Some General Thoughts:
Oxfordians vs. Literary Scholars

Part 12 of "Critically Examining Oxfordian Claims"

Mark Alexander wrote:
Professors and many others have incredible prestige and psychological/financial investment in Stratford. It is not stupid of them to want to preserve what functions as an important "anchor point" in their reality.
I think you're focusing on the wrong level here. For me, and for most other Shakespeare scholars I'm aware of, it's not specifically the challenge to Shakespeare that bothers us about Oxfordians; rather, it's the total disregard for historical method, and the essential arbitrariness of the Oxfordian position. Our reasons for believing that William Shakespeare of Stratford wrote the plays published under his name are the same type as the reasons for believing that any other Elizabethan author wrote the works ascribed to him; indeed, as I've said many times before, the evidence for Shakespeare's authorship is more extensive than the comparable evidence for the great majority of Elizabethan authors, especially playwrights. If you insist on disbelieving in Shakespeare's authorship, fine, but then you'll have to also disbelieve in the authorship of most other Elizabethan and Jacobean drama, if you're going to be consistent.

There are actually Oxfordians who believe that most plays of the era were written by noblemen in disguise. One Oxfordian I met claimed (after some prodding by me) that "John Webster" was actually a pseudonym for Mary Herbert, the Countess of Pembroke. I've gotten other Oxfordians to make similar concessions, though they're usually pretty vague about who wrote what. I think most people would be much less receptive to a theory that says that not only Shakespeare, but the bulk of Elizabethan drama was written by noblemen who used the identities of real middle-class men as fronts. But that's the logical outcome of Oxfordian methods, if they're applied consistently. It would be an absolute piece of cake for me to prove that the historical Christopher Marlowe, John Fletcher, Francis Beaumont, or John Webster did not write the plays attributed to them, if I used Oxfordian methods.

As for the supposed "evidence" for Oxford, I've always been struck by its arbitrary nature, and that impression has only been strengthened the more research I've done on the issue. I could construct just as convincing a story about any of a number of candidates. I know one former Oxfordian who "converted" to the Earl of Derby a couple of years ago. He had always been vocal in defending Oxford's alleged authorship to me, but after his conversion he confided that he felt enormous relief at not having to put up a front and defend Oxford any more. I can't say I blame him, because I find the "case" for Derby's authorship much stronger than the case for Oxford; not only is dating not a problem (Derby lived until 1642), but Derby is known to have written plays for the common stage (unlike Oxford) and his family can be tied to William Shakespeare (unlike Oxford).

I could also make a damn good case for the Earl of Essex. And of course, the "evidence" for Bacon has long been presented by Baconians, even though most Oxfordians seem unaware of its extent. In fact, many Oxfordians seem to be under the impression that Oxford stands alone as an alternative to Shakespeare, when actually he's a relatively weak member of a rather large pack of potential "candidates". Oxford's candidacy is so widespread for essentially political reasons: an English schoolteacher just happened to latch on to Oxford rather than somebody else 80 years ago (based on a poem that Oxford probably didn't write), and Looney and others found some elements of Oxford's biography that they could construct into a romantic version of the person they thought should have written Shakespeare's plays.

Once this romantic idealization of Oxford took hold, it seemed to have a life of its own, and it's certainly been influential in the world of antistratfordia. But that influence has been due to the energy of Oxford's proponents, and not to the inherent merits of their case. Antistratfordia has always remained a fringe outside of real scholarship, and it's going to remain there. For the last 150 years, antistratfordians have been confidently predicting that the tide is turning, and that the rest of the world will soon see the light. Occasional Oxfordian statements that orthodox Shakespeare scholarship will be a curiosity in 50 years make me chuckle, because I've read almost identical comments written by Baconians a century ago. Sure, antistratfordians have had their peaks and valleys in wiggling into public consciousness, but they've never made more than token inroads into the world of scholarship, because their methods are fundamentally anti-scholarly.

from another Mark Alexander post:

Well, if Schoenbaum couldn't bring me back into the fold, obviously Wilson can't. Both Matus and Wilson are able to exploit some of the weaknesses in Oxfordian positions, but they fail to address effectively the real core issues IMHO. But we go round and round on what that means. Perhaps Terry and Kathman would consider a 17-part refutation of Looney's original list [in "Shakespeare" Identified -- dk] that he used to go in search of an author. That's where the core issues lie.
I'm not sure why I should try to "refute" Looney's list, when it's based upon an approach that I find fundamentally flawed. Such lists are so arbitrary and subjective that they're essentially worthless from a scholarly standpoint. They allow the listmaker to project the person he thinks should have written the plays; as such, they're kind of interesting from a psychological standpoint, but certainly not from the perspective of literary history. Not surprisingly, Derbyites and Rutlandites and Dyerites have made similar lists which point to their candidates but eliminate Oxford. Alden Brooks had a list of something like 100 criteria in Will Shakespere and the Dyer's Hand which irrefutably prove that Sir Edward Dyer wrote Shakespeare's plays. Why don't you try to refute Dyer's list? It eliminates Oxford handily.


