Review: Shakespeare and His Authors (Continuum, 2010)
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I intend to give William Leahy's new collection, Shakespeare and His Authors (Continuum, 2010) a fair hearing. I feel obliged to make this clear up front, because certain essays in the volume make it clear that they pre-emptively feel I will be coming from a biased position. This disparate collection on the "Authorship Question", the doubt over the identity of the writer of the plays attributed to William Shakespeare, collects a commendably wide range of viewpoints and ideas, but certain ideas crop up repeatedly, that attack my position before I've even had a chance to comment.
1) That academic institutions - and English Literature departments in particular - are deliberately and systematically dedicated to the silencing (as opposed to answering) of anti-Stratfordians, or in fact anyone who expresses doubt. This is something I'm very happy to concede. The book collates some shockingly extreme and offensive language applied to anti-Stratfordians that compares them to Holocaust deniers or Creationists. The violence of the academy towards anti-Stratfordians, to my mind, is ill-judged, unprofessional and very troublesome. There is nothing morally wrong in questioning Shakespearean authorship. Universities try to shout down authorship questioners rather than answer them; not only is this poor academic practice, but it also fosters a martyr-like atmosphere of persecution that turns anti-Stratfordians into righteous underdogs. James Shapiro's new book, which came out after this volume, is hopefully a step towards the informed counter-argument rather than the tyrannous subjugation. I say all this because I am a member of an English Literature department in a Russell Group University, and thus am speaking from an establishment position; however, I do not accept that that necessarily means I have a priori views from which I cannot be persuaded.
2) That there is an intrinsic problem with Shakespearean biography, as exemplified primarily by Stephen Greenblatt and Jonathan Bate, the latter of whom is of course my supervisor. I have no innate felt need to defend Shakespearean biographers, however, and several of the essays (on both sides of the debate) identify real and genuine problems with Shakespearean biography: it is almost entirely the domain of English Lit. academics, it is necessarily largely speculative (though rooted in much stronger evidence than several of the writers here would care to admit) and it can be extremely repetitive. It also inevitably puts a lot of importance on the Man From Stratford, which provokes the anti-Stratfordian counter-arguments. Even in the poorest essays here, there are strong arguments about orthodox biography showing them to be, in large part, often no less rooted in fiction and personal opinion than those of the anti-Stratfordians, and that's an important contribution made by the volume.
With my position outlined, then, I repeat that I intend to give the book a fair hearing. I don't have an agenda I want to advance, and theoretically I'm more than happy for the question to be advanced, particularly if it's in the spirit of genuine conversation.
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Leahy, although he doesn't mention it in his writer biography (perhaps because he feels it will prejudice readers against him) is the founder of the MA in Shakespearean Authorship Studies at Brunel, and in his introduction explains that he wishes to allow genuine and open academic research of the Authorship Question. This is a long-contested issue, and resisted by Stratfordians because they feel it opens the academy to being a platform for poor-quality research. Leahy's point is that, if the research is of good-quality (regardless of the result), then it has a place in the academy. I agree, and further agree that that it's not responsible to dismiss results without reading the working, as too many critics of anti-Stratfordian behaviour do. In that sense, this collection of essays is timely and important, looking at the interesting facets of the question (the reasons that we ask, the reasons that we search for The Author) rather than advancing any particular candidate.
However, Leahy does stretch credibility when he tries to suggest that the Question existed even in Shakespeare's lifetime. Dependant on Diana Price (who is quoted extensively by all the anti-Stratfordian commentators in the book, emphasising how integral her study Shakespeare's Unorthodox Biography has become to this argument), he argues that Robert Greene's Groatsworth of Wit can be read as an accusation of literary theft, supported later by Jonson's On Poet-Ape. The problem is that Groatsworth has to be sorely twisted to fit this reading; ideas of literary theft and quotation can have many meanings, and while Leahy's reading cannot be proven to be wrong, it very much has to be imposed on Greene's text. Further, there is nothing to suggest that Jonson's poem is making any kind of reference to Shakespeare, apart from Price's hunch. Even if both these cases WERE true, they are hardly sufficient to antedate the opening of the Authorship Question back more than 250 years from 1850 to 1592.
