Are Shakespeare Deniers Like Climate Science Deniers?

To see or not to see, that is the question about the new conspiracy movie Anonymous that asserts William Shakespeare did not write the plays attributed to him.  As a NY Times magazine piece by Stephen Marche puts it:

“Was Shakespeare a fraud?” That’s the question the promotional machinery for Roland Emmerich’s new film, “Anonymous,” wants to usher out of the tiny enclosure of fringe academic conferences into the wider pastures of a Hollywood audience. Shakespeare is finally getting the Oliver Stone/“Da Vinci Code” treatment, with a lurid conspiratorial melodrama involving incest in royal bedchambers, a vapidly simplistic version of court intrigue, nifty costumes and historically inaccurate nonsense. First they came for the Kennedy scholars, and I did not speak out, because I was not a Kennedy scholar. Then they came for Opus Dei, and I did not speak out, because I was not a Catholic scholar. Now they have come for me.

Professors of Shakespeare — and I was one once upon a time — are blissfully unaware of the impending disaster that this film means for their professional lives. Thanks to “Anonymous,” undergraduates will be confidently asserting that Shakespeare wasn’t Shakespeare for the next 10 years at least, and profs will have to waste countless hours explaining the obvious. “Anonymous” subscribes to the Oxfordian theory of authorship, the contention that Edward de Vere, the 17th earl of Oxford, wrote Shakespeare’s plays. Among Shakespeare scholars, the idea has roughly the same currency as the faked moon landing does among astronauts.

The good news is that “Anonymous” makes an extraordinarily poor case for the Oxfordian theory.

Yes, Shakespeare scholars, like climate scientists, must now suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune and decide whether or not to take arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing end them.

Readers know that I am a long time Shakespeare buff — see “William Shakespeare special: Why deniers out-debate smart talkers.”  Indeed, a quarter-century ago I even published a journal article on Hamlet, and I have an unpublished manuscript that explores how Shakespeare uses rhetoric and the figures of speech to communicate his meaning.  So I’m well aware of the snobbish myth that Shakespeare was supposedly too uneducated to have written so many diverse masterpieces.

That merely reflects a complete lack of understanding of basic grammar school education in Shakespeare’s day — where students were taught rhetoric, the figures of speech, and Latin poetry and grammar hour after hour after hour year after year.  That’s why they called it grammar school.  The book I am intending to publish next year on messaging devotes a page on this very subject, how Elizabethans like Shakespeare and the authors of the King James Bible came to their mastery of the English language.  Understanding how they did it is key to understanding how you can do it.

This new movie goes one step further and ascribes the plays to a person who simply could not have written them.  I haven’t seen it yet — I’m quite conflicted since I’m confident it will be as head exploding as your typical denier movie.  Marche actually makes a direct connection in his piece between Shakespeare deniers and climate science deniers.  But first he briefly explains why no serious Shakespeare scholar buys the Oxford theory:


… the liberties with facts in “Anonymous” become serious when they enter our conception of real history. In scholarship, chronology does matter. And the fatal weakness of the Oxfordian theory is chronological, a weakness that “Anonymous” never addresses: the brute fact that Edward de Vere died in 1604, while Shakespeare continued to write, several times with partners, until 1613. “Macbeth” and “The Tempest” were inspired by events posthumous to the Earl of Oxford: the gunpowder plot in 1605 and George Somers’s misadventure to Bermuda in 1609. How can anyone be inspired by events that happened after his death?So, enough. It is impossible that Edward de Vere wrote Shakespeare. Notice that I am not saying improbable; it is impossible. Better scholars than I will ever be have articulated the scale of the idiocy. Jonathan Bate in a single chapter of “The Genius of Shakespeare” annihilated the Oxfordian thesis. If you want to read the definitive treatment, there is James Shapiro’s more recent “Contested Will,” although that book is nearly as absurd as its subject, because using a brain like Shapiro’s on the authorship question is like bringing an F-22 to an alley knife fight, and he kind of knows it. He ties his argument into the larger question of art and its relationship to the artist’s life, but even so the whole business is evidently a waste of his vast talent.

