The Playgoer: Stanley Wells punk'd?

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Friday, January 26, 2007

Stanley Wells punk'd?

Eminent literary scholar and historian Stanley Wells tells in the Guardian of a bemused encounter with a Shakespeare-denier.

I have just wasted a long afternoon in allowing myself to be interviewed by a charming television crew from Norway who are making a four-part documentary about a claim by a compatriot that he has identified treasure that for over 20 years has been rumoured to have been buried on an island off the coast of Nova Scotia.

He claims to have decoded messages within printings of Shakespeare's works demonstrating that their author was a Rosicrucian, that he was Francis Bacon, and that a symbol deducible by abstruse mathematical and geometric means leads to stones on the island concealing conclusive evidence in the form of authorial manuscripts proving the thesis....

Like others of his ilk that I have encountered over the years, the claimant, a church organist, is a courteous, highly intelligent, learned and apparently rational man who is nevertheless impervious to reason on the topic that obsesses him and to which he has misguidedly devoted years of intellectual effort.

He ignores the evidence that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare because he wants to prove something different. It might all seem like a harmless if futile game were it not that he has written and had published a long, heavily illustrated book on the topic which, I am told, is to be translated into many languages.

This will follow other books in recent years devoted to demonstrating that, for example, the Earl of Oxford, Sir Henry Neville, and Lady Mary Sidney wrote Shakespeare, and following in the footsteps of 60 or 70 other claimants brought forward over the past 150 or so years.

None of these books has been written by a real Shakespeare scholar, or by anyone who has any demonstrable interest in the plays themselves.

Yet they command media attention, and gullible (or greedy) publishers are willing to invest in volumes that invariably and rapidly end up on the remainder shelves.

Wells puts his learned finger on two really key points about the popularization of the Shakespeare denial craze. One, that bit about the champions always having no real demonstrable interest in or knowledge of the plays. And two, the marketing incentives. I'm always shocked when Barnes and Noble gives prime "table display space" to these conspiracy books, many of which are obviously vanity publications. Basically, booksellers (and newspapers, as we've seen in the NYT) have no problem debasing their own intellectual integrity to promote anything sellable.

Sorry, what a naive statement by me. And did I just use the word "intellectual" in reference to newspapers and bookstores?


Dan said...

"Basically, booksellers...have no problem debasing their own intellectual integrity to promote anything sellable."

See also: Dinesh D'Souza's latest.

Anonymous said...

Columbia prof. and Shakespeare scholar James Shapiro is currently working on a book debunking the authorship "controversy." Half of me thinks, FINALLY, and the other half thinks 'Why give them the that much credit that they merit debunking?'

Anonymous said...

Regarding the comment "None of these books has been written by a real Shakespeare scholar, or by anyone who has any demonstrable interest in the plays themselves," this is not true. Robin P. Williams (author of SWEET SWAN OF AVON: DID A WOMAN WRITE SHAKESPEARE?--a compelling look into Mary Sidney's life and work and possible role as writer of the works attributed to Shakespeare) has led playreading groups in Santa Fe, NM in reading and discussing the entire Shakespearean canon.

In addition, she has taught and continues to teach courses on individual Shakespearean plays at the colleges here. She's extremely knowledgeable about the plays and the sonnets and regularly hosts lively discussion groups to talk about them.

I'd say this qualifies as more than "demonstrable interest"!

Anonymous said...

It is indeed intriguing to wonder if Shakespeare really wrote Shakespeare. To some extent it is like "Did Homer write Homer" (of course not!), e.g. who cares? Of course, proving that a woman wrote the most important works in the canon would prompt a wonderful revaluation of western lit.

However, this is by no means foolproof methodology, but take a look at the poetry by the people that are nominated as the "real" Shakespeare (with the exception of Marlowe). They are AWFUL.

Anonymous said...

Adding to the fun are those who would attribute non-Shakespearean works to Shakespeare, most notoriously the misattribution of Middleton's The Second Maiden's Tragedy as Shakespeare-and-Fletcher's lost work Cardenio.

Some think Shakespeare didn't write "his" plays; others think he wrote more than we give him credit for. I'm getting dizzy...