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Home :: Archive :: 1999 :: June ::
Letter to Harper's
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 10.1063  Thursday, 24 June 1999.

From:           David Kathman <
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Date:           Wednesday, 23 Jun 1999 13:07:03 -0500
Subject:        Letter to Harper's

As many of you are aware, back in April, Harper's magazine published a
group of articles called "The Ghost of Shakespeare", concerning the
authorship question. Editor Lewis Lapham, who apparently leans toward
being an Oxfordian but is not quite convinced, invited five Oxfordians
and five Shakespeare scholars to write articles exploring various
aspects of the question.  The Oxfordian articles were filled with the
usual Oxfordian distortions; the pro-Shakespeare articles, while they
didn't necessarily make all the points I would have made, or drive home
forcefully enough the points they did make, nevertheless did a good job
of pointing out the fallacies in Oxfordian reasoning.  When the issue
came out, I wrote a letter to Harper's pointing out some of the worst of
the falsehoods and distortions in the Oxfordian articles, and explaining
why their enterprise does not fall under the rubric of scholarship in
any normal sense of the word.  It was a long letter-too long for them to
publish, I feared, but I couldn't find a way to say all that needed
saying in less space.  The July Harper's has just come out, containing a
bunch of letters responding to the authorship articles from April.  As
one might expect, they're all short and superficial; the letters
defending Shakespeare make some good points, but they fail to expose the
false statements made by the Oxfordians, and in some cases they even
uncritically accept distortions from the Oxfordian articles.  Since my
letter was not among those published, I thought I'd publish it here.
Feel free to distribute this letter to anybody you know who has
expressed curiosity about the authorship question, especially anybody
who saw the April Harper's.

Dave Kathman

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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 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; indeed,
abundant documentary evidence shows that 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 his "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, and while 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, nothing indicates that he was a "grain merchant".
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 Latin poem in a volume by Gabriel Harvey
(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, the parallels adduced by Anderson
and other Oxfordians are mostly 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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