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43 of 78 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Readable Propaganda, 14 May 2013
This review is from: Shakespeare Beyond Doubt: Evidence, Argument, Controversy (Paperback)
If the distinguished contributors to Shakespeare Beyond Doubt hope their book will place the traditional author of Shakespeare's canon where the title claims and settle the Shakespeare authorship question for once and for all, they are likely to be disappointed. In the hands of twenty-one eminent Shakespeare scholars, the case for William Shakespeare of Stratford sounds plausible enough, and will reassure the already convinced as well as those who would like to be. But anyone versed in the primary material of the authorship question will emerge essentially unsatisfied. Although a well-written, accessible and interesting read, it is riddled with the common misunderstandings that characterise this 'dialogue of the deaf' and contains factual errors that suggest certain contributors haven't done their homework. Nevertheless it is full of fascinating information for initiate and expert alike, and (with the exception of Paul Edmondson's final chapter), reasonable in tone.

Though Shakespeare Beyond Doubt aims to "bring fresh perspectives to an intriguing cultural phenomenon", it is in many ways a reprise of James Shapiro's Contested Will, side-stepping recent scholarly work on the authorship question to focus extensively on examining the 'pathology' and psychology of Shakespeare sceptics - with one chapter probing the backgrounds of notable and academic signatories to the Declaration of Reasonable Doubt, and two chapters devoted to examining the biography of the founder of the authorship question, Delia Bacon. As with Shapiro's book, there is an unacknowledged irony in arguing for a powerful relationship between a writer's life experiences and the themes of their writing in the case of Delia Bacon - "even as Bacon is writing about Ralegh and his milieu, she is also effectively writing about herself and her own situation" - but arguing against such a connection for the author of the Shakespeare canon. The author we know as Shakespeare returned repeatedly to themes of slander, false accusation, exile, loss of name and reputation, and resurrection (thirty-three characters in eighteen Shakespeare plays are wrongly thought to be dead). That he used his imagination in the process is not in doubt (Barbara Everett's chapter, 'Shakespeare Tells Lies', appears to say nothing more than 'the author of these works was a writer of dramatic fiction'). But what is the logical basis for insisting on an autobiographical undercurrent in Delia Bacon's non-fiction while denying it (as many orthodox scholars do) in Shakespeare's sonnets?

Though the belated entry of orthodox academics into this 156-year-old controversy is a welcome development, there are two major problems with Shakespeare Beyond Doubt. One is a blatant attempt to win the debate through semantics. Throughout the book, the editors Stanley Wells and Paul Edmondson decree that those who don't agree with them be described not with the well-established term 'anti-Stratfordian', but with the hackle-raising 'anti-Shakespearean'. Their justification is that "to deny Shakespeare of Stratford's connection to the work attributed to him is to deny the essence of, in part, what made that work possible ... Shakespeare was formed by both Stratford-upon-Avon and London." Yet the contested connection between Shakespeare of Stratford and the work attributed to him *is* the authorship question. Were it supported by incontestable evidence (rather than such fragile evidential scraps as the disputed Hand D in Thomas More) there would be no need for their book. The term 'anti-Shakespeareans' is also fundamentally inaccurate: the person Ben Jonson referred to in the First Folio as 'the AUTHOR William Shakespeare' is esteemed as highly by those who question his identity as by those who don't.

But the most significant failing of Shakespeare Beyond Doubt is that it attempts to support the orthodox position using evidence the sceptics do not contest - that there was an author widely known as 'William Shakespeare' - while failing to address recent scholarship. The most glaring omission is Diana Price's 2001 Shakespeare's Unorthodox Biography: New Evidence of an Authorship Problem, the first book on the authorship question to be published by an academic press. The single mention of it is buried (inaccurately) in a list of "other studies advocating Oxford" on page 247. For the second academic book on the subject to pretend that the first doesn't exist is disingenuous and unscholarly, and suggests orthodox scholars cannot answer Price's arguments. Richard Paul Roe's 2011 The Shakespeare Guide to Italy: Retracing the Bard's Unknown Travels, the culmination of twenty years' research which persuasively demonstrates Shakespeare's first-hand knowledge of Milan, Verona, Mantua, Venice, Padua, Lombardy, Florence, Pisa, and Sicily is also notable by its absence, as is Rosalind Barber's 2010 non-Stratfordian essay published in the peer-reviewed Routledge journal Rethinking History.

