Aloha Vere: Folger Library Confronts “Problems” of Shakespearean Biography

Posted By on April 7, 2014

There are a least three good reasons why Shakespearean biography might be said to have a problem and why, therefore, this “Shakespeare and the Problem of Biography” conference of prestigious and much-lettered Shakespeare scholars convened over the April 3-5, 2014 weekend at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington DC, supported by the library director Dr. Michael Witmore, and funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, might be justified as a public-spirited exchange of real ideas featuring an unusual cast of characters.

One is given by Samuel Schoenbaum in his masterful and revealing history of Shakespearean biography, Shakespeare’s Lives: on page 568 where the author shares a moment of intimacy with the reader in this confessional inscription: “Perhaps we should despair of ever bridging the vertiginous expanse between the sublimity of the subject and the mundane inconsequence of the documentary record” (1991).

But there are at least two other possible explanations for why it might it must have seemed necessary, in 2014, to hold a conference on “the problem” of Shakespearean biography. Long before Samuel Schoenbaum began writing his Lives, the father of Variorum editor Henry Howard Furness, William H. Furness, had in 1866 already experienced the crise de la foi that has come a century-and-a-half later to represent the state of the art in Shakespearean biography: “I am one of the many who has never been able to bring the life of William Shakespeare and the plays of Shakespeare within planetary space of one another. Are there any two things in the world more incongruous?”

Like Schoenbaum, Furness senses not the lack of a certain quantum of material to document the bard’s life — as if one more big discovery would just make the problems go away — but something far more troubling and, indeed, intimidating: a vast and dreary impediment, like being chained to a fence with a big and overexcited German Shepherd on the other side of it, a nagging feeling that trying to fit the “documentary” biographical tradition to the literary remains, with its disturbing documents such as those preserved in the 1623 folio, is — as James Shapiro effectively admits in Contested Will — impossible.

We may even begin to fear, as Logan Pearsall Smith declares in his classic, On Reading Shakespeare, that there is standing in the middle of the path forward to a resolution of the problems “an uneasy consciousness of something equivocal about the subject of [our] devotion; of things to be hushed up, and the need of whitewash” (7).

Whether conceived as the “vertiginous expanse” of some unfathomable abyss, or an “uneasy consciousness” of troubling discrepancies between the supposed creator and his creations, the gap seems impassable without the copious use of more whitewash.  Meanwhile the Oxfordians, embarked on an interplanetary love journey from Gaia to Cygnus, obviously have a lot of educating to do. But how does one educate  educators who already consider themselves experts and have no interest in learning what they need to learn to chart a path forward?

In other words, the problem of Shakespearean authorship is not in essence quantitative (although quantitative methods may in time contribute more and more to its solution) – it is, on the contrary, irreducibly qualitative, such that in fact the more we learn about the alleged author, the less possible it becomes for us to conceive of him as the real one. Hence at least one conference attendee vowed to join Shakespeare Biographers Anonymous as her conference penance.

A third diagnosis of the origins of today’s problem of Shakespeare biography is the one proposed by John Keats, for whom “Shakespeare lived a life of allegory: his works are comments on it.”

At the start of this Folger conference, I would estimate that the majority in attendance would have chosen the first of these three reasons if asked why they thought there was a “Shakespeare biography problem.” No few might well have felt offended by the second reason, and correspondingly may have been tempted by the seemingly innocuous proposition that the third reason represents no more than an embarrassing slip by a boy poet about which we shall never find the true meaning – so why bother? To which one can only wonder that we expect so little from someone like Keats. Could he, in that one line, have compacted a huge gift of insight that has still not been unwrapped and appreciated by Shakespearean scholars? It seems impossible, and yet it moves.


