Many who read this blog are themselves involved in researching the truth about the authorship of the Shakespeare canon and writing about it. For you, I have a suggestion, forget the academics. Stop trying to convince them. Stop using what you believe to be their talking points to communicate what you’re discovering or thinking. Why? First, because it’s a waste of time. In fact, the better and more cogent your argument, the less likely it is that they will pay any attention to it. Why should they? Clearly they don’t really care who wrote the Shakespeare canon or we would no longer have a problem.
Second and more important, it’s going to keep you from arriving at anything substantial yourself. Acknowledging the academic viewpoint, wasting time and energy on testing or confuting it, has only one result, it keeps us going in circles. Like desperate peasants we lob facts over the castle walls, where they fall to earth without having any effect. Do we bother to argue with people who believe that the earth is flat or that it was created in six days? Such people invariably come up with arguments that mean something to them but that make no sense to those who have a broader view. Just because the flat-earthers and the Darwin-deniers no longer run the world doesn’t mean that the Stratford syndicate operates from any greater logic. We can argue until the cows come home that their story makes no sense, nothing will change until we replace what doesn’t make sense with what does. And we won’t have that until we turn away from their story and build one of our own out of documents and facts (ironically, many of them courtesy of these same academics).
This is difficult, of course, because a stronger hand has been at the record than ours is or will ever be, but no hand could eliminate everything. The truth is there to find. The story of how these great works of literature got written is a wonderful story, just as good as any its author ever wrote. In an anthropological sense it’s his greatest story, the story of his life. Gleaned from the most obscure of records, this will be an exercise performed as a great intellectual adventure by a lucky handful who are properly placed and financially supported so they can examine the records in the archives of England, take notes, and write up the results of their effort. This will involve not only a great deal of time on the computer, but also on foot via London’s underground and on English trains to the various archives in the shires. Since this is very expensive, backing by a patron is required. A corps of undergraduates from one of the English universities (not necessarily Oxbridge) would be the perfect outfit.
This is literary forensics, and it will yield results. The efforts of other scholars have shown the way. Help us go in that direction, either with your own efforts or willingness to support a London team and you’ve contributed a great deal to our study of this hidden genius, who sacrificed his identity that the English language might develop as freely as possible in the direction in which it has continued ever since.
Until we can show beyond the shadow of a doubt what does make sense, why Oxford must be accepted as the author, why his actors were forced to hide his identity, and why this great fib has continued to be perpetrated on a willing public for so long after his death, we will simply continue to spin helplessly within the academic orbit. They are not the last word, they never have been, and until we learn to ignore them and address a totally different community, one of independent thinkers, lovers of Shakespeare and his works, one that has been in existence ever since the 1570s (while the university-based English Departments date only to the turn of the 20th century) we will be forced into fringe areas. Let us simply change fringes, moving from the one where we are deemed absurd, to the continually growing fringe that exchanges information by way of the internet, and thus create a new Shakespeare Studies, one where history rules and the author is present both within and along with his text.
The need for an end run
One ploy has been to get important information about the works published by leaving the author out of it. Hoping that by focusing on some aspect of the question that can be argued without reference to a particular candidate readers can begin to see the authorship issue from a more rational viewpoint, this was the route taken by Diana Price in her Shakespeare’s Unorthodox Biography and more recently in Richard Roe’s Shakespeare’s Guide to Italy. When Roe decided to make the book more accessible to the general reader by leaving Oxford out of it, do you think that brought his book any closer to genuine acceptance? Or even more recently, Roger Stritmatter and Lynne Kositsky’s book on the dating of The Tempest, where they too, doubtless for the same reason, chose to leave out any discussion of authorship, focussing only on the issue of the date.
Do you think that means that any of these important works is shelved in bookstores or libraries with mainstream works on Shakespeare? Not so. While phony biographies or books on the authorship question by apologists like Shapiro get shelved with the classics, Roe and Stritmatter are stuck in some corner where they’re surrounded by books on UFOs and crop circles. On Amazon they’re grouped, not with books on Shakespeare’s Italian plays or The Tempest, but with other authorship books, some unworthy of notice. So many of the articles published in authorship newsletters fight over again old battles with the academics, articles that may interest newcomers to the issue, but that never touch the minds of academics because it’s still so easy just to ignore them.
This is all very sad, not only for authorship scholars who can’t reach our audience, not through print publishing at least, but even more so for the English departments who purvey the academic line on Shakespeare. True, they get their ideas published, and in hardback, but who reads what they write? At close to $100 a pop, only the biggest university libraries can afford to buy their books, and no one but fellow academics who need to know what else has been said about Robert Greene or Thomas Kyd, have the energy required to plow through the turgid reams of fieldspeak in which these books and articles are cast.
