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Who Are the Snobs?

February 29, 2000

I don’t mind when the academic Shakespeare “experts” insist, in the teeth of the evidence for the 17th Earl of Oxford, that the legendary Stratford man wrote the Shakespeare plays. But I do get annoyed when they repeat their pet canard: namely, that all the authorship heretics — usually called “anti- Stratfordians” — are snobs.

In his book The Genius of Shakespeare, for example, Jonathan Bate (University of Liverpool) writes sweepingly that “the anti-Stratfordians cannot abide the thought of Shakespeare resembling an untutored Romantic genius of low origins ... They require something more glamorous ... The anti-Stratfordian aristocratic principle is a matter of prejudice, not argument ... They regard blue blood as the prerequisite for genius.” Nonsense, and irrelevant anyway.

[Breaker quote: The 
Bard and equal opportunity]But the myth persists. Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine (The New Folger Library) assert that the heretics “want the works to have been written by an aristocrat, a university graduate, or an ‘important’ person.” Sylvan Barnet (Tufts University) writes just as flatly: “The impulse behind all [sic] anti-Stratfordian movements is the scarcely concealed snobbish opinion that ‘the man from Stratford’simply could not have written the plays because he was a country fellow without a university education and without access to high society.” Stephen Greenblatt (University of California, Berkeley), editor of The Norton Shakespeare, writes: “The anti-Stratfordians ... almost always propose as the real author someone who came from a higher social class and received a more prestigious education.”

Stephen Orgel (Stanford University) repeats the old refrain: “The Baconians, the Oxfordians, and supporters of other candidates have one trait in common — they are snobs.... [They believe that] only a learned genius like Bacon or an aristocrat like Oxford could have written such fine plays.”

Never mind that one of the most famous anti-Stratfordians, Ignatius Donnelly, was a fiercely populist congressman from Minnesota. The trouble with arguing that “all” the heretics can be explained away by a single disreputable motive is that a single exception destroys the argument. After all, one anti-Stratfordian school favors the candidacy of Christopher Marlowe, son of a cobbler.

Note that these “experts” assume that their reckless ad hominem generalizations are compelling arguments. They don’t know enough about basic logic to realize that even if such charges were true — even if “all” anti-Stratfordians were indeed “snobs” — it would prove nothing about the merits of the case. Such are the abysmal intellectual standards that prevail in academic Shakespeare studies. Nowadays, there’s no snobbery like academic snobbery — the habit of pulling rank with reflexive contempt for those who lack academic credentials. The heretics are all snobs, you see. All the Best People at all the Best Universities say so.

To which Professor Orgel adds that the Earl of Oxford, currently the leading candidate among the heretics, “was not particularly well educated” whereas “Shakespeare received in the Stratford grammar school a formal education that would daunt many college graduates today.” This is truly audacious mendacity.

In the first place, we don’t know that “the man from Stratford” ever spent a day in school. As for Oxford, he was raised as a ward of Lord Burghley at the court of Elizabeth I, where his tutors would have included the great classicist Arthur Golding (Oxford’s uncle, who later dedicated two books to him); by the age of 13 he could write elegantly in French. At 14 he entered Cambridge University. The assumption that William of Stratford got a better education at a grammar school is the sort of thing only a full professor could believe. It’s amusing to speculate on what some full professors are full of.

At 17 Oxford began to study law at Gray’s Inn; the legal vocabulary he acquired there shows up abundantly in the hundreds of legal terms in the Shakespeare works. Hamlet’s complaint about “the law’s delay” echoes Oxford’s exasperation with “the delay of the law.” The gravedigger’s comically mangled phrase “se offendendo” plays on the verdict of “se defendendo” in an inquest that cleared Oxford of a murder charge.

Yes, the Shakespeare plays reflect Oxford’s privileged education. To say so isn’t snobbery; it’s realism. It recognizes that, for better or worse, Elizabethan England wasn’t an equal-opportunity society.

Joseph Sobran

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