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Okay, I admit it. I am a Shakespeare heretic. Well, 95 percent, anyway. I know, I know. Some of you are already shaking your head thinking I’m going to start talking cryptograms and conspiracies and such nonsense. I’m used to it. I stumbled into being a heretic almost 35 years ago and there’s always a significant contingent of head-shakers when the subject comes up. That’s okay. I’m really not interested in convincing anyone. I just find it fascinating, that’s all
I started out a math/science guy in school, looking at a career in computer programming. Shakespeare had made no dent in my consciousness. Then I sold an article to a personal computer magazine and decided to become a writer, switching my major to English. I experienced a great Shakespeare professor in an upper-division class. Authorship never came up. Not until I was a graduate student.
Authorship was far from my thoughts that day in the mid-1980s when I was browsing Tower Books in Sacramento, CA, and stumbled upon Charlton Ogburn’s The Mysterious William Shakespeare: The Myth & the Reality. It was a hefty tome of 900+ pages, and I remember thinking, Whoa, the lengths someone will go to just to get attention.
But then I noticed who had written the forward: Famed historian — and the Presidential Medal of Freedom awarded — David McCullough. He talked about a lunch he had in the early 1960s with Ogburn, who apparently had been a writer of note on many topics, primarily natural science. They were talking about a book Ogburn would write and McCullough would edit on the geology of North America. He described Ogburn as “a writer of intelligence and integrity and wonderful feeling for the natural world.”
Then the topic turned to Shakespeare. McCullough admitted that he always thought people who raised doubts about the Stratford man were cranks. But Ogburn, he said, “was absolutely spellbinding.” He described more of their conversation before saying this about the book:
“…this brilliant, powerful book is a major event for everyone who cares about Shakespeare. The scholarship is surpassing— brave, original, full of surprise — and in the hands of so gifted a writer it fairly lights up the sky. Looking back on that evening years ago, I felt as if I had been witness to the beginnings of a literary landmark. Nothing comparable has ever been published. Anyone who considers the Shakespeare controversy silly or a lot of old stuff is in for a particular surprise. This is scholarly detective work at its most absorbing. More, it is close analysis by a writer with a rare sense of humanity.”
Well, even though I was a poor student managing a 7-Eleven store part-time as well as being a Teaching Assistant, I couldn’t help but fork over the funds to buy this book of which THE David McCullough could speak so highly.
The first half explored the scholarly consensus that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare, which seemed such a reasonable proposition. I was taking a graduate seminar on Classical Rhetoric, one of the most illuminating experiences of my life, so I was ready to put Ogburn to the test to see if his case was rhetoric over evidence, if logical fallacies abounded, and especially if suppression of evidence was evident. (Heh, see what I did there?)
I was enough of a student of argument to know the ways a writer can suppress evidence, so I began a long process of checking original sources in the university library. I wanted to verify Ogburn’s claims about shoddy scholarship. I sat with his book, grabbed books off the shelves, checked sources, and compared arguments to find out what Ogburn had not addressed, how he was refuted, how orthodox scholars handled dissent.
What I found was scholarly fraud: how much students believe and take for granted, how much professors spread conjecture as truth, theories as fact, fabrications as dogma. (Much like the academic Left does today.) It took months to grasp how scholars, documentary evidence, arguments, and the tradition of commentary and interpretation symbiotically interacted in the arena of Shakespeare.
It made me ill.
I remember I was a little over halfway through the book, a book that read like the most elegant mystery novel I had ever read, when I came upon a detail that triggered in me the thought, “That’s one damned coincidence too many.” And I finished the book stunned with how right David McCullough was about Ogburn and his writing. [In case you’re interested, it relates to Lord Burghley’s motto, Cor unum, via una.]
But what was wrong with me? How could this notion of Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare survive with such a powerfully articulated argument that marshaled an unbelievable ton of evidence?
I approached my favorite English professor because I wanted someone I respected to examine the argument and to discuss its merits. It was his graduate seminar in Classical Rhetoric that I loved so much.
He dismissed the book without examination, a response contrary to all that was implied in his teaching. I left the book with him anyway, somewhat baffled. I approached my best friend, a fellow English major, who has gone on to teach at a Catholic university in Texas. He would not look at the argument either. I was astonished. Two brilliant, thinking minds who would not even examine the argument, who simply dismissed it out of hand.
What was it about this topic that so provoked such bizarre responses? If I had been a good graduate student, a properly impressionable graduate student, then I would have dropped Ogburn and gone along with the prevailing view.
But I knew enough that, whatever its faults, Ogburn’s argument merited a hearing and that what I saw among my peers was something anathema to true scholarship.
Look, it’s okay not to be concerned with who wrote the Shakespeare poems and plays. It’s okay to miss out on the opportunities that come with reading those works with new eyes.
If you are at all interested, and if you want to at least take a few minutes to see what I look and sound like, you may want to watch this YouTube video of a talk I gave some years ago.
Most people want to start with the premise that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare and you have to provide extraordinary proof to overcome that position. Makes sense. But I approach it in a different way, a more balanced way:
Let’s suppose that writing the Shakespeare poems and plays were a crime. Let’s suppose that YOU are a member of a Grand Jury. You are to decide which of the two candidates should be indicted for the crime of writing the poems and plays. Both candidates are presumed innocent, so you must decide if there is a preponderance of evidence one way or another.
I am representing William of Stratford. I claim he is innocent of the charge and should not be indicted. Opposing counsel has already presented their case, that the preponderance of evidence falls on my client, not theirs, not their precious Edward De Vere, the Seventeenth Earl of Oxford. What nonsense to claim he is the author.
I begin at that point, addressing the grand jury, you, right at the beginning.
Give it a watch. Do I make the case?