Stratford Strikes Back: The Orthodox Rebuttal

Both my essays "Shakespeare vs. Shakespeare" and "The Case for Derby" focus on the arguments made by those who doubt that Shakespeare's works were written by the man from Stratford-upon-Avon. Now let's give orthodoxy a chance to state its case.

A fairly typical presentation of the "Stratfordian" side (as it's called) is found in Jonathan Bate's The Genius of Shakespeare. Bate begins by questioning the whole premise that an aristocrat could have written Shakespeare's works. "Amateur aristocrats such as the Earl of Oxford did write plays," Bate tells us, "but these were static and rarefied things" utterly unlike Shakespeare's "mobile mingle-mangle ... with its mix of kings and clowns."

This objection, it seems to me, misses the point. It is true that so-called "closet dramas," which were written to be read aloud, were "static and rarefied," but we have no way of knowing what sort of plays Oxford -- or Derby or Rutland -- might have written for "the common players," with their entirely different audience.

One can also legitimately ask if Shakespeare's plays were meant primarily for performance. As Harold Goddard and others have observed, his plays are in some respects closer to novels than to stage dramas. Most of them contain subtleties that can be appreciated only on careful reading and quiet reflection -- subtleties sure to pass unnoticed in a boisterous public playhouse. Hamlet, uncut, runs about four hours -- probably too long for its audience to sit through (or in the case of the groundlings, to stand through). Antony and Cleopatra works better when read than when performed. The constant scene changes are disorienting in performance, and no actress, no matter how skilled, can fully capture Cleopatra's exotic magnetism. In Shakespeare's day, an actress in the role was not even an option; women were barred from the stage. Cleopatra would have been played either by a teenage boy or by an adult actor skilled at female impersonation. Shakespeare has Cleopatra herself mock the prospect of a boy actor playing her part: "I shall see / Some squeaking Cleopatra boy my greatness / I' th' posture of a whore." (5.2.219ff) An adult actor is more credible, and such a performance was actually pulled off in modern times by Mark Rylance at London's Globe Theatre, to positive reviews. Still, we may wonder if Shakespeare wrote the play more for its literary qualities than for its theatrical prospects. There is no record of Antony and Cleopatra actually being performed in Shakespeare's day.

Perhaps sensing that he is vulnerable on this point, Bate is eager to establish that 16th century aristocrats did not write for the public stage. He is therefore at pains to explain a Jesuit spy's report that "the Earl of Derby is busied only in penning comedies for the common players." This, Bate tells us, "sounds more like malicious gossip than fact." But spies, then as now, were expected to provide accurate information. And Derby served as patron of not one but two theatrical troupes.

"No major actor," writes Bate, "has ever been attracted to Anti-Stratfordianism," i.e., the doubters' side. This is incorrect. John Gielgud, Derek Jacobi, Charlie Chaplin, Orson Welles, Leslie Howard, and Michael York are among the converts.

Bate cites various testimonies to Shakespeare by his contemporaries as proof of the Stratford man's status as a leading writer, but most of these are either arguably ambiguous (Ben Jonson's First Folio tribute and Francis Beaumont's epigram) or written by persons who may not have had any acquaintance with Shakespeare the man (Francis Meres, John Davies). The only personal references to Shakespeare of Stratford as a writer seem to have been made by Leonard Digges, the stepson of Thomas Russell. Russell lived near Stratford and knew Shakespeare; in fact, he served as overseer of Shakespeare's will. Digges, a poet of no particular distinction, contributed a commendatory verse to the First Folio and also referred to "our Will Shakespeare" in a brief inscription on the flyleaf of a book. Digges' testimony is valuable because it appears to directly connect the Stratford man with the poet-playwright.

The doubters, however, find Digges' testimony either too little (the inscription) or too late (the Folio, published seven years after Shakespeare's death). Diana Price argues that if Digges and Shakespeare were friends, "then there should be some trace of their friendship" (Shakespeare's Unorthodox Biography), and "there is none." A person might reasonably ask: Why "should" documentation of a friendship between two commoners have survived for 400 years? Price mentions that there is documentation of Digges' friendship with publisher Edward Blount. Finding no comparable evidence for a friendship with Shakespeare, she concludes, "Any relationship between Digges and Shakespeare remains conjectural." Perhaps so, but given the obviously close acquaintance of Shakespeare and Digges's stepfather, the "conjecture" that Shakespeare also knew Digges is not very far-fetched. This seems to be a case where the doubters have a little too work too hard to explain away the facts. Personally, I think Digges' references are among the very strongest evidence in support of orthodoxy.

