Sunday, January 15, 2012

Academics, Oxfordians, and Agnostics

This is my last completed authorship post--I left off here over a year ago. After this, I hope to go back to Othello, and finish up the authorship series at some later date. There's obviously a lot more to be said about de Vere and the Oxfordian phenomenon than I was able to do here...but this is it for now.

The last chapter of my authorship series deals with the most recent--and currently most popular--alternative candidate: Edward de Vere, the seventeenth Earl of Oxford. Sounds impressive, doesn't it? Lots better than Will Shakespeare, Country Bumpkin of Humble Origins and Dubious Educational Qualifications.

So right there you see what's up. The Greatest Playwright in English, the Father of English Literature (sorry, Geoffrey, but no one reads Middle English, so you're SOL) must have been, surely has to have been, a nobleman. Now you may wonder why, in this democratic era, we still have a romantic attachment to social hierarchies from which the vast majority of us would have been excluded.

Personally, I chalk it up to the cultural one-two punch of Hollywood and romance novels. We just can't accept the idea that Shakespeare, whose words populate our lamest political speeches and most boring high school English classes, was just some middle-class guy who read a lot of books and had a totally awesome imagination.

No, he must have been...a pirate! Or at least captured by pirates! He must have hobnobbed (or maybe been illegitimately born to!) royalty. He must have had father and inheritance issues. He must have traveled all over the world to get ideas for his plays, because everyone knows you can't tell a story unless it's about something that really happened to you.

I'll say it again: If that were the case, most of the stuff in the fiction section of the library wouldn't exist. Or, if it did, it would be really poorly written.

Okay, you've got me there. A lot of the stuff on library shelves is poorly-written.  But seriously, writing is damned hard work, even if you're talented. I myself am a capable writer. And to get even this good required a hell of a lot of toil. I labored in the dark dungeon of academic prose for decades, until I barely knew how to talk, much less write, like a normal person. Then, after barely escaping with my sanity, I frolicked in the forest of fiction for awhile; while I didn't produce any deathless works of imaginative genius, I did manage to remember how real people think and speak. After leaving academics, I did a fair amount of commercial writing--ads, web content, business letters for various folks/firms in need of persuasive verbiage. In short, I've been writing most of my adult life, and occasionally getting paid pretty well for it.

And I still only write this well! But my point is this. A person who lives a thrilling, intrigue-filled life involving pirate capture and dangerous liaisons with capricious people in power would hardly have the time--or probably the inclination--to spend hours, days, weeks and years staining his fingers with ink in order to entertain and educate the rest of the world.  With a few exceptions, the nobility have tended to lack the imagination and fortitude necessary to leave a lasting mark on literary culture. They just aren't brought up to work hard.

That's not an argument, by the way. Just an observation.

Well, anyway.  On to Oxford.  Now it's been my experience that the Oxfordian crowd is a passionate, sometimes angry, and virulently anti-academic bunch. There are tons of books and websites out there promoting the Earl as the real Shakes-peare. Don't get me started on this hyphenation business--it's as annoying as the cipher-hunting, and just as silly.  I shall not be discussing it. Not to-day, not to-morrow. Not any-time. Because as a scholar of Middle English, I can't be bothered with silly ideas based on modern notions of orthographic consistency, or a flawed understanding of Renaissance printing.  That sub-ject is closed.

In order to fore-stall (okay, I'll stop) any unnecessary unpleasantness, I've prepared a Disclaimer for Oxfordian Readers. I don't imagine I have many, since this blog is really about the plays, not their origins, but just in case, here it is:

Despite my admitted lack of enthusiasm for the whole authorship question, I am not "against" your candidate. It would be thrilling if he were proved to be the actual Bard. I love historical revisionism if it's based on new information rather than ideological fantasy or academic retaliation.

Moreover, despite my fancy-schmancy degree and ivory-tower background, I am not in the "academic camp," either. I've got my own quarrels with the mythology of intellectual freedom and the Great Conversation. It's pretty much all crap. And hypocrisy, too. Many acclaimed academics--Stephen Greenblatt, for example--have written things just as speculative, improbable, and absurd as any anti-Stratfordian out there. And frankly it's just unfair that he's enshrined (intellectually entombed?) at Harvard and you all have only the blogosphere for your kingdom. I am not being sarcastic here--I mean it.

