Thursday, April 23, 2009

Brush Up Your Shakespeare

Today is April 23rd. We all know what that is, don’t we? Its Shakespeare’s birthday. Or at least, the day he was probably born in 1564. (He was baptized on April 26th.) I’ve been thinking about Shakespeare quite a lot recently, since Jane and I have embarked on the journey of reading the entire works of Shakespeare out loud to each other—we are currently doing a War of the Roses cycle, and we’re up to Henry IV, Part II. And I must say, the most disturbing article I read this week, even more in some sense than the revelations about torture, since those were in some sense unsurprising, appeared in the Wall Street Journal, revealing that several justices of the US Supreme Court, among them John Paul Stevens, Anthony Scalia, and former members Sandra Day O’Connor and Harry Blackmun, have or had come to the conclusion, that the works of William Shakespeare were actually written by Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, a theory that has been popular among fringe Shakespearologists since the 1920s. Evidently there was a symposium on this ridiculous topic some twenty years ago, in which the justices were asked to rule on this matter, and several justices became intrigued by the Oxford hypothesis. All I have to say is, thank God they were never asked to officiate at a symposium about whether the Holocaust occurred.

Look, Shakespeare denial is a lot less offensive than Holocaust denial, but just as utterly without foundation. There is simply not a shred, a scintilla of evidence that anyone besides the person born some 445 years ago today in Stratford on Avon, wrote the 39 plays, 154 sonnets, and assorted other stuff usually attributed to William Shakespeare. Yes, as John Paul Stevens says in the article, the archival record that William Shakespeare has left behind is primarily about non-theatrical matters, and it is of course the thinness of the documentary record about Shakespeare the playwright than keeps these absurd theories alive. But as has been pointed out many times, we know more about Shakespeare than most other Elizabethan playwrights—John Webster, the author of the Duchess of Malfi, is a complete cipher, as is, to go back a bit further, Thomas Malory, the author of Le Morte Darthur, the classic English language collection of Arthurian legends. And Shakespeare was extremely popular and well-known during his life time, his works were frequently reprinted, and in the sincerest form of flattery, at least seven plays not by Shakespeare were published during his life. The most basic historical principle, Occam’s razor, the law of parsimony, go for the simplest explanation, until it is disproved, certainly applies here.

I am not sure why the Oxfordian hypothesis is so popular; Americans, as Richard Hofstadter has long ago pointed out has a paranoid, and conspiracy-hunting style of social explanation. The Oxford hypothesis is a safe conspiracy theory to hold. (If the Supreme Court wanted to take on a conspiracy theory, perhaps they should look into the JFK assassination again.) All I can say, I hope this is not how the justices of the US Supreme Court judge evidence before them—talk about your liberal construction-- and I would feel a lot more comfortable about their powers of discernment, and the future of this country, if none of the justices of the US Supreme Court believed that the Earl of Oxford wrote the works of William Shakespeare.

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