Contrary views: a debate about the Declaration of Reasonable Doubt

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Point-by-point rebuttal to Prof. Wells' specific objections to the Declaration

Prof. Wells: “The evidence is clear. Many of his contemporaries, both during his lifetime and after, named him as the author of one or more of them both in print and in documents that have survived in manuscript. They include, to name but a few, the poets Richard Barnfield and John Weever, the dramatists John Webster and Ben Jonson, the academic Gabriel Harvey, and the writer Francis Meres, who in 1598 not only praised Shakespeare as a poet but also named him as the author of over a dozen plays. Yet the writers of the declaration have the nerve to claim that ‘Nobody, including literary contemporaries, ever recognized Mr. Shakspere as a writer during his lifetime’!”

Our reply: We stand by the position stated in the declaration. During his lifetime, not one of the above-named contemporaries, or anyone else, ever specifically recognized William Shakspere of Stratford as the author William Shakespeare, or as any kind of writer at all. While it is true that several contemporaries commented on the author Shakespeare, none identifies him as the man from Stratford until the First Folio appeared in 1623, seven years after he died, and none claims to have known the author personally until then.

Notice that Prof. Wells doesn’t actually quote any of the literary contemporaries he names. If he did, it would be apparent that none identifies him as William Shakspere of Stratford. Assuming that every reference to “Shakespeare” is a reference to the man from Stratford begs the question. Were the author and the Stratford man really one and the same person? All contemporary references to “Shakespeare” were impersonal references to the author. It is strange that nothing from Shakspere's lifetime corroborates the First Folio — nothing, for example, that says, “my friend and fellow writer, William Shakespeare of Stratford.”

For a discussion of the differences between “personal,” “impersonal” and “ambiguous” documentary references, see the chapter on “Literary Paper Trails” in Shakespeare’s Unorthodox Biography: New Evidence of an Authorship Problem, by Diana Price. (Greenwood Press; 2001, 111-150)

Prof. Wells: “The name William Shakespeare occurs on many title pages of editions of his plays and his Sonnets both during his lifetime and after. In 1623 two of his colleagues published the collection of his plays now known as the First Folio which includes tributes to him as the ‘sweet swan of Avon’ along with a reference to his Stratford monument. The monument itself bears inscriptions comparing the man of Stratford to great figures of classical antiquity and referring to him as a great writer. The anti-Stratfordians waffle on about whether the name is hyphenated or not in apparent ignorance of the flexibility of spelling and printing conventions of the period.”

Our reply: The declaration acknowledges the reasons why most scholars have accepted the traditional attribution of the works. It even concedes that they “seem to amount to a prima facie case for Mr. Shakspere.” But it also explains why we find them problematic.

We are well aware of the lack of standardized spellings during the period, but there is a difference between others spelling a man’s name in various ways and a writer having no standardized way of spelling his own name! The name on the works was virtually always spelled the same way, except it was often hyphenated, while no two of the six signatures often attributed to Mr. Shakspere (some doubt that they are his) are spelled the same way. On his monument, and three times in his will, Mr. Shakspere’s name is spelled differently from the name on the works. It is also spelled “Shakspere,” or a close variant, in all eight official church records relating to him, from baptism to burial, as it was for his father and forebears. So it is possible to make a clear distinction between the two. This reinforces doubts about whether Shakspere and the author were really the same man. If there were no other reasons for doubt, the spelling differences would not matter; but in the context of the many other good reasons for doubting, the spelling issue is noteworthy.

The declaration acknowledges that the apparent testimony of his two fellow actors, Heminges and Condell, is “perhaps the strongest link to Mr. Shakspere.” But it also points out that “neither of them was a writer … and several scholars doubt that they wrote the passages attributed to them.” We would add that neither of them was a man of means who could finance such a project. Even orthodox scholars have doubted their role. According to Edmond Malone’s Variorum edition, for example, “every word of the first half of (Heminges and Condell’s) address to the reader … was written by Ben Jonson.” (The Plays and Poems of William Shakespeare. 21 vols. London, 1821), 2:674.

The declaration acknowledges that Ben Jonson’s reference to the “Sweet swan of Avon,” and Leonard Digges's reference to “thy Stratford monument,” point to the Stratford man. But it also points out that neither Jonson, nor Digges, ever made a personal reference to him while he lived, and they offer no further identifying information — not his dates of birth and death, or names of any family members, or any revealing episode from his life. Like references to him during his lifetime, theirs merely portray the author, not the man. For more on the First Folio, see Shakespeare’s Unorthodox Biography (ibid, 169-94).

The declaration admits that “(today's) effigy and inscription on the Stratford monument suggest that 'Shakspeare' had been a writer.” It also points out, however, that “the effigy does not look the same as the one erected in the early 1600s. A sketch by a reputable antiquarian (Dugdale) in 1634 shows a man with a drooping moustache holding a wool or grain sack, but no pen, no paper, and no writing surface as in today's monument.” Records show that the monument was “repaired,” and even Prof. Wells' eminent colleague, Brian Vickers, has concluded that the monument was altered to depict a writer.

