James Shapiro and the Failure of Intellectual History

Posted By on April 5, 2013

I just posted this review on Amazon:

Reconsidering some of the top-rated reviews on this Amazon site it is clear that some balance needs to be interjected into the discussion. James Shapiro’s book is not what the five star reviews crack it up to be.

Shapiro is a skilled and persuasive writer, but he is neither a credible intellectual historian nor a serious scholar of Shakespeare and his age. To my knowledge, the following critical points have not been mentioned by previous reviewers, but they do deserve attention for what they tell us about Shapiro’s slovenly methodology, disregard for factual accuracy, and and willingness to participate in what candor can only characterize as a disinformation campaign. If you don’t believe me, read on…..

1) Shapiro erroneously states that the first instance of the hyphenated name “Shake-speare” is on the 1593 quarto of Venus and Adonis. It is in the pseudonymous 1594 publication, Willowbie His Avisa.

2) He invents (or rather, borrows without attribution) a bogus typographical explanation for the hyphen.

3) That Shapiro’s pattern of misrepresentation and avoidance on the matter of the hyphenation of the name is a calculated confidence game is further indicated by the fact that he manages to write a 339 page book on the Shakespearean question without admitting that the title of the 1609 quarto text of the Sonnets is SHAKE-SPEARES SONNETS, i.e. conspicuously spelled with a hyphen.

4) If Shapiro’s only errors and misrepresentations concerned the hyphen in the bard’s name we might be inclined to dismiss these points as much ado about punctuation. Sadly, there are many further instances of Shapiro’s methodological failings.

He confuses Terence and Plautus in his summary of Francis Meres’ Palladis Tamia, claiming that “Meres likens modern English writers to ancient Roman ones…when it comes to finding a match for both Plautus and Terence, `the best for comedy and tragedy'” (236).

Needless to say, Meres does not say this; he says that Shakespeare matches Plautus and *Seneca* (one a writer of comedies the other a writer of tragedies). Meres was correct; Terence did not write tragedies.

If you thought that that a highly decorated Columbia literary historian would know this, you would, apparently, be wrong.

5) Shapiro’s defense of the traditional view of the bard begins: “When asked how I can be so confident that Shakespeare was [the author of the plays], I point to several kinds of evidence: The first is what early printed texts reveal;’ the second, what writers who knew about Shakespeare said about him.”

Among the prime pieces of evidence Shapiro uses to support this claim is the 1598 poem by Richard Barnfield, which he reproduces as follows:

And Shakespeare thou, whose honey-flowing Vaine
(Pleasing the World) thy Praises doth obtaine.
Whose Venus, and whose Lucrece (sweet, and chaste)
Thy Name in fames immortal Book have plac’t.

Shapiro then remarks: “The rhymes are a bit wooden, but the message is clear: Shakespeare was a writer to be reckoned with” (235).

There’s just one problem; Shapiro had a slip of the pen here. Just as he confused Terence and Seneca in reviewing the testimony of Francis Meres, in the case of Richard Barnfield he has again erred, but this time the “error” is clearly one of intent.

Indeed Shapiro here commits a faux pas that, were he a member of a professional society of practicing historians, would have exposed him to professional jeopardy for violating widely shared canons of ethics, among which is “Honoring the historical record also means leaving a clear trail for subsequent historians to follow” (emphasis mine). In this case, Shapiro not only did not leave a clear trail; in fact, he tried to redact the trail that does exist.

The stanza he quotes from Barnfield is part of a longer poem, consisting of four stanzas (one each dedicated to Spenser, Daniel and Drayton, and one to Shakespeare) totaling 18 lines. Four are of four lines, but the stanza on Shakespeare – edited by Shapiro – is of six lines, the four he printed and two which he did not:

And Shakespeare thou, whose honey-flowing Vaine
(Pleasing the World) thy Praises doth obtaine.
Whose Venus, and whose Lucrece (sweet, and chaste)
Thy Name in fames immortal Book have plac’t.
Live ever you, at least in Fame live ever:
Well may the Bodye dye, but Fame dies never.

One hesitates to speculate on why Shapiro felt it necessary misrepresent the historical record of Barnfield’s testimony; but one thing is sure, he could never have written “the message is clear” if he had presented the stanza in its entirety.

It is difficult to trust a historian who mutilates his sources in this manner.

