Champions of the Enlightenment OR: of Tradition, Orthodoxy and Dogma?

John Shahan Explains the Facts

John Shahan Explains the Facts

Have you ever heard of Skeptic Magazine? It is pretty well known as a reliable source for rebuttals of all kinds of crazy ideas. Its tag line is, “Examining Extraordinary Claims & Promoting Science.” A laudable tag, indeed. Climate change deniers are taken on. Evolution deniers. Fringe claims about new healthcare treatments. Flying Saucers, too. They are very proud of their reputation as people who believe, like most advocates of the Enlightenment, that evidence should trump opinion and orthodoxy; that looking carefully at the facts and applying good rational practices will lead humanity closer to the truth than will bluster and condescension.

And usually they try to abide by these common sense Enlightenment principles. But not always. Sometimes they get caught up in their own desire to preserve a precious notion, just because it is so precious. Like Shakespeare, for example. We all love Shakespeare and we want to continue to love him, just as he has he been taught by English teachers over the decades and centuries. A guy from Stratford who left his wife and three kids when he was twenty-three years old, went to London and became the greatest writer the world has ever known.

It’s a great story. The great majority of English teachers love it and teach it, word for word. And if anyone questions the story; if anyone comes up with some new facts or interprets old facts in a way that suggests maybe the guy from Stratford did not write all those plays and poems, then they are ridiculed, or flunked, or if they’re in college and want to pursue a literary career their careers are destroyed. Not because of facts. Because the biography of William Shakespeare contains VERY few facts. But because of the precious notion. The great story.

Recently, Skeptic Magazine abandoned its fidelity to facts and the Enlightenment practices to defend the very shaky Shakespeare orthodoxy. Instead of giving a fair assessment of the facts, they defaulted to cursory, superficial and time-worn platitudes. And they should be ashamed.

Here’s the deal. On February 3, 2015, Eve Siebert, an English Teacher, posted a blog on the website, called False Balance and the Shakespeare Authorship Debate. In her blog Siebert stated, among other things, “There is a mountain of evidence for Shakespeare’s authorship, no evidence that he didn’t or couldn’t have written the works, and a bunch of weak and contradictory evidence for other authors.” This is so patently false that it should be embarrassing to the author, AND the magazine. But apparently they’re not. John Shahan, Chairman of the Shakespeare Authorship Coalition, wrote a response to Siebert, which he sent on February 10 to Michael Shermer, Editor-in-Chief of Skeptic magazine. As of February 20, Mr. Shahan had not received any response from either Shermer or Siebert.

 We include the entire letter here precisely because it is so full of FACTS and rebuttals. If you look at the blog itself, which is on the Skeptic site, and read through Mr. Shahan’s letter you will get some sense of who’s really for Enlightenment principles and who would rather cuddle up with a precious story.

Skeptic Blog by Siebert

February 10, 2015

Dear Michael,

I’m writing to complain about Eve Siebert’s Insight blog, False Balance and the Shakespeare Authorship “Debate,” which includes several false and/or misleading claims. I submitted two detailed comments in response, and I think they warranted replies. She hasn’t replied to mine, or to several other comments that I think warranted replies. It’s very unimpressive that she fails to respond when challenged, and especially that she did not acknowledge and correct her false description of the outcome of the 1987 moot court trial before three U.S. Supreme Court Justices at American University in Washington, D.C. I’ve copied my two comments at the end of this for your convenience.

Note that I call attention in them to two examples of falsification of evidence in the book Shakespeare Beyond Doubt: Evidence, Argument, Controversy (SBD), edited by Paul Edmondson and Stanley Wells of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Stratford-upon-Avon. It is an especially egregious offense to falsify evidence in a book like SBD, which purports to be the definitive statement on the subject by orthodox academics. In fact, it is no such thing, as pointed out in this review by Thomas Regnier. Sadly, it is increasingly apparent that the Birthplace Trust has a habit of making false claims. As a leading tourist destination, they have always had a conflict of interest. What we didn’t know until recently is the extent to which their Shakespeare theme park (Disneyland for Shakespeare is an apt description) is based on fraudulent claims.

Siebert’s article briefly mentions that the Newsweek article by Robert Gore-Langton was prompted by Alexander Waugh’s recent e-book by Kindle, Shakespeare in Court. But she never talks about the book and probably did not read it. She should have. It’s quite an eye-opener. It is mainly about a fictional mock trial of the authorship issue, but in Part I Waugh first identifies the parties to the dispute. He introduces the Birthplace Trust by quoting the descriptions of five of their properties – tourist attractions – and then giving a detailed history of each property based on documents found in the Birthplace Trust’s own archives. Not one of the five properties is what they claim it is. Nothing shows that what they call Shakespeare’s “Birthplace” is where Shakspere was born. What they call “Anne Hathaway’s Cottage” isn’t where Anne Hathaway lived. What they call “Mary Arden’s Farm” isn’t the farm where Shakspere’s mother lived. The building called “Hall’s Croft” isn’t, as they say, where John and Susanna Hall lived. What they call ”Tom Nash’s House” wasn’t.