Although he styles himself as somewhat sympathetic to the doubters, Bate eventually reveals less than charitable feelings toward any who question the orthodox line. "The father of all Anti-Stratfordians was William Henry Ireland the forger," he pronounces after a long discourse on Ireland's forgery of certain "Shakespearean" texts. But Ireland was entirely orthodox in his views. Why draw a connection between a Stratfordian forger and anti-Stratfordian doubters? I can only assume that it is to impute guilt by association.

Inevitably, Bate resorts to the most hackneyed of all arguments against the doubters -- that anti-Stratfordians are snobs. Their viewpoint "is a matter of prejudice, not argument ... Like so many English questions, it all boils down to class ... They regard blue blood as the prerequisite for genius."

This ad hominem argument misses the point. The issue is not whether a commoner could write great poems and plays. The issue is whether a commoner could have written Shakespeare's poems and plays -- writings of a particular type, with a particular slant on contemporary affairs, betraying a particular kind of life experience and scholarly background.

It is something of an embarrassment to the orthodox camp that many notable writers have embraced the doubters' cause -- among them, Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, Henry James, and Daphne du Maurier. To get around this impediment, Bate resorts to psychologizing. Writers, he speculates, "are drawn to the Anti-Stratfordian heresy out of what Harold Bloom calls 'the anxiety of influence', the knowledge of Shakespeare's unsurmountable superiority. They cannot actually kill Shakespeare, so the next best thing is to kill his name."

Perhaps a simpler explanation for the doubts voiced by professional writers is that those of us who actually write fiction, as opposed to theorizing about it, have a visceral sense of what it takes to produce a novel, a play, or a poem. It's one thing to host a seminar on creative writing, and another thing to actually sit down and write creatively. Professors who've acquired a Ph.D. in Literature like to think they know more about writing than mere professional scribblers. In some respects they do. They know the theory of it. But we know the nuts and bolts. We know it from the inside -- a perspective that possibly gives us some insights an armchair theorist lacks. Or maybe I should say that college professors are suffering from an "anxiety of influence" of their own -- "they cannot actually" write fiction, "so the next best thing" is to denigrate those who do.

But I won't say that. Psychologizing, after all, can be used to "prove" just about anything.

Bate concludes that the doubters have been able to produce only a succession of "fat, bad, sad books" gathering dust in the remote corners of libraries. This is largely true -- but then again, the vast majority of the thousands of orthodox Shakespearean books are today gathering dust, too. A century from now, Bate's own book, despite its many excellent qualities, may share the same fate.

I think we can see why the doubters' position continues to attract adherents. There is something off-putting about Bate's arguments, an air of snideness, a blithe, dogmatic assurance that rankles. Many of his arguments are obvious fallacies. There is the appeal to authority ("No major actor..."), the argument from intimidation, the ad hominem, guilt by association, and psychologizing. Anyone who resorts to equal doses of sophomoric psychoanalysis and sarcasm will come across as being less sure of himself than he admits. And in resorting to these tactics, Bate is by no means unusual. He is, in fact, following the lead of most other orthodox academics. If anything, he is a bit more fair-minded and polite than the rest.

With all that said, I must add that Bate does make some telling points. The value of Leonard Digges' testimony has already been mentioned. Bate also brings up the dating of Shakespeare's plays and the problem this poses for at least one group of doubters, the Oxfordians. In addition, he notes that some of Shakespeare's late plays are almost certainly collaborative efforts, and it's hard to imagine an aristocrat collaborating with a low-born professional writer. The dedications to the Earl of Southampton that preface Shakespeare's two long narrative poems are, as Bate says, "servile" in tone, not the sort of thing a member of the nobility would be expected to write. And, although it could be seen as still more psychologizing, Bate is probably right when he says that the doubters often seem afflicted with a messianic complex -- "they claim to be saving the life, the fame, of their candidate," Bate writes, "whereas they are in fact attempting to write an identity for themselves."

Bate's arguments, then, are a mixed bag -- a "mingle-mangle," as he might put it. And this is true, in general, of the debating points proffered by both camps. Serious arguments and unwarranted inferences exist side by side. Logic and illogic are doled out in roughly equal quantities by both the orthodox and the doubters. Objections can be raised against almost any scrap of evidence or line of argument presented by either camp. The deeper that one enters into the authorship controversy, the more one feels trapped in a maze of mirrors, with every avenue of investigation extending into an infinity of charges and countercharges.

It's still a maze worth exploring. But my advice is to leave a trail of bread crumbs, or you may never get out.


Sources are appended to "Shakespeare vs. Shakespeare"

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