Part 1 of 2
Stanley Wells reviews the paperback (“An Unorthodox and Non-definitive Biography”) on Blogging Shakespeare 8 May 2013.
Diana Price responds to Stanley Wells’s review of Shakespeare’s Unorthodox Biography:
I am grateful to Professor Stanley Wells for following up on Ros Barber’s challenge to him and Paul Edmondson (eds., Shakespeare Beyond Doubt: Evidence, Argument, Controversy, Cambridge University Press, 2013, launched at the ‘Proving Shakespeare’ Webinar, Friday 26 April 2013). Barber criticized their collection of essays for failing to engage in the arguments presented in Shakespeare’s Unorthodox Biography: New Evidence of an Authorship Problem ([SUB] Greenwood Press 2001; paperback 2013). As the first academic book published on the subject, it surely should have been addressed in essays relevant to Shakespeare’s biography. But better late than never.
In his review Prof. Wells takes issue with any number of details in my book, but he does not directly confront the single strongest argument I offer: the comparative analysis of documentary evidence supporting the biographies of Shakespeare and two dozen of his contemporaries. That analysis demonstrates that the literary activities of the two dozen other writers are documented in varying degrees. However, none of the evidence that survives for Shakespeare can support the statement that he was a writer by vocation.
But the absence of personal literary paper trails for Elizabethan or Jacobean writers of any consequence is not a common phenomenon; rather, the absence of any literary paper trails for Shakespeare’s biography is a unique deficiency.
In the Webinar, Wells expresses “no objection whatever to the validity of posthumous evidence.” Posthumous evidence can be useful, but it does not carry the same weight as contemporaneous evidence. Historians and critics alike make that distinction (see, e.g., here). Wells relies, as he must, on the posthumous testimony in the First Folio to prove that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare. But even if he accepts the testimony in the First Folio at face value, no questions asked, no ambiguities acknowledged, he is still left with the embarrassing fact that Shakespeare is the only alleged writer of consequence from the time period for whom he must rely on posthumous evidence to make his case.
Wells has himself commented on the paucity of evidence. In his essay “Current Issues in Shakespeare’s Biography,” he admits that trying to write Shakespeare’s biography is like putting together “a jigsaw puzzle for which most of the pieces are missing” (5); he then cites Duncan-Jones who “in a possibly unguarded moment, said that Shakespeare biographies are 5% fact and 95% padding” (7). One difference, then, is that my work has no need for “guarded” moments, particularly as I re-evaluate that 5%.
Instead, of confronting the deficiency of literary evidence in the Shakespeare biography, Wells instead takes exception to particular statements and details in my book. For example, he criticizes my references to Shakespeare’s illiterate household in Stratford, while at the same time I acknowledge that daughter Susanna could sign her name. And yes, she did, once. She made one “painfully formed signature, which was probably the most that she was capable of doing with the pen” (Maunde Thompson, 1:294), but she was unable to recognize her own husband’s handwriting. Her sister Judith signed with a mark. That evidence does not support literacy in the household; it points instead to functional illiteracy.
In another criticism, Wells states that:
“Price misleadingly says that ‘there are ‘no commendatory verses to Shakespeare’, ignoring those printed in the First Folio as well as the anonymous prose commendation in the1609 edition of Troilus and Cressida and that by Thomas Walkley in the 1622 quarto of Othello.”
In this criticism and elsewhere, Wells disregards the criteria used to distinguish between personal and impersonal evidence, explicit or ambiguous evidence, and so on. Such criteria are routinely used by historians, biographers, and critics. The prefatory material for Troilus and Cressida and in Othello necessitate no personal knowledge of the author and could have been written after having read or seen the play in question. (As pointed out above, the prefatory material in the First Folio is problematic, but the complexities require over a chapter in my book to analyze.)
[Price then refers to Well’s citation of the William Basse elegy on Shakespeare. And then her response is that:]The poem itself contains no evidence that the author was personally acquainted with Shakespeare. Whether by Donne or Basse, it is a posthumous and impersonal tribute, requiring familiarity with Shakespeare’s works, and, possibly, details on the funerary monument in Stratford. Wells and Taylor themselves cannot be certain which manuscript title (if any) represents the original (Textual, 163).
Wells concludes that “of course, she can produce not a single scrap of positive evidence to prove her claims; all she can do is systematically to deny the evidence that is there.” Questioning the evidentiary value of existing documentation is not the same thing as denying that documentation. It is true: I cannot prove that the man from Stratford was not the writer the title pages proclaim him to be, because one cannot prove a negative. However, I do demonstrate why there is an overwhelming probability that he did not write the works that have come down to us under his name. If he wrote the plays and poems, he would have left behind a few scraps of evidence to show that he did it, as did the two dozen other writers I investigated.
It is regrettable that Prof. Wells characterizes my book as an attempt to “destroy the Shakespearian case.” My book is an attempt to revisit the evidence and to reconstruct Shakespeare’s biography based on the evidence. Finally, I do not claim that my biography is “definitive.” But I think it is a step in the right direction.