By the end of the first week of the course, interest was already beginning to flag. The appearance of Alexander Waugh and his worn out arguments about play broking and The Poet Ape gave veterans of the Shakespeare Authorship Question very little to hope for in terms of new content or interesting argument. It was apparent that Barber intended only a generic reconstruction of the standard doubter model, fabricated from the standard wet tissue, featuring the standard distorted representations of the historical record and the standard fanciful interpretations of poetic work from the period, brightly spangled with all the rococo misinterpretations of the historical record that have accreted to Shakespeare scholarship like barnacles to the hull of an ocean liner.

Unusually, week 2 promised to feature analysis of Hand D and the claim that Shakespeare wrote three pages of additions to the play Sir Thomas More. in 2012 we assembled the evidence on Oxfraud. We have had to wait until now, almost 6 years later for any doubter response. Barber, needless to say, ‘doubts’ the connection between Hand D and Shakespeare.

However before we could get down to brass tacks on handwriting, David Kathman, an independent scholar and a long-term veteran of authorship questions kicked off the week's forum debate with a four-part response to the first week. During  the first week, posts by people taking issue with doctrinal anti-Stratfordian nonsense were capriciously deleted by Course Moderators. One went even further and actually opened David's post and edited bits she objected to. That's the way to encourage open debate! The version we post here contains the moderator's edits (we wanted to demonstrate appropriate level of respect)

Why somebody else didn't write Shakespeare

David Kathman

Week 2

I know that this course is presented from an anti-Stratfordian ("non-Stratfordian") perspective, and that those of us who accept the attribution of the plays to the man from Stratford are seen by the instructors as a sort of hostile presence, to be tolerated at best. But I hope that Ros and Robin will permit me to post some excerpts from the chapter on the Shakespeare authorship question that I wrote for The Cambridge Guide to the Worlds of Shakespeare, published by Cambridge University Press in 2016. In them, I summarize the reasons why Shakespeare scholars do not take anti-Stratfordians seriously. I posted a couple of these last week in another thread, but they kind of got lost in the shuffle. This is obviously just a summary, but I thought the people taking the course should have access to the authorship views of a mainstream [edited] Shakespeare scholar. (My credentials are available on request.)

(Part 1)

For anti-Stratfordians, documentary evidence of the type we have just seen takes a back seat to internal "evidence" from the works themselves. They feel entitled to dismiss the documentary evidence because, in their view, William Shakespeare of Stratford was not the type of person who must have written these plays and poems. They typically distort the facts to present a highly negative picture of Shakespeare and his hometown while exaggerating the qualifications of their preferred candidate. These attacks on Shakespeare are ultimately derived from attacks by the earliest Baconians in the nineteenth century, and bear little or no resemblance to the conclusions reached by real historians in the twenty-first century.

Thanks David - brilliant and just was is needed at this point in the course. Anything else I might say would risk this comment being removed. :-)


Joan GreenleafOxfraud

Please, too, can we have an exact reference for the “real historians of the 21st century”?


Alice CrampinCourse participant

Simon Schama would be a good place to start. He says "the authorship question represents a catastrophic failure of imagination on the subject of imagination". Many of the historians I was at university with would go a great deal further. You won't find many, or even any, who disagree.



For example, anti-Stratfordians often depict Stratford as a backward, uncultured town which could never have produced a great writer, and Shakespeare himself as a greedy, semi-literate "grain merchant" with no literary or cultural interests. But even if we arbitrarily set aside all literary and theatrical records from London, Shakespeare's closest friends in Stratford were a cultured, educated, well-connected lot. For example, the surviving correspondence of Richard Quiney, whose son married Shakespeare's daughter, includes the only surviving letter to Shakespeare (written in London while Quiney was visiting the Court on Stratford business), as well as letters in Latin from Quiney's 11-year-old son and his friend Abraham Sturley, a letter inviting Quiney to spend Christmas with Sir Fulke Greville (father of the poet) at Beauchamp's Court, and much else. Thomas Greene, who lived for a time in Shakespeare's house and called him "cousin", was a friend of John Marston and Michael Drayton as well as a lawyer prominent for many years in the Middle Temple, where Shakesperae's Twelfth Night was performed in 1602. Thomas Russell, who was overseer of Shakespeare's will, was the stepfather of Leonard Digges (who wrote a poem to Shakespeare in the First Folio) and Sir Dudley Digges (a prominent mathematician and member of Parliament), and close friend of such literary figures as Sir Tobie Matthew and Endymion Porter.

Anti-Stratfordians typically claim that Shakespeare's plays must have been written by a highly educated nobleman, and that the Stratford man lacked the knowledge and connections to do so. Such claims overstate the knowledge reflected in the plays, and understate the resources available to Shakespeare. The classical scholar J. M. K. Thomson and others have found that Shakespeare actually used remarkably few classical allusions compared to other writers of the time, and that the learning displayed in the plays corresponds to a grammar-school education such as Shakespeare would have received in Stratford. The legal knowledge that Baconians have found so impressive was also fairly typical for that highly litigious age, as such experts as Owen Hood Phillips in Shakespeare and the Lawyers (1972) have found. Elizabethan London was teeming with refugees from continental Europe, and its bookstalls were full of books for learning just about anything under the sun. It is easy for us, 400 years later, to scoff at the idea that a playwright could learn so much from books, plays, and conversation, but others did it; John Webster, who was the son of a coachmaker and never left England, wrote great dramas about Italian courtiers that are still performed today. None of Shakespeare's contemporary writers, or anyone for a century after his death, ever described him as well-educated or learned; on the contrary, he was consistently portrayed as an unlearned natural wit, in contrast to such writers as Ben Jonson, and John Dryden criticized his depiction of courtiers as unrealistic.