University English Departments are in serious trouble today, and it’s no mere whimsy on the part of a frustrated outsider to state with some authority that much of the problem can be laid to their attitude towards the authorship question. As William Chace, President and Professor of English Emeritus at Emory University, informs us in his article from 2009, now online (and any question about University English or the curriculum will bring it up among the first first links on Google, which shows how deep the concern he voices):
During the last four decades, a well-publicized shift in what undergraduate students prefer to study has taken place in American higher education. The number of young men and women majoring in English has dropped dramatically; the same is true of philosophy, foreign languages, art history, and kindred fields, including history. As someone who has taught in four university English departments over the last 40 years, I am dismayed by this shift, as are my colleagues here and there across the land.
Chace gives a number of reasons for this, chiefly the shift to business degrees by students facing hugely expanded tuition fees, but also “the failure of departments of English across the country to champion, with passion, the books they teach and to make a strong case to undergraduates that the knowledge of those books and the tradition in which they exist is a human good in and of itself.” How are students to see the “human good” in the garbled story they tell about the birth and spread of modern English? He complains that they’ve “dismembered the curriculum.”
What he doesn’t address is the effort, in America at least, to use English Lit, first in the universities, then in high school English classes, as a means of indoctrinating diverse populations into what was once the dominant White Male Protestant world view. How else are we to see the continued focus on books like Moby Dick, while books like Charlie Russell’s marvelous stories of the American West, Trails Plowed Under, remains ignored, or the focus on the depressing Lord of the Flies while Nordhoff and Hall’s masterful history Pitcairn’s Island, is threatened with loss. Why Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter rather than Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, the most popular book in America for decades during the 19th century, still meaningful for teenage girls, and what is more, entertaining as well as instructive?
Most deadly of all where English Lit is concerned is the invasion of fieldspeak from “scientific” language studies like linguistics and semiotics, that threaten to overtake the language of Shakespeare, Keats, Yeats and Eliot with gibble gabble. Nothing wrong with this, boys must have their intellectual toys, but for God’s sake keep this intellectual poison out of the undergraduate classroom, where arcane theories that should remain at the postdoc level have been allowed to invade, turning several generations of undergraduates and even high school AP English students, off for life, from anything labelled “literature.”
Not so serious, though equally awful, are the works labelled by publishers as “literary fiction” in which no ending is acceptible unless it panders to the current addiction to existentialism in which the ending seeks to prove, for the zillionth time, the notion that life is pointless. Not only boring, but really bad medicine for what ails most teenagers, who need to be told that life is meaningful, which of course it is, everywhere but in the high school and university classroom. Stop telling them what it means, let them find that out for themselves, just give it to them. Fight for a meaningful, flexible, and life-affirmative curriculum, where laughter plays its ancient and necessary role.
What is English? What is Literature?
The failure to share an understanding of what is meant by these terms has led, not only in English Lit, but all the humanities that, in English-speaking cultures, are taught in English (as opposed to math), is the primary factor in this unhappy loss of interest. Certainly students who have been turned off by AP English classes in high school are going to think twice about focussing on English Lit in college. Pehaps most deadly of all is the separation of Literature from History, a problem from the beginning that has only gotten worse over time, for without History, Literature lacks context, while without Literature, History, the record of events caused by the thrust and clash of human passions, lacks what should be its most compelling and informative voice. It is not the series of dates or tags like “Manifest Destiny” that makes history compelling, it’s the stories it tells, and how better than in the literature written at the time?
How did it happen that they ever got separated? Blame it on politics, the politics inherent in History, the politics inherent in the works of Shakespeare, Milton, Pope, Defoe, Byron, Blake and Shelley, unacknowledged and suppressed in their own times, and by the politics of the Academy, where theory seeks to soar as far as possible beyond tiresome human realities. How else to explain the sorry state of that most important and necessary side of English studies, Composition, in which are combined the nuts and bolts of the language, formerly studied as the Trivium, grammar, logic and rhetoric. According to Chace:
While this duty is always advertised as an activity central to higher education, it is one devoid of dignity. Its instructors are among the lowest paid of any who hold forth in a classroom; most, though possessing doctoral degrees, are ineligible for tenure or promotion; their offices are often small and crowded; their scholarship is rarely considered worthy of comparison with “literary” scholarship. Their work, while crucial, is demeaned. . . . Despite sheltering this central educational service, English departments are regarded by those who manage the university treasury as more liability than asset.
As higher ed attitudes trickle down to the high schools where graduates of university English departments do most of the teaching, students end up in college not knowing a verb from a noun, so that required English courses become a makeup for what should have been taught in the sixth through ninth grades. Today, with students focused on paring down language to what can most quickly be texted on their iphones, or the 140 characters allowed by tweeting, the ability to write a meaningful sentence, a coherent paragraph, heads towards one extreme while “literary” English, bogged in the incoherencies of novelists like James Elroy, the densities of Faulkner and Joyce, the seemingly pointless puzzles of modern poetry, head towards the other.
