The Shakespeare Code: Is Times Guy Kind Of Bard ‘Creationist’?

It started out amusing, in a way, but now it’s getting ugly—the little-noticed battle over The New York Times’ Shakespeare

It started out amusing, in a way, but now it’s getting ugly—the little-noticed battle over The New York Times’ Shakespeare coverage.

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Earlier this month, invocations of creationism and Holocaust denial were injected into the debate by no less an authority than Harvard’s Stephen Greenblatt, author of the best-seller Will in the World. On Sept. 4, The Times published his letter to the editor responding to the most recent (Aug. 30) piece by The Times’ default Shakespeare correspondent William S. Niederkorn, an editor in the cultural department.

Mr. Niederkorn’s coverage has drawn criticism from an array of Shakespeare scholars in the past for a pronounced, tendentious focus on the conspiracy theory that the author of Shakespeare’s plays was a secretive mystery man who used William Shakespeare of Stratford-on-Avon as a front.

If you read his coverage over the past three and a half years, you would be led to believe that this was the most compelling issue in Shakespearean scholarship.

What set Mr. Greenblatt off about Mr. Niederkorn’s recent “Essay” was his concluding rhetorical question: “What if authorship studies were made part of the standard Shakespeare curriculum?”

As Mr. Greenblatt put it in his Letter to the Editor:

“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?”

Holocaust denial! As the author of a critique of unfounded Hitler “explanations,” including Holocaust denial, and of a forthcoming book (sometime in the fall of 2006) on what I would call real Shakespearean controversies—about the plays and poems, not the name of their author—I would suggest that “Shakespeare denial” (or “Shakespearean creationism”: the creation of alternate Shakespeares) doesn’t amount to the hateful folly of Holocaust denial. But I think Mr. Greenblatt is making a point about the relativism that giving equal time to “both sides” of the “authorship controversy” entails.

What if, for instance, over the course of three and a half years (the length of Mr. Niederkorn’s Shakespeare tenure), the Times aerospace correspondent had given “equal time” (or more) to those who believe that the moon landings were a staged hoax, say? Many people believe it to be true, after all (48,000 Google hits for “moon landing hoax”). Should the moon-landing hoax theory be taught in schools alongside astrophysics?

Other scholars have expressed concern, embarrassment and anger that the paper of record appears to have given its imprimatur to the belief that the authorship controversy is the central Shakespearean question.

But I think another appropriate emotion might be deep sadness. At a time when schools and colleges everywhere are dropping their requirements that students read any of Shakespeare’s works, we are now told it’s important they take away from whatever time they do have to read the greatest writer in the language in order to focus on fringe beliefs about the secret identity of the author.

I should say that this is not the only view advanced in The Times. I’ve written about the state of Shakespearean scholarship for the Book Review and about productions for Arts & Leisure without ever being asked by any editor whether I was sure who wrote the plays. And the “authorship controversy” doesn’t feature in Ben Brantley’s superbly informed reviews of Shakespearean productions. I have a feeling that many literate Times people are a bit embarrassed by what’s happened with its Shakespeare coverage.

But the fact that continuing coverage of developments in Shakespeare studies has been the province of someone who places the “authorship controversy” at the center of focus has the effect of giving credibility to a conspiracy theory that lacks any positive evidence: any record of any witness, at any time, ever alluding to it. (Were all the witnesses shot or silenced, like the 22 gunmen on the “grassy knoll” in Dallas?)

Another problem with this kind of coverage is that the genuinely consequential controversies in the field are not covered at all. The still-unresolved debate over how to deal with variations in the two versions of King Lear and the three texts of Hamlet, for instance, has profound implications for how these foundational works of Western culture are construed. No coverage of the debate about Lukas Erne’s recent thesis (in Shakespeare as Literary Dramatist): whether Shakespeare took the printed texts of his work seriously, or whether he just dashed them off for the stage à la Shakespeare in Love—another argument with important and practical consequences for how we read and stage the plays. Or the debate that Frank Kermode initiated over the difficulty of Shakespeare’s “late language”: deliberately complicated or (in places) carelessly opaque.

These are the kinds of things serious scholars care about and educated readers deserve to know about. Apparently none of these rich debates about Shakespeare’s actual work have been of much interest to Mr. Niederkorn.