There is a clear pattern of false claims about their tourist attractions, quite apart from whether Shakspere was the author. It is these false claims by the Trust that would be the focus of any legal action, and not just the fact that they refused our mock trial challenge and £40,000 donation offer. The Trust has a lot to hide, and they’ve gotten away with it for so long that they seem to feel totally unaccountable. So they also falsified evidence in their book, SBD. This is scandalous, but most people are blind to it and just accept what these “experts” say.

Other misleading claims by Dr. Siebert:

1. “It is true that Shakespeare doesn’t mention plays or books in his will, but he entailed the bulk of his estate, including his primary residence, New Place, and its contents. He didn’t need to mention plays or poems.”

Mr. Shakspere’s will is relatively long and detailed for the time. He mentioned many other very minor personal possessions, rather than just “entailing” them to his heirs. Books were valuable possessions at the time, and especially many of the rare books Shakespeare used as sources. It makes no sense that he would not mention them but that he would mention many less valuable items. Is this the behavior of a man who loved books and lived by them? Why didn’t he leave any of his most prized books, or anything else, to some fellow writer, collaborator, or to his alleged patron, the Earl of Southampton? And what happened to the alleged books after they were “entailed”? Why do they all seem to have totally disappeared? Not a single book that Mr. Shakspere owned, or that is known to have been in his possession, has ever been found.

More importantly, focusing only on books is misleading. It suggests that the absence of books is the only issue with the will and everything else is as one would expect. Nothing could be further from the truth. Not one thing about the will suggests in any way that it is the product of the mind that produced the works of William Shakespeare. Not only does he not mention that he has been a writer, he neither names nor quotes from any of the works, and not a single turn of phrase is reminiscent of any of them. He left no intellectual property! Nothing about it suggests a man who lived an intellectual life. On the contrary, it tends to confirm everything else that suggests he did not.

On a website titled ”60 Minutes with Shakespeare,” Birthplace Trust trustee Michael Wood says that “To deny Shakespeare’s authorship is to deny the primary sources, above all his will.” In reality, the will is the one primary source document that is most damaging to his claim. In Shakespeare Beyond Doubt? (Shahan and Waugh, eds.), we included an entire chapter on the will, explaining in detail why it isn’t the author’s will, and we included a transcript. We also predicted, correctly, that, despite Wood’s claim, the Trust wouldn’t talk about the will in SBD. It is clear, solid evidence against Shakspere. Just read it. Or, better yet, read Chapter 5 in our book, SBD?. How does Dr. Siebert explain the fact that the Birthplace Trust first claimed that the will is “above all” primary source evidence for Shakspere, then left it out of their book when it came time to present the definitive case for his authorship? They could have reproduced the entire will for all to see and let it speak for itself. They didn’t. We did. Who are the real “deniers” here?

“It might be true that no poem or play survives in Shakespeare’s hand, but that is not unusual among Elizabethan/Jacobean poets.”

It’s true that we have manuscripts for only about ten writers of the period, but Shakespeare was prolific and his works were admired; so it’s odd that we have none for him. But more telling than the absence of manuscripts of plays or poems is the complete absence of any letters he wrote. That is very unusual for a major writer of the period. It’s especially odd for a man who divided his time between London and Stratford – a situation conducive to correspondence. What about all of his many collaborators? How is it possible that many of their letters survived but none for the greatest writer of all? The author must have written hundreds of letters. Why none for Mr. Shakspere? His six alleged signatures offer an explanation.

  1. “Moreover, Hand D of the play Sir Thomas More may be in his handwriting (see image, right).”

Notice the weasel words “may be,” and then she shows the image of the Hand D manuscript as if to suggest that it is in his hand. There is no way to say that the Hand D writing is in Mr. Shakspere’s hand because there’s no valid sample of his handwriting against which to compare it. The only generally-accepted writings in his hand are six signatures on legal documents, each spelled differently, and in the view of Jane Cox, Custodian of Wills at the Public Records Office,

“It is obvious at a glance that these signatures, with the exception of the last two [the Blackfriar signatures] are not the signatures of the same man. Almost every letter is formed in a different way in each. Literate men in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries developed personalized signatures much as people do today and it is unthinkable that Shakespeare did not.”

