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  • Don’t Get Mad, Get William: The Authorship Question July 13, 2012

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Actualite, Modern , trackback

    Beachcombing has written over 750 posts in the last couple of years with 2786 emails received in that time: two a week at the beginning, about twenty a day now…. And he’s glad to say that only 4 of these emails have been rude, though lots of others have included polite raps over much bruised knuckles. One of these rude emails was about an Irish mermaid and Beach’s disgusting paddy bashing antics (WtH!?!), while the other three were about Shakespeare… And why had Beach provoked the wrath of bard-lovers? Well, in a flippant piece Beach had dared to suggest – even now he cringes at his naivety – that Shakespeare had written Shakespeare.

    There may have been a want of tact in how Beach expressed himself. There is also something (borderline) arrogant about wading into a dispute where people have given years of their life to prove one theory or another. But just to be clear… If Beach put up a post tomorrow arguing that ‘King Arthur’ was a Russian Tsar or that he was a Roman cavalry leader or, damn it, a transvestite gladiator who scandalised Caerleon then he wouldn’t get one rude email. Beach has spent some time in Arthurian circles and when different Dark Age types get together they positively enjoy pushing their version of the once and future king up the flagpole and then take turns buying each other drinks.

    Beachcombing should say that of the unusual number of emails that he received on the authorship question there were many extremely courteous people who also were of the idea that Shakespeare was not Shakespeare. But even in these emails there was an unusual intensity and passion. Beach has done a bit of reading since (though not enough to risk going back into the fray) and for what its worth he is still a ‘default’ Stratfordian (i.e. Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare). Though he has also found enough interesting irregularities to stop him wanting to bet his house on the issue. It is a fascinating subject.

    But there is no way he would ever consider any of this publicly – did Bohemia have a coast? etc – because having low self-esteem and having poor sleep patterns he hasn’t got a week to waste on the electric missives that would come pulsing towards him.  What he will muse on is the far more interesting question of why ‘Shakesperians’ of all brands get so het up about these questions. Whereas those with alternative Jack the Ripper candidates or those who dance on the walls of Camelot (which was where?) just slap each on the back and move on.  Again why is Shakespeare special? Why throw books at one another?

    Beach spent his time this morning trying to think of another area where historians get filled with blood lust and the only one that really jumps out at him was the Potato Famine and its causes, which is made all the more interesting because historians on one side of that debated tend to have English accents and those on the other Irish or American accents. Of course, the Potato Famine is very much plugged into political concerns and, thinking about it, the only time that Beach has ever written a rude email (though nota bene to friends rather than complete strangers) has been about (i) Northern Ireland and (ii) European Federalism. But there is no politics in Shakespeare. (Is there?) So where does all the bad blood flow from?

    Beach wonders, in the end, if it is not a lack of communication. There is an academic community that is pretty much 100% behind Shakespeare as Shakespeare and then there is a dilettante community that has lots of different candidates. Beach is guessing that actually there is relatively little hostility between different non-Shakespeare candidates. The rage is between the orthodox and the non-orthodox position; between the haves (‘we have tenure!’) and the have nots (‘we are gifted amateurs!’). And before anyone gets on their high horse Beach has a history of defending the gentleman against the professional: there is nothing worse than someone on the tax-payer’s dime sententiously quoting Derrida.

    The academic community stopped listening to the anti-Shakespeareans a century ago when the Baconian craze was at its height. Memories of Dr Orville Owen’s excavations in the Wye (a river!) looking for Bacon’s hidden treasure and his book, which would reveal the true identity of Shakespeare. The sad thing is that today there are few lines of communication between the two sides. And it is here, we are guessing, that the angst builds up.

    This was brought home forcefully to Beachcombing in an email exchange with Sabrina Feldman. Sabrina has a Ph.D. in physics, and manage the Planetary Science Instrument Development Office at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, so she is a typical lightweight then (!). She also has a passion for the authorship question and has recently written a book which sounds fascinating: The Apocryphal William Shakespeare: Book One of A ‘Third Way’ Shakespeare Authorship Scenario. Here she argues that ‘William Shakespeare may have been a legitimate and funny playwright as the main author of the apocryphal plays and bad quartos, rather than the main author of the canonical works.’ Sabrina is clearly a very talented individual and she should be among the blessed of the earth, but she has a problem.