Scientists don’t generally use the world “impossible” — though they do use “unequivocal” and “settled fact” — but then this guy was a Shakespeare professor.  He does draw compelling analogies between Shakespeare deniers and climate science deniers:

Besides, no argument could ever possibly sway the Oxfordian crowd. They are the prophets of truthiness. “It couldn’t have been Shakespeare,” they say. “How could a semiliterate country boy have composed works of such power?” Their snobbery is the surest sign of their ignorance. Many of the greatest English writers emerged from the middle or lower classes. Dickens worked in a shoe-polish factory as a child. Keats was attacked for belonging to the “cockney school.” Snobbery mingles with paranoia, particularly about the supposedly nefarious intrigues of Shakespeare professors to keep the identity secret. Let me assure everybody that Shakespeare professors are absolutely incapable of operating a conspiracy of any size whatsoever. They can’t agree on who gets which parking spot. That’s what they spend most of their time intriguing about.

Well, it’s certainly apparent that no argument and no fact can sway the hard-core disinformers — see Koch-Funded Berkeley Temperature Study Does “Confirm the Reality of Global Warming.”

And climate scientists are even less capable of operating a conspiracy than Shakespeare scholars.  After all, they’d need to enlist all the major science journals and every major science organization and every member government of the IPCC….

Marche himself notes:

The original Oxfordian, the aptly named J. Thomas Looney, who proposed the theory in 1920, believed that Shakespeare’s true identity remained a secret because, he said, “it has been left mainly in the hands of literary men.” In his rejection of expertise, at least, Looney was far ahead of his time. This same antielitism is haunting every large intellectual question today. We hear politicians opine on their theories about climate change and evolution as a way of displaying how little they know. When Rick Perry compared climate-change skeptics like himself to Galileo in a Republican debate, I dearly wished that the next question had been “Can you explain Galileo’s theory of falling bodies?” Of all the candidates with their various rejections of the scientific establishment, how many could name the fundamental laws of thermodynamics that students learn in high school? Healthy skepticism about elites has devolved into an absence of basic literacy.


The Shakespeare controversy, which emerged in the 19th century (at that time, theorists proposed that Francis Bacon was Shakespeare), was one of the origins of the willful ignorance and insidious false balance that is now rotting away our capacity to have meaningful discussions. The wider public, which has no reason to be familiar with questions of either Renaissance chronology or climate science, assumes that if there are arguments, there must be reasons for those arguments. Along with a right-wing antielitism, an unthinking left-wing open-mindedness and relativism have also given lunatic ideas soil to grow in. Our politeness has actually led us to believe that everybody deserves a say.

The problem is that not everybody does deserve a say. Just because an opinion exists does not mean that the opinion is worthy of respect. Some people deserve to be marginalized and excluded. There are many questions in this world over which rational people can have sensible confrontations: whether lower taxes stimulate or stagnate growth; whether abortion is immoral; whether the ’60s were an achievement or a disaster; whether the universe is motivated by a force for benevolence; whether the Fonz jumping on water skis over a shark was cool or lame. Whether Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare is not one of these questions.

Unfortunately, the nonquestion of Shakespeare’s identity is now being asked on billboards all over the world. It will raise debate where none should be. It will sow confusion where there is none. Somebody here is a fraud, but it isn’t Shakespeare.


Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.  Oh, wait.  That’s just Bjorn Lomborg….

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19 Responses to Are Shakespeare Deniers Like Climate Science Deniers?

  1. “Macbeth” and “The Tempest” were inspired by events posthumous to the Earl of Oxford: the gunpowder plot in 1605 and George Somers’s misadventure to Bermuda in 1609. How can anyone be inspired by events that happened after his death? So, enough. It is impossible that Edward de Vere wrote Shakespeare.

    As the fictitious Detective Danny Messer might say, “Boom.”

    Anyway, here’s what I think: Is there any way we can get the Tea Party, or Sarah Palin, or Rick Perry, or Herman Cain, to endorse this stupid movie? It’s not that far-fetched, seeing how the movie’ll play nicely to their “them leftist academics are wrong!” memetic meme.

    — frank

  2. Jeffrey Davis says:

    We have less documentary evidence about Chaucer For example, we have nothing but tradition that links the courtier Geoffrey Chaucer with the poet Geoffrey Chaucer.

    Mark Twain was once infatuated with the idea of another author, but eventually he abandoned it with the joke that Shakespeare’s plays were either written by Shakespeare or by someone else with the same name.

  3. Artful Dodger says:

    I hear ole Will didn’t believe in vaccinations, either! Heard it on Faux News!