What "pushed me over the edge?" (Nice phrasing. )

Ogburn's TMWS [The Mysterious William Shakespeare -- dk] got me reseaching. He did not persuade me right away because I had to research the other side more thoroughly, but with new eyes. I would say that it took about 2 years during my grad student years. I sat in the library with TMWS and would grab books and volumes and check sources, compare arguments, find out what Ogburn had not addressed, how he was refuted, how orthodox scholars handled dissent.

Well, Mark, I'm glad you at least did some research, even though we've come to vastly different conclusions. That's more than I can say for a lot of Oxfordians.


What first got to me was the extent of scholarly fraud... How much students believe and take for granted, how much professors spread conjecture as truth, theories as fact, fabrications as dogma. It took me six months just to fully grasp how scholars, documentary evidence, arguments, and the tradition of commentary and interpretation symbiotically interact in the arena of Shakespeare.
Could you give some examples of the "scholarly fraud" you're talking about? I'm genuinely curious. I'm certainly not going to deny that there have been some bad biographies of Shakespeare, but the field shouldn't be judged by those, any more than all antistratfordians should be judged on the basis of the Baconians who thought Bacon wrote Robinson Crusoe and was still alive in the 20th century. I've read a lot of biographical material on Elizabethan theater people other than Shakespeare, and as far as I can see, scholars use the same basic methodology for these other people that they do for Shakespeare. Do you believe that there's been a lot of fraud among Marlowe's biographers? They've spun conjectures at least as fanciful as anything you'll find in a Shakespeare biography, based on pretty scanty evidence. Do you believe that the entire field of Elizabethan literary and theater history is based on fraudulent methods?


It made me ill.
Ogburn's book made me ill too, but for entirely different reasons. His bias against William Shakespeare is so naked, and the double standards he applies are so extreme, that his book has very little value as scholarship. I've tried to point out in my article "Why I'm Not an Oxfordian" some of the ways in which Ogburn invents facts, accepts evidence for other playwrights that's weaker than the evidence he scoffingly rejects for Shakespeare, fails to even glance at necessary context, and in general makes a mockery of scholarly methods. I've been told that Ogburn is one of the most charming men in the world as long as you don't disagree with him about the Shakespeare authorship, and I believe it. But he's also a deeply, deeply prejudiced man who behaves completely irrationally on that one topic. I find many of his attitudes very troubling.


Once I came to terms with my own regard for the role of art and the nature of the great artist, I realized more clearly where the real line was truly drawn, and how impossible it would be to really "prove" which side of the line was the "truth." Stratfordians tend (not universally) to accept what I call the "material/academic" Shakespeare. The reductionist "scientific" view. In effect, "Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare until you can prove with actual documentary evidence that Shakespeare did not write Shakespeare." Antistratfordians tend (not universally) to accept the "spiritual/artist" Shakespeare. "The great artist forges in the smithy of his soul his consciousness and cannot help leave a mark of his life and experience on that." That is not exactly the "biographical" approach that Richard Nathan and others want to lay on us. But there is probably no use arguing that.

The differences boil down to a fundamental perception on the nature of the artist, and all disconnects among us ultimately, I believe, arise out of that distinction.

I've been thinking about these issues too, and I think you've got some decent ideas here, but I also think that you're again focusing on the wrong level. I would never deny that great artists' lives and experience influence their works, and I have no problem with your quote above about the great artist forging in the smithy of his soul his consciousness. I do have two main problems with the way you approach all this, though:
  1. Oxfordians seem to assume a far too literal approach to the relationship between an artist's work and life. Sure, some artists' work is transparently autobiographical, but some is not; there's a very wide range. In particular, I'm not aware of any Elizabethan playwright whose works can be interpreted as the same kind of literal crypto- autobiography that Oxfordians claim for the Shakespeare canon. Or can you give me an example of such a thing?

  2. More importantly, we simply don't know enough about the personal and emotional life of William Shakespeare to know how much that life is reflected in the plays. He was a member of the middle class, and very little personal information has survived about any such people from Shakespeare's time. Oxfordians generally make the mistake of assuming (often unconsciously) that the surviving documentary records from Elizabethan times represent everything there is to know, or at least a representative sample. But the records that survive are a minuscule fraction of what was produced, and it's a highly skewed sample. Most of what we have for people like Shakespeare are legal and financial records, because those were saved in government depositories. Pretty dry stuff. But in a few rare cases, personal papers did manage to survive by chance (as in the cache of Richard Quiney's papers that survived in the Stratford town archives), and such hoards make it clear that members of the middle class led full and interesting personal lives. We know almost nothing about the personal lives of John Webster, John Fletcher, Francis Beaumont, Philip Massinger, or Thomas Middleton, except for tantalizing glimpses here and there. That doesn't mean these men didn't have personal lives; it means that their personal lives were not recorded like the lives of noblemen were.


