Monday, November 21, 2011

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts. You are free to agree or disagree with him. 

A reader asked me to comment on the recently-released film Anonymous, which purports to expose the “conspiracy” to palm off the plays of Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, as being by a talentless nonentity called William Shakespeare.

I can comment very succinctly.

Whatever the film’s merits as drama or thriller, as history it’s sheer bollocks.

However, that uncouth answer won’t satisfy ardent conspiracy theorists or people who liked the movie, so I’ll have to add a bit more detail.

I base my answer on a number of scholarly books I’ve read on the topic, plus my encounter with books by “alternative authorship” theorists, plus my (pretty good) knowledge of Shakespeare’s plays themselves.

I assure you, I have seen and heard the best arguments “alternative authorship” that people can offer.

Back in 2005 I reviewed for the NZ Listener Brenda James’ The Truth Will Out, which purported to “prove” that Sir Henry Neville wrote Shakespeare’s plays. Its “proof” was laughably slim, yet when it was released it was hailed as the most convincing “alternative authorship” theory so far. (My 2005 review is still on-line on the NZ Listener’s website). In 2010, I had the immense pleasure of reviewing for the Sunday Star-Times Professor James Shapiro’s Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?, which I ended up nominating as one of the Books of the Year.

If you are at all interested in “alternative authorship” theories about Shakespeare plays, or if you have ever been pestered by somebody who believes them, then I urge you to get hold of Contested Will. Calmly, rationally, without any name-calling or condescension toward “alternative authorship” theorists, Shapiro demolishes one by one all the conspiracy theories.

And they are conspiracy theories, even though “alternative authorship” theorists get annoyed at the term. Remember, there is hard documentary evidence of Shakespeare’s authorship. He was attested as the author of his plays in his own lifetime, and seven years after his death, when the first collected edition of his plays came out (the First Folio), it was preceded by testimonials and verses written by Shakespeare’s friends and admirers, including illustrious people like Ben Jonson. If you want to believe that someone other than Shakespeare wrote the plays, then you have to believe that all these people (plus the printers) were sworn to conceal a secret i.e. that they were a conspiracy.

I leave it to Shapiro’s book to give you the fine details. Suffice it to say that the documentary evidence for Shakespeare is overwhelming, whereas there is no documentary evidence at all for anyone else’s authorship. Note also that we know a great deal about how books were printed in Elizabethan and Jacobean times, and we can chronicle with great accuracy when and in what circumstances most of Shakespeare’s plays were first written, published or performed. (“Most”, not “all” – there are some gaps and genuine mysteries.)

Alternative authorship theorists are, to a man and woman, ignorant of the scholarship that is currently available in these matters – textual analysis, palaeography and the ability to scientifically date texts. What we know from the real scholarship is that the life of no other claimant so far proposed matches the writing of Shakespeare’s plays. They were either too old, too young, dead or nowhere near where the plays were being written and produced.

Shapiro shows convincingly how the whole troop of erroneous theories arose from snobbery. By the late eighteenth century, Shakespeare’s reputation had risen so high that he had come to embody the English nation and seemed more than human. In the circumstances, it was disconcerting to realize that the real Shakespeare was a lower-middle-class boy from the provinces who had never been to university, was not a great power in the land at the time he was alive, and could possibly have been a Catholic. What was wanted was somebody who was aristocratic, glamorous, powerful and preferably Protestant. So, in succession, out came the theories that Shakespeare’s plays were really written by Sir Francis Bacon or the Earl of Southampton or the Earl of Derby or the Earl of Oxford or Sir Henry Neville or the great playwright and Cambridge-graduate Christopher Marlowe or (and even most conspiracy theorists baulked at his one) Queen Elizabeth 1.

All of this assumed, of course, that a lower-middle-class, non-university-educated chap couldn’t possibly have imagination and genius. As Charles Dickens was lower-middle-class and non-university-educated, this presumably means that somebody else wrote David Copperfield.

