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Listen to the Engineers


The accelerator was humming along crashing protons at almost the speed of light into graphite and the energy of the collision was creating particles called pions out of thin air which were being directed to my polarized target so that I could pick up the results of the collisions and collect billions of data points and turn those data points into a handful of numbers and then get to call myself “doctor” because I’m such an amazing genius (aka counter of particles that go this way and that).

The amazing genius was tired when the night started and now it was 4 in the morning and the polarized target needed to be “flipped.” Giant electromagnets supercooled with liquid helium were making my target polarized. But now the magnetic coils had to be turned off and then turned back on again with the current switched from clockwise to counterclockwise. Then I could collect more billions of data points with the flipped target.

Even amazing geniuses can be electrocuted so it was important to shut down all the magnets before pulling the wooden handle down disconnecting the power and then pushing the wooden handle further down thereby reconnecting the power but with the current going the other way. So of course I shut down every magnet in the experiment just to be sure and then double-checked that they all read zero and then checked once more because I was bleary-eyed and today was NOT a good day to die.

Then I got my special key-that-ensures-safety and crossed to the other end of the accelerator building where I opened the special gate covering up the wooden handles that switched the high-voltage currents. The keys guaranteed that only I could access my magnets so no poor sap would accidentally grab a wooden handle attached to a “hot” magnet and flip it and get a huge spark (imagine the spark you get when you unplug your toaster while it’s toasting and then multiply by a few thousand and that gives you an idea). The key also meant that I couldn’t access a magnet not in my experiment and fry myself on someone else’s voltage.

So the amazing genius was doing great but when he opened the safety gate he found himself looking at two wooden handles as opposed to the one wooden handle he expected. Fortunately, the magnets were labeled but unforutunately the labels weren’t especially clear as to which magnet they referred to. Oh boy. Obviously the amazing genius needed to find a technician who could tell him which magnet was which so that the correct one could be flipped. But it was late and time was of the essence since collecting the most data in the shortest time is the fastest route to those three letters — give me a P, give me an h, give me D, give me a Ph.D. before I get too old to enjoy it.

You know what’s coming don’t you? You’ve seen this sort of thing before, haven’t you? Oh, yes. Not that you’ve ever done anything like what I was about to do (perish the thought) but you know what’s next because you know what people, especially amazing geniuses, are capable of.

It was time for some amazing not-very-rational rationalization. All of my magnets were definitely off so therefore I could conclude that the second magnet behind the gate that really shouldn’t have been there at all but really did seem to there anyway would have to be off too. The second magnet couldn’t possibly be someone else’s magnet because if it was it wouldn’t be behind MY gate accessible with MY key. So what if I wasn’t sure which was which. The magnet “must be” off.  I was certain and how could I, the soon-to-be-PhD, be wrong?

And even if it somehow wasn’t off, as long as I was careful to only touch the wooden part of the handle, then even if there was a giant “backflow” spark as thousands of volts were instantly reduced to zero (nature in general is not big on sudden changes and usually bites back ferociously when you forget that little fact), I probably wouldn’t die and besides . . . I knew my magnets were off and I knew the key system was foolproof and therefore, for all those good reasons, it wasn’t necessary to go to the trouble of findng a technician.

Technical types like me are very good at making brilliant “arguments.” But really there was no argument. I was looking at something I hadn’t expected and these were high voltage magnets. You don’t grab even wooden handles unless you know exactly what you are grabbing and what it is connected to and how much voltage is on it. The safe voltage is zero volts and the safe magnet is the one that is labeled properly.

You’ve heard of never-never-land right? Well I was in never-EVER-land. I mean what was I thinking? You don’t need a Ph.D. or any expertise or detailed knowledge of magnets and backflow voltages or classes in electricity or really any knowledge at all to know the difference between certainty and guesswork.

What I should have done — get a tech guy — was quite simple. What I did do — wishful thinking — was quite human.

I guessed which magnet was the one I wanted to reverse and pulled the wooden handle. Nothing happened. Aha! I was right. The magnet was off. Next, I pushed the handle down and reconnected the magnet with the current reversed. Again, nothing happened . . . sort of.

Nothing happened to the amazing genius but something was wrong with the accelerator. Lights that had been on a moment before were off and lights that were off were now on. The guts of a particle accelerator — filled with room-sized concrete blocks slowly disintegraing from the radiation they are absorbing — is never a pretty sight but now it looked kind of eerie because there had been a sudden change whose details I could not quite put my finger on. Lights that were off before were now on and lights that were on before were now off.

I looked around wondering if perhaps I had done something that wasn’t completely ideal. Eventually, I saw an annoyed-looking person in the distance. He was as tired as I was and he was slowing walking toward me. He didn’t say much except, “Would you mind putting that switch back the way it was?” I complied and then reversed the other magnet behind that gate which was the one I needed reversed for my experiment.

I had crashed the main proton beam and stopped everyone’s experiments cold. Apparently there was some sort of “just-in-case” safety relay on that particular magnet which prevented me from finding out what ten-thousand-volts-to-zero looks like up close. You may have heard “It’s better to be lucky than smart,” and I can attest. Only my ego was hurt.

I started to feel a little better the next day when one of the technicians who worked full time at the accelerator pulled me aside and said, “I’m glad you did what you did. I’ve been complaining about that relay for years. For one thing it’s mislabeled. And for another thing, it should have its own gate and its own key. What were they thinking when they set it up that way? Maybe now they’ll listen to me. Not all the relays are low-voltage you know. They need to be labeled properly and they need to be gated properly. Even now, I don’t think they’re going to listen to me. Nothing ever happens around here until someone dies.”

So much for feeling better.

I had convinced myself that I was analyzing the situation but really I was just a very smart person fooling himself. I had a preconceived notion — the system is foolproof. I held to my preconceived notion and got lucky. Yes, I’m a fool, but no I’m not so foolish as to think the system really was foolproof simply because one fool on one day lived to tell the tale. No system is foolproof. And if something doesn’t look right, all the rationalization in the world isn’t going to fix it.

I’m just one fool. Surely groups of people don’t behave this way. We would never launch a space shuttle when all of the engineers say heads it launches, tails it blows up. We would never execute a human being in the 21st century on the basis of faux experts effectively reading tea leaves and claiming certainty. And actual experts would never claim near-certainty when their credentialed colleagues not only point out the old theory has never made a correct prediction but also present a new, far superior theory.

But this happens all the time and is happening right now. I’m not talking about big new discoveries overturning previously useful paradigms — the classic Kuhnian paradigm shift that is part and parcel of doing rational science. This essay is about false paradigms. A false paradigm can be a matter wishful thinking, never a good idea. A false paradigm can be a flat out, self-serving, nonsensical lie, always wrong. A false paradigm can also be a perfectly reasonable guess, doubtful from the start, never proven, and then finally replaced by the correct theory but so deeply entrenched that most people hold to the original unproven wild guess for decades or longer.

In this essay, we will study ten false paradigms, six of which are now universally recognized as false paradigms and four of which are still “controversial” but are perfect examples of experts claiming certainty or near-certainty when their own colleagues have pointed out that the old theory is probably wrong. In these four cases, a minority of credentialed professionals make a good case for their side of the story, but it is not these minority arguments that are so convincing. What is convincing is the response of the majority of “experts” who openly abandon evidence-based reasoning and cling bizarrely to an old theory as long as there is even a tiny possibility that this old theory might still be “saved” but still declare absolute certainty sometimes to the point of preventing their colleagues from publishing contrary ideas. It is truly stunning and definitely worth more of a treatment than I can give it here.