    My book has been very well reviewed by authorship agnostics and non-academic types. However, I’ve been almost entirely unable to find Stratfordians to read it. I’ve written to more than a hundred Shakespeare professors, literary critics, Renaissance historians, etc. about The Apocryphal William Shakespeare since I published it in mid-November of 2011, and not one has been willing to read it–even as a free copy. It’s as if my book has literary cooties, or I belong to an untouchable class of writers. What would you do in my situation, if you were convinced you had written an interesting, intelligent, important book despite your status as an amateur scholar?

    Its a nice question and Beach has worried about it quite a bit today. It seems that relations have become so toxic that there is no way to communicate across the battle lines. If Stratfordians are as right as they think they are then you can understand their refusal to waste their time on ‘nonsense’: Beachcombing already reads too many bad books and he can’t be alone in this. On the other hand, if there is uncertainty then this is a very sad state of affairs.

    If Beach had a bumble bee in his bonnet about Shakespeare as a ‘funny playwright… rather than the main author of the apocryphal plays’ he would do as follows. He would not bring out a book. He would attempt to publish a series of notes that incrementally moved towards the conclusions under discussion. He would also never, never, never, never choose an alternative candidate. One of the things that the Stratfordians most enjoy is the full crop of alternative Shakespeare’s waiting out in the high barley. (They have a point.) Of course, Sabrina might reply that this is not very good advice as it demands a time machine. And she also would have a point… Any other ideas about what Sabrina should do or why authorship types (on both sides) get so mad? drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com

    Oh and the best Shakespeare post of recent times…


    13/july2012 KMH is first up: ‘As an American I feel a little non-relevant to the Shakespeare controversy. My explanation for the intense feelings associated here is that Shakespeare is at the core of English culture, history and tradition. It isn’t possible to be a true Englishman  without an appreciation for Shakespeare and the other English poets and playwrights. Impugning Shakespeare’s authorship perhaps implies a crack or inconsistency in the English experience over a number of centuries. In other words, an unwanted identity crisis over the meaning and value of England and  English culture may ensue, at least among those involved in the controversy.   I believe the truth will ultimately come out, even though it is unwanted.But the appropriate time will be in the future when emotional considerations will be much less important and objectivity more normal than now.’ Kithra chips in with something similar ‘As for the controversy over authorship getting people so hot and bothered I think that one reason is because he’s such a British icon. Let’s face it, people all around the world have heard of him, and that even includes the many semi-educated people here in the UK. I remember loving to study him at school, and when I was in my late teenage years my cousin and I used to often stay up until the early hours just reading his plays aloud – dividing up the parts between us. In many ways the debate about him, and the rage it can produce in some quarters, reminds me of the debate about the Elgin Marbles.’ Beach can’t help wondering whether the authorship question affects Englishness, unless of course ‘Cervantes did it’. In some ways, Englishness would be well served by the idea that a groovy aristocrat had written the whole thing. Mike D writes in ‘I don’t think it’s really a Shakespeare issue, as such. The problem is more likely that you have riled up a specialist nest of conspiracy theorists. As a group, the conspiracy boys seem to be both irrational, and cynically demeaning of anyone who doesn’t share their delusions. Here’s another example. There are a bunch of people who think the most famous Stradivari isn’t one. What they have in common is that they aren’t experts on the topic, they haven’t actually seen the violin, nor could they pick out a real one in a line-up, BUT they are smarter than you because of their Special Powers. No real violin expert of the last 200 years agrees with them, but never mind that.  Read this description from maestronet   which even goes deeper and suggests anonymous questionable ‘experts’ believe that unspeakable things have been done to a violin that they don’t believe is real, anyway, and THAT gets them wound up, too.’ Beach finds the whole connection to conspiracy theories interesting but he has to say that in his experience the authorship types are often (though not always!!) extremely knowledgeable. There is also a rather strange deficit in the field where most of those professionals supporting Shakespeare as author are literature professors rather than historians. In that sense the amateurs often have stronger historical backgrounds than the pros. Still the conspiracy theory idea resonates Southern Man next: Ok this could be really weak but I have the sense that the amateur pro thing really matters here. Those amateurs who identify with the authorship question often (though by no means always!!) identify with the whole renaissance man thing. Shakespeare as such is this God that they themselves measure up to, and (i) Shakespeare has to be as perfect as possible (aristocrat etc) and (ii) their own perceptions and judgements are enhanced. Their identity has moved into this question which means you are treading on their dreams if you question it.’Tony B writes in with this reflection: If you think Shagsperre leads to Acrimony , try the Siege of Drogheda…. According to the Irish position  the whole population were slaughtered. It became a shibboleth of Irish Nationalism as the most Terrible Massacre of All Time , but has now been more or less demolished, even by Irish historians of the Cromwellian invasion, into a rather nasty storming in which some of the garrison were killed , having refused quarter. According to the accepted miltary etiquette of the time , they asked for it. But you still can’t say that without getting into terrible trouble. Thanks as always Tony B, Mike, Southern Man, Kithra and KMH!