I was musing about whether to call my essay “Fear and Loathing in Academia,” when Brian Cummings, Anniversary Professor of English at the University of York, opened the proceedings on April 3, 2014 in a keynote featuring many ideas that would by the close of the conference emerge as thematic. Among the intriguing remarks of his lecture, Cummings quipped, “Shakespeare was born in 1623.” This seemed to mean that the solution to the “problem” of Shakespeare biography is to wave the wand of Borges before moving onto something respectable like how many feathers Sarah  Siddons used to wear on her dress for the Scottish play.

Indeed, in attempting to redraw the map of the concept of biography per omnia to accommodate the particular problems of bardographical hermeneutics it often seemed that the assembled scholars frequently confused the difference between the two. Surely the Shakespearean biography problem is distinct from problems of biography in general, and yet even though many conference attendees had written biographies of other persons, they seemed remarkably reticent to testify about how much more satisfying it is to write – or, for that matter to read – a biography of Thomas Nashe, Ben Jonson, John Milton, or even Susanna Hall, than it is to attempt a dreaded “life of the bard,” who always seems out of focus no matter how much you increase the magnification.

Susanna’s story shows why. Her husband was the esteemed Warwickshire physician Dr. John Hall, who received honor from his known associations with the topographical poet Michael Drayton, also a Warwickshire man, but who seems not to have noticed anything at all special about his own father-in-law and never mentions him as being anything other than a successful businessman. Another humiliating dead end and threatening clue. Perhaps yet another life is needed to fill the gap.

To the modern biographer, or avid reader of the genre, as further detail accumulates, the object of that detail comes to life; one approaches the same satisfaction that I imagine a sculptor does as she completes the finer points of detail on a fully-formed face, so that every line and every hair corresponds, to the life, to her vision of her subject. But with Shakespeare the opposite always seems to happen, one way or another. The more closely one reads, the more impossible his authorship seems. While biography in general no doubt has problems and academic critics – some of whom look askance at its equivocal status as a distinctly middlebrow, and by implication, therefore, lucrative pursuit, as more than one conference speaker acknowledged – Shakespeare has a whole lot of very special problems to himself that other biographical subjects just lack.

One strategy for negotiating this difficulty was frequent recourse to such “fictional” commentaries on the authorship question as Joyce’s Ulysses or, more potently, Henry James’ “The Birthplace” (1903), a thinly veiled fictionalization of the true-life account of former Birthplace Trust custodian Joseph Skipsey (for an excellent synopsis, see Hope and Holston 1991, 59-65 or the new edition, 2009).

It was not mentioned during the conference, however, that James’s story was a direct reflection of his own deep skepticism over the traditional view of the bard, as Charlton Ogburn discusses in his Mysterious William Shakespeare (1984):

One specific point of dispute between the two professors [Levin and Evans] and me I feel is sufficiently revealing to be worth mentioning before we move on. In my article I had quoted Henry James’s remark in a letter to Violent Hunt that “I am ‘sort of’ haunted by the conviction that the divine William is the biggest and most successful fraud ever practiced on a patient world.”

The Professors in their reply charged that I had done an “injustice’ to Henry James “by a truncated quotation which misses out on his irony.” The rest of what James said, with such irony as may be detected it was, “The more I turn him round and round the more he so affects. But that is all — I am not pretending to treat the question or carry it any further. It bristles with difficulties, and I can only express my general sense by saying that I find it almost as impossible to conceive that Bacon wrote the plays as that the man from Stratford, as we know the man from Stratford, did.” It might have been added that Leon Edel quotes James as feeling that the “facts of Stratford did not ‘square’ with the plays of the genius…..”

(Ogburn 1984 181)


By early on the second day of the conference, an unstable binary opposition was forming, like a pair of opposed stars rotating on the same moebius strip of the collective mind.

If it was o.k. to acknowledge that the authorship question is a topic frequently explored in fictional form by creative minds like Joyce, Borges, or James, who seem to have the privileged license of the “fictional” in which to express themselves, where did that leave the biographer, with her predetermined subject and a deadline?