Again, we are not talking about Kuhnian paradigms. These are not understandable misunderstandings about a mysterious universe. A false paradigm is utter nonsense. A false paradigm is launching the space shuttle when every engineer says not to, explains why you shouldn’t launch, begs you not to launch, draws you pictures showing you why the shuttle is going to blow up, and refuses to sign any document that says anything about the shuttle being safe. A false paradigm is killing seven astronauts and then chiding the investigating committee for being “Monday morning quarterbacks” (yes, really).

A false paradigm is refusing to abandon a medical procedure that is clearly killing hundreds or thousands of people. A false paradigm is looking the other way when a legal system doesn’t work. A false paradigm is falling in love with ideas about the universe, the solar system, human evolution, and history that were never more than guesses and that have been proven wrong and propping up these ideas with nothing more substantial than a system that worships authority over reality.

For the false paradigms that are still technically controversial, this essay does not attempt to “make the case” for the minority viewpoint. That can only be done by experts publishing in journals with nonpartisan editors acting as referees. These four false paradigms involve scientific disputes in which the minority viewpoint is so far superior to the old theory that only authority-based, pride-based nonsensical “reasoning” can argue that there is more than a tiny chance of “saving” the old theory. It makes no difference whether the minority viewpoint turns out to be right in these cases: what matters is the observation that our intellectual system is mired in a quicksand that far exceeds the resistance to ordinary “paradigm shift” discussed by Kuhn.

Paradigms will always come and go as we humans learn more and more, but false paradigms, I hope to show, are things we can banish forever if we play our cards right. The point of this essay is not to sketch out a solution, however but merely to show that false paradigms are far more common than almost anyone believes and scholars are far more likely to be nakedly political than they are given credit for even by someone who is pretty cynical.

Before I go any further, I want to make clear what this essay is NOT about. I do not claim that experts are usually wrong, just the opposite: experts and authorities are usually right. They have the knowledge and the expertise to be right and, in the absence of a false paradigm, are a linchpin of our quest to make the world a better place.

Of course, any theory based on ordinary paradigms and embraced by experts may someday be superceded in an ordinary paradigm shift, but even though this is bound to happen, it isn’t sensible to call a theory that will someday be set aside “wrong.” Of course, even the most carefully tested theory, a theory which makes enormous numbers of correct predictions is limited.

Relativity is a good example of an extremely powerful theory. I’m an expert on relativity and I know the theory is as “right” as a theory can be even if someday someone figures out how to fold space or jump into hyperspace and even if they someday do something I currently regard as “impossible.” Even if that happens one day (it seems unlikely to happen in my lifetime), that won’t mean there was something “wrong” with relativity — it, like everything else, is a paradigm and therefore subject to paradigm shift. Thus, using the terminology of this essay I would say relativity is based on a paradigm but or even is itself a paradigm but it is not a false paradigm because it actually does work.

One day not too long ago, some scientists said they were seeing neutrinos in their particle accelerator traveling faster than the speed of light. The author of this essay who is a relativity expert of course regarded the superluminal neutrinos as tremendously unlikely, almost not worth considering because relativity says the universe has a speed limit (short of folding space and hyperspace and other speculations).

I know what it’s like in the bowels of a particle accelerator so I said to my wife when she read me the article about the neutrinos, “It’s probably a loose wire.” Working on my experiment, brought up to be a proud American male, a loose wire once reduced me to tears in public so that would be my automatic reaction and I knew the researchers would have looked for loose wires but I also knew how sneaky loose wires could be when one is using high-speed electronics.

Guess what? The not-so-manly expert was right. Again. Not only were the neutrinos traveling at just under the speed of light, as has to be the case for all matter as far as we can tell right now, but it was in fact a loose wire that embarrassed the physicists who thought they might be seeing something dramatic (and dramatically unlikely in my expert view).

Again, relativity will be pushed aside someday (probably for something even crazier) but it is an extremely powerful and well-tested theory, just the opposite of a false paradigm. False paradigms are guesses and wishful thinking bolstered by the well-known bizarre and overly reverent worship of authority that nature built into our firmware treating us no differently from the other members of our primate order.

In case you haven’t read Kuhn’s somewhat turgid treatise on paradigm shifts, I will quote him a bit here to provide context and to help make the difference between Kuhn’s paradigm shift and the present essay’s false paradigm as clear as possible.

Kuhn had a very clear idea about the limitations of experts. Here’s how he described most research in pretty much any field:

“. . . a strenuous and devoted attempt to force nature into the conceptual boxes supplied by professional education.

In other words, you and your fellow professionals create a comfortable paradigm and then try to fit everything into it.

Kuhn tells us that scientists and researchers typically don’t even try to make new discoveries while pursuing what he calls “normal science.”

No part of the aim of normal science is to call forth new sorts of phenomena; indeed those that will not fit in the box are often not seen at all. Nor do scientists normally aim to invent new theories and they are often intolerant of those invented by others.

The most striking feature of . . . normal research problems . . . is how little they aim to produce major novelties, conceptual or phenomenal.

Kuhn is aware of the limitations imposed when experts commit to what he often calls a “rigid” paradigm but is also aware that the paradigm, for all its rigidity, is a model of efficiency.

In the interim [between revolutions], however, during the period when the paradigm is successful, the profession will have solved problems that its members could scarcely have imagined and would never have undertaken without commitment to the [rigid] paradigm.”

So the good news is you don’t want your researchers riding off in every direction at once: paradigms make sure everyone stays on task. The bad news is scientists don’t spend much time looking for breakthroughs:

“Mopping up operations are what engage most scientists throughout their careers.”

Get more decimal places and don’t be too creative. That’s the message scientists (and other scholars) get and it works well enough, Kuhn says, even if sometimes it is necessary to wait for old scientists to die before progress can be made.

So Kuhn did consider the resistance to paradigm shift as a negative-but-perhaps-unavoidable side effect of how science is done. His discussion of paradigms, by the way, was not meant to imply that truth is relative or that all science will eventually turn out to be wrong. He simply meant that the way we see things now is merely the best we can do at the moment and will naturally seem quaint, outdated, and/or simplistic in the future because in the future, especially in the distant future, our knowledge of ourselves, our world, and the universe will be far beyond what anyone can today imagine.

But here’s the problem from my point of view. Kuhn didn’t discuss false paradigms. False paradigms have a lot in common with Kuhnian paradigms: both are hard to dislodge. A false paradigm, like a Kuhnian paradigm, is a generally accepted “box” into which reality is pressed. But false paradigms, unlike Kuhnian paradigms are NOT useful. A false paradigm does NOT produce wondrous efficiency. A false paradigm is NOT the best that can be done at the time.

False paradigms actually impede progress. Some false paradigms kill. Of course, everything that isn’t perfect kills someone at some point. But, I hope to show here, false paradigm kill without rhyme or reason; false paradigms kill people who should not have died. And even if a false paradigm doesn’t kill, it numbs. The four false paradigms dicussed in the second half of this essay won’t kill anyone, but they do prevent thoughtful discourse and they do represent the danger of authority acting as thought police even here in the United States in our wonderful colleges and universities.

