Kathleen van Schaijik replies to John Doman on Shakespeare
by Kathleen van Schaijik
You see what I mean about emotional reactions?
John Doman is not alone. Oxford sympathizers run into this again and again: normally reasonable and duly detached people who can hardly bear mention of a doubt about Shakespeare’s authorship, never mind bring themselves to examine evidence against it calmly and rationally.1
Mr. Doman says he read Alias Shakespeare, but I cannot help thinking that the “extreme annoyance” and “violent zeal” he says he experienced must have interfered with his apprehension of it. Certainly the arguments he raises against the points I made show that he can’t have read it carefully. Nor does he seem willing to do Sobran, or me, justice. For instance, he says that I said that Mr. “Shakspere’s” apparent lack of education “eliminates” him as the author of the plays. But really my claim was much more modest, namely that Shakspere’s lack of education was among the “difficulties and lacunae” in the establishment theory. It seems so improbable that someone with as little education as William of Stratford had could have written works like Shakespeare’s. Comparisons with the education of Jane Austen and the Brontes only strengthen the impression, since those writers do not at all seem in their writing to have had a privileged formal education. Their books are brilliant and insightful, but not replete with classical allusion and detailed descriptions of distant cities and cultures; they do not exhibit a facility with foreign languages and an intimate familiarity with courtly life and the arcana of aristocratic pastimes. It is only in Shakespeare that we find such an implausible discongruity between what we read about his biography and what we discover in his writings.
As for Shakespeare’s famous “gaffes” about Italy, Sobran deals with them thoroughly on pages 67-71, citing (non-Oxfordian) experts who demonstrate that his plays actually indicate an astonishingly exact knowledge of that country and its ways. But perhaps (riled as he was) Mr. Doman inadvertently overlooked those pages.
His answer to my second point is likewise ineffectual. The debate revolves precisely around the question of whether the author who used the name William Shakespeare was Mr. Shakspere of Stratford or Oxford writing under a pen name.2 The folio published in 1623 (by two earls who were closely associated with Oxford) declares the former, but it is virtually the only evidence there is for that theory. None of the information that has been dug up about Mr. Shakspere indicates that he was a man of letters. He is mentioned in contemporary legal documents as an actor, a businessman or “a gentleman,” never as a playwright or a poet. He owned no books; scholars are not even sure he was literate.3 Furthermore, four centuries of scholarship have been unable to establish a single parallel between the content of the works and Mr. Shakspere’s life. In other words, there is no “internal” evidence for Shakspere at all. This doesn’t rule out his authorship absolutely, of course, but it does lend credibility to the alternative theory, especially as we begin to find link after link between the poems and plays and Oxford’s colorful history.
But Doman is only following the lead of other defenders of the establishment view when he accuses me of ludicrous, criticism-defying ignorance—of not even grasping as much as can be gleaned from any short summary of Shakespeare’s life. This is a recurrent theme of the articles I read at Stratfordian websites. Oxfordians (they say) are (at best) embarrassing in what they don’t know about Elizabethan history and culture, and in the blunders they fall into as a result; more often they are dishonest in manipulating evidence to make it support their absurd romantic fantasies.
But the more I look into the question myself, the more it looks as if the Oxfordians are the ones taking the evidence on its own terms, while the Stratfordian’s view of the period seems almost shaped by the assumption that Shakspere was Shakespeare. Here is one example. On the “Shakespeare Homepage” cited by Mr. Englert can be found an article accusing Oxfordians of falling for the silly myth that in Shakespeare’s day there was some sort of stigma attached to the idea of a nobleman publishing literary works for mass consumption. In reality, claims this article, there was no such stigma. But what, then, are we to make of evidence to the contrary, such as the following passage from the Arte of English Poesie, written in 1589:
Among the nobility or gentry…it is so come to pass that they have no courage to write and if they have are loath to be known of their skill. So as I know very many notable gentlemen in the Court that have written commendably, and suppressed it again, or else suffered it to be published without their own names to it: as if it were a discredit for a gentleman, to seem learned.
The author, thought to be George Puttenham, here clearly indicates that there were those among the gentry at the time “loath to be known of their skill.” In another chapter of the same work he describes “Noblemen and Gentlemen of Her Majesty’s own servants, who have written excellently well as it would appear if their doings could be found out and made public with the rest, of which number is first that noble gentleman Edward Earl of Oxford.”4
As for the conventional dating of the plays, the establishment scholars themselves acknowledge freely that it is a hypothesis based on what they know of the Stratford man’s life. Take away the assumption that he and Shakespeare were one, and the evidence seems to point to an author older than the Stratford man, who died around 1604, as Oxford did. Sobran has a whole fascinating chapter on this question.