A common reaction by newcomers to the Shakespeare authorship question is, "We have Shakespeare's plays and poems. Why on earth does it matter who wrote them?" In some ways, it doesn't matter; those plays and poems are great works of literature and drama regardless of who their author is. Nevertheless, Shakespeare's works have had such an enormous cultural impact across the world that there's a natural tendency, by those on all sides of this issue, to want credit to go to the right person (or people). The problem is how to determine that credit -- how we determine who wrote a work of literature, and more broadly, what happened in the distant past. Mainstream Shakespeare scholars answer such questions with the same methods used for any other historical question from 400 years ago, but anti-Stratfordians reject these methods in favor of assumptions that are arbitrary, anachronistic, and often incoherent.

One problem with many anti-Stratfordian claims is ignorance of historical context. We have already seen some examples, such as the claim that there was "no notice of Shakespeare's death" when Shakespeare was actually the best-memorialized English playwright up to that time. Another good example is the frequent emphasis on the lack of personal information about William Shakespeare of Stratford. Nearly every anti-Stratfordian argument mentions the fact that we have no letters or diaries written by Shakespeare, and that his will does not mention books, manuscripts, or anything else of a literary nature. The implication is that we should expect to find such things for any great writer, and that their absence for Shakespeare is suspicious. However, it is not at all suspicious to historians of early modern English literature and drama. Preserving such documents was not seen as very important in those days, or for generations afterwards; virtually no diaries, letters, or literary manuscripts survive for any middle-class writers of Shakespeare's time, except for a handful that landed by chance in libraries or other institutions. (The one surviving letter written to Shakespeare survived only because its author, Richard Quiney, died in office as bailiff of Stratford, so that his personal papers ended up in the town archives.) Books and manuscripts were rarely mentioned in wills of that era, and are absent from the wills of such learned men as Francis Bacon and Richard Hooker; in any case, the manuscripts of Shakespeare's plays were owned by the King's Men, so they were not his to bequeath.

Another issue is the double standard pervading so much anti-Stratfordian writing. Any facts involving Shakespeare of Stratford are interpreted in the worst possible way, and any evidence for his authorship is dismissed or explained away, while much flimsier "evidence" for alternative candidates such as the earl of Oxford is eagerly embraced. Diana Price's 2001 book Shakespeare's Unorthodox Biographyapplies a similar double standard in comparing Shakespeare with his contemporaries. Price presents the typically hostile, distorted picture of William Shakespeare as a lout and Stratford as a cesspool, while also claiming to demonstrate that Shakespeare's "literary paper trail" is uniquely deficient among poets and playwrights of the time. However, Price's definition of a "literary paper trail" is a bizarrely arbitrary one that would not be used by any working literary historian. She does not count Shakespeare's name on any title pages, or his membership in the acting company that put on the plays; she also excludes any posthumous evidence that is not precisely datable to within a year of the person's death, thus excluding the Basse elegy and the First Folio. The criteria she does use are applied in ways that arbitrarily exclude evidence for Shakespeare. For example, Francis Beaumont's burial in Westminster Abbey counts as "notice at death as a writer", but Shakespeare's Stratford monument does not; Shakespeare's dedications to the earl of Southampton do not count as "evidence of a direct relationship with a patron", but similar printed dedications by Spenser, Lodge, Green, and others do count.

At a deeper level, these distortions and double standards are driven by one of the core beliefs of anti-Stratfordians: that all literature is not just autobiographical, but transparently so, and that it is possible to discern an author's biography and personality from his works, even four centuries after the fact. Anti-Stratfordians tend to take this principle as self-evident, but there are significant problems with it. As James Shapiro has noted, the genre of autobiography did not exist in Shakespeare's day, and the idea of literature as self-revelation was all but unknown. Such an idea was especially foreign for plays; there is no evidence that contemporaries ever looked for confessional allusions in plays, as they sometimes looked for topical allusions (Shapiro, 268-9). This is not to say that Shakespeare never drew on his own personal experiences in writing his plays and poems; undoubtedly he did, but it is impossible for us to tell what is personal and what is not just by reading the plays 400 years later. To the extent that biographers sometimes make inferences from Shakespeare's works, they do so mainly to supplement documentary evidence, but even this is dangerous. T. S. Eliot recognized the unreliability of such guesswork when he wrote that he was used to "having my personal biography reconstructed from passages which I got out of books, or which I invented out of nothing because they sounded well; and to having my biography invariably ignored in what I did write from personal experience" (Eliot 108). If this is true of a twentieth-century figure such as Eliot, it is far more true of a sixteenth-century figure such as Shakespeare. For purposes of attributing authorship, internal evidence of the type used by anti-Stratfordians is so subjective as to be essentially worthless.

Every lover of Shakespeare would like to know more about the person who wrote these timeless dramas and poems, but William Shakespeare of Stratford remains frustratingly elusive on a personal level. Rather than accepting the limitations of the evidence, anti-Stratfordians solve this dilemma by substituting a new, more exciting author. In order to do this, they must toss aside the standards and methods of real historians. They also require elaborate conspiracy theories to explain away all the evidence for the Stratford man, and to explain the absence of any comparable evidence for their alternative candidate. Anti-Stratfordians frequently claim that knowing what they take to be "the truth" about the authorship of Shakespeare's works gives them greater insights and a deeper understanding of those works. This may sound alluring to an outsider, but it actually says more about the beliefs of modern anti-Stratfordians than it does about Shakespeare. Ultimately, such beliefs are based on a combination of historical ignorance and an unwillingness to believe that someone like William Shakespeare of Stratford could have written such great works of drama and poetry. Anti-Stratfordian ideas have never had more than fringe status within the field of Shakespeare studies, and that is not likely to change.

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