Shakespeare Bites Back!

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I am currently enjoying Jonathan Kay’s recent book, Among the Truthers about the politics of conspiracy theory. Kay is a managing editor of Canada’s National Post and spent two years researching what drives people to believe in conspiracies. Kay’s book is not primarily about the Shakespeare authorship conspiracy theory but he mentions it in passing as ‘the most durable and ambitious literary conspiracy theory of the twentieth century.’ To doubt Shakespeare’s authorship seems to act as a likely foundation for people then to start exploring other conspiracy theories.

Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised when my colleagues who work in the five Shakespeare Houses cared for by The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust tell me that questions about the authorship conspiracy theory often come up. Even so, Shakespearians often groan when a question about whether Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare is asked; some scholars’ response is simply to bury their heads in the sand in the hope it will go away. It won’t. And I think we have a duty as Shakespearians to expose the anti-Shakespearian cause so as to help prevent other people being sucked in by it.

Two weeks ago I mentioned an exciting new digital project which I am working on in response to the on-going authorship discussion. 60 Minutes with Shakespeare will go live on Thursday 1 September. You can find out more about it here. There are some great contributors involved with the project including, most recently, Stephen Fry.

But there are other projects afoot, too…

I am collaborating with Stanley Wells on an e-book about the anti-Shakespearian discussion and producing a digital resource for the general Shakespeare enthusiast called Getting to Know Shakespeare, which will include a section on the authorship conspiracy theory.

And, in light of all this Anonymous nonsense that has already started to take hold in the media, we thought it was time to air some of our views further.

On Thursday 1 September at 4.00pm (G.M.T) you might like to join me for the first webinar hosted by The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. It will be an experiment for us and one that we are seeking to learn from. Webinars are very much something that I should like to see become a regular feature of our work.

This one will be called Not at all anonymous: Shakespeare bites back and will be about the authorship conspiracy theory. It will be hosted by Stanley Wells and I and it would be great if you would like to be part of it.

Do please join us. You can register for this free webinar here

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Author:Paul Edmondson

Head of Research and Knowledge and Director of the Stratford-upon-Avon Poetry Festival for The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. Follow Paul on Twitter @paul_edmondson
  • Andrea Campana

    I am in a bind here in the U.S. I have done some research on the portraits, and I would like to read Shakespeare Found: A Life Portrait, but the 2011 edition is only available from the Birthplace Trust. Some university libraries in the U.S. have acquired it, but I would have to pay $100 at my local library for the type of membership that would allow retrieval from the University of Southern California, which has the 2011 edition. If I buy the book directly from the SBT, I will pay more than $60, once the exchange rate and shipping costs are factored in. Either way, the cost is prohibitively expensive to someone residing in the U.S. I don’t see the book as available on Kindle or Amazon, even though the library at Johns Hopkins claims it has an e-copy. Is there in fact an e-copy of the book? If so, why don’t I see it on Amazon or the SBT shopping site? I would like to read the book but also want to make a reasonable investment. Thank you for your consideration.

  • Sally Mera

    I really wish you would stop being so damn silly about the authorship question. It’s in everyone’s interests for there to be more research on the period and plays – and clearly there is a lot to be discovered about the mysteries that continue to swirl around the author/s. It strikes me that the orthodox camp is significantly less well-informed about these things generally than scholars examining other possibilities. It’s not just tiresome, it’s irresponsible not to keep an open mind about these things and allow for the possibility that ALL research on the subject could yield a greater understanding of the background and people behind these great works.