    16 July 2012: Chris F writes. ‘I think that the greatest “genius” figures like Shakespeare, Leonardo,  Newton, Mozart, and Einstein, (not to mention Jesus, Buddha, Socrates, Confucius, Augustus, Saladdin, Philip K. Dick,  John Lennon……..)  inspire more than their fair share of emotional pros-and-cons because people wonder, could one person really have done all that, could one individual really see so deeply?  Yes, how inspirational, how hopeful for the human race,…. or, nah, it’s gotta be at least partly a con job.  With Shakespeare, writing 400 years ago, something about the language beautifully introduces the modern period: when I pick up Shakespeare, every 15 years or so, I’m struck by the way the recognizably modern usage includes a subtle touch of earlier forms of language and structure.  What is it?  Some hint of Celtic wordplay, some kind of distant Greek or Roman oratorical thunder?  Another product of the Elizabethan, the King James Bible, is also said to be beautifully written… maybe it had something to do with the times, like the first 20 years of rock music, never equalled since, in the opinion of many. Well, some artists do indeed produce an amazing amount of consistently good work… it’s comforting to think Shakespeare simply sat down alone every day, sharpened the olde quill,  and did Shakespeare. Then comes Radko: In your recent article you pose a question: “did Bohemia have a coast?”  Well, no, Bohemia didn’t have a coast as such but a Bohemian king Premysl Otakar II had holdings reaching from Mediterranean sea up to Baltic so it’s possibly not too far to leap to take a poetic license and declare coastal lands ruled by Bohemian king “the coast of Bohemia”. As far as Shakespeare himself goes, I’m can’t say either way with any authority but it is my personal opinion that all Shakespeare’s works were written by a different man of the same name.’  LTM writes in: Excellent new study on Shakespeare in Italy where the author actually went to every site and carefully researched how it would have been in 1600. Thanks Radko, LTM and Chris F

    30 July 2012: David Kathman writes in ‘Most of the anti-Stratfordians I encounter appear to be very intelligent and well-educated people, though their education is typically in some area other than Shakespeare and Elizabethan literature, as in the case of the physicist Sabrina Feldman. Now, I certainly don’t think that only people who are formally educated in Elizabethan literature and/or employed in academia are qualified to talk about Shakespeare, and that’s not just because my own degrees (BA, MA, PhD) are all in linguistics rather than English literature or history. I will take anybody seriously if they do good work and know what they’re doing, and nearly all the academic Shakespeare scholars I know feel the same. I make my living as a mutual fund analyst, not in academia, but I’ve always been treated with the utmost respect by Shakespeare scholars and theater historians, because I do good, careful scholarly work that advances knowledge in the field. The reason that anti-Stratfordians are not taken seriously by those same scholars is that they routinely violate the most basic standards of scholarship used by literary historians, and many of them display shocking ignorance of the literary and historical contexts of Shakespeare’s works. I’ve written about this in many place, including these articles (1, 2) on the Shakespeare Authorship site: There’s plenty more I could say, but those articles have the basics.’ Thanks David!