Andrew Bennett follows with a useful essay on Romanticism and the beginnings of biography. Shakespeare is imagined as having a Protean quality; our fascination with him comes precisely from his lack of a substantive biography, allowing him to be simultaneously "everyone" and "no-one". His universality, for which he has been appropriated, is dependent paradoxically on knowing very little about him; and the Authorship Question is the necessary consequence of a Romantic study focussed on the mystical individual. It is in essays such as this that the collection really justifies its worth, positioning the Question as part of our wider ongoing cultural negotiations with Shakespeare. After him comes Willy Maley with a thoroughly entertaining article that tackles the debate from a number of angles, most interestingly that of theology. For Maley, the Authorship Question emerged during the 1850s at a time of a cultural crisis of faith. As we moved away from God, so was faith relocated in Shakespeare, creating both the "faithful" and "heretics", hence the charged language that characterises the debate.
Once one reaches William D. Rubinstein's article, however, one realises the problems of a volume that provides an academic platform for what is essentially a vitriolic rant. Rubinstein, a historian, castigates English Literature departments and academics for their careless and irresponsible use of historical data. Only Literature academics, he contends, would (a) allow themselves to be so creative with hard facts and construct a whole imaginative life from them, and (b) would not allow a spirit of fair exchange in matters of doubt - which, after all, are the bedrock of historical research. While rather over-generalising, this seems a fair comment, and his examples of "creative" biography from Rene Weis are well-chosen, if quite mean. His essential argument is that we shouldn't be writing biography when there is so little to go on - although this does, to me, seem to be a rather narrow definition of biography.
The bulk of Rubinstein's article, however, is taken up with enumeration of the reasons to doubt Shakespeare's authorship - if you like, the meat and potatoes of the entire question. Now, I'm not an expert here, but even without further research I can address the majority of Rubinstein's points, and I'd like to take the time here to point out the flaws in his questioning. He posits three criteria which allow reasonable doubt.
1) "There are no sources from Shakespeare's lifetime which unequivocally make it plain that the Stratford actor was the author of his supposed works." This is, quite simply, wrong. What Rubinstein means is that there are no sources that he will accept. He is looking for an unequivocal statement along the lines of "I saw Master Will Shakespeare at the theatre with his newe play Hamlet, which he showed me to read and explained ye plot" (Rubinstein actually says, p.45, that this is what he wants). This is a lot to ask for, surely. What we do have are numerous title page attributions from his lifetime and afterwards; his own dedications to his narrative poems (and, I ask Rubinstein, if we accept that he wrote Venus and Adonis, why is it such a leap from them to the plays?); contemporary testimony, most damningly that of Francis Meres in 1598 which makes it clear that Shakespeare wrote several named plays, and the talk of Shakespeare in the Parnassus plays, as well as a great deal of evidence from shortly after his death, including that of Munday, Webster and, most crucially, the compilers of the First Folio. Rubinstein sets arbritrary limits which admit none of this evidence. This is NOT the practice of an academic historian intent on creating the best possible narrative from the available data, but the practice of someone who wishes to prove a particular point and thus aims to debunk all evidence to the contrary. He contrasts this "lack" of evidence with that of every other writer of the period; yet why ignore Meres, but accept John Felder's preface as evidence for Jonson's identity? Rubinstein's standards are inconsistent, and it is this kind of sloppy argument that gives anti-Stratfordians a bad name.