  • Magdalena

    I’m really interested in the authorship debate and veer towards the Stratfordian arguement and on the same subject I loved this vlog about the authorship debate –  http://waxenhearts.blogspot.co.uk/2012/05/not-anonymous-enough-review.html

  • http://leylandandgoding.com/ Bruce Leyland

    Thanks for your post. The term conspiracy theorist seems to be a first port of call for those seeking to close the conversation quickly. As if the concept of conspiracy itself fantastical. It does not require a conspiracy to keep a secret – merely an agreement. Of course many secrets have been kept throughout history. And those secrets that have been best kept have been those with a virtuous intent – e.g. JFK’s degenerative spinal condition, Churchill’s radio broadcasts – performed by an actor. What an effective agreement to secrecy suggests to me, is that the auhor wanted it this way and was highly regarded enough by those in his/her circle as to ensure the secret was kept.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Edward-Nilges/685227843 Edward Nilges

    Clarification: “Henry I and II” refers to Henry V! parts one and two. I can never remember Wells’ new model names although I like his research, the first part of the contention, Richard Duke of York, Jack Cade whatever.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Edward-Nilges/685227843 Edward Nilges

    This is absolutely absurd, and astonishingly poorly written.

    ABSURD

    Although Germaine Greer has accurately described Shakespeare’s Tudor England (in her excellent little book for Oxford Brief Introductions, if memory serves) as a primitive police state, and this was owing to the brutal, proto-Stalinist destruction of monasteries under Henry VIII and the wars of religion, there was nothing like “MacArthyism” (see below). Even if there was primitive thought control, it would have been directed at the middle and lower class, leaving Shakespeare and not the Earl of Oxford, or any other aristocrat, in need of anonymity. Shakespeare would have ghost-written for a noble lord to protect himself against censure, and the lord would have gained prestige. But Shakespeare didn’t.

    The deeper absurdity is that the “authorship debate” is rather a duh-bate, which conspiracy theory fosters, where a duh-bate is an endless and meaningless War of the Buffoons, in which the use of different language games causes no progress to occur.

    Consider global warming. Al Gore, based on climate science, advanced a proposition IT, his “Inconvenient Truth”  (global warming is occurring as the result of industry). This proposition is a scientific proposition which is neither certainly true nor certainly false in the manner of a mathematical proposition, from 1+1=2 to Fermat’s Theorem: instead it has a probability between 0 (certainly false) and 1 (certainly true): 0 is less than P(IT) is less than 1.

    However, the opponents of global warming raise a series of objections, one of the more reputable being “certain forms of clouds may increase as a result of temporary warming caused by industry, and these clouds will (may) (might) limit further warming”, and based on this their claim is “we doubt IT”: symbolically, ?(IT), or “IT is doubtful”.

    Now, the interesting thing is that ?(IT) is CERTAIN: P(?(IT))=1. In fact, it’s a special case of my above implicit claim, that ALL responsible scientific propositions have probability 0 less than P(x) less than 1. 

    But this also means that ?(IT) is NOT SCIENCE, since it’s not in Sir Karl Popper’s sense “falsifiable”. Popper was disgusted by the fact that when Marxism’s predictions were refuted by the facts (Stalin’s Russia not a worker’s paradise) Marxists insisted on continually revising their predictions to fit Marxist theory. Popper was disgusted by the fact that when psychoanalysis didn’t work, shrinks would chalk it up to “subconscious resistance”. Likewise, I thing Popper would be disgusted by the continually jiggery-pokery of Shakespeare denial, such as “Oxford wrote Lear before 1604″ or “Marlowe was a spy so he was spirited away from Deptford”, etc..

    The assertion, made by nearly all professional Shakespeare scholars, that William Shakespeare wrote most of the texts of the received canon (save for easily recognizable passages in Henry I and II, “Gower’s” doggerel in Pericles, the Hecate nonsense in Macbeth, and so on) is a scientific that is historical assertion based on the evidence including Francis Meres, the testimony in the First Folio, Robert Greene’s Groatsworth, matched with censor’s, legal and financial records. Call this assertion S, 0<P(S)<1.

