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Conspiracism at the Atlantic

The Atlantic may think that the anti-Shakespeare campaigners offer an entertaining diversion. Its editors certainly failed to pick up the failings of Winkler’s research, yet I believe the issue is a lot more serious than that.

· 10 min read
Conspiracism at the Atlantic

In his short story The Portrait of Mr W.H. (1889), Oscar Wilde depicts a quest to identify the mysterious dedicatee, known only as Mr W.H, of Shakespeare’s sonnets. On purely internal evidence, his protagonists “prove” that it must have been an enchanting boy actor called Willie Hughes. The conceit, clearly deriving from Wilde’s own sexual interests, is compellingly written and completely fictitious.

Last weekend the Atlantic magazine published a long article that I initially assumed must be a similarly imaginative parody of misplaced literary ingenuity. The piece, titled “Was Shakespeare a Woman?”, suggests that the works attributed to William Shakespeare of Stratford may have been written by a woman. The author, Elizabeth Winkler, maintains: “Doubts about whether William Shakespeare … really wrote the works attributed to him are almost as old as the writings themselves.”

She accuses what she calls orthodox Shakespeare scholars of “a dogmatism of their own” on the issue, whereby “even to dabble in authorship questions is considered a sign of bad faith, a blinkered failure to countenance genius in a glover’s son.” Armed with this tendentious premise, along with the less contentious one that Shakespeare depicts female characters with unrivalled sympathy and insight, Winkler spins a hypothesis that Emilia Bassano, born in London in 1569 to Venetian immigrants, is a viable candidate for the true author.

Even as I read Winkler’s piece, I expected a denouement that it was all a piece of fiction, analogous to the enjoyable 2009 caper St Trinian’s 2: The Legend of Fritton’s Gold, which ends with buried treasure under the Globe Theatre and the discovery of Shakespeare’s true identity. It never came. The article was presented as a serious contribution to a debate in which Winkler has made a potentially historic discovery.

In British newspapers, there is a longstanding technique of obscuring a paucity of evidence in support of a preposterous thesis by posing it as a question. It’s been dubbed by the political commentator John Rentoul “Questions to Which the Answer is No” (QTWAIN). Winkler’s article employs the stratagem liberally. “Was Shakespeare’s name useful camouflage, allowing [Bassano] to publish what she otherwise couldn’t?” “Could Bassano have contributed [to literature] even more widely and directly?” In a moment of self-knowledge, Winkler asks: “Was I getting carried away, reinventing Shakespeare in the image of our age?” Yet she immediately supplies not the correct answer but yet another QTWAIN: “Or was I seeing past gendered assumptions to the woman who—like Shakespeare’s heroines—had fashioned herself a clever disguise?”

Feminist readings of Shakespeare have enriched literary criticism and scholarship in, among other areas, reconsidering genre distinctions and examining the effects of patriarchal structures on relations between the sexes. There is no decorous way of saying that Winkler’s article, by contrast, is a farrago that should never have been conceived, pitched, commissioned or published. Winkler credulously retails a series of purported mysteries about Shakespeare’s authorship that are no mystery at all, and repeats claims derived from Shakespeare denialists that any capable scholar would have been able to correct. She places particular stress on the work of a “meticulous scholar” Diana Price, who claims: “Writers in Elizabethan and Jacobean England left behind records of their professional activities. Shakespeare left behind documentation of his professional activities, but none is literary… He is the only alleged [emphasis added] writer of any consequence from the time period who left behind no personal evidence of his career as a professional writer.”

Price is neither meticulous nor a scholar (she designates herself “an independent scholar,” which should have caused Winkler greater wariness). As Alan Nelson of Berkeley University has put it, Price knows how to put a sentence together but she doesn’t know how to put an argument together.

We in fact have unimpeachable evidence of Shakespeare’s activities as a writer, far more than we do for, say, his fellow-dramatists John Webster or Cyril Tourneur, but by a series of rhetorical sleights-of-hand Price rules it all inadmissible. To give a single but weighty example: Shakespeare’s fellow actors John Heminge and Henry Condell assembled the First Folio of Shakespeare’s works, published in 1623, with Shakespeare’s name on the title page and his engraved image in the frontispiece, and with a laudatory poem by Ben Jonson referring to the author as “Sweet Swan of Avon.” Price dismisses this as evidence of authorship because it’s posthumous, coming seven years after Shakespeare’s death, even though the planning and publishing of the book must have taken years, and Heminge, Condell and Jonson all knew Shakespeare personally. This isn’t scholarship but sophistry.

