Why I don’t argue with Stratfordians

ORGON: I know the facts, and I shall not be shaken.
ELMIRE: I marvel at your power to be mistaken.
…………….Le Petit Tartuffe by Moliere (trans. Richard Wilbur) 4.2

I certainly have argued with Stratfordians in the past, quite often in fact, and at length: in debates at conferences, online on HLAS (before the mud-slinging made any effort at communication impossible) and Hardy Cook’s SHAKSPER (before he banished the subject, and even, valiantly, for a year or so afterwards), and in print.  I’ve gone rounds in person with Ward Elliott and Alan Nelson, and online with Mike Jensen, Gabriel Egan and Tom Veal, sometimes just to see how long they would keep it going (in Jenson’s case, forever, it would seem, for he never tires of repeating himself).

For a long time I argued to hear what they had to say, like the optimist in the old joke, thinking there must be a pony in it somewhere.  Nope, no pony (only pony poop).  Then I got curious about the mind set that prevented otherwise intelligent beings from seeing the problem with their scenario.  Rather than argue to arrive at some sort of understanding, which was obviously not working, I kept it going to see where it came to a halt, whether with a burst of ill humor, a (virtual) slammed door, or a silence, usually followed by a retreat to a familiar position of safety.  Over time I came to see that the problem was blind spots, some of an amazing size.  Things that seemed obvious to me were simply invisible to them.  At some point I realized it was due to their almost total reliance on left-brain thinking.

I have observed the right brain-left brain syndrome at work in American society since early childhood, only recently getting a handle on it by learning more about the differences between these two sections of the brain, separate but entwined, ying and yang.  This learning began a few years ago when my mother had a left-brain stroke and with what I saw that that meant in terms of what she could still do and what she could no longer do.

I see that American society, at least at the levels of control, derives largely from the same rather rigid formula that gave us the Protestant Reformation,  Education in America, and Britain, inherited from a formula developed by Erasmus in the early 16th century, whatever it may have been originally, has become dominated by left-brain thinking.  This may be somewhat more appropriate in areas like math and science (though without right-brain oversight, they too can wind up on some awfully unproductive tangents), but it’s seriously misplaced in history, literature, and the arts, where it turns them into piles of dry facts, draining them of their fire and life, their human interest, their stories.   I am reminded of an old Southwest American Indian saying passed around during the 1960s regarding their use of peyote, “White Man goes into his church and talks about Jesus; Indian goes into his teepee and talks to Jesus.”  With Shakespeare, English audiences didn’t just talk about Henry V and Richard III, they watched them and heard them speak.  And on a number of occasions, no doubt, shouted out arguments and warnings.

As I began to see how dominated was the Shakespeare establishment by left-brain thinking, I saw the other side of what happened to my mother.  Sure, these people have functioning right brains, otherwise they couldn’t make it to work in the morning, but they don’t use them once they get there.  They were discouraged from using them as children in grade school, and by the time they reach PhD level, the ability to communicate, even to think, with anything but the left brain is gone.  It wasn’t through a single stroke, but a series of small ones, dealt every day, by teachers who fed them the answers they wanted to hear on tests, never asking them what they themselves thought or felt.  After awhile the ability to think for oneself simply dries up, and so anyone who incorporates right-brain cognition into his or her worldview is considered a radical, a heretic, a lunatic, or, less pejoratively though still dismissively, someone who “thinks outside the box.”

Following the stroke that damaged her left brain, my mother, an actress and a great talker by nature, could no longer express her thoughts in words, but she could understand everything that was said to her, and her laugh was still spontaneous and appropriate.  These left-brainers can talk a blue streak, but they don’t get half of what we’re saying, certainly the most important half, and in an arena where comedy is king, they don’t get the jokes!  Tell them that William Shakespeare of Stratford was chosen to stand in for the real author because his name held a pun (“will shake spear”) and they stare in disbelief as though you had just said something so embarrassingly off the wall that they’re at a loss for a response.  I recall the response of one Stratfordian prof years ago during one of Charles Beauclerk’s television debates; all he could do was splutter, over and over, “Preposterous!  Preposterous!”

Tell them that these writers delighted in puns, that puns were not only vehicles for humor, for laughs, for ludi (Latin for fun), they stare, thinking “so what?”  Tell them that puns were also shorthand for subliminal messages, as with Doll Tear-sheet, whose name signals the audience what manner of creature she is, there being no room for a rumpled bed on the Shakespearean stage, and they stare.  Tell them the name Will Shake-spear signals the pun-loving and still totally right-brained 16-century English audience that he’s a writer who will shake a spear, a being no more substantial than Doll herself––a boy in tart’s clothing––and they stare.  Like those who don’t understand puns, and who simply smile and wait for the pointless laughter to die down, they don’t get it.