There is another thing about conspiracy theories. They tend to cancel one another out. Take the example of JFK assassination conspiracy theories, given a great boost by Oliver Stone’s unhistorical film JFK, which in turn was based on the fantasising of Jim Garrison. Those who refuse to accept very good evidence that Lee Harvey Oswald did it present us with theories about the pro-Castro Cubans. Or anti-Castro Cubans. Or the Mafia. Or hired French hitmen. Or dissident American military men and the CIA. Or (and – I’m not kidding – this was the first theory of the crackpot Garrison) homosexuals who were jealous of JFK’s virile, heterosexual appeal. Or various combinations of these groups working in concert.

But if any ONE of these conspiracy theories is true, then ipso facto all the other theories are wrong. So, even before I examine the evidence, I am entitled to say that the great majority of JFK conspiracy theories are wrong. And after reading the evidence, I conclude that they are probably ALL wrong. (I really mean that they are definitely all wrong, but I add the “probably” just in case some hitherto undisclosed real evidence does turn up.)

Now apply this irrefutable logic to conspiracy theories about the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays. If it was Bacon then it can’t have been Oxford. If it was Oxford then it can’t have been Derby. If it was Derby then it can’t have been Southampton. Or Christopher Marlowe. Or Sir Henry Neville. Or Queen Elizabeth 1. Or Mickey Ye Mouse. Ipso facto, the majority of Shakespeare authorship conspiracy theories must be wrong. And all the hard evidence suggests that they are in fact  all wrong.

Let it be made absolutely clear that there is no documentary or material evidence whatsoever connecting Oxford with the writing of Shakespeare’s plays. As James Shapiro has correctly said of the film Conspiracy, it is concocted by people who believe that lack of evidence is evidence.

There is no evidence to connect Oxford with Shakespeare’s plays! Therefore there must have been a conspiracy to suppress the evidence!! Therefore this proves there was a conspiracy!!! Therefore Oxford must have written Shakespeare’s plays!!!!

On these principles I can prove that the Earth is flat, that the Apollo mission never landed on the moon, that actually Ted Kennedy and his drinking buddies were standing on the grassy knoll, that there is a Zionist conspiracy to rule the world and that Michael Jackson was really killed by Peter Pan. (Actually that last one’s probably true.)

There is a side-issue over the part-authorship of some of Shakespeare’s plays. Even the best authorities agree that some of Shakespeare’s plays were probably written in collaboration with other people. Henry VIII was almost certainly written mostly by John Webster, and some of Will’s first plays were re-writings of older plays. And of course nearly all Shakespeare’s plots were borrowed from earlier sources. But these facts about Shakespeare’s working methods are quite separate from theories about Bacon or Oxford or Southampton writing the lot.

I’m not losing sleep over any of this. I rest safe in the knowledge that all reputable experts reject the alternative authorship theories and have the hard evidence on their side. Alternative authorship theories are to Shakespeare scholarship what astrology is to astronomy or numerology is to mathematics. It makes no difference that at various times illustrious people – none of them experts in the field – have championed the Oxfordian or Baconian or Southampton cause. One such illustrious person is the very good actor Derek Jacobi, who contributes to Anonymous. But – sorry – Jacobi is no scholar, no matter how outstanding his BBC performance as Hamlet was.

You can’t keep conspiracy theorists down though. The fact that Shakespeare scholars reject their theories must mean there’s a conspiracy in Academe!!!

Incidentally, the Wikipedia entry on the film Conspiracy is in part a puff for the film, as you would expect, and is certainly not written by Shakespeare experts. But it does at least (a.) note the poor critical reception the film has received and the low box-office return, which led its distributors to limit its release; and (b.) conclude with a list of historical absurdities in the film which, on their own, torpedo its claims to historical credibility.

Trouble is, re-runs and DVD release will doubtless persuade new generations of fantasists that this bollocks is credible.


