Reflections on the Authorship Controversy (15 Years On)  

In which I answer the question: Is it Important?

As I write, I have recently passed the fifteenth anniversary of the dank, chill day in February 1989, when I received a letter from the Shakespeare Authorship Roundtable, a Los Angeles area group made up of partisans of various Shakespeares (even the one from Stratford), inviting me to speak to its members. When I told readers at the Folger Shakespeare Library about this, many gently advised me, don’t do it! This was the opinion of a dozen scholars (“You will become the new Satan of the Oxfordians,” prophesied one) before I got to the first supportive one, who is not a Shakespearean. I took the advice of the latter; first, because it agreed with the advice I had been giving myself; second, because I always trust a man with a nicely twirled moustache.

The reaction of Folger scholars reflects a reason I was invited to speak to the Roundtablers. Academic Shakespeareans have dismissed the authorship controversy or shunned it completely; so of course they would not agree to speak on the subject, and especially not before a group of contras, a breed that has a reputation for being smart-alecky, rude, insulting. I am, however, an independent scholar with neither a peer reputation to defend nor a career to protect. They guessed right when they thought I might be willing to give a talk. But I have a hunch that when I was asked specifically to investigate controversialist scholarship itself, the Oxfordian brand in particular, they were also guessing that, like many of them, I would find it persuasive, convincing and authentic – that I would agree “the man from Stratford” cannot possibly have been the author. There they guessed wrong.

There was something I don’t believe they had quite bargained for: I had been a devotee of plays and the experience of the theater before my affair with Shakespeare began. From the tragic poets of ancient Greece to the drama of Williams, Miller and Anouilh; from the comedy of Aristophanes to Moliere, from the Restoration to Wilde, I loved the way that the stage brought to life the diversity of the human experience over the ages. I didn’t think then, nor do I now, that there is Shakespeare – never mind the rest.

My involvement with Shakespeare attracted me to his contemporaries. I went Off-Broadway and Off-Off Broadway to see such as Massinger’s Roman Actor, Middleton’s Revenger’s Tragedy and Jonson’s Volpone. For many years my favorite production of a classical play was Marlowe’s Dr Faustus. There is not in all of Shakespeare a speech as electrifying as that of Faustus before his descent into Hell. Marlowe wrote a half-dozen daring plays before his death in 1593. The first six plays by Shakespeare, only two-and-a-half months younger than Marlowe, do not compare. In other words, I do not agree the 37 plays that Shakespeare wrote are the greatest of all time. Put another way, I’m not a Shakespeare idolater. Rather, like his first modern critic John Dryden, I admire others, “but I love Shakespeare.”

This then was the man who took a flight to Los Angeles in August 1989. I didn’t get what I bargained for either. Happily. In the two months I spent among the members of the Roundtable, I was never made to feel in the least Satanic. Quite the contrary. Rather than smart-alecky, rude and insulting fanatics, I found myself in the company of warm and gracious people; our conversations were relaxed and cordial without a hint of rancor. This set the tone of my experience of the controversialists in the years since, with few exceptions. There are, as there are bound to be in any group, some lacking in etiquette; a few who are casebook examples of Churchill’s definition of the fanatic: “one who can’t change his mind and won’t change the subject.” They can be especially vexing in the age of the Internet, making madding use of its weapon of mass distraction, email. But for the rest, we at worst most agreeably disagreed.

What seems to confound many is that I am not persuaded by the scholarship that persuaded them the author cannot be “the Stratford man.” One such is a man who had energetically propounded the Oxfordian cause in a newspaper article. I had a conversation with him some months ago and toward the end he urged me several times to “keep an open mind.” I didn’t feel there was any point in suggesting that he might make an effort to do the same. There are no more passionate believers than those who have “seen the light” (and are perhaps blinded by it).

