Shakespeare and Epistemology

16 November 2011 at 6:13 pm 8 comments

| 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?

Entry filed under: - Klein -, Methods/Methodology/Theory of Science, Myths and Realities.

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8 Comments Add your own

  • 1. hschumann  |  16 November 2011 at 9:27 pm

    Mr. Marché thinks it is impossible to believe that Edward de Vere, a highly educated playwright, poet, European traveler, fluent in five languages and a patron of the arts could have written the works attributed to William of Stratford

    Yet he is willing to believe that a man who had little or no education, whose children were illiterate, who never left any writing other than six unreadable signatures with his name spelled differently in each one, who never traveled outside of London, who spent much time and effort engaging in petty lawsuits, who could not read books in French, Italian, or Spanish yet used untranslated material as his source material, who never left any books in his will, who left no letters, no correspondence, who did not elicit a single eulogy at his death was the greatest writer in the English language.

    That is the most impossible idea of all.

  • 2. tbasboll  |  17 November 2011 at 10:50 am

    Reading the review in the New Yorker I was suprised at the vitriol. Even if the “thesis” is wrong, isn’t it possible to make a good film inspired by it?

    Perhaps those who dismiss the authorship skeptics are really just devoted fans of de Vere (or, in my case, Francis Bacon). In addition to crediting him with the authorship of the works they also want to pretend he successfully concealed his identity. Actually, perhaps this is where the real “impossibility” lies burried. Would the author of Hamlet be so stupid enough to choose Bill Shakespeare as his cover?)

  • 3. FC  |  17 November 2011 at 10:56 am

    A polka-dot burrito fell from the sun and yodeled the Shakespeare corpus.

    That statement is no less unfalsifiable than hschumann’s statements above.

  • 4. FC  |  17 November 2011 at 11:06 am

    The more interesting question, raised by Prof. Klein, is why humanities scholars (to say nothing of filmmakers) are so prone to unscientific thought. My two main hypotheses are

    1. Most are unacquainted with logic and epistemology, and why those matter. (Which only leads one to wonder why their professors have taught inadequate methodologies.)
    2. The humanities job and publication markets are so crowded that the participant must scream to be heard above the hawkers and livestock.

  • 5. Michael Marotta  |  17 November 2011 at 8:00 pm

    I am currently reading Popper’s The Logic of Scientific Discovery, so this is an especially challenging question. Based the available evidences, the matter may be inconclusive. Myself, I was converted to de Vere in 1997 by a friend. But my sensibilities aside, proof would have to be smoking gun: “I Edward de Vere am Shakespeare”; or “I, the glove maker’s son, have been given these plays to be produced under the name Shakespeare.” And even so, it would still be argued by diehards.

    Thomas Kuhn (and more recently and less famously, David Harriman’s Logical Leap) pointed out that better ideas often overtake their predecessors mostly by something other than direct argument, though the direct argument is made cogently from the first.

    The problem of Shakespeare’s Authorship has some company, but we do not have the same kind of problem with anyone else so visible. That the problem exists is itself suggestive. Beyond that, we may never know.

    That, too, is an important component of freedom, political, intellectual, academic, religious. At some level, you have to be comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty. Karl Popper was not alone in pointing out that those who are not open to provisional truths are not content to make up only their own minds, but want to make up everyone else’s as well. Thus, this debate (among many worse for all) goes on and on.

  • 6. Wirkman Virkkala  |  17 November 2011 at 9:14 pm

    The Oxfordian authorship theory is mildly interesting. Perhaps it is true. The first “Shakespeare’s Ghost” theory, on the other hand, focused on Francis Bacon. Many people have been Baconians, and I was surprised to learn that composer Alan Hovhaness considered the Baconian Theory almost an obvious and a priori truth.

    But the most interesting of the conjectures of this nature focuses on a much more interesting and entertaining ghostwriter: The playwright Kit Marlowe. Marlowe wrote some very good plays, was friends with the actor known as Shakespeare, and was about to be arrested for treason. And then came the fateful night, wherein he caroused with some men, and was murdered. There ends the official story. (A bizarre and hardly believable story, by the way.) The Marlovian Theory, on the other hand, posits that the murder was staged – as a way to derail the prosecution (and the nasty bit of execution, for Marlowe was almost certainly “guilty”) and get the poet out of the country. The theory goes on to elaborate an open conspiracy – a conspiracy of Ben Jonson as well as William Shakespeare, indeed, of many of the leading lights of the day – wherein Shakespeare redacted (or had redacted) manuscripts sent by Marlowe from overseas and staged them in his theater and elsewhere. In some variants, Shakespeare is a collaborator on the plays with Marlowe.