  1. No, there isn't any REASONABLE doubt. There can be a teeny-tiny wiggly-waggly smidgeon of doubt about the most certain things in the world, but nothing in the websites Anonymous recommends can alter Shapiro's solid verdict and I really do advise anybody interested in this question to read "Contested Will". I was fully aware that, in America a few years ago, assorted conspiracy theorists had drawn up and signed a declaration of doubt about Shakespeare's authorship, and persuaded certain well-known people to sign it, including some jurists, but remember, none of these people was or is a textual scholar. The evidence of Shakespeare's authorship is overwhelming and there is nothing - except fantasy and conspiracy theory without documentary proof - to link any other proposed candidate to the authorship of the plays.

  2. One of the overwhelmingly strong arguments against conspiracies or "true Aothorship being suppressed" was stated by Bill Coby former head of the CIA. He said "The more people who know of a secret the harder it is to keep it a secret.Sooner or later somebody tells all. Best of all the best way to keep a secret is to not let anyone know you have a secret." On those grounds alone it is hard to believe that if Shakespeare was not the author of his plays and poems the "real" author was not unveiled or did not indignatly reclaim what was rightfully his.

  3. Geez Nicholas, you've read a tiny amount by people who say what you already want to believe and call it proof or 'solid evidence' when it isn't anything of the sort. Read the sbt_rebuttals and see for yourself. The SAC scholars outshine the SBT scholars on every question. And Shapiro's Contested Will has been shredded several times by the opposition but you will never know that because you won't read the rebuttals so as to keep fantasy. You and others like to fall back on the imagined "reputable experts" when really not a single one of the "reputable experts" has examined the evidence either, as far as I've seen and I've read about all their best books attempting to "prove" that the Stratford man was the playwright Shakespeare. What a joke they all proved to be. In several years of challenging Stratfordians I have never met one with any backbone. They all find excuses for not examining contrary evidence. You have too and you know it. But a closed mind can keep you smug and that's all that matters to some people.

  4. Thank you for your comments "Unfoldyourself" whoever you may be. In your post you of course use the term "Stratfordian" which is used only by conspiracy theorists who wish to believe that Shakespeare is merely one candidate for the authorship of the plays, like the others they (without any documentary proof) propose. Apparently, according to you, I lack "backbone", have a "closed mind", harbour "fantasy" and believe only "what I already want to believe". Dear "Unfoldyourself", I sincerely hope you are a person with an open mind and backbone who looks dispassionately at real evidence, as I try to be. Shapiro's book has not been "shredded" by anyone - certainly it has been abused on websites by conspiracy theorists, but abuse is not the same as proof or reasonable argument. With your open mind and backbone, consider carefully that there is much documentary evidence pointing to Shakespeare's authorship - the name appearing on many of the quartos published in his lifetime and the commendatory verses and recommendations written by many people that preface the First Folio among it. Remember too, that in Shakespeare's lifetime and for well over a century afterwards, there was no questioning of his authorship. His plays were reprinted many times in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries with no whisper of another author being involved. His authorship as well attested as the authorship of anyone in literary history. It is not wilful "fantasy" or having a "closed mind" that leads me to say this. It is documentary evidence - the way of the historian, not the fantasist. I advise you therefore (and think carefully about this) that the burden of proof lies with those who would propose alternative authors, not with Shakespeareans. Please also consider carefully my other line of reasoning in my original post - if ONE of the proposed alternative authors is the true one, then all the theorising about the others is false. Ergo, by the very nature of this enquiry, the great majority of theorising about alternative authors is false. I am happy to hear what you have to say, but next time, rather than interrogating my moral character, could you please give me some documentary evidence (as opposed to conspiracy theory) about your preferred candidate. I have a very open mind when I see evidence.

  5. Nicholas, I only used “Unfoldyourself” because that was the easiest choice on your ‘Select profile” options. It’s the pen name I’ve used for several years posting on the Shakespeare Authorship question. I predicted that you wouldn’t examine evidence that can contradict your beliefs, and my prediction was fulfilled. The readings I suggested would have refuted many of your beliefs on the issue. That is what I mean by Stratfordians not having any backbone. Almost none of them will challenge their own beliefs. I have all my life. In fact, I did my doctorate on training people to keep an open mind. As you can see, even with well educated and intelligent people, this can be a great challenge. Ironically, they are often a greater challenge that the average person. I repeat, Shapiro’s book, many of the big arguments he made, have been shredded. Of course, that’s my viewpoint, but I think that others would concur, especially the ones that did most of the shredding. You can read some of it here


    See under the October 2011 postings “More Contested Will rebuttals”:

    In the above posting you will find some documentary evidence suggesting Bacon was Shakespeare. I also have several proofs on my blog, not that you would care to examine them.