There is a big difference, it was becoming apparent, between writing a life of William Shakespeare (1564-1616), gentleman and esquire of Warwickshire, and writing his afterlife (1623-present), i.e. the rich history of editing, publishing, acting, producing, and interpreting the plays laid to his charge.  Hence Cumming’s initial quip about Shakespeare being “born in 1623” — the new bardography, apparently, gets around the authorship question by writing the original “documentary life” out of existence and magically imputing the agency of authorship to a book published many years after the author — whoever you think he was — had died.  This is not scholarship; it is not even very clever public relations.

Peter Dickson, The author of Bardgate, was in attendance (as was Oxfreudian Professor Richard Waugaman), and made a number of impressive short summaries of some of the lingering problems that have been accumulating for about the last 24 years, since Cogswell’s Blessed Revolution, as a result of the discipline’s anxiety about more closely examining those troubling middle years between Jonson’s folio (1616) and Shakespeare’s (1623). Dickson also pointed out that the fundamental split between the “new Catholic bard” school of Shakespearean studies, which takes its cue from the biographical, “documentary” paper trail,  and the more textually defensible “Anglican of some sort” orthodoxy, which instead draws its support from the evidence of the plays, has still not been resolved but seems to be a standoff of forces.

Dickson said he thinks that both sides in this argument are correct.

As for the afterlife itself (starting in 1624), it was somehow emerging as a pleasurable topic — with a substance, a being, and a joie de vivre that seemed to have drained out and bleached the idea and practice of writing about the first life. This first life was a pale shadow of the bard’s second life, posthumously embalmed like a rich Egyptian mummy in all its mercantile and literary glories; it began to emerge as a “ding an sich” sort of problem – anxiety-producing, and a bit hollow, if not downright impossible to tell  credibly  to anyone beyond the fourth grade.

After I commented to this effect during the Friday morning sessions, there was some attempt to cheer on and cheer up the biographers and a little less willingness – although it never entirely went away – to speak candidly about the particular sorrows of being a Shakespearean biographer with a devotion towards, indeed a yearning after, the Stratford lad with his toes in the Avon, daydreaming Romeo and Juliet, if only because we believe that his life must, after all, hold the magic key to what we really want, which is of course a better understanding of the plays themselves, isn’t it?

Among other conference highlights was the lecture by Yale University’s Sterling Professor of Theatre and English Joseph Roach, which began with an epistemic rug shift that in my mind at least merited a standing ovation.

Things were not what they seemed, and the point was effortlessly communicated through the audience’s undeniable gullibility (myself included) in allowing assumptions to govern our perceptions, as well as illustrating that at the wrong resolution we humans cannot tell the difference between paint on a canvas and the Crab Nebula. Sorry if that description sounds vague, it was really one of those “you had to be there” moments, and no attempt at empirical summary can give a full appreciation of the effect achieved by Professor Roach’s skill with Power Point, and daring introduction of a “mis en abyme” into the conference proceedings.

The key, deeply Shakespearean message of Professor Roach’s lecture was this: “Don’t assume you know what you are looking at.” If it seemed like the point sometimes got lost over the course of the next two days, Roach’s destabilizing of the room’s perceptions and introduction of the key theme of “cognitive disequilibrium” certainly became a permanent part of the event’s history and exercised a significant influence over what was yet to come.

Another fascinating paper (among many) was given by Emerita Sheli Z. and Burton X. Rosenberg Professor of the Humanities at the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Margreta de Grazia. Given the sensitive nature of the contents of this talk, titled “What Difference Does a Date Make?” and an admonition from the Folger organizers not to quote conference participants without prior written consent on the grounds that arguments made at the conference were all “copyrighted,” one dares not say enough about this fascinating and elegantly presented paper. It is well known of course that Edmond Malone (1741-1812), the lawyer and titan among early Shakespeare researchers, ran into troubles finishing his biography of the bard, which was only published posthumously in Boswell’s Variorum edition of the complete works in 1821.

