“R[eliable] S[ource]” and “Fringe Theory” Authorship Question – Some Comments and (Below) a Guest Post by Richard Whalen…

Posted By on November 19, 2011

Harvard's Marjorie Garber: "I have remained in dialogue with Oxfordians and others, not because I concur with their opinions but because I do not dismiss them out of hand.”

Many readers will already have heard something about the authorship wiki-wars.

One of the fictions effectively perpetrated on unwitting newbies in these edit battles by the usual gang of diehard orthodoxists is that anything dealing in an intelligent way with the authorship question does not constitute a “reliable source” (is not RS) — apparently because so many academicians are agreed that intelligent discussion of the topic is by definition unreliable.

These wiki-pundits also believe that the issue itself and any alternative theories of authorship, including the Oxfordian one,  belong to the venerated Wikipedia category of “fringe theory” — along with the idea that an alien ate your mother and the earth was created in 4004 BC.

Exactly what does constitute a reliable source, according to these arbiters of public morality, and what distinguishes a minority viewpoint from a “fringe theory” remains, of course, usefully ambiguous. The point is not to develop a systematic classification based on principle, but to have handy at one’s side a usable stick to make sure that only sources that represent one viewpoint are allowed, and that anything that might endanger the sanctity of smug orthodoxy  or make the debate more complex by acknowledging that more than one rational point of view exists, is immediately labelled “not RS” and kept out of the footnotes.

If one is dedicated to the principle that the authorship question is a bad idea, this makes sense. As soon as one levels the playing field by outlawing argument by prejudicial a priori definition, the Oxfordians start winning points on the merits of their case.  This cannot be allowed if we want to keep the world safe for the ideal that Shakespeare is a cliché.

And, ironically, it appears to this reader at least that Archbishop Usher’s Bible-centered geo-chronology is treated more respectfully on Wikipedia than the Oxfordians are — but of course this makes sense, since Usher’s views are in fact so marginal that they constitute no threat to geological orthodoxy, while the case for Oxford’s authorship of Shakespeare is sufficiently persuasive to have gained the endorsement of several supreme court judges and some of the leading Shakespearean actors of the 20th and 21st centuries. The heat, in other words,  is in inverse proportion to the actual legitimacy of those fighting against the idea.

Recently Richard Whalen, author of Shakespeare — Who Was He: The Oxford Challenge to the Bard of Avon?, a book continuously in print since its publication in 1994, sent us some notes documenting the extent of Oxfordian influence on ostensibly orthodox academicians. These are grouped by analysis of public comments by each of several leading Shakespearean scholars, starting with Harvard’s Marjorie Garber, author of Shakespeare’s Ghostwriters (1987) and Shakespeare After All (2004, 2010) -Ed

Guest post by Richard Whalen begins here

In Shakespeare’s Ghost Writers (1987 from Methuen, 2nd ed. 2010 from Routledge), Garber  devotes most of her first chapter, “Shakespeare’s Ghost Writers,” to the authorship question, which informs the rest of her book. Her first sentence in the 27-page chapter is a question, “Who is the author of Shakespeare’s plays?” She then asks why doubts about his authorship have been so “tenaciously dismissed?” (a deliberate oxymoron?) She notes that Jonson’s praise in the First Folio “may not identify him with the prosperous citizen of rural Warwickshire” (1). She goes on to discuss the arguments for both sides, citing Looney, Ogburn, Freud, Twain, Chaplin, and others.

Significantly, in a second, expanded edition this year, from Routledge, she confirms her continuing interest in the SAQ: “When I first wrote about the Shakespeare authorship controversy . . .the topic seemed both fascinating and off-limits” (2nd edition Preface, xiii). On the next page: “I take it seriously and am less interested in any “answer” or “solution” than I am in the enduring nature of the controversy. Thus, I have remained in dialogue with Oxfordians and others, not because I concur with their opinions but because I do not dismiss them out of hand” (xiv). You can read her Preface to the Routledge edition on Amazon’s LookInside.

