Posted By Roger Stritmatter on November 10, 2013
As those who have closely followed the news over the past few months are aware the 2013 annual joint meetings of the Shakespeare Oxford Society and the Shakespeare Fellowship in Toronto, Ont., the two organizations concluded a formal voting process that overwhelming acclaimed the reunification of the two groups. Alas, however, conference organizers were unable to find anyone in the province of Ontario who had a free moment in his or her busy schedule to debate the Oxfordians at an Oxfordian conference. Many and varied and highly erudite, to be sure, were the refusals – but make no mistake about it, refusals they were.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I can understand this reluctance, I really can. I mean, if you aren’t really sure of your own argument to begin with, why would you volunteer to go rehearse it in front of a skeptical and well-informed audience? Besides, Wally Hurst was at the conference, and I’m sure that the Stratfordians didn’t want to debate him. Even worse, the dreaded Dr. Kier Cutler (PhD, English) was also in attendance and had the audacity to film his own lecture. I feel even more sure that the Stratfordians don’t even want to take a question from him.
See my point?
No, debating in the enemy camp is a sure recipe for another debacle, and the history of public debates with Oxfordians over recent years has not been kind to the Stratfordians, at least since Charles Burford mopped the statue at Fanueil Hall when he went up against the late Louis Marder (for whom I see the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust has recently established an honorific research grant) in 1996 before an audience of more than 600. Debating requires you to put your belief to the mettle, and I doubt if the Stratfordians can point to a single public debate from which they gained any tangible support. Nope, to a greater or lesser extent it goes the other way.
Even neophyte audiences don’t like being told, as the communications Director of the Stratford, ONT., Theatre Festival David Prosser told a group of York students, that if you dare to question the authorship of the plays, people will call you a “holocaust denier.” (Prosser later said that he regretted using the analogy and confirmed that he regards authorship skeptics more like people who don’t believe that Nasa landed on the moon than apologists for mass murder).
I’ll be honest: if I was a Stratfordian, I wouldn’t want to debate either. Taking refuge in tradition is so much more comforting.
But there is one venue in which Stratfordians have little option to avoid debate, and that’s online, where the customary distinctions of authority and power, on which the Stratfordian ideology depends, are less controlling of the discourse. Online discussion is for their purposes, moreover, a riper field for evasive rhetorical maneuvering than the more formal, traditional, in-person presentation has. Everyone knows that it’s much easier to lie online than in it is face to face. If you don’t want to worry about your remarks coming back to bite you, just get a few sock puppets and you’re in business.
With all this in mind, must have been a terrible shock, after all the brouhaha raised by local Stratfordians like the Toronto Globe and Mail theatre critic Kelly Nestruck and a group of local English professors, to simultaneously find Alexander Waugh coming out not only with a public statement of his persuasion to the Oxfordian cause, but also a new discovery which, he suggested, provided further corroboration of the Oxfordian case.
The Guelph and York English professors were angry that their two distinguished colleagues, Don Rubin (York, one of Canada’s most well known and influential theatre historians, a founding director of York’s MA and PhD programs in Theatre Studies, series editor of Routledge’s six-volume World Encyclopedia of Contemporary Theatre, and instructor for York’s popular authorship question course) and Sky Gilbert (Guelph, whose literary novels are highly acclaimed among those reading avant-garde contemporary fiction, in addition to being a fine scholar, as evidenced in his conference lecture on the importance of John Lyly and the matter of Shakespearean “style”) had secured University funding to allow students to attend the Conference.
This was just not in the plan.
So rather than engage their colleagues in the hallways or in the library to explain themselves, perhaps engage in a little friendly academic debate based on mutual respect and the principle that everyone is wrong about something, the Guelph and York Stratfordians went to the press to try to scare the two universities into declaring that their modest support for the inquiry was a dereliction of professional competence. For this purpose, Nestruck was a willing and, in the short run, modestly effective propagandist.
“Could Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, have been the real author of William Shakespeare’s plays and poetry?” he asks.