De Grazia’s fascinating research explicates in impressive detail the process by which the 19th century Shakespeare biography attempted to impose coherence on intrinsically evasive and problematic material. The most difficult years for Malone to write, paradoxically, were the London years.

Somehow Malone had little trouble narrating the life through documents up until the London period (circa 1592-1604), and likewise after his traditional “retirement” from the theatre was able to fill in quite a bit about legal dealings and the bard’s bourgeois retirement at Stratford until 1616. At his death he left more or less completed documents detailing the early and last years. Smack in the middle — the years Shakespeare was writing all those plays — was a black hole that Malone could not quite fathom and did not know how to narrate over.

Malone was genuinely puzzled, it seems. In those days, honest scholars did not do things like try to paper over a 12 year gap with a document like Green’s Groatsworth of Wit (1592).

Boswell, said De Grazia, solved the problem by taking Malone’s previously published essay,  “An attempt to Ascertain the Order in which the Plays attributed to Shakespeare were Written” (1778)[i], and splicing it into the biography to cover the hole. One can only look forward with anticipation to the published version of a talk with such profound implications for our understanding of the construction of the Shakespearean biography over the longue durée.

Among the clearly agreed conference rules, whether established by tacit or explicit convention, I do not know, was that the words “Oxford” or “Oxfordian” – or any reference to said parties, scholarship, ideas, writing implements, hairstyles, parties of the second or third parts, or carefully proscribed opinions – were to be  excluded from the discussion, and this code of silence was well preserved until the final moments of the conference, even though it seems impossible to think that nearly everyone in the room hadn’t known for at least three days that the name of the elephant sitting in the shadows on the balcony for the duration of the conference really was “Oxford.”

It therefore seemed expedient to send in a strong message against dissent and establish a moral lesson on the topic of thinking too-much-out-of the box, preferably in high style. William H. Sherman (Professor of English at the University of York), in an erudite and polished study of the long association between Baconian (and well known art collector, poet, and critic) Conrad Arensberg (1878-1954) and the distinguished cryptographers William and Elisabeth Freidman (authors of The Shakespeare Ciphers Examined (Cambridge, 1958), delivered a hopeful message of steely scientific professionalism ultimately quashing the ravings of aesthetically sophisticated obsessives like Arensberg.

Naturally the Oxfordians were not mentioned. One can only presume that the lecture was premised on the belief that these would be sufficiently disciplined by proxy, and all controversy safely avoided – that the problems of Shakespearean biography could reliably be ascribed, in the final scientific judgement, to one brilliantly tragic woman, Delia Bacon, who just refused to accept that she was wrong about almost everything, and therefore ended her days beyond the pale of polite society. Hint, hint.

Among the many highlights of Sherman’s presentation was his reproduction of Walt Whitman’s poem, published in Cosmopolitan magazine in 1889 near the end of his life, ““Shakespeare Bacon’s Cipher: A Clue to Scientists.” Unfortunately Professor Sherman tried to represent Whitman as being only temporarily “under the spell of” Ignatius Donnelly, when actually of course Whitman had by 1889 been an avid Shakespearean skeptic for decades, one who had not only written explicitly about his views in November Boughs and recorded for posterity in his table talk with Horace Traubel, but was as well a great-hearted and sympathetic admirer of Delia Bacon, (whom Sherman dismissed in all serious sternness as a madwoman (cue nervous laughter from audience)). To Whitman, Bacon embodied

the sweetest, eloquentist, grandest woman…that America has so far produced….and, of course, very unworldly, just in all ways such a woman as was calculated to bring the whole literary pack down on her, the orthodox, cruel, stately, dainty, over-fed literary pack – worshipping tradition, unconscious of this day’s honest sunlight.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, in view of these circumstances and at least to followers of good novels, the contract not to mention the Oxfordian menace fell prey to the old English adage that there’s “many a slip ‘twixt the cup and the lip.” David Schwalkwyk, the Academic Director of Global Shakespeare, Queen Mary University of London and the University of Warwick and one of the original proposers of the conference, set the stage for this epiphany. In his conference closing remarks  Schwalkwyk posed a hypothetical both serious and flip to his audience: “What would change if we found a document proving that Shakespeare was not a man of the theatre?”

