Of Shakespeare and Conspiracies: The Real Stakes of the "Who Was Shakespeare?" Debate

Somewhere, Oliver Stone is smiling. The new Roland Emmerich-directed film Anonymous opened in U.S. theaters recently, giving anti-Stratfordians their own version of Stone’s JFK, i.e., a fictional account of a popular conspiracy theory. The adjective “anti-Stratfordian” describes anyone who believes that the man who hailed from Stratford-upon-Avon, William Shakespeare, did not write the 30+ plays and numerous poems attributed to him. Anonymous goes further and portrays Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, as the man who really wrote the plays while using Shakespeare as a front.

I’m invested in this topic. I wrote about Macbeth for my dissertation, have delivered conference papers on Shakespeare’s sonnets and All’s Well that Ends Well, and even teach my university’s Shakespeare course. After surveying the debate, however, I’m convinced that this authorial kerfuffle is not important for anything it tells us about Shakespeare. The stakes are pretty low. We’re interested in the man because of the plays, not the plays because of the man. The dirty secret is that if we had waited for a biographical incentive to read the plays, we would have never done so: You could list all of the empirical evidence for Shakespeare the man on a few pages. What is important is that the debate provides a benign way of diagnosing our own response to a “conspiracy,” regardless of whether it’s about the Bard or not.

Why should Christians pay attention when someone asks, “Who was Shakespeare?” Because even if you don’t adhere to this particular conspiracy, it’s crucial to know what it would take to get you to buy in to any such position. For the sake of this piece, I’ll define a conspiracy as a hypothesis about events that directly contradicts the establishment’s account, i.e., “the account that gets included in the most popular textbooks” (for example, the numerous theories surrounding the moon landing). Occasionally conspiracy theories become establishment theories (read Woodward and Bernstein’s All the President’s Men for the story of how people initially reacted when the pair started investigating Watergate). Conspiracies are first and foremost about knowledge: whose authority we trust and what that authority says. They are fueled by the impulse that there is something in addition to what we’ve been told — something that has not yet been accounted for — that can help better explain the world around us. In short, conspiracies are deeply religious.

Conspiracy theories are a dime a dozen, and the flooded market can’t support them all. Anonymous hits theaters at a cultural moment when interest in Shakespeare’s biography is particularly high, however, and that means the conspiracy theories concerning his authorship have boomed accordingly. The arts and opinion pages of the nation’s biggest newspapers — The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal — and magazines both print (The Atlantic) and online (Slate) have spilled a lot of ink on the issue over the past month. Major book publishers like Simon & Schuster and Random House have released multiple Shakespeare biographies in the last decade, most of them written by high-powered academics better known by members of English departments than the wider public. Stephen Greenblatt’s Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare (2004) and Jonathan Bate’s Soul of the Age: A Biography of the Mind of Shakespeare (2009) are just two examples. James Shapiro, the professor of Early Modern English literature at Columbia University, just this past year published the most thorough Stratfordian defense yet titled Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?

The anti-Stratfordians, by contrast, have used the democracy of the Web to their advantage. The Wikipedia entry for “Shakespeare authorship question” features over 230 citations, nearly six pages of references, and a hefty paragraph of “sources and contributors.” More biased sites, such as the official Web site of the Shakespeare-Oxford Society, make public a lengthy list of Stratfordian skeptics. Emmerich’s film simply represents a “mainstream” manifestation of this impulse to question Shakespeare: Two weeks ago, Anonymous screenwriter John Orloff was given a venue in the weekend Wall Street Journal to defend both his anti-Stratfordian stance and his decision to fudge some of the facts in the interest of art.

The debate features a structural irony. If you are an academic and hold the anti-Stratfordian position, you are a pariah. The academic establishment — the people paid to teach and write about Shakespeare — thinks the anti-Stradfordian position is bunk. Thus, the polemical anti-Stratfordian position is a populist one, championed by people outside the hallowed halls of academe. The irony is that both sides support their stance with inverted arguments about class. Most anti-Stratfordians maintain that the low-born Shakespeare could never have learned or lived enough to write the things he wrote. The establishment then responds that the populists are secretly elitist, for who is to say that the meagerly educated Shakespeare could not have imaginatively concocted the worlds of his plays? The debate also foregrounds issues of proof. Each side routinely points to the other’s lack of evidence. For example, anti-Stratfordians point out that Shakespeare’s will says nothing about books or papers. Stratfordians reply that none of Shakespeare’s contemporaries give the slightest hint that the actor William Shakespeare was just a front for the real writer of the plays and poems that bear his name.

Because this controversy can often feel like it is being told by idiots full of “sound and fury, signifying nothing,” it’s difficult to determine what’s at stake if either side wins. English curriculum won’t change. Shakespeare is, as Harold Bloom contended in his book of the same name, “the western canon.” Polemicists on both sides, however, provide some reasons to pay attention to the structure of such debates. Here, the Stratfordians have led with their pens. Writing on the issue of giving the anti-Stratfordian position equal time in the classroom, Stephen Greenblatt responds with the rhetorical question, “Should claims that the Holocaust did not occur also be made part of the standard curriculum?” While not as polemical in his approach, Stephen Marche moves seamlessly in his recent New York Times op-ed from criticizing skeptics who doubt Shakespeare’s authorship to indicting a larger cultural trend with Rick Perry’s skepticism about climate change as his chief example. Slate writer Ron Rosenbaum even name-checked creationists and birthers in his piece on why he hates Anonymous. Conspiracy is an easy label to apply to any position that isn’t widely accepted, and when you label someone a “conspiracy theorist,” you poison the rhetorical well.

