About a month ago, my phone suggested that I might want to read a Newsweek article called “The Campaign to Prove Shakespeare Didn’t Exist” by Robert Gore-Langton. I was somewhat disturbed that my phone knew I had an interest in the manufactured controversy over Shakespeare’s authorship of the works attributed to him. I was also a little irritated that my phone, which has apparently progressed from snooping through my email to acquiring some form of telepathy, didn’t know that I was getting tired of the subject.
I’ve written about Shakespeare denialism many times before (most comprehensively here), and I’ve started to feel like I’m running around in circles while simultaneously banging my head against a wall (do not try this). The Newsweek headline, though, seemed to offer a new twist: Shakespeare didn’t exist at all?! Wow, that’s taking Shakespeare denialism as far as humanly possible. It’s as if someone not only claimed that the moon landing was a hoax but also said that there is no moon to land on. (Wait, what? Someone actually claimed that?)
Well, it turns out that Newsweek and my phone had tricked me with that headline. No one is saying that William Shakespeare, whose baptism and burial are recorded, didn’t exist. Instead someone is saying yet again that he was not the primary author of the plays and poems attributed to him.
Specifically, the article discusses Alexander Waugh (grandson of novelist Evelyn Waugh), his new book Shakespeare in Court, and his and the Shakespeare Authorship Coalition’s (SAC) grandstanding challenge to the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust (SBT). The SAC raised £40,000 which it offered to donate to the SBT if the latter could prove “beyond doubt” that Shakespeare, the actor from Stratford-upon-Avon, really was Shakespeare the poet in a mock trial before “a panel of neutral judges” (the letter can be viewed here; the SAC ran the letter in a full-page ad in the Times Literary Supplement). The SBT turned the offer down. In the Newsweek article, Waugh claims he is considering legal action against the SBT:
Can you believe it? A registered charity turned down the opportunity of £40,000 to defend the very basis on which they are founded! … We are now considering a formal complaint to the Charities Commission and appealing to anyone who would like to join a class action suit against the Trust for all the money they’ve taken under false pretences. I am publicly accusing them of that and I am waiting for my writ. Where is it?
There have actually been moot court hearings on the authorship question before. On September 25, 1987, three sitting US Supreme Court justices–William Brennan, Harry Blackmun, and John Paul Stevens–heard arguments supporting the claims of Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford. The justices ruled in Shakespeare’s favor. The proceedings were filmed for posterity. Ordinarily, Supreme Court rulings can’t be appealed, but Oxfordians are persistent and had the case retried on November 26, 1988 before three British law lords. The British judges upheld the American verdict.
Those decisions didn’t change anyone’s opinion, of course. The Oxfordians didn’t bow to the wisdom of some of the greatest legal minds of the English-speaking world. Instead, they continued their campaign to sway the hearts and minds of the general public. Eventually, they even swayed some Supreme Court justices. For instance, former Justice Stevens later became convinced that Oxford had written Shakespeare based on depressingly fallacious reasoning.
A mock trial is not the right venue to decide a matter of scholarship. As Stanley Wells, honorary president of the SBT noted in the Newsweek article, “Public debates are an exercise of forensic skill rather than an intellectual scholarly exercise. So no, we are not going to debate or take their money. I would hope we have more dignity.” Scholarly questions in any field are generally decided (or not decided) by people who have a great deal of expertise in the field, not “neutral panel[s] of judges.” Ideally, a scrupulously researched and evidenced paper goes through a rigorous peer review process. Once the paper is printed, it may well provoke lively response, debate, and criticism. Those responses will also undergo peer review before being published. In literary studies, many questions are not absolutely decided one way or another. There is not, for instance, a single right way to interpret Hamlet. But this question, the question of the primary authorship of Shakespeare’s works, has been decided. The evidence in favor of Shakespeare’s authorship and the lack of evidence for anyone else’s primary authorship is so compelling that the question isn’t even really a question worth considering. Imagine if the validity of climate change or evolution were to be decided in a mock trial before a “panel of neutral judges.”