Kuhn focused on fundamental scientific knowledge like “the world is made of atoms” and, with that focus, his optimistic take on the effect of “restrictions, born from confidence in a paradigm” makes perfect sense. However, if we step back a bit and look at what happens when the experts’ “confidence in a paradigm” is actually arrogant blindness, if we examine the creation and maintenance of false paradigms, this darker side Kuhn didn’t wish to take on emerges.

The main goal of this essay is to demonstrate the pervasiveness of false paradigms. A secondary goal is to explore commonalities in false paradigms, commonalities that (perhaps after refinement by others) allow even non-experts in a given field to nevertheless identifty false paradigms in that field.

When credentialed experts challenge a long accepted, probably wrong theory, what I call the “four horsemen” seem to appear pretty regularly as the system fights back in a way that betrays the desperation of experts who are embarrassed by their own theory but who can’t let go of it. What was a theory has now become a preconceived notion not to be challenged on pain of the “four horsemen” running roughshod over the challengers. Often a relatively small number of experts who claim to speak for the majority of their colleagues don’t actually speak for these colleagues but have merely cowed them into submission.

The “four horsemen” as I currently think of them may be described as follows:

  • Insults: Experts who dare challenge the preconceived notion are silly snobby know-nothings who want attention.
  • Possibility=Certainty: The old theory has always been thought correct and may still be and therefore is.
  • Utter Nonsense: We have made and continue to make demonstrably false statements and will continue to do so as long as it helps our cause.
  • Imperfect=Wrong: We only accept new theories if they are perfect; no theory is perfect; therefore, your theory is wrong.

To get us started, here is a sort of zeroth example of a false paradigm from physics, specifically big bang cosmology aka the study of the beginning of the universe.

The big bang as far as we know was about fourteen billion years ago. The “big bang” was accompanied, supposedly, by a surging expansion of time and space called “inflation.” It is this amazing “inflation” that explains why the universe is so uniform now. The rapid expansion period smoothed things out way back when.

Another way to explain the smoothness we see now goes like this: maybe the speed of light isn’t the constant physicists usually think of it as. If the speed of light was faster at the time of the big bang that would also “smooth out” the universe as seen today. The detailed theory in which the value of a physical constant can evolve along with the universe itself was called by its originators VSL for “variable speed of light.”

Inflation came first and no theory has ever imagined changing values for physical constants. VSL was rejected for no reason. The “four horsemen” showed up.

  • Insults: VSL really stands for “very silly” and the idea is “unprofessional.”
  • Possibility=Certainty: Inflation might be correct and therefore it is. And constants might be constant forever and therefore they are.
  • Utter Nonsense: The numerical value of the speed of light depends on the units you use; therefore, talking about the speed of light changing is meaningless.
  • Imperfect=Wrong: The editor of one of the most prestigious scientific journals in the world said that VSL had to be proven before it could be published.

The four horsemen of VSL are documented in Faster Than the Speed of Light written by a physicist whose stubbornness may one day be the stuff of legend and whose efforts caused VSL to be delayed by only ten years as opposed to a couple of centuries. The author, employing profanity where appropriate, documents his battle with his fellow physicists who apparently regard thinking outside the box as a mortal sin. The book also gives a pretty accessible tutorial on cosmology and relativity.

The author is actually forgiving about some of the nonsense he had to deal with. He excused the bit about the arbitrariness of units implying the speed of light can’t change as merely absurdly nitpicky and he even went through how he explained the “problem” to the journal editor who brought it up. This journal editor was quite reasonable compared to some of his other colleagues some of whom offered nothing but “gibberish” while others “behaved as if they were bitten by a rabid dog.”

Dr. Stubborn won his battle: VSL is now a vibrant subfield of cosmology. Inflation is also still considered a viable theory but the idea that it is the only possible answer has been dropped. Thus, an amazing thing has happened. (Sarcasm warning.) Cosmologists who speculate about the condition of the universe at its birth fourteen billion years ago no longer regard their theories as certainties.

That’s a bit strong — cosmologists know their field is highly speculative. And yet, even though they know this, they still blocked the first person who proposed VSL because he dared think outside the box. That person gave up on the theory when his colleagues blocked him and that’s why there was (at least) a delay of ten years before Dr. Stubborn came along with a different version of the same idea and forced it through the thick skulls of highly moral cosmologists who evidently draw the line at original thought.

And so now we come to our case studies, the ten false paradigms, six resolved and four ongoing. A lot of lives were lost because of these first six: the stories aren’t pretty. The four unresolved false paradigms have not killed anyone but they maintain a death grip around the throat of the whole idea of rational discourse. As of 2022, all four “official” theories have been disputed by credentialed experts. In all four cases, the majority has offered its version of the situation and in all four cases all we get are the four horsemen.

In one of the four cases, a monumental discovery — perhaps the most earth-shattering in human history — may have been made. All of the scientists who have studied it agree on what they’ve seen and they agree it is not just completely unexpected but can be described without hyperbole as shocking. But there remains a great deal of uncertainty about the discovery because the data, even though quite clear, is nevertheless meager. It is always dangerous to conclude too much from a single data point no matter how amazing the discovery. While the majority of scientists cast about wildly for conventional explanations and have made up exotic idea after exotic idea to explain the data they didn’t expect, a few scientists quietly note that the discovery might actually be exactly what it looks like and these scientists, though they have been allowed to publish, have been ignored or scoffed at by their less brave colleagues.

In another of the four cases, an old theory that has never made a single correct prediction has long since been provably nonsense and the new theory, a much simpler idea suggested by a minority of experts, explains new things we are seeing, fits beautifully all the old data we have, and tells us something extremely important for humanity’s future. The extraordinary superiority of the new theory over the old (like the periodic table of elements as against earth, air, fire, and water) means nothing because the old theory became entrenced over centuries and cannot be dislodged. The new theory is considered “silly” by the mainstream but has been pretty much proven. There is always some chance that any theory, even one as useless as this, might still be correct, but the chance is almost so small it isn’t worth considering.

One of the four new theories was proposed almost one hundred years ago and is far from proven but is clearly the best theory available to explain a mystery that continues to baffle not just scientists but basically every human on earth. It’s a fascinating question and a fascinating possible answer that has basically been shoved under the carpet by scientists who act like they are embarrassed that they didn’t think of it themselves but continue to block their colleagues who embrace the better idea. The theory is obvious once laid out: when I first heard it, it made me mad because I couldn’t understand why this wasn’t the leading theory.

The fourth idea has been successfully tarred and feathered as nonsense by a majority of scholars who have spent more time on propaganda than they have studying the question. At this point, the professionals who are pretty sure that the old theory is wrong have simply had to move on as they wait for the old guard to die. This “old guard” continue to strenuously argue their case but their arguments are the most convincing thing there is that they are wrong. Major institutions have quietly begun to accept the fact that the old theory — an understandable mistake — seems to be crumbling, but it’s a painfully slow process. There is actually some evidence for the old theory and so it cannot be entirely dismissed, but the evidence is weak and the evidence for the new theory is incomparably stronger. If the “old guard” allowed their professional colleagues (a minority) to publish in the mainstream journals, the old theory would likely disappear quite quickly.

But first, let’s look at six resolved cases just so we can get used to how bad bad gets. I claim that no matter how cynical you are, the truth is worse than you think but I’d love to meet (in a public place) a reader who is so cynical that they aren’t surprised by what comes next in this story. (BTW, when I say “surprised” here I mean like the feeling you had when the wife in The Shining looks at the stack of paper her husband has been typing for weeks.)