6) Chopping out the bits that might cause himself or his case to seem somewhat less glamorous is one of Shapiro’s habits. His treatment of the Wilmot manuscript fails to mention in his narrative that he first learned of this document from publications recording the research of John Rollett and Dr. Daniel Wright in Shakespeare Matters. He nods to Wright in his Bibliographical Essay, but conceals from his readers (except for those who comb the footnotes and know the real history behind the story) the pertinent fact that the Oxfordians were already questioning the legitimacy of this document long before he arrived on the scene, and he learned of it by reading their publications – the same ones he sneers at in his book. This is not the methodology of a scholar – it’s the modus operandi of an ideological purist.

6) Shapiro’s critique of the Oxfordians causes him to lionize Samuel Mosheim Schmucker, the theologian who vigorously defended Christian fundamentalism against Higher Criticism in his Historic Doubts Respecting Shakespeare; Illustrating Infidel Objections Against the Bible (1853). He also misrepresents Schmucker’s opinion, as expressed in the actual words of his book, when he writes that Schmucker “never for a moment doubt[ed] that Shakespeare was Shakespeare.” How Shapiro can know this he never explains. Apparently he could read Schmucker’s mind. Schmucker’s actual argument is more correctly summarized by Hank Sanders: “It is easier to believe Jesus rose from the dead than to believe Shaksper wrote Shakespeare.”

Most importantly, in relying on Schmucker as one of his favorite orthodox Shakespeareans, Shapiro reveals the intellectual hollowness and vapidity of the orthodoxy he so ably represents. As Dr. Heward Wilkinson concludes, “without realizing what he has done, Shapiro, as an argument of convenience, repudiates the whole of trend of modern Higher Critical thought and methodology,” painting himself into “a position as obscurantist as the most extreme American Evangelical Fundamentalist Creationist.”

7) One of the most interesting and consequential of Shapiro’s errors comes in his epilogue, where he grapples with all the problems he has strategically avoided mentioning until that point in time, perhaps in the hopes that the average reader will not actually read to the end of the book or that if he does, he will not be smart enough to realize what a con job the chapter perpetrates:

“Writers, including Shakespeare, were only beginning to speak of individuality in the modern sense….You can search in vain through the handful of Elizabethan works that even touch on the subject of anything that resembles modern notions of social or psychological development.”

How does Shapiro illustrate the impoverished psychology of the age of Shakespeare?

“Henry Cuffe, writing about *The Differences in the Ages of Man’s Life* in 1660, can’t get much beyond choosing between Pythagoras’ division of life into the four stages of “childhood, youth, manhood, old age” and Aristotle’s tripartite division into childhood, flourishing man-age, and old-age” (272).

Now, this is really quite remarkable. Shapiro is writing about the age of Montaigne and Shakespeare, in which Plutarch and Ovid were bestsellers, and he illustrates the psychology of the age by means of an academic tome by a third-rate Aristotelian!

This takes more than the usual chutzpah of the intellectually isolated ivy league specialist; it takes a special kind of audacity to act as if Henry Cuffe has some particular pertinence to the subject allegedly under discussion, beyond the fact that it was written during the same period that Shakespeare was writing.

Shapiro is so focused on proving himself right that what he really proves is how badly academicians sometimes absorb the reality in which they are swimming. One might as well try to prove, four hundred years from now, using Shapiro’s own book, that people in the 21st century did not understand Edward de Vere very well. The methods are surprisingly similar. To Shapiro, if it wasn’t written in a textbook (or a popular book written by himself or one of his Stratfordian chums), it apparently doesn’t exist!

It is quite true that academic psychology did not exist in Shakespeare’s day, any more than private journals did. University library books were also chained to the desk; and the daughters of Mr. Shakspere were at best marginally literate (one could write her own name, and the other was a “marksman”).

When Montaigne wrote, circa 1581, “I am myself the matter of my book,” he was being radical.

But Montaigne’s mode of being is far closer to Shakespeare’s than is Henry Cuffe’s. Many intellectual historians credit Shakespeare with being Freud’s greatest teacher; for his part Shakespeare studied psychology in Ovid, Plutarch, the Roman poets, and the Bible (among other sources), as well as Montaigne.

He learned about power from those around him, and hated the patriarchal system that robbed young people, girls especially, of the choice to make their own way in the world and seek love. His knowledge of human development, like his understanding of communication, sin or hubris, is “for all time” – that is one reason he still speaks to us today. All indications are, he knew more about human development than Professor Shapiro does.

In summary, it would seem that James Shapiro has a problem not only with scholarly accuracy but also honesty. An honest book on the authorship question would have acknowledged the complexities and contradictions of early modern culture; it would have followed a methodology of checking sources to avoid making embarrassing mistakes, and would not have conspicuously deleted and avoided contrary evidence. Maybe it even would have taught us something about Shakespeare we didn’t already think we knew.

