse principles of English jurisprudence” or editor George Wyndham suggest that the most common mistake in reading or performing the bard is that he usually understands something we don’t, not that he was too badly educated to have anything intelligent  to say to us:

Whenever Shakespeare in an age of technical conceit indulges in one ostentatiously, it will always be found that his apparent obscurity arises from our not crediting him with a technical knowledge which he undoubtedly possessed, be it of heraldry, or law, or of philosophic disputation.

No, Syme is a new breed of Shakespeare scholar, a high-tech-equipped scion of the 21st century age of Facebook, hyperlinks, twittering and tweeting, and computerized vocabulary studies.

He’s arrived to tell us — let’s quote his exact words, since we know from experience that there’s nothing the good professor likes less than to have his ideas paraphrased by people like me who don’t understand them — “the notion that Shakespeare was extraordinarily erudite is a 20th century fiction,” one that results from “historical distance” — whatever that is supposed to mean.

In reaching this conclusion,  Syme may have taken a cue from the inimitably erudite Dr. David Kathman, stockbroker, who had already assured us over a decade ago that anti-Stratfordordians “have greatly overestimated the extent of Shakespeare’s knowledge, in certain areas, or at least the extent to which his knowledge was unusual among his contemporaries.”

This was, to be sure, during the same decade in which Dr. Kathman’s colleagues were displaying their imaginative precocity and advanced training in law and linguistics with creative new ideas like “credit default swap options.”

As it says in the book of Wisdom, “a fall on the pavement is very sudden.”

Fortunately, Dr. Kathman was in those days focused not on the task of taking money from unsuspecting investors by inventing new theories about how to swap things with your buddies in such a way that no one will notice whose pocket they are in when the music stops.  He was hard at work explicating the Bard, so that people like me who teach his works could understand him.  According to Kathman:

Discussion of the knowledge (and ignorance) displayed in Shakespeare’s plays, and how antistratfordians have misrepresented it, could easily fill a book on its own. In this essay, I focus on three areas where antistratfordians have often claimed that the plays exhibit knowledge beyond the ability of William Shakespeare of Stratford: Italy, the classics, and law.

Professor Hyme supplies some teeth to  these remarkable insights from the sage of Morningstar: “Geoffrey Bullough’s eight volume authoritative anthology of all texts the playwright may have used only identifies about 70 books as probable sources.”


Imagine that. He wrote 37 plays, 154 Sonnets, and two narrative poems using only 70 books.

Is it not truly impressive how readily  life experience can compensate for booklearning?

You’d almost be tempted to think that, with so few bookish sources, Shakespeare must have turned to his own life for some sort of inspiration. Based on this example, we might even suggest that all students currently enrolled in Professor Syme’s classes should take a leave of absence from reading Every Man Out of His Humor and start trading on the Chicago commodities markets instead.  I’m probably misunderstanding what Syme is saying, but it sure sounds to me like he could be interpreted as saying that that’s the path to literary greatness according to the experts at the University of Toronto.

In case you were wondering, moreover, logic is not required any more than books. All we need is really good pronouns. These can be substituted for arguments as long as your seat of learning is high enough.

“That he could read those books,” continues Syme, is not only common knowledge, but is also  “virtually certain.” After all, “he” may have gone to the Stratford grammar school, but “he” most certainly did write Venus and Adonis. He could not have done that without reading at least a few books.

Along with pronouns, in case you couldn’t tell, Professor Syme likes to count things.

Perhaps that explains why he went into the field of Renaissance literary studies — where, as we all know, Pythagoras is important.

Syme gives the lie circumstantial to Cutler’s proposition that Shakespeare added 3,000 words to the English language. Citing the latest unreferenced and unidentified studies (always handy, lest someone inquire into the basis of your authority), the true number is actually closer to…..700.

Gabriel Harvey and Thomas Nashe, asserts Syme, probably coined more new words than Shakespeare did, and the bard “had a much smaller [vocabulary] than educated writers of modern English.”

Gosh. 70. 37. 700. Let’s start studying a real writer like Thomas Middleton.

All this helps to establish the very important point that at Tier One research institutions, literary genius consists in reading the fewest number of books possible to write the largest number of plays possible with the fewest number of new words possible. Ideas? Optional. But above all, no really new ones that could be mistaken for evidence of higher education. This maximizes your cost-to-benefit ratio. Life’s really full of possibilities when you’re an expert.

Professor Syme is especially fond of negative numbers: “There is no evidence,”  he assures us, that  “Shakespeare was illiterate.”

As John McCormick replied on the Facebook Truebard discussion:

There’s [also] no evidence that Shakespeare did not go to Italy, that he did not meet Lord Cecil, that he was not a secret space alien, and that he did not do 40 pushups every morning….

McCormick should have known, however, that Syme was way ahead of him on this point. There is evidence that “our Shakespeare” — to us Ben Jonson’s apt phrase — was at least literate.

He signed his name six times, maybe more.* True, admits Syme, these signatures  are “in a less fashionable hand”  than those of his  “female descendents or his brother.”

But those who say Shakespeare never owned any books are all wet behind the ears and need to take a seminar from Professor Shapiro or from Syme’s own mentor Dr. Greenblatt, he says.