Later Garber asks, “Why does the question persist? . . .That is the question I would like to address. I would like, in other words, to take the authorship controversy seriously . . . to explore the significance of the debate itself, to consider the on-going existence of the polemic between pro-Stratford-lifers and pro-choice advocates as an exemplary literary event in its own right” (3)

On page 26, she says the plays raise questions like “Who wrote this? . . the apparent author or the real author. . .is the official version to be trusted? . . As will become clear in the chapters that follow, the plays not only thematize these issues, they also theorize them, a critique of the concept of authorship.” It’s the 1980s and it’s typical academic jargon, probably knowingly.

Garber has written six books about Shakespeare. She is a chaired professor of English at Harvard and chair of the department of visual and environmental studies.

Her 945-page book from Pantheon, Shakespeare After All (2004) confirms her interest in SAQ quite dramatically. She has a chapter on each play (probably from her lecture notes), and although she gives only a half dozen sentences to the controversy in her Introduction, she concludes that “despite the persistence of the Authorship Controversy [her caps], there seems no significant reason to doubt that Shakespeare of Stratford was the author of the plays” (22). A rather half-hearted defense of Stratman.

Significantly, despite only a few sentences on SAQ in the Introduction, her “Suggestions for Further Reading” (940) has a major section on “Shakespeare and Authorship” with seventeen books. Nine of them–a majority–are by Oxfordians, including Looney, E. T. Clark, Ogburn (twice), Sobran and myself. But only three anti-Oxfordians: Dobson, McManaway and Schoenbaum. She also includes her Ghost book.

Stanley Wells

Stanley Wells, perhaps the dean of Shakespeare scholars, devotes 18 of 174 pages in Is It True What They Say About Shakespeare (n.d. c. 2008) to SAQ. Notably, the cartoon cover depicts the SAQ; it shows a dumbfounded Shakspere being pulled in one direction by Marlowe and the other direction by Bacon or Oxford.

In the 18 pages he covers six candidates in a very sketchy, informal challenge/response mode and of course dismisses all of them. The publisher is a tiny, home-based company, but this is the eminent Stanley Wells, and it’s the first time he has addressed SAQ at any length. Testimony perhaps to the gathering momentum for the SAQ. I emailed him noting errors; he ignored them and said he “believes that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare.” That’s their default mantra.

David Bevington

David Bevington, has a difficult time with the SAQ in his Shakespeare and Biography (Oxford UP 2010.) His opening chapter, “The Biographical Problem,” is full of unanswered questions about the presumed literary life of Stratman. His 7-page last chapter, “L’envoi,” has four pages on SAQ. He cites Matus, Shapiro and my book and makes the usual arguments but not dismissively. He doesn’t address the significance of the SAQ as such. At various points, he discusses attempts “to look for connections” between the plays and Stratman’s biography (138.)

Bevington, whom I know quite well, is one of the top five Shakespeare establishment professors. He is editor of the HarperCollins (now Longmans) collected works and is the only president of the SAA to hold that office twice.

Norrie Epstein

In her racy, colorful Friendly Shakespeare (Viking 1993) Norrie Epstein devotes twenty-eight pages to the SAQ. Although she does not take a position, she contrasts Stratfordian and Oxfordian arguments and says the arguments for an alternative candidate are “extremely persuasive” (277). She concludes, “In short, there is no solid evidence for attributing the works to the man whose name they now bear.” And she notes that most academics dismiss SAQ.

Epstein has been a lecturer on Shakespeare at the universities of California, Rochester and Stevenson and at Goucher. Her book is still in print. Maybe you can use it. Epstein addressed the Boston conference of the Shakespeare Oxford Society in  1993.

James Shapiro

From my online SOS review of Contested Will:

“For the first time, a leading Shakespeare establishment professor, James Shapiro of Columbia University, has given serious consideration to the controversy over Shakespeare’s identity in a book-length analysis—a precedent that may help make the authorship issue a legitimate subject for more research and discussion in academia, even though Shapiro remains a Stratfordian.

