The Shakespeare issue: a response from a literature student

by John Doman

As a literature student, I have been intrigued by the articles on the Shakespearean authorship debate, and feel strongly compelled to write a response to Kathleen van Schaijik’s latest contribution titled “The ‘Stratford man’ and the Shakespearean canon: no match at all” (Vol. V, issue 3). I’d like to begin by addressing the closing paragraph, where Mrs. van Schaijik states her intention of discussing in a future article “the psychology of the debate—such as the surprisingly strong emotional reaction so many people have to the idea that Shakspere may not have been Shakespeare.”

This statement particularly struck me, because I also had read Mr. Sobran’s book, Alias Shakespeare, and had experienced an initially strong emotional response. My emotions, if I recall correctly, ranged from extreme annoyance to violent zeal. This surprised me, because I had always prided myself on reading literary criticism with a detached air. But upon reflection, I realized the source of my anger. It was not out of some sort of doubt in Shakespeare’s authorship. I had found Sobran’s arguments to be shallow and not substantiated enough—but I’ll expand on that later. The real reason for my anger was more along these lines: I had spent the last few years of my life learning about English literature. I had been taking courses from professors who have devoted their lives to the study and teaching of the English canon. And Mr. Sobran, a journalist, saunters in and, in essence, tells them and all the English professors in the world that they are either fools missing an obvious truth or mindless bureaucrats who are hiding the truth, evidently to avoid embarrassment.1  I apologize for my unusually strong language, but I feel that it’s important to clarify the nature of the emotional reaction Mrs. van Schaijik mentions. My anger was not the knee-jerk reaction of an academic, but a purely human response. Literature scholars all over the world spend their lives studying Shakespeare, not for material gain, but for sheer love of his work, and the desire to teach it.

Mrs. van Schaijik wrote that: “The first argument my critics raise against taking the Oxford theory seriously is essentially an ad hominem one, viz. that its proponents are poor scholars with bad attitudes.”

Now, I can’t speak of all the Oxford theory proponents, but in regards to Mr. Sobran, I would contend that he is certainly not a scholar of literature, and yes, he does have a bad attitude. This was made clear by Mr. Englert’s article in the V.1. Issue of the Concourse, in which Mr. Sobran is abundantly quoted. I see no need to repeat his remarks here.

The Shakespeare authorship debate is a vast and complex one, and the arguments marshaled against the traditional Mr. Shakespeare seem daunting, unless they are placed in a historical context. I have no intention of refuting all of Mr. Sobran’s arguments here, but I would like to point out some fallacies in the points Mrs. van Schaijik sets down. In her first point, she argues that Mr. “Shakspere’s” apparent lack of education would disqualify him as the author of the play. This point fails to take into account the fact that grammar schools in Elizabethan times taught Latin, and that London, where Shakspere lived for many years, was a cosmopolitan city where foreign languages were probably spoken. In his review of Sobran’s Alias Shakespeare, Jeffrey Gantz points out:

Education is a red herring—how much formal schooling did Jane Austen have? Or the Bronte sisters? Check out act one of The Taming of the Shrew, where Lucentio tells us that ‘since for the great desire that I had / To see fair Padua, nursery of arts, / I am arrived for fruitful Lombardy.’ Padua is not now and never was part of Lombardy; it has always belonged to Venetia, but contemporary English maps showed Lombardy as covering all of northern Italy. Shakespeare would have been taken in; Oxford, who visited Padua in 1575, could have labored under no such illusion.2

The important thing to realize is that the fact that Shakspere had no formal university degree does not eliminate him from the running. It is obvious from the geographical errors in the plays that the author was probably self-educated; an attribute that Oxford lacked. And in any case, mistakes in geography do not prove or disprove anything about the author’s identity. The author could have forgotten a minor detail, even if he had known it. He could have deliberately changed the facts of geography to fit his story line (as in the infamous “seacoast of Bohemia” gaffe in A Winter’s Tale.) In any case, such quibbling hardly makes for a strong argument.