    See Contested Will Contested Again in the July postings:

    All the documentary evidence in favor of William of Stratford has been shown to be questionable. It either does not directly tie the author Shakespeare to the man of Stratford, or does so only very slightly and ambiguously, or does so after he had died. No one ever claims to have seen him actually write anything. The evidence does not exclude the possibility of the author and the actor being separate people. And plenty of evidence has been offered in favor one of a few candidates at least. True, that they can’t all be the ‘real’ Shakespeare, but the hope is that a panel of experts could figure out which evidence leads to the true author, or that more research may provide such evidence. Then other evidence which seems to point to other candidates may be explainable. It’s not true that no one questioned William as the author Shakespeare in his lifetime. If you had bothered to read what we’ve asked you to, you wouldn’t repeat Stratfordian myths. The ‘anti-Stratfordians have better evidence than do their counterparts. It is the Stratfordians that do not want their evidence examined closely or compared to those who contest them. See the website I mentioned earlier:


    Clay Buerkle

  6. Finally, in response to your fantasy of Conspiracy Theory, here’s one of the answers at the doubtaboutwill rebuttal:

    “Calling it the “Shakespeare Authorship Conspiracy Theory” is a PR ploy by the SBT. Interestingly, they refer to it as the “authorship issue” in the transcript, showing how unnatural it is even for them to call it a
    “conspiracy theory.” We must be very special. Indeed, they don’t even bother to define the term, so they can use it just as they please. The examples they offer seem intended to suggest that all conspiracy theories are false, but of course this is not so. Why does the word exist in our language if there are none?”

    “The historical record is clear: actual conspiracies are often uncovered by people willing to tolerate derision, even threats, for calling attention to something that doesn’t add up. Woodward and Bernstein were pilloried for
    saying Nixon was engaged in a conspiracy. Those who tried to expose the “Iran Contra scandal” were mocked and ridiculed for it. Investigators who exposed a long-term study of poor black men in Tuskegee, Alabama, infected with syphilis were called “kooks,” “anti-American.” Conspiracies are common.”

    “Fortunately most are also relatively benign. As George Bernard Shaw said, for example, “all professions are conspiracies against the laity.” Is the Birthplace Trust a conspiracy? Henry James certainly seems to have thought so, based on his story “The Birthplace” in his book, The Better Sort (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1903).
    This seems worth considering.”

    “Those replying to all of the questions the SBT has asked on this subject (why so many?) do not appear to have any particular expertise. One of us spent years researching and writing a book on popular conspiracy theories: “What I discovered is that most do not hold up under scrutiny. The more one digs, the shakier and less credible they become. The Authorship Question was different. The more I dug, the more credible it
    seemed, until I became fully convinced of its validity. What I had set out expecting to debunk turned out to be the most compelling, fact-based ‘conspiracy’ I had ever researched.”
    — John M. Shahan, Chairman and CEO, Shakespeare Authorship Coalition
    — James Broderick, Ph.D., Associate Professor of English and Journalism, New Jersey City University; author with Darren Miller of Web of Conspiracy: A Guide to Conspiracy Theory Sites on the Internet.