I was aware of this from the outset and began my talk to the Roundtablers in September 1989, with the anecdote about an elderly woman who came up to William James after a lecture on the solar system to dispute his facts:

“We don’t live on a ball rotating around the sun,” she declared; “we live on a crust of earth on the back of a giant turtle.” James politely replied, “If your theory is correct, madam, what does this turtle stand on?” “You’re a very clever man, Mr. James, and that’s a good question, but I can answer that. The first turtle stands on the back of a second, far larger turtle.” When James patiently asked, “But what does this second turtle stand on?” the woman shot back: “It’s no use, Mr James – it’s turtles all the way down.”

I knew to most it was “Oxford all that way down,” and therefore I was not, I assured them, out to change minds – only “to present the facts as I see them.” This has guided me through over all these years and allowed me to enjoy the company of most on the turtle side, and to have only the warmest memories of them. It has also kept me from taking criticism of my writings and disagreements over issues personally.

My experiences with adherents to the cause of Oxford and other rival Shakespeares leave no doubt that they are intelligent people who are unquestionably honest and sincere. I realize that few have access to the resources necessary to do their own research, nor time enough to make good use of them if they did. They must then rely on the facts as they are presented to them in controversialist books and articles, which give every appearance of being well researched, fully and accurately documented scholarship.

So did it appear to me – but I soon learned the appearance was deceiving. It brought to mind a remark I read a year earlier in a New Yorker article about the moot of William Shakespeare v Edward De Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, held in Washington D.C. in “September Term, 1987.” It was made by Peter Jaszi, who represented the Oxfordians in the moot, in regard to his clients’ shortcomings: “There are clearly things having to do with scholarly method – footnote style, and so forth – which the Oxfordians do not understand as well as the professional Shakespeare scholars.” The problems with their scholarship, however, are not merely matters for arbitration by The Chicago Manual of Style. They are, instead, substantive and they persist, in regard to which I call Giles Dawson:

The scholar has no axes to grind. He is not eager to prove his own hypotheses correct, but rather to find out whether they are correct or not. ... When he uncovers a fact that does not square with his hypoth- esis he neither shuts his eyes to it nor tries to explain it away nor trims it to fit his own preconceptions ... In presenting the results of his research he will distinguish carefully between demonstrable fact and tentative conjecture, never building on the latter, and by full and sound documentation will furnish the reader with the means of testing both conjecture and stated fact.

Oxfordian scholars have shown a keen eye for finding flaws in Shakespeare scholarship. They scrutinize every document, every allusion, to see if each says precisely what orthodox interpreters say it says. But I know of only relatively few instances of similar skepticism and scrutiny being applied by controversialists to their own scholarship. In essays on this website, in my book and in published articles, I have presented evidence of scholarship that does shut its eyes, that does try to explain away or trim facts that don’t say quite what the scholar wants them to say. Scholarship of a kind that is dismissed as conjectural when it is offered by a Shakespearean becomes “circumstantial evidence” when put into the service of the Earl of Oxford.

In the same vein, the use of cautionary words and terms by Shakespeare’s scholars – such as, “perhaps” ... “this suggests” ... “it might be” – is portrayed by the Oxfordian scholar as a sign of inference and surmise, of conjecture and speculation. It may be true at times, but most of the time it is being frank with readers, telling them that the data tells us this much and no more, takes us this far and no farther. But from the Oxfordian point of view the standard for Shakespeare evidence is unequivocal “documentary proof” – nothing less will do.

On the other hand, in making the case for Oxford, cautions are thrown to the winds. In uncovering shortcomings and errors in orthodox scholarship they perform a valuable service. They are often on target in saying that the assumption of the author’s identity is a source for error. But setting the record straight is not their goal. It is, rather, finding flaws that may be used as a loom for reinterpreting, even reinventing, a given source or a specific topic, in order to weave another tale in the “greatest detective story there ever was.” There are no qualifying words here, nor the careful distinction “between demonstrable fact and tentative conjecture.” Not much is left to the judgment of the reader, the juror in “The High Court of Public Opinion” (as the 1987 moot was called). To the contrary, there is little of the “full and sound documentation [that] will furnish the reader with the means of testing both conjecture and stated fact.” Thus may the demand for absolute proof from Shakespeareans disguise the fact that Oxfordians do not offer factual evidence to the contrary; and thus may the assumptions of Shakespeareans be transmuted to serve the certainties of Oxfordians. For it should not go unmentioned that they also analyze data based on their assumption of who the author is.

