Posted By Roger Stritmatter on October 6, 2015
The advance reviews for James Shapiro’s new book, The Year of Lear, have hit the internet and Shapiro has started his book tour, with a big kickoff sponsored by the “neutral” Folger library, which so far as anyone can tell, has learned almost exactly nothing from the errors and failures of Shapiro’s Contested Will, and still confuses “neutral” with “redoubling your efforts when you have forgotten where you are going,” to cite George Santayana’s definition of fanaticism.
Having yet to read Shapiro’s new book, I can’t comment in any detail on the contents, but if past experience is any indication, the book is likely to be another Contested Will. This is the sort of book, at any rate, in which Shapiro specializes.
Simon Callow, reviewing for the Wall Street Journal, gives a probable if extreme prognostication of what is forthcoming from mainstream Stratfordian reviewers, awed by the big money that is backing Shapiro’s reinvention of the Shakespeare biography and anxious for a silver bullet to kill off the Oxfordians.
Even died-in-wool Stratfordian Callow can’t help but notice that something is a bit off in Shapiro’s treatment: Shapiro “finds it irresistible to offer what seems to be a snapshot of Shakespeare but turns out to be heavily photoshopped.”
Indeed, declares Callow, “Shapiro is in the business of prestidigitation, conjuring, with the aid of smoke and mirrors, an impression of the man himself, summoning up, like the famous illusionist Dr. Pepper, a flickering but wonderfully lifelike ghost of the elusive author.”
While Callow is forced to admit that Shapiro’s craft is a bit like that of the stage magician, requiring him to conjure up an image that really isn’t there in any meaningful sense, through the creative use of “smoke and mirrors” that gives Callow, at least, the warm and fuzzy feeling of “an impression” of the “man himself” and “wonderfully lifelike ghost of the elusive author,” Callow is also a true believer in the ghost Shapiro presents. This is a clever way of apologizing for the fact that the Stratfordians don’t have a real author; they’ve got the “ghost of one.”
Normally referring to the “smoke and mirrors” required to make an argument sound respectable signals a degree of skepticism, but Callow actually loves Shapiro’s book, and is just trying to obviate the skepticism of the reader by implying that if your cause is just enough, its ok to bend reality with “photoshopping” special effects, or replace real authors with fantastic ghosts.
In case anyone was wondering why, in Callow’s mind, such dubious procedures are a GOOD THING, the answer is pretty clear: he credits Shapiro, in Contested Will, with performing the “inestimable service” of “seeing off for good the ineffably tedious gang of Shakespeare Conspiracists.”
Callow’s faith in the effectiveness of a book that was widely and convincingly debunked by the very persons whom he credits Shapiro with “seeing off for good” represents a telling sign of the dangerously willful ignorance cultivated by leading proponents of the Stratford cause, most of whom don’t have a clue about the real reasons that a growing part of the literate public isn’t buying what they’re selling any longer. You can only repeat these kinds of things so often until they start to sound ridiculous.
In fact, as Dr. Heward Wilkinson pointed out in a carefully argued guest post on this site, Shapiro’s entire argument in Contested Will is an ad hoc expedient which rejects in its methods the entirety of modern literary criticism in order to keep Shakespeare safe for Stratfordian prejudice:
without realising what he has done, Shapiro, as an argument of convenience, repudiates the whole trend of modern Higher Critical thought and methodology, and has painted himself into a position as obscurantist as the most extreme American Evangelical Fundamentalist Creationist.
Last I checked, Shapiro’s book may have shored up the faith of those, like Callow, who don’t read, or at least don’t know anything about, the “other side,” but among the great mass of uncommitted readers it had little effect. Some, including myself, even noticed how unreliable and arrogant the book really was, and found their skepticism of Stratfordian platitudes fortified by it.
As for Shapiro”seeing off” the “ineffably tedious gang” of the Oxfordians for good, no, Mr. Callow, go back to acting and directing. You are not an intellectual historian, or a Shakespeare scholar, and one may doubt if you ever will be either.
It was thirty years ago that Richmond Crinkley, Director of Educational Programs at the Folger in a Shakespeare Quarterly review of Ogburn’s Mysterious William Shakespeare, described the “bizarre mutant racism” towards post-Stratfordians or Oxfordians at the Folger. Such attitudes, then and now, served primarily as a form of social control of Stratfordians over one another. Oxfordians are used to this kind of treatment and over time learn to develop thick skins or find another passion.
But that doesn’t mean Callow’s callous rhetoric is defensible. Actually, it’s pathetic.
And what is really unfortunate, indeed reprehensible, is that thirty years later the Wall Street Journal, which really ought to know better by now, is publishing those kinds of trash comments by Simon Callow. If past experience is any indication, Callow is never going to understand who he’s hating with this kind of pseudo-intellectual name-calling. Is it too much to ask the Wall Street Journal to exercise a little editorial privilege by removing such pointless, derogatory, and wildly inaccurate statements from its book reviews?