In her second point, Mrs. van Schaijik makes the statement: “Apart from the 1623 Folio declaring him to be the author of the plays, there is virtually nothing on the record to connect Mr. Shakspere with Shakespeare’s works.” I assume that Mrs. van Schaijik means by the statement quoted above that there is no evidence connecting the person of Mr. Shakspere with the plays and poems attributed to him. If this is so, the statement quoted above is so ludicrous as to defy criticism. Anyone who read a short summation of Shakespeare’s works would know better. There are the “bad quartos,” pirated scripts of Shakespeare’s plays published without his permission; there are the poems “Venus and Adonis” and “The Rape of Lucrece,” published under Shakespeare’s name in 1593 and 1594, respectively; there are the sonnets, probably stolen and published without Shakespeare’s permission in 1609. These are only a few pieces of evidence connecting Shakspere with Shakespeare’s works, during his lifetime, well before the 1623 Folio.

In her third point Mrs. van Schaijik states: “Mr. Shakspere died in 1616. Dating the plays and poems to make them fit into his life, scholars presume that most of his greatest works must have been written between 1604 and 1612. But not a single item has been proved to have been written later than 1604 (the year Oxford died.)” This statement disregards historical context. The dating of the plays is not from some ostentatious attempt to preserve the Shakespeare myth; they are based on the publisher’s logs. Pirated versions of a number of Shakespeare’s plays were published in London long after 1604, and it is only common sense to assume that pirated versions of the plays would have been published while the plays were still running; and Oxford was no longer around to write them.

Of course, there is literally not enough space on the Concourse’s pages to dive into an in-depth analysis of the evidence for Shakespeare’s authorship of his plays. But the most compelling evidence that I can think of comes simply from imagining the earl of Oxford to be the author of the plays. It must be kept in mind that if Oxford actually did what the Oxfordites claim, it would not have stayed a secret for long. Oxford was a national figure, an equivalent to one of the Kennedys. If he had really written and staged plays throughout his adult life in the public theaters, there must have been multitudes of people who would have been in on the secret: the courtiers, the theater managers, the actors; possibly even the audiences. And yet, there is not one hint of this astounding secret in any of the numerous letters, diaries or tracts of the time; including the private papers of Oxford himself. In fact, Shakespeare’s authorship was never doubted until at least a century and a half after his death; and then the claimant was not Oxford, but Francis Bacon.

My purpose in this article is not to conclusively prove Shakespeare’s authorship; if any readers are genuinely curious about this historical question, they can find evidence and arguments for both sides by utilizing the resources on the Internet (Mr. Englert provides some good sources in the footnotes of his article.) Instead, my purpose is to present the view of a literature student in this debate; surely no one can question that this issue concerns us deeply.

While I am impressed by the ardor which Mrs. van Schaijik and her fellow Oxfordites put into pursuing their cause, I feel that she fails to acknowledge an evident fact: that perhaps the opinions of the experts deserve more respect than the opinions of the hobbyists and amateurs. Mrs. van Schaijik asserts that the literature “establishment” is not giving the Oxford case enough respect; but there is a simple reason for this: long before Mr. Sobran released Alias Shakespeare, the case for Oxford had been heard and judged upon. The arguments he presents are not original; they have been made before, and answered before (again, this can be learned from the resources on the Internet.) A simple example of Sobran’s lack of scholarship can be seen by his practice of quoting various celebrities as supporters of his theory; a practice that I was saddened to see repeated in Mrs. van Schaijik’s article. The fact that Orson Welles or Mark Twain thought that Shakespeare was a fraud proves nothing in particular; neither man was a historian or a literature scholar. This is a simple way to get attention. But even if this were not true, even if Mr. Sobran’s arguments were established and challenging to the traditional position, he would do well to adapt a more scholarly, reasonable attitude. Instead, his tone throughout his book has a brash and aggressive air; and it may be conceived that this tone comes not from confidence, but from desperation.

John Doman is a senior English Literature major.

  1. See Mr. Sobran’s remark, quoted in Mr. Englert’s article in the Concourse, V.1: “Most scholars nowadays are like bureaucrats; they stay within the system, and they hardly notice anything outside it.” ↑
  2. The Boston Phoenix, Nov. 6-13, 1997. ↑