No, no books of Shakespeare’s have ever been found, and none are mentioned in his will, but that was just an oversight:

Such items would have been catalogued in a separate inventory, and Shakespeare’s, like many others, is lost.**

Unfortunately, as  that demonstrably misguided scoundrel Hank Sanders points out, this is ex cathedra at its most brazen:

Assuming there were books on the inventory list is a great leap and unsupported (and unlikely in my opinion). Manuscripts would have probably been in the will, books often were, and bookshelves. From subsequent evidence, J. Hall’s will and his daughter’s comments to others, plus letters from others during the ECW – the historical record argues strongly against books [being in the inventory]. Stratfordians argue they were confiscated during the infamous 1637 chattel raid on New Place.

Shameless strats like Shapiro just come right out and say it: “there was an inventory list with books. It has been lost.”

That (concludes Sanders) is a lie.

Figure One: Shakspere's six surviving signatures demonstrate that he could write. They are all affixed to legal documents dating from the last four years of his life.

While I’m sure that no one would like to accuse the good Professor Syme of being as fast and loose with the facts as Professor Shapiro has routinely been in recent weeks, one does have to wonder about his remarks about the collected works of the man to whom he attributes the authorship of Lear or Troilus and Cressida.

To Syme Mr. Shakspere’s signatures (figure one) are “less fashionable” than those of his daughters — or, as Syme puts it, using the more fashionably erudite and abstract term apparently preferred at Tier One research institutions, “female descendants.”

This is a question that Diana Price has examined in some detail — and on which, I daresay, her opinion is a good bit more authoritative than Professor Syme’s, who, to give him the benefit of the doubt, can’t seem to distinguish between the plural and the singular.

Signature of Susanna Hall, nee Shakspere -- daughter of the author of Merchant of Venice?

While the claim might be justified with respect to the undoubtedly stylish flourishes of Susanna (Figure Two), who could indeed apparently at least sign her own name in a style remarkably evocative of Olivia, in truth her sister Judith was a “markswoman” (Figure Three).

She couldn’t sign her name, stylishly or otherwise, and almost certainly couldn’t read either.

Figure Three: Judith Shakespere's "more fashionable" signature (quoth Professor Syme) was a mark. The "signature" is the work of a legal clerk. What are they teaching their graduate students at Harvard?

One hates to be pedantic about things like mere facts, but is that what Dr. Syme means by “more fashionable?”

This is, admittedly, a small thing.  And to Professor Syme facts are, naturally, no impediment to a well-cultivated belief.

“It may….not be surprising,” he concludes,  “to learn that most of Shakespeare’s contemporaries didn’t think of him as a once-in-a-millennium genius. There is even evidence that some of his plays flopped as books.”

Gosh. Even some evidence?

Focusing for the moment on the present, there is also some evidence that someone besides Hank Sanders and John McCormick, and their Oxfordian colleagues, who are having a wonderful and mostly enlightened discussion about the errors of experts, has noticed Dr. Syme’s article.

Three people have tweeted it. Unless I’m mistaken, one  of them offered this synoptic comment:

man, proud man, Dressed in a little brief authority,
Most ignorant of what he’s most assured.

The guy who wrote that could sign his own name, of that we are assured on the very best form of evidence, ocular proof.

But despite the best efforts of the Stratford grammar school, where he may have gone, he wasn’t very well educated, read only a few books, and wrote plays that were unpopular until the anti-Stratfordians got hold of them four hundred years later and suggested that maybe there was something in them worth noticing. Most of the time, we’re assured, he did not know what he was talking about. Gabriel Harvey had a more inventive mind. Take it from the good professor at the University of Toronto.

He’s the expert.


* That is, assuming that these are actually even his signatures, which Robert Detobel, for one, has challenged.

**Italics supplied.

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.


55 Responses to “In the Land of the Blind the one-eyed man is King….”

  1. Lurking Ox says:

    “Professional Shakespeare scholars don’t use Shakespeare’s biography in their criticism of his plays, therefore a change to Oxford as author wouldn’t involve a change in their criticism.”

    The idea of this sentence is germane to what I wonder?

    Does this make the criticism better do you think? Or worse? And what if the scholars don’t care who the author was? Hmmm… I am unable to see the angle of how exactly purposeful ignorance will lead to more enlightened scholarship (what else are they making up or leaving out or misinterpreting?) Criticism based on false (or unquestionable) assumptions that I refuse to discuss are unlikely to lead me towards some great enlightenment – or to much else that is worth writing about. It does not take a fine education or extraordinary genius to see that.

  2. Roger Stritmatter says:

    Ox writes:

    “’Professional Shakespeare scholars don’t use Shakespeare’s biography in their criticism of his plays, therefore a change to Oxford as author wouldn’t involve a change in their criticism.’

    The idea of this sentence is germane to what I wonder?”

    Well, if it were true, it would mean that a change in author would not change anything about the way that professional Shakespeareans approach their subject. That, of course, says nothing about how it might change the way people who are not making money teaching and writing about the bard approach their understanding of the author or the work.

    I think what has not yet sunk in, because of the level of denial involved in our subject, is that professional Shakespeareans are damaging their own reputations with the general public by stonewalling in this manner. They are turning themselves into yet another example of a select group of cognoscenti that just “didn’t get it.” Maybe this is inevitable. I don’t know. But I’d prefer a better fate for them, for despite the mistaken assumptions about authorship there is of course much of immense value out there produced by orthodox scholars – who got it right, not because they had the correct author, but in spite of the fact that they didn’t.

  3. Roger Stritmatter says:

    Ox, when I get a chance I’m going to do a blog post based on these exchanges. Well done. We’ve covered a lot of great territory. Thanks be to God for a local representative of higher education who can give us something to think about.

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In "From Crackpot to Mainstream"Keir Cutler, PhD, takes down the recent Shakespeare Beyond Doubt (OUP, 2013)

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