2) "He almost certainly could not have done what he must have done to have written his works": the biography argument. Italian scholars think Shakespeare must have been to Italy in order to write what he did, and Rubinstein ridicules any idea that Shakespeare could have picked up this information in the pub. The lack of evidence for Shakespeare's learning is, crucially, not evidence AGAINST, which is Rubinstein's blind spot. Rubinstein's "must have done" shows a lack of understanding of how creative writing occurs, and the lack of evidence about Shakespeare's life is surely the strongest argument in his favour: we do not know who he spent time with, where he went or what kinds of activity filled his time. We do not know enough about Shakespeare to say what he could or could not have done. We know that travelling players went abroad; we know that a bricklayer's son was able to be educated to University standard; and the descriptions of other times and places in the plays are hardly pinpoint accurate (witness the famous port of Bohemia).
Further to this, he argues that Shakespeare could not have held down the dual roles of actor and playwright: that he would have been too physically and mentally exhausted. In this, he again assumes too much. We do not know that Shakespeare was a full-time actor once he began writing, and certainly not after the founding of the Lord Chamberlain's Men. Rubinstein assumes a state of affairs that would be impossible, and can see no compromise. Yet we know other men of the period managed to be both actors and writers, and there is no reason at all to assume that Shakespeare might not have taken a less active role in performance as he wrote (which several scholars have argued). Again, we do not know enough about the circumstances of playing in order to debunk the most obvious and well-supported evidence.
3) "There is no real mesh between his life and the evolutionary trajectory of his works." The argument that Shakespeare's biography does not match the plays has been sufficiently debunked elsewhere, but I feel it is worth answering a couple of Rubinstein's specifics in order to show the limited scope of his thinking. He can see no reason why an actor in the company, for example, would kill off Falstaff in 1598-9 when Falstaff was such a big seller and crowd-pleaser - no practical theatre man would have made such a move. Rubinstein seems entirely ignorant of Will Kemp's departure from the company at that exact time, and it is usually assumed that the departure of the actor who (probably) created and performed the part of Falstaff would have been sufficient enough reason for the character to be written out of Henry V. In a different vein, the works apparently show that the author must have had a great trauma in 1601 which occasioned a sea-change in his chosen genres. But "He suffered no known traumas in 1601". This is the exact kind of argument which shows the flaws in Rubinstein's thinking: again, a lack of an argument is NOT EVIDENCE AGAINST. Even if one accepts that there was a biographical reason for the change in writing style (which I see no reason to assume, and none is given), there are any number of potential disasters which may not have been publicly documented, and even if they had, this documentation (like the vast majority from the period) may not have survived.
I spend time on this in order, frankly, to question how Rubinstein can call himself an historian or academic. This is not because of his conclusions, but because of the limited scope of his doubts and reading, which are so easily answered. Yes, there is room for doubt if all of these things are accepted: but no, it is not acceptable to preach the necessary acceptance of doubt without challenging and rebutting all objections to these questions. You cannot make this kind of claim without addressing and effectively answering all of the positive evidence to the contrary.
Nicholas Royle's essay on Freud is followed immediately by an effective response from Sean Gaston. Both essays are extremely entertaining and interestingly-written, looking at the question from the perspective of literary theory. Royle identifies the search for authorial signature with the search for the self, and then has great fun playing with polyphony in order to show how Shakespeare's name is "sounded" throughout his work. This works as an essential counter to claims of cryptographic messages hidden showing "Shakespeare" to be "Bacon" - if we accept this line of argument, then Shakespeare is similarly embedded in the writing. Gaston plays with this further by jokingly showing how Royle's own name is signed in his works! Gaston builds on Royle to show how we, as humans, are irretrievably obsessed with the quest for the author: "writing invents the literary character", and we cannot help but create that author, although this author is almost inevitably self-created rather than having any real, attainable existence.