Most Oxfordians get it.  Shakespeare’s audience got it.  But the descendants of Holofernes who’ve inherited the keys to Shakespeare’s kingdom don’t get it, even when it’s spelled out for them, left-brain style, one word at a time.  The sad truth is, most of them simply can’t get it, which is why I don’t bother to argue with them anymore.

15 responses to “Why I don’t argue with Stratfordians

  1. Stephanie I think it is more complicated than that. In the previous generations Stratfordians were fully capable of being ‘right brain’ as well as ‘left brain’ thinkers [by the way, take a look at McGilchrist if this theme intrigues you!
    http://www.iainmcgilchrist.com/brief_description.asp ];
    Wilson Knight, FH Bradley, FR Leavis, LC Knights, John Middleton Murry, TS Eliot, Stanley Cavell, even Harold Bloom, not to mention Sam Johnson, Coleridge, Hazlitt, De Quincey, and John Keats, were all of them big minds, like Looney himself, who may well have been cramped by their theory, but still were able ‘think outside the box’. Something has happened at the level of the evolution of HISTORICAL consciousness, which explains the loss of depth within Shakespearian studies, and which that highly intelligent and stylish man Shapiro nevertheless illustrates, because his essential core model, underlying all the prevarications and caveats, is as positivist and Benthamite as one could wish!!! Something has happened, that ‘big mind thinking’ about Shakespeare has gone out of the academy and out to the minority, which happens to be mainly Oxfordian…. So some of the paradox of the usual accusation of snobbery is that the academic orthodoxy snobbery is now at war with many thinkers who are not, many of them, centrally located in the academy.
    But your core thesis wont do, unless it is supplemented by historical consciousness-based thinking as well.

  2. Of course, but none of these Shakespeare scholars were “Stratfordians,” because for most of them, the authorship issue simply didn’t exist, while even those like Bloom, who knew of it, were working out of what they got from Shakespeare and did not concern themselves with who he was. Even now I’ve gotten much important background material from orthodox academics, because they are working directly from the facts in areas that do not touch on the authorship. Where it does it can be a source of rather sour amusement to see how they deal with the problems it causes. To me, Stratfordians are those who concentrate on affirming the Stratford bio, not the workaday academic who generally does his or her best to ignore the issue.

    I’m not sure what you mean by your final sentence.

  3. Years ago the most effctive professors considered truth to be a search, and their function was to provide guidelines. Now truth seems to be a dogma, and professors teach what they were taught. An open mind is heresy, deserving fatwah by all true believers. Success is judged by the ability to sell our lies to the highest bidder.

  4. Yes, but this is something that has always been true. It’s what got Socrates into trouble. With Shakespeare as with Socrates, the problem lies with the importance of the questions involved. Who wrote Shakespeare questions some very basic beliefs about the nature of the Reformation and the way artists were treated and have always been treated by the English-speaking establishment, not to mention the fact that Shakespeare studies has come to represent the acme of the traditional Liberal Arts program in the universities. It takes a lot of money and a lot of kissing of the hems of the robes of the Pharisees to get to the level where you get recognized and published. There’s a lot at stake.

    What I don’t understand is why someone like Alan Nelson can hate an historical figure like Oxford with such a passion. That’s a real puzzler.

  5. “Who wrote Shakespeare questions some very basic beliefs about the nature of the Reformation and the way artists were treated and have always been treated by the English-speaking establishment, not to mention the fact that Shakespeare studies has come to represent the acme of the traditional Liberal Arts program in the universities.”

