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 Reflections of a Conspirator 

December 15, 2005 
Why do doubts about the authorship of “Shakespeare of Stratford” persist, in spite of the unanimous insistence of academic scholars that there is absolutely no room for doubt — not no how, not no way? As a confirmed doubter, I’ve been doing research on this question, and here’s how Today's column is "Reflections of a Conspirator" -- Read Joe's columns the day he writes them.the leading scholars account for the heretics.

The editors of the highfalutin Arden edition of the Complete Works blame the doubts on a “simple, if unattractive, social snobbery.” Sylvan Barnet of Tufts University, editor of the Signet editions of the plays, calls the doubters “snobs” who believe in a “conspiracy.” Oh my!

Another academic editor, David Bevington of the University of Chicago, calls the heresy “visibly conspiratorial and snobbish.” Andrew Dickson, who specialized in Shakespeare at Cambridge University and reflects the academic consensus, writes of the doubters’ “rank snobbery” and “conspiracy theories.” Harvard’s Stephen Greenblatt, author of a recent bestselling biography of the Stratford gent, speaks of their “conspiracy theories,” including belief in an “extraordinary conspiracy” to conceal the real author. Russ McDonald of the University of North Carolina thinks the trouble is “conspiracy theories.”

Are you starting to get the idea? If not, a recent anthology of orthodox essays on Shakespeare calls attention to the “fierce elitism” of the doubters, and in a single paragraph mocks their “conspiracy theories,” “all-powerful conspirators,” “omnipotent conspirators,” and a “massive conspiracy.”

Stephen Orgel of Stanford, editor of the new Pelican edition of the Complete Works, says flatly of the heretics, one and all, “they are snobs.” The late Louis B. Wright of the Folger Shakespeare Library likewise deplored their “obvious snobbery.” The late Samuel Schoenbaum, of the Folger, the University of Maryland, and every other scholarly pinnacle you can think of, spoke not only of their “snobbery” but of a “pattern of psychopathology” he had detected in them. Stanley Wells of the University of Birmingham, today’s leading light in the profession, thinks the problem, “usually,” is “snobbery,” but suggests that “mental instability” may also be a factor.

[Breaker quote for Reflections of a Conspirator: Academic conformity and how to enforce it]If I understand these eminent scholars correctly, dissent about Shakespeare’s authorship is due to (a) snobbery and (b) conspiracy theories. I hope I’m not putting words in anyone’s mouth. It also sounds as if the heretics aren’t taking their medication.

The Shakespeare heretics have included Henry James; he can be plausibly accused of snobbery, I suppose, but what about Walt Whitman and Mark Twain? A pair of certified nonsnobs for sure. In fact, Whitman thought the real author must have been one of the “wolfish earls” of his time, because the plays were “nonacceptable to democracy.” Which more or less turns the charge of snobbery on its head. And by the way, I think I sniff a bit of academic snobbery here — the unmistakable annoyance of the Ph.D. when the rabble fail to show him respect he thinks he’s entitled to.

As for conspiracy theories, I myself can speak with some authority on that, having published my own writings under various pen names now and then. Using a pen name doesn’t take a “massive” or “all-powerful” conspiracy; it just takes a publisher who can keep his mouth shut. Happens all the time. Indeed, I am conspiring at this very moment, in the sense that I’m still honoring a few people’s desire for secrecy. And secrets were far easier to keep in Elizabethan England than they are in the age of the free press, television, and the Internet.

But the deeper question is this: Why all the fuss? If the authorship of the Shakespeare works is settled, and if the only dissenters are a few snobs and cranks, you’d expect the experts to ignore them with serene confidence in their position. But this is not at all the case. Why are the experts so jumpy about disagreement?

Because their complacency is feigned. They know how brittle the orthodox position really is, and they can’t stamp out skepticism. But by cursing the skeptics, they can at least maintain internal discipline within their profession. They send the message to grad students that if they expect to have careers in the academy, they’d better repeat the party line on Shakespeare — or they too will be called snobs and conspiracy theorists.

This isn’t a field where original insights abound. As my quotations illustrate, clichés are the rule. Academics are herd animals, easy to intimidate, and conformity can be achieved with a very little social pressure. No need for the rack, thumbscrew, or red-hot poker when a little name-calling will do the job.

Joseph Sobran

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