Reading such scholarship makes me think of what an Oxfordian with a political bent wrote in a letter to me, “it doesn’t matter how right you are if you still lose the debate.” Said another in his preface to a scholarly paper, it is not his responsibility to prove his scholarship right, but that of critics to prove it wrong. More than once I have been told that errors of fact in one or another Oxfordian argument do not “invalidate” its conclusion. It is, to put it politely, remarkable that those who hold Shakespeare’s scholars to an absolute standard, apply a somewhat less rigid standard to themselves.

“Well,” a Shakespearean well might ask, “if their scholarship is so poor, why pay attention to it?” For one thing, it is important to remember that they do reveal sometimes significant problems with and errors in orthodox scholarship. In fact, orthodox scholarship may unwittingly be a source of Oxfordian data, or provide affirmation of it. For example, Ogburn’s doubts about the reliability of the 1595 Chamber Account echo the doubts of Shakespeare’s scholars on some key points. (See my essay, “A Desperate Contrivance,” in “The Making of a Confirmed Shakespearean.”) Some have also wondered why Shakespeare, who had little visibility in theater at that time, should have been in the company of Burbage and Kemp as a payee for plays performed at court by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. More have doubted that both this acting company and the Lord Admiral’s could have performed at court on the same day; just as they felt the probability that the account is mistaken is furthered by the fact that the troupe is known to have also performed The Comedy of Errors at Gray’s Inn on the very same day. A check of the pertinent contemporary records, all of which are convenient to academic scholars in modern published transcripts, would have revealed that these presumed conflicts do not exist. Evidently, none bothered to.

For another thing, a curious reader may be forgiven for wondering how bad Oxfordian scholarship can be. They are, after all, willing to do something Shakespeareans are loath to do: put their scholarship into the public arena. This openness not only advances their cause but, perhaps more importantly, also offers the public a chance to join in the discussion of a figure that has a distinct, personal place in their lives, while Shakespeareans shun them.

This divide is furthered by their willingness to invite Shakespeareans to join in the dialogue. I here give the floor to Ward Elliott, an Oxfordian convert to Shakespeare, who wrote to me in regard to his erstwhile cohorts: “I think it is to their credit that they invite contrarian views like [mine], and that they print contrarian views like [his] ... I would be astonished to see the Baconians and Marlovians do such a thing.”  More astonishing still would be seeing Shakespeareans offer a forum for discussing authorship issues, be they Oxfordian, Baconian, Marlovian – or even Shakespearean.

Many reasons have been given for the Shakespeareans’ refusal to engage in the discussion. What may be the most forthright is the one stated by Alfred Harbage in an article in Shakespeare Quarterly (Summer 1964), in which he gave his reason rejecting only one on a list of “thirty-four things that might be done at a quadricentenary celebration” of Shakespeare’s birthday – “the holding of a debate on the authorship question”:

Picture us sheepishly dispersing if the wrong side won, filled with delicacies which should rightfully have been consumed on some other date!

In other words – what if they’re right! Or might it be, worse still: what if we’re wrong? I’ll propose something worse yet: what if they are wrong but a majority of the public is persuaded they are right? As one Shakespearean wrote to me, “most folks at the Folger [Shakespeare Library] admit, we’ve lost the public battle.” This remark jogged my memory, bringing to mind an essay by Richmond Crinkley, a former Director of Programs at the Folger (1969-73), upon the publication of The Mysterious William Shakespeare, which appeared in Shakespeare Quarterly (Winter 1985). Although a “contented agnostic Shakespearean” himself, Crinkley was indignant at the library’s refusal to allow Ogburn to do research there and helped secure his admission as a reader.

His comment appropriate to the public battle is, “Orthodoxy has suffered ... from its denunciatory response to anti-Stratfordianism.... it has missed the opportunity to fight for its position in the public media.” It is missing in action still, with only a handful of Shakespeareans actively involved in the controversy; only a few are from academe. Let’s be frank, “we” have barely joined in the battle. Most appear to be quite content with losing it.

