Shakespeare in Court

One of the many ways in which the United States remains - at least from the perspective of this side of the Atlantic - gloriously, unrepentantly old-fashioned is in its lack of a mandatory retirement age for senior judges. The result - combined with the divisively political nature of the nomination process, which encourages incumbents out of sympathy with the administration to cling on as long as possible - is that the Supreme Court often boasts some very elderly judges. The oldest ever was Oliver Wendell Holmes, who was finally persuaded to go by his colleagues at the age of ninety. Today's longest-serving member of the bench is Justice John Paul Stevens, who is 88. The court's veteran liberal, he is likely to hang up his gown very soon, having achieved his aim of surviving the Bush administration. In the meantime, according to Jess Bravin of the Wall Street Journal, he has been worrying about the true authorship of the works of Shakespeare.

Stevens is one of that relatively small but persistent band who doubt that a glovemaker's son from Stratford upon Avon wrote Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet or even The Two Gentlemen of Verona. He has been on the case for more than twenty years, ever since he took part in a mock trial of the authorship question, and found no conclusive evidence that Shakespeare was Shakespeare. Which may, of course, simply mean that the rules of evidence developed for use in courts are of no more use in deciding questions of historical fact than in resolving scientific questions. He now says that it is "beyond reasonable doubt" that William Shakespeare did not write the plays. Instead, he is one of that small but determined band of literary heretics convinced that the plays were written by Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford - a theory first put forward by a certain Mr JT Looney.

The report claims that "several justices across the court's ideological spectrum say he may be right". In fact, the only serving judge prepared to go on the record as agreeing with his view on the matter is the arch-conservative Antonin Scalia. I can't imagine they agree on much else. Scalia thinks it unlikely that the plays could have been written by someone from Shakespeare's comparatively humble background. With his usual decisiveness, he asserts that "pro-Shakespearean people are affected by a democratic bias". Stevens, meanwhile, compares the conventional story to belief in Santa Claus.

Stevens also claims that retired justice Sandra Day O'Connor ("Swinging Sandra", the legal weathercock who handed the presidency to George W Bush back in 2000) shared his doubts about Will. One who doesn't, Justice Anthony Kennedy, thought it a reflection of Stevens' "influence and power" that only two of the nine were prepared publicly to support the traditional view of Shakespeare's identity. Most, including Chief Justice Roberts, either declined to comment or proclaimed their ignorance.

The clincher for Stevens was the curious absence of books in Shakespeare's house in Stratford. "Where are the books?" he asks. "You can't be a scholar of that depth and not have any books in your home". I suspect he overlooks the very different culture of Elizabethan England, where education entailed memorising large chunks of literature. Only the very wealthy had large libraries. As for de Vere's claims to authorship, His Honor points to his interesting connections:

Justice Stevens mentions that Lord Burghley, guardian of the young de Vere, is generally accepted as the model for the courtier Polonius in "Hamlet." "Burghley was the No. 1 adviser to the queen," says the justice. "De Vere married [Burghley's] daughter, which fits in with Hamlet marrying Polonius's daughter, Ophelia."

What? Hamlet married Ophelia? When did that happen? No-one invited me.

This isn't the place to rehash all the arguments over authorship, and I have neither the expertise nor the desire to do so. I would just mention that, like all conspiracy theories (which is basically what they are) alternative authorship theories are more or less unfalsifiable. When expected evidence doesn't turn up, or seems to point in a contrary direction, that doesn't deter the true believer at all. There's a good example of this with Stevens:

Justice Stevens can indulge his love of the Bard at the Folger Shakespeare Library, a block from the Supreme Court. He says he had a particular brainstorm after learning the library held a Bible that once belonged to de Vere.

"In two of the plays Shakespeare has an incident using the bed trick, in which the man is not aware of the identity of the woman he's sleeping with," Justice Stevens says, referring to "All's Well That Ends Well" and "Measure for Measure." "And there's an incident in the Old Testament where the same event allegedly occurred."

Justice Stevens says he reasoned that if de Vere had borrowed the escapade from his Bible, "he would have underlined those portions of it. So I went over once to ask them to dig out the Bible."

Unfortunately, the passage involving the substitution of Leah for Rachel in Jacob's bed, Genesis 29:23, was not marked. "I really thought I might have stumbled onto something that would be a very strong coincidence," Justice Stevens says. "But it did not develop at all."

To be fair to de Vere, people in those days were sufficiently familiar with the Bible to know these stories by heart - and I'm not sure it was the done thing to deface Bibles by underlining passages useful for purely secular purposes.

The job of a judge, of course, is to weigh evidence and come to impartial conclusions regardless of prejudice or vested interests - a calling that the Supreme Court Justices have always performed with distinction. The vast majority of scholars think the Oxford theory is complete bunkum, but that in itself is no reason to doubt the cogency of Stevens' reasoning, or to wish him a speedy retirement.


Edwin Moore said…
I used to be custodian of one of the standard Shakespeare texts, and heavens, the letters I used to get from people telling me they had proof that someone other than Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare.

Many of them were Baconians and were also Americans (for no doubt dark reasons) though we Brits had them also (one of the few actually funny Stalky stories features a mad Baconian).

My favourite (rather Borgesian) letter was from one very earnest chap who argued at great length that William Shakespeare did not write Shakespeare, it was another man altogether - also called William Shakespeare.
Martin said…
I wonder who he thinks wrote Volpone, the Alchemist, Bartholomew Fair etc. Surely not a brick layer and convicted murderer.