The Touchstone of Rationality

On a cold day in January 1986, five engineers made a mistake.

The top engineers at Morton Thiokol knew the space shuttle’s systems better than anyone. They knew the o-ring system had never worked as designed. The engineers on the “O-ring Task Force” knew the only way to fix the problem was a complete redesign (this was eventually done) but that would have cost two years of shuttle downtime. So the O-ring Task Force monitored the issue.

Many launches took place with the imperfect system. It wasn’t safe but then no one ever said space flight was like driving to the grocery store. During the launch, two o-rings kept combustible gases from mixing inside the engine. If they were ever to fail simultaneously, the shuttle would explode. One of the o-rings (the primary) had already failed twice but the secondary o-ring had never failed so the shuttle kept flying.

On that cold day in January 1986, five engineers took one look at the historic weather forecast (mid-twenties fahrenheit — unheard-of in south Florida even in January) and knew the mission had to be delayed. O-rings get bricklike at twenty degrees. They told their bosses and the no-launch recommendation was sent to NASA.

A launch above seventy degrees had a problem with an o-ring. Some colder launches in the sixties had no problem at all. But one launch in the low fifties had a full-on failure of the primary o-ring. The secondary held and in that instance and the shuttle launched successfully but that launch really worried the engineers. Below fifty degrees seemed like trouble. The engines were rated down to forty degrees but that seemed too optimistic given the failure at fifty-three degrees. In any case, launching below the freezing point of water would obviously be insane so the decision to delay the launch was easy.

NASA typically delayed launches if there was any issue at all. The engineers were used to having to go over every potential with data to back up all statements and then NASA would say, “But are you absolutely sure it’s safe? Do all engineers on the team concur with your analysis? Let’s go over this again.”

But on that cold January day in 1986, everything was turned upside down. When the engineers made their presentation with all the data and the no-launch recommendation, the NASA administrator produced an argument that the engineers were being over-cautious! Not only that, but the four managers at Morton Thiokol (who outrank the engineers) bought the “argument” (it was just nonsense) of the NASA administrator. The managers at Morton Thiokol “uncancelled” the launch. A few hours later the engines were ignited in the bitter cold as the engineers watched with their palms drenched in sweat.

The discussion with NASA had been a nightmare. The (smart, experienced) NASA administrator talked nonsense and even shouted insults. He (correctly) noted that the engineers didn’t have perfect data about the behavior of the o-rings. The possibility that the secondary o-ring would hold he treated as a certainty. Finally, he used the fact that the engineers had a lot of detail to talk about as a way to make it seem like there was something to discuss when really the whole thing was clear as day from the beginning: no one knew if the o-rings would hold at twenty degrees.

I call these four debating techniques “the four horsemen” — talk nonsense and see if any of it sticks; demand perfection of any evidence you don’t like; create a plausible scenario and turn that scenario in a certainty; use details to obscure the fact that you are wedded to a preconceived notion. The four horsemen regularly run roughshod over rationality as they did on that day in January.

If only the five engineers had known what they were dealing with, they might have framed the discussion in a way that would protect against the four horsemen. “We can’t launch tomorrow. We will be happy to discuss the details but we want to know first and foremost that we all agree that we can’t risk the lives of seven people on wishful thinking. We don’t know if the shuttle can launch safely at these temperatures. Therefore we can’t launch.”

But they didn’t know and their rationality ended up buried beneath a mountain of unearned confidence, false certainty, cynical self-interest, mindless debating tactics, immovable preconceived notions, and stark redefinitions of logic itself.

The dialog below is based on conversations involving five engineers who worked for Morton Thiokol, one NASA administrator, and four Morton Thiokol manager/bosses. It’s completely insane, FAR crazier than anything I could ever make up. It’s all documented in a book written by one of the engineers called “Truth, Lies, and O-Rings” and in televised hearings of the presidential commission still available online.

ENGINEERS: We can’t launch tomorrow. The o-rings get bricklike at these temperatures.

NASA: Temperature has never been an issue before! This is appalling. My God! Do you want us to wait until April?

ENGINEERS: The coldest previous launch was fifty-three degrees and the primary o-ring failed completely. We don’t think it’s safe to go below that temperature.

NASA: But you don’t know that temperature is even the problem! Launches in the sixties had no problems and then there was a launch in the seventies that had a problem so it might not be temperature at all.

ENGINEERS: We don’t have proof but we know the o-rings become less resilient at low temperatures and we know the primary o-ring can fail at any temperature because of the design flaw in the o-ring system and we know the worst failure was at the lowest temperature. We also know the engine isn’t rated below forty degrees so why are we even talking about launching?

NASA: We’re talking about launching because you are making non-quantitative statements about the connection between o-ring failure and temperature. Your data is inconclusive. On top of that, you have an inconsistent recommendation — sometimes you say fifty-three degrees and sometimes you say forty degrees. Non-quantitative, inconclusive, and inconsistent: that’s what you’ve got.

ENGINEERS: Look, if the shuttle explodes, do you really want to talk to an investigating commission about non-quantitative, inconclusive, and inconsistent?

NASA: Yes, I would be happy to do that. And I would simply tell them it isn’t logical to cancel a launch when the engineers can’t decide between fifty-three degrees and forty degrees which you can’t seem to do.

(The commission members in real life looked shocked at the new definition of “logic” they were presented with at the hearings; somehow the NASA guy kept a straight face the whole time.)

ENGINEERS: But if we launch at these temperatures we are basically guaranteeing failure of the primary o-ring and so we will have to rely on the secondary o-ring exclusively.

NASA: Exactly. And the secondary o-ring has never failed. If it does fail and if the shuttle explodes, I will tell the investigating commission that you engineers said the secondary o-ring would work and that’s why we launched. Maybe they’ll blame you.

(The NASA administrator actually did try this at the hearings but Dr. Sally Ride and the other commission members saw right through it.)

ENGINEERS: But we’re saying that if we are going to launch we will be relying on the secondary o-ring. That’s not at all the same as saying we should launch.

NASA: That doesn’t matter. You said what you said and I’m prepared to spin it any way I want should it become necessary. Now I need to know what the big bosses at Morton Thiokol think about all of this. We need your approval to launch and I know you want to make me happy because I get to decide where billions of dollars of government money gets spent.

(The NASA guy never actually said anything overt about billions of dollars; nevertheless, it seemed clear that Morton Thiokol was desperate to please NASA.)

BOSSES: Well, we all have to take off our engineering hats and put on our management hats now, don’t we?

(The “hat statement” is real and was discussed at the hearings.)

ENGINEERS: Look, let us draw you a quick diagram here with the o-rings to show you what happens if they both fail.

BOSSES: No need, we’ve seen all that.

ENGINEERS: But what will you say to a commission if the o-rings fail and the shuttle explodes?

BOSSES: We’ll just say they are being “Monday morning quarterbacks.” Accidents happen.

(Needless to say, I could never have made up the “Monday morning quarterback” comment which was made on live television.)

ENGINEERS: But you’re reversing the usual standard of proof for shuttle missions. Why are you doing that?

BOSSES: We just are. And if we’re ever questioned about it we’ll just say it was an honest mistake.

ENGINEERS: But there are seven human beings on the shuttle. If they could hear this conversation, they would refuse to launch.

