The Playgoer: Greenblatt responds

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Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Greenblatt responds

Quietly buried in the Sunday Times "Letters" was a belatedly printed letter from Stephen Greenblatt, in response to Mr. Niederkorn's pseudo-essay. (The letter is dated the very same day as the article, August 30. One can imagine Greenblatt's urgency.)

Do you think maybe the Times will some day let Greenblatt have some "equal time" on the op-ed page one day? (Equal time for those who think Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare, who would've thought.) Meanwhile, since the letter is short (no doubt, heavily edited) it's worth quoting in its entirety. Like me, Greenblatt seems most concerned over Niederkorn taking a page from the Christian right playbook, suggesting English classes "teach the controversy."

To the Editor:
Re "The Shakespeare Code, and Other Fanciful Ideas From the Traditional Camp" (Essay, Arts pages, Aug. 30):
The idea that William Shakespeare's authorship of his plays and poems is a matter of conjecture and the idea that the "authorship controversy" be taught in the classroom are the exact equivalent of current arguments that "intelligent design" be taught
alongside evolution.
In both cases an overwhelming scholarly consensus, based on a serious assessment of hard evidence, is challenged by passionately held fantasies whose adherents demand equal time.The demand seems harmless enough until one reflects on its implications. Should claims that the Holocaust did not occur also be made part of the standard curriculum?

Stephen Greenblatt

The comparisons to Creationism and Holocaust denial are totally apt, to my mind, and it needs to be said. I do not mean that any individual who publicly speculates about the authorship question is morally equivalent to a genocidal anti-semite. But the methods of analysis used by all these camps are similar. As Brian Vickers says in his TLS piece of Scott McCrae's new book, The Case for Shakespeare:
In his final chapter, “All conspiracy theories are alike”, [McCrae] suggests that “denial of Shakespeare follows exactly the same flawed reasoning as Holocaust denial” in that it rejects the most obvious explanation of an event, and reinterprets evidence to fit a preconceived idea (“the ovens at Auschwitz baked bread”). Facts that contradict the theory are explained by conspiracy, but this ploy means that “conspiracy theories are really not theories at all”, but faiths, which cannot be proved false.

Of course, the other big question all three of these fringe movements raise is: is there not a threshold of acceptable scholarship below which the media is not obliged to recognize something as "scholarship"?

7 comments:

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The Playgoer said...

Readers: rest assured, the above "deletions" do not reflect a sudden flurry of obscene Oxfordian attacks. (If only!) Just some annoying "blog spam," a distressing recent phenomenon. Is no one safe!

thewebloge said...

Hi Playgoer,

Read Shapiro's 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare yet? If so, any thoughts?

The Playgoer said...

No, I haven't read Shapiro, but am keen to! His "Shakespeare and the Jews" is full of great revelations.

John Branch said...

I'm with you on the main points, and I agree with the quotation from Brian Vickers on all but a few words. It's not only "faiths" that "cannot be proved false." The notion of falsifiability is useful in deciding whether a theory is scientific (in Sir Karl Popper's precise and somewhat restricted sense of the word); it's not concerned with the semantic difference between a theory and a faith. A number of theories to which we otherwise lend credence may still be unfalsifiable; an example is psychodynamic theories of the mind and mental functioning, which aren't fully scientific (in Popper's view).

By the way, the criterion of falsifiability might raise problems for both sides of the argument about whether Shakespeare wrote his plays. (I don't know enough of the details to say.) It should be enough just to follow common sense (as well as tradition and the principle of Occam's razor) and accept the simpler, more obvious explanation.

doc stritmatter said...

It is disappointing to see that the prejudice reflected in Professor's Greenblatt's remarks is on your blog sustained not only by affirmation but, apparently, by the censorship of contrary opinions. I recommend the recent documentary by First Folio Pictures, Last Will. and Testament (http://www.firstfoliopictures.com/),which will help to place Dr. Greenblatt's gratuitous remarks in appropriate historical and intellectual context. If you'd like to discuss the contents of the documentary I'm sure that there would interest in doing so.

Best Regards,

Dr. Roger Stritmatter
Associate Professor
Coppin State University