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