Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Shakespeare Authorship: Elizabeth Winkler’s Combative Reply

Elizabeth Winkler

Elizabeth Winkler has replied to the critics who severely — and correctly — panned her Atlantic  piece putting forward the idea that the Elizabethan poet Emilia Bassano Lanier was the true author of the works attributed to William Shakespeare.  It’s a reply that doubles-down on the defensibility of the Shakespeare authorship “question” and challenges the integrity of those Shakespeare specialists who took issue with the premise of her article: namely, that there’s legitimate uncertainty about the identity of the author of the plays and poems credited to Shakespeare.  (Spoiler alert: There isn’t.)  The people who hold this historical-denialist view are known collectively as anti-Stratfordians, after Shakespeare’s native town of Stratford-upon-Avon.

Winkler’s original article restates several anti-Stratfordian arguments, barely acknowledging the long-standing rebuttals to them by credentialed Shakespeare scholars.  By doing so, Winkler argues for her belief in an anti-Stratfordian alternative to Shakespeare’s authorship, her belief that Emilia Bassano Lanier may have been the actual writer of Shakespeare’s works but had to hide her identity because of her gender.  Winkler’s article is not a clearly imaginary reverie on the status of women in Renaissance England, in the spirit of Virginia Woolf’s meditation on a hypothetical sister of Shakespeare.  Nor does Winkler expound on mainstream scholarship that speculates — and acknowledges itself as mere speculation — that perhaps Lanier (of Jewish Venetian ancestry) was the “Dark Lady” of Shakespeare’s sonnets or was involved in helping to create the Jewish Venetian characters in The Merchant of Venice

Instead, Winkler posits a problem regarding the authorship of the works credited to Shakespeare, and while she doesn’t conclude that Lanier absolutely must have been the writer, Winkler at least offers the female Renaissance poet as a supposedly realistic contender to fill the purported vacuum that Shakespeare’s elimination as the author has created.  In her reply to her critics, Winkler describes and defends the premise of her article as a “provocative inquiry,” but it’s more than that because her article is premised on a tendentious idea: that mainstream Shakespeare scholars have got it all wrong — and are struggling to keep it that way.

Winkler goes on:

Following the traditions of The Atlantic, I questioned uncritically held assumptions instead of treating pronouncements by authorities as truth. Consistent with journalistic duty, I distinguished academic opinion and received wisdom from fact as I explored terrain on which evidence has proved open to varying interpretation.

So, she presents the views of mainstream Shakespeare scholars as mere “pronouncements,” “academic opinion,” and “received wisdom,” as though these mainstream views had no evidence to back them up.  But the First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays (official title: Mr. William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies) is universally recognized and accepted as a powerful piece of proof.  In this sizable book, six of his contemporaries — people who, outside documents strongly show, knew him in life — specifically identify “Mr. William Shakespeare,” the “sweet swan of Avon” with a “Stratford monument,” as the author of the dramatic works that bear his name. 

None of the anti-Stratfordian claimants — the other personalities proposed by the Shakespeare deniers as the “real” authors of the works — have anything by their contemporaries so explicitly linking them to the Shakespeare canon.  However, Winkler’s earlier article dismisses the First Folio as evidence.  In this passage from that article, Winkler references the Folio’s introductory poems by playwright and Shakespeare friend Ben Jonson:

The Folio’s introductory effusions, [anti-Stratfordians] argue, contain double meanings. Jonson tells readers, for example, to find Shakespeare not in his portrait “but his Booke,” seeming to undercut the relation between the man and the work. And near the start of his over-the-top tribute, Jonson riffs on the unreliability of extravagant praise, “which doth ne’er advance/The truth.”

Winkler goes on to repeat anti-Stratfordian writer Diana Price’s oft-refuted canard that William Shakespeare of Stratford is missing the kind of literary paper trail that all of his contemporary poets can boast.  Price says that there’s no evidence in the Stratford man’s lifetime of him being a writer, but this isn’t true.  William Camden, one of the foremost antiquarians of the time, defended in private correspondence the coat of arms for Shakespeare’s Stratford-dwelling father, noting that William was also from Stratford, and later in another writing referred to the younger Shakespeare as one of the “pregnant wits” of England’s writers.  Clearly, Camden knew Shakespeare as a writer and as a denizen of Stratford. 

There is also documentation of payment for an impresa “to Mr. Shakespeare.”  James Shapiro describes an impresa as “a painted and ceremonial pasteboard shield on which an enigmatic saying, usually in Latin, was written” (Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?, pp. 230-31).   Further payment was made to Richard Burbage, the actor and associate of William Shakespeare, for the same impresa’s visual design.  Anti-Stratfordians dismiss this evidence as referring to another “Mr. Shakespeare,” but they haven’t proven the existence of such a person or why he too would be associated with William Shakespeare’s star actor.