Instead, for nearly four years, important developments in Shakespeare studies have been looked at through the lens of the supposedly central “authorship controversy.” One can see, for instance, the way this agenda was pushed into the coverage of the claim that a 1612 “Funeral Elegy” was written by Shakespeare.

Back in June 2002, Professor Donald Foster conceded that he was wrong in attributing a dull and dutiful 578-line “Funeral Elegy” published in 1612 to Shakespeare (after three major publishers had included it in their editions of Shakespeare). Readers of The Times were told in Mr. Niederkorn’s reportage that a really important implication of this development was that it represented a major victory for the “Oxfordians,” that faction of the “anti-Stratfordians” who push Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, as their secret Shakespeare.

Oxford, inconveniently for his supporters’ case that he wrote “Shakespeare’s” plays, died in 1604, before, most scholars agree, “Shakespeare” had written perhaps a dozen plays, including Antony and Cleopatra, Coriolanus, The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest.

The Oxfordians have had to rely on strained attempts to backdate those plays, and to claim that the Earl of Oxford somehow wrote them all before 1604 and that participants in his Shakespeare conspiracy doled them out for the next eight years or so.

If Shakespeare had written a funeral elegy about a man who died in 1612, it’s unlikely Oxford could have risen from his grave to do it. The retraction of the 1612 “Funeral Elegy” attribution to Shakespeare, Times readers were told by Mr. ­Niederkorn, meant another obstacle had been removed from the Oxfordian path! A substantial portion of the article on the “Funeral Elegy” retraction was devoted to its implications for the “authorship controversy,” and, as a result, Times readers were again given a mistaken impression of the centrality of the “authorship controversy.”

The Family Romance of the Shakespeare Deniers, Or, A Gap Is Different From a Void

The “Funeral Elegy” article prompted the first skirmish between Mr. Niederkorn and Mr. Greenblatt. What particularly disturbed the latter was Mr. Niederkorn’s characterization of the controversy as one between “Stratfordians” (believers that Shakespeare from Stratford wrote the plays) and “anti-Stratfordians” (believers that it was Marlowe, Bacon, Oxford or even Queen Elizabeth).

Mr. Greenblatt objected to this as a tendentious rhetorical trick. Or as he put it in a letter to The Times then: “The so-called Oxfordians, who push the de Vere theory, have answers, of course—just as the adherents of the Ptolemaic system [those who believed the sun revolved around the earth] had answers to Copernicus. It is unaccountable that you refer to those of us who believe that Shakespeare wrote the plays as ‘Stratfordians,’ as though there are two equally credible positions.”

It’s not that we know a lot about Shakespeare. As I wrote in a Publishers Weekly review of Peter Ackroyd’s new biography of Shakespeare recently: “At their worst [Shakespearean biographers] reshuffle old wives’ tales and pile supposition upon conjecture into a rickety house of cards.”

Yes, there are gaps in the record of Shakespeare’s life 400 years ago. And, yes, biographers often overextend their imaginations trying to fill these gaps. They may never be filled in completely. But there is sufficient evidence to link “the Stratford man” (another rhetorical ploy of the “anti-Stratfordians”) to the plays—and I believe there is far more than necessary. A gap is different from a void. Existence of gaps does not license conspiracy-theory speculation without any positive evidence of a conspiracy.

And, in fact, the “anti-Stratfordian” case is based largely on what you might call “negative evidence”: The lack of any surviving letters written by Shakespeare, or reference to his books in his will. There are gaps in Hitler’s biography as well, important ones, but as I suggested in Explaining Hitler, these gaps don’t constitute positive evidence in favor of urban legends such as the one that claims Hitler was descended from a Rothschild. I called such stories “the family romance of the Hitler explainers,” after Freud’s characterization of the fantasy that one is secretly related to royalty or aristocracy.

In biography, the family romance is the wish to endow the apparently humble-born person who became a huge historical figure with secret exotic or noble parentage. The Earl of Oxford theory is the family romance of the Shakespeare deniers, Oxford a precursor of Rothschild.

The Oxford “evidence” I’ve seen is not persuasive. The fact that someone may have highlighted passages in a Bible that was once in the possession of Oxford and that these passages are alluded to in Shakespeare is not, I’m afraid, positive evidence that Oxford is Shakespeare; it may at best be evidence that Oxford read Shakespeare. But this is the kind of thing the Oxfordians get excited about—wishful thinking at best.