(I’m sure the astronauts would have vetoed the launch had they been privy to the conversation but they weren’t and this comment was NOT made during the discussions though it should have been. On a commercial airliner in the U.S., the pilot always has final say when a decision has to be made about the safe or unsafe condition of an aircraft about to fly.)

BOSSES: Yes, well, if there is an accident we will have to cover up the fact that the launch was cancelled at first. We’ll hire lawyers to help us if it comes to that.

(The engineers refused to follow the instructions of the company lawyers and told the truth in dramatic fashion during a particularly emotional part of the early hearings. Dr. Ride hugged a couple of the engineers after that particular hearing and thanked them for their honesty.)

ENGINEERS: So you’re launching no matter what we say.

BOSSES: It’s no longer your responsibility.

NASA: Under the circumstances, we’re going to need a signature from someone at Morton Thiokol and a clear recommendation that it is safe to launch.

ENGINEERS: But you’ve never needed this type of documentation before!

NASA: Well, we need it now.

ENGINEERS: We’re not signing anything!

BOSSES: No problem, one of us will sign a document and fax it over to you.

NASA: Great. Everything is going to be fine.

But it wasn’t fine. There was very little wind so the cryogenic gases vented from the liquid oxygen fuel tank settled around the right side of the shuttle cooling the o-rings on that side all the way down to ten degrees. They might actually have held at twenty degrees but the cryogenic gases were the last straw. Chista McAuliffe’s high school students were watching on live television. The shuttle launch seemed successful at first and the engineers with the sweaty palms and the sleepless night breathed huge sighs of relief. But then, a little more than a minute into the launch with the rocket already moving at high speed, the o-rings on the right side of the shuttle gave way.

The explosion destroyed most of the shuttle and sent the cockpit, still intact, arcing into the Atlantic Ocean at 200 mph. Christa McAuliffe, the first civilian in space, and the six professional astronauts were crushed by the impact. They died instantly. Wishful thinking killed them. The four horsemen killed them. Irrationality killed them. A false paradigm killed them.

The shuttle was not safe just because authorities said it was.

The five engineers spent the rest of their lives feeling various levels of guilt that ranged from painful to crippling. Naturally, they couldn’t help asking themselves what more they could have done. They knew it wasn’t safe to launch. They could have thrown things. They could have made threats. They could have called the newspapers. They could have called the president of the United States for that matter (or tried to, anyway).

But short of taking exceptionally strong measures, the engineers did try to protect the shuttle crew — they tried to reason with their colleagues. They just didn’t realize that you can’t stop the four horsemen with facts, data, logic, analysis, or discussion.

After the disaster, the engineers re-designed the o-ring system so that it wouldn’t fail even if half the parts were broken. Now the bosses (who were still angry that their cover-up had failed and were still taking it out on the engineers who told the truth at the hearings) decided to overdo the safety thing. They again were not being rational but at least overdoing safety won’t kill anyone so we can say that for them. Anyway, the bosses now directed the engineers to test the new system under absurdly bad conditions that would never happen in a real launch.

The new o-ring system was tested with almost every part purposely damaged — a test nearly impossible to pass. Amazingly, it worked anyway: the engineers had designed a truly bulletproof system. Too bad the rest of the shuttle was NOT so overdesigned. Even worse, the culture issue that had killed Christa McAuliffe and the others was far from resolved. (I wish to note here that I used to be a teacher so McAuliffe’s death bothers me especially, but I do not mean to imply that her life was more important than the lives of the six professional astronauts who were also killed by irrationality and who also left loved ones behind.)

One design flaw had been fixed, but preventable death still awaited another seven astronauts.

Richard Feynman, the Nobel laureate physicist who had been part of the presidential commission had some very harsh things to say in an appendix to the commission’s final report — and his comments, we eventually discovered to our horror, were right on target.

It appears that, for whatever purpose — be it for internal or external consumption — the management of NASA exaggerates the reliability of its product to the point of fantasy.

Fantasy. Feynman backed up his rather strong claim with a lot of data and it was hard to argue with him given that he was looking at a vaporized space shuttle and seven dead bodies. Feynman went on to tell the country about “an almost incredible lack of communication between the managers and their working engineers.”

It seemed to most observers who didn’t know what Feynman knew that the problem was just that management, on this occasion, refused to listen to the engineers. But Feynman was saying it was much worse than that.

First of all, NASA had very good reason to suspect that flying in the shuttle even under the best of circumstances was quite dangerous but they studiously ignored their own engineers and the engineers who worked for the companies that built the shuttle’s components. Feynman said it was one thing for professional astronauts to take big risks but quite another thing for NASA administrators to delude themselves into thinking the shuttle was safe enough for a civilian to fly on when it clearly was not and when the engineers repeatedly said it was not.

Feynman regarded the fact that NASA’s “exaggerates of the reliability of its product” as deeply unethical and as an indication of a deep management-engineer divide.

Feynman also decried unrealistic flight schedules that cause undue pressure on everyone. Sloppy decision-making, he said, was virtually guaranteed to result from this kind of pressure.

For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled.   

No one listened to Feynman in 1986.

But everything he said was exactly right. As the years went on and as the shuttles kept launching, engineers and bosses at NASA gradually became more and more divided and the hierarchy became even more impenetrable. The decision-making that worried Feynman turned into what almost seemed like a real-life Shakespearean tragedy with big-shots acting like evil despots while all of the “little people” scurried around watching every word they said for fear of being ridiculed, demoted, or fired or all of the above.

By 2003, it was so bad that when the next space shuttle crew died, the engineers couldn’t even say they were ignored! To be ignored, you have to be in a room with a decision-maker. But this never happened! The engineers were effectively locked away from conversations with anyone who had any authority. It was as if they didn’t exist at all.

I know that sounds crazy but here’s what happened. The January 2003 launch was successful. But, during the launch, a piece of insulation broke off from the external tank and struck the shuttle wing. It was okay. The shuttle was safely in orbit just with a possibly damaged wing. The shuttle could launch and go into orbit just fine with a broken wing. The problem was the re-entry into the atmosphere at high speed when the wing would be subjected to huge forces.

It should have been okay. After all, NASA had a “Debris Assessment Team” on the job. Unfortunately, this team of talented, hard-working people had no authority. The Debris Assessment Team, we found out later, seemed to exist just for show.

The engineers on the Debris Assessment Team assumed they were not “just for show” so they did what they thought was their job: they requested air force satellites be redirected so that they could get close enough to take pictures of the space shuttle’s wing. With high-resolution photographs, the engineers reasoned that they would be able to properly assess the damage. As an added layer of protection, the Debris Assessment Team recommended a spacewalk so that the astronauts could get a hands-on look at the wing.

Once they had good information, the Debris Assessment Team and other NASA engineers would determine if the wing was (a) in good enough shape to withstand intense re-entry forces or (b) needed a repair that could be accomplished in space by the astronauts with the tools and materials they had on hand or (c) damaged beyond space-based repair in which case a rescue plan would have to be devised in order to save the astronauts.

In hindsight, we can say it is likely that the wing was damaged beyond repair — the seven astronauts on the Columbia were effectively marooned in space on a shuttle that was safe in orbit but that had zero chance of surviving re-entry. A rescue via a second shuttle would have been difficult because it takes time to prepare a shuttle for launch and there was only so much oxygen on the Columbia. But a rescue was by no means impossible. Of course, no rescue plan was ever put into practice because the Debris Assessment Team might as well have been ghosts, unseen and unheard.

