People who hold doubts about the authorship of the Shakespeare Canon are used to having insults thrown at them. Elitists! Whack Jobs! Cultish conspiracy theorists. I remember not too long ago Professor Stanley Wells called Mark Rylance, perhaps the finest Shakespearean actor of his generation, “anti-shakespeare.” Wells is a respected scholar, trustee of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Stratford and a dogmatic defender of the orthodoxy. He knows that Rylance (not to mention Sir Derek Jacobi and others) has spent his entire adult life working to better understand the truths contained in Shakespeare’s writing. As part of that search Rylance also asked the question: is the case on authorship closed? Wells could have said Rylance was “anti-stratfordian,” which still would not have been an accurate description of his nuanced ideas about how the Canon came about. But no, Wells chose to call him “anti-Shakespeare” because he knew that in the incendiary atmosphere of authorship discourse, calling Rylance anti-Shakespeare might cause Mark more harm. It was a remark chosen carefully, not to rebut, but to harm. And it happens all the time. Read James Shapiro’s book, and you’ll get a heavy dose of the vipers tongue. When challenged, these orthodox scholars, robed in royal tenure, can get really nasty. They get to say things without fear of being called on it. They’re bullies.
Recently another respectable Shakespeare scholar got his collar in a ruffle and, like some NFL football players of late, lashed out with some excessive verbal smack against another scholar who held different views about how the Canon may have been created. “I simply find your reasoning and your evidence as unconvincing as those of Holocaust deniers, and other conspiracy theorists,” said Gary Taylor, a “distinguished” research professor at Florida State University.
So now, if one questions the orthodox view of the authorship of the Shakespeare Canon one risks, by Taylor’s infallible comparison, being associated with Holocaust deniers. That would include Rylance, Jacobi, 2 Justices of the United States Supreme Court, Alexander Waugh, Vanessa Redgrave, Michael York; not to mention Emerson, Freud, Walt Whitman, Orson Welles, Sir John Gielgud, and over 3000 other scholars and lay people who have signed the Declaration of Reasonable doubt. According to an on-line publication, “Times Higher Education,” here’s how the Taylor remark came down.
Richard Waugaman, a clinical professor of psychiatry and “faculty expert on Shakespeare” at Georgetown University in Washington DC. Waugaman, is also an “Oxfordian”. He believes that there is good evidence that the poems and plays attributed to William Shakespere of Stratford were actually written by Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford. Waugamen submitted a scholarly paper to the Italian Journal Memoria di Shakespeare. The title of the paper was “The Psychology of Shakespearean Biography.” In his paper, Waugamen says he examines the Oxford case, but also explores “the conscious and unconscious psychological factors behind the taboo against openly discussing the authorship question”, citing examples from the history of science “where new discoveries that ultimately lead to paradigm shifts are often bitterly opposed by adherents of traditional theories”. The editors of MdS described the paper as “absolutely pertinent” to a 2015 issue on Shakespeare’s biography. In January of this year, the editors of the journal asked Waugaman to revise his paper, and things seemed to be headed toward publication.
On August 17, however, Professor Waugaman received an email from Rosy Colombo, Senior Professor of English at the Sapieza University of Rome. The email, which the Times Higher Education says they have seen, explained that the previous editors of Memoria di Shakespeare had stepped down and that she and her new fellow editor, Gary Taylor had “decided against publishing an article that has come out already”. Professor Waugaman responded that it seemed like “a breach of good faith with contributors” for “an article that was invited by a journal’s co-editors, be rejected by the next co-editors”. This generated an almost immediate reply from Professor Taylor, saying that his agreement to take over as co-editor had been “conditional on rejection of certain contributions, like yours, which seem to me profoundly unscholarly, and which would have the effect of undermining the credibility and status of other contributions to the volume. “I simply find your reasoning, and your evidence, as unconvincing as those of Holocaust deniers, and other conspiracy theorists,” he added.
And so it goes. Not meant to rebut, but to harm.
Times Higher Education reported that Professor Waugaman responded to Taylor by saying, “only assume your emotions have over-ridden your common decency. I know one fellow Oxfordian who lost more than 70 relatives in the Holocaust, and he finds that comparison especially disgusting.” To which Taylor quickly added, “Work like Waugaman’s is fundamentally unscholarly, irrational and illogical. I compared it to the work of Holocaust-deniers not because the damage to Shakespeare is comparable to the damage to the millions of people killed by the Nazis, but because Waugaman’s work depends upon the same kind of conspiratorial claims. You cannot reason with such claims, because they dismiss empirical evidence as just another conspiracy. The idea that anti-Stratfordian zealots are ‘censored’ is ridiculous.”
One can sense here Professor Taylor’s devotion not only to the efficaciousness of hysterical analogies, but to the highest standards of evidence and open-minded inquiry. Censorship? Ridiculous! Wells and Taylor and Shapiro ARE the academy!
In a way one can understand the hysteria. Since “The Life and Adventures of Common Sense,” by Herbert Lawrence was published in 1769 these poor guys have been under siege. In many cases their dissertations, not to mention their careers and livelihoods, demand that all challenges, no matter what the merits, be denounced. They know that even the slightest crack in the fortress that is Shakespeare scholarship and the huge industry that rests upon it, could, like Ptolemy’s geocentric cosmology and so many other historical certainties that could not hold up under careful scrutiny, crumble to dust.
These members of the English department (And the hysterical ones are almost always from English departments. Drama and Comparative Literature Departments are not nearly as strident) are like raging Lears who have been denied. Because of tenure and the fog of age and too much Spanish sherry these scholars are used to being loved, especially by the post-docs whose careers and livelihood depend on their modern form patronage. If an undergraduate approached Taylor or Wells or Shapiro or Bates with the question, Sir, we have so few historical documents. There is so little evidence. How can we be sure about who William Shakespeare was and what he actually did in the world? The answer could very likely be, dear boy, do you also deny the Holocaust? Do you hate the Jews? Is that your point? If only these nobles of the academy would read their Lear.