    Clay Buerkle

  7. Thank you for setting aside your pseudonym, Clay, but I'm afraid you're not quite yet into the mode of reasonable discussion. You are still intent on assuming that I know nothing about this matter and you write, quite falsely and with an apparent degree of self-satisfaction "I predicted that you wouldn’t examine evidence that can contradict your beliefs, and my prediction was fulfilled." Wrong! I have looked up and considered all the links that you have named in your three postings so far. (a.) None of them told me anything that I did not already know or had not already weighed up and considered in the many other sources (expressing many different viewpoints) that I have read. (b.) And none of them was in the least convincing. The supposed "shredding" of Shapiro's arguments is no more than a series of nudge-and-wink insinuations that does not have the collective force of Shapiro's evidence. On one point I am pleased with your more recent communications. You have revealed that you are a Baconian. You will therefore agree with me that all the supposed "evidence" leading to Oxford, Derby, Southampton, Marlowe etc is false. In other words, and as I originally and correctly said, that the great majority of alternative authorship theories are false. Yes, I am fully aware that there have been real conspiracies in world history, and I do not need any more patronising lecturing on the matter. However, conspiracy theories to explain large events or (as in the case of Shakespeare's authorship) conspiracy theories to create mysteries where there are none, are the technique of the non-historian and the fantasist. Hence their popularity on the internet, where articles do not have to be subjected to scholarly peer-reviewing before they appear. Note, by the way, the inconsistency of your own position. You are annoyed when I refer (accurately) to alternative authorship theories about Shakespeare's plays as "conspiracy theories", and then you proceed to tell me how real conspiracies are. Being the courteous, open-minded person that I am, widely read on this issue and endowed with a backbone, I will allow you one more right-of-reply to this message, and will then shut down this discussion. I can already hear you readying yourself to say that I am a typical "Stratfordian" who will not listen to the evidence or challenge his own beliefs. You will once again be wrong. I am simply a person who, having carefully and considerately read and weighed up the evidence, has limited patience with endless discussions on matters that never merited detailed discussion in the first place. To put it another way, I am not going to turn over my blog or devote my energies to long and redundant refutations of the Zetetical Society. Without referring me to somebody else's website, have your say and present your EVIDENCE (NOT insinuation or conspiracy theory) but be BRIEF and realize this will be the end of this matter on this blog. Best regards.

  8. Well said Nicholas. I'm glad that you at least read some of the opposing arguments. It didn't appear to me that you had by anything that you had written at first. I'm fully capable of reasonable discussion but one often needs to get another's attention before that's even a possibility. And then the other, as in your case, isn't that interested in the matter enough to continue. That's why I've concentrated on just presenting evidence on my blog. I can't possibly post it all here as it consists of hundreds of posts, often each one being lengthy in itself. Even the several proofs themselves are quite lengthy. What I find interesting is the possibility that two people can look at the same evidence and arguments and come away with opposite conclusions. It seems to me that there should be a way to get past that so that there becomes common agreement. It may be that this just takes too much mutual examination of hundreds of points of evidence before this could occur. One of the major arguments against the Stratfordian viewpoint is that they, in our opinion, do not begin their arguments with the positing of two Shakespeares - the writer, and the man from Stratford, and then proceed to demonstrate conclusively that they are one and the same. To many of us, the non-Stratfordian arguments showing alternative explanations for the 'seeming' common identity of the two looks much stronger. Then on other points of disagreement, the non-Stratfordian arguments appear at least as likely, or a reasonable possibility. Perhaps only expert analysis of the two arguments on each point could make headway on this. I don't see any relevance to the point that not all alternative authorship theories could be correct. That's true of any scholarly disagreement. We don't find the current scholarly peer-review process all that meaningful as there have been enough reports showing that the authorship question is not welcome among the top journals. More than one scholar has said that it would practically be career suicide to challenge established orthodoxy. About 'conspiracy theories', my annoyance is when people use the term derisively to suggest a theory has no support whatever and is compared to ideas that, on the face of it, are easily falsified, like a false moon landing. The Shakespeare authorship question is not like that since so many of the doubters have advanced degrees and established academic positions and have examined a great deal of the evidence. No, I was not going to call you a 'typical' Stratfordian. You have read a little of the subject matter and are actually capable of reasonable discussion, but are just not that interested in doing so and are satisfied with your beliefs as they are. Take care and thanks for the thoughtful replies.

  9. Thanks Clay. I appreciate the courteous tone of your final posting (though I have read more than "a little" on the subject!) Best regards.