I know, the reality of ghosts is far from certain. But the engineers really were ghosts in every sense of the word that matters. Yes, the engineers on the Debris Assessment Team ordered the satellite redirection and the photographs. But no, the photographs didn’t happen.

What did happen is a hyper-efficient administrator who prided herself on her hyper-efficiency blocked the photos. That is, the satellite pictures the engineers on the Debris Assessment Team had scheduled were summarily “unscheduled” (i.e., CANCELED) without anything approaching an extensive discussion. The administrator who canceled the pictures had no direct contact AT ALL with the Debris Assessment Team.

The ghosts on the Debris Assessment Team didn’t try to frighten anyone: they didn’t throw things or push anyone’s office door open or do anything spooky or extreme. When they found out their request for pictures had been blocked, they assumed the problem of the insulation striking the wing on takeoff and the possibly compromised re-entry were being dealt with by higher level people with higher security clearances who were not telling them what was going on: like the Bruce Willis character in Sixth Sense, they didn’t know they were ghosts.

It was not the case that the engineers didn’t know what was going on. It was the case that nothing was going on: no pictures, no spacewalk, no discussion. There was efficiency. There was box-checking. Re-entry will be safe? Check! Next question . . .

Everyone at NASA was existing in their little boxes, blissfully unaware of anything but their own worlds. Open communication was, as Feynman might have said, a fantasy.

Meanwhile, the crew of the Columbia floated weightless in the darkness of space and in the dark about their situation. As far as they knew, their mission had been an unqualified success. Soon they would be home with their loved ones. Re-entry seemed a little rougher than expected. The wing glowed red-hot. The shuttle slowed down in the intense atmospheric forces as it was supposed to. But when the wing tore away from the shuttle, the vehicle disintegrated. There would be no homecoming: all seven astronauts were incinerated.

Richard Feynman had given his warning. He wrote Appendix F to the report of the commission investigating the Challenger disaster. His colleagues on the commission didn’t want to state things quite so strongly as Feynman did but they did include his prescient comments as an appendix and for that we should be grateful. There’s was nothing complicated about what the Nobel laureate said but he said it skillfully and only said it after burying himself in the engineering data and analyses that supported the shuttle missions. He said what we all already know: A hierarchy topped by confident up-and-comers might impress people, but it can’t change reality.

We all understand this in our bone marrow. Someday, maybe, our society will reflect this understanding.

The Big Kahuna (teaser)

We will, soon enough, get to what I think is the most successful bit of propaganda ever produced by the mind of man. I call it the “big kahuna.” But first I want to provide a few more examples of the propaganda phenomenon in which otherwise intelligent people delude themselves and, often, all of us. Indeed, everyone, present company included, can be fooled.

When I was first exposed to the big kahuna I was surprised. I thought I had seen everything: surely it couldn’t be that bad; surely such a large number of intelligent people can’t delude themselves. And yet there it was. In hindsight, the big kahuna is nothing crazy like we never went to the Moon or the holocaust never happened or George Bush planned 9/11 or Hillary Clinton is doing bad things in a pizza place or anything like that though a lot of people (probably most people) do indeed put the big kahuna in the category of claims that can be immediately dismissed. In fact, I was one of those people so I got a little angry when I found out I had been fooled.

People who feel threatened by this particular issue — the propagandists — have expertly played the “we never went to the Moon” game to try to dissuade their professional colleagues from asking embarrassing questions. But these credentialed professionals — the engineers in this story — have made a compelling case that is becoming impossible to ignore and in fact, at this point, has made institutional inroads that signal the end of the propaganda.

The propagandists have tried counter-arguments, but, in so doing, they expose themselves. There is still a remote possibility that the propagandists will turn out to have been right all along and to this thin chance they cling with increasing desperation. It’s a beautiful, textbook case of irrationality with circular reasoning galore, barely plausible guesses presented as certainty, demands that all contrary evidence be perfect, and of course, the assumption that the old theory is so solid that it can’t even be questioned unless the (credentialed professional) questioner comes armed with absolute proof.

The big kahuna is truly beautiful as a textbook case AND it is a famous question that everyone has heard about. So when the bubble finally bursts, when reality finally defeats propaganda, there could be a huge impact. Maybe, just maybe, the explosion of the big kahuna (which will NOT involve anyone dying but may well involve a historically large number of people eating crow) will bring about a rennaissance of openmindedness. Or not. It could take a lot longer than I think. Mark Twain said it would take three hundred years for people to come to their senses. That was a hundred years ago. And yet I’m thinking/hoping we’re almost there. Anything is possible, right?

Childbed Fever, Ulcers, and Vaccines

I do know one thing: If I were a doctor in 1850 and my patients were dying again and again and one of my colleagues figured out how to keep them alive, I would not shun him.

A woman in Vienna circa 1850 was a whole lot better off giving birth at home than going to the hospital. The doctors at the hospital would regularly dissect cadavers and then deliver babies. They didn’t know enough to wash their hands and they didn’t wear gloves. For a woman in labor, having a Vienna doctor deliver a baby was like tossing three coins: if all three land heads, you die. No wonder so many women were staying home. But women still came to the hospital and the bodies began to pile up.

One day, one of the more concerned doctors noted that a colleague cut his hand during a cadaver dissection and continued with the dissection. That colleague then got sick and the illness looked exactly like childbed fever. He wasn’t a woman in labor. He hadn’t just given birth. But there he was with childbed fever. He died and a lightbulb went off in the head of our concerned doctor.

This one doctor started washing his hands and had everyone in his clinic do the same. The death rate from childbed fever for this doctor in this clinic went almost to zero. Of course, he immediately publicized his discovery: all those women didn’t have to be dying. All we have to do is wash our hands. There must some kind of “cadaverous particles” that are deadly if they get into a person’s bloodstream. He didn’t have a complete theory or a full explanation of what was going on. He had solid evidence but not perfect evidence. His fellow professionals in Vienna (ALL of them) reacted the way we humans seem to be good at reacting.

“What! You’re saying it’s our fault and you don’t even know exactly what is being transmitted from the cadavers to the women? How dare you accuse our illustrious profession of being dirty! We are not dirty. Childbirth is known to be dangerous. Where’s your proof?”

The familiar ring to these stories haunts me like the furies of Greek mythology.

The doctor was of course hounded out of his job and basically run out of town. He returned to his native Hungary, to Budapest. There he found work in a small hospital and there the one-time Vienna doctor was able to get everyone washing their hands. The fatality rate from childbed fever dropped and dropped and got very close to zero.

Our hero never knew exactly why hand washing was so important and he never convinced the mass of his colleagues and he died deeply disappointed and even miserable and a little crazy. But he was right. He was the engineer. He didn’t care about status. He cared about his patients.

It happened again a century later. Around 1950 one researcher decided ulcers (a huge health issue in those days) were caused by acid because bacteria, he discovered, couldn’t survive in the stomach. He was wrong but most everyone agreed at the time even though the evidence wasn’t terribly strong and a whole useless treatment regimen focusing on stomach acid was developed. This went on for decades even though some doctors were having success treating ulcers with antibiotics.

