Friday, March 11, 2011

A Wounded Name

 I promised to post some of my "authorship" stuff from last summer--from the old blog--when I'm too busy to put up any new Othello material. This has been a busy week, and I've got a cold, so here's the first of my series on authorship. Back to Othello in a day or two.

Oh God, Horatio, what a wounded name,
Things standing thus unknown, shall live behind me!
A prophetic soul, indeed. When Hamlet speaks these lines in Act 5, he’s dying and worried about his reputation. “Report me and my cause aright,” he tells Horatio. Tell them I was a good guy, don’t let them jump to conclusions based on scanty evidence. The proponents of “alternative Shakespeares” have traditionally seized upon this dramatic plea as “proof” that their guy (Bacon, Marlowe, De Vere, or some lesser-known contender) was the real Bard, putting his own worried words in his character’s mouth.

At their worst, these theories reduce Shakespeare’s most famous characters to ventriloquist’s dummies, mere mouthpieces through which the “real” Shakespeare reveals his (hitherto encrypted) identity.  As if all literature is really just autobiography in disguise. They kind of have to make that argument, though, since the historical record is absolutely silent on the validity of any of these claims.

No, I’m not going to make a “Stratfordian” argument here.  At least not today.  I’m going to talk about why this whole controversy confuses me, and makes me sad. Because I don’t think any of these conspiracy theorists really appreciates the plays. In fact, I doubt they’ve really read them as literature—they’re too busy looking for “clues.”

And that’s, well, tragic. Hyperbolically speaking.

The “Truth” is Out There

In some cases, way out there.  We’re talking cryptography machines, government cover-ups, incestuously-conceived offspring of putatively virgin queens, and so on.  It’s a wild ride, reading through this stuff.  Part X-Files, part Jerry Springer. I came unwillingly to the “authorship controversy,” I’ll admit. And even now, when I’ve decided to devote several posts (there’s just too much to write about in just one) to the topic, it still grates a little.  Partly because it was never ever discussed in any of my college English classes, so part of me—the snooty academic who still lurks behind my populist facade—really doesn’t think it’s a valid subject for argument.

There, I’ve said it. I always thought it was kind of a fringy topic, like Area 51 or the Chariots of the Gods. Or, more insidiously, the idea that the government caused AIDS, or the moon landing was a fake, or the Bush Administration staged 9/11.  And I’ll tell you right now, I don’t believe in any of those things. Not even a little.

Okay, maybe Area 51, a teensy bit. But only because I’m a sci-fi nerd.

But then, a few months ago, an old friend whom I hadn’t heard from in about a decade—a friend who graduated from the same swanky Ph.D. program that ate up my youth—came out of the closet. No, not that one. I mean the Oxfordian closet.  At that time I barely knew what “Oxfordian'” meant. My first inclination was to think that he’d become some kind of rabid Anglophile.  But then I remembered an article I’d read in the Atlantic, or some similarly prissy scandal sheet, about how some people think a dissolute 16th century aristo really “wrote Shakespeare.” Those people, I should point out, include Sigmund Freud, several Supreme Court justices (past and present) and a handful of pretty famous Shakespearean actors.

So I decided anyone who writes a “Shakespeare blog,” even with as modest a readership as this one boasts, is intellectually—not to say morally—obliged to address the topic.

But where to start? I knew next to nothing about any of this. I decided to start where the whole dispute starts. With biography.  And why I just don’t care about it.

Ironically, in order to properly address this topic, I have to write a little bit about my past.

The Abridged Bio of an Anti-Biographist

First, I am born.  Later, I went to fourteen, count ‘em, 14 grade schools. That means that sometimes, I changed cities and houses and schools two or three times in one year! It wreaked havoc on my math skills. And, more devastatingly, my interpersonal ones. But I’m a (relatively) sane person who pretty much came out of it okay.

Because of books.  I never had many friends, and my four brothers were living in Guyville (a place to which I never gained admission), so I read books. All the time.  Everything I learned about life came from books.  Of course, this led to some pretty disappointing moments as an adult. You see, in books, justice always triumphs, if only by showing how unjust things are. Love conquers all. Bad people are punished—with scorn and ignominy, if nothing else—and good people are noble, brave, and loyal. There are moral victories in the face of defeats.

I guess you probably know that life is seldom, if ever, like that.

As great as books are, however, they are written by flawed people.  Sometimes seriously flawed (Eliot, Pound, Rousseau, Hemingway, etc. etc.). Do I really want to know that Tolstoy treated his wife as a servant? That Coleridge was a drug addict? That Yeats was a fascist?

Not especially.  It’s not that I think these guys should remain “innocent,” that they should be revered and protected from history. I’m just not really interested in their personal lives. The wonderful thing about homo sapiens is that we can imagine other, better worlds than the one we currently inhabit.  If we’re lucky, our imaginations exceed the more sordid/shameful/unhappy facts of our lives.  When I think about Chaucer, scratching out narrative poems by candlelight amid all that nasty, brutish, short-livedness that was medieval England, I think about that. Imagination.