    The reams of filthy garbage posted *contra* S have NEVER established ~S above a probability close to zero whereas S has a probability close to 1 (but, further from 1 than ~S or "not-S, Shakespeare didn't write the plays" is from zero, since if I had assign a number to ~S it would be .00001, something like that, whereas S's P would be 95%.) They've never even discovered or proved truths that would confirm ~S, strictly cannibalizing and thieving the work of real scholars.

    Why do people do this? My theory is that people want cultural capital especially in this vulgar year of Shakespeare celebration by yahoos that is being engineered by Britain to coincide with the violent vulgarity of the Olympics and to avoid having to answer hard questions about the destruction of Britain's middle class and poor.

    But actually reading Early Modern English is hard, although even school-children can master the thees and thous and the occasional inversion of grammatical forms if you beat them (just kidding, if you impart your own understanding and love, of course). We're so used to mass media pandering to us, appealing to primitive emotions, and, rather than asking us to IMAGINE, "when we talk of horses", that we see them, printing their proud hooves in the receiving earth, mass media uses technology to create the goddamn horses. Mass media does our thinking and feeling for us, Shakespeare was a participatory theater.

    Therefore, the vulgar well-to-do are some of the loudest authorship duh-baters, since 'twas ever thus, since Henry closed the monasteries, since Sir Thomas More went to the block, since Thomas a Becket was slain: the rich and powerful HAVE TO BELIEVE that they are smart, and evidence to the contrary must like Carthage be destroyed.

    And ?x, "x can be doubted" is always true so in a silly sense, they are always right…at the expense of the destruction of knowledge and human reason.

    GET ME REWRITE. NO, SHOOT ME NOW

    George Orwell wrote, in Politics and the English Language, "never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print". One reason: you'll get it wrong. Pompous autodidacts with a hair up their ass, who are vastly over-represented within the ranks of Shakespeare Denialists, like to use half-remembered phrases that make them sound like they know said ass from a hole in the ground, and usually screw it up.

    "it does not decry from the quality of the works" should be "it does not DETRACT…"

    "They are fantastic" – it behooves the writer on Shakespeare to beware words which had a different meaning in Shakespeare's time. "Fantastic" means "rilly good" only in Hollywood.

    "parrallells" – do try to remember that there is only one set of parallel Ls in that word and whilst Dave Crystal probably can tell us why (probably something to do with some Norman French nonsense). Don't go crazy trying to get it right. You probably won't. And it's inexcusable on a computer which almost universally embeds spelling correction.

    "MacArthyism" – Senator McCarthy was of Irish ancestry, not Scot. You're thinking of Douglas MacArthur.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Edward-Nilges/685227843 Edward Nilges

    This is absolutely absurd, and astonishingly poorly written.

    ABSURD

    Although Germaine Greer has accurately described Shakespeare’s Tudor England (in her excellent little book for Oxford Brief Introductions, if memory serves) as a primitive police state, and this was owing to the brutal, proto-Stalinist destruction of monasteries under Henry VIII and the wars of religion, there was nothing like “MacArthyism” (see below). Even if there was primitive thought control, it would have been directed at the middle and lower class, leaving Shakespeare and not the Earl of Oxford, or any other aristocrat, in need of anonymity. Shakespeare would have ghost-written for a noble lord to protect himself against censure, and the lord would have gained prestige. But Shakespeare didn’t.

    The deeper absurdity is that the “authorship debate” is rather a duh-bate, which conspiracy theory fosters, where a duh-bate is an endless and meaningless War of the Buffoons, in which the use of different language games causes no progress to occur.

    Consider global warming. Al Gore, based on climate science, advanced a proposition IT, his “Inconvenient Truth”  (global warming is occurring as the result of industry). This proposition is a scientific proposition which is neither certainly true nor certainly false in the manner of a mathematical proposition, from 1+1=2 to Fermat’s Theorem: instead it has a probability between 0 (certainly false) and 1 (certainly true): 0 is less than P(IT) is less than 1.