The Declaration also points out that “the strange inscription never states that Mr. Shakspere was the author William Shakespeare … It neither names, nor quotes from, any of the works; and it never mentions poetry, plays, acting or theater.” Prof. Wells says that the inscription refers to him as “a great writer,” but it never explicitly says this. Even many orthodox scholars find the inscription enigmatic. Epitaphs of other writers of the time identify them clearly as writers, so why not Mr. Shakspere's epitaph?

Yes, the monument compares him to “great figures of classical antiquity;” but not those to whom one would expect him to be compared. The initial lines say in Latin that he was “In judgment a Nestor, in intellect a Socrates, in art a Virgil.” Neither Nestor nor Socrates was a writer, much less a poet-dramatist. Virgil was a great writer, but he was not among Shakespeare’s principal sources. The obvious choice would have been Ovid, his favorite. This proves nothing, but it illustrates how the orthodox case always seems problematic. For more on the monument, see Shakespeare’s Unorthodox Biography (ibid, 153-68).

Prof. Wells: “They point to the absence of references to books and manuscripts in the will without mentioning that wills of the testators' possessions were accompanied by inventories, and that Shakespeare's, like many others of the period, is lost.”

Our reply: The will references no such inventory. It's an undocumented assumption that such an inventory of books and manuscripts ever existed. If such an inventory did exist, what became of the alleged literary effects? As the declaration states, “No book that Mr. Shakspere owned, or that is known to have been in his possession, has ever been found.” It also mentions no musical instruments, despite the author's apparent musical expertise. Nor did he designate money for anyone's education, or for the Stratford grammar school.

The problem isn't just a lack of literary effects. The will is long and detailed, yet nothing about it suggests in any way that it is the will of a man who had lived the life of a writer. As Price puts it in Shakespeare’s Unorthodox Biography, “If Shakspere of Stratford was a successful businessman, theatre shareholder, investor, entrepreneur, and broker, there is no conflict whatsoever between the substance and appearance of the will and the man’s life history. But if he was the greatest writer in the English language, you would never in 400 years guess it from the will’s content and presentation.” (ibid, 149-50)

Prof. Wells: “They reiterate nonsense about the level of education revealed by the works without reference to the scholarly studies that have shown that this level is entirely within the compass of anyone who had received a grammar school education.”

Our reply: That an enormous range of knowledge is found in the works is not “nonsense,” and Wells questions no specific area of knowledge mentioned in the declaration. The list includes: “law, philosophy, classical literature, ancient and modern history, mathematics, astronomy, art, music, medicine, horticulture, heraldry, military and naval terminology and tactics; etiquette and manners of the nobility; English, French and Italian court life; Italy, and aristocratic pastimes such as falconry, equestrian sports and royal tennis.”

If Wells’s point is that all of the knowledge in the works could have been acquired at the Stratford grammar school, the idea is absurd. If his point is that someone with a grammar school education could have gone on to acquire such a range of knowledge, we agree that it is not impossible, as the declaration itself specifically states. The problem is that apart from the assumption that he wrote the works, nothing shows that he did acquire all of this knowledge. As the declaration says, “Scholars know nothing about how he acquired the breadth and depth of knowledge found in the works. This is not to say that a commoner, even in the rigid, hierarchical social structure of Elizabethan England, could not have done it somehow, but how could it have happened without leaving a single trace?”

Even most orthodox scholars do not, like Wells, say that the level of education evident in the works was within the compass of “anyone” educated at the Stratford grammar school. Most say that he was a “genius” to explain how his education could have been sufficient. But there is a problem with this explanation. He lacks the background characteristics we normally expect to find in a literary genius – an enriched, stimulating home environment, well-educated parents, extensive travel, and living in multiple locations during childhood. Shakspere's parents were illiterate, and nothing suggests he lived anywhere but Stratford.

We would call special attention to Dean Keith Simonton, Ph.D., Distinguished Professor of Psychology at the University of California at Davis, a recipient of the prestigious Sir Francis Galton Prize for Lifetime Contributions to the Study of Creativity, and widely regarded as the world’s leading expert on creativity and genius. Given what we know about Mr. Shakspere, Simonton finds it incredible to think that he wrote the works.

Not only does no documentary evidence show that Shakspeare ever attended the Stratford grammar school, there are reasons to think he did not, or that he didn’t get much out of it. The six surviving signatures allegedly his suggest that he had difficulty signing his name. The absence of manuscripts, or even a letter in his hand, suggests that he could not write.

Even many orthodox scholars clearly find the Stratford grammar school an insufficient explanation. Otherwise there would be no need for all of the fanciful explanations about what he was doing with himself during the so-called “lost years” between 1585 and 1592. Some even propose that he did, somehow, manage to attend some university somewhere. For more about his education, see Shakespeare’s Unorthodox Biography (ibid, 233-250).

Next page: End of the point-by-point rebuttal →