August 24, 2010

Knowing Will Too Well

I recently wrote a very short piece for the Warwick "Knowledge Centre" on that old chestnut, the Shakespeare Authorship Question. I think you need to be a current or former member of the University to view it, but the piece is here, entitled "Knowing Will Too Well". I don't have space to go into the specifics of the authorship argument, but point out the most basic flawed principles upon which anti-Stratfordian arguments rely. I then point out that the question persists because orthodox Shakespearean biography uses a similarly imaginative approach, thus legitimising the methodology used by conspiracy theorists. Only by understanding Shakespeare in his collaborative, theatrical context is this question ever going to be resolved.


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  1. Duncan

    That link requires a log in. However, a quick google of the title reveals that the article has been cached and can be read here: http://goo.gl/z8fL

    24 Aug 2010, 11:06

  2. Howard Schumann

    For a PHd student, you really do not seem to know much about the real issues involved in the Shakespeare Authorship debate.

    The fact that some works were published under the attribute of William Shakespeare does not identify the man behind the name. There is nothing in his handwriting ever discovered except for six almost illegible signatures. There are no letters, no correspondence, no manuscripts, no paper trail at all to identify the man behind the name, not a single word. Nobody claims to having ever met the man. When contemporaries refer to William Shakespeare, they are referring to the name on the title page and nothing else.

    The few facts we know about Shakespeare from Stratford are stretched, pulled, and twisted to make it plausible that he was the author. There is nothing in his biography to connect him with the works. Indeed the opposite is true. Robert Bearman sums up Shakespeare’s life as follows in “Shakespeare in the Stratford Records” (1994), published by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust: “Certainly, there is little, if anything, to remind us that we are studying the life of one who in his writings emerges as perhaps the most gifted of all time in describing the human condition. He seems merely to have been a man of the world, buying up property, laying in ample stocks of barley and malt, when others were starving, selling off his surpluses and pursuing debtors in court….”

    The Sonnets are written by a man who is clearly much older. Conventional chronology dates the sonnets to between 1592 and 1596. At this time, William of Stratford would have been in his late twenties and early thirties (Oxford was 14 years older). Even if we up the date to 1599, William of Stratford was still in his thirties. The sonnets tell us that the poet was in his declining years when writing them. He was “Beated and chopped with tanned antiquity,” “With Time’s injurious hand crushed and o’er worn”, in the “twilight of life”. He is lamenting “all those friends” who have died, “my lovers gone”. His is “That time of year/When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang/Upon those boughs that shake against the cold.”

    The sonnets that most contradict Will of Stratford’s life story are those about shame and disgrace to name and reputation. Here Shakespeare’s biographers have nothing to go on. In addition he refers to having “born the canopy” (Sonnet 125), a reference to carrying the canopy over the head of the monarch during a wedding procession. There is no evidence that the man from Stratford ever came within a thousand yards of the Queen or ever carried any canopy. It would have been forbidden to a commoner.

    Many books that were used as source material for the plays were not translated into English in Shakespeare’s time. If the man who was Shakespeare regularly relied on books not yet translated from Italian, French, and Spanish, then he must have been able to read in Italian, French, and Spanish.

    The assumption behind the support for William Shakespeare of Stratford as the author has to be that he was no ordinary mortal because otherwise there is no accounting for the detailed knowledge of the law, foreign languages, Italy, the court and aristocratic society, and sports such as falconry, tennis, jousting, fencing, and coursing that appears in the plays.
    The latest mantra is that plays in those days could not have been autobiographical. This is because there is not a single episode in the plays and soinnets that connect with the life of William of Stratford. Believe me, if there was you would be trumpeting it all over the place. The Sonnets are expressions of love, hurt, pain covering almost every conceivable emotion. Believing that these were not personal is like thinking that the Psalms of David were merely literary exercises.

    This debate will not go away until the truth is told no matter how many cheer for the status quo.

    28 Aug 2010, 05:56

  3. Duncan

    But, love, hate on, for now I know thy mind,
    Those that can see thou lov’st, and I am blind.

    The sonnets also tell us that their author suffered a visual handicap, which makes their composition even more remarkable.

    28 Aug 2010, 12:02

  4. Duncan – nice!

    Howard – considering your opening gambit that I “don’t know much about the real issues”, you then go on rather to prove my point. Every single one of your points falls under the three general issues I discussed in the article (which is, of course, necessarily brief – see James Shapiro “Contested Will” if you want a monograph-length study of the question.