    Stephanie, my last sentence relates to such reasoning as yours in response to Barb… With the addition that we also attend to the internalised consciousness of a given epoch. Thus Luther, Erasmus, Hamlet, and Montaigne all have a relation to their own consciousness of self which is different, mainly, from what was taken for granted in an 11th century man such as Anselm of Bec and Canterbury. The great writers on Shakespeare of the 19th and 20th centuries embodied both a sense OF historical consciousness (Hegel is the greatest expositor of this and in our own epoch John Lukacs
    http://is.gd/kmVMH ), in this sense, AND embodied something of the greatness of post-enlightenment and post-romantic largeness of selfhood. You are right – and it is also relevant to the issue of historical consciousness – for the great writers on Shakespeare I mention, the possibility of the authorship issue has hardly yet arisen in British literary criticism, though of course more in America and Europe (Nietzsche, Whitman, Melville, the Jameses and indeed Dickens and Palmerston – its an interesting question why it did not reach the critics like Murry, Leavis, and Wilson Knight, though Murry implicitly admitted it by making Keats his ‘medium’ to Shakespeare
    ‘I saw that my one chance of making intelligible these slowly formed convictions of mine concerning Shakespeare was to use the greatest of his successors, John Keats, as though he were a mediator between the normal consciousness of men and the pure poetic consciousness in which form alone Shakespeare remains to us. ‘ (Murry, Keats and Shakespeare, 1925, p. 4) ) – So there is a fascinating question why that was so and what has happened since to make it happen, which I am tempted to answer with one word, ‘Ogburn’ (certainly in my own case!)

    But what made us RECEPTIVE to Ogburn? For certainly up to that moment in a Wakefield bookshop in 1989 I was a card-carrying Stratfordian!
    http://hewardwilkinson.co.uk/ShakespearePaper.doc
    There was the possibility of a crystallisation which had been prepared for by years of reflection and internalisation during the post-modern period of thought, and was also related to my discovery of Nietzsche’s putative posthumous writing and belief in its authenticity:
    http://hewardwilkinson.co.uk/MySisterandI.pdf

    Anyway this is a long story, which I won’t try to touch now, just to say it is certainly there – and the shift marked by that strange and a-historical book, Contested Will, with the peculiar role he attributes to Malone, is a very very significant one. So I do not think the ‘right brain/left brain’ dialectic does fully account for it… I think we have to think historically to make sense of it. MAYBE it is no longer possible to be a ‘Right Brain Stratfordian’ in your sense, but you WOULD have to argue long and hard to make sense of that for me. And if that is so, it is itself a major historical shift….. Which needs itself to be accounted for.

    • This depends on what you mean by Stratfordian. I don’t mean orthodox, which is what all Shakespearean scholars were until Looney, and many still are, due to their focus on the work alone. In fact, some like Wilson Knight, Frank Harris, even now Penny McCarthy, if given a less restrictive climate, would surely see, or have seen, what we see.

      My point is that it’s not that the vast majority won’t see the anomalies, it’s that they can’t. They can’t because their capacity to think for themselves has atrophied from spending an entire lifetime in the school systems of either Britain or America where thinking for oneself tends to bring bad grades and reprimands. My time is better spent following up one of the many trails that promise possible evidence that connects Oxford with the theatrical and publishing ventures of his time and with his fellow writers. So little time, so much to do, and really no point in wasting it on another long and involved trek through Stratfordiana. Been there, done that. Enough already.

  6. richard j. kennedy

    The right/left brain model is a nice metaphor to explain our troubles with the Stratfordians, but physiology isn’t our problem. If it were, you might wheel the PT Oxfordians into a corner and forget them for their outrageous notion that Elizabeth sometimes left her virginity at the door. It’s like crying for BELIEF and thumping the forehead of a one-legged man to “STAND UP AND WALK !” — or like a snake-handling evangelist quoting scripture to a rattler.

    Forbearance should be the theme in these cases (the PT theory is only an example). We might treat the stupidity of our opponents with a lofty charity, for we can’t know what’s going on in their brains, that’s a gray area, and we can only surmise that their bewildering ignorance and insult has to do with one of the seven deadly sins, and let it go at that.

  7. Stephanie,

    James Shapiro showed the poverty of the Stratfordian position by choosing to look at WHY people doubt Will, and the folly of their assumptions, rather than face the earl of Oxford as a living presence on the Elizabethan stage. As the gloating reviews on his website prove, his book declared open season on the mental apparatus of doubters. In essence, you’re following his lead by posing a mental deficiency on the part of Stratfordians.

    For all we know, it may be that William’s defenders have overactive right-brains, with which they’ve unconsciously over-compensated for lapses in the Stratford biography. The stories they’ve created about William thus become THEIR OWN, and so an integral part of their sense of self. An attack on their champion becomes an attack on their inspired creations of Will in over-plus. For these creative thinkers, arguments AGAINST William of Stratford calls up a fight or flight response – they’re either fighting the infidels or flying into higher fantasies.

