I have no idea how many chapters in Shakespeare Beyond Doubt (SBD) I’ll be commenting upon but one that I would not have thought I’d be writing about is the first, which is on Delia Bacon. When I started reading the Shakespeare authorship literature many years ago I did know of Delia Bacon but I had no interest in reading anything about her. And even now I only read some of it because some other authorship authors are writing about her in these books. My thinking has been that in the 150 years or so that she first wrote on this topic that so much more has been discovered and argued, that the current state of the debate, and the current state of the evidence and arguments, would be far more interesting and valuable than any idea or speculation she would have had back in 1857.
And I think that’s still very true. However, I like history and some of the brief retrospective views on her and her writings have been made interesting reading. And the chapter on her in SBD is one of these and well worth the time. Naturally, the primary idea she argued, that the Stratford man couldn’t have authored the Shakespeare works, is considered wrong.
Her writing is considered ‘unreadable’ and practically impenetrable, at least nowadays since back then at least she held the interest of some ‘literary giants’ such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Nathaniel Hawthorne. I won’t summarize the chapter’s distillation of her ideas since Shakespeare enthusiasts should read both this book and the companion SBD(?) book mentioned previously. But I’d like to list some highlights.
For one, it’s stated that her idea that the Stratford Shakespeare wasn’t up educationally or culturally to writing the plays has been “comprehensively refuted by generations of scholars, biographers and critics” as the SBD book says it will demonstrate. But then it’s said that she had a “remarkably innovative and insightful method of reading the plays, as politically incendiary critiques of power and as prescient visions of human liberty”. Her recasting of the image of Elizabeth I’s ‘Golden Age’ as “a cruel and violent despotism” now “coincides exactly with that critique of power that became” … “a constitutive element in both New Historicist and cultural materialist criticism of Shakespeare”. Plus, her theory of collaborative authorship “is today becoming an influential paradigm in Shakespeare studies”. In several ways she was “ahead of her time”.
So now, though she is still seen as ‘eccentric’ she did also possess some ‘better wisdom’ and she could have “become a founding mother of political Shakespeare criticism, ideological critique and collaborationist bibliography”. In fact, she “was a remarkable woman”.
Part of this scholarly rehabilitation includes some rebukes to those, past and present, who “sought to undermine her credibility by characterizing her as a madwoman”. This was ‘shameful’, ‘deeply uncharitable’ and a “shabby treatment of an ‘amateur’ scholar by combative professionals”.
This is all very refreshing. And yet, it all seems something like a sugar coating of some still debatable points of argument which the SBT does not seem to want to mutually examine. She was remarkably insightful, but yet, she never produced any ‘direct evidence of any kind’ to endorse her authorship doubts. She was ahead of her time, but yet, she never made that great discovery “to prove her case beyond all reasonable doubt”. She was learned and possessive of wisdom, but yet, neither she nor anyone since has produced “the one single piece of evidence that would connect any of these alternative candidates to the works of Shakespeare”.
There is also tossed in there that “Stylistic similarities, verbal echoes, biographical correspondences between the works of these various writers can certainly be found” with the implied assertion that since they are common that then they must necessarily all be trivial and so no research is required to see if any are statistically significant or declared so by subject matter experts. I wonder how other disciplines view this standard of research in the Shakespeare studies programs.
And it just somehow doesn’t seem quite fair to expect someone from 150 years ago with her first hunch and by herself conducting the very beginnings of her research to have to find at that time “direct evidence” or the great discovery to “prove her case” with that “one single piece of evidence” which is needed to absolutely settle the authorship question once and for all to all concerned. Nor do these seem like the same standards that modern Shakespeare scholars operate under. Does a Shakespeare co-author attribution in modern research use only ‘direct’ but no ‘indirect’ evidence? Do their hypotheses need to be ‘proved beyond any shadow of doubt’ or is strong probability ever allowed? Do they require that ‘one single piece of evidence’ or are multiple lines of converging evidence acceptable?
And for such a lowly ‘amateur’ scholar she seems to have now the appreciative recognition of many a ‘combative professional’ for being so far ahead of her time in many ways.
Naturally, this all got me to thinking about The Winter’s Tale, a kind of parable for our times, I suppose. Leontes, King of Sicily, due to a jealous disposition and his overheated imagination, suddenly believes his beautiful and virtuous Queen Hermione has been unfaithful to him through the agency of his lifelong friend Polixenes. But yet only he sees the ‘ample’ evidence of this, proof actually of his accusation. Here, as in other plays, Shakespeare stages a question of belief or of an accusation based on ambiguous evidence. Obviously, Leontes didn’t catch Hermione in an act of infidelity with Polixenes. Yes, he thinks he sees circumstantial evidence which to him is convincing. However, not all the Lords of the realm, which we might think of as the intellectual class, agree with his conviction, as one Lord says “Beseech your highness, call the Queen again.” [to testify for herself]. But the King will not be moved and even his highest and closest servants are at risk to challenge him. At least, the King will consult the Delphic Oracle which he is sure will pronounce him as correct and just.
Is there any similar Oracle nowadays to settle our authorship question? Are the ‘professionals’, those paid to teach and research all things Shakespeare, to be blindly accepted as Oracles? Is that what they all want and expect? To not be questioned, or challenged, or debated by the modern intellectual class of non-paid doubters? [an increasing group with over 800 with advanced degrees and somewhere around 350 with a Ph.D. and so trained in a variety of ways of research, statistics, critical thinking and analysis]. The doubters have some advantage over the professionals in that they are much more independent of the risk of Groupthink or conformity to group norms that protect the professional’s career. Couldn’t some outside expert reviews be valuable? The closest thing to an Oracle nowadays might be a public panel of independent experts on the various subtopics of Shakespearean authorship evidence. But the ignoring of such a healthy tourney, good physic for the realm, will only continue to fester the kingdom.