Why I don’t argue with academics

I certainly have argued with them 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 during the nineties on 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 the “he says-she says” going (in Jenson’s case, forever, it would seem). Egan, having risen to the ultimate in academic status, is now one of the worthies on the team that, under the august auspices of the OUP (Oxford University Press), claims that parts of the Henry VI plays were written by Christopher Marlowe!

For a long time I argued just 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 these 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 slammed (virtual) door, or a silence followed by a retreat to a familiar position of safety. I recalled the saying: “If the facts are against you, argue the law. If the law is against you, argue the facts. If the law and the facts are against you, pound the table!” The table where the academics who draw their status and their livings from the Stratford myth have addressed the question of who was actually capable of writing the plays, has been pounded into splinters.

Over time it’s become clear that the major problems derive from blind spots, blank sections in the record, some of an amazing scope, many occurring just where there should be evidence of literary or theatrical activity. Why did/does the Academy ignore these obviously missing puzzle pieces? It seemed as though such things, things so glaringly obvious to me, were/are simply invisible to them. They ignore them for the simple reason that they simply can’t see the blanks. The academic ability to reason moves along a single track; it does not, because it cannot, recognize where the track vanishes, but moves right on to the next item without noticing that there’s a hiatus. I can only attribute this to a total reliance on left-brain thinking. Having observed the right brain-left brain syndrome at work in American society since early childhood, only later did I learn enough about the differences between these two sections of the brain, separate but entwined, to see how modern education has rendered literary studies impervious to anything but left brain thinking. Understanding began when my mother had a left-brain stroke, with what I could see that meant in terms of what she could still do and what she she was no longer able to 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 both America and Britain, inherited from a formula developed by Erasmus in the early sixteenth century, whatever it may have been originally, has become dominated by left-brain thinking.

While this is appropriate in areas like math and science (though without right-brain oversight, they too can wind up on some awfully unproductive tangents), it’s seriously misplaced in history, literature, and the arts, where it can turn them into piles of dry facts, drained of their fire and life, their human interest, their emotion, their stories.   I am reminded of an old Southwest American Indian saying passed around during the 1960s regarding the Native-American 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 weren’t merely informed about Henry V, they heard him speak, they experienced his life. Soon, adopting tricks learned from watching (and writing) plays, novelists began to create the periodical press by writing and publishing stories for what till then had been chiefly devoted to sermonizing.

As I began to see how dominated were the Academy and 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 simply gone. It wasn’t through a single stroke, but a series of itty bitty little stroke, dealt every day, by teachers who fed them answers, rubrics, terms and forms, 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 humor was and still is a leading factor, 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 could be read as 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 that of one Stratfordian prof years ago during one of our rare 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 lude (in Latin simply fun, in Reformation English: lewd), 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 fun-loving, pun-loving 16th-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 grins and giggles to vanish, they don’t get it.

Most authorship scholars get it. Shakespeare’s audiences 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. They are the literary color blind who, constitutionally unable to distinguish between left brain based black and white facts and right brain poetic color, simply can’t get it, which is why I simply won’t argue with them anymore.

9 responses to “Why I don’t argue with academics

  1. Nic Panagopoulos

    You don’t need to argue with them. They are immovable in their prejudices and the cognitive dissonance of having to understand the realities of the Oxfordian view of the authorship question and, even more importantly the period, would shake their world to pieces. Just carry on with your admirable research and future generations will slowly start to question the entirely unsubstantiated received wisdom of the Bard.

  2. You’re talking about the English professors, who focus entirely on the Text, not the Play, which is the preserve of Theatre professors. They don’t get involved in the authorship in any way other than – how does it change the way they produce the plays? If we can show them that, they may become interested.

    Sadly, the History professors also won’t get involved in the authorship, likely due to territorial claims. Shakespeare is all the English departments have, and they won’t have another academic discipline poach on their preserve or call it into question.

  3. Have spear — will shake.

    Thank you for this, which –along with good ol’ traffic directions– shows us there is yet sense in telling Left from Right.

  4. We all have to struggle with this dilemma in our own ways. I was enjoying a respectful email exchange with one scholar for a few years (we were paper partners at a Shakespeare Association of America meeting) until he told me, “The problem with you Oxfordians is that you don’t have a single electron of evidence.”