Yep, I’m a card-carrying humanist.

So I have to say, I don’t have a big investment in who the “real” Shakespeare was, except as it touches on this one subject. Because it seems to me that a lot of these conspiracy theorists base their whole argument on the premise that a person can’t write about things he’s never experienced. To me, this disparages the very best thing about literature, and art in general. Imagination. Will Shakespeare wasn’t an aristocrat, so he couldn’t know anything about court life. He wasn’t captured by pirates. He hadn’t been to Italy. He’d never practiced law.

Please. If real-life experience were a prerequisite for story-telling, the vast majority of genres wouldn’t exist. No romance written by the love-starved. No science fiction written by anyone. No vampire stories! No Thousand and One Nights! No crime fiction, unless it was written by criminals.

So that’s a big problem for me.  That and, um, the absolute lack of any historical evidence to support these claims. Because I’m not only a humanist, I’m an empiricist, too.

That said, there is a lot that’s interesting about this whole controversy. It really says more about who we are, we modern people, than who “Shakespeare” was.  So I’m going to jump right in and take a look at the whole thing, starting from the evidence for “the Stratford man,” next time.

Who knows? Maybe, along the way, I’ll change my mind about everything.

So that was my first authorship post. Expect the next one sometime in the near future--whenever I'm too busy or sniffly to write something new. Next time, back to the play.


  1. Hi, Thanks for your honest and erudite commentary on this fascinating topic.

    Please don't feel sorry that Shakespeare authorship skeptics are missing all the fun. I adore the work -- I read it, see it, hear it, breathe it, devour it.

    You say you don't care about writers' private lives, but I do because I want to know how they did it! And why they did it.

    You say that seeking the author denigrates the muse -- but this is not true! The muse is much deeper than "imagination". The muse is transformation!

    Shakespeare built a language from the raw material of law, Latin, Greek, French, and libraries of sources. To say his art was merely his imagination doesn't do justice to his power.

  2. Point taken. But there's nothing "mere" about imagination. Without it, science, history, and every other human endeavor would be impossible. The ability to imagine is what separates us from the beasts. Imagination means imagining a better world,imagining a past we haven't lived, imagining cures for diseases and working to bring them to life. It's the rough magic that grounds us and lifts us up beyond ourselves. It's never, ever "mere," as far as I'm concerned. But perhaps we are simply quibbling over terminology...because imagination, to me, makes "transformation"--the alchemy of art--possible. Thanks, in any case, for engaging with the blog!

  3. Yes, quibbling, perhaps. But you can't cure a disease until you've had organic chemistry. Imagination cannot create French grammar, or the arcane rules of English law, or bone-deep knowledge of Ovid, or any of the specific wisdoms that the plays reveal Shakespeare knew. To use the term "imagination" to cover the gaping hole in the Stratford man's biography is unconvincing and irresponsible to your own intelligence.

  4. Um, I really don't want to get into sniping at anyone's intelligence here--yours, mine, or Will's (whoever he may have been). This is precisely why I tend to avoid the authorship question--things get personal. Have you read Shapiro? I think he answers your questions pretty well. And he's intelligent--well-read, educated, etc. too. I came to this blog as a former professional Chaucerian (you can look me up), and actually, I wouldn't call Shakespeare's knowledge of Ovid out of the ordinary for anyone who had even an elementary education in those days (i.e., 14th to 16th centuries). Chaucer, who wasn't a nobleman, as you know, knew lots more about Ovid, French romance, etc. than this guy. And the kind of "law" used in the plays isn't at all arcane. So I respectfully disagree. But please let's keep it respectful! I understand that you feel passionately about this. I respect that. You may even be right! But I don't think the evidence is there. And one can't make a convincing argument from a negative presupposition.

    Oh, and perhaps you already know about it, but Stephanie Hughes has a really good blog (Politicworm) from the Oxfordian perspective. I've exchanged a few notes with her, and find her to be really informed on the historical aspects of the question. I still don't agree with her conclusions, but that's okay. I respect how much work she's put into her research. Well, again, thanks for reading. Hope you find some of the other posts more to your liking and/or interest.

  5. Chaucer makes my point: he was well educated, lived at court, traveled widely and his life is well-documented -- none of which can be said of the Stratford man. As far as impugning your intelligence, that was by no means my intention; on the contrary, I meant to laud your obvious intelligence and fine writing skills.

  6. Personally, I think all the plays were collaboratively written. I argue that in some detail in my last authorship post, which I won't be putting up here for awhile. I don't believe in the "single genius" theory of history, or of Shakespeare. I use the name "Will," because it's too cumbersome to write "The Shakespeare Team" every time I want to say something about the author. I believe collaborative authorship makes sense given what we know about renaissance drama--collaborative composition also allows for a lot of input from a lot of different sources. But I'll get into that more the meantime, I'm going to post a link to Stephanie's site. If you know of any others that seem authoritative and useful, I'll gladly link to those too.

