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Tuesday, September 06, 2016

Why I am Not an Anti-Stratfordian

The earliest Google search entry for the term “anti-Stratfordian” is a long article, entitled “The Shakespearean Myth”, in Appleton’s Journal of June 1880.  A number of hints strongly suggest that it is in fact the first use of the term.  Not the least of these hints is the fact that the term “anti-Shakespearean” is used three times in the article and “anti-Stratfordian” only once.

The article was written by James Appleton Morgan[1], a popular writer on the subject of Shakespeare Authorship, and presumably related to the Appleton’s who managed the journal.  The article was expanded and released as a book in 1881.  In the book version, “anti-Shakespearean” was used 11 times and “anti-Stratfordian” once.

The earliest listing for the term “anti-Shakespearean” is letter by Richard J. Hinton in the November 17, 1866, number of  another journal under the name of The Round Table.  While the letter mentions Delia Bacon, it is much more about Harrington, a novel by William Douglas O’Conner, in which the title character asserts that Francis Bacon and Sir Walter Raleigh co-wrote the plays of Shakespeare.  The novel (according to Hinton) was written without the knowledge of Delia Bacon’s theory.  The use of “anti-Shakespearean,” in the letter suggests that it had probably been already in general use prior the the letter.

It is not difficult to see the disadvantages of the term “anti-Shakespearean”.  By the 1890s, the moniker “Baconian“ had almost entirely replaced both terms.

Sir Granville George Greenwood’s 1908 volume The Shakespeare Problem Restated being agnostic about who was the true author of the works of Shakespeare, the author reintroduced the term “anti-Stratfordian”.  He was confident that the Stratford man could not be the author but was unable to determine who might actually have written the works.  Thus he was, in the literal sense of the various labels, not a “Baconian,” and certainly not an "anti-Shakespearean" but rather an “anti-Stratfordian”.  Greenwood’s many books and articles on the topic were justifiably the most popular in the popular Shakespeare Authorship debate of the time.  They have aged well into the bargain.

In 1920, Thomas Looney published his "Shakespeare" Identified in Edward De Vere, the Seventeenth Earl of Oxford.   The Baconians had already descended to the point where they depended heavily upon the most extreme claims of secret ciphers (which they themselves could not decipher), purportedly utilized by Francis Bacon, Lord Verulam, and his familiars.  This had become necessary in order to answer otherwise unanswerable historical counter-arguments of their critics.  As the result, they began to be perceived as crackpots.  No such ciphers proved necessary to support the authorship of Edward de Vere (though a few were unwisely adopted by later theorists nevertheless).

The first use of the term “Oxfordian,” according to Google Search, as applied to Shakespeare authorship, appears in the year 1933.  By 1940, the Baconians very much on the wane, and the Oxford theory on the rise, the term “Oxfordian” becomes more common.  Many factors indicate that the authorship question in general, however, had lost its attraction with the general public.

The Shakespeare Authorship debate languished until 1962 when Charlton Ogburn and his mother Dorothy published their Shake-speare: The Man Behind the Name.  Charlton had built a large network of cultural and governmental contacts during his time in the U. S. State Department.  He had already gained many influential converts by the time he published The Mysterious William Shakespeare: The Myth and the Reality, his third book on the subject, in 1984, and those converts had made many more influential converts still.

The watershed moment of the Ogburn effort came in September of 1987 when the briefs for a moot court case ‘in Re “William Shakespeare”’ appeared in The American University Law Review.  The case was heard on November 25th of that year, by sitting Supreme Court Justices William Brennan, Harry Blackmun, and John Paul Stevens.  The event, which took place at the Metropolitan Memorial Methodist Church, in Washington, D.C., was mentioned on the Good Morning America television program guaranteeing an overflow crowd.

The case garnered a meaningful amount of coverage at the time it occurred.  The justices came down on the side of the Stratford man.   That might well have been the end of the matter, as far as academia was concerned, if an 18-page account of the event and the upper crust venues and dramatis personae of the event, simply entitled “The Authorship Question,” hadn’t appeared the next April in The New Yorker magazine.  The article would prove to be orders of magnitude more influential than the moot court case itself.  The Shakespeare academic and theme park industries were in danger of being displaced as the sole legitimate authority over the 300 year old (and highly lucrative) Shakespeare industry.

From 1988 onward, then, traditionalists (i.e. Stratfordians) began to develop a set of strategies and social connections of their own.  The means that proved most effective was also hinted at in James Lardner’s New Yorker piece.   Brief mention was made of the fact that a number of Elizabethan figures had been advanced over the years as the true author of the Shakespeare plays.  The lingering term “anti-Stratfordian” was applied to the supporters of these figures collectively.

Lardner had only mentioned those other figures who might be considered viable candidates.  In the article, it was clear (if unstated) that only the Earl of Oxford, among them, could provide the materials for a strong case. 

The reigning Shakespeare industry did not scruple at such a limitation.  In fact, dozens of ridiculous candidates had been advanced over the decades.  Arguing a socius, the Shakespeare industry rebuffed all questions with the argument that “anti-Stratfordian” arguments were ridiculous.  This amounted to the position that any champion of an alternative candidate must defend themselves from the collective abuses of all alternative candidacies before they were worthy of anything but preemptive derision.  With their own considerable connections, the traditionalists succeeded in establishing the terms of the debate: there were only “Stratfordians” and “anti-Stratfordians”.  Anti-Stratfordians stood responsible to explain how all of "their" candidates could have been Shakespeare at once, how all of the many ridiculous theories could be squared.

An analogy for this would be to make an Evolutionist whose data suggested that Evolutionary theory about the development of the human eye needed to be honed in order to be precisely correct and in accordance with Evolutionary theory, answer for why, “being an obvious anti-Evolutionist,” he or she believed the world was created in 7 days, why he believed in Intelligent Creation, why he believed that ancient aliens had introduced life onto the planet earth, etc.  The reason why this response is unlikely in the realm of science is because it is not at all valid scientific method.  The trope is pure politics and can be found in every hotly contested election in order to prevent actual debate.  Happily the sciences remain functional, introspective and open to new data.  Shakespeare scholarship, on the other hand, again does  not see fit to scruple.

In short, the Stratfordian party, aware of the crippling scarcity of data under which it labors, chose the strategy of filibuster.  All the was not Stratfordian would be required to legitimize the entire anti-Stratfordian universe before (theoretically) being heard.  Failure to meet this demand would be represented to the court of public opinion as yet another unmistakable  sign that “anti-Stratfordians” were prima facia bozos unworthy of a hearing.

I do not imagine that I am the only Oxfordian who rejects the label “anti-Stratfordian”.  But it does seem worth looking at the basis that I reject its new post -1988 co-option as nothing more than a cheap political ploy.  I am “anti” nothing.  The Stratford man is not worth opposing.  He was an unusually successful street hustler and I honor him for his accomplishments in that way.  The times were not easy for a man of his class and limited education.  He clearly had an eye for the main chance and likely spent most of his waking hours pursuing that chance.

  • Check out Virtual Grub Street's English Renaissance Article Index for articles and reviews about this fascinating time and about the Shakespeare Authorship Question.

[1] President of The Shakespeare Society of New York.

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