    I believe you were closer to the mark when speculating on “falsification” and the inability of most Stratfordians to accept that those whom they have trusted to tell posterity the TRUTH – Ben Jonson, Hemings & Condell, Frances Meres, etc – may have had good reasons to publish and maintain an outright LIE. Understandably, these honorable individuals may dismiss arguments involving falsification as “conspiracy theories” rather than face that maybe, just maybe, they’ve been fleeced and gulled by pros.

    As for the special case of Alan Nelson’s powerful antipathy towards the earl, he says on pg. 5 of Monstrous Adversary: “If I judge Oxford harshly from the outset, it is because I neither can nor wish to suppress what I have learned along the way. True believers will of course spin Oxford’s reprehensible acts into benevolent gestures, or will transfer blame from Oxford to Burghley, Leicester, Queen Elizabeth, or even to Oxford’s much-abused wife Anne. I beg the open-minded reader to join me in holding the mature Oxford responsible for his own life, letting the documentary evidence speak for itself.”

    If only he had let that evidence do the speaking! But would he then have written a book that Oxfordians would be more willing to read and quote? Ironically, some of the strongest connections between Oxford’s life and Shakespeare’s works fall within Nelson’s “reprehensible actions” category.

  8. It’s not the Stratfordians who gave us the Stratford bio, it’s Ben Jonson. All the Stratfordians have done is follow up on that without examining it as they should have. They can do this only because they can ignore the anomalies, or attempt to explain them away. I don’t see much imagining there. As for “reprehensible acts,” I wonder what you have in mind. I see recklessness, youthful thoughtlessness, self defense, the self-centerness and narcissism of the artist, etc., but nothing that I’d call “reprehensible.”

    • Sorry, Marie. On rereading this I see that I misinterpreted your response, taking your characterization for Alan Nelson’s views as your own. And of course you’re right, that the Stratfordians have used their imaginations to conjure up scenaries where no evidence exists, so the problem isn’t that they don’t use their right brains, but that they allow the 2-dimensional left hemisphere to set the guidelines for the all-encompassing right, rather than, as Nature dictates, the other way around.

  9. Interesting discussion about left brain-right brain thinking as it applies to the Shakespeare-Authorship question. I think much of what you say it true. But I think there’s more to it than that. Here’s my take on why the academic establishment won’t change their view, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary: It all has to do with paradigms.

    I’ve done a lot of reading the past few years about paradigms and how hard they are to change, regardless of the facts at hand. The reigning academic paradigm regarding the works of Shakespeare is that the man from Stradford (whom we Oxfordians call “William Shaksper”) was the author. The academic establishment has a extremely deep, invested interest in maintaining this paradigm. If this paradigm were to crack, they’d have to admit that they’ve all been wrong throughout their entire careeers. Not a pleasant thought.

    And not only them…all the mentors and teachers who came before them, going back 400 years…they would all have been proven to be wrong. So they are now fighting to preserve their own honor and reputations, and the legacy of all those academics who came before them. The stakes are huge! Better to disparage the indisputable facts and those who have discovered them (Looney, Ogburn, etc.) than to admit that they’ve all been wrong and their careers have all been in vain. And they’re not going to let a bunch of “upstarts” like we Oxfordians – from outside the halls of academia, to boot! – be the ones to tell them that they’ve been wrong all these years. They’re just not going to do it.

    As such, their support for Shaksper and the reigning paradigm can now be termed “metaphysical support.” What this means is that it is not based on the pertinent facts of the case – which, by contrast, would be “empirical” support – but rather, at this stage, it is based purely on emotion. In other words, they have an extreme emotional attachment to the reigning pardigm…and no “facts” will ever make them change their minds. As I often say facetiously, if we could somehow invent a time machine that could take us back to the 16th century and we could see Edward DeVere sitting at a desk with a pen in his hand, and the words “…To be or not to be…” written on the parchment in front of him…THEY STILL WOULDN’T CHANGE THEIR MINDS!

    By contrast, our support for Edward DeVere is “empirical support”, meaning that it is based solely on the facts of the case that have been presented to us. We have no vested interest in this case – other than a burning quest for the truth. We have no emotional attachment to Edward DeVere. The facts presented to us indicated that he was the author of of the greatest works of English literature, writing under the hypenated pseudonynm “William Shake-speare.” If persuasive and credible evidence was presented to us that someone else was the author, we would certainly change our view.

    That’s what I mean by their support being metaphysical, rather than empirical…and at this point, it’s probably best to ignore them, and write it off to the concept of “Ignorance is bliss!” As we’ve seen since the days of J. Thomas Looney, they will fight “tooth and nail” to keep this reigning pardigm in place. Their reputations and honor are at stake.

