This past December, I published an article on the website of American Libraries Magazine about the 2016 national (U.S.) tour of Shakespeare’s First Folio, co-sponsored by American Library Association’s Public Programs Office, the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., and the Cincinnati Museum Center. The purpose of the article was to highlight not only what academic and public libraries are planning on doing to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the death of the “Bard of Avon” but also that this anniversary is a controversial one: that the First Folio is an extremely mysterious book, and that the authorship of the Shakespeare Canon has never been subject to more reasonable doubt than it is now.
This is a topic about which I’ve previously written extensively, for I believe it connects fundamentally with Foucauldian dimensions of subjugated knowledge and our collective epistemology in a digital age, as well as received notions about the “genius of the West” and principles of academic freedom.
As is generally the case with online articles on the authorship of Shakespeare, my piece was inundated with comments (735 as of this writing) much of it extremely heated, with partisans defending the Shakespeare of tradition and taking issue with the entire premise of my article, while proponents of the Earl of Oxford (myself included) sought to state our case.
Some of these exchanges were less than civil, let’s just say.
Once the number of comments approached 300 — and with no end in sight — I decided to try a more diplomatic approach, and posted the following as an open letter, in an attempt to defuse the controversy and establish a more civil tone in the debate. The statement was well-received by partisans on both sides, with some fellow Oxfordians wishing to refer to it again in the future. With that in mind, I am reposting my letter here:
Three hundred comments! On one level I’m certainly pleased to see that my article has generated so much interest and discussion. On the other hand I find the overall tone – as is so often the case with this topic online — rather dispiriting. So, in the spirit of the season, let me offer a few comments, and a wish.
First of all, we need to recognize that the topic in which we are engaged is a matter of history, and like such matters is subject to contestation and interpretation. Even for well-documented and indisputable historical events – such as wars — historians will still debate sequences of events, causal factors, the actors involved, their motivations and the consequences of those events. Granting this, how much less certain can all of us be about what occurred between a man and his muse, writing alone, more than 400 years ago?
The fact is, we are all of us fallible humans relying on historical documents written by other fallible humans, and retained and preserved through historical events and happenstance. We simply cannot argue from certainty about matters that nobody but the author witnessed; as such, we – all of us – need to be more provisional and qualified about our claims.
Do I believe that Oxford was Shakespeare? Yes, the weight of evidence leads me to what I feel is a reasonable inference and conclusion. The works of Shakespeare make much more sense to me, and are much more rich and real to me, understanding them to come from the pen of Edward de Vere.
Can I prove it? No.
Do I believe it with the religious conviction of an unalterable truth? No.
Would I be open to being proven wrong? Yes, I would like to think so.
In that spirit, I thank all the commenters — and I’m sorry I haven’t had time to read all you’ve written here – I have learned some interesting things here. But I do wish we can – all of us – engage in this conversation in a more respectful manner, recognizing our own limitations and fallibility.
So here’s the wish: Can we please all agree that we are all Shakespeareans, that we all share a love for the writings of Shakespeare and a desire to understand them better, and are sincerely motivated by a desire to honour the author? What’s more, can we all please agree that in matters more than 400 years removed, we must be much more cautious about claiming a monopoly on truth.