    Interestingly, Shakespeare’s oeuvre starts just around the time that Marlowe is said to have died.

    So, where did Marlowe hide? Northern Italy, according to . . . American diplomat and author Washington Irving.

    Yes, this is a bizarre theory. I have no idea of its ultimate merit, but I do know that this explanation has a Shakespearian feel to it. It is, in itself, a good story. This is no proof of its veracity, since, as C.S. Lewis observed, the definition of water is not itself wet. But the portrait it paints of the Elizabethan Age fits the cultural and political climate of that day. It makes surprising sense. And it offers an explanation for the greatness of the plays known as Shakespeare’s. Christopher Marlowe did not die in a bar fight. He died of old age, in the country where Shakespeare set (conveniently enough) so many of his plays.

    I once floated the theory by a friend, who became immediately angry, indeed wouldn’t listen to the whole account. He cut me off. Now, my friend is an amateur scholar of early Christianity. Like myself, he’s not certain that a man from Nazareth named Jesus actually existed. He is willing to ascribe to early Christian writers a degree of confabulation, fabulism and fraud that would shock an evangelical Christian of the present day. He also realizes that, in times before the news industry and immediate communication, rumor became legend became myth quite fast, and with little relevance to the actual seed of such myth.

    And yet my friend demonstrated no interest in applying the same doubt he regularly directs towards the early Christian culture to Elizabethan culture. Indeed, his reaction was quite “religious.” Shakespeare was a god. The greatest poet of our language. And so we mustn’t tamper with the honor owed to the man by floating authorship skepticism or any elaborate question of “ghostwriting.”

    For me, it’s of no great moment. But we all know ghostwriters. Some of us ARE ghostwriters. Such things happen, especially in the world of politics. And the Elizabethan period was a very political age, filled with violent idea-mongering, self-censure, outright censorship, and many layers of prudence muddying up the clear waters of … authorship.

  • 7. hschumann  |  18 November 2011 at 12:12 am

    The case for Marlowe is certainly reasonable. He was the most renowned writer of the candidates mentioned and, perhaps because of his early death, has become a very romantic figure, the Elizabethan equivalent of James Dean. He lived at the right time to be considered. His language was poetic and elegant and could easily be called “Shakespearean”. He wrote plays about tragic heroes who gave their lives to passion and ambition. Moreover, there is definitely something fishy about the circumstances of his death and his survival and exile must be considered as a possibility. Does that mean I support the theory? No, it doesn’t and here are ten reasons why not:

    1. Shakespeare-like plays were presented at court as early as the 1570s, which pre-dates Marlowe by two decades.

    2. Marlowe is so distinctive a poet and dramatist that it is hard to believe he could have also been Shakespeare.

    3. Marlowe is not noted for comedy; certainly great comic figures like Falstaff, Rosalind, and Beatrice seem to be beyond his scope.

    4. Unlike Oxford, Marlowe has no biographical connection to the plays.

    5. The plays and poems are written from the vantage point of a nobleman. As the son of a small-town tradesman, Marlowe would have had a profoundly different social perspective.

    6. If Marlowe had survived and kept writing in exile, why is there silence from the time of Shakspere’s “retirement” in 1609 until his (Marlowe’s) alleged actual death in 1627?

    7. All plays attributed to William Shakespeare were published anonymously from 1593 to 1598. Why was this the case if Marlowe was using Shakespeare’s name as a cover for his own work?

    8. The first 120 or so sonnets were written in the early 1590s at the time when marriage between Henry Wriothesley (to whom the sonnets are dedicated) and Elizabeth de Vere was being proposed. In 1592, Marlowe would have been 28 years old, hardly in a position to address a young earl in terms of intimate endearment and longing, or offer fatherly advice to a nobleman about who he should or shouldn’t marry.

    9. The sonnets tell us that the poet was in his declining years. He was “Beated and chopped with tanned antiquity”, “With Time’s injurious hand crushed and o’er worn”, in the “twilight” of life. The last sonnet clearly referring to events consequent on the passing of Elizabeth was in 1603. At that time, both Shakespeare of Stratford and Marlowe would have been only 39, hardly in the twilight of life.

    10. No evidence has yet to be found that proves Marlowe lived past the year 1593.

  • 8. Juan M  |  20 November 2011 at 12:02 pm

    English class prejudice. A commoner is not allowed to be the best english writter ever.It must be an aristocrat.
    Anyway, many of them are plagiarized like Julius Caesar and Marc Anthony and Cleopatra
    Goethe did not write most of was is known under his name. He said it to Eickermann. His best work were done with Schiller, who wrote the most.
    Dumas was jailed for puting his name on others people work, blacks like they are called in spanish and french.
    Tristan Shandy was also a plagiarized work

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