Up to the time he was writing, Crinkley described the prevailing attitude of the orthodox as “viciousness toward anti-Stratfordian sentiments.” By the time I joined the fray only four years later, however, I heard nothing of the kind (nor have I since). The “viciousness” of old has been replaced with an eloquent shrug from Shakespeareans both within and without academia, expressed in a recurrent question:

Is it important?

It is!

It is, very, because I really do not want to be filling myself with delicacies consumed on “some other date” when I really should be consuming them on April 23 (which happens to be one of my favorite consuming dates); also because I fear one of the delicacies served up on that some-other-date will be crow (which definitely does not agree with me). It is no less important because the controversy does point to something that is rather remarkably lacking after centuries of Shakespearean scholarship, and despite hundreds of attempts to fill the void – a fully factual, fully satisfying biography of Shakespeare.

The critic John Simon suggested, “The secret of Shakespeare’s supremacy lies in one simple fact: In Will, the poet and the playwright were perfectly blended.” Explaining how Will effected this perfect blend might have been a daunting task even if such a poet-playwright was of a more recent age, even if the documentary record of his life and career was fuller. This task is made all the more daunting by the supreme poet-playwright we have. There is the infuriating fact that his age has not only left us few clues as to how he could have achieved this supremacy, but no real evidence they thought that he did achieve it. Most modern Shakespeare biographers have learned to live with the frustration of these facts, while the controversialists have not.

The Shakespearean’s Shakespeare and the Oxfordian’s Shakespeare is, after all, the same man. Both are in the popular, modern mold of the artist; one a man of the world, the other a man in the Globe, but both with a solitariness, a degree or more of separation from his contemporaries, and (in regard to Oxford definitely) from the workaday world of the playhouses. Where the two sides differ is over how the author acquired the erudition they perceive in the plays, though even here there is a kinship. Academia and its past students are viewing the plays (and, consequently, their creator) as a matter for the library, for study and studies, for analysis and exposition. This is the science of criticism: the plays are texts like any other texts, taken apart and each part examined. The end product is akin to what the playwright Jean Anouilh compared to the modern penchant for “political and scientific notions” that yield nothing “but the nostalgic satisfaction of the small boy who discovers at last that his mechanical duck was made up of two wheels, three springs and a screw. The little boy holds in his hands three springs, two wheels and a screw, objects which are doubtless reassuring, but he has lost his mechanical duck, and he has usually not found an explanation.”

There is another reason it is important. In the words of Henry V in his play, “There is some soul of goodness in things evil, / Would men observingly distill it out.” The goodness in controversialist literature is that it demands evidence be reassessed. Returning once more to the Chamber Account, we discover the doubts of orthodox scholars about its reliability are traceable to volume two of E. K. Chambers’ The Elizabethan Stage (page 194) – which was published in 1923. How many more times would his assumptions have been passed from scholar to scholar had not a controversialist forced attention to it? Of how many more documents might the same be said?

In broader terms, the controversy offers opportunities to cast a fresh eye on things grown too familiar, things so basic that when we come upon them in reading the critical faculty is suspended. It also requires us to view a thing as seen through different eyes, from a different point of view, a different perspective. At times it may reanimate something once read in passing, sometimes something small but worthwhile, other times something larger and valuable, but that will in either case be a contribution to Shakespearean studies and scholarship. And then there are other times when it sets one off on an entire course of study, as it has me on many occasions.

It is also important because the appreciation of Shakespeare’s works is bound up with the apprehension of their creator. Can there be a scholar, however exclusively dedicated to the “scientific” study of the texts, whose scholarly guard is not dropped once in a while to marvel at some passage, the skill and artistry of a particular scene, and doesn’t wonder at the mind that created them? Who wouldn’t want to know him? It is nearly 300 years since the first effort to gather biographical details about the man. More than 200 of these years have been spent adding more details and trying to put them into biographical form – but there has yet to be a successful, satisfying biography. It is important to understand why they fail.

