It’s always entertaining to watch an establishment intellectual in a huff, muttering hackneyed propaganda tropes over his shoulder as he sidles away from the question, desperately trying to shut down a losing debate without losing face. How can it not be funny to see someone getting frustrated with their own inability to control what other people think?

I wanted to write a series of concise biographies of the most likely authors of the works of Shakespeare, so that my students could play the game themselves with some biographical background to go on. I’m using The Shakespeare Identity as a ‘real life situation’ and trying to model the formulation of knowledge questions from there.

I was trying to limit myself to facts, and thus realized that what I was actually doing here was historical writing, whereas in the past I’ve only written essays, speeches, literary criticism, song lyrics and poems, and the occasional bit of fiction when I was younger.

Of course, I haven’t done any primary research. Well, actually I have, by poring over title pages, dedications and poems believed to pertain to the Shakespeare question, and making my own mind up about them. Does this count? Mainly I’ve done what most historians do, I believe – they read ten books on a subject and then write number eleven. But I have constantly re-evaluated, and reread in the light of new information. 

These five bios are totally insignificant in terms of a contribution to historical research, of course – I realize that – but they give me the opportunity to make some observations, as a novice in the field, about writing history. I’m coming at it from a naive or fresh perspective, depending on how you look at it. In the process of reflecting, I can frame some questions about knowledge, first of all in the context of writing history, and then in a more abstract form which will allow me to apply it to other fields.

One thing I’ve realised is this: epistemology is ethics.

Of course there’s a bit more to it than that, but good epistemology is inseparable from integrity. I think the reason that disagreements on historical interpretations get so heated – this one in particular, though at least no country has yet passed a law making it illegal to believe anything but the Stratfordian version of events – is that good epistemology is ultimately an ethical question rather than a technical one. Bad epistemology isn’t just wrong, it’s wrong! And it’s wrong to be wrong! At least, that’s how the discussion is often conducted in this area, as in so many others.

Reliable conclusions depend not just on the intelligence but on the integrity of the inquirer: openness about sources, discipline and critical thinking, elimination of bias, confirmation bias, normalcy bias, awareness of the nature of this type of inquiry and the kinds of thinking they must engage in in order to find truth. The inquirer in any field must be persistent, dogged, prepared to endure boredom and sacrifice huge amounts of time in pursuit of uncertain reward. The inquirer must be dispassionate, disinterested in the correct sense of the word, and not attempt in any way to deceive (and there are so many ways). These are all ethical considerations. Together with these qualities, they must have technical abilities too – the ability to discern between different types of evidence; the ability to draw logical conclusions; an appreciation of nuance in language. And, of course, wide knowledge and understanding  of the context.

I have sought out pro-Stratford sources, and followed up relevant references, for instance the eulogy by William Basse which identifies the William Shakespeare who died April 1616 as a ‘tragedian’. I’ve pored over sonnet 136 in which Shakespeare writes,

Make but my name thy love, and love that still,

And then though lov’st me, for my name is ‘Will’.

These references must indeed be accounted for in any theory. I’ve heard the pro-Stratfordian case being put in discussion, debates and lectures – and been deeply unimpressed by the inability of university academics and others on this side of the question remain logical in their approach. Above all, many of them seem incapable of grasping the idea that the copious evidence that ‘William Shakespeare’ wrote the plays, poems and sonnets has nothing to do with the debate about who the author actually was, if ‘William Shakespeare’ was in fact a pseudonym: a possibility for there is absolutely no justification for ignoring. I suppose this is mere cognitive inertia – they are so used to picturing Stratford-upon-Avon when they hear the name ‘Shakespeare’, that they can’t stop themselves doing it. They can’t separate the evidence into two categories – evidence which shows the authorship of ‘William Shakespeare’, and evidence which shows the authorship of William Shakspere or Shagsper or Shaxpar of Stratford-upon-Avon. Those who assume the latter tend to regard the question as closed, and so take no interest in the emergence of new evidence and remain ignorant of new research. They are incapable of proving their case, because they have never questioned it. On the one side you have brilliant scholarship, open-minded inquiry, wit, perspicacity, discernment – on the other, a grumpy impatience with doubt, a bitchy put-down of questions, and a sly resort to needling propaganda tropes. Several times I have read or heard ‘Stratfordians’ using sly ad hominem attacks – for instance the constant use of the pejorative term ‘conspiracy theory’, which gets wheeled out to defend any establishment narrative – and the constant implication that doubters are motivated by an unconscious desire for a certain person or type of person to have written the greatest literary works of all time and are merely projecting their own subconscious desires onto a historical period. 

