Shakespeare and Epistemology
| Peter Klein |
We university types love The Bard — we’ve got bookstores hither and yon, pizza joints, you name it. Not surprisingly, Shakespearean scholars are up in arms at Roland Emmerich’s film Anonymous, which they view as silly entertainment at best, disreputable Oliver Stone style revisionism at worst. I haven’t seen the movie and don’t have a particular dog in the authorship fight (though I once heard a very funny lecture by Joe Sobran based on his 1997 book Alias Shakespeare). But I’m puzzled by the core epistemological issue: what do we really know about Shakespearean authorship?
An English professor friend told me that belief in a different author for any of Shakespeare’s works is like “belief in the phlogiston theory of fire.” Stephen Marche writes in the NY Times Magazine: “It is impossible that Edward de Vere wrote Shakespeare. Notice that I am not saying improbable; it is impossible.” Again, I don’t know anything about the issue other than what I’ve read in recent commentaries, but Marche’s case, in the piece linked above, is surprisingly weak (some Shakespeare products are dated after de Vere died, which only proves that de Vere couldn’t have written those; the doubters are snobs who don’t believe a poor country boy could have written such beautiful verse, which could be true, but hardly establishes that the country boy did in fact write them; and other circumstantial bits and ex cathedra pronouncements.)
My question, though, is the epistemological one: How can we possibly know with 100% certainty who authored every one of the literary works attributed to Shakespeare? Heck, we don’t know who really writes the stuff published under names like “Doris Kearns Goodwin” and “Stephen Ambrose,” and those appeared in the last few years, not the 17th century. There’s even a lively controversy about what Adam Smith wrote and what he copied. Intellectual historians are frequently reinterpreting and revising, and few cows are sacred. Regarding Shakespearean authorship, then, shouldn’t we expect a little Popperian or Hayekian humility?