To say that these are the results of Jonson’s lie would be ridiculous, but that something has come full circle since then may not be. When Oxford first began to write he had the “drab era” to contend with. It wasn’t existential, it didn’t suggest that life was without meaning, but it was adamant that it was utterly without hope. Quickly he moved away from the dismal dread of his elders towards the light and laughter he found in Plautus and Terence. Condemned by Church and City officials, he hid his name, but not his light, his gift for making people laugh. Now that the 20th-century version of officialdom, the professors of philology and linguistics who have taken over the English Departments, have divested him of everything but what they consider to be the best bits of his masterpieces, and so have ruined his Studies, isn’t it time for us to do what he did so long ago, find a way to reach past the academics to the readers, hungry for the good word, that we know who wrote the works of Shakespeare, one with a real story to tell, as he so poignantly has the dying Hamlet require of Horatio.
But these are the ultimate results of two things, the big lie told by Ben Jonson back in 1623, when he claimed that Shakespeare knew only “small Latin and less Greek,” and the choice by the early English departments, formed only a little more than 100 years ago, to regard English as a branch of Philology, an origin from which it has never managed to free itself. The first denied Shakespeare his education, the second denied him his artistry. The result has left both professors and students with a Shakespeare who, thanks to Jonson, knew nothing, his accomplishment solely due to his genius, and finally, thanks to the bibliographers and philologists of the English Departments, a chimeric genius part deer-poacher, part horse-holder, part play-patcher, part plagiarizer, one without any real artistry .
How are we to respect a study based on such a fragile and transparent foundation? How can anyone expect it to sustain, not only the works written in the language Shakespeare bequeathed us, one he created out of local dialects, Latin, Greek, French and Old English, but the histories and philosophies and even maths taught in that language? Founded on a set of lies and suppositions created to make those lies coherent, English itself is without a clear identity. What is it? No one seems to know.
“You’re nothing but a pack of cards!”
. . . cries Alice, awakening to the greater reality that lies beyond the “dream” of Oxbridge. What else could her creator, Charles Dodgson, aka Lewis Carroll, math professor at Oxford University, have had in mind with the White Rabbit, the Red Queen, the White King, the Mad Hatter, the Tortoise who “taught us,” the gardens that Alice was either too big or too small to enter, but university professors and their fraternities and cliques. Who else were Tweedledum and Tweedledee but profs whose lesson plans were indistinguishable while they fought each other with rattling terms that no one but they could understand? Who but the Department Head was the Black Crow that frightened those two worthies into silence? Why pay attention to an accretion of nonsense too monolithic to move and too absurd to take seriously, particularly one that seems to be teetering on the brink of self-destruction, and cry, along with Alice, “you’re nothing but a pack of cards!”
Friends, let us go our own way. Despite the threats to literacy of this new age of electronics, it has given us an opening to the public that’s been out of reach for questioners since the grand possessors finally realized that in order to get the great works published they would have to use the name of someone who could not be damaged himself, and who could not damage the true author.
Every single day on this blog I get upwards of 100 to 200 readers, mostly from the US and UK, but also from every other country in the world. That’s too many to account for just a few who read everything on it. It means there are hundreds more who read some of it. If some of my readers are academics, forgive my rhetoric, but please wake up and step outside the box your training has stuck you in. Read the history of the period, not just those bits that the philologists and bibliographers have picked to substantiate their equations, but all the history, most of all the history of the English Reformation and its repression of the arts, in particular the art of writing imaginative literature.
English is the first or second language of the entire world. Readers in every nation are interested in its history and the history of the genius who more than any other individual created it in its first incarnation. Let us stop trying to reach the academics huddled behind their hermaneutics and word studies. Permanently blind to the forest, they can see only the trees right in their way.
Please, let’s stop these useless attempts to bring the argument around to include Oxford, Bacon, Marlowe, and the questions of authorship raised by all their lives and works. It’s going on a century-and-a-half since the question of Shakespeare’s identity first became public, and close to a century since Oxford was identified. If we haven’t brought the authorship issue any closer than we have with our present tactics, we never will.
Their power is lodged within their control of the scholarly publishing industry, a force that can promote disinformation as easily as it does genuine information, and one that reality demands must always choose in favor of the bottom line. But we are living at a time when the door is open to us outside of the feudal castle of print, and can publish for a community of like-minded readers, just as you are reading this message today within hours or perhaps days of downloading, and with the opportunity to ask questions, offer opinions, and get feedback from myself and others. It’s necessary to get things published in print, but only what supports facts gleaned from history. Study the history of the period, find those writers who created the language we use today (Shakespeare was not the only one), by all means publish in print if you can, but meanwhile, work to establish a community of internet scholars. That’s where the future lies.