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Debating Shakespeare

July 8, 1999

A recent issue of Harper’s Magazine was devoted to a debate on the Shakespeare authorship question. Interest in the topic is high, and the exchange brought an avalanche of mail.

Spreading belief in the Earl of Oxford’s authorship of the Bard’s works has now driven Sylvan Barnet, editor of the Signet paperback editions of the Shakespeare plays, to add several pages to his introduction in order to rebut the Oxfordian view. But Professor Barnet succeeds only in showing how weak the case for Stratford’s son really is.

Like most adherents of the traditional Stratfordian view, Mr. Barnet caricatures his opponents’ views. He says that “all” — not many, not some, but all — anti-Stratfordian arguments are motivated by “snobbery,” a charge for which he offers no evidence and whose relevance he fails to explain. Then he proceeds to attack a few minor points advanced by some of the heretics (mostly the cipher-hunting advocates of Sir Francis Bacon).

Mr. Barnet doesn’t address the stronger points the heretics have always raised. He is typical of the Stratfordians in that he doesn’t know how to debate. He doesn’t know that a good debater states his opponent’s case in terms the opponent would agree with; he doesn’t know that you have to address that case at its strongest, facing all the evidence. He thinks you win an argument by saying snotty things about your opponent.

Oxford’s partisans argue from the Shakespeare works. They contend that the plays (especially Hamlet) and poems (especially the Sonnets) reflect Oxford’s life in great detail and have nothing to do with the life of William of Stratford. Prince Hamlet, for instance, is captured by pirates in the English Channel, as Oxford himself once was. Polonius and his children are clearly based on Oxford’s in-laws, the great Cecil family. The play also contains echoes of Oxford’s letters. Nothing in the play links it to William, its supposed author.

[Noticing what 
our opponents DON'T 
say]What’s more, Stratfordians like Mr. Barnet don’t even try to link the works to William. You might think the best way to prove a man’s authorship of works attributed to him would be to show how his personal life shaped and inspired those works. But the Stratfordians prefer to treat the works of the Bard as inadmissible evidence that might damage their client’s claim.

Think of it! If someone questioned John Milton’s authorship of his poems, it would be easy to show that Milton’s early poems, his sonnets, and his late masterpieces reflect his public and private life as a passionate Puritan. Milton’s life leaves no room for doubt that he wrote the works bearing his name. Why isn’t this true of Shakespeare?

The task of literary biography is to show an author’s life and works as a unity. This can be done with almost every great author of whose life we have records — but not with Shakespeare. William’s many biographers are stuck with dull facts that can’t be integrated with the works, and their biographies are devoid of literary illumination. In short, there is no such thing as a literary biography of William of Stratford.

But if Oxford is the Bard, a genuine literary biography is possible. The plays and poems reflect his education, his legal training, his experience at the court of Elizabeth I, his travels in Italy and France, his marital troubles, his feuds, his confinement in the Tower of London, his waste of his huge fortune, and his fall into disgrace.

Oxford’s partisans constantly appeal to the texts of the works to make the case for Oxford. William’s professional champions avoid those texts, which don’t support the case for William.

If William were the Bard, the works would speak for him, just as Milton’s poems speak for Milton. But his defenders treat the Shakespeare works as irrelevant to the question of Shakespeare’s identity — a virtual admission that those works have no discernible relation to William, except that his name is on them. Their “argument” is chiefly the baseless accusation that Oxford’s partisans are all snobs.

In any debate, it’s important to notice not only what your opponents say, but what they don’t say. The Stratfordians never say: “Only William could have written these works. Look at all their obvious links with his life!” The only man with such links is the Earl of Oxford.

Joseph Sobran

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