The short answer is: No, there’s no evidence whatsoever. And ever since a fellow named J. Thomas Looney first proposed the idea in 1920, academics in English and Theatre departments around the world have taught their students exactly that – even as the so-called Oxfordian theory has been persistently pursued by a mix of cranks and celebrities and even made into a Hollywood movie.
In a world in which the dogmatism with which a point of view is expressed very often is mistaken as a sign of its veracity Nestruck’s one word “no” may at least have comforted the faithful. It certainly seems to have inspired the suitably anonymous editorialist at Guelph University’s Ontarian who, who, assuming the piece wast not ghostwritten by an irate professor, at the tender age of approximately 19 years of age, and with half a degree in English to his name, after summarily opining that the the idea that Shakespeare’s plays were, in fact, written by Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford was a “much-discredited idea,” set forth to psychoanalyze Nietsche, Sigmund Freud, Charlie Chaplin, Walt Whitman, Sir John Gielgud, Sir Derek Jacobi, Mark Rylance, and so many others for their heresy.
Hint to the Ontarian: there is always someone in cyber-space who knows more about a given topic than you do. Or your Professor does.
Always. Best not to come out throwing stones at them too glibly.
For my part, not being a celebrity I could not help but feel that the most reasonable construction of Nestruck’s sentence was that, after first using me as his informant, he was now in his article calling me a crank. I began to regret the time I spent on the phone trying to patiently explain to a man who clearly thought he was God’s gift to the Stratford tourist industry just why it would be a good idea to be a little less cocksure about the question, and why tempering his position would be good for his future reputation. Alas, to no avail. My words, except for those cleverly excerpted to try to make me look as stupidly unreasonable as possible, went in one ear and out the other.
Under these circumstances it must have seemed almost like a perfect storm to them when, during the same week as all this grand free publicity in the Ontario papers, Waugh, the grandson and literary executor of the British novelist Evelyn Waugh, and the editor of a forthcoming Oxford University Press edition of his grandfather’s work, wrote that while ”‘Stratfordians’ used to hoot at anyone who questioned their orthodoxy,”
now that the tide of evidence has turned against them, and almost every intelligent educated person concedes, at very least, that there is a genuine authorship problem, their derisive laughter has toned itself down to the sort of soft growl that senile dogs emit when you try to get them into the car.
Waugh is clearly not the sort of person you want defecting in the midst of your counter-reformation and online offensive against the Oxfordians. It makes the investors jittery. Waugh is not afraid to kiss and tell:
After two days of manfully parrying emails of vituperation (‘Evelyn [sic] your [sic] just an attention seeking pratt [sic]’: ‘why give air to the views of that talentless little wanker Waugh’ etc), I decided that enough was enough and it was time to take myself abroad.
When Waugh came off the fence — and did so with some serious sprezzatura — the online Stratfordians had completely lost control of the script and began scrambling to do as much damage control as possible. Accordingly several of their leading spokesmen (they all seem to be, so far as one can tell, a testosterone charged-bunch of the male homo sapiens) seized on the opportunity of the comments section to Waugh’s blog to try to reiterate their gospel.
This has led to a number of amusing exchanges, such as this one that John Savage and I had with someone writing under the foreboding name of “Sicinus”:
Interesting, at this particular time, when “Pleb” is the new insult, that Sicinius should choose a pseudonym which
comes from the name of a plebeian Roman family. Of course, the name is also found in “Coriolanus”, where
Sicinius disapproves of the hero’s intolerance of “the rank-scented many”, “the Hydra-headed multitude.”
And in “Julius Caesar”, the mob “uttered such a deal of stinking breath that it had almost choked Caesar.”
Let’s stick to textual analysis: it’s so much more fun than
verbal bludgeoning and bullying.
But stick to anything so dull as an actual argument in which facts were responsibly set forward in support of defensible conclusions, Sicinius was off the race car track with all sorts of pyrotechnical displays of lit-crit babble and more gratuitous over-reachings:
OK, let’s. Its spelling in quarto editions, “Sci-cinius” is unique to Will’s orthography in drama of the period. Will clearly used it wherever he wants to “i” to be pronounced long, as in “science”.