His book is a history of the authorship controversy, from Delia Bacon in the 1850s to DoubtAboutWill.org in 2007. He recognizes that the seventeenth Earl of Oxford is by far the most impressive challenger and that his backers have achieved considerable success in recent decades. His final word is that a choice must be made, which he calls a “stark and consequential” choice.

“The book’s cover will dismay committed Stratfordians. It’s the Stratford monument depicting a writer with pen, paper and a pillow, but his head is cut off by the author’s name and the book’s title, including Who Wrote Shakespeare?  And indeed that is the question.

“Shapiro, however, states at the outset that he aims to answer a different question: Why have so many eminent people doubted that Will Shakspere of Stratford was the author and argued for someone else, such as Oxford? In so doing, he declines to enter the debate over the evidence for Shakspere or for Oxford in any depth of detail. As a result, the general reader is left with the impression that the question of Shakespeare’s identity may well be legitimate, despite efforts by many Stratfordians to dismiss it. That a scholar of Shapiro’s standing in the Shakespeare establishment should take this approach bodes well for Oxfordians.”

Die-hard Stratfordians, of course, will be able to find what they need to defend Will Shakspere and reject Oxford. Shapiro cleverly provides quotable snippets. Still, the discerning general reader, for whom this book is intended, should be able to see through this stratagem. . . .

. . . Granted, there is much for Oxfordians to critique and rebut, including material omissions, unbalanced emphases, unsupported opinions, faulty judgments, the usual straw-man arguments, contradictory stances and some other clever rhetorical tactics. At times, his handling of evidence is so devious as to deftly conceal his errors of interpretation. Oxfordians would have preferred a book by a Shakespeare establishment professor that would open the door even wider to scholarly discussion of the evidence for Oxford as Shakespeare, but Shapiro’s is a big step in that direction.

“On balance, Shapiro’s book might be considered good news for Oxfordians, who could have expected much harsher treatment by an Ivy League professor and scholar in the Shakespeare establishment. He shows a fair measure of appreciation for the Oxfordian proposition, and he freely acknowledges Oxfordian successes. That alone is reason enough to welcome his book. In addition, the book’s title and cover deliver a strong message of legitimacy for the authorship question.”


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.


17 Responses to ““R[eliable] S[ource]” and “Fringe Theory” Authorship Question – Some Comments and (Below) a Guest Post by Richard Whalen…”

  1. richard waugaman says:

    In support of Roger’s description of censorship on Wikipedia, here is what I heard from Tom Reedy about my attempting on Wikipedia to cite as evidence for de Vere my Notes & Queries article on the new literary sources for Shakespeare in the marked psalms in de Vere’s Bible–

    “Your article also needs some type of critical comment by the scholastic community to be considered a reliable source… A word to the wise: The atmosphere at Wikipedia has shifted, and if you insist on wedging in Oxfordian mentions in articles I doubt you’ll be able to edit for very long.”

    Perhaps it is unnecessary to add that getting the article published in Notes & Queries meant it had already passed fairly rigorous peer review.

    In October, that 2009 article was the most-read online article in the past 150 years of that journal.

    But Reedy and his gang seem creative in thinking up new rules as they go along.

  2. Roger Stritmatter says:

    ” Reedy and his gang seem creative in thinking up new rules as they go along.”

    Yep. The ends, apparently, justify the means.

    *Notes and Queries* is one of the oldest and most prestigious literary journals in the world, published by Oxford University Press. Reedy, a public relations officer for a County Sherriff’s department with no academic qualifications to pass judgement on anything appearing in *Notes and Queries*, or any other professional humanities journal for that matter, is nevertheless apparently authorized by Wikipedia to creatively make up new rules of he goes along about what constitutes “RS,” even if it means disqualifying sources that a 4th grader (to use Professor Shapiro’s apt example) would recognize as “R.S.”

