As defenses of the Stratford biography continue to arrive in bookstores in a mainstream effort to stem the tide of authorship inquiry, hyped by other academics and other left-brainers in online reviews, I can’t help but think I should join the debate. I could get a review copy and add my two cents––so why don’t I? For one thing, since I’m still mostly preaching to the choir here, I think it’s more useful to promote the Oxfordians who who can get their reviews published in mainstream journals. I hardly have time to read the books stacked and waiting, books with the kind of information that’s truly useful, as more Stratfordian groupthink is not.
But basically, it’s just a matter of “been there done that.” I’ve argued in private and in print with Ward Elliott and in public with Alan Nelson. I went at it with the coneheads on SHAKSPER. I watched Beauclerk debate Louis Marder and Stritmatter debate Terry Ross and have read David Kathman at length. I finally realized that these folks aren’t being stubborn in the face of reality. It’s not that they won’t see it, it’s that they can’t.
Most academics are herd animals, they follow the leader, usually the head of the English Department at their university. If she tells them that William’s the man, it never occurs to them that she might be wrong (and if it does, he’s better off elsewhere, for there he’ll never prosper). For over a century believing in William has been the English Lit ticket to preferment, to tenure, to getting published, to getting the juicy stuff, what there is of it. It took 200 years before they would even allow the plays to be performed at Cambridge or Oxford, longer before they began teaching him. They scoffed at the idea that there was anything of value in Shakespeare, like some scoff today at classes in film or popular music.
Academics are good with details, with focussing in on a small area and putting it in order, one reason why we have so much good material to work with. But they’re no good at putting the bits together. It seems never to occur to them to check how or if these chunks of scholarship fit together. Not only can’t they see the forest for the trees, they don’t even know there’s a forest. They’re good thinkers or they wouldn’t have gotten where they are, but they can’t think outside the box they were handed along with their diplomas. Most of them have been inside the left-brain academic box since they were six years old and so they don’t even know there’s a great multi-dimensional world outside it.
Authorship scholars have a fully functioning right brain, which warns them when gaps appear in the record; academics don’t. They can follow a trail of published facts, but if it takes them off into some empty wilderness it seems never to occur to them that something might be wrong. Unable to imagine that anyone who knows the facts could be so blind, we accuse them of bad faith, but the truth is that, they simply can’t see the big picture. Like the vain glamour girls in the days before contact lenses who refused to wear glasses, everything farther away than fifteen inches is a blur. They refuse to talk about anything but the little facts they can see up close, not the big ones that are so obvious to anyone who bothers to dig a little deeper .
It never seems to strike them how very peculiar it is that we know so much about Shakespeare’s fellow playwrights Ben Jonson and Christopher Marlowe and so little (that makes sense) about their far more important contemporary. We can track Marlowe from a childhood at the Canterbury School to teen years at Cambridge to his twenties at the Rose Theater and Tamburlaine to his death in Deptford. We can track Jonson from the Westminster school to the lowlands army to acting, then writing, for the London companies, then to his long association with the Lord Chamberlain’s-King’s Men and the Pembrokes. In both of these the events of their lives, their known associations, and the plays they created all fit together like pieces of a puzzle to produce a believable scenario. How is it that the academics don’t see the difference between these two genuine stories and the Stratford fairy tale?
Nevertheless, although I can’t take the time myself, it’s still a delight to hear our side of the debate articulated by someone with the skills of Joe Sobran as in his recent review of Shapiro’s Contested Will.* There’s no point in throwing facts at defenders of the Stratford faith, they bounce right off. Why not take it easy on them, as Joe does with Shapiro. After all, as should be clear, their time is coming to an end. And we have much to thank them for.
*Many thanks to Sam Robrin for supplying the link to Sobran’s review.