Throughout the volume, and despite significant developments in non-Stratfordian research in the last decade, only arguments advanced prior to 1960 are acknowledged. Paul Edmondson claims that those he perceives as his "antagonists" ignore evidence, yet himself presides over a volume of essays that demolishes straw men while skilfully eliding the more challenging work of contemporary researchers. Weighing this approach against the accepted principles of academic argument, one must ask whether Shakespeare Beyond Doubt is genuinely a work of scholarship, or simply a skilful piece of propaganda.
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Showing 1-10 of 19 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 24 May 2013 15:37:18 BDT
Queequeg says:
Q:But what is the logical basis for insisting on an autobiographical undercurrent in Delia Bacon's non-fiction while denying it (as many orthodox scholars do) in Shakespeare's sonnets?
A: The logical basis is that it is reasonable to assume that a playwright who adopts a persona in order to create a character in a drama may be using the same technique when he writes sonnets. Delia Bacon was not assuming a persona. As she was writing explicitly as herself , it is therefore perfectly valid to search for an 'autobiographical undercurrent.'

In reply to an earlier post on 24 May 2013 15:55:43 BDT
silverfish says:
The idea that the author of the sonnets was not writing explicitly as himself is disputed - and by Wells and Edmondson themselves, who in their book 'Shakespeare's Sonnets' (OUP, 2004), declare that the sonnets "may be thought of as an emotional autobiography" (p.27). So the logical inconsistency remains.

In reply to an earlier post on 24 May 2013 19:32:02 BDT
Queequeg says:
All right, I will add a qualifying clause to my first sentence: ...when there is nothing but speculation to suggest an autobiographical element. That's the logical consistency put back in.

In reply to an earlier post on 25 May 2013 11:15:34 BDT
Last edited by the author on 25 May 2013 11:18:06 BDT
silverfish says:
When faced with the fact that the content of apparently autobiographical poems bears little or known relation to the attributed author's known biography, there are three positions one can take:

1) The attribution is wrong.
2) The attribution is right but we do not have the information that would help us make the match.
3) The poems are not autobiographical.

I have chosen the first position, Wells and Edmondson have chosen the second position, and you have chosen the third. Though I know the first (as applied to the specific instance of Shakespeare) brings up strong feelings, from a philosophically neutral stance none of these positions are inherently wrong. However, every one of them is speculative in the absence of hard evidence to support them. The third, that the poems are not autobiographical, certainly needs additional support: 'they don't match William Shakespeare of Stratford's biography" clearly isn't enough since one can observe that and choose one of the other two options.

In fact it may need more support than position 2, when you bear in mind that the Dewey Decimal system classifies poetry under 'non-fiction'. Of course the Dewey Decimal system is a blunt tool and poetry is not always autobiographical. Giles Fletcher's "Licia" (1593) is an oft-cited Early Modern example, and The Marlowe Papers a very recent one. But in both these cases, the verse is very clearly flagged as fiction. Indeed, that Fletcher's preface goes to such lengths to point out that his poems spin a fiction is strong evidence that non-fictional poetry is the norm. There is no such clear flagging of a fictional component to "Shake-speare's Sonnets", and many highly esteemed Shakespearean scholars (such as Professor Wells) have concluded they are autobiographical. Therefore, without additional support, to suggest that the Sonnets are not autobiographical is highly speculative. I appreciate *why* you hold this position, and there's nothing wrong with it, but it's not solidly supported in the way you assume. It does at least have the benefit of diminishing cognitive dissonance and creating logical consistency in authorship question discussions.

However, my review was not a comment on your position, but a comment on the logical inconsistency of the stance taken by the defenders of the orthodoxy in Professor Wells' and Dr Edmondson's book. But thank you for helping me clarify further what is problematic about the "not-autobiographical" position.

In reply to an earlier post on 28 May 2013 10:26:50 BDT
Queequeg says:
Thank you very much for this careful and considered response. You are right that I hold position 3 but I would need to add the `because' I have already stated to strengthen it.

