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I’ve had a letter complaining that scholars are not doing enough to fight the arguments that Shakespeare didn’t write his own works. The letter was provoked partly by news of the forthcoming film Anonymous which I gather supports the authorship claims of the Earl of Oxford as well as propounding other ridiculous ideas such as that Oxford was both the Virgin Queen’s bastard son and, later, her lover as well as the father (and therefore also brother) of Henry Wriothesley third earl of Southampton, dedicatee in 1593 and 1594 of Shakespeare’s narrative poems. Really, how ridiculous can you get! Of course it is a film, not a documentary. If it’s done with the wit and charm of Shakespeare in Love, which does not for a moment invite us to take itself as a portrayal of the truth, it is unlikely to do much harm.  But it’s to be accompanied by a full length documentary which will attempt to offer arguments in favour of the film’s underlying thesis. I know this very well because on Saturday I spent three gruelling (and unpaid) hours when I ought to have been doing the shopping being interviewed and filmed by a ten-strong crew in Shakespeare’s school room about this subject. At first, when asked to do this, I had refused. I am all too well aware of the distortions that can be made when quotations are taken out of context and ‘edited’ in a manner that can make the speaker appear to be saying the opposite of what he means. The film makers were persistent and in the end I gave way. I worried about my motives in doing so. There is always a temptation to act against one’s better judgement in response to approaches from the media. An element of flattery is involved, the vanity of appearing on screens and being told ‘I saw you on television last night’ even though one may respond with ‘Well, now you actually see me in person, isn’t that much better?’  Still someone ought to stand up for the truth; I knew that some of my colleagues and friends had refused to participate and I could see why, but in the end I caved in and agreed. I sat on a distinctly uncomfortable eighteenth-century school bench while two separate interviewers interrogated me for three hours about many aspects of Shakespeare’s life, reputation, and works as well as about the historicity of his biography. The interviewers were courteous and well informed but their producers are likely to use only a few minutes, at the most, of what was recorded and I have no control over how they may do so.

This is far from the only time I have attempted to fight the cause. I have taken part in a debate chaired by Jeffrey Archer at the Middle Temple, where I was cross-examined by an eminent barrister (we won). I’ve spoken in a debate at the Theatre Royal Bath attended by coach loads of anti- Stratfordians some of whom had travelled across the Atlantic to fight their corner irrespective of any arguments that might be adduced. I have published a book, Is It True what They Say About Shakespeare, in which I examine the claims that have been made. I have an entry on the topic (soon to be revised) on The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust website. Much of my writing about Shakespeare, even when it has not been directly concerned with authorship, has had this as an underlying theme. So it may be understandable that I feel a bit aggrieved when I hear complaints that academics have not been ready enough to attempt (as Sarah Palin might say) to ‘refudiate’ the anti-Stratfordian claims. It’s easy to feel depressively that the fanaticism of the non-believers is impervious to reason and logic. James Shapiro’s excellent recent book Contested Will should be enough to convince any rational person. Still, maybe we should be more aggressive in fighting our corner. Even though we are unlikely to change minds that are already made up we might be able to convince the waverers and defeat the proselytizers. I feel a campaign coming on. Wait for it!

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Author:Stanley Wells

Stanley Wells is Honorary President and a Life Trustee of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, Emeritus Professor of Shakespeare Studies of the University of Birmingham, Honorary Emeritus Governor of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. Follow Stanley on twitter @stanley_wells or visit his website
  • D_gregory31

    How on earth do you know you were in Shakespeare’s schoolroom ?

  • StanleyWells

    Thanks for the helpful response. I signed some kind of document without reading it properly which was probably unwise!

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  • Dr Pauline Kiernan

    Dear Professor Wells,
    Regarding your comment 'their producers are likely to use only a few minutes, at the most, of what was recorded and I have no control over how they may do so', it is possible to insist on vetoing the final cut.

