Why I didn’t review Shapiro

I didn’t review Shapiro because I didn’t read his book.

I used to pay attention to Stratfordians.  I’d argue with them, pointing out the holes in their logic, pointing to the facts, the “smoking guns,” that require a courtier, a more sensible dating scheme, an explanation for the gaping anomalies in the Stratford biography.  When they ridiculed the Shakespeare authorship question I got serious.  When they purposely misinterpreted facts I got angry.  When they refused to listen I got sad.

Round and round I went on SHAKSPER with the postdocs and pseudo-scholars as they tirelessly repeated the mantras instilled in them by their professors.  When finally they began beating the drum for the notion that great fiction doesn’t have to arise from personal experience, I should have realized that it was an exercise in futility, but I soldiered on, thinking that there might be lurkers whose minds were less closed to reality.  If so I never saw any hint of it.

Then of course there was HLAS, created in part by Oxfordians Bill Boyle and Marty Hyatt as a forum for an open online discussion, which soon turned into a verbal Fight Club, with the Shakespeare authorship question nothing more than a focal point for the verbal art of ad hominem vilification.  If HLAS (humanities.lit.authors.shakespeare) is still in operation I’d be very much surprised to hear that it’s changed.  Fighting is always so much more exciting than reasoning.

When they said Oxford’s poetry was terrible I demonstrated how different it was even then from the morose tone of the poetry being written at the time and known to literary historians as “the drab era.”  If any of them had ever bothered to read this stuff, to actually compare Oxford’s poetry with Turberville or Churchyard, they never uttered a peep.

When they brushed off Oxford as dying before The Tempest was written I pointed to the obvious factors that link that play to the 1595 marriage of his daughter to the Earl of Derby (since then Stritmatter and Kositsky have shown even earlier origins); to the fact that back in the 1570s it was his tutor, Sir Thomas Smith, whose plan for colonizing Ireland is considered by historians today to be the starting point for all subsequent plans to colonize America (Quinn 103, Armitage xx), including Jamestown, where the ship was headed that was wrecked in Bermuda, the supposed source of the 1611 Strachey letter; to the fact that Smith’s family were close friends with the Stracheys in their hometown of Saffron Walden, Essex (it was their grandson who wrote the famous letter); and so on.  It hasn’t changed a thing.  We continue to hear, ad infinitum, how The Tempest and any number of other plays (never enumerated) were written too late to be by Oxford.

When they claim that knowing nothing about Shakespeare is perfectly understandable––since so little is known about writers like Robert Greene, Thomas Nashe, or John Webster, why should we know any more about Shakespeare than we do about them?––I never dared to explain how Greene was early Shakespeare,  Nashe was early Francis Bacon, and Webster Mary Sidney.  I may be willing to stick my chin out now and then, but I’m not insane.

How they love to ridicule the fact that there are so many candidates.  Francis Bacon?  No way.  Christopher Marlowe?  Un-uh.  Mary Sidney?  C’est ridicule!  Yet the historic picture based on the fact that there is no evidence that these writers even knew each other never raises a single eyebrow.  Do they actually know any great writers personally?  Have they ever researched the lives of other great writers in the kind of depth that would cause them to wonder why this group was so different?  No, because to a left-brainer, the only reality is the one written down on paper.  To admit that there might be something else is to open a can of really evil, dangerous right-brain worms.  Run away!  Run away!

Their favorite tactic of course is to call us “snobs” for thinking that only an earl could have had the kind of education revealed by Shakespeare’s works.  There’s really no rejoinder to the stupidity of this, except to point out that if in fact William of Stratford had had such an education, we’d surely know about it, just as we know about the educations of Christopher Marlowe and Ben Jonson, neither one of them earls or even close.

The major problem, as I have come to realize, is that students of literature never attempt to relate what they know of the history of the period (not so much nowadays it would appear) to its literature, its writers,  their publishers and printers, nor do they think to relate the mysteries of an earlier period with similar situations closer to us in time.  This disconnect begins in school where, in history class, sound-bytes on the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic counter-reformation, the Inquisition, the burning of witches (i.e. women) in France and heretics (i.e. scientists) in Italy and Spain, are forgotten the day after the quiz, while in English class they learn that Shakespeare was “above” writing about current events or using his life as a background to his works.  Two little boxes, side by side on a mental shelf, one labelled History, one Literature––never the twain to meet.