I also hold a modified version of position 2: The attribution is right because we DO have several pieces of hard information. If we build strictly logical speculation on top of that information then we have a strong case for attribution.

Despite your reasoned argument, I find myself stumbling over the premise upon which it is predicated: that the poems are `apparently autobiographical'. What produces this response in your reading of the poetry? If your answer relates to the powerful emotional authenticity of the poetry's narratives, then we are back in a circle because I will simply point to precisely the same quality in the plays.

Of course all literature is based on lived experience. But the fundamental difference between autobiography and literature is that literature involves an imaginative, and sometimes radical, re-ordering of lived experience which becomes fictionalized as a consequence of that process.

It's worth putting our discussion in the context of the article to which you referred in your review. I wouldn't have occurred to me to take issue with your comment about logical inconsistency, had I not found the arguments and conclusion of Barbara Everett's essay so elegant and convincing. Even more so is Andrew Murphy's essay on Delia Bacon-`Amateurs and Professionals: Regendering Bacon'.

P.S. Shouldn't Dewey have classified poetry under...erm... Poetry?

In reply to an earlier post on 2 Jun 2013 09:03:26 BDT
silverfish says:
I, too, appreciate your civility, often so lacking in discussions of this nature. Unfortunately it is hard for me to get involved in discussing the issues further here as I have two books and an academic paper in progress, two of them with pressing deadlines. I'm also very aware that when a strong position is taken (i.e. that the Sonnets are not autobiographical), it is not likely to change... and that it is also not any part of my job to try and change it!

Of course Dewey *does* classify poetry under Poetry, but Poetry falls under the broader category of Non-fiction. And without anything in the title, prefatory material, or content to flag that it should be read otherwise, that is how I read poetry. How you read it is, of course, entirely up to you!

In reply to an earlier post on 28 Jun 2013 12:14:26 BDT
Queequeg says:
I didn't realise who you were until I saw an identical review on the net recently. Congratulations on your award. I look forward to reading the book.

In reply to an earlier post on 28 Jun 2013 13:40:52 BDT
silverfish says:
Thank you. The award is a lovely boost. As a fellow Shakespeare lover I very much hope you enjoy it; Stanley Wells, Paul Edmondson and Charles Nicholl all said how much they did. So one needn't believe or agree with the theory to delight in the fiction. (Thank goodness, or it would have very few readers!)

In reply to an earlier post on 6 Jul 2013 00:50:02 BDT
I find myself less interested in the "logic" of this question than in its application to the texts in question. Long ago Sir George Greenwood commented that those who think that the Shakespeare Sonnets are mere rhetorical exercises written from the point of view of an assumed persona have had their literary sensibilities dulled by too much reading of Elizabethan Sonnet sequences. I think that most readers who have not been indoctrinated into the assumptions of orthodox bardolatry will readily sense that the sonnets are deeply and unambiguously personal in nature. This is a critical point. If it is so, then they cannot in any way shape or form be reconciled to the orthodox view of authorship. If the author of the sonnets has adopted a persona, it is that of the 17th Earl of Oxford, whose life story is written all over them, just as it is written all over Hamlet, All's Well, and several other plays.

In reply to an earlier post on 10 Jul 2013 13:17:17 BDT
silverfish says:
"If the author of the sonnets has adopted a persona, it is that of the 17th Earl of Oxford".

This is a bold assertion, but postmodern historians understand very well that multiple histories can be read out of the same set of data points. In fact the only authorship candidate whose life and circumstances have been matched to the sonnets in a peer-reviewed academic article is, to my knowledge, Christopher Marlowe ('Exploring biographical fictions: The role of imagination in writing and reading narrative', Rethinking History 14:2, Spring 2010, 165-187). If you can point me to an Oxfordian reading of the sonnets that has passed peer review in a mainstream (i.e. not Oxfordian) academic journal I will happily add it to my reading list, but even if there is such a thing, you must concede (I think) that other scholars disagree with your assertion that Oxford is the only possible match.

But let's not enter into an Oxford-Marlowe conflict. What is pertinent to the book under review is that we agree the sonnets read as autobiographical and that they do not reflect the known biography of William Shakspeare of Stratford-upon-Avon.
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