    That was the end of our correspondence. But other Shakespeare scholars have continued dialogues with me.

    And we ought to keep in mind that some of us Oxfordians are in academia.

    • Yes, of course, and many thanks to you and so many other “academics” who have contributed to a more realistic version of English literary history. The problem once again lies with the terminology that has been forced on us by the Academy. Because the major block to a fruitful discussion of the Authorship Question is the name Shakespeare, I’ve taken to calling the Stratford proxy “William of Stratford,” explaining that the man who deserves the great name should be the man who actually made it famous. And because it’s also necessary to remove Stratford from its present locus as the center of Shakespeare Studies (shifting it to London which is where it belongs), I must reject all terms that derive from Stratford, such as “anti-Stratfordian” (I am an Authorship Scholar!), as well as the term “anti-Stratfordian.”

      What then do I call the community that continues to regard Stratford as the center of the Shakespeare universe? It’s got to be something that conveys its source within the Academy and something that is easily understood by most readers, which is why I’ve come up with “academic,” used in the same sense that when used as an adjective it’s understood to mean “commonly accepted” (but not necessarily true). I admit that this is awkward, and unduly rude to genuine scholars, but if you can suggest a better, I will be happy to use it instead. It’s time we began eliminating Stratford as anything but the hometown of the great Shakespeare’s proxy.

  5. Well, there are various choices which we Oxfordians use. I like “Shakspere” versus “Shake-speare” as the author’s pen name was spelled on many early editions. I sometimes use “Shake-Speare” to remind people that’s how the master of ambiguity, Ben Jonson, once spelled it.

    And I like to call the mainstream followers of group think faith-based anti-Oxfordians.

    In my opinion, it’s a mistake to try to impose any uniformity on a bunch of independent mavericks such as us Oxfordians.

  6. I have no intention of trying to impose anything on my fellow mavericks. I never have. But because I’m interested in all the writers who used pseudonyms and proxies, I like to call us Authorship Scholars. In my view we won’t have the full truth about Shakespeare until we include writers like Bacon, Marlowe, Jonson, the Sidneys, etc. plus their patrons, in our studies. Oxford may have been the leader of this literary revolution, but he wasn’t the only one involved, and his story will not be complete until we know a lot more about these others and their relationships to Oxford.

  7. Always enjoy your posts Stephanie.

    I fully understand your frustration. I became embroiled in a lengthy online skirmish with an ivory-headed, party line-totin’ academic. I said the traditional argument and evidence for Stratford Will amounted to a very slender reed of proof, and offered, by way of contrast, the hundreds of examples of circumstantial evidence pointing to Oxford.
    ( I used the analogy of the murder-mystery board-game ‘Cluedo’. Basically, if writing the works of Shakespeare were a crime, then Oxford’s fingerprints are all over the murder weapon and his DNA is at the crime scene. In other words, Oxford has not only the temperament, means and motivation, but also the connections and easy access to the various materials needed to pull off the deed.)

    My Stratfordian combatant cheerfully explained to me that even ” a million of these coincidences” wouldn’t amount to a single scrap of evidence worthy to enter the hallowed doors of academia. At this point one realises the Sisyphian nature of the Authorship endeavour! Even a MILLION compelling connections can be glibly ignored and wafted away with a swish of the hand. ( He then had the cheek to state that because a girl drowned picking flowers on the riverbank in a village 15 miles from Stratford upon Avon that it conclusively proved Old Stratford Will wrote Hamlet. The double standards, honestly! Apparently his finding is a FACT, and yet the strikingly precise similarities of many characters from Hamlet to Oxford’s documented life are mere coincidence and inadmissible evidence.)

    So yes, I agree it can be wearying to be called delusional, a conspiracy theorist, or someone short of brains. But I am convinced our Author rings true, is compelling and believeable, and broadens and enriches the experience of Shakespeare on so many levels.
    As I said to my Stratfordian: You really are missing the joke. There’s so much witty intrigue and sly political humour in there – and I pity that all that magnificent intelligence is wasted on you.

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