Shapiro, sadly, is more interested in reassuring his readers to move along because “there’s nothing here to see” than he is in writing a book that honestly addresses the historical and literary perplexities of the authorship question. Worse, even if there is something here to see, he’ll be sure to try to make it disappear, just to reassure any readers who might be starting to have doubts.

It is sad to see Shapiro still being cited as an authority whose factual errors are to be ignored, whose ego is to be coddled, whose strategic omissions (Barnfield, etc.) are to be ignored, and whose interpretative misjudgments are placed on an ivy league pedestal.

PS – an earlier version of this essay failed to mention and thank my generous spirited German Colleague Robert Detobel for first pointing out to me Shapiro’s “hyphen” glitch.

Here is a history of the Shakespearean authorship question worth reading:

The Shakespeare Controversy: An Analysis of the Claimants to Authorship, and Their Champions and Detractors

If you want to know how the documentary evidence for Mr. Shakspere of Stratford looks compared to that for his contemporaries, this is good: Shakespeare’s Unorthodox Biography: New Evidence of an Authorship Problem (Contributions in Drama and Theatre Studies)

If you are reading for something a little more daring, I recommend:

Shakespeare Suppressed: The Uncensored Truth About Shakespeare and His Works

Shakespeare By Another Name

I Come to Bury Shaksper

The latest documentary on the authorship question, also very highly recommended, is

Last Will. & Testament

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.


2 Responses to “James Shapiro and the Failure of Intellectual History”

  1. SkyBlue2013 says:

    Hi Roger

    I’ve found an example of Shapiro’s sloppy scholarship. On page 55 of the paperback edition he quotes a story from Halliwell-Phillips that John Hall produced the legendary ‘inventory’ to the will at the registry of the Archbishop of Canterbury.

    He repeats the story here:


    ‘Well one of the questions I’m often asked is, ‘How could Shakespeare have written the plays if his will left behind no evidence that he owned any books?’ It’s a perfectly reasonable and only slightly anachronistic question. And the answer is that Shakespeare’s will had an inventory – that is, a separate list of his possessions – which his son-in-law took to the Archbishop of Canterbury’s office in London to get officially approved, in the same way all the legal matters following Shakespeare’s death were taken care of. Unfortunately this inventory is lost. But scholars writing biographies after Halliwell-Phillipps did not pick up on Halliwell-Phillipps’s discovery that, in fact, the story I’ve just told you is documented, and he was the first to document this.

    So when I was researching my most recent book, I was browsing through Halliwell-Phillipps and discovered this. I mentioned it to Stanley Wells, who knows more about Shakespeare than anyone alive today, and even he did not remember this and was fascinated by the story. He’s probably following it up as we speak! So there are still facts that have already been discovered about Shakespeare that are not really circulating widely, and the best place to look for them is in Halliwell-Phillipps.’

    Luckily the book he references is online here


    …and the claim can be found on page 235 – but says the following:

    ‘Mr. Hall was in London in the following
    June, and on the twenty-second of that month
    he proved his father-in-law’s will at the Arch-
    bishop of Canterbury’s registry, an office then
    situated near St. Paul’s. He also produced at
    the same time an inventory of the testator’s
    household effects, but not a fragment of this
    latter document is known to be in existence. ‘

    Halliwell-Phillips gives no source for this story but Shapiro (above) says that, ‘he was the first to document this.’

    Now dictionary definitions of ‘document’ include:

    1. To furnish with a document or documents.
    2. To support (an assertion or claim, for example) with evidence or decisive information.
    3. To support (statements in a book, for example) with written references or citations; annotate.

    None of these apply.

    Shapiro assumes that an inventory existed and assumes it contained a list of Shakespeare’s books all based on an undocumented assumption in a 19th C biography.

    • Roger Stritmatter says:

      Excellent sleuthing.

      This seems typical of Shapiro’s desperate attempt to shore up the orthodox narrative even by means that can only in the long run destroy his credibility as a historical reporter.

      You do an excellent job of demolishing him on this critical point.

      Of course, there is a fundamental and unacknowledged contradiction in all of this: the more that Shapiro and others wriggle and writhe around these attempts to determine a biographical narrative for the author, the more incredible their claims to the effect that the biographical approach to Sh. is irrelevant and impossible! What do they think they are doing when they try to make this claim, while *at the same time* doing everything they can, including the scholarly equivalent of perjury, to shore up the “biography” with phantom books?

      If it is irrelevant and impossible, why do they devote so much energy to creating it by use of such skulduggery as padding the record in this manner?

      A question to be asked.

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