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The new elephant in the room
on 28 May 2013
In conjunction with James Shapiro's `Contested Will,' the ruthlessly lucid 'Shakespeare Beyond Doubt' has shifted the parameters of the authorship debate in significantly productive ways. Without these two books, we could go on niggling about signatures, fantastical feathers, the number of River Avons in Britain, graceful swans versus cannibalistic swans, John Shakespeare's trade versus Oxford's glove fetishism, inverted snobs versus right- way -up snobs, the sweet muses of Stratford upon Avon versus those of Stratford near Hackney, round and round in circles for all eternity. Or at least until the first piece of solid, undeniable evidence for alternative authorship is finally revealed.
We have now left behind these entertaining disputes and have entered a more unforgiving arena where all points proffered require predication on the basis of some tough questions. What is good historical evidence and what is dodgy historical evidence? How do you argue with the evidence of stylometrics? What is the difference between literature and autobiography? How does the human imagination work? How did a candidate who died in 1604 manage to collaborate with others in plays written after that date? How do we distinguish between logical and illogical speculation? What exactly is the relationship between the premise, `This man was a moneylender,' and the conclusion, `Therefore he could not have been a playwright'?
Two essays in the book shine a very specific floodlight into the arena which will be particularly unsettling for the anti-Shakespearians. They are Stuart Hampton Reeves' scrutiny of the signatories on `The Declaration of Reasonable Doubt' and Andrew Murphy's immaculately argued and highly sympathetic study of Delia Bacon which ultimately substantiates Gary Taylor's proposition that,' The theory that Shakespeare did not write Shakespeare's plays continues to appeal to amateurs, precisely because it has been utterly rejected by professionals.'
Not all professionals of course `utterly reject' authors other than Shakespeare. However, the relatively new insistence that a central issue in the authorship debate should be an examination of the historical , cultural and psychological causes of doubt and denial, makes it rather awkward for the dissident professionals to participate in this strand of the debate with any degree of academic objectivity.
I share the hope of Stanley Wells and Paul Edmondson that school and university students will never be encouraged to regard doubt about Shakespeare as being in any way legitimate. But I am comforted by the thought that if the worst happens, `Shakespeare Beyond Doubt' will be the elephant in the room that won't go away.