    However, the opponents of global warming raise a series of objections, one of the more reputable being “certain forms of clouds may increase as a result of temporary warming caused by industry, and these clouds will (may) (might) limit further warming”, and based on this their claim is “we doubt IT”: symbolically, ?(IT), or “IT is doubtful”.

    Now, the interesting thing is that ?(IT) is CERTAIN: P(?(IT))=1. In fact, it’s a special case of my above implicit claim, that ALL responsible scientific propositions have probability 0 less than P(x) less than 1. 

    But this also means that ?(IT) is NOT SCIENCE, since it’s not in Sir Karl Popper’s sense “falsifiable”. Popper was disgusted by the fact that when Marxism’s predictions were refuted by the facts (Stalin’s Russia not a worker’s paradise) Marxists insisted on continually revising their predictions to fit Marxist theory. Popper was disgusted by the fact that when psychoanalysis didn’t work, shrinks would chalk it up to “subconscious resistance”. Likewise, I thing Popper would be disgusted by the continually jiggery-pokery of Shakespeare denial, such as “Oxford wrote Lear before 1604″ or “Marlowe was a spy so he was spirited away from Deptford”, etc..

    The assertion, made by nearly all professional Shakespeare scholars, that William Shakespeare wrote most of the texts of the received canon (save for easily recognizable passages in Henry I and II, “Gower’s” doggerel in Pericles, the Hecate nonsense in Macbeth, and so on) is a scientific that is historical assertion based on the evidence including Francis Meres, the testimony in the First Folio, Robert Greene’s Groatsworth, matched with censor’s, legal and financial records. Call this assertion S, 0<P(S)<1.

    The reams of filthy garbage posted *contra* S have NEVER established ~S above a probability close to zero whereas S has a probability close to 1 (but, further from 1 than ~S or "not-S, Shakespeare didn't write the plays" is from zero, since if I had assign a number to ~S it would be .00001, something like that, whereas S's P would be 95%.) They've never even discovered or proved truths that would confirm ~S, strictly cannibalizing and thieving the work of real scholars.

    Why do people do this? My theory is that people want cultural capital especially in this vulgar year of Shakespeare celebration by yahoos that is being engineered by Britain to coincide with the violent vulgarity of the Olympics and to avoid having to answer hard questions about the destruction of Britain's middle class and poor.

    But actually reading Early Modern English is hard, although even school-children can master the thees and thous and the occasional inversion of grammatical forms if you beat them (just kidding, if you impart your own understanding and love, of course). We're so used to mass media pandering to us, appealing to primitive emotions, and, rather than asking us to IMAGINE, "when we talk of horses", that we see them, printing their proud hooves in the receiving earth, mass media uses technology to create the goddamn horses. Mass media does our thinking and feeling for us, Shakespeare was a participatory theater.

    Therefore, the vulgar well-to-do are some of the loudest authorship duh-baters, since 'twas ever thus, since Henry closed the monasteries, since Sir Thomas More went to the block, since Thomas a Becket was slain: the rich and powerful HAVE TO BELIEVE that they are smart, and evidence to the contrary must like Carthage be destroyed.

    And ?x, "x can be doubted" is always true so in a silly sense, they are always right…at the expense of the destruction of knowledge and human reason.

    GET ME REWRITE. NO, SHOOT ME NOW

    George Orwell wrote, in Politics and the English Language, "never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print". One reason: you'll get it wrong. Pompous autodidacts with a hair up their ass, who are vastly over-represented within the ranks of Shakespeare Denialists, like to use half-remembered phrases that make them sound like they know said ass from a hole in the ground, and usually screw it up.

    "it does not decry from the quality of the works" should be "it does not DETRACT…"

    "They are fantastic" – it behooves the writer on Shakespeare to beware words which had a different meaning in Shakespeare's time. "Fantastic" means "rilly good" only in Hollywood.

