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Alexander Waugh

That is the Question

Shakespeare Beyond Doubt: Evidence, Argument, Controversy
Edited by Paul Edmondson & Stanley Wells (Cambridge University Press 284pp 18.99)

This book marks the latest salvo in a long-running war between the Stratford-based Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, under the auspices of which it is being published, and the American-based Shakespeare Authorship Coalition, which has published another book of the same title but precisely the opposite point of view under the editorship of myself and John M Shahan. Here is the background to the quarrel.

Five years ago the Shakespeare Authorship Coalition initiated an online petition entitled 'Declaration of Reasonable Doubt about the Identity of William Shakespeare'. Several thousand people signed it, including actors Jeremy Irons, Mark Rylance, Derek Jacobi, Michael York and the well-known US Supreme Court judge John Paul Stevens. The intention of the declaration was to shift the focus of the authorship debate away from alternative candidates and on to the likelihood or unlikelihood of the traditional attribution being correct. Its effect was immediate and not unlike that of poking a large stick into the bowels of a hornets' nest. Writing for The Stage, eminent Stratfordian scholar Stanley Wells (co-editor of the present volume, and at the time chairman of the Trustees of Shakespeare's Birthplace) derided the declaration as 'school-boyishly pompous', ominously warning that 'the time for tolerance is over'. Mark Rylance responded with a letter expressing admiration for Wells but also 'fear of his anger', revealing that 'he cannot maintain his scholastic objectivity. He shouts, calls people names, and in this particular case warns that those who don't agree with him will fall into insanity.'

Wells effectively corroborated this account by posting an intemperate message on the website of the Birthplace Trust accusing disbelievers in Shakespeare's authorship of 'snobbery', 'psychological aberration' and 'certifiable madness'. A complaint from the president of the Authorship Coalition that these remarks were offensive to genuine sufferers of mental illnesses forced the Birthplace Trust to remove them, but they have since reappeared on the website of that other notable Stratfordian institution, the Royal Shakespeare Company.

So now we come to the present volume, an anthology of 19 essays (17 of them by English Literature academics) assembled by the Birthplace Trust to defend itself against the Authorship Coalition's accusations of poor scholarship; to attack the Declaration of Reasonable Doubt; to dismiss a raft of alternative authorship candidates; and to restate the Stratfordian authorship claim. Although the authors accuse anti-Stratfordians of being conspiracy theorists, parasites, self-satisfied, ignorant and snobbish, the general tone is noticeably more conciliatory and less emotional than it has been in the past. Paul Edmondson concedes that while 'some are amateurs, others are persons of high intellectual ability fully conversant with the techniques of academics scholarship'. Nevertheless, he remains of the view that only the voices of those with a 'professional commitment' to Shakespeare studies should be heard.

The editors dispense with the familiar terms 'Stratfordian' and 'anti-Stratfordian', choosing instead to call themselves 'Shakespeareans' and everyone else 'anti-Shakespeareans' - those who, according to James Shapiro in the afterword, have 'turned against Shakespeare'. The excuse given is that Stratford-upon-Avon was as important to Shakespeare as London was to Dickens. This does not make a lot of sense and I presume that the more likely, unstated reason is that Stratfordians do not wish to be treated as just one more group among the Oxfordians, Baconians, Marlovians, and so on. Matt Kubus, in a piece entitled 'The unusual suspects', endorses this view by arguing that 'mathematically, each time an additional candidate is suggested, the probability decreases that any given name is the true author', without acknowledging that if this applies for Marlowe, Oxford and Bacon, it must apply equally to his own preferred candidate from Stratford.

The arguments for and against the traditional attribution are complex. Stratfordians have the advantageous weight of tradition on their side, but their claim is by no means the easiest to sustain. While there is hard and irrefutable evidence that Shakespeare's contemporaries Jonson, Nashe, Massinger, Harvey, Peele, Daniel, Drayton, Chapman, Mundy, Lyly, Marston, Beaumont, Fletcher, Kyd and many others were professional writers, there is not a single shred of documentary evidence dating from the lifetime of the Stratford man that shows him also to be the celebrated author of the poems and plays. There are no surviving letters, no manuscripts, no inscriptions, no books that he may once have owned, no elegies written upon his death - not even by Heywood, Fletcher, Dekker, Middleton and those who (according to this book) are supposed to have collaborated with him in writing plays; there is no mention of his being an author in anyone else's letters or diaries. His father was illiterate and he had two daughters, neither able to read or write; he was given no formal education beyond the age of 13. The playwright, by contrast, displays a phenomenally high level of education and expertise in law, medicine, astronomy, falconry, Italy, France, courtly sports, literature, science and at least five foreign languages. There are many sensible reasons to doubt the traditional attribution of these works and it is foolish to insist there is no mystery here worth investigating.

Wells contributes a lively list of contemporary allusions to Shakespeare (the author), admitting that links to Stratford-upon-Avon are impossible to establish. John Payne Collier, a leading Stratfordian scholar of the 19th century, wrote that 'the first time Shakespeare was spoken of in print in connection with his native town' was in 1630 - 14 years after his death. Wells tellingly omits this reference from his list, probably because it comes from a book of 'taunts, jeers and jests' that appears to mock the controversial and enigmatic epitaph on Shakespeare's monument in Stratford church. In the same way, this book avoids any reference to those contemporary writers (Marston, Hall, Peacham and the so-called 'Cambridge wits') who non-Stratfordians believe to have been hinting at a Shakespeare authorship problem more than four hundred years ago.

David Kathman writes a strong and interesting piece about Shakespeare and Warwickshire. Douglas Lanier bludgeons the anti-Stratfordian feature film Anonymous. John Jowett and MacDonald Jackson put forward tendentious and fundamentally irrelevant points about the playwright as collaborator, supported by a controversial computer technique of literary criticism called 'stylometrics'. Paul Edmondson gives a pained defence against anti-Stratfordian attack. Charles Nicholl and two Alans (Nelson and Stewart) shoot down the obvious and celebrated follies of the Oxfordian, Marlovian and Baconian arguments without seeking to address the more problematic evidence that is raised elsewhere in support of each claim.

It is easy to understand why the Stratfordian position is vulnerable and why its supporting arguments are made more from sandbags than from cannon, but that does not necessarily make it wrong. As Mark Twain wrote of the Stratfordian Shakespeare, he is 'a brontosaur made from nine bones and six hundred barrels of plaster of Paris'. As such he seems to require a special kind of pleading, an exclusive 'methodology', a hierarchy of people with the right to speak, a vocabulary of nuanced disparagement, an applied disregard for what the other side is saying - but none of this need detract from the value of this book. Shakespeare Beyond Doubt presents, for the first time, a concerted articulation of the Stratfordian position among English Literature academics. That alone should mark it out as something worth reading, and if it succeeds in encouraging more people to launch themselves into this highly volatile, fast-moving and infinitely lively debate, so much the better.


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Alexander Waugh, who is General Editor of a 42-volume scholarly edition of the works of Evelyn Waugh for OUP, promises some startling revelations in his book on Shakespeare to be published by Bloomsbury next April.


Royal Literary Fund


John Murray