Perhaps Dr. Siebert can explain on what basis she speculates that Hand D is in Shakspere’s hand if no two letters in his six signatures are formed the same way. (For a study comparing Shakspere’s alleged signatures to those of other contemporary writers and actors, see Chapter 2 in Shakespeare Beyond Doubt? ).

Here’s an alternative hypothesis about where Hand D comes from: We know that the main body of The Book of Sir Thomas More is in the hand of one Anthony Munday. But Munday was not the author of the play because he makes transcription errors that the author wouldn’t have made. So he was apparently a scribe for the real author. So who was Anthony Munday? He was secretary to the leading alternative authorship candidate, Edward de Vere, possibly about the time Sir Thomas More was written. So even if Hand D represents the revisions of Shakespeare himself, there is no way to prove the handwriting is Mr. Shakspere’s and not that of another scribe of de Vere. Stratfordians avoid mentioning that Munday was Oxford’s secretary.

4.“Most crucially, Shakespeare absolutely wasrecognized as an author during his lifetime. About half of Shakespeare’s plays were printed during his lifetime. Many of those list his name as author on the title page…. The problem isn’t that documentary evidence doesn’t exist. The problem is that Shakespeare deniers claim that somehow these references to William Shakespeare don’t actually refer to William Shakespeare, the actor from Stratford, but to a pseudonym of another person. To say that these references don’t exist, however, is simply false.”

First, even Stanley Wells of the Birthplace Trust now says that none of the many references to the author “Shakespeare” during the lifetime of the Stratford man identifies him as being from Stratford-upon-Avon (Why Shakespeare WAS Shakespeare, Kindle Single, Stanley Wells, 2014). Not until seven years after he died did anyone suggest that he had been the author Shakespeare, in the First Folio. Only if one assumes that every appearance of the name “Shakespeare” refers to the Stratford man can it be said that they are evidence for him during his lifetime. It’s not a safe assumption. One problem is that he never spelled his name “Shakespeare” in his life, and it probably was not pronounced the same as the author’s name. Another problem is that nobody who referred to the author during Mr. Shakspere’s lifetime indicated that they knew him. Another problem is that at least ten people have been identified who clearly knew Shakspere, and [knew about] the author “Shakespeare,” but never connected the two. The evidence for him as author is so thin that it even undermines the theory he was a front man for the real author. If he had been, then more evidence would point to him.

Second, notice that Siebert contradicts herself when she first says that authorship doubters think the appearances of the name are explainable as being a “pseudonym,” and then suggests that we deny the existence of the documents. If we deny the existence of documents, how do we propose that a non-existent name is a pseudonym? Notice also that she doesn’t actually quote any doubter who claims that the documents don’t exist. I know of no authorship doubter who has ever denied the documents. This is an example of the Stratfordian tactic of setting up a false straw-man argument, attributing it to us, and knocking it down. It’s dishonest, and they do it all the time.

  1. “There is a mountain of evidence for Shakespeare’s authorship”

This statement is totally false. There is no “mountain of evidence” for Shakspere, especially not from his lifetime, as even increasing numbers of Stratfordians now admit. If there were, the Birthplace Trust would not hesitate for a moment to accept our mock trial challenge, collect our £40,000 donation and put the controversy behind them. The fact that they are unwilling to defend the claim in the title of their book,Shakespeare Beyond Doubt, speaks volumes. At least we have the courage of our convictions. They don’t. If there is a “mountain of evidence,” fine: put up or shut up. They didn’t put up any mountain of evidence in Shakespeare Beyond Doubt, and that would have been the place to do it. Instead, here’s how attorney Thomas Regnier characterizes SBD in the final paragraph of his review:

One might have thought that, given the chance to put the authorship controversy to rest once and for all, the authors and editors of SBD would have laid out their evidence in all its glory, with clear, cogent explanations of its significance and coolly reasoned rebuttals to any arguments questioning its authenticity. That they have chosen instead to assert authority, disparage open-mindedness, and belittle adversaries says a great deal about the mindset and the state of scholarship, as it regards the authorship question, of the Shakespeare establishment.

 6. “There’s … no evidence that he didn’t or couldn’t have written the works”

False again. A key example of evidence that he didn’t [write the works] is the evidence Wells omitted from SBD — evidence which virtually rules out Shakspere as the author (below).

I could go on, but I’ll leave it there. Sorry about the length of this, but it’s difficult to be succinct with such detailed material. I’ll be happy to try to answer any questions.

Very sincerely,


John M. Shahan, Chairman & CEO

Shakespeare Authorship Coalition
310 North Indian Hill Blvd, #200
Claremont, CA 91711 – U.S.A

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