I used to think this was more or less purposeful, that “none are so blind as those who will not see,” but now I think it’s not so much that they won’t see than that they simply can’t.  Raised from childhood on multiple choice questions and term papers that rarely require anything more than regurgitating a teacher’s favorite ideas, most academics become so immersed in a left brain approach to everything they deal with that by the time they write their dissertations and their introductions to new editions of Shakespeare, their right brains have pretty much dried up and blown away.  This is bad news for the culture at large, as nature clearly intended the left brain to function as the servant to the right brain.  It’s a killer for those questions that require cross-disciplinary thinking.  It’s interesting that current studies suggest that animals use their left brains mostly for locating food, their right brains for warning of the approach of predators.  Substitute tenured professorships for food and the Beatles’s apple bonkers for predators, and you have a nice little metaphor for our present predicament.

Luckily, now that we have google and the internet, we can simply ignore them.  Already Shapiro’s book is fading from view.  Google alerts hasn’t turned up a new review in a couple of weeks.  No biggie, for the left-brainers will have a new one out in no time, written by and for the academics and their admirers, as they continue to reassure themselves that the Shakespeare authorship question is only for the lunatic fringe.

I respect the efforts of the Oxfordians who continue to take them on.  More power to them, though I doubt that it will make a dent in their thinking or in the thinking of those who lay out good money for their books.  The French Impressionists did not take the art world by storm by meeting the Royal academicians on their own turf.  No revolution, whether bloody or merely intellectual, ever began by playing footsie with the establishment, and the revolution we call the English Literary Renaissance was both intellectual and bloody.  And a hell of a lot more interesting than either the Stratford story or the hyperbole of its proponents.

12 thoughts on “Why I didn’t review Shapiro

  1. Mostly fair comment, but I think that lambasting the educational establishment doesn’t help your case. Most of the vocal Stratfordians, those who have voiced an opinion on the authorship issue, are not exactly products of the system you criticize. I’m thinking of Shapiro himself, as well as the likes of Bate, Bevington, not to mention Wells, who could give you a few years. Your gloomy analysis also prognosticates the ultimate demise of the anti-Strat movement as a whole, since teaching methods antithetical to it are now ubiquitous, at least according to the picture you paint. The should be no young anti-Strats, but I assume that there are.

  2. How can I be “lambasting” persons who will never read my blog?

    All I’m saying is that in my opinion, past a certain point it’s a waste of time to argue with anti-Stratfordians or read their anti-authorship books and articles. Once you’ve read one or two you’ve read them all, because no matter how they word it or organize it they all say the same things.

    We have a great deal of work to do following up on the leads provided by myself and others who due to location and lack of funding can only take the argument so far. There are thousands of letters in English archives never examined by authorship scholars, that now could be reported on through the internet, bypassing the old barriers to getting published. Like the Impressionists who conquered their opponents simply by continuing to do their thing and have shows outside the Academy, we do best when we simply continue to tell the story our way.

    Reading the same-old-same-old from the Strats and arguing with them and their reviewers is wasting time that could be spent finding and providing the evidence we need. We’ve already found so much, surely there’s more. First of course we need to know what to look for, which is what this blog is all about. Then hopefully somebody someday will get going and look for it.

  3. Thanks for this excellent essay. I find the authorship controversy to be hypnotically fascinating on three relatively distinct levels: (1) the richness and contextual meaning which attaches to the Shake-speare canon when one realizes who actually wrote it; (2) the biography of Oxford which, given he was Shake-speare, I consider to be one of the most fascinating in all history; and (3), the one you discuss in this essay, the psychology of the Stratfordians and what it is that prevents them from getting outside their group-thinking and seeing what is before their eyes, well maybe if they had eyes with which to see. Sometimes I think (3) is really the most interesting level; your explanation of it in terms of right-brain/left-brain is choice analysis.

  4. I read your blog with passion every time you update. Thank you. I recently finnished teaching a high school class on De Vere. We used “Shakespeare by another name” as the textbook, and by the end of the class, the students were so excited to explore the topic more, we had to discuss another class next year. The most amazing aspect of it was their ability to register the history and important elizabethan characters and place them into the story, whereas with a study of Statford, they all fall into the background and are not very interesting. We used a few of your essays on Smith and the students were very very appreciative.
    Keep on digging!