In her reply, Winkler quarrelsomely continues:

In their often vitriolic zeal to condemn me for non­adherence to their position, some critics have misconstrued my careful formulations and denounced my endeavor as “conspiracism.” More troubling still, they’ve missed my very point of departure — that a woman writing under another’s name isn’t conspiracism; it’s a literary practice that we know has gone on for much of history.

She locates the Shakespeare scholars’ charge of “conspiracism” in her article’s premise regarding women writers of eras past.  This is an argument made in bad faith.  The charge of conspiracism comes elsewhere: in her dismissal of the evidence supporting Shakespeare.  If the First Folio, for example, is not to be trusted as proof of Shakespeare’s authorship, then its introductory writings ostensibly attributing the plays to William of Stratford must not be telling the truth.  Why would these writings not tell the truth?  Winkler doesn’t explicitly say, but her strong implication is that Folio’s first pages are a cover-up of Lanier’s (or some other anti-Stratfordian claimant’s) authorship.  But hardly any mainstream Shakespearean scholar would agree with Winkler’s interpretation of the Folio’s texts as deceptive.  In Jonson’s personal documents, unpublished during his lifetime, he wrote: “I loved the man [i.e., William Shakespeare] and do honour his memory, on this side idolatry, as much as any.”  Why Jonson would want to continue the cover-up in his private, personal writings has never been convincingly explained by any anti-Stratfordians. 

As I said before, Winkler in her earlier Atlantic article presented herself as a open-minded journalist, but she has now been discovered to be a categorical anti-Stratfordian who has spoken at anti-Stratfordian events.  As if to confirm this, Winkler’s reply to the criticisms of her article show the hallmarks of Shakespeare denialism: a distrust of mainstream Shakespeare scholarship, a belief that mainstream Shakespeare scholars (her first article accused them of having “a dogmatism of their own”) have nothing to support their views, and a belief (however tacitly expressed) that the documents supporting Shakespeare’s authorship are frauds.  The fact that her article sees the First Folio primarily as evidence against William of Stratford’s authorship, rather than as a confirmation of it, tips her hand. 

If Winkler were truly an open-minded journalist, she would have asked an obvious question: Exactly how were the works of a ghost writer passed off as Shakespeare’s, and what is the hard evidence for this?  All anti-Stratfordian scenarios hinge on a clandestine conspiracy to substitute the Stratford man for the claimant, but few anti-Stratfordians seem intent on proving the subterfuge’s existence.  To quote James Shapiro again:

There’s little agreement and less detail about this conspiracy, despite how much depends on it, so it’s not an easy argument to challenge.  Some suppose that only Shakespeare and the author were in the know.  At the other extreme are those who believe it was an open secret, so widely shared that it wasn’t worth mentioning.  (Contested Will, p. 225, emphasis added)

A true journalist would have risen to the challenge and set about examining the evidence for the conspiracy — if any — before adding the name of another anti-Stratfordian claimant to join the 86 others.  The fact that Winkler just assumed the conspiracy’s existence, rather than questioning the problematic concept, is another dead giveaway of her anti-Stratfordian leanings.

To their credit, the editors of The Atlantic have published five articles in response to Winkler’s, including one by Shapiro who plainly and accurately says that Winkler was indulging in a conspiracy theory.  The editors also link to an especially severe critique by Times of London critic Oliver Kamm, who writes: “Winkler’s article…is a farrago that should never have been conceived, pitched, commissioned or published.”  (Winkler’s reply, portraying herself as the scrappy underdog, takes none of Kamm’s valid criticisms into account.) 

However, the editors’ response to the blowback has additionally been to semi-defend Winkler’s article as merely part of a “discussion” that needs “broadening”; they say that “her goal was to highlight rich new perspectives on the plays and the female voices within them.”  This is a praiseworthy objective, but she could have done that without raising the discredited Shakespeare authorship question and spuriously portraying it as a well-founded field of study.  I wonder if The Atlantic’s editors are anti-Stratfordians themselves. 

Winkler speaking at an anti-Stratfordian event in 2018 

Thursday, May 30, 2019

Sunday, May 19, 2019

A Prestigious Magazine Dignifies the Shakespeare Conspiracy Theory

William Shakespeare and Emilia Bassano Lanier

Not long ago, the venerable publication The Atlantic, whose founders include Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, lent its imprimatur to an article questioning William Shakespeare’s authorship of the works attributed to him, a view known as anti- (or non-) Stratfordianism.  Its adherents say that William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon wasn’t educated enough (he dropped out of grammar school and never attended university) and didn’t have the life experiences necessary to write the inspired plays and poems that bear his name. Anti-Stratfordians claim that someone of a noble background or university education must have written the works instead. This revisionist view insists that the better educated and experienced writer needed to hide his identity, so he used Shakespeare as a front man. Proposed alternate authors have included Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe, and Edward de Vere

Anti-Stratfordianism is a fringe conspiracy theory that has been debunked time and time again, but its adherents keep reviving it, while presenting no compelling new evidence for credentialed scholars to reconsider the proposition.  Why?  In part, because many anti-Stratfordians believe that the “orthodox” (i.e., mainstream) Shakespeare experts have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo and are deaf to any new proposals.  So, anti-Stratfordians constantly tell each other to be very skeptical of what mainstream scholars say — but what they say takes into account a vast amount of historical evidence confirming that Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon wrote the works attributed to him.