    "parrallells" – do try to remember that there is only one set of parallel Ls in that word and whilst Dave Crystal probably can tell us why (probably something to do with some Norman French nonsense). Don't go crazy trying to get it right. You probably won't. And it's inexcusable on a computer which almost universally embeds spelling correction.

    "MacArthyism" – Senator McCarthy was of Irish ancestry, not Scot. You're thinking of Douglas MacArthur.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Edward-Nilges/685227843 Edward Nilges

    An open mind from which all contents have been drained.

  • Pelicancode

    I would echo the previous commentator’s sentiment that even though I do not believe Shakespeare was the writer of his own works it does not decry from the quality of the works – they are fantastic whoever wrote them. They have absolutely stood the test of time. But there are parrallells even in contemporary Hollywood where writers have hidden behind someone else’s name – in my blog was Shakespeare a fraud? I examine this topic in more depth where Hollywood writers were blacklisted as a result of Macarthyism and had no choice but to write under someone else’s name. It was only after a confession by one of the  “front men” that we knew what was going on. Failing this confession like so many theories of alternative writers of the great man himself (WS)  we would have had to examine the works by themselves and the respective authors style to see if there was any consistency/inconsistency in the writing styles and its development over time. Of course the burden of proof has to fall on those to disprove Shakespeare wrote the works – and circumstantial evidence forms the intellectual baseline – and as we know in a court of law circumstantial evidence doesn’t wash. The debate will undoubtedly rage on until proof is found. But I would ask the question what would happen if proof were found – would it be deliberately suppressed………..or welcomed with open arms?    .         

  • http://www.tkguthat.com Tim Guthat

    I am looking forward to the webinar and digital project. In the interest of full disclosure, I am a Stratfordian, and I believe that this open discussion is a good thing. A couple weeks ago, in Stratford, Canada, I heard James Shapiro talk about his recent book Contested Will. He argued rather convincingly that not only did Shakespeare of Stratford write Shakespeare, but that scholars need to address the authorship question openly. Otherwise the Oxfordians et al. will be the only voice the general public hears. So, given the film Anonymous coming out, I say this is a perfect topic!

  • Howard Schumann

    If you would stop all the pejorative language and lazy assumptions, you might discover that the case for Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford as the author of the Shakespeare canon is quite strong and very believable. Of course, to discover that would require an open mind.

  • Linda Theil

    Dear Mr. Edmondson, it may please you to say that anyone who is interested in the Shakespeare authorship is a conspiracy theorist, but you would be incorrect. I am interested in the authorship question, but my study of the issue does not indicate that any conspiracy has been involved in the mistaken identification of Shakespeare. You have also made the error of assuming that people interested in this topic are, in your word, anti-Shakespearean. I am interested in the authorship because of my deep interest in the work of William Shakespeare; I am in no way anti-Shakespearean; but I suppose you could accurately say that I am anti-Stratfordian. I don’t understand why this topic is considered so ridiculous by you. Why do Stratfordians consider studying Shakespearean collaboration perfectly acceptable, but studying the possibility that the Stratfordian attribution may be mistaken is risible? Are you so omnipotent that you can certify that there is nothing more to be learned regarding the identity of William Shakespeare? Have you never been sure of something that has proven to be wrong?

  • Anna

    In years to come, when someone asks what the very first BPT webinar was about, instead of replying with one of a thousand interesting titles, you’ll have to admit it was wasted on this nonsense.  I had already signed up, but in my experience, people ask me about the authorship debate when they discover my love of Shakespeare to hide the fact that they have nothing else to add to the conversation.  Sometimes it amuses me, but I get annoyed when top academics feel obliged to waste time that could be far more productively spent addressing this issue over and over again.
    I do commend you on exploring this digital route for the benefit of those of us who can’t get to Stratford as often as we should like.  I hope the next one will be on a topic that I’m actually interested in.

Download a free book written by Paul Edmondson and Stanley Wells about Shakespeare, Conspiracy & Authorship. Download the Book.