Who’s Got the Da Vinci Code?

But let’s look at the way Mr. Niederkorn frames the debate in his recent “Essay” on Shakespeare matters on Aug. 30, the one that prompted Mr. Greenblatt’s Holocaust-denial comparison.

This one was called, in a particularly strained headline: “The Shakespeare Code, and Other Fanciful Ideas From the Traditional Camp.”

Students of the coverage might notice that in the headline and throughout the story a new nomenclature has replaced “Stratfordian” and “anti-Stratfordian,” which are nowhere to be found. Now those who believe that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare are “the traditional camp” or the “traditionalists,” with the implicit hint of hidebound retro (if not reactionary) views, while those who believe that some other person wrote Shakespeare are said to be in the “unorthodox” camp. And we all know what we think of orthodoxy.

In any case, the thesis of the article was that “traditionalist” believers are so “eager for proof that Shakespeare is Shakespeare,” so desperate—virtually backed into a corner by the ever-strengthening arguments for the Earl of Oxford—that “fantasy has now been firmly established as a primary tool of other, more traditional Shakespeare studies.”

I have to say, having spent six years engaging with Shakespearean scholars on genuinely interesting questions, that this is a fantasy. Particularly if Mr. Niederkorn thinks “Shakespeare studies” consists mainly in trying to prove that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare.

He cites a new book that asserts that Shakespeare (of Stratford) embedded a radical Catholic “code” into his works, as if the book were in the mainstream of Shakespeare scholarship, thereby, he thinks, discrediting mainstream scholarship. Please—I think we know who the Da Vinci Code types really are in this controversy: The history of “anti-Stratfordian” ­literature is chock-full of books bearing cryptograms.

And Mr. Niederkorn spotlights the decision by Oxford University Press to include in its new Complete Works of Shakespeare edition a play called Sir Thomas More, which some scholars believe contains part of a single scene by Shakespeare. I haven’t seen the Oxford University Press rationale (it could be contextual, for all I know), but merited or not, the decision is utterly irrelevant to the question of who wrote Hamlet.

But Mr. Niederkorn asserts that he is not a partisan, and when someone on the SHAKSPER discussion list called Mr. Niederkorn an “Oxfordian,” he replied to the list that “I am not an Oxfordian, nor a Stratfordian for that matter. I am just trying to keep an open mind and sort things out as well as I can.”

So admirably detached. Of course, in framing the debate that way—that neither one side nor the other has proven its case and that he’s just “sorting things out” between them—he makes it seem as if they were in fact virtually equivalent contenders. By saying you’re not sure one way or the other about the moon landing, that you’re just “sorting things out,” you give more credibility to the moon-landing hoax theory than it deserves (to say the least).

In addition, Mr. Niederkorn conducts a one-way argument with Stephen Greenblatt, quoting Mr. Greenblatt on some matter from his book and then interjecting, like a cross-examiner, “But wait a minute … ” and acting like he’s demolished Mr. Greenblatt’s argument when in fact he hasn’t.

For example, he takes Mr. Greenblatt’s conjectural belief that Shakespeare might have had secret Catholic leanings and then tries to turn them against him by saying, “But wait a minute. Isn’t the Shakespeare canon the cornerstone of secular English literature? How can a radical Catholic have written it in good conscience?”

He seems to have forgotten to reread Hamlet, which gives weight to the Catholic notion of purgatory (it’s where the ghost comes from), despite having been written during the reign of a Protestant theocracy that abolished belief in purgatory. And he seems to believe that “secular literature” is literature that has no reference to religion in it.

Despite Mr. Niederkorn’s claim of nonpartisanship, he certainly gives the impression to knowledgeable readers that he has a partisan agenda: I e-mailed the multifaceted scholar Thomas Pendleton, who co-edits the Shakespeare Newsletter, which is distributed to thousands of Shakespeare scholars and hundreds of libraries throughout the English-speaking world and beyond, asking for his assessment of Mr. Niederkorn’s Aug. 30 “Essay,” since Mr. Pendleton has followed the controversy more closely than I have and has written skeptically about various authorship arguments.