From her repetition of “zombie facts” (empirical claims that scholars have long refuted but keep getting cited by denialists) like this, I assumed that Winkler was not conversant with the way that Shakespeare scholars (real ones, I mean) respond to them. There isn’t a huge literature refuting the denialists, for the same reason that evolutionary biologists typically spend none of their limited time and resources dispensing with pseudoscientific claims of creationism. But there’s quite enough.

I rate highly a book by Scott McCrea titled The Case for Shakespeare: The End of the Authorship Question (2005) and James Shapiro has written a definitive cultural and historical study of the anti-Shakespeare conspiracy theorists, Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? (2010). These should have been sufficient to demonstrate to Winkler that the denialists are a historically recent phenomenon, dating from the mid-nineteenth century, and that their fantasies are historically bounded. The notion that a commoner lacking a university education could have written the greatest literary works in the language offended the Victorian sense of propriety and order; hence the search for an alternative author (in the first instance, it was surmised to be Francis Bacon) took root. In around 170 years of this endeavour, not a single piece of documentary evidence has connected any of the supposed authorship candidates—of whom the main ones are Bacon, Christopher Marlowe, the Earl of Oxford and the Earl of Derby—to the works of Shakespeare. (I should disclose that Shapiro is a friend, and I’ve gained over many years from his insights and advice concerning Shakespeare.)

Yet it turns out that I was mistaken in thinking that Winkler was guilty of mere inattention and incuriosity. In the storm of social media comment over the past few days, one post stands out. Diana Henderson of MIT, whose scholarly expertise includes Shakespeare, early modern poetry and drama, and gender studies, wrote on Twitter: “[Winkler] contacted me almost a year ago, & although I gave lengthy email replies, doesn’t acknowledge the fact that many of us who are most interested in women writers & know their dramatic as well as poetic works find this fanciful. EW seeking only to find what she wanted.”

In short, Winkler did seek expert advice and she elected to ignore it. She says she also omitted to quote some interlocutors on the “other side,” yet that defence merely compounds the problem with her article. A journalist dealing with a technical issue is duty-bound to check their work against the state of scholarship. In her numerous social media posts, Winkler has “respectfully” pointed out that I am not a literary scholar, and this is true. But on the subjects I write about, I’m confident that my work will withstand the scrutiny of experts, as I’ve made sure to consult them in print and in person. This is a minimal requirement of responsible journalism.

And on the purported Shakespeare authorship question, there is no scholarly debate. There is a fascinating area of inquiry concerning Shakespeare’s collaborations with other dramatists both early and late in his career, but this is far removed from the fantasy that some romantic figure used a jobbing actor from Stratford as a frontman for works of literary genius. There are a mere handful of academics who give this stuff even the time of day, let alone credence, and Winkler has misrepresented the state of scholarship by insinuating that they are one side in a scholarly dispute.

To give an analogy: scholars of linguistics vigorously dispute whether language is the realisation of an innate human faculty or whether it is an outcome of general-purpose learning mechanisms. I’ve written a non-technical book on language, which refers in passing to this question. I have a lot of sympathy for the first of those positions (which is associated especially with Noam Chomsky and Steven Pinker) but it’s far from universally held and the results of research programmes into it have been limited. That’s a real debate. The purported Shakespeare authorship question, by contrast, is more like the issue of climate change: there are a tiny number of fringe figures in academia ranged against the overwhelming scholarly consensus, and it’s irresponsible for any journalist to depict it otherwise.

As Winkler has backed herself into defending her article, she has repeatedly linked to material that does not even have the veneer of scholarship. One example is a page on the website of the grandiloquently named Shakespeare Authorship Research Centre at Concordia University in Portland, Oregon. This is one of the very few outposts of Shakespeare denialism in academia. Its site no longer appears to advertise this offer, but a few years ago you could buy from the Centre the title of “life-scholar” for $10,000. Alternatively, you could have bought the title associate research scholar for a more modest $125 plus a passport photograph. (Information from the e-book Shakespeare Bites Back by Stanley Wells and Paul Edmondson of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, 2011.)