  4. prokaryotes says:

    Impact wise Climate Deniers are worse then Holocaust Deniers.

  5. Anne van der Bom says:

    Yeah! Another conspiracy to believe in. That moonlandings/kennedy/climate change/9-11 stuff was getting pretty boring.

  6. Amanda Hurley says:

    Great article. Shakespeare denialism is, indeed, absurd. One of the denialists’ main arguments – that Shakespeare was too poorly educated to write the plays – was torpedoed as long ago as the 1940s, when T.W. Baldwin published “Small Latine and Less Greeke.” And yet this form of denialism persists, which is not a good sign as far as climate denialism is concerned.

  7. Wes Rolley says:

    “Once more into the breach, dear friends” It would seem that there is no limit to the perfidy of the denier cult.

    “The game’s afoot. Follow your spirit…”

    We must not lose this battle for want of trying.

  8. KAP says:

    The de Vere theory may be full of holes, but the Marlowe theory actually makes more sense. Marlowe was known to be a spy, and the “witnesses” to his (alleged) death in 1593 were fellow spies. He was under suspicion at the time and had good reason to fake his death. Marlowe’s memorial marker in Westminster gives his death year with a question mark.

    It’s interesting that playwright Tom Stoppard, in his screenplay to Shakespeare In Love, gives some credence to this theory: we see Marlowe outlining the plot of the play to a Shakespeare bogged down with writer’s block.

  9. Lionel A says:

    Not another one like ‘Expelled’ and ‘Spoiled’ with the devious hand of Mark Mathis behind is it? Maybe Ben Stein is in the mix too.

  10. Joan Savage says:

    I’d be curious to see if a Shakespeare denier could demonstrate competency in the standard fare of an Elizabethan grammar school, “Lily’s Grammar as the basic text, with Plautus, Terence, and Seneca as classical sources.”

    If we could have a curriculum as rigorous for common knowledge of science as the Elizabethans had for common knowledge of rhetoric, that would be a plus at present.

  11. Yorick says:

    We have more evidence for Shakespeare being alive and writing than we have for any denier’s fantasy. The problem was one of class: later figures did not believe Shakespeare who was a commoner could have written what he did ergo someone else did.

  12. Much more intellectual honesty, moral courage and humane action is needed. We are about to become a species of 7 billion overconsumers, overproducers and overpopulaters on a finite and frangible planet where its resources are dissipating and environs degrading rapidly.

    During my lifetime, when human numbers explode from less than 3 bn to 7+ bn worldwide, many experts may not have known enough about what they were talking about when they spoke of human population dynamics and all causes of the human overpopulation of Earth. Their research appears not to be scientific, but rather issues from ideological or totalitarian thinking, or from specious group-think consensus. Their all-too-attractive thinking, as viewed by greedmongers, is willfully derived from what is politically convenient, economically expedient, socially agreeable, religiously tolerable and culturally prescribed. Widely broadcast and long-accepted thinking of a surprisingly large number of so-called experts in the field of population dynamics appears to have an unscientific foundation and is likely wrong. Their preternatural theorizing about the population dynamics of the human species appears to be both incomplete and misleading. Most disturbing of all, a widely shared and consensually validated theory about a “demographic transition” four decades from now is directly contradicted by unchallenged scientific research. As a consequence, and it is a pernicious consequence, a woefully inadequate thinking and fundamentally flawed theory was broadcast during my lifetime and continues to be broadcast everywhere by the mainstream media as if it is not only science but the best available scientific evidence. The implications of this unfortunate behavior, inasmuch as it appears to be based upon a colossal misperception of what could somehow be real regarding the human population, appear profound. This failure of nerve has slowed the momentum needed to confront a formidable, human-driven global predicament.