When a doctor in Australia finally cultured stomach bacteria in the early 1980’s, he was ignored. He had not only proven that bacteria could survive in the stomach, he had isolated the strain that caused ulcers. He knew how to get rid of this bacteria. He had the cure. No one listened to him. Maybe he was too enthusiastic about it. Maybe you have to be very serious and speak slowly in a deep voice in order to be taken seriously. This doctor didn’t do that.

In desperation, the Australian doctor used the bacteria he had cultured to give himself ulcers. His “stunt” didn’t work: his colleagues accused him of improper behavior and continued to focus on stomach acid. It took the Australian doctor ten years to convince a stubborn world that ulcers could easily be cured by antibiotics. During that time, my great uncle suffered from ulcers that led to the stomach cancer that ultimately killed him and thousands of others like him.

Given the tight grip that irrationality can have on our species, we can applaud the doctors for ONLY taking ten years to accept reality. In 2005, the doctor whose wife discovered him on his knees vomiting in his bathroom and whose wife couldn’t believe her ears when he told her he had infected himself, the doctor who risked his health and scared his wife half to death just to convince his mindless colleagues, the doctor who collided head-on with irrationality won the Nobel Prize.

Personally, I love eccentrics. I love out-of-the-box thinkers, mavericks. If you have an idiosyncratic idea, if you march to a tune the rest of us don’t hear, I want to hear what you have to say. I might not agree right away but so what? Show me I’m wrong. Convince me. I love being wrong.

There is no better learning experience than being wrong, no better way to grow, no greater opening of horizons than what happens for me when I’m wrong. I first realized this in high school. I was learning physics and I was sure that a bullet a fired horizontally in a flat field would stay in the air longer than a bullet dropped simultaneously from the same height. It just didn’t make sense that they would land at the same time. And then, with a little experience, a switch was flipped and I couldn’t even remember why I had previously thought that horizontal motion would somehow keep gravity from making the moving bullet fall as fast as the dropped bullet. I must have been crazy before — a bullet isn’t a frisbee, any fool can see that! How could I have ever seen it any other way?

That’s growth and I loved it and so I became a physicist.

Then again, boring old conventional wisdom isn’t always wrong. In fact, no matter how charming wild theories might be to my physicist’s eye, I have to admit that conventional wisdom is usually right. It would be bizarre to claim otherwise. And yet the “conventional wisdom is bound to be wrong” argument can be awfully compelling: it gets made all the time in the investment world to justify amazing new ways to absorb large amounts of money. “Conventional wisdom says it won’t work but people said blah (insert innovation) wouldn’t work and untold riches passed them by; don’t let this happen to you . . .” and so on and so forth.

Yes, one can point to a famous stodgy naysayer for every advance from light bulbs to cars to computers. But we would be rather foolish to take that to mean that every new thing succeeds. Take bitcoin. Is it the answer to national currencies controlled stupid or short-sighted or reactionary or corrupt government officials who again and again leads us headlong over economic cliffs? Some very smart people say that. One professional investor guy said a while back that a single 300-dollar bitcoin would be worth ten thousand dollars in three years and people laughed at him but he missed absolute perfection in his prognostication by just a few weeks. Not bad.

On the other hand, Warren Buffet scoffs at bitcoin no matter how high it goes. He won’t touch it. It has no value he says. Are bitcoin and other crypto-currrencies just ponzi schemes in which people buy in for one reason and one reason only — to sell it to someone willing to pay even more?

Warren Buffett thinks so. He made a lot of money buying stocks priced according to a short-term popularity contest and then holding them for long time knowing full well that in the long run the stock market is more like a scale than a popularity contest: products and services that people want and need and the ability to deliver those products and services is what counts in the end.

Bitcoin, Buffett says, is worthless. Even gold isn’t so great because most of it doesn’t get used — it has to be dug up and then buried again with a guard at the new burial site. Buffett doesn’t buy bitcoin or gold. He buys Apple. He may or may not lack vision, but right now he’s got all the money.

So yeah, the guy who said, “no one needs a computer in his house” was monstrously wrong. But, at the same time, a million other people had attractive ideas that went nowhere. So how do you know which is which? How do we judge bitcoin for example? I don’t know, actually. I’m not going to buy bitcoin but I wouldn’t bet against it either.

Sometimes it’s pretty clear. The space shuttle disaster, many deaths from childbed fever, and many deaths from ulcers could have been avoided with even tiny amounts of rationality, willingness to question authority, and/or humility.

Often we can determine if a question is legitimate by studying both sides. When a “question” is actually pretty one-sided (o-rings, handwashing, stomach bacteria) the counter-arguments are what give the propagandists away: the minute you see circular reasoning, plausibility turned into certainty, demands for perfect evidence, and clever uses of burden-of-proof or even reversals of appropriate burden of proof, you know who you’re dealing with.

Before we look at another piece of obvious propaganda, let’s have a look at a controversial arena in which the conventional wisdom is probably right or maybe mostly right.

When it comes to vaccines, I lean pretty strongly toward the conventional wisdom. But immune systems and immune reactions are really complicated and I don’t think any doctor or scientist would say we know everything about human immunity or all vaccines are always safe for everyone in both the short term and the long term or anything along the lines of absolute certainty. Overall, doctors seem to be right when they say vaccines have been, in general, beneficial.

But some people say we’re overdoing it.

I haven’t looked at the arguments made by some of the more thoughtful people who have doubts about vaccines. Maybe there’s something there. I just don’t know. I mostly trust the conventional wisdom and the majority of doctors and the institutions made up of those doctors. But even if some “anti-vax” studies have falsified data and even if some “anti-vax” people have said ridiculous things about vaccines, that doesn’t mean there is no issue at all. To be fair to the people with the concerns, we would have to look carefully at what the most reasonable ones say.

A long time ago, women in Turkey would use pus from a smallpox infection to innoculate their babies by simply painting the pus on a cut on the baby’s arm. Usually it would make the baby immune to smallpox but sometimes it killed the baby. The women in Turkey were facing a disease that, in just the twentieth century, killed hundreds of millions of people, more than all the wars put together and the virus has been with us basically forever (thousands of years at least). So it’s no wonder Turkish mothers were willing to take a risk to protect their babies from this scourge.

More recently, some people noticed that milkmaids were immune to smallpox. They eventually figured out that the milkmaids all got cowpox at work which protected them from the much nastier human-specific version of the virus. So if you are ever transported back in time a few centuries ago and if you are young enough that you haven’t been vaccinated against smallpox, you now know what you must do: get under a cow and stay there for a while. These days people under fifty haven’t been vaccinated against smallpox because, simply stated, the milkmaids saved us.

Someone observed milkmaids and made a vaccine from cowpox which led to the modern version which I got when I was born but which is no longer necessary because the vaccine allowed humanity to eradicate a deadly strand of presumably mindless RNA. We vanquished our greatest enemy. There is no more smallpox — it’s extinct now except in laboratory freezers.

The last cases of smallpox ran their horrid courses in the 1970’s. Late in that decade someone in a lab made a mistake and some virus escaped to Birmingham, England. The World Health Organization vaccinated hundreds of people and stopped the spread but the person who somehow got it from the laboratory — a photographer who specialized in medical photography and worked in one of the few places researching smallpox — died horribly. The next day, the doctor in charge of the lab where the photographer had been infected killed himself.

