Contrary views: a debate about the Declaration of Reasonable Doubt

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End of point-by-point rebuttal to Prof. Wells' objections to the Declaration.

Prof. Wells: “They express astonishment that a man from Stratford could write plays set in Italy as if there were no books to be read, no one to talk with, and as if the power of the imagination did not exist.”

Our reply: The problem is that there are so many plays set in Italy, and they are so very detailed and accurate in their portrayals not just of geography, but of people and culture. Nearly half of the non-history plays are set in Italy, and others are in adjoining countries. In contrast, not a single play is set in Mr. Shakspere's Elizabethan or Jacobean England. How can it be that Italy had such a strong hold on his imagination, but not his own land? Why write so many plays from second-hand knowledge, rather than his own experience? How did he achieve such accuracy and realism using only others' powers of observation?

Orthodox scholars have claimed to find errors relating to specific details in the Italian plays, only to find later that Shakespeare got it right, and their own views were in error. The Winter's Tale, for example, places several scenes on the “seacoast of Bohemia.” Some orthodox scholars used this as an example of an error of geography, until it was pointed out that Bohemia did have a seacoast for a time during the sixteenth century. Others questioned references to travel by boat between cities in northern Italy, until it was pointed out that boat travel was common at the time, using canals between cities.

Even some early orthodox scholars have shown that Shakespeare's detailed descriptions imply first-hand knowledge. See, for example, Violet M. Jeffery on, e.g., the Sagittary in Othello (Modern Language Review (1932: 24-35), or Edward Sullivan's Shakespeare and the Waterways of North Italy (The Nineteenth Century, v. 64, Aug. 1908, 215-232). Unfortunately, this early scholarship is often overlooked by today's orthodox scholars.

As a testament to the Italian plays' authenticity, H. H. Furness, in a footnote to his New Variorum Merchant of Venice, included the following note by C.A. Brown (1888, 72-73):

“The Merchant of Venice is a merchant of no other place in the world. Everything he says or does, or that is said or done about him … is, throughout the play, Venetian. Ben Jonson, in his Volpone, gives no more than can be gathered from any one book of travels that has ever been published; nothing but the popular notion of the city. Shakespeare, in addition to the general national spirit of the play, describes the Exchange held on the Rialto; the riches of the merchants; their argosies ‘From Tripolis, from Mexico, and England; From Lisbon, Barbary, and India:’ some with ‘silks’ and ‘spices,’ ‘richly fraught;’ he represents ‘the trade and profit of the city’ as consisting ‘of all nations;’ he talks familiarly of the ‘masquing mates,’ with their ‘torch-bearers’ in the streets; of ‘the common ferry which trades to Venice… All this is written with a perfect knowledge of the place.”

Books, conversation and imagination go only so far. They don't explain the Italian plays. We know of no other example of a writer portraying so accurately the details of a nation and culture not his own without having been there to steep himself in its ways first hand. It is easy to theorize, in the abstract, that it might have happened, but how did it happen?

Prof. Wells: “Sir Derek says that an author ‘writes about his own experience, his own life and personalities." Has he never read ‘A Midsummer Night's Dream’, ‘Alice in Wonderland’, or ‘The Lord of the Rings’? Not to speak of ‘I, Claudius.’”

Our reply: Even the most fanciful works of fiction are never made up out of whole cloth. The raw material must come from a writer's personal life experiences, not out of nothing. Lewis Carroll reportedly had a specific girl in mind when he wrote Alice in Wonderland. Tolkien's creations are based on a great variety of ancient myths and legends he studied, but also reflect the influences of people and situations he experienced during his lifetime. Robert Graves based I, Claudius not just on Roman histories, but also people he knew.

How can Wells know that “A Midsummer Night's Dream” isn't based on Shakespeare's own life, and that none of its characters is based on the personalities of people he knew? He just assumes that it is so because he cannot connect that play to Mr. Shakspere's life. Scholars have no difficulty accounting for how Carroll, Tolkien and Graves wrote the works attributed to them. Their works are part and parcel of the lives they lived. Only in Shakspere's case are we asked to accept an enormous chasm between author and works.

As the declaration says, quoting orthodox scholar Sam Schoenbaum, “Perhaps we should despair of ever bridging the vertiginous expanse between the sublimity of the subject and the mundane inconsequence of the documentary record.” (Shakespeare's Lives, 2nd Ed.) It would be hard to find a better statement of the central problem in the authorship issue. Why would a scholar like Schoenbaum express “despair” at the difficulty of connecting Shakspere's life to his works if there is no reason to think his life should reflect them?

Prof. Wells: “No one doubted Shakespeare's authorship until the late eighteenth-century,”

Our reply: No one had any reason to doubt the Stratford man's authorship of the works during his lifetime because apparently nobody thought he wrote them in the first place! As the declaration says, “Several people who knew the man, or knew who he was, seem not to have associated him with the author, including his son-in-law, Dr. John Hall, poet Michael Drayton and prominent historian William Camden.” Further, “… when he died in 1616, no one seemed to notice. Not so much as a letter refers to the author's passing.”

Not until seven years after he died did a document appear pointing to him as the author. Nobody seems to have known who “Shakespeare” was, and most probably did not care. There is little reason to think that the author was a prominent person during his lifetime. The Stratford monument is so ambiguous that Stratford's residents had little to question. Some think it was originally erected as a monument to William's father, John Shakspere.