    In their elective mutism regarding an astonishing error, are first class professional researchers with expertise in population dynamics behaving badly by allowing the “ninety-nine percenters” to be misguided and led down a primrose path by the “one percenters”? The power of silence on the part of knowledgeable human beings with feet of clay is dangerous because research is being denied that appears to shed light upon a dark, non-recursive biological problem, the understanding of which appears vital to future human well being and environmental health. Too many experts appear to be ignoring science regarding the human population and instead consciously through their silence consenting to the leviathan scale and unbridled expansion of global overproduction, overconsumption and overpopulation activities that are being adamantly advocated and relentlessly pursued by greedmongering masters of the universe, the tiny minority among us who are primarily responsible for ravaging the Earth, ruining its environs and reducing its fitness for habitation by the children. If this assessment of human behavior is indeed a fair representation of what is happening on our watch, then the desire to preserve the status quo, mainly the selfish interests of ‘the powers that be’, could be at least one basis for so much intellectually dishonest and morally bereft behavior. Could it be that the outrageous per capita overconsumption, large-scale corporate overproduction and unrestricted overpopulation activities of the human species worldwide cannot continue much longer on a planet with the size, composition and ecology of a finite and frangible planet like Earth?

    For human beings to count human population numbers is simple, really simple. The population dynamics of human beings with feet of clay are obvious and fully comprehensible. We have allowed ourselves to be dazzled by the BS of too many demographers just the way human beings have been deceived and victimized by a multitude of economists on Wall Street. Demographers and economists are not scientists. ‘The brightest and the best’ have sold their souls to greedmongers, duped the rest of us, made it difficult to see what is real, proclaimed what is known to be knowable as unknowable, engaged in the their own brands of alchemy. In their dishonest and duplicitous efforts to please the self-proclaimed masters of the universe, also known as the keepers of the ‘golden calf’ (a symbol now easily visible as the “raging bull” on Wall Street), they perpetrate frauds at everyone else’s expense, threaten the children’s future, put life as we know it at risk, and are consciously, deliberately, actively precipitating the destruction of Earth as a fit place for human habitation. Never in the course of human events have so few taken so much from so many and left so little for others.

    There are many too many overly educated “wise guys” among us who see the blessed world we inhabit through the lens of their own hubris and selfishness, and see themselves somehow as Homo sapiens sapiens and masters of the universe, as corporate kings and emperor’s with clothes. They supposedly are the brightest and best, the smartest guys in the room, like the guy who used to run the global political economy without recognizing that there was an “ideological flaw” in his economic theories and models, the same guy who reported he could not name 5 guys smarter than himself. These are guys who have denied science, abjectly failed humanity, forsaken life as we know it, the Earth and God. These ideologues rule the world now and can best be characterized by their malignant narcissism, pathological arrogance, extreme foolishness, addiction to risk-taking and wanton greed.

  13. petronelle says:

    Thanks so much for publishing this Joe! I too am a Shakespeare devotee, and have followed the debate about the earl for some years. The deniers combine a hatred for the rules of evidence with an outrageous snobbery that continues to infuriate me. Is a new dark age coming? I’ve recently reread “A Canticle for Liebowitz”, published in the 80’s, which holds up very well. In the book, after a nuclear holocaust, most of the survivors react by killing all scientists and technicians, and destroying all scientific data, ushering a new dark age, where only a few monasteries keep and try to piece together (without understanding most of it) what scraps of data remain. It seems to me that we are seeing the beginning of a refusal to value evidence even before the inevitable losses of knowledge kick in as society reverts to a simpler, non-literate form.

  14. Tim says:

    Evolution and climate change deniers are still more intellectually dishonest than Shakespeare deniers – that is unless Shakespeare deniers deny that there are no plays and no sonnets. In order to be on the scale of evolution and climate deniers, you’d have to have a movie that questions whether there are any masterpieces of literature called Hamlet, McBeth, or The Merchant of Venice, not just whether someone named Shakespeare wrote them.

  15. Leif says:

    Einstein did not do well in school and was a young patten clerk, then changed current science forever more. No way! He must be a fraud.

  16. declan says:

    who cares? the works stand on their own. like them, loathe them, 99.99% written by him or not…

  17. Bill Woods says:

    Actually that’s another myth. As a student, Einstein did well in math and science, writing his first paper as a teenager. He did work as a patent clerk for a while in his early 20s, before getting his Ph.D.

  18. Thehaymarketbomber says:

    I’m afraid this is a misrepresentation of Mark Twain’s position.

  19. Thehaymarketbomber says:

    A few years ago Public Television broadcast a special on the “authorship question.” What astonished me about it was that the defender of the status quo, an English academic whose name I unfortunately forget, was quickly reduced to arguing that de Vere could not possibly have been the author because “a homosexual couldn’t have written the plays.”

    Not very convincing in light of what’s in the sonnets.