When I read the poems and plays through the lens of Stratford, I get much insight and greatness ... but only from the plays themselves. Shakspere the man leaves no make on the plays as far as I can access. This violates my experience of almost every other great artist I have experienced.
As I've noted above, the type of personal information about Shakespeare that you're yearning for has disappeared in the mists of time for the vast majority of middle-class Elizabethans, including most of Shakespeare's contemporary playwrights. I wish we did know more about Shakespeare's hopes and dreams and personality; everyone wishes that. But I'm not going to throw away all the evidence which says that William Shakespeare wrote those plays, just so I can latch on to a nobleman whose personal life was recorded and imagine him as the author. You can do that if you want, but I won't.


When I read the poems and plays through the lens of Oxford, the experience is powerful and transformative and true to the experience I have had with other artists.
Hey, if it makes you feel better to think of Oxford as the author of Shakespeare's plays, that's fine with me. If it increases your enjoyment of the plays, I certainly won't begrudge you that. Many people hold religious beliefs that they find powerful and transformative. But don't insist that I share your belief, and don't pretend that what you're doing is scholarship rather than religion.


That is not proof for anyone else but me.
I'm glad you at least recognize that.

from yet another post by Mark Alexander

If the issue is one of a pseudonym, then people who refer to "Shakespeare" as the author could just as well be using the pen-name to refer to the real author. But we've "gone around" on this one before, and you have shown no desire yet to acknowledge it as something to take into account.
"William Shakespeare" has none of the characteristics of a pseudonym. It was the name of a real person who was closely connected with the production of the plays in question, and people close to this person said he was the author of those plays.


Art reflects a "state of consciousness." That consciousness is a reflection of a life shaped by experiences, beliefs, and feelings. Art may not necessarily reveal incontrovertable details of physical activities, but it always reveals the biography of that consciousness. Again I recommend Goddard on this. He's Stratfordian, so you may not feel like you're wasting your money.
Are you saying that William Shakespeare of Stratford did not have experiences, beliefs, and feelings? As I said above, it's unfortunate that we don't have documentation of Shakespeare's personal beliefs and feelings apart from his literary works, but the same is true of virtually all his contemporaries. I'm sure most of these writers did have experiences, beliefs, and feelings, though.


Using Mozart as an example, you can listen to his art and understand how it reflects his influences. You can argue about his bio, but even without his letters, we would know that he had to have had certain musical influences to experience. If we didn't have letters and descriptions of his travels, and he were identified as some Irishman who never left his island, then we would be suffering under the spectre of academics telling us how Mozart was a genius who could simply examine copies of scores and imitate them without ever traveling and experiencing the music first-hand. How to account for scores finding their way into his hands? Well, they would invent a mythology of travellers who brought them to the great genius.That would be absurd. But it is the same with Shakspere.
You're presenting a parody of my position. There were tons of resources in London for learning about anything under the son, and other writers besides Shakespeare demonstrably make good use of those resources. Shakespeare's childhood acquaintance Richard Field was involved in the printing of many of the books that were used in writing Shakespeare's plays.


You can continue to maintain that no biography is in the poems and plays. But you and others who make the claim ignore the testimony of the artists themselves and simply reveal an ideological agenda.

It's interesting how Stratfordians must tend toward tearing down the experience and accomplishments of the author while Oxfordians build them up. It always amazes me how anyone could read those plays and "not" be aware of the intense and compressed amount of direct personal experience that lies therein.

Who says that? I'm sure there there is a lot of intense personal experience reflected in Shakespeare's plays. We just don't know enough about his personal life to be able to pinpoint exactly where and how that experience is reflected. That's not to say many people haven't taken guesses, some of them quite plausible.


It's true of every other writer. Look at Jane Austin and then her books. Look at Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky and their books. Look at Mark Twain and his books. Look at Hemingway and his books. And on and on and on... In every case you find that they forge their direct experience into their books.
All those people lived in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and we have exponentially more information about their lives than we do about any of Shakespeare's contemporaries.


How will you have it? We either say the documentary evidence is what we work from or we don't and allow all speculation. You refuse to allow speculation outside the documentary evidence for Oxford. Why do you allow it for Shakspere?
As I said in my response to Christopher Dams in The Elizabethan Review:

"Mr. Dams accuses me of inconsistency because I criticize Oxfordians for basing their case almost entirely on internal evidence from the plays, when orthodox scholars have often used evidence from the plays to speculate on such aspects of Shakespeare's life as the Lost Years. The difference -- and it is a major one -- is that orthodox scholars do not use such speculation as evidence as to who wrote the plays; rather, they use it to supplement and flesh out the external evidence, all of which indicates that William Shakespeare of Stratford was the author. Oxfordians, on the other hand, treat such internal reconstructions as primary "evidence" (despite their inherent subjectivity), simply rationalizing away all the considerable external evidence when it does not agree with their impressions of who the author must have been."

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