The thread that runs through nearly all of them is the search to find the artist – or at least to imagine him. Edith Hamilton may have hit upon the dilemma: “Aeschylus’ work … shows the main lines of his character and the temper of his mind as Shakespeare’s, with its boundless range, does not.” No matter how imaginative a Shakespeare biographer may be, it takes a heap of imagination to imagine a Shakespeare. However, the failure of modern biographies is not due to a lack of imagination merely. It lies in what Brian Vickers termed the “self-contained enclave” of “specialists in Shakespearian and Elizabethan drama,” whose studies are “cut off even from broader studies of Renaissance literature and history.” Taking this a step further in biography, Shakespeare is cut off not only from Elizabethan drama but from contemporary dramatists and from the broader world of the theater as well. His is a life devoid of a context.

The appeal of the rival Shakespeares that have been offered up is in the basic fact that their proponents have a ready-made Shakespeare – a “real person” (as one Oxfordian put it) who has a reasonably well-documented life, sufficient to be tortured into shape in order to show how that life is reflected in the plays. What’s more, as the real person is usually a courtier at least, an aristocrat at best, each comes with a ready-made context – a place in the center of the “spacious age” of Queen Elizabeth. An effort by Shakespeare’s scholars to establish his space in this age will have a positive impact on Shakespearean studies, as well as matching the creator with his creations for the benefit of Shakespeareans both inside and outside of academia.

This points to the most important reason for addressing the controversy, one that academic scholars may find most distasteful: putting their scholarship into the public intellectual marketplace. In most subjects this may make little difference, in the case of Shakespeare it does. Children, nowadays, may be introduced to him in primary school and he will probably be in the curriculum through college. But unless a student’s doctoral thesis is of a kind that allows admission to Shakespeare studies in academe, the student-no-more has no place in, no right to join in, the discussion of Shakespeare. In this climate, the idea of coming (no less going) face to face with fierce controversialists seems especially unappealing.

Of course this also excludes such as the people I’ve encountered who don’t care much (if at all) about the controversy, who are at least as interested in the plays as they are in their author leave me with no doubt about either the depth of their interest or of their desire to comprehend both. Many have told me their questions are ones they have long wanted to ask or have waited to hear addressed. I have encountered many more such people than those who are interested or involved in the controversy. Their questions are often good ones, a surprising number of which have led me to something useful – even, on occasion, important.

The silence of Shakespeareans leaves a void that Oxfordians are only too eager to fill. It is a major reason for their success. For they welcome all and offer each a chance to discuss and explore both the man and his works, to participate actively in the discussion, rather than to be a student eternally – a passive, unengaged receptacle of information that is neither adequate nor satisfying. Indeed, Oxfordian meetings often offer opportunities to advance their education. For instance, formal Shakespeare Authorship Roundtable meetings feature talks by recognized scholars and experts in such topics as “Shakespeare in Performance,” Holinshed’s Chronicles, and “Music in the Age of Shakespeare.” Oh yes, and talks by orthodox Shakespeareans too. All the lecturers survived.

As have I. As has Frank Wadsworth, the author of the first book about the controversy by an orthodox scholar, The Poacher from Stratford (1958). Thirty-five years later he wrote an article, “The Poacher Re-Visited,” for The Shakespeare Newsletter. In it he said:

It is important that we recognize the iconoclasts, particularly those of us who are teachers. But as Shakespeareans … we should not do it by visiting upon them the disdain of the past but by letting them speak freely for themselves … Our role should be not to suppress debate but to instruct students how to consider the Oxfordians’ (and others’) arguments carefully and thoughtfully. That exercise will make students not just more responsible as far as Shakespeare is concerned, but also wiser, more critical, more judicial, in dealing with the complex challenges they will face in the difficult decades which lie ahead of them.

We demystify authorship controversies, assassination conspiracies, theories of extra-terrestrial shindigs, even painful social demands, by letting their proponents speak out, not by censoring them. At least that’s what I thought when I wrote The Poacher from Stratford. And still do. 

Curiously, that’s pretty much what I thought when I wrote Shakespeare, In Fact. And still do.

© 2004 Irvin Leigh Matus