    The whole thing is a sham and an insult to the intelligence of Wikipedia — not to mention *Notes and Queries* — and its readers.

  3. Ironically, here is what wikipedia itself says about Notes and Queries:
    So no hint that it is not a recognised peer-reviewed academic journal THERE.
    My critique of the circularity of wikipedia logic, which got me immediately banned, does not seem to have a whit gone out of date:
    ‘My moderate argument about the absence of the criterion of ‘neutrality’ was also included in the designation of ‘nonsense’, something which would seem to confirm the point made. In the case of Shakespeare, Doctor Johnson gave as the criterion of an established author that “He has long outlived his century, the term commonly fixed as the test of literary merit.” (Johnson, ‘Preface to Shakespeare’) By the same criterion, the Shakespeare Authorship Question has long outlived its century, and shows no sign of diminishing, as I pointed out. This is directly relevant to the question of ‘neutrality’, in relation to the claim of ‘fringe beliefs’, one of the issues on which comment was INVITED, yet adminstrators immediately moved it, by a sort of conditioned reflex, to this talk page. The standards of logic employed on behalf of orthodoxy here are infantile. Any sensible and even-handed Stratfordian would squirm to observe – only thay cannot, because it has been moved to this backwater – the tactics employed on their behalf.Sucamilc (talk) 19:27, 2 March 2011 (UTC)
    Given the extremely heated nature of the debate on this subject in the past, couching any statement in personal attacks or delivering it in a way that shows a disregard for Wikipedia’s civility rules is ultimately unhelpful and merits blocking. It is absolutely necessary that everyone involved stick completely and totally to the content of the article and not cast aspersions, assume bad faith, or issue personal attacks.
    In other words, commentary on content is invited, but a lack of civility will result in a block. Wrad (talk) 21:09, 2 March 2011 (UTC)
    Naturally, if you ban, or remove from this page, all dissenting positions, you can achieve ‘stability’, and eliminate ‘edit wars’. But this is manifestly Orwellian strategy (in the sense of 1984). Of course, by the same token, by the mad logic of Wikipedia procedures, I do not doubt it will prevail. Yes, indeed, we love Big Brother.Sucamilc (talk) 21:34, 2 March 2011 (UTC)

    I’ve blocked Sucamilc as a disruptive SPA and obvious sock/meatpuppet. I second the request first placed on this nomination not to engage these types of accounts—it only encourages them when they realize they have an audience. –Andy Walsh (talk) 22:40, 2 March 2011 (UTC)’

  4. Roger Stritmatter says:

    The standards of logic employed on behalf of orthodoxy here are infantile. Any sensible and even-handed Stratfordian would squirm to observe – only thay cannot, because it has been moved to this backwater – the tactics employed on their behalf.Sucamilc (talk) 19:27, 2 March 2011 (UTC)

    No kidding.

    I’ve blocked Sucamilc as a disruptive SPA and obvious sock/meatpuppet. I second the request first placed on this nomination not to engage these types of accounts—it only encourages them when they realize they have an audience. –Andy Walsh (talk) 22:40, 2 March 2011 (UTC)’

    One can’t help but notice the gratuitous “them” and “these types of accounts.” Infantile, indeed.

  5. 1984 by George Orwell

    The rules of the Inner Party are held together by adherence to a common doctrine. In a Party member not even the smallest deviation of opinion on the most unimportant subject can be tolerated. But it is also necessary to remember that events happened in the desired manner. And if it is necessary to rearrange one’s memories or to tamper with written records, then it is necessary to forget that one has done so. The trick of doing this can be learned like any other mental technique. It is learned by the majority of Party members, and certainly by all who are intelligent as well as orthodox. In Oldspeak it is called, quite frankly, “reality control.” In Newspeak, it is called doublethink, though doublethink comprises much else as well.

