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See Inside August 2009

Skeptic's Take on the Life and Argued Works of Shakespeare

The anti-Stratfordian skeptics are back, and this time they have a Supreme Court justice on their side



Matt Collins

For centuries, Shakespeare skeptics have doubted the authorship of the Stratfordian Bard's literary corpus, proffering no fewer than 50 alternative candidates, including Francis Bacon, Queen Elizabeth I, Christopher Marlowe and the leading contender among the "anti-Stratfordians," Edward de Vere, 17th earl of Oxford. And for nearly as long, the Shakespeare skeptics have toiled in relative obscurity, holding conferences in tiny gatherings and dreaming of the day their campaign would make front-page news. On April 18, 2009, the Wall Street Journal granted their wish with a feature story on how U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens came to believe (and throw his judicial weight behind) the skeptics.

Stevens's argument retreads a well-worn syllogism: Shakespeare's plays are so culturally rich that they could only have been written by a noble or scholar of great learning. The historical William Shakespeare was a commoner with no more than a grammar school education. Ergo, Shakespeare could not have written Shakespeare. For example, Stevens asks, "Where are the books? You can't be a scholar of that depth and not have any books in your home. He never had any correspondence with his contemporaries, he never was shown to be present at any major event—the coronation of James or any of that stuff. I think the evidence that he was not the author is beyond a reasonable doubt."

But reasonable doubt should not cost an author his claim, at least not if we treat history as a science instead of as a legal debate. In science, a reigning theory is presumed provisionally true and continues to hold sway unless and until a challenging theory explains the current data as well and also accounts for anomalies that the prevailing one cannot. Applying that principle here, we should grant that Shakespeare wrote the plays unless and until the anti-Stratfordians can make their case for a challenger who fits more of the literary and historical data.

I explained this to John M. Shahan, chair of the Shakespeare Authorship Coalition (www.DoubtAboutWill.org), who insisted that although most skeptics hold that the true playwright was the earl of Oxford, their mission has merely been to sow the seeds of doubt. I understood why when I examined the case for de Vere. For example, de Vere’s partisans exalt his education at both the University of Cambridge and the University of Oxford and believe that the plays could only have been penned by someone of such erudition. Yet the plays make many allusions to the grammar school education that Shakespeare had and not to that university life held so dear by the skeptics: instead of Cambridge masters and Oxford dons, Shakespeare routinely references schoolmasters, schoolboys and schoolbooks.

As for Shakespeare’s humble upbringing, his father was a middle-class landowner whose estate was valued at the then respectable sum of £500 (you could purchase a modest home for £50) and whose social standing was as high as or higher than that of either Marlowe or Ben Jonson, who were themselves sons of a shoemaker and bricklayer, respectively, and somehow managed to master the belles lettres.

In the end, it’s not enough merely to plant doubts about Will. Some anti-Stratfordians question Shakespeare’s existence, but the number of references to him from his own time could only be accounted for by a playwright of that name (unless de Vere used Shakespeare as a nom de plume, for which there is zero evidence). And although Shakespeare’s skeptics note that there are no manuscripts, receipts, diaries or letters from him, they neglect to mention that we have none of these for Marlowe, either.

In other words, reasonable doubt is not enough to dethrone the man from Stratford-upon-Avon, and to date, no overwhelming case has been made for any other author. In contrast, hundreds of examples of historical and literary consilience have been compiled by Purchase College theatre professor and playwright Scott McCrea in his aptly titled book The Case for Shakespeare (Praeger, 2008), which demonstrates beyond a reasonable doubt that, in the Bard’s own words from Julius Caesar, Shakespeare was not just a man but the man: “the elements / So mix’d in him, that Nature might stand up, / And say to all the world, This was a man!”

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