The ever-interesting Graham Holderness tackles the question of Shakespearean biography which keep recurring throughout this collection, looking at Greenblatt's Shakespearean Negoatiations. Here, Holderness demonstrates how the biographical act is necessarily an act of self-imposition on the writer, re-imagining him through the lens of the self. We make our writers (and our heroes) like ourselves, we understand their writing through our own experience. Taken with the previous two essays, we are moving in the collection towards a necessary understanding of our own creation of "Shakespeare" - we, the later critics, are in many senses all the "Shakespeare" that we need.
Leahy himself writes the 7th essay on "Shakinomics", re-opening the question of the institutional response to the Authorship Question. He is particularly interested in how the authority of established academics is used to ridicule the work of "amateurs", and the language used in order to ban the Question from the classroom. As he points out, the evidence is not beyond all question, and any scholar must in truth say that they "believe" Shakespeare to be the author, rather than that they "know" it to be true. I'm happy to accept this, but then, I also "believe" that the Earth orbits the Sun, that evolution is a real phenomenon and that man walked on the moon - Leahy lacks a frame of reference for his assertion of "belief", and doesn't really demonstrate why the Shakespeare question is uniquely open to debate. He is right, though, that the internet allows us to question orthodoxy, and I do agree that it's only right that the question be answered sensibly (and therefore, far more completely) than shouted down or treated as blasphemous.
Sandra G.L. Schruijer, a social psychologist, attempts to present the results of a survey looking at the reasons why Stratfordians and non-Stratfordians react the way they do to the debate, though the response of only 5 Stratfordians to her call for participants doesn't exactly give her substantive samples to work with. This is a fascinating article from an anti-Stratfordian, however, looking at the debate in terms of conflict politics and showing how the two sides of the argument are essentially irreconcilable owing to a lack of mediation and an essential disparity in terms of base criteria for argument. She convincingly demonstrates why the argument is so fierce, though to my mind is rather overly optimistic about this generation's heresy becoming the next's orthodoxy.
Finally, two interviews with Mark Rylance and Dominic Dromgoole close the book. I actually love Rylance's interview. It's personal, funny and honest, essentially one man's account of how he began to believe something and the effect it had on his life. Through his fascination with Bacon, he began getting interested in aspects of Bacon's research and writing, and how larger concepts of science, metaphysics and spirituality impact on the writing. Essentially, the authorship doubt allowed him to move beyond the normal parameters of what is taught about Shakespeare, which he felt allowed him to deepen his performances. There's nothing shameful in that at all, although the obvious argument is that one doesn't need an authorship debate in order to widen one's field of research. Rylance also talks about the prejudice he encountered in taking on directorship of Shakespeare's Globe as an anti-Stratfordian. The pleasant thing about the interview is that he's not trying to convince us to his point of view; he's merely showing how he's personally reconciled to it and believes it benefits him. Good for him. Dromgoole, a Stratfordian, is more bullish, and uses the interview to express his personal frustration at the Shakespeare "establishment" - he finds Stratford-upon-Avon false (people may think this is a bit rich coming from the Globe's current director) and the culture around Shakespeare arrogant and dictatorial. However, as a working director he sees no disparity between Shakespeare and the plays, and finds the imaginative creation of worlds exactly that - imaginative.
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Aside from the Rubinstein article, which I feel has no place in this collection owing to its essential belligerence, I actually found this an intelligent and interesting volume. It's important to understand where the Authorship Question comes from and why, as compared to other conspiracy theories, it persists so violently. Stratfordians and Bardolaters have created the atmosphere in which it thrives, and it's only through debate and the opening-up of the Question that it might actually be resolved - or, at least, answered sufficiently so that it falls out of the mainstream.
I believe Shakespeare wrote the plays (in collaboration on many of them, of course), but it doesn't bother me that other people don't believe this. What does bother me is, on both sides, the violence of the language used in the debate, and the selective use of evidence to support one view in order to shout down the other. Neither are practices I would ever hope to engage in, and if nothing else, hopefully this volume establishes the parameters within which a more reasoned, amiable and academic debate could be held. The chance of that ever happening, of course, is unlikely.