  7. Hi Gayle (and Linda!),

    I will be blogging a full response to this fascinating post and discussion shortly. But I'll just make one remark:

    Having spent twenty years studying the Shakespearean canon from the perspective of authorship, I am very confident that the plays were not "collaboratively written" in the sense most people might take that phrase. Its quite conceivable to me that some of the plays, particularly the comedies, were conceived in a collaborative atmosphere of jesting among a select circle that could have included at least during some composition periods Thomas Nashe and sundry others. But as an ouevre it is apparent to me that the works bear the distinctive imprint of one "single genius." Sorry, but name me another transcendent literary artist who took frequent consultation with us mere volunteers.

    There are some loose edges around the canon, that is obvious, and parts of certain plays were no doubt patched by other hands, but the evidence for active collaboration in the writing stage is nil.

    True, drama tends to be a much more collaborative genre than others. Sure, Thomas More was written and rewritten, but that is probably an outlier -- it was a highly charged, topically controversial play that kept getting sent back for revision, with a lot of people's hands in it.

    Or you might take Eastward Ho, a work so cunningly co-written that its often difficult to tell where Marston ends and Jonson begins. But in the main, I have to say that the collaboration theory doesn't say much to me. It is, however, understandable as a response to contemporary anxieties about authorship, which is I think its primary genesis and significance in the 21st century.

    I do agree with you, on the other hand, in questioning the "single genius" theory on another level. There is no doubt in my mind that the author of these plays was deeply connected in all kinds of interesting ways not only to the other voices of literary history -- Ovid, the Bible, Plutarch, etc, -- but to the contemporary web of Elizabethan writers who inspired, challenged, and played with him. Nashe probably being the most important. He was no island unto himself. But he was a giant who cast a long shadow, often preferred the privacy of his own study to write, and did not suffer fools gladly.

    Enough. Thanks for the very thoughtful blog.

  8. I admit to being influenced by Brian Vickers here (Shakespeare,Co-Author), and by the general acceptance in academic circles of the collaborative authorship of Timon, Two Noble Kinsmen, and Pericles...but I admit, have always admitted in writing this blog, that I am not a professional Shakespearean. My intent here has always been to read Shakespeare as an educated but not expert outsider--a good reader of literature who tries to see what these plays might still have to say to regular people who read...but don't necessarily read Great Works.

    That said, I don't think any of these theories of authorship--mine included--would meet scientific standards of proof. As the daughter of a scientist, I guess I still adhere to that standard in questions of this sort. Ultimately, we all have "our Shakespeare," and nothing I write here will change that! But I do find the debate stimulating. And personally I love the idea of collaborative authorship--but I admit it's the legacy, partly, of my training in literary theory in the 1980's.

    So, Doc, I can't claim to have studied this question for 20 years--maybe 20 weeks! And in that sense, I yield to your much greater erudition on the subject. Likewise, Linda, I really haven't given the kind of thought you have to the authorship question--nor do I share the passionate investment you both have in the matter. The play's always been the thing for me--I'm basically a New Critic who has read a lot of philosophy, but is not by any means a professional historian...or even a philologist as we medievalists understand the title.

    But thanks so much for debating this here, and sharing your knowledge, passion, and ideas with me. Although I wrote these authorship posts last summer, I will definitely be doing some editing to take account of this discussion before I post any of the others.

    Wistful aside: I wish I could get as much interest in the literary posts as the authorship ones--but I guess that's just the Zeitgeist, yes?

    Thanks again to you both for engaging with my (decidedly un-scholarly) musings here.

  9. Thank you, Gail, for your offer to share information about websites and weblogs on the authorship question. Our local Shakespeare study group in Michigan has a blog that contains many excellent site referrals in the sidebar. The URL for our group is:

    Some of my favorites are:
    Hank Whittemore at
    Mark Anderson at
    Nina Green at
    Diana Price at
    Bill Boyle at
    and Roger Stritmatter's site on Shakespeare's Bible at

    Of course the national organizations: the Shakespeare Oxford Society, the Shakespeare Fellowship, the De Vere Society in England, and the New Shakespeare Society in Germany ( all have informative sites.

  10. Thanks for all the info, Linda. I'll go through those in a day or so--I redesigned the blog so that I could display links more prominently--but probably I'll have to divide "Shakespeare links" into two categories, since there are so many authorship sites, and relatively few literary ones.

    Btw, I'm in Michigan, too!

  11. Please join us at Oberon when you can.

  12. Thanks, Linda. I'm here in A2 being a mom, but if I ever get over your way when you have a meeting, I'll be happy to stop by. I've added your site to my list.