Another tome of Oxfordian balderdash about the Bard

From The Washington Times

by Joseph Sobran
Free Press, 320 pp, $25

We often speak of “the American Dream” as if it were just a matter of possessions. That two-car garage, that gas grill, that riding mower — we know that these are among the infallible indicators of the true American. But there is also an intellectual version of the American dream. To be sure, it is not so broadly democratic in its reach, nor do we find its dreamers in every suburban den after the barbecue things are put away. But I believe that a very large number, if not a majority, among our best and brightest secretly or not so secretly imagine themselves to be intellectual Columbuses. They see themselves as lone explorers of trackless seas of cerebration, men (or, more rarely, women) whose hopeful discovery of new continents of knowledge or technique comes with the unspeakable satisfaction of having confounded platoons of experts and wise men who said it couldn’t be done.

Now for some reason I do not pretend to understand, many of these would-be conquistadores have sought their El Dorado in an ironclad proof that Shakespeare’s works were written by someone other than “Shakspere” or “the man from Stratford” as they sometimes disparagingly call him. This is the literary equivalent of perpetual motion — and, it must be said, equally unlikely of attainment. Joseph Sobran is the latest in a long line of ingenious students of Shakespeare’s life who thinks he has got the goods on the lit-crit establishment and its shameful cover-up of the evidence that the author of Hamlet, Othello and King Lear was Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford (d. 1604). I hope it will not be thought on account of any love I myself have for that establishment that I say he has not. Not by a very long way.

Here is a list of the major and (in my view) fatal flaws in his argument:

  • He does not adequately deal with objections that several of Shakespeare’s plays, as traditionally dated, were written after Oxford’s death. This, the most obvious objection to the Oxfordian thesis, is dealt with in terms no more compelling than the ever present verbs “could have been” and “might well have been.” Yes, it is just barely possible (maybe) that what look like allusions in the plays to events or documents after 1604 “could have been” to earlier events or documents, but surely the burden of proof is on the disturber of the consensus.

  • He does not mention and presumably has not read the recent scholarship devoted to filling in those gaps in our knowledge of Shakespeare’s life that he makes so much of. In particular, E.A.J. Honigmann’s Shakespeare: The “Lost Years” and Eric Sams’s The Real Shakespeare both support an emerging scholarly consensus that Shakespeare spent the so-called “lost” years at least partly in the household of the Houghton or Hoghton family of Lancashire, who were noble recusants, and that perhaps his own family were Roman Catholic. In addition, Sams makes a forceful case for a number of anonymous plays, most notably Edmund Ironside, as Shakespeare’s ’prentice work. Sobran may agree with none of this scholarship, of course, but he gives no evidence of having considered it.

  • Similarly, Sobran appears not to know that an increasing number of scholars are willing to put the date of Shakespeare’s debut as a playwright as early as 1587 (when he was 23) or, in Sams’s case, 1585. Thus, for instance, his argument that Spenser’s tribute in 1591 to “our pleasant Willy” was unlikely to refer to Shakespeare on the grounds that the Stratford man “would barely have begun to write plays by 1591.” does not hold up.

  • Sobran also makes much of the so-called “six signatures” (actually, there are now seven) of the Stratford man and a supposed want of further evidence that this man was even literate. He does not mention The Annotator by Keen and Lubbock (1954) and its evidence of Shakespeare’s hand in the marginalia of a copy of Halle’s Chronicle. More importantly, he does not discuss the evidence that “Hand D” (of the six different hands separately identifiable) in the manuscript of Sir Thomas More was Shakespeare’s — identified as such on the basis of a comparison with the six signatures by Sir Edward Maunde Thompson as long ago as 1910. Sobran acknowledges that “passages” of Sir Thomas More “are now widely ascribed to Shakespeare” and himself accepts this ascription in the case of one of the play’s most famous passages, but of the handwriting says only that there is “general scholarly agreement” that the MS is “largely written in [Anthony] Munday’s hand.” This is not the case.

  • He attempts to draw autobiographical inferences from literary works in a way that virtually the entire spectrum of professional critics have regarded as impermissible at least since Wimsatt and Beardsley’s The Verbal Icon (1953). To be sure, the whole point of Sobran’s book is to defy the scholarly consensus, but he must at least know what he is defying, and make his case against it. There is no evidence that he has even heard of “the intentional fallacy,” let alone troubled himself to refute its formulators.

Most important is his very bad habit of arguing from ignorance, as when he claims that it is highly suspicious that if, as the Stratfordians claim, Shakespeare’s sonnets were published without the poet’s permission in 1609, the poet did not protest. Oxford, of course, could not protest because he had been dead for five years. But we don’t know that “the Stratford man” did not protest. The record is silent on the subject of his reaction to their publication. As, indeed, we should expect it to be. For in the days before there was such a thing as copyright, there was no formal means by which he could register a protest in any case. But, again and again, the fact that there is no evidence that something happened is taken to be evidence that it did not happen — an elementary logical error.

But the fault that Sobran shares with all his fellow anti-Stratfordians is that he never sufficiently makes the case that we must reject the obvious candidate for the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays, namely Shakespeare. We have no compelling evidence to set aside the universal identification of Shakespeare with Shakespeare that was unchallenged in his lifetime and for more than two centuries after his death. Sobran’s one attempt to insist that Mr. Shakspere of Stratford “simply could not have written” the sonnets is based on not one but two highly dubious assumptions — first that the sonnets must be autobiographical and second that our lack of evidence relating to Shakespeare’s life in London means that something like the experiences described in them did not happen to him.

We have no evidence that the Stratford man was uneducated (still less illiterate!), coarse-grained or dull witted that can be set against the evidence of the plays that he was none of these things, and without it there is simply no good reason to doubt his authorship. The principle of logic known as Occam’s Razor requires that “entities must not be multiplied unnecessarily,” and, as an American and a dreamer, I am sorry to have to say that the Earl of Oxford, like Marlowe, Bacon and all the other rival candidates for “Shakespeare’s” laurels, is very much an unnecessary entity.


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