The ideal of “complete knowledge” is a flawed one. Only God is omniscient. Interpretation consequently begins not after all the evidence has come in but with the actual selection of evidence. It’s not just putting the puzzle together: It’s knowing what counts as a puzzle piece. Here, then, are five biblically influenced questions you can ask when confronted with a conspiracy theory to help determine what your response should be.

  1. “Says who?” — All conspiracies start with a question of authority. God created the world, and sin-scarred men and women try to suppress that fact (cf. Psalm 2:1, Romans 1:21). The most obsessed conspiracy theorists assign to their particular fixation something only God possesses: sovereignty. Start by evaluating 1) the person presenting the conspiratorial news and 2) who that person puts trust in.
  2. “What’s your evidence?” — What counts as proof? Things you can see? Statistical reports from particular agencies? Thick footnotes? Remember that an appeal to evidence always contains an implicit appeal to authority. In The Gospel of Luke, the rich man asks Abraham that his family receive a warning from the resurrected Lazarus. Abraham’s response is chilling: “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead” (16:31). You should know what proof you ultimately trust. Beware of deploying the skeptical “if only,” as in, “If only I could could see X, then I would believe.” If you don’t know what constitutes positive proof, you will explain away even “convincing” evidence.
  3. “Compared to what?” — Conspiracies are always package deals. What are the implications of buying into the theory? Pay particular attention to other theories that both the establishment and the conspiracy theorist lump in with the issue at hand. You may not know how you feel about Shakespeare’s authorship, but if its challenger likens it to the conspiracy to disavow a flat earth, you may have your answer by default.
  4. “What are the stakes?” — Causality exists. “Be not deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows” (Galatians 6:7; emphasis mine). Ideas have consequences. Follow an idea through to its logical conclusion. People act in their own best interests. Determine who benefits from the theory and how.
  5. “What do I know for sure?” — What are your bedrock beliefs? What are the things you no longer need to be convinced of, that you take as a given any time you process new information? Radical skepticism is self-defeating. Paul tells the Corinthians that he determined to know nothing while he was with them “except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2). That’s where true Christian thought starts.

Conspiracy is not just something that hovers above Shakespeare’s plays: It’s often a theme within them. As dramatic vehicles, Shakespeare’s conspiracies are not theories propounded over beers at the local tavern but political plots designed to overthrow rulers. In Julius Caesar, for instance, head conspirator Brutus asks where conspiracy can “find a cavern dark enough to mask its monstrous visage.”

When you confront a conspiracy theory, use the above questions to shine some light into your epistemologically dark cave. Get Conspiracy to show its face. In short, make it less Anonymous.

About Jonathan Sircy
  • Elisha Sircy

    Nice account of the broader issues at stake in the debate. The authorship controversy and conspiracy theories in general really push a person either away from or toward radical skepticism. Do we have faith in anything? Can we? Why? And what are the ramifications of those answers?

  • Steve S.

    Thanks for your reflection on this issue, and especially on its broader implications. I, too, am an English prof, and while I’m not a Shakespearean scholar by any means, it falls to me to teach our Shakespeare class regularly. I’ve had quite a few conversations with both students and colleagues about the “authorship question.” My stock answer has become “Conspiracy theories make for fun movies, but they make for lousy literary criticism.”

    The whole issue reminds me of the Othello/Iago and Posthumous/Iachimo situations in which flimsy evidence passes for irrefutable proof, partly because neither Othello nor Posthumous have a high enough threshold for evidence. I’m not saying that the anti-Stratfordians are intentionally deceptive; only that you’re right about Shakespeare having dramatized these questions.

    On the other hand, it bothers me that several authors have lumped this issue in with other, shall we way “marginal” viewpoints. Whatever the merits of these “alternative” viewpoints–holocaust denial, JFK conspiracy, intelligent design, global warming skepticism–surely we can all agree that the arguments for and against each must be evaluated on their own merits rather than being dismissed with a “guilt-by-association” tactic? Some of these articles, the Slate and NYT pieces in particular, end up basically saying that we would be fools not to believe whatever academia tells us is true. Settle down and trust the experts.

    Being an academic myself, I’m not altogether sure that that’s the best lesson we could learn from all this. Your list of criteria for evaluating theories, “conspiracy theories” or otherwise, is a good one.

  • Steven Sukkau

    Have you seen these? Conspiracy theories explained from a Christian perspective, I’m not sure what to think, http://www.youtube.com/user/TheFuelProject?blend=1&ob=video-mustangbase

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y-RAyIJ0tNo&list=UUp31CKBpI8PZVZkQXdk4wiA&index=8&feature=plcp