Schwalkwyk didn’t really say how such a miracle would take place. Answering it would require some consideration of the adage that “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence” – as well as the obverse, that it is nearly impossible to think of a document that has the persuasive power to prove that kind of a negative. Surely everyone can agree that significant fact shows that Mr. Shakespeare, of the firm “Shakespeare and Sons,” was at least by December 1595 quite implicated in the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, appearing as he does on a payment authorized by Mary Brown Heneage, widow of Sir Thomas Heneage (Treasurer of the Chamber to Elizabeth I) and mother of the 3rd Earl of Southampton  by her previous husband the 2nd Earl (Ogburn 65-66) – and it is unlikely that any further incremental evidence could invalidate what is already known or at least presumptively believed on this point, namely that the hero of our story wears an impressive resume as a theatrical mind. His theatre experience certainly comes across every bit as credibly as his sophisticated knowledge of law, literature, history, Italy, or languages such as Anglo-Saxon, Italian, French, Latin, and Greek.[ii]

But by then I think the assembled audience, which was in a pretty good mood all around, was ready for the thought experiment.

“What would it change?” Schwalkwyk asked. “I submit to you that it would change a great deal.”

The audience was being forced to pay attention to the vertiginous expanse, and the view, at least for some, was a bit uncomfortable. Peering over the edge, they could not see the bottom.

Graham Holderness, Professor of English at the University of Hertfordshire, and editor of the journal Critical Survey, which in 2009 published a special issue, proposed and edited by Brunel University Professor William Leahy, on the other authorship question, broke the ice. Like several other major conference figures, Holderness had held a number of private exchanges of various kinds over the past days and perhaps even before the conference with the representatives of the internal menace [viz., the Oxfordians and fellow travelers].

In response to Schwalkwyk, Holderness declared that such a piece of evidence would have to be fraudulent because we know that the works were written by someone who knew the world of theatrical practice from the inside, as a participant. The film Anonymous, he added by way of illustration, was the worst thing ever done to the Oxfordian movement, because it portrayed a Shakespeare who wrote in his study and not – as we all know he did – in the theatres full of smoke and sweat and the smell of small beer, pecans, and piss.

The words were spoken. The cone of silence was broken. Other conference participants stirred uneasily and more than one shot Holderness the evil eye for breaking the silence by naming.

On the other hand, or so it seemed at least to me, Holderness’ solicitation to acknowledge the actual present-tense historic circumstances in which the conference was being held, was warmly felt by many, even if the only condition under which such an utterance apparently could be made was by having one Oxfordian or another ritually flogged for betraying all the rest. Keeping such things inside of you can be such very hard work. Sometimes it is just easier to admit what is really on your mind and then cope with the consequences as best you can.

Oxfordian Bill Boyle ended up making one of the last comments of the conference in which he not only formally outed himself, but responded to Holderness, explaining that many Oxfordians had various problems with the movie as well and emphasizing that the authorship question is an ongoing, dynamic process in which communication between the traditionalists and the skeptics is the essential ingredient.

But, speaking of communication, it was disturbing to learn how few of the orthodox scholars to whom I asked the question had actually read a book by an Oxfordian – Ogburn, Looney, Anderson, Whalen, Chiljan, Gilvary, Farina, Ward, Sobran, Hope and Holston, or McClarran, – any of these or many others, let alone more than one of them. No wonder they can be so touchy about Anonymous. It would seem in fact that those in the audience who had read Oxfordian materials were no more than about eight or nine persons, most of them card carrying members of the heretic guild, and surely this is no small tragedy. Surely there was never a greater need for a book seminar or maybe a baker’s dozen.

Maybe the NEH can work on that?