Ben Jonson's poem "TO THE MEMORY OF MY BELOVED MASTER WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE, AND WHAT HE HATH LEFT US" ( is presumably part of the conspiracy. Capricious judgments from Lawyers are scarcely a surprise.

"a theory first put forward by a certain Mr JT Looney." Really? Obviously a man as unfortunate in his name as Ed Balls.
It is amazing the things people state categorically must be impossible without any evidence to back that claim. The number of people who claim that Jesus cannot possibly be fictional even though there isn't anything one can decently call evidence that he ever existed is quite staggering.
Martin said…
WML, drawing attention to the paucity of 'Jesus' is, for me, the best thing that you have done on CiF.

You are right, doubts about the authenticity of Shakespeare inevitably marks someone out as 'a bit of a nutter', and similar applies to anyone who voices doubts about the authenticity of Jesus, yet I am astonished that the evidence to back up the Gospel stories is vanishingly small.
Edwin Moore said…
Auden once suggested that having a theory about what the sonnets are about is a mark of lunacy - Rowse's claim to have identified the Dark Lady is a classic example.

Shakespeare just attracts this sort of thing!
Should we be worried that such a senior judge is so unable to apply the tools of his trade once he steps outside his usual environment? And if crackpot conspiracy theories about Shakespeare are a sign of unsuitability for a position of responsibility then we should surely be far more concerned by those who claim to have an imaginary friend who lives above the clouds with a long white beard but nobody can see him.

If we can live with judges who believe in God without any evidence at all being presented then we should be able to live with those whose hobbies are actually far less bizarre.
The Heresiarch said…
We're dealing with rather different forms of reasoning, actually. It's entirely possible that in a mock trial situation the "evidence" for Oxford can be made to look stronger than that for "Stratford". Legal reasoning perhaps isn't the most appropriate mode of assessing evidence in historical questions, any more than it's the best way of deciding whether or not there's a God. I once read a book by a lawyer arguing for the truth of the Resurrection, and it employed all the usual tricks of misdirection, rhetoric and misuse of probability that had probably helped him get many people off.
Its a feature of the Anglo-Saxon legal system that we share with the USA that its a contest between two opposing views rather than an inquiry into establishing what we can reasonably say is proven.

As you say it just goes to show why it is inimicable to science, history and philosophy which have developed their own models of testing and correction.

Slightly off-topic I know, but until hearing the obituaries for Sir John Maddox I hadn't realised how much of the current scientific process is down to him. If the Nature podcast (and others) are to be believed peer-review was pretty lax and less than thorough before his first stint at Nature.
doesnotexist said…
Heresiarch and Woolly, quite so - that's why the "Teach the Controversy" line is pushed by all manner of shonky operators, from creationists to tobacco companies and climate-change deniers. The seductive but spurious appeal to balance and fairness makes it all the more pernicious.

Perhaps parody can help:
(not sure it works with Shakespeare nutters though)
BarabbasFreed said…
The Big H: "I would just mention that, like all conspiracy theories (which is basically what they are) alternative authorship theories are more or less unfalsifiable."
WML: "It is amazing the things people state categorically must be impossible without any evidence to back that claim. The number of people who claim that Jesus cannot possibly be fictional even though there isn't anything one can decently call evidence that he ever existed is quite staggering."

WML, do you know George Orwell by any chance?
BarabbasFreed - the only George Orwell I know of is the pseudonym of a dead journalist and author who used to shop his friends to the Secret Police.

I'd be far from the first person to point out that the Jesus Myth is possibly the worlds biggest and most successful conspiracy theory ever. Its had such a grip on Western society that you are regarded as an oddball for even pointing out that it is unfalsifiable and evidence-free.

The other contender would be the Mohammed Myth. There is a well entrenched meme that he is an historical figure and I've often read the phrase "lived his life in the full glare of history" but if anyone cares to actually check they'll see there isn't a shred of evidence he ever existed.

I do worry that by stepping out of my field of competence (IT) and wandering off into history that I'm going to made the same mistake as Justice John Paul Stevens. I hope not of course but its a possibility I have to keep in mind. I think that the equivalent fallacy would be for me to start claiming that the letters of St Paul couldn't possibly have been written by him and that they were really the work of Nero.
The Heresiarch said…
Woolly, I'd love to host a considered piece setting out your full reasons for doubting the historicity of Jesus. Mohammed too, if you're feeling brave enough.
I'll give it a go. It might be a couple of weeks before I get any free time as I'm away for a couple of long weekends. Mrs WML having noted with approval my banning from CiF fondly imagines that I'll spend some of my free time with her. So I'll put it on the "To Do" list which is often mistaken for a Forlone Hope list but every now and then stuff pops off it to general amazement.
paul fauvet said…
I wonder how the learned judges deal with the slight snag that the Earl of Oxford died in 1604, before some of Shakespeare's greatest plays (e.g. King Lear, Macbeth, the Tempest) were written.

They must be using a notion of evidence that has fortunately not migrated to this side of the Atlantic.

I think I shall start a theory that Oliver Cromwell wrote the works of John Milton. After all. if Oxford could compose "The Tempest" from beyond the grave, I don't see why Cromwell shouldn't have written "Paradise Lost" while his head was rotting on a spike at Tower Hill.

P.S. On the historicity of Jesus, there is a hostile witness, in the shape of the Roman historian Tacitus. He makes a derogatory mention of the Crucifixion while writing about Nero's persecution of Christians. That's enough to suggest that Christ was indeed a historical figure (but all the rest of it - resurrection, nativity, miracles, parables etc - belongs strictly to the realm of myth).

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