A Letter to Harper's


March 31, 1999

Letters Editor
Harper's Magazine
666 Broadway, 11th Floor
New York, NY 10012

To the Editor:

As I read the Oxfordian articles in your April issue, I shook my head in sad recognition. Here were the same distortions and falsehoods that are the bread and butter of the Oxfordian "case," presented as facts to unsuspecting readers who might start to think there is something to this manufactured controversy. Oxfordians love public debates: such a forum allows them to make one groundless assertion after another, whereas providing the context required to show why those assertions are groundless usually requires far more time and space than the format allows. Readers who are interested in detailed rebuttals to Oxfordian claims, including all of those I address below, should visit the Shakespeare Authorship web site at will.html. In this letter I would just like to point out some of the most egregious errors and distortions in the five Oxfordian articles, while also explaining why I and other Shakespeare scholars regard Oxfordianism as pseudo-scholarship which arbitrarily discards the methods used by real historians.

First, let's get one thing straight -- despite the claims of Richard Whalen, Oxfordianism most certainly is a conspiracy theory. Quite a bit of mutually supporting evidence says that William Shakespeare of Stratford wrote the works published under his name, and this evidence is stronger than that for the great majority of Shakespeare's contemporary playwrights. No evidence connects Oxford with these works, even though, as a member of the nobility, his life was particularly well-documented. At a bare minimum, Oxfordianism requires one to believe that the most direct evidence of Shakespeare's authorship -- such as the First Folio and the Stratford monument -- was faked by conspirators, and that any evidence for Oxford's authorship of Shakespeare was suppressed or destroyed (presumably by the same conspirators). Oxfordians may disagree about the extent of their imaginary conspiracy, but to claim that no conspiracy is necessary is quite simply bizarre.

In order to support their beliefs, Oxfordians resort to a number of tactics which will be familiar to observers of other forms of pseudo-history and pseudo-science. One is outright fabrication, such as Daniel Wright's claim that "Pallas Athena, the mythological patron of the theatrical arts... was known to all and sundry as "the spear shaker."" This statement is false on two separate counts: Pallas Athena was not the patron of the theatrical arts (Dionysus was), nor was she ever called "the spear shaker," either in antiquity or in the 16th century. In fact, Wright's entire attempt to imply that "William Shakespeare" was a pseudonym is a tissue of specious claims and misrepresentations that had me shaking my head in astonishment. "William Shakespeare" has none of the characteristics of a pseudonym, and it was the name of a real person who was a prominent member of the acting company which put on the plays attributed to William Shakespeare.

Oxfordians also use a radical double standard, in which facts are twisted to make William Shakespeare look as bad as possible and Oxford look as good as possible. For example, Wright's characterization of William Shakespeare as "an unlettered wool and grain merchant" who "lived a fairly nondescript life" is an astonishing distortion which requires ignoring most of the available evidence. Even if we momentarily set aside all London records, Shakespeare's closest friends in Stratford were cultured, literary men. For example, Thomas Greene, who lived in Shakespeare's house and called him "cousin," was a friend of John Marston, Michael Drayton, and John Manningham (who recorded a racy anecdote about Shakespeare and Burbage in his diary). No evidence connects William Shakespeare with wool dealing; a couple of records show that Shakespeare, like all householders of every profession, kept grain for making ale and bread and sometimes sold the surplus to neighbors, but nothing indicates that he was a "grain dealer." On the other hand, many records show that William Shakespeare of Stratford was a prominent actor and sharer for many years in the King's Men, the company which performed the plays of William Shakespeare. Wright would apparently dismiss these records because they do not accord with his notion that Shakespeare must have been an ignorant rustic.

Still another technique with which Oxfordians mislead their innocent readers is neglecting to provide the necessary context for their claims. A perfect example is Richard Whalen's assertion that "a deafening silence marked the death of Will Shakspere [sic]" and that "no eulogies have been found." Such claims will astonish any scholar familiar with the many eulogies to Shakespeare, but what Whalen apparently means is that no eulogies for Shakespeare were printed immediately after his death. What Whalen neglects to tell his readers is that immediate printed eulogies in Shakespeare's day were only for socially important people like nobility and church leaders; posthumous eulogies for poets circulated in manuscript, only reaching print years later, if at all. William Basse's "On Mr. William Shakespeare" was one of the most popular manuscript eulogies of the seventeenth century, surviving in more than two dozen copies, several of which specify that Shakespeare died in April 1616. In fact, the seven years before the first printed eulogies to Shakespeare in the First Folio was remarkably fast, unprecedented for an English playwright, and the number of tributes written to the Bard is more than for any of his contemporaries before Ben Jonson 20 years later. (In contrast, the Earl of Oxford's death in 1604 actually was greeted with a "deafening silence" and no eulogies.) Looked at in context, the facts are almost exactly the opposite of the way Whalen describes them.

Oxfordians discard the methods used by generations of historians, but the methods they wish to use instead -- involving supposed parallels between Oxford's life and Shakespeare's works -- are so subjective as to be virtually worthless. First of all, Mark Anderson's list of such "parallels" includes a number of factual distortions. For example, Lord Burghley was never nicknamed "Polus"; this persistent Oxfordian myth arose from a misreading of a Sixteenth-Century Latin poem (not the first time Oxfordians have misread basic Latin). Oxford was never a widower with two married daughters, as Anderson implies; all three of his daughters' weddings came after he remarried. But even after the factual errors are filtered out, many of the parallels adduced by Anderson and other Oxfordians are commonplaces. For example, the bed-trick in All's Well That Ends Well that Anderson finds so significant was a common bit of folklore dating back to the Middle Ages, so prevalent in the drama of Shakespeare's day that it has been the subject of an entire book (The Bed-Trick in English Renaissance Drama by Marliss Desens). Similar lists of parallels, at least as impressive as those given by Oxfordians (often more so), can be made for many other noblemen of the time, such as King James and the Earls of Essex and Derby. Oxfordians fail to inform their readers that such parallels have been used as "evidence" for many other alternate Shakespeares; in fact, millions of Russians are now convinced that the Earl of Rutland wrote Shakespeare, persuaded by a recent bestseller which applies Oxfordian methods to Rutland's life.

In summary, Oxfordians are not taken seriously by Shakespeare scholars because they consistently distort and misrepresent the historical record, and because they want to jettison the methods used not just by Elizabethan scholars, but by historians of all kinds. There are many similarities, in terms of both methods and rhetoric, between Oxfordianism and such other fringe belief systems as Creationism: Gail Kern Paster hit the nail on the head when she wrote that "to ask me about the authorship question... is like asking a paleontologist to debate a creationist's account of the fossil record." Many Oxfordians say that their beliefs increase their enjoyment of Shakespeare's plays; one Oxfordian I know described the experience as "powerful and transformative." I have no reason to doubt this, since many people hold religious beliefs that they find "powerful and transformative." But to pretend that the Oxfordian belief system represents historical reality is to debase the efforts of all historians, and to insist that the rest of us share that belief system is an insult to those of us who care about standards of truth and accuracy.

David Kathman
Co-editor, Shakespeare Authorship Web Page
Assistant Editor, New Variorum Shakespeare Poems

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