  5. I understand why you’re through reading and responding to Stratfordian arguments, but I DID enjoy your concise summary of the futility of engagement on their terms. You’ve served your time holding candles up in the darkness and having them blown out.

    I agree, it’s more productive and interesting to move forward and let those follow who will. No reason hanging out in a dark cave squabbling when the sun is finally out.

  6. Thanks for your comments. It’s these (and the stats that WordPress provides that show upwards of 100 hits a day, occasionally a good deal more) that keep me going. The criticisms keep me thinking and struggling to word things more clearly. The pats on the back make doing it worthwhile.

    There’s considerably more to come. It just takes time.

  7. “The major problem, as I have come to realize, is that students of literature never attempt to relate what they know of the history of the period (not so much nowadays it would appear) to its literature, its writers, their publishers and printers, nor do they think to relate the mysteries of an earlier period with similar situations closer to us in time.”

    Wrong. A wide range of leading scholars have been doing precisely that for decades, proving through historical, cultural, biographical and literary/linguistic analysis that William of Stratford wrote the plays – without the slightest skertrick of doubt. Why are there so many local historical and linguistic references that could only have come from someone intimate with Warwickshire? Why did Ben Jonson, a working acotr and playwright who knew Shakespeare personally, praise him and his work if he wasn’t responsible.

    Why are there so many different non-Stratford candidates? Because there isn’t conclusive evidence for any of them – people just love a conspiracy theory. The idea that silly amateurs can overturn the intelligent, creative, flexible and non-obsessive scholarly labours of years is laughable – as is your website.

    Bate, Wells, Shapiro and many others – scholars who have spent their lives studying the issues in depth, with all the historical and cultural understandning of the period cant be undone by a loony fringe.

  8. Generally I simply trash negative comments, but since this one contains actual questions on several important points, it’s worth a response.

    Indeed, orthodox scholars have been using history for some 400 years to prove (to themselves) that William of Stratford actually wrote the works that bear his name, but that they failed is obvious, for had they succeeded the authorship question would never have arisen in the first place––or, if it had, it would no longer be an issue.

    The very fact that they haven’t been able to resolve the major anomalies, all of which cry out “Cover-up!” is proof in and of itself that whatever they’ve been doing, it hasn’t been examining history in any truly relevant way, including what must have been the atmosphere for an artist attempting to write under the repressions of the English Reformation. Where is there so much as a mention of the Reformation by any literary critic or historian? That would be like discussing the Manhattan Project without any mention of World War II, or the authorship of the Federalist papers without mentioning the American Revolution.

    Proof of evidence of a Warwickshire accent? How can a few words here and there compare to the fact that Oxford was raised by one of England’s leading Greek and Latin scholars, Greek and Latin being the source for what Carolyn Spurgeon places at 80 percent of the 3,000 or so words invented by Shakespeare (or at least used by him for the first time in print).

    Why would Jonson lie? From 1598 until his death in 1637, Ben Jonson was a working member of the theater company that made their fortunes on Shakespeare’s writing. Every bit of evidence that connects the name William Shakespeare with the London Theater comes from this company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, later the King’s Men. The identity of the aristocratic goose that laid their golden eggs for them was a company secret, one that it was Jonson’s duty as Court poet to set in stone with the publication of the First Folio.

    Why are there so many candidates? Because the trail that leads to the true author that was so successfully hidden by the LCMen and their Court patrons is only different in impact from the trail that leads to at least two of these candidates, and how they were also hidden, and for the same reasons. Most of the other candidates, first Bacon, then Marlowe, now Mary Sidney, even Derby, can be shown to be closely connected in one way or another to Oxford, as are the minor writers Robert Greene, John Lyly, and Anthony Munday, and as writers like Edmund Spenser, Thomas Nashe, and John Webster can be connected to the other candidates. If you really care about this issue, you can find a good deal of information right here on this site, as well as a great willingness to respond to genuine questions.