In proper names, Justice Scilens and Scicinius, the “c” is preserved by compositors who might otherwise have removed it in common nouns.
It also appears in Hand D and in no other manuscript document of the time.
For this, and many other reasons, Hand D is now pretty much accepted as being that of Will Shakespeare.
The “Hydra-headed multitude” of Oxfordian arguments about handwriting and what Will left behind are all as dead as a handmade Tudor doornail.
With the help of Scicinius (no relation).
You’ve got to love a sentence like “Hand D is now pretty much accepted as being that of Will Shakespeare.”
By *whom*? Can you give us the name of even a single Board Certified forensic document analyst who will sign off on this claim?
No. I thought not.
The time is long past when this form of insider trading on phrases like “all the scholars agree” is effective in public debate. Informed minds want to know, what methodology are you claiming can establish an identity of handwriting using only six (or seven) signatures as the known hand? Huh? Keep peddling this stuff. Its an impressive display of special pleading rooted in airy nothing.
That was about a day ago, and although Sicinius has subsequently responded to some of my other posts, he seems, for the time being at least, to have dropped the claim for hand D’s authenticity as a genuine sample of “Shakespeare” handwriting – which it most certainly is NOT according to any verifiable methodology known to forensic handwriting analysts.
Likewise, Sicinius seems to have struck out with Felicity Morgan, another well-prepared commentator on the Spectator site. Although he has since replied numerous times on the blog, Sicinius has offered no reply to Felicity’s withering summation of the evidence of Oxford’s sophistication as a legal mind:
Sicinius wrote: “And we can be fairly certain he didn’t study at Gray’s Inn..”.
“Lord Oxford, summoned to Parliament in 1571 at the age of 21, was appointed one of the “Triers of Petitions for England, Ireland, Wales and Scotland.” He was also named in the list of 22 Lords to meet with the same number of members from the House of Commons in the Star-Chamber, “in the great matter touching the Queen of Scots.” When a new Parliament was called in 1584, Oxford was appointed to a second committee, “Triers of Petitions for Gascoigne and the Counties beyond the Seas, and the Isles.”
“Other members were the Archbishop of York; the Earls of Warwick and of Pembroke; Lords Cobham, Lumley, and Buckhurst; the Bishops of Norwich, Chester, and Rochester. At each succeeding Parliament, Oxford was appointed to both these committees. Upon the death of the Archbishop in 1588, Oxford became the ranking member of the second, retaining that position until his own death in 1604.”
“The Triers of Petitions was active in 1584 and continued through all of Elizabeth’s reign. As its hearings were held in the Lord Treasurer’s (Lord Burghley’s) chamber…” (See Eva Turner Clark: MAN WHO WAS SHAKESPEARE, 1937 edition).
For Oxford to have been a member of the Triers of Petitions required considerable legal knowledge, for which his legal training at Gray’s Inn had qualified him. His appointment was made by Parliament.
The word ‘Petition’ is found 25 times in the plays. The word ‘Auditor’ is found 3 times, 2 of which have the technical meaning of a ‘Trier of Petitions’. (See MY NAME BE BURIED: A COERCED PEN NAME/2009)
‘BRAINWASHING’ (OED): The systematic…elimination from a person’s mind of all established ideas, esp. political ones, so that another set of ideas may take their place.
OR, Sicinius, as the Doc said: “Once [the student]…gets her hands on some of the said literature, she will never trust a thing you say again…”
I suppose the point of this lengthy digression is that even against their better judgement, the Stratfordians are sometimes forced to actually at least go through the motions of debating, long enough anyway to call their antagonists sheep-biters. The internet affords them all sorts of opportunities for clever tricks and glitzy graphics, self-concealment and sock puppetry, — and, above all, it’s so easy, when the going gets tough, to run away and hope that no one notices.