If the SBT were to participate in the mock trial, they would give undeserved legitimacy to a fringe theory. And that, of course, is what the SAC wants. In their letter, they describe their view by saying that “there is ‘reasonable doubt’ [about Shakespeare’s authorship], and…the authorship issue should therefore be regarded as legitimate.”
When the media use false balance in stories about the “authorship question,” they also bestow undue legitimacy on a discredited notion. Shakespeare deniers have received sympathetic treatment in surprising places for a long time. PBS’s Frontline has run three episodes that questioned Shakespeare’s authorship: “The Shakespeare Mystery” (1989), which made the case for Oxford; “Uncovering Shakespeare” (1992), a three-hour video conference update to the previous show; and “Much Ado about Something” (2001), which suggests that Christopher Marlowe wrote Shakespeare’s work. A Teacher’s Guide is available for the Marlowe program. Similarly, NPR’s Morning Edition ran a story called “The Real Shakespeare? Evidence Points to Earl” (2008), and for many years, William S. Niederkorn wrote many ostensibly balanced, teach-the-controversy pieces for the New York Times.
In the Newsweek article, Gore-Langton doesn’t take a position on the authorship question, and he interviewed Stanley Wells to get his side of the story. The article is, however, an example of false balance. More space is given to the Shakespeare deniers, and the article begins and ends by casting doubts. Indeed, it begins with some very misleading statements:
First of all, I’d hardly call the authorship manufacturversy the “greatest ongoing investigation in literary history.” Second, the description of Shakespeare as a “Stratford businessman” suggests that he had a full-time job some distance from London that wouldn’t allow him the time to write plays. More importantly, what Gore-Langton says about the lack of documentary evidence is inaccurate. It is true that Shakespeare doesn’t mention plays or books in his will, but he entailed the bulk of his estate, including his primary residence, New Place, and its contents. He didn’t need to mention plays or poems. It might be true that no poem or play survives in Shakespeare’s hand, but that is not unusual among Elizabethan/Jacobean poets. Moreover, Hand D of the play Sir Thomas More may be in his handwriting (see image, right).
The greatest ongoing investigation in literary history has been caused entirely by William Shakespeare’s thoughtlessness. He left no paper trail. Not a single poem or letter or play has ever been found in his own hand. We have just six shaky signatures. His will mentions no books, plays or anything else to suggest the balding Stratford businessman was also a writer.
His personality, love interests, movements are all a total mysery [sic]. The documents relating to his life are all of a legal nature. Nobody ever recognised Shakespeare as a writer during his lifetime and when he died, in 1616, no one seemed to notice. Not a single letter refers to the great author’s passing at the time.
Most crucially, Shakespeare absolutely was recognized as an author during his lifetime. About half of Shakespeare’s plays were printed during his lifetime. Many of those list his name as author on the title page. Here is one early example (see image below, left).Wikipedia has a convenient list of Shakespeare’s quartos, along with images of all the title pages. There are many other contemporary references to Shakespeare as a writer as well. Scholarly editions of the Complete Works, such as the Norton Shakespeare and the Riverside Shakespeare, generally include these references in appendices. The problem isn’t that documentary evidence doesn’t exist. The problem is that Shakespeare deniers claim that somehow these references to William Shakespeare don’t actually refer to William Shakespeare, the actor from Stratford, but to a pseudonym of another person. To say that these references don’t exist, however, is simply false.
Gore-Langton gives the impression that he is neutral, just like those mock-trial jurors who will decide the issue once and for all if the SAC gets its way. I imagine he believes that he is presenting both sides of the argument in a light-hearted manner. However, there really aren’t two equally valid sides to this argument. There is a mountain of evidence for Shakespeare’s authorship, no evidence that he didn’t or couldn’t have written the works, and a bunch of weak and contradictory evidence for other authors. After all, evidence (of a sort) has been offered for dozens of putative authors over the years. None of it is convincing.
The Newsweek article reveals a common problem with false balance: not only does it give a minority view legitimacy it doesn’t deserve, it is often noticeably skewed against the conventional, well-supported view.