    Doublethink means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them. The Party intellectual knows in which direction his memories must be altered; he therefore knows that he is playing tricks with reality; but by the exercise of doublethink he also satisfies himself that reality is not violated. The process has to be conscious, or it would not be carried out with sufficient precision, but it also has to be unconscious, or it would bring with it a feeling of falsity and hence of guilt.

    Doublethink lies at the very heart of Ingsoc, since the essential act of the Party is to use conscious deception while retaining the firmness of purpose that goes with complete honesty. To tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing them and to forget any fact that has become inconvenient, and then, when it becomes necessary again, to draw it back from oblivion for just so long as it is needed, to deny the existence of objective reality and all the while to take account of the reality which one denies – all this is indispensably necessary. Even in using the word doublethink it is necessary to exercise doublethink. For by using the word one admits that one is tampering with reality; by a fresh act of doublethink one erases this knowledge; and so on indefinitely, with the lie always one leap ahead of the truth. Ultimately it is by means of doublethink that the Party has been able – and may, for all we know, continue to be able for thousands of years – to arrest the course of history.

    The official ideology abounds with contradictions even when there is no reason for them. Simultaneously, true to the principles of doublethink, the Party rejects and vilifies every principle for which the Socialist movement originally stood, and it does this in the name of socialism. It systematically undermines the solidarity of the family all the while appealing to the sentiment of family. Even the names of the four Ministries by which Oceania is governed are a deliberate reversal of facts:

    The Ministry of Peace concerns itself with War;
    the Ministry of Truth with Lies;
    the Ministry of Love with Torture;
    and the Ministry of Plenty with Starvation.

    These contradictions are not accidental. They are a deliberate exercise of doublethink. If the High are to keep their places permanently – then the prevailing mental condition must be controlled insanity.

    The subtlest practitioners of doublethink are those who invented doublethink and know that it is a vast system of mental cheating. In our society, those who have the best knowledge of what is happening are also those who are furthest from seeing the world as is. In general, the greater the understanding, the greater the delusion: the more intelligent, the less sane.

  6. Lurking Ox says:

    First of all, this is a wonderful post by Mr Whalen providing a clear and succinct overview of the ground defended by mainstream Shakespeareana. Thank you very much for posting this here.

    Sixthly, the wikistrats are an embarrassment to scholarship and to wikipedia, and should be an embarrassment to themselves. The fact that they do not seem to be self aware enough to realize their own contradictions is telling. The fact that Tom Reedy’s opinion carries more practical weight at wikipedia than Notes and Queries is a terrific farce.

  7. Roger Stritmatter says:

    Heward, this sounds like a guest post in the making. Orwell and the Authorship Question?

    LO, couldn’t agree more. Its a pity that more of our stratford cold warriors will not stick their toes in this water so that we could stop just agreeing with one another all the time, but I guess that being a bully in a crowd is a lot easier than defending your largely indefensible point of view when you don’t have the gang to back you up. I happen to know that Mr. Reedy is a regular cruiser of these boards, but so far has not had the courage of any conviction to stand up for himself. Pity ’tis, ’tis true.

  8. knitwitted says:

    So how does the Authorship Question remain a “fringe theory” when an orthodox Stratfordian who happens to be a chaired Columbia professor acknowledges the subject by writing a book on the topic for a well-known publisher for distribution to a mainstream audience and bottom line profiting quite nicely from the so-called “fringe theory” which he should have ignored in the first place because a “fringe theory” is a well-known unacceptable school of thought and not worthy of comment?

  9. Roger Stritmatter says:

    Good question. The only answer I can think of is that this professor has in his book effectively identified the topic as a “fringe theory.” It apparently doesn’t matter that the same professor made factual mistakes in his book that a fourth grader should not have made (http://shake-speares-bible.com/2010/04/18/james-shapiro-and-the-notorious-hyphen/) and is arguing from a theoretical paradigm that is essentially fundamentalist in its origins and “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” (http://shake-speares-bible.com/2011/10/31/guest-post-by-dr-heward-wilkinson-the-significance-of-the-longevity-of-the-shakespeare-authorship-question/).