The Atlantic article, “Was Shakespeare Really a Woman?” by Elizabeth Winkler, puts forward a relatively new anti-Stratfordian candidate as the one who really wrote the Bard’s words: Emilia Bassano Lanier.  Born to a Venetian immigrant of Jewish background, Lanier (her married name) had earlier been the subject of some Shakespearian speculation as the possible “Dark Lady” of Shakespeare’s sonnets — or the even more conjectural idea that she, drawing upon her possible knowledge of Venice and Judaism, advised him on the Venetian Jewish characters of The Merchant of Venice.  But while her plausible association with Shakespeare is
speculative, it’s an agreed-upon historical fact that she, as Wikipedia puts it, “was the first Englishwoman to assert herself as a professional poet, through a single volume of poems, Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum (1611).”  As others have pointed out, Lanier’s published poetry bears very little resemblance to Shakespeare’s. 

But why add yet another anti-Stratfordian candidate when there are dozens of others, none of whom boasts any compelling evidence to be credibly credited as the pen behind Shakespeare’s words?  That is a subject that’s been on my mind because I’m not convinced that the question “Who really wrote Shakespeare?” is a worthwhile pondering in the first place.  In order to pull off a successful subterfuge (i.e., conspiracy) to hide the purportedly “true” author’s identity and elevate an alleged front man (
supposedly Shakespeare) in the role, and to have the deception last for centuries, it would require a fortuitous convergence of events that would be unlikely in the extreme.  For this reason, I think that anti-Stratfordians ought to prove the probability of this kind of plot before they start adding potential candidates to the long list — or, for that matter, before they continue questioning Shakespeare’s legitimacy.

Most Shakespeare denialism is built on the fallacy of the argument from personal incredulity: I personally don’t believe that the author of the canon would have done such-and-such; therefore, the author of the canon must not have done such-and-such.  One example is: The author of the plays and poems wouldn’t have allowed his daughters to be illiterate.  First of all, there’s no consensus that Shakespeare’s daughters were literate or not.  But even if they were illiterate, that wouldn’t prove that Shakespeare wasn’t the author.  It took extra effort to educate daughters in Elizabethan times, and Shakespeare being away from his Stratford family, apparently spending most of his hours in relatively distant (at the time) London, may very well not have been in a position to expend the additional energy to teach his daughters to read and write.  So, the literacy or illiteracy of the Stratford man’s daughters has no bearing on whether he wrote the works or not.  The Marlovians out there, namely the ones who believe that playwright Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593) wrote the works, have the triple burden of not only (1) proving that the conspiracy actually happened, but also — in accordance with the usual Marlovian narrative — (2) proving that his death was faked and (3) proving that he was able to spirit his plays from Italy to London without being detected.  So far, Marlovians have proven none of these extraordinary events. 

In her article, Winkler presented herself as an open-minded journalist, but since it received such a negative reaction among Shakespeare scholars and aficionados better versed in history, she has revealed herself to be a full-fledged anti-Stratfordian, giving more weight to debunked contrarian writings than to peer-reviewed Shakespeare studies.  Indeed, it’s been revealed that some of her in-depth interviews with mainstream Shakespeare scholars didn’t make it into her article, while more dubious assertions did (e.g., that the authorship question is as old as the plays themselves, when in fact, it only fully emerged in the mid-19th century).  Furthermore, Snopes back in 2015 looked into the question of whether Lanier wrote Shakespeare, in an article easily found on an Internet search, and concluded that she didn’t.  Winkler doesn’t take this Snopes piece into account.  In fact, rather than engage fully with her article’s critics, Winkler has merely linked some historically dubious anti-Stratfordian materials to her Twitter profile.  The unrepentant Winkler appears uninterested in what the “orthodox” historians say in response to her article — like a good little conspiracy theorist. 

Winkler’s article has already been debunked many times over by Shakespearians more knowledgeable that I am, so I won’t add to the pile-on.  But I will say that I’m sorry to see such a well-respected magazine as The Atlantic publish an ostensibly poorly researched, propagandistic article under the pretense of objective journalism.  And I think that associating Emilia Bassano Lanier with a conspiracy theory diminishes her very real accomplishment as a pioneering poet in Renaissance England. 

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Friday, April 26, 2019