    As for your use of the word conspiracy: Who was killed or hurt in any way by the hiding of Shakespeare’s identity? If you believe that the secrecy that Steve Jobs imposes on the men and women who work for him and who are loyal to Apple are “conspirators,” then perhaps we can understand your use of the word. But if what you really mean is that it was a conspiracy against the Reformation establishment, then I’ll have to agree that this was indeed a conspiracy created to keep alive the ancient merrymaking response to the seasons that Londoners were so desperately in need of in the late 16th century. Do any of those who seem so eager to defend the Stratford myth really wish that these folks had failed in their underground efforts to keep alive the spirit of Christmas, of May day, of Midsummer’s Eve, of Halloween? I don’t think so. The truth is that they don’t know that this was the great issue behind the writing and producing of these plays because they haven’t paid enough attention to either the history of 16th- and 17th-century politics or the politics of 16th- and 17th-century history.

    As for myself and others being members of a “loony fringe,” please note that (almost) all the important advances made in Shakespeare studies from the very beginning have been made by independent scholars (Malone, Steevens, Halliwell-Phillips, Chambers), some also ignored and laughed at by the Academy until public pressure finally forced them to take notice of Shakespeare’s works in the late 19th century. So it’s hardly surprising that they’re still dragging their feet on his identity.

  9. Stephanie,

    I understand your frustration with the academy–I’ve more than a little myself, based on years of first-hand tribal experience. But aren’t you, in your refusal to take Stratfordian objections seriously, simply repeating what academics have done to you and your fellow anti-Stratfordians for over a century? It seems to me that this kind of, well, throwing one’s hands up in the air will only result in further polarization of the various constituents of the argument. Full disclosure: I read Shapiro, and found him interesting and thorough as a researcher. But certainly you could–and perhaps should–argue with him rather than dismissing the very idea of his book out of hand. He argued with Oxfordians, after all. You should take him on! Don’t let the other side have the last word! Give them the respect they ought to give you. Yeah, I know they don’t. But intellectual integrity is, I think, what’s at stake. As well as winning the argument.


    Gayle M.

  10. Hi Gayle,

    Like I said at some length in my blog, it’s really just a question of been-there-done-that. I’ve been researching the authorship question now for almost 25 years, and for a good half that time I haven’t heard a single new thing from the other side. Why would I want to take the time I so much need to communicate what I’ve learned and to continue to research where I still have questions by reading something that 1) I’ve read and heard numerous times already and 2) know all too well that my response will never get answered or paid the slightest attention? What I did do was pass along links to two reviews of his book that offer readers what seemed to me to be intelligent responses. That took very little time, and offered what I don’t have time (or the energy) to do myself.

    The problem is point of view. They argue the case from their point of view, we argue it from ours. We know their point of view, it’s the one we all grew up with, but they don’t know what our point of view is because they simply refuse to examine it. When we get them in a corner, they simply swear at us, or return to a previous position. They’re the ones with the bully pulpit, but all they do with it is repeat the same arguments over and over, or praise each other for how well they’ve put the case this time.

    What good does it do to inform myself of Shapiro’s opinion of what makes an anti-Stratfordian tick? I’m not interested in what makes me and other authorship scholars behave the way we do. I’m interested first in who wrote the Shakespeare canon and second why his identity was hidden. When it sounds like Shapiro might have something interesting to say on that subject, I’ll be happy to read anything he writes.

    But by all means, if you think that he makes an interesting point of some sort, let me know. I’ll be glad to respond because you’re willing to take a look at things from our point of view, as he so obviously is not.

  11. So glad I found your site! I’ll be coming back as I research my play (just as you suggested).

    Fascinating, what I’ve read so far. I certainly understand your view of academia. During my doctoral research I only made my views known to a single professor. He didn’t agree with me, but I knew he was willing to disagree (especially since we disagreed on pretty much everything). He also encouraged me to keep my opinions to myself as I moved on, just in case. (I didn’t follow that advice too well, I’m afraid.)

    Academia is not the only place where this kind of closed thinking occurs. Most scholars–like ordinary people–find it hard to admit they might be wrong. We would rather be proven right, lauded for our depth of understanding, etc., than admit the last 400 years of research may have been in the wrong direction.

    I cannot say I am absolutely convinced Oxford is the author, but I find his story infinitely more compelling than that of Shakspere. I’ve adored the plays for 25 years, but biographies always left me dry until I came across Oxford’s. I look forward to delving into the rest of these entries as I research. Thanks!

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