But, Mr. Doman makes clear that in his mind at least these particular points take a backseat in the debate to the basic issue of the deference due to experts in cases like this. A few observations are in order here. For one, when we are speaking of “all the English professors in the world,” we should take care to distinguish between the great majority who are concerned almost exclusively with Shakespearean literature and that miniscule proportion who actually do scholarship on the authorship question. An expertise in Shakespeare’s plays and poetry does not at all entail an expertise in 16th century biography, which is its own field of study. My guess is that it is a rare English professor who gives more than a cursory look at the authorship question. When it comes up, they are content to rely on the scholarly consensus. No insult to them is implied, then, if we point out that a capable amateur who takes a serious interest in this issue may in a short time become more versed in the relevant material than most professors ever are.
Furthermore, if, as Oxfordians believe, the real identity of Shakespeare was concealed, a flair for investigative journalism may very well prove more useful in discovering the truth of the matter than a high and refined devotion to Shakespearean literature.5
Still further, let’s not forget that all scholars work with assumptions, which shape the way they view and interpret data. It is safe to say that for centuries Shakespeare scholars have worked with the assumption that the Stratford man was Shakespeare. This alone goes far toward explaining why they may have overlooked evidence pointing to Oxford, and how it is that key discoveries in this controversy have been left to amateurs. We need not accuse anybody of dishonesty or mindlessness.
A final point against Doman’s attack on Sobran’s credentials: Sobran himself points out, in a reply to a critical review of his book,6 that his work was not and never pretended to be one of literary scholarship. Rather, it was frankly an argument, viz., that the facts as they have been established by competent scholars point to Oxford as the true author. To disprove his case, then, one would have to demonstrate that the facts on which it rests are false, or that the reasoning is faulty, or that the conclusions are doubtful. It does no good whatsoever to point out that Sobran is not a literary scholar. It is utterly beside the point.7
And if we are going to speak of due respect, Sobran’s national reputation (whatever we may think of his politics) for intellectual brilliance, incisive reasoning, and personal integrity also calls for some deference on our part—more, certainly, than Mr. Doman displays.
I still haven’t gotten to the points raised earlier by Joanna Bratten about Shakespeare’s “sexual identity.” I am afraid they will have to wait for a distant-future issue. I worry a little about wearing out the readers’ interest in this topic, though my own keeps waxing. Meanwhile, I’d love to know whether anyone has picked up Alias Shakespeare since we began this discussion, and, if they have, whether it has affected their views.
Kathleen (Healy, ‘88) van Schaijik is Editor-in-Chief of the Concourse.
- See, for example, former Stratfordian, Mark Alexander’s account “How and Why I Became on Oxfordian” at his website: home.earthlink.net/~mark_alex/index.htm ↑
- Here is a tantalizing tidbit that lends plausibility to the penname theory: “Gabriel Harvey, a fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, praised the Earl of Oxford in 1578 (in Latin) with the words, ‘Thine eyes flash fire, thy countenance shakes a spear.’” (See “The Case for Oxford,” by Tom Bethell in the Oct., 1991 issue of the Atlantic Monthly. http://www.theatlantic.com/unbound/flashbks/shakes/beth.htm) ↑
- Even establishment scholars admit the oddity of this. The first paragraph of the preface to my own volumes of Shakespeare, written in 1860 by H. Stauntan, reads: “What is strange, too, of a writer so remarkable [is that] not a poem, a play, or a fragment of either, in his manuscript, has come down to us. What is still more surprising, with the exception of five or six signatures, not a word in his handwriting is known to exist.” ↑
- Quotes taken from the Bethell article cited in footnote 2. It is only fair for me to note here that Stratfordian Terry Ross tries to answer this point on the aforementioned website. As he sees it, Oxfordians have twisted its plain meaning, which was that Oxford was the “first among the rest,” i.e. first among those who were known for their poetry. The grammar of the sentence is admittedly ambiguous, but to me the Oxfordians’ reading of the passage seems the more natural one, viz. that Oxford was first among those noblemen whose literary excellence was hidden to the public. In any case, Ross does not dispute Puttenham’s statement that there were talented noblemen writers of that day who declined to publish under their own names because of a social stigma. ↑
- Not that I will concede that Sobran has no such devotion. His writing displays a vast knowledge of and a deep appreciation for his works as literature. ↑
- “How Old Was Oxford’s Daughter, and When Did William Lose His Hair?, A reply to Alan Nelson” ↑
- What is not beside the point of the Oxfordians’ case, however, is the fact that numerous literary men and women, including scholars, critics, professors and distinguished Shakespearean actors have been persuaded by the evidence against Stratford and for Oxford. To show this is to defeat or at least undermine dramatically the Stratfordian’s ad hominem attack on the amateur or crack-pot status of the Oxford sympathizers. (It is amusing to hear Mr. Doman refer to such eminent men of letters as Henry James and Mark Twain as “celebrities,” whose opinion on this matter should be utterly disregarded by the serious.) ↑