Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Shakespeare "Authorship Debates" and Amateur Scholarship

So, just in time to ruin my New Year's celebrations, Newsweek has seen fit to publish a credulous article trumpeting the old who-wrote-Shakespeare conspiracy theories. I won't give Newsweek a link, but you can click through Amanda Marcotte's smart takedown at Rawstory if you're curious. The original piece is full of breathless non-facts like "Nobody ever recognised Shakespeare as a writer during his lifetime" [except for at least three dozen separate individuals, writing both in print and manuscript, because Shakespeare was famous]  "and when he died, in 1616, no one seemed to notice" [except the six different poets who wrote memorial verses for him]. Apparently you can always say, "there's no evidence" even when there is evidence.

Now, I'm on record about this question on this blog, and under my professional name, and I've been quoted about it in a major newspaper, so I don't want to belabor the key facts here. As the above example suggests, this isn't really a debate about facts anyway. But this phony debate often gets cast as insiders vs. outsiders, the stuffy Shakespeare establishment, with all the PhDs and whatever vs. the free-thinking, imaginative amateur scholars. So I'd like to clarify a few things about how academic and amateur Shakespeareans work.

1. Professional Shakespeareans constantly argue with each other and are rewarded for new ideas.

The standard position of the Francis Bacon/Earl of Oxford/etc./etc. fans is that "orthodox" Shakespeareans are all sticking together because we are afraid of new ideas. This ignores the fact that academic Shakespeare scholars argue with each other constantly about any question that can reasonably be disputed. Winning arguments with each other is how we get ahead in our careers. And winning an argument that brings in a big new idea, or overturns an important old idea, is the gold standard. The academic Shakespeare establishment isn't a conspiracy. It's a boxing ring.

This is one of the reasons that academic writing can be hard for general readers to enjoy: it focuses on highlighting the new idea that the writer is putting forward, rather than the ideas that the reader might find most interesting. Something that's interesting to you as a reader but that every scholar's agreed on for the last fifty years won't get much attention, while today's new idea, even if it's quite small, will get the most attention. And because every argument a scholar puts forward is liable to being torn apart by other scholars, scholarly writing tends to be carefully hedged and to carefully shore up even pretty small issues so that they don't give another critic an opening. That's another reason academese is hard to read.

I don't write my scholarship to highlight how much I agree with more established Shakespeareans. It's just the reverse. I once criticized something written by the then-head of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust (whom many Oxfordians especially dislike) so, ah, energetically that I was publicly accused, in print, of having been "unfair" to him. (Of course, I don't think that I was unfair, but hey, to offend and judge are distinct offices.) Scholarly writing demands pointing out where other scholars are wrong.

A member of the "Shakespeare establishment" who could make a strong case that Shakespeare's works had been written by someone else would stand to benefit enormously. Even if it weren't a completely bullet-proof case, the rewards for making a reasonably strong case, opening room for legitimate doubt, would be huge. You'd immediately become a major player in the field. If I thought I had the evidence to back up a case like that, you'd better believe that I would make it. And so would a lot of other people like me. Yes, that would mean publicly disagreeing with many important senior scholars; that would only make it sweeter.

(On the other hand, the reward for believing Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare is nothing, just like the reward for believing that the sky is blue and water is wet is nothing. No one beats someone else out for a job because they both believe the same thing that no one else doubts. One of the frustrations many literary scholars have teaching beginning undergraduates is those students' deep commitment to arguing things that are so obviously true that they're not worth bringing up; making arguments like that is not what professional academics value at all.)

The reason I don't make a case for someone else writing Shakespeare is that I can't. The reason that a large group of other people inside the academic world haven't done it is that they can't either. If there were evidence to make a good case, someone would certainly be ambitious enough to make it. But it never happens.

2. Amateur scholars are welcome in academic debates.

One of my generation's two greatest historians of Shakespeare's theater is an independent scholar named Dave Kathman, who doesn't have a university job or a PhD in literature. Dave works as a financial analyst in Chicago, and does the Shakespeare-theater-history thing as a hobby. But he's enormously productive and valuable as a scholar. There's only one PhD-holder in my generation who's more important to that specific field than Dave is. (That scholar is an Oxford professor, very much part of the establishment.) Dave has found original documents that we had not known about, because he looked in archives people had not thought about trying. So suddenly, thanks to Dave, we have apprenticeship records for Shakespeare's boy actors. We can prove when they joined the company, and we can closely estimate their ages. It used to be we knew very little about the boys who played female parts, but now we know more about them than we know about some of the adult actors.

Dave doesn't get turned away because he doesn't have a PhD in our field, or because he doesn't teach college. He's been welcomed and valued, because he makes important contributions. He has also made a strong argument that changed the way we think about an important primary document from theater history, a piece of old paper that's obscure to outsiders but which turns out to underwrite a lot of other theories about what was going on in the 1590s. Dave made strong case for that document being from a different year than we thought, and belonging to a different acting company. This, of course, led to a debate. Shakespeareans debate things. And Dave was opposed by some very high-profile senior scholars who were committed to the old way of looking at that document. But they didn't pull rank on him. No one said, "I teach at an Ivy and you don't have a PhD in English, so you're wrong." They had to meet him on the facts, and some eventually had to concede that he was right.

We don't turn amateurs away because they're amateurs. An amateur who makes a strong case can win the day.

3. Shakespeare "authorship disputes" are actually OLDER than professional Shakespeare scholarship. 

In fact, the "authorship controversy" started in the days when every Shakespearean was an amateur. It didn't start until the 19th century, which is long enough after Shakespeare's death to raise difficult questions. (No one in the 16th, 17th, or 18th centuries expressed any doubts. But sometime after Shakespeare had been dead for 200 years a few people suddenly decided that it was impossible that he wrote his works.) But university courses on Shakespeare come even later still, as do doctoral degrees in English literature. Those don't get underway until the second half of the 19th century.

So this didn't start as an argument between professors and outsiders. There were no professors of Shakespeare. Everyone was an amateur (and that includes some of the greatest Shakespeare scholars who have ever lived).

But when literature departments got organized and people started writing research dissertations on Shakespeare, none of the maybe-someone-else-wrote-it stuff got used by the new group of pros. It wasn't because people conspired to exclude it. Someone who could prove that case in 1865 or 1915 would have been highly rewarded, the same way someone would for proving it in 2015. But the evidence for other candidates has never been there. And you can't get away telling your PhD adviser bullshit like "No one ever mentioned Shakespeare as a writer during his lifetime." Your adviser will know that's a lie.

The "Shakespeare authorship" arguments are like astrology: an old idea that professionals working in the field have outgrown but that stays popular with a slice of the general public. Like astrology, the Shakespeare-authorship game has trouble generating new hypotheses that can stand up to a rigorous test. And so authorship debates, like astrology, tend to recycle old claims over and over again, giving them a certain time-in-a-bottle quality. I'm having trouble finding anything in that Newsweek story that you couldn't find somewhere else by, say, 1940. In the academic world, a piece that just repeats things from decades ago is completely unpublishable. But the authorship hobbyists are more than happy to dish out the same old cabbage, no matter how many times it's been served before.

Journalists writing "news" stories about these conspiracy theories need to spin the Shakespeare-not-Shakespeare idea as somehow, well, new. But it's not new. It's a very old idea, nearly two hundred years old at this point, and it hasn't made any progress in a long time.

cross-posted from (and comments welcome at) Dagblog

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