On the Concordia page that Winkler links to is a reading list of denialist works whose authors include Diana Price, plus Richard Paul Roe (a retired attorney from Pasadena, now deceased), Richard Malim (a retired solicitor from Bristol), and one John Michell. Michell, who died in 2009, was also the author of The Flying Saucer Vision (1967), which revealed a complex system of ley lines that serve as landing markers for extra-terrestrial spacecraft, and The View Over Atlantis (1969), which—as you might expect—uncovers the existence of a prehistoric race of superbeings.

Winkler is a young literary journalist who writes fluently. She has in the past few days, since her article was published, made the mistake of doubling down on her claims rather than acknowledging that her entire venture was misconceived. It’s a natural human reaction but still a mistake and I hope she’ll acknowledge it and then go on to success in her branch of journalism.

For the Atlantic, a venerable journal whose founders included Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the conundrum is greater. Alongside Winkler’s article online is a link to a cover story the magazine published in 1991 on the supposed Shakespeare authorship debate. It reads: “In 1991, the Atlantic commissioned two pieces from admittedly partisan authors, Irving Matus and Tom Bethell, to examine and debate the argument.”

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Indeed, I recall reading it at the time. Matus, who died a few years ago, really did justify the term “independent scholar” by writing two books on Shakespeare based on exhaustive documentary research that added to the sum of knowledge. Bethell remains a longstanding Shakespeare denialist whose more recent work includes a book (titled Questioning Einstein: Is Relativity Necessary?) in which he claims to have refuted Einstein. He is also the author of Darwin’s House of Cards, whose thesis—about the work of another giant figure in scientific discovery—I need hardly describe to you. For good measure, he’s written several articles praising AIDS denialists.

The Atlantic may think that the anti-Shakespeare campaigners offer an entertaining diversion. Its editors certainly failed to pick up the failings of Winkler’s research, yet I believe the issue is a lot more serious than that. These are dark times for liberal values of critical inquiry, reason and science. The magazine has given vent to an entirely worthless conspiracy theory without checking its provenance or veracity. As its editors know well, conspiracy theories have an ineluctable tendency to expand their horizons.

Roger Stritmatter of Coppin State University, who “earned” the first PhD in the United States for a thesis explicitly arguing that the Earl of Oxford was the true Shakespeare, is a member of a group called Scholars for 9/11 Truth and Justice. He declares: “We are told that WTC buildings 1, 2 and 7 ‘collapsed’ due to jet plane impact and fire, that the Bush administration could not ‘imagine’ such a scenario, and that it is only a ‘coincidence’ that plans were already underway long before 9-11 for the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. The evidence against this official account of 9-11 is overwhelming.”

In his fine book that I’ve cited, McCrea’s concluding chapter is headed “All Conspiracy Theories Are Alike.” It’s an acute observation. He states: “Denial of Shakespeare follows exactly the same flawed reasoning as Holocaust denial, though obviously it lacks the same moral dimension.” Shakespeare denialists may find this an outrageous and even inflammatory analogy, but they should consider it carefully. One of the main authors in recent years in support of the argument that the Earl of Oxford was the true Shakespeare was the syndicated columnist Joseph Sobran. His principal Oxfordian work is called Alias Shakespeare (1997). He ended his days as an apologist for Nazi Germany, addressing a Holocaust denial conference.

Another recently deceased Oxfordian, Paul Streitz (who argued that Oxford was not only Shakespeare but also the lover and illegitimate son of Elizabeth I), was an anti-Muslim demagogue. The main recent advocate of Christopher Marlowe as Shakespeare was the late Sam Blumenfeld, an indefatigable propagandist for the far-right conspiracist group the John Birch Society, which famously accused President Eisenhower of being a Communist agent.

Enough. I know that Winkler and the Atlantic have revulsion for such bigotry and irrationalism. That’s why they ought to say something. Winkler has got into this fiasco over her head and I hope will learn from the experience. The Atlantic meanwhile has no other course consistent with its mission and history than to retract the fruits of her inquiries.

Oliver Kamm

Oliver Kamm is a journalist and author. His most recent book is Mending the Mind: The Art and Science of Overcoming Clinical Depression (2021), published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

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