    Your individual points have all been answered by wiser heads elsewhere, I’m more interested in the ideological questions. Your readings of the sonnets in the middle two paragraphs fall into the same trap I discussed of confusing fiction with biography. Your early paragraphs confuse a lack of surviving evidence (from a period where we’re lucky to have as much as we do have) with evidence against, which is a fundamentally flawed argument. Most of the information we have about other dramatists from Shakespeare’s day comes from documents such as Henslowe’s diary, and unfortunately we simply don’t have the equivalent documents from the company Shakespeare is recorded to have worked for. You also ignore the sheer range and scope of references to Shakespeare as dramatist in his own time, from the Parnassus plays to Heywood’s report of Shakespeare’s displeasure at the publication of The Passionate Pilgrim, as well as the evidence of Francis Meres and a vast proportion of the London publishing trade. The scale of a conspiracy needed to invalidate all of these references (and that’s even to ignore the Thomas More fragment and all the posthumous references to Shakespeare, notably the First Folio) puts us squarely into the realm of conspiracy fiction, which is not an academic discipline.

    Finally, your complaint about sources is a) wrong (most of the sources of Shakespeare’s plays were available in English or Latin, both spoken by yer average grammar-school educated child) and b) reductive – the intertextuality of the period means that books, translations and ideas circulated freely. The most popular play performed on the Jacobean stage, A Game at Chess, was a complex political allegory about English/Spanish relations of a sophistication that an equivalent crowd today would simply not be able to grasp. This stuff was part of everyday conversation.

    As I argue – and this is where my doctoral research comes in – any contextual reading of sonnet sequences and plays of the period renders these arguments ludicrous. The responsiveness of Shakespeare’s plays to those of his contemporaries clearly demonstrates that they were written within a dramatic environment, as does their stagecraft and understanding of company resources. The volume of plays by other dramatists set in locales they never visited shows that, whatever you might believe, writers of fiction are able to employ imagination and reading in creating their worlds. And Shakespeare’s plays occupy a mid-level of classical reference that, compared to other dramatists, shows no substantial difference to other dramatists of the day.

    John Webster coupled Shakespeare to Dekker and Heywood as “last to be named” in his hierarchy of dramatic achievement. Anti-Stratfordians and Bardolaters suffer from the same problem – they turn Shakespeare into something far greater than he actually was, rather than considering him as representative of the culture he emerged from. My strongest advice to everyone on both sides devoting themselves to the authorship question is to read some other dramatists, and put Shakespeare into context.

    28 Aug 2010, 14:28

  5. Howard Schumann

    Your statement about Shakespeare’s sources is simply incorrect. The truth is that Shakespeare must have been able to read in French, Italian, and Spanish in addition to Latin and Greek, since the followings literary sources had not yet been translated into English. These works were primary sources for Hamlet, Merchant of Venice, Othello and Measure for Measure.

    Francois de Belleforest Histories tragiques
    Ser Giovanni Fioranetino’s Il Pecorone
    Epitia and Hecatommithi
    Luigi da Porto’s Romeus and Juliet (Italian)
    Jorge de Montemayor’s Diana (Spanish)

    To say that my individual points have been answered elsewhere is a convenient dodge. If these points had been answered in a way that was convincing and made sense, there would not be an authorship controversy.

    References to Shakespeare from contemporaries refer to the author, most likely the name on the title page. There is nothing to indicate that the references refer to William of Stratford. No one claims to have met the man.

    You say things should be put in a historical context. I think the following article does just that.

    http://politicworm.com/2010/07/06/the-smoking-canon/

    28 Aug 2010, 19:26

  6. This is already circular. On the sources point, you again confuse lack of evidence with evidence against- Hamlet being the obvious example, as we know there was an English language play of Hamlet now lost. Early modern documentation is patchy, so much is lost that to build cases based on a lack of definite proof means you can argue anything you want. The purpose of the article was not to prove that Shakespeare of Stratford wrote the plays, which frankly I don’t care about either way, but to point out that the essential grounds for doubt are flawed, and that creative biography is in many ways to blame, and that the debate cannot be resolved on these terms. One can create any narrative one chooses to counter the evidence of court records, law cases, publishers, contemporaries and printers, but the ability to create a narrative doesn’t make it any more true.

    28 Aug 2010, 23:32

  7. Howard Schumann

    Sir, I will not continue this any longer. You have dodged every issue I have raised. All I can say is – with all due respect -please open your mind. It will be helpful not only on this issue but on other issues you deal with in your life.

    29 Aug 2010, 00:13

  8. If you mean by ‘dodged every issue’ that I’ve pointed out the fundamental methodological flaws in the argument rather than attempting to deal with every individual detail, then you’re absolutely correct, and have understood the purpose of the article. I concur though, it seems like an excellent point to close the discussion, and many thanks for the life advice.

    29 Aug 2010, 09:21


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I’m Peter Kirwan, a final year doctoral student in the English Department at Warwick, and this is my PhD blog.


Conferences, reviews, articles, thoughts and links relating to my interests in the Shakespeare apocrypha, early modern drama, authorship and performance.

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