All in all, while the conference may not have lived up to its potential for a watershed in the authorship question (since Oxfordians or Post-Stratfordians generally were expressly not considered or consulted in the conference’s planning and therefore the speakers sometimes had only the vaguest notion of what it was they thought they were arguing against), it was a significant event, the full results of which remain to be seen.

It may or may not reassure the conference planners to become aware that Oxfordians can bring to authorship studies a detailed history of the authorship question itself, especially in recent years, a history that varies considerably from the evasive tactics seen in Professor Shapiro’s Contested Will or the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust’s Shakespeare Beyond Doubt. Both books have ultimately proved failures from the point of view of making any inroads on the daunting task of quelling continuing populist doubts about the Bard’s identity, and have instead received substantive and telling public criticism on the internet for their dishonest methodologies.

In part this was the natural outcome of their failure to deal in a forthright and honest manner with the strongest arguments of their ostensible opponents, and a systematic reliance on a kind of “guilt by association” logic bolstered by the habitual use of straw men styles of argument, among other commonly employed and not terribly sophisticated logical fallacies. The manner of execution and ethos of these books — far from advancing the needs of a legitimate model for inquiry — proved an embarrassment to scholarship. Academia – insofar as it comes across as ipso facto dedicated at all cost to the traditional bardography and unwilling to promote further dialogue and debate – is losing the battle for hearts and minds, and this conference once again showed why.

But, “sweet are the uses of adversity,” or so we have been taught.  Out of these losses the best scholars – Schoenbaum being one of them in his revisions to the 1991 edition of Shakespeare’s Lives — are still learning new things. The quotation with which I started this essay did not exist in the first, 1975, edition of Schoenbaum’s book. Added in 1991, after Schoenbaum met Charlton Ogburn through their common participation in the 1989 Frontline documentary, “The Shakespeare Mystery,” the quotation represents an evolution in Schoenbaum’s own life as a scholar, one which deserves more respect from those who today rely on the authority of Schoenbaum’s book to maintain their comfortable dogmas, while failing to appreciate the significance of Schoenbaum’s own explicit doubts about the plausibility of the traditional biographical account for which he had by then already done so much in his own career.

If there is hope for a better book from this conference, it should be one that involves some rethinking — following the model given by Schoenbaum’s détente with Ogburn– of the a priori, and a richer acknowledgement of the inseparable connection between the problems of biography and the Shakespeare authorship question as it is construed in the popular imagination.

The Folger conference proved that the distinction between the two terms, “Shakespeare Biography Problem” and “Shakespeare Authorship Question” is an artifact,  a sociolinguistic expression of a cognitive divide, and not a classification defensible by any reasoned demonstration. It serves to distinguish between professionals, who only acknowledge “problems of biography,” yet all too readily fall to debating how many angels are actually on the head of the pin, and the cranks who still think it’s more reasonable to suppose for more than a few minutes that there really is a warm body somewhere who wrote all those plays, or at least the greater part of them, and that the “problems” of Shakespearean biography might therefore be attributable to something as arcane as “antecedent error” – a theme very greatly underdeveloped at the conference and in need of much future support from the NEH.

– Avete, Valeteque

[i] With many subsequent, modified editions.

[ii] Even if, as one may suspect, the Jonsonian part at least of the trail identifying “Shakespeare” as actor, which starts curiously in the editions of Jonson’s plays first published in 1616, the year of Mr. Shakspere’s death, is now subject to serious review on the grounds of what is now known about Jonson’s more-than-20 year association with folio patron Pembroke, elder brother of the 17th Earl of Oxford’s daughter Susan.

The author would like to acknowledge the assistance, in an earlier version of this essay, of Linda Theil, who kindly made several useful editorial suggestions, including assuring me that any attempt to forbid quotation or summary of a conference funded by the NEH was, to paraphrase, indefensible gobbledygook (If you want it in her words, ask her: that’s my interpretation and I’m sticking to it).

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, and renaissance literature, the latter a field in which he has published extensively


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