It’s always entertaining to watch an establishment intellectual in a huff, muttering hackneyed propaganda tropes over his shoulder as he sidles away from the question, desperately trying to shut down a losing debate without losing face. How can it not be funny to see someone getting frustrated with their own inability to control what other people think?

For example, Jonathan Bate, Professor of Literature and Renaissance Studies at Warwick University, writer of excellent books about Shakespeare and his times, appears in the  documentary Last Will and Testament (dir Michael Rubbo, 2014). I used to like this writer – enjoyed his books, thought them cutting-edge Shakespeare scholarship. It’s not long, however, before he gives up debating the question ethically, and lays down the law:

Historical facts happen. People denying them – that’s dangerous.


Dangerous to whom, Jonathan?

What on earth can he mean? How could anyone possibly be endangered by research into the identity of a certain author of certain plays written over four centuries ago? It’s very mysterious, especially since the job of every historian is to critically examine known facts in the light of new discoveries and theories. History, like science, is always provisional – always susceptible to revision. Yes, historical facts happen. They also unhappen. The same is true of scientific facts. Both areas are characterized by a process of constant re-evaluation, permanent revolution.

But there are always certain areas, certain hotspots in both history and science where the establishment declares a no-go area, sometimes invoking force of law. A particular debate is declared ‘closed’ or ‘settled’, certain ideas are declared ‘dangerous’, and anyone who refuses to abandon their inquiries is labelled a ‘denialist’. Personally, these are precisely the areas I will always be interested in, because the attempt to suppress debate is a sign of something worth knowing. It’s smoke, and somewhere there must be fire. I will always have enormous respect for those who brave the flak and risk their careers in the pursuit of truth, and despise those who libel others to defend their own profit.

Bate, unable to deal with the arguments of his opponents, resorts with shocking readiness to the usual denunciations. The words ‘dangerous’ and ‘denial’ spring glibly to the tongues of those who defend the official narrative (on any issue) because what they are defending is their careers, their status and their income. But they have to appear to be defending something much more abstract – the common good, in some way. The word ‘denial’ is particularly scurrilous, playing as it does on the subconscious association with ‘holocaust denial’ – the original context in which this word was deployed to denigrate historical revisionism – a tautology, since the historical process is revision. Knowledge is not fixed, but dynamic, shifting, and decentralised.

I can think of only one class of people to whom the questions about Shakespeare could possibly be considered dangerous – and that is, people like Professor Bate, whose status (and therefore income) depends on them not having based their life’s work on assumptions.

Nice one, Jonathan. In my book, anyone resorting to these underhand tactics has immediately lost the debate – and not only that, they have revealed that they know they have. You’ve put one more dent in my already teetering respect for so-called academic authority in pretty much any area.

Anyway, what knowledge questions arise out of this? Some would be:

Why are some areas in history declared off-limits by the academic establishment?

What role does self-interest play in arriving at historical conclusions?

What role does psychological projection play in arriving at historical conclusions?

The third one is a legitimate and interesting question. However, I’m also interested in questions which allow me to dwell a little more on the detail of the historical process:

How important is contextual knowledge in evaluating evidence?

How important is textual analysis in arriving at historical understanding?


Author: Paul Dunbar

I have worked in international schools for the past 15 years, teaching English Literature and Theory of Knowledge in Amsterdam, Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh City. I'm also a musician, and a bit of a writer. Since 2001 I have come to question literally everything, the default position for an uncrippled epistemologist.

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