Here’s his reply:

“Niederkorn has no business being the Times’ Shakespeare man. He is obviously an anti-Stratfordian—whether or not that makes him an Oxfordian isn’t worth debating, although many of his arguments seem to come from Diana Price’s Oxfordian work. Thus he operates from a position that almost no professional, academic or scholarly student of Shakespeare takes seriously. There is no serious scholarly ‘debate’ on the question.

“The Stratfordian case isn’t ‘conjecture,’ as Niederkorn says. It’s based on documented evidence that is somewhere between abundant and overwhelming …. There’s plenty of direct testimony from contemporaries that the man from Stratford was the man who wrote the plays (Ben Jonson, Digges, etc.). If Niederkorn can’t tell the difference between this kind of evidence and the fact that Oxford, like Hamlet, was once captured by pirates, he’s not competent to discuss the subject.”

The impoverishment of Mr. Niederkorn’s “authorship”-centered lens for looking at Shakespearean developments can be seen in his treatment of James Shapiro, author of the forthcoming 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare.

Mr. Niederkorn taxes Mr. Shapiro with the hobbyhorse of the Oxfordians, the “problem” of Shakespeare’s reading, and implicitly characterizes his solution as one of the “fantasies” of the “traditional camp.”

In doing so, he overlooks the real questions raised in Mr. Shapiro’s analysis of the “revisions” of Hamlet (a subject I wrote about for The New Yorker three and a half years ago): which variations in the texts of Hamlet were the product of Shakespeare’s “considered second thoughts” (as the scholarly term of art has it), and which were accidents of transmission, misprints, cuts by theater managers, etc. Mr. Niederkorn’s readers are denied any investigation of such matters at the heart of Hamlet because he’s fixated on Oxfordian irrelevancies.

‘Fire and Brimstone’?

But let’s return to the “direct testimony” question, since this may be at the heart of one of Mr. Niederkorn’s mischaracterizations of the “debate” and the scholarship on “the traditional side” in his Aug. 30 article.

Buried in his piece is a mischaracterization of an essay by Brian Vickers (whom Mr. Niederkorn calls “the dean of Shakespeare scholars”) in the Times Literary Supplement (“Why Not Shakespeare?”, Aug. 17, 2005). Mr. Niederkorn calls the essay a “fire-and-brimstone academic sermon,” as if Mr. Vickers were railing in desperate, incendiary, inquisitional terms against the “anti-Stratfordians.”

In fact, I defy you to read Mr. Vickers’ essay and find the “fire and brimstone.” Instead, Mr. Vickers’ essay (Google it) is a sober, quietly devastating survey of the “authorship debate,” one that cites, by the way, a new book that Mr. Niederkorn somehow forgot to tell his Times readers about: The Case for Shakespeare: The End of the Authorship Question by Scott McCrea. I wonder why?

The most salient passage in Mr. Vickers’ essay—the one dealing with “direct testimony” to Shakespeare’s authorship (there is, of course, no direct testimony to anyone else’s authorship—none; zero), is this paragraph:

“We have a huge number of allusions [to Shakespeare], both laudatory and envious, from fellow-writers and others in the London theatre-world who knew him well (Greene, Meres, Jonson, Heywood, Webster, Marston, Gabriel Harvey, Chettle, Weever, Dekker); an almost continuous series of references from 1592 to his death in 1616, all of which identify him as both actor and author.”

It’s not fire and brimstone; it’s fact and evidence. It’s not fantasy and codes; it’s the names of real people who knew Shakespeare, the actor from Stratford, as the writer of the plays. In any case, should you need further proof on this question, I suggest you consult the authorship chapter of Jonathan Bate’s The Genius of Shakespeare, or go to the Shakespeare authorship Web site ( maintained by David Kathman and Terry Ross.

I think it’s time for everyone to go back to reading and rereading those plays. (There’s some good stuff in them.)

Again, what I feel is sadness. I think people should be allowed to conduct inquiries on whatever tangent they wish. Let William S. Niederkorn continue to pursue his hobbyhorse in The Times, just so long as he doesn’t do so under the pretense of detached objectivity. I just think it’s sad that there are people who—given the choice of how they spend their limited time on the planet—choose to spend it on this question, rather than read and reread and deepen their appreciation of Shakespeare’s plays and poems.

They don’t know what they’re missing.

The Shakespeare Code: Is Times Guy Kind Of Bard ‘Creationist’?