Also, we tend to forget that Shakespeare fell out of fashion and was then long neglected. The theaters were closed for at least a generation, during and after the English Civil War. The theater tradition from the Elizabethan-Jacobean period was interrupted, and died out. The earliest attempt to write a biography of the Stratford man was Rowe's effort in 1709. By then people would naturally have assumed that the traditional attribution was correct. It took time for people to recognize the gap between the official biography and the works. If there had been no good reasons for the doubts, they would hardly have lasted this long.

Prof. Wells: “… and the first serious investigator was Delia Bacon who spent a night in Holy Trinity Church in 1856 intending to open the grave, presumably thinking it might contain a slip of paper saying ‘It wasn't me, try Christopher, or Francis, or de Vere.’ Poor thing, she lost her nerve, came to believe she was the Holy Ghost surrounded by devils, and died in a lunatic asylum. So beware, Mark and Sir Derek!”

Our reply: Stereotyping all authorship doubters as being at risk of descent into madness, based on a single observation, and an anecdotal one at that, is methodologically unsound. Prof. Wells has no expertise in mental illness that we know of, nor, apparently, in statistics. Ms. Bacon is hardly representative of the many outstanding people who have questioned the authorship of Shakespeare's plays and poems, and even she completed a book on the works sufficiently worthwhile that Nathaniel Hawthorne, no less, helped get it published.

The list of those who have doubted the traditional attribution of the works to Mr. William Shakspere of Stratford is long and distinguished. The Declaration of Reasonable Doubt lists twenty, including Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, William and Henry James, Sigmund Freud, John Galsworthy, Charlie Chaplin, Tyrone Guthrie, and two U.S. Supreme Court Justices: Harry A. Blackmun and Lewis F. Powell, Jr. None died in a lunatic asylum. Prof. Wells surely knows this. It is disingenuous to ignore all of them and focus on Ms. Bacon.

We would also point out that Mark and Sir Derek are hardly alone among Shakespearean actors, contrary to the impression one gets from Wells. Others include Sir John Gielgud and Orson Welles, plus Jeremy Irons and Michael York, both of whom have signed the declaration. Many other outstanding Shakespearean actors are also authorship doubters.

Even Shakespeare professors are not unanimous in supporting the traditional attribution. A survey instigated by the New York Times last year found that of the 265 Shakespeare professors surveyed, 17 percent were either on the fence (11%) or agreed that there is good reason to doubt that William Shakespeare of Stratford wrote the plays and poems. Yet Prof. Wells would have the public think that anyone who disagrees with him is crazy.

The Declaration of Reasonable Doubt has now been signed by more than 1,200 people, including more than 200 current or former faculty members at colleges and universities. Several of these are either mental health professionals, or behavioral science researchers. None seems to think that harboring doubts about Shakespeare is a sign of mental illness. We certainly hope not, because otherwise there seems to be quite an epidemic underway.

Prof. Wells didn't question the point in the declaration which says that, “Academic experts on characteristics of geniuses see little reason to think that Mr. Shakspere was a genius.” Neither, in our view, should he be questioning the mental health of authorship doubters, as he does in his article in The Stage, and as the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust has long done on its website, unless he is able to back up his claim with solid scientific evidence. We doubt that he can produce any such evidence, and we hereby challenge him to do so. If he cannot, we would ask him to take down all such allegations from the SBT website.

Prof. Wells: “Of course there's a lot we don't know about Shakespeare, of course there are questions we should like to ask, but we know far more about him than about some of his great contemporaries, such as John Webster and John Ford.”

Our reply: The issue is not how much we know about Mr. Shakspere, but what we know. As the declaration states, “… seventy (documents relate to him), but all are non-literary. They reveal a businessman of Stratford, plus a theater entrepreneur and sometime minor actor in London.” We've also pointed out that his detailed will is entirely consistent with this portrayal. If he had a literary career, then something from his lifetime should say so.

Oxford University history professor Hugh R. Trevor-Roper apparently thought so, too. Trevor-Roper wrote that he found Shakespeare's elusiveness “exasperating and almost incredible … After all, he lived in the full daylight of the English Renaissance in the well documented reigns of Queen Elizabeth and King James I and … since his death has been subjected to the greatest battery of organised research that has ever been directed upon a single person. And yet the greatest of all Englishmen, after this tremendous inquisition, still remains so close to a mystery that even his identity can still be doubted.”

Prof. Wells: Actors have much to thank him for, and Rylance and Jacobi are two of the finest Shakespearian actors of their generations. The proper reaction to the fact that Shakespeare of Stratford portrayed a great gallery of people of all kinds and ranks, that he wrote vividly about countries he probably didn't visit, and that he had a supreme understanding of the human heart is not ‘How could he have done it?’ but ‘How wonderful that he did!’

Our reply: Mark and Sir Derek are obviously very grateful to William Shakespeare, whoever he was, for writing the plays. But we think it is also appropriate that they share a sense of wonder, and curiosity, about the nature, and, yes, the identity, of the author who has given us so much to ponder. We believe that the “proper reaction” is not for actors, or anyone else who loves Shakespeare, to suppress their natural curiosity, but, rather, to adopt the attitude that the author himself expressed in Love's Labor's Lost:

Berowne: What is the end of study? let me know.

King: Why, that to know which else we should not know.

Berowne: Things hid and barr’d, you mean, from common sense?

King: Ay, that is study's godlike recompense.

Berowne: Come on then; I will swear to study so,
To know the thing I am forbid to know.

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