    He hath spoke.

    The profit is good.

    Let the party continue.

    Truth? Maybe we’ll get to that another day.

  10. knitwitted says:

    What?! A fundamentally mistaken scholar? What about those proper footnotes that don’t appear to be in his book (http://witknitted.wordpress.com/2011/02/26/the-neuticlear-war-on-shakespeare/)? And golly. What about that group of Jews who were neglected in one of his other scholarly books Shakespeare and the Jews (http://witknitted.wordpress.com/2011/10/28/a-dollar-a-dollar-not-a-very-good-scholar/)? Yes, perhaps he is in fact a “fringe theory” scholar.

  11. Roger Stritmatter says:

    Good question. That footnote analysis is very good – and I’m impressed by your knowledge of some excellent sources that even call into question the scholarly depth of Shapiro’s book on Jews in Early Modern England, which I think must be his best book – or maybe just the one about which I know the least…..:) Thanks for the great critiques.

  12. knitwitted says:

    Thanks for your kind words! I truly expected to read in Shapiro’s SATJ Shakespeare’s relationship with the court musicians. Surely we can assume Oxford knew Aemilia Bassano since she did live with the sister of his brother-in-law, Peregrine Bertie. Interestingly, Aemilia, Oxford and William of Stratford all have ties to Bishopsgate; the former being born there; the two men having property there (per that [RS], Wikipedia 🙂

    I think Mr. Shapiro has very nicely left a bit of research open for those of us who are interested in uncovering the truth.

  13. Roger Stritmatter says:

    “I think Mr. Shapiro has very nicely left a bit of research open for those of us who are interested in uncovering the truth.”

    This is the problem with research conducted in denial.

    Of course, power is also a major element in the calculus here. If truth were sufficient, we wouldn’t need to have this conversation. 🙁

  14. Lurking Ox says:

    Roger said:

    “I’m impressed by your knowledge of some excellent sources that even call into question the scholarly depth of Shapiro’s book on Jews in Early Modern England, which I think must be his best book – or maybe just the one about which I know the least…”

    — what a great line.

  15. Roger Stritmatter says:

    Yes, LO, one of the differences between Stratfordians and Oxfordians (overgeneralizing, as per my occupational hazard as an amateur historian of ideas….:) is that Stratfordians know almost everything about everything, and are right by definition, being authorities, almost all of the time; while the Oxfordians know almost nothing about nothing and are by definition wrong almost all of the time, being, as is well known per Wikipedia and the Denton County Sherrif’s Department Office of Public Relations, authors of books and articles that are NRS (Not Reliable Sources) who work at Universities (if they work at Universities at all, which most of them actually don’t) that have not been certified by said Office of Public Relations.

    Asked to account for ourselves we’re best to reply, “nothing, my Lord,” or at least “almost nothing, your grace.”

  16. knitwitted says:

    You may wish to add the following three Oxfordian “Family Connections” to your “Facts Which Failed to Adhere to Reedipedia Sources”:

    –Oxford’s first cousin, Anne de Vere, daughter of Aubrey de Vere, married John Stubbs who was found guilty of “seditious writing” and sentenced to have his right hand cut off. [hmm… Seems like a good model for some play.]
    –His sister, Mary de Vere, married Peregrine Bertie the brother of Susan Bertie in whose house Aemilia Bassano lived. Some have speculated that Aemilia (Emilia) Bassano Lanier, an apparently striking woman, was the “Dark Lady” in Shakespeare’s sonnets.
    –His first wife, Anne Cecil, was a cousin of Francis Bacon, their mothers being sisters, which makes Bacon the nephew of Lord Burghley, who is often regarded as the model for Polonius.

    Admittedly, the third fact probably isn’t a plus for Oxfordians but full disclosure is.
    Best, Knit

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