    In my experience of taking part in documentaries on Shakespeare and other topics, if you object to any editing that misrepresents your words, you can simply insist they take out all your contribution. At such a late stage in the production this would cause the director a giant headache. The one ploy I take great exception to is when directors use your words as voiceover to an image you had no way of knowing they would use and which has the effect of contradicting or otherwise distorting what you have said. Perhaps you could ask the producers to see the cut to make sure you're not being misrepresented?

    As for Emmelich. His almost unprecedented reputation for taking serious subjects and dumbing them down to execrable depths will almost certainly do more to discredit the anti-Stratfordians than we could ever hope for. My own personal gripe against the film is that the political thriller aspect of the script (as opposed to the Authorship aspect) was stolen from one of my own screenplays!

    I do hope the producers won't be indulging in creative editing of your piece.

    Dr Pauline Kiernan

  • Thomas L. Strickland

    Imagine the good Professor had written a defense of butter on toasted bread.

    You, being a margarine man, take issue in your comment as best you can. You support your concerns by pointing out the elitism that pervades the Butterists You cite research showing how margarine is better for the preservation of waterfowl. At the end of your comment, a reasonable refutation has been establish. You're proud and rightfully so.

    But rather than close your comment simply, you tack on an advert for margarine of your own making (for fun and profit). You're no Margarinist on principle alone, but instead a Margarinial Mercenary.

  • ajleon

    George, you are also right, that was harsh, my apologies. Many years ago, in a galaxy far far away, I used to produce theatre (Shakespeare to be exact) in New York. I am well acclimated with the difficulty in balancing art and promotion. Thank you for understanding the essence of my mean spirited rant. Thanks for the well wishes and good luck with the show, George!

  • George Dillon

    AJ… “a valiant attempt at well-construed Spam. To use someone else's platform as a digital pulpit to peddle your own show is pathetic.”… OK, that's a harsh but fair riposte… I can see I overdid the plug at the end of my comment, but after-all self-promotion is a known trait of all anti-Stratfordians!

    I hope your own web-based business continues to thrive. 🙂

    Regards, George

    PS My apologies to Professor Wells for knighting him prematurely… “if it be not now, yet it will come!”

  • George Dillon

    AJ… “a valiant attempt at well-construed Spam. To use someone else's platform as a digital pulpit to peddle your own show is pathetic.”… OK, that's a harsh but fair riposte… I can see I overdid the plug at the end of my comment, but after-all self-promotion is a known trait of all anti-Stratfordians!

    I hope your own web-based business continues to thrive. 🙂

    Regards, George

    PS My apologies to Professor Wells for knighting him prematurely… “if it be not now, yet it will come!”

  • ajleon

    Dear George Dillon,

    I have neither the time nor the inclination to engage in a “comment” based debate on the issue of Authorship namely because Commenting Systems simply aren't built to facilitate such discussions as people can type loudly, all the while hiding under the skirt of their digital avatars.

    However, I will say this. There is NO such thing as “Blogvertising”. Your comment is no better than a valiant attempt at well-construed Spam. To use someone else's platform as a digital pulpit to peddle your own show is pathetic. Your profile links back to you. Surely, if your comment was at all compelling, readers of this blog could have made the choice to “check you out”. But, no, instead you decide a blatant attempt at marketing within this community might be a better idea. Next time, why not display a shred of dignity (and self control) and keep the advertisements for Google Adwords.

  • George Dillon

    Sir Stanley,

    I mean this respectfully, but I wish to sound a note of dissent and maybe even make you consider whether you might indeed be, to some degree, guilty as charged!

    Having devoted your life to the study of William of Stratford, your sense of grievance that scholars are under fire for not settling this issue is understandable, although perhaps by likening yourself to Sarah Palin you have unwittingly hit upon the real problem.

