“R[eliable] S[ource]” and “Fringe Theory” Authorship Question – Some Comments and (Below) a Guest Post by Richard Whalen…
Posted By Roger Stritmatter on November 19, 2011
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, 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, 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.
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.
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.”