  10. Of course you’re right about paradigms. Consider the stakes involved for reigning geologists in the 1960s when cores from the ocean floor were proving that the abhorred Continental Drift theory was in fact the true model, or for that matter, in Shakespeare’s own time, when the telescope was proving that the (literally) earth-shaking Copernican theory of a sun-centered solar system was fact, not heresy.

    Continental Drift as a comparison is particularly apt, since the likelihood that the continents were once joined is apparent to anyone who can see how well they fit together on a map, or even more obviously on a globe, just as readers of Shakespeare with ordinary common sense can see, once it’s presented to them, that the man who wrote the six shaky signatures on legal tracts could not possibly have written the greatest works of literature known to the English-speaking world.

    Nevertheless, my point about the takeover of ordinary right brain common sense by a left-brain dominated education system holds for all of these (that for Copernicus it was the Church makes no difference). True, “none are so blind as those who will not see,” but when it becomes endemic in a particular community, there has to be a cause. Here it’s because academics, at least the sort in question, rarely experience to any depth what the rest of us call “the real world,” having been nurtured within the education system from grade school to grad school without more than a few semesters in some more down to earth, less purely intellectual culture.

    It’s interesting that the more educated the questioner, the harder it is to get past their preconceptions. Once I explained it to a pressman at a print shop where I was spending a good deal of time photocopying the library books I needed (he was curious what I wanted so much material for). A blue collar guy with no more than a high school education, if that, and no knowledge of Shakespeare beyond the name, he got it right away. As someone from Oxford’s time would have put it, though he knew little about Shakespeare, he knew enough about life to know “chalk from cheese.”

  11. Stephanie, once again, paradigms DO shift, and they shift because historically it becomes possible for a shift to occur – as with Copernicus and Galileo at the ending of the mediaeval period, as with Luther and Descartes and Montaigne and the author of Hamlet at the time of emergence of modern self-consciousness and proto-positivism (Theseus, whose speech in Act V of MND Shapiro takes as the views of Shakespeare, is actually functionally in context a sceptical positivist, and we can no more take that as simply the view of Shakespeare than Edmund’s speech on Nature in King Lear!). And DARWIN [and Freud, we may add] was only possible, as Nietzsche pointed out (Gay Science, ‘On What is German’ somewhere around para 350, not got it to hand), when the Hegelian revolution had made DEVELOPMENTAL thinking possible.

    And paradigms DO shift – and those who opposed them then suddenly become THOSE WHO KNEW ALL ALONG!!!! For instance, the Roman Church as the advocate of science as the expression of the mind of God [I am not saying it is QUITE as simple as that!!!]

    Hey Ho!! Rejoice!

  12. Indeed yes, which is why I say that once the academy allows the question to be raised, it will soon be as though there never was a problem. (Remember, this is the same academy that scorned Shakespeare, and all drama in English, for close to 200 years.) William will fade to the role he actually played, Stratford will continue as a model of what a town was like in Shakespeare’s time, and we’ll begin to learn a great deal more about Oxford, Bacon, Marlowe, Raleigh and the Sidneys than we know at present. Rejoice, indeed! Meanwhile, aren’t we having a good time? What exercise for all our right and left brains!

  13. Excellent post, and responses. As we are all presumably products of the very system that created the monstrous adversary that is the Stratfordians, do we all as anti-stratfordians share some neurological traits that distinguishes us from them? Somehow I doubt it. Wasn’t the whole point of Looney’s work, although perhaps unstated, to make sense of the multifarious anomalies in the orthodox dispensation, and would not such an endeavor be a “left-brain” activity? Looney built his case from the bottom up; we accept it (or don’t), in sum or in part, on the basis of its logic, not on the basis of sentiment; or at least I approach it that way. I doubt that Looney would have appreciated a rampantly subjective response to his work; which as a matter of fact somewhat characterizes the Stratfordian response to it, such as it is.

    Marie — wonderful comments. Yes, the idea that some or all of those near-mythical figures — Hemmings & Condell, truly names to conjure with — as well as several others, might have actually — shock! horror! — lied, through persuasion or bribery or intimidation is beyond the competency of your scholar. It would be tempting to compare the “University Wits” of Shakespeare’s day with the “University Half-Wits” who dominate the field today, but that would be unfair ….. wouldn’t it? Yes, because they have truly done the “heavy lifting”, as someone wrote recently. Given the onerous burden of the Stratford paradigm under which they labor, it’s amazing how far they have gotten.

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