Meet the Shakespeare Underground

Posted By on October 27, 2012

Founder and Artistic Director Jennifer Newton lectured on "The Shakespeare Underground" at the 2012 Pasadena Shakespeare Authorship Conference.

One theme of this blog since its inception in 2009 has been how new communication technologies (the web, primarily) are inexorably transforming the Shakespearean debate. Books, such as three  recent examples (two self-published and one published by a leading academic press)  by independent authorship scholars Katherine Chiljan, Steven Mcclarran (pseud), and Richard Malim (each one of which deserves a full review on this site for its contribution to the developing discourse of authorship studies) will continue to play a major role in disseminating to the public information and perspectives that are not available more directly through the standard textbooks authorized for use in the average classroom.

Films such as the recently released and critically acclaimed  Last Will. & Testament will continue to provide a window into the emerging world of authorship studies.

Even these traditional media,  however, are  now are being leveraged through the web, which has also given birth to a range of wholly novel communications technologies that build on possibilities inherent for the first time in the digital multi-verse:  blogging, social media, and online discussion of various kinds.

Podcasting, which Wikipedia defines as the direct distribution of media or audio files on the web, shares a significant feature of other digital communications: “because no one person owns the technology” and  “it is free to listen and create content,” it departs from the traditional model of ‘gate-kept’ media and production tools.  It is very much a horizontal media form: producers are consumers and consumers become producers and engage in conversations with each other.”

The decentralized character of podcasting means that “experts” are losing their traditional  ability as “gatekeepers” to maintain control of the message.

For those with a strong vested faith in the inerrancy of experts, this will appear to be a bad thing.

But those who understand that the emperor sometimes has no clothes, and that sometimes the outlaws are, like Robin Hood’s men and women, in the right, the web’s capacity to enable horizontal conversation, makes it  the greatest thing ever invented. It empowers those with no established authority or expertise with the means to engage in discussion of topics of mutual intellectual, social, or political  interest.

I confess to falling largely in the second camp. Perhaps this is because, as ideological crusaders like Johnathan Kay would have you believe, I fell and hit my head when I was five years old and have hated my parents ever since, carrying a perennial grudge against all forms of “authority,” regardless of the topic at hand, and believing in a malevolent conspiracy that seeks to extinguish the light of Truth with a capital T.

Maybe. But I prefer to think its because I like to place authority where it belongs – under quotation marks, like I do the name “Shakespeare.”

Anyone who ventures outside the safe confines of prescribed knowledge at a given moment in history will swiftly discover how routinely experts have been wrong – about just about everything. Maybe not entirely wrong, but wrong at least in emphasis, and all too frequently Wrong with a capital letter, endorsing ideas that were later shown to be absolutely and ridiculously false.

That is why the world sorely needs new media like Jennifer Newton’s  The Shakespeare Underground  – an occasional podcast on Shakespeare that goes places the established media outlets, including most Universities, don’t want you to go, and that would no doubt cause the Mr. Kays of the world to throw their hands up in total disbelief and change the channel before they found themselves converted to “conspiracy theorists.”  This is the risk you take if you listen to the underground.

Ever wonder why it matters that Mr. Shakspere’s will includes no books? Is it true that Shakespeare has the legal knowledge of a lawyer or a judge?  Do the Shakespearean comedies  contain “topical” commentaries on the the politics of Elizabethan England?  What about all those plays with the name “William Shakespeare” on the title page that are no longer believed by scholars to be the work of the bard?  And how did Shakespeare master the subtleties of the improvisational “commedia dell’ arte” — popular during his lifetime in Venice and other Italian city states but almost unheard of in Shakespeare’s native England?

All these questions and more are answered in Newton’s first five, highly detailed, podcast interviews with leading experts Bonner Miller Cutting, Tom Regnier, Earl Showerman, Sabrina Feldman and Richard Whalen.  Each interviewee is an expert in the true sense of the word, someone who has studied his or her subject thoroughly, over many years, and can challenge the understanding of the rest of us with a fact-based discussion. All of this is entertainingly directed by means of Newton’s superbly crafted questions and keen ability to summarize, refocus, or digress as needed to clarify key points of the discussion.

I doubt if the first pioneers of the internet could look into the crystal balls and envision that someday one of the heirs of their invention would be The Shakespeare Underground. But I am confident that they would be pleased by what they hear.   I can’t recommend highly enough these delightfly and informative podcasts. Listen to them on The Shakespeare Underground and visit the discusion at the  SU on Facebook.

Happy trails.


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.


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