Nothing to Prove
Shakespeare Beyond Doubt? Exposing an Industry in Denial
Edited by John M Shahan and Alexander Waugh (Llumina Press 254pp £13.50)
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then Paul Edmondson and I, co-editors of Shakespeare Beyond Doubt, should feel flattered by this book. Its title simply adds a question mark to ours. Its jacket design clones ours. It uses a similar typeface. Over seventy of its pages contain a response - which has been freely available on the internet since November 2011 - to the online campaign '60 Minutes with Shakespeare', masterminded by Paul Edmondson of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. And, like our book, Shakespeare Beyond Doubt? is made up of essays by a number of different contributors, all singing from the same song sheet. The burden of their song is that the plays generally attributed to William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon were actually the work of an unidentified genius writing under a pseudonym that fooled all (or almost all) his contemporaries; and that all the publishers, printers and fellow writers who mention him, not to speak of his colleagues in the theatre world, connived in this fraud, many of them to the extent even of obligingly using a hyphen in spelling his name, in a kind of code that is only now being broken.
John Shahan's opening salvo, 'General introduction and Challenge to the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust', starts with a misstatement repeated elsewhere in the book. He claims that our book is published by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. It is not. It is published by Cambridge University Press. Paul Edmondson is an employee of the Trust, and I am its honorary (that is, unpaid) president. We submitted to the Press a proposal that was accepted after being scrutinised by four anonymous scholarly readers. Of the book's 19 contributors, apart from us, only one has ever been employed by the Trust and, even then, only in a part-time capacity. The suggestion that our book is an official Trust publication is part of a smear campaign designed to imply that those who defend Shakespeare's authorship do so for commercial reasons, out of a vested interest in a dubiously based hypothesis. This slur is implicit in this book's subtitle, 'Exposing an Industry in Denial', and is a recurrent theme.
Shahan makes much of the fact that, in Shakespeare Beyond Doubt, I write that the burial entry for Shakespeare calls him 'William'; according to Shahan it reads 'Will'. In fact the double ll is crossed in a manner, not recognised by Shahan, that signifies an abbreviation. Shahan goes to the scarcely necessary trouble of printing a facsimile of the entry in the hope of making his point, which has not the faintest bearing on the authorship issue. Indeed, there are many odd statements in his piece. For example, he claims that 'the only alleged writings in Shakspere's hand are signatures that are poorly executed'. This ignores the 'alleged' contribution to the play Sir Thomas More, as well as implying that great writers are ipso facto great calligraphers. Shahan writes, 'It is also not clear that the short poem by Ben Jonson opposite the Droeshout engraving in the First Folio praises it as a "likeness".' How he can maintain this in face of the words
This Figure, that thou here seest put,
It was for gentle Shakespeare cut;
Wherein the Grauer had a strife
with Nature, to out-doo the life:
O, could he but haue drawne his wit
As well in brasse, as he hath hit
His face; the Print would then surpasse
All, that was euer writ in brasse
is beyond my comprehension.
Shahan and his fellows repeatedly cite absence of evidence as if it were the same as evidence of absence. One chapter is called 'The Rest is Silence: The absence of tributes to Shakespeare at the time of Mr. Shakspere's death'. (They use 'Shakespeare' as the name of the writer, 'Shakspere' as that of the Stratford man, as if the two were distinct.) It is a tendentious point of view, implying that, in order to be valid, any references to him must demonstrably date from within an unspecified but very short time after his death. William Basse's elegy, which exists in numerous manuscript versions, one of them headed 'On Willm Shakespear buried att Stratford-vpon-Avon, his Town of Nativity', must (in spite of Shahan's denial) have been written before Jonson's allusion to it printed in the First Folio, and could conceivably have been written soon after news broke of the death. It took time not only to commission and to raise the Stratford monument with its tributes to the man of Stratford as a writer worthy of comparison with the great figures of classical antiquity, but also for the First Folio, with its tributes by Jonson (who refers to the 'Sweet Swan of Auon'), Hugh Holland, Leonard Digges (who explicitly refers to 'thy Stratford moniment') and 'IM' (usually identified as James Mabbe), to be prepared and reach print. It is true that Francis Beaumont - a less significant playwright - was buried in Westminster Abbey while Shakespeare was not; but it is also true that both Basse and Jonson indicated that Shakespeare deserved that honour, which was not accorded to many other worthies more highly valued now than then. In any case, the number of tributes remains the same whether they were addressed to Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon or to another writer using that name pseudonymously.
Shahan's opening chapter concludes with a 'Challenge to the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust ... to prove its claim that it is beyond doubt that William Shakspere of Stratford-upon-Avon wrote the works of William Shakespeare'. I find this odd, since my chapter in Shakespeare Beyond Doubt aims to do precisely this. Shahan even proposes a series of events lasting for a week in which arguments, counter-arguments, cross-examinations and whatnot are presented. Over many years I have taken part in numerous events of a similar, though mercifully less prolonged, nature. In 1988 I was cross-examined by an eminent QC in a mock trial at the Inner Temple as a fundraising event for the rebuilding of the Globe theatre. I have participated in radio and television broadcasts with Shakespeare deniers of many different persuasions. I spoke in a public debate on the topic at the Theatre Royal, Bath. Within the past couple of years I have, among other related activities, taken part in a debate organised by the English Speaking Union in June 2011 which can be viewed online. But I am not persuaded that public displays of rhetoric are satisfactory. Those who attend them (like those who write and read books about the topic) are usually those who have already made their minds up. In Bath, coachloads of supporters already dedicated to the causes of Marlowe, Bacon or Oxford were shipped in to cheer on their champions. Must my colleagues and I be wheeled out every time someone disagrees with us? We have published our arguments in Shakespeare Beyond Doubt and we have endeavoured to do so fairly, without undue reliance on the kind of hot air that inevitably tends to mar public debate. We have stated our case. Let be.
Exclusive from the Literary Review print edition. Subscribe now!
Stanley Wells, Honorary President of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, is General Editor of the Oxford and Penguin editions of Shakespeare. His most recent book is Shakespeare, Sex, and Love (OUP).