No, my quarrel is only with your logic. Because really, as interesting as they are, there is no evidence to support these claims. There is some coincidence, some correlation of events, and so on. But taking a coincidence for a cause is how people came up with ideas like Spontaneous Generation, remember.  As it turns out, the sun doesn't "breed maggots in a dead dog," but for centuries it certainly looked that way.
I have to say, there's more evidence for the Stratford Man than any of these other contenders. Contemporary praise from people like Ben Jonson, Thomas Heywood, John Webster and others certainly argues for Will. As does the power of the signature itself. No one has ever presented a convincing argument for "Shakespeare" as a pseudonym. Or a convincing argument that the use of pseudonyms was common--in the earliest era of printing, there was, if anything, even more anxiety about the veracity of "signatures" than there is today. But none of this is completely unequivocal "proof." It's just strong circumstantial evidence.

So, rather than take sides, I'm going to proclaim myself an Authorship Agnostic. This is not the coward's way.  It's a philosophical exercise in something sorely lacking on both sides of this dust-up: humility. Unless one can go back in time, it's impossible to be certain about very much in the way of historical fact. It could all be a conspiracy! Or the work of some Cartesian Evil Demon. I'm willing to concede that evidence may someday make this whole business clearer, perhaps to the advantage of Oxford or someone else. But I haven't seen that evidence yet.

In the meantime, I'm comfortable with uncertainty. Always have been. I have no problem with ambiguity, ambivalence, indeterminacy, and all that. I am, in the face of Universal Unknowables, humble.  Because without uncertainty, irony would be impossible. And irony is, hands down, my very favorite trope.

Um, that was meant to be ironic.

Anyway, with this in mind, I'm going to continue my exploration of the authorship controversy as a cultural phenomenon. I'm more interested in what it says about modernity, about our romance with the past, than I am in uncovering some infinitely receding historical truth.  In other words, I'm not going to argue here--at least not much. There are lots of Oxfordian sites, and a few devoted to proving that Bacon or Marlowe was the real Bard. I've provided links to those here on the blog, so you can delve into the fray yourself, if you're so inclined. My interests lie elsewhere.

Next:  Freud and Looney (and no, I'm not going to make a joke out of it)

No, next is Othello, and the erotic allure of travelogues. Freud, Looney, and the rest of the Oxfordian melodrama will have to wait, at least until we're back from our tragic Cyprian vacation.


  1. Hi Gayle

    Hope you're well.

    Thought this link might be of interest to you:

    Your writing deserves to be shared as widely as possible.



    P.S. You don't have an option to "like" your blog on Facebook (unless I'm stupidly missing it), but I'll nevertheless link to it.

    1. Hi Jonathan, Nice to hear from you! As you see, I've not been keeping up with the blog...I have a post in the works, but it seems to take forever to muster the will to finish these days. Perhaps the old magic will return soon! Thanks for the link--it didn't post here as a link for some reason (perhaps some spam filter thing), but I've got it in my email, so I will check it out. Oh, and as for Facebook, I think you can click on "share" at the top and it will give you an option for FB and Twitter. Thanks for thinking of me--I've about despaired of getting a larger readership--or maybe I'm just too lazy to work for it! In any case, I hope to post something on Iago's villainy soon...okay, maybe "soon-ish." Again, thanks for checking in; I hope you are well and enjoying the spring over there across the pond.

  2. I know what you mean about finding the time to do things!

    Meant to also add another link, which is Also has a good and freely downloadable book on the authorship question (not that it *is* in question, as far as I'm concerned!). Both sites, I think, are possible conduits for disseminating your work more widely.

    I found the facebook thing about 5 mins after messaging you and linked to it, as follows: "A Chaucerian academic blogs Shakespeare. Always erudite, witty and genuinely thought-provoking." Someone's already followed the link and said how much they like the pages.

    Not so much spring here as incessant torrential rain!