    Stratfordian scholars *are* largely to blame for allowing the resurgence of the authorship question, because (like Palin) in the simple certainty of their convictions they cannot understand and so never present a reasonable 'refudiation' of their opponents' arguments, resorting time and again to a familiar repertoire of failed tactics: dismissively ridiculing the whole question; resorting to ad hominem arguments (branding doubters as mere 'snobs'); and when not avoiding actually engaging with the debate, disingenuously exaggerating the extent of the direct contemporary evidence identifying Shakspere of Stratford as the writer Shakespeare; using 'straw man' arguments (dishonestly misrepresenting what anti-stratfordians actually say, or lumping them all together and dismissing them by citing only the most extreme); demonising the alternative candidates (for example Bate & Nelson calling Edward de Vere a pederast); resorting to sheer fantasy when concocting lucrative Shakespearean 'biographies' (Greenblatt); and wishfully celebrating 'new' discoveries as if they are the missing link, such as the long discredited Cobbe portrait.

    Honestly, Sir Stanley, have not you yourself at some time been guilty of every one of the above errors? During your appearance last year on It's Only a Theory (Channel 4), for instance, I seem to recall your first resort was to the tired old snobbery insult. And that is why you are still in the firing line.

    James Shapiro's recent very readable 'Contested Will' was trumpeted before its publication as being the book which would end the debate once and for all, but in this ambition it was a disappointment. Although Shapiro feigns respect towards the dissenters and he may sincerely believe he has tried to understand them, the book can be easily dismissed by anti-Stratfordians as one long ad hominem diatribe. Even Shapiro cannot resist poking fun at Looney's name and the bankruptcy of his approach becomes clear once he brings Hitler in as a witness.

    I must confess I have not yet read your own “Is it True What They Say About Shakespeare?”, but I have just ordered it on Amazon for the very reasonable price of 0.42p plus postage. I trust, on your past form, it will be much more readable and reasonable than Irvin Matus's turgid 'Shakespeare in Fact', and I am very much looking forward to it arriving on my birthday next Tuesday!

    Emmerich's film Anonymous may stir up the debate in the populosphere but it will surely of itself be no threat to Stratfordianism. If anything, by promoting the most extreme of all anti-Stratfordian ideas (sometimes called Prince Tudor Theory 2.0), the film is most likely to bring ridicule on Oxfordianism as a whole, which would be a shame, because Oxford's life is actually fascinating and very dramatic – a Tragical Comical History worthy of a Shakespearean drama.

    If you are going to be in Edinburgh this August, perhaps you might like to drop by The Man Who Was Hamlet, George Dillon's well-researched show which tells the story of Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, the leading alternative candidate for the authorship of the works of 'William Shakespeare', which previews in Brighton next week and is then on at Hill Street Theatre in Edinburgh from 5th-30th August and on tour throughout the UK from September.

    BRIGHTON: Thurs 29th & Fri 30th July. 7.30pm. The Nightingale Theatre. £8.50/£7.50. 01273 709709.

    EDINBURGH: Thurs 5th – Mon 30th August (not Tuesdays). 19:10 (ends 20:40). VENUE 41, Hill Street Theatre. £9/£7.(£5 previews 5th – 7th August). 0131 226 6522.




    This comment may have been written by George Dillon or it may have been written by someone else!

  • Dino

    That's a pretty difficult decision…

  • Jacquie Walter

    Dear Professor Wells,
    You have certainly done your bit over the years and may I say, have always been courteous and respectful in asserting your position on this issue. I fear that you have not been shown the same courtesy in return – I remember the hostile audience in Bath – and are not likely to be treated respectfully in the future. It seems that there will always been conspiracy theorists who will never be convinced by rational arguments. Thank you for being willing to be interviewed, however. At least there will be an informed person appearing in the programme.

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  • Glynipowell

    Whether to engage or not to engage, that is the question.
    Perhaps the decision is similar to deciding whether to share a platform with a racist, or to bother arguing with a creationist. In some circumstances it is better not to stoke the fire and to leave the embers to die down, but sometimes it is worth standing up and just making the argument – you never know viewers may never have actually heard it. I am sure Sir Stanley's eloquence can beat the editor's snips. Sometimes good argument shines through in the most partisan of pieces.

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