There hasn’t been a case since Birmingham but there’s still smallpox virus known to be sitting in the freezers of two labs — one in the U.S. and one in Russia. Experts are divided about whether to (a) destroy the remaining samples or (b) keep studying the virus so that we’re ready in case it ever somehow re-emerges. Both sides make good arguments. What seems inarguable is that we’re better off without smallpox spreading and killing.

So vaccines are pretty valuable in a historical sense. But, as noted above, there’s a battle going on. Do we administer too many vaccines? Are some autoimmune disorders related to vaccination? Are some neurological problems actually caused by vaccines overstimulating our immune system or poisoning us in some other way?

Honestly, I don’t even know if these are good questions to ask. The point here is this: even if the mainstream doctors fully have their act together when it comes to vaccine safety, it’s understandable if some people want to express concern and perhaps ask for more safety studies. Those studies are, we hope, being conducted NOT for the express purpose of proving vaccines safe; they must be conducted for the express purpose of elucidating legitimate concerns.

I find the story of Marie Curie’s lab assistants edifying whether I’m thinking about vaccines, cell phones, food additives, pesticides, air pollution, or any of the countless risks (and they are risks no matter how harmless they may seem) we accept every day.

Marie Curie was sure it wasn’t the radiation in her lab that was killing her lab assistants because Curie herself was exposed to much more radiation than anyone else in the lab and she was fine. She didn’t know why her workers kept dying but she was obviously concerned. Curie, the doctors, and everyone who was looking into the problem thought it couldn’t possibly be the radiation. But they hadn’t learned about all of the effects of radiation and yes, today we know it was the radiation killing the lab assistants. In fact, for most of us, the dangers of radiation is such common knowledge, it feels like common sense now. But Curie had no way of knowing how dangerous radiation was.

Marie Curie happened to have higher than normal resistance to radiation. She may have been naturally (genetically) resistant or perhaps gradual exposure over many years had built up some sort of immunity. Anything is possible — there’s still a lot of unknowns about the effects of radiation on the body. The bottom line is Marie Curie didn’t get sick at first even though her assistants did get sick and did die. Of course, the radiation eventually got to her. She couldn’t have known but perhaps she should have been a little more careful when it came to the unknown.

One purpose of this essay is to answer in the affirmative, “Can people who disagree nevertheless find common ground in their rationality?”

Someday, maybe not in my lifetime, this will happen. There will be places where discussions (NOT debates) can happen and where consensus on some issues and clarification of the remaining areas of disagreement can be achieved. In these not-debates, people won’t just use evidence and twist it to score points for their “side.” Anti-vaxxers and epidemiologists, for example, will talk to each other.

In this fantasy-world of mine, doctors who think long-term Lyme-related disease should be treated with huge doses of antibiotics (the conventional wisdom says this is dangerous and doesn’t work) will NOT need to have their own journals. Sadly, the Lyme controversy has pitted doctor against doctor and has gotten out of control.

To get to my fantasy world, to move away from mindless debate and toward productive discussion, we have to learn how to be openminded and skeptical at the same time.

We can all agree that it’s hard to know where exactly to draw the line when someone comes up with some astounding something. What is reasonable dissent? I am claiming here that in many areas the line needs to be moved a away from skepticism and toward openmindedness and that by looking at history we can, maybe, catch ourselves when we are rejecting something that might possibly be a huge safety issue or the right answer or the cool new thing or the just outcome or whatever wonderful thing that we just can’t stop ourselves from naysaying. If all of the Lyme doctors did this, they wouldn’t need separate journals.

The next example comes from anthropology. It’s absurd. It’s been going on for a hundred years. It’s wildly irrational. Nothing has blown up. No one has died. No one is going to die. But scientists have not lived up to even the mildest expectation of thoughtful embrace of new theories. Note that is the case even when those theories come from their own credentialed colleagues. Worse still, even after being proven embarrassingly wrong in their ideas about human evolution, scientists continue to resist new theories and engage in essentially a popularity contest as if they are kids choosing the King and Queen of the prom.

It’s crazy and crazy instructive too.

Human Evolution and Faux Scientists

Our ancestors stood up and got big brains and used tools with their now-free hands and therefore took over the world, right? Wrong. The anthropologists who study human evolution used to be sure of this “fact.” But we don’t know why our ancestors stood up.

Raymond Dart discovered that millions of years ago, a species of apes totally changed their posture. But they didn’t have big brains or tools. They were still apes. Somehow they were (apparently) able to access a food source unavailable to their tree-dwelling cousins. But, even today, we don’t have a clear idea how this happened, what the new food source was, or even for certain if it had anything to do with food (though it probably did).

A hundred years ago, when Dart discovered that he and his fellow anthropologists were wrong about free hands and tool use and bipedalism and all that, he was studiously ignored by his colleagues for a solid couple of decades because the tool theory just sounded so good to these faux scientists.

I am sorry to be so mean about this, but really, when one of your colleagues discovers something amazing, you are supposed to be happy. If new discoveries upset you, are you really a scientist? I think not. Anyway, eventually the people I’m sorry to call faux scientists eventually accepted that bipedalism in our ancestors appeared long before big brains and tools and was therefore totally mysterious.

There are many possible explanations for bipedalism but to this day we don’t really know how it happened and modern faux scientists have continued to pick which theories get a hearing the way high school students vote for king and queen of the prom. They won’t even consider what is arguably the best theory.

There are many possible theories. Bipedalism might have allowed walking apes with small brains and no fancy tools to travel further or wield sticks better or throw rocks further than the tree-climbing apes. It’s possible one of those ideas will eventually turn out to be right. But there’s a better theory that has been ignored.

Eventually, there were several species of bipedal ape. Only one survived to give rise to us. The rest didn’t make it. But our tool-using big-brained ancestors coexisted for a time with some of the last surviving walking apes. For them, Sasquatch and Bigfoot were quite real. Without tools, bipedalism turned out to be a dead end for primates.

At first though, the new posture must have conferred some sort of advantage. But what advantage? There’s a lot of food up in the trees so giving up the arboreal life could not have been done lightly. Walking is efficient for long distance travel and standing up is good if wielding a club is crucial but again, is that enough to make it worth it to come down from the trees without tools.

It would be nice if a good mystery brought out the best in scientists and if a whole variety of theories were considered until such time as one could be settled on. But instead of considering all theories, the scientists reject any theory that “sounds funny” and only accept theories that seem boring enough to put people to sleep at conferences. I’m not sure it that’s really the criteria being used, but sometimes it seems so. Maybe the tool-use people are still angry about being wrong. Maybe they’re squashing interesting theories hoping against hope that someone will discover a six-million-year-old spear.

Anyway, after Dart’s discovery, another scientist (a guy named Hardy) guessed that maybe our streamlined posture, our smooth skin, and our layer of head-to-toe fat under the skin might all be related. In fact, Hardy went further and suggested that maybe our ancestors developed these three adaptations all at the same time for the same reason. And, Hardy said, maybe we developed these adaptations for the same reason they developed in other mammals.

Imagine that. Human evolution has something in common with the evolution of other animals. Who’d a thunk it? Wouldn’t it be better if human evolution was totally unique in the animal kingdom? Where’s a really, really old spear when you need one?

So Hardy, looking at what happened with other animals, believed the new abilities made possible by these three big adaptations and the new food sources made available to primates with these three adaptations benefitted our ancestors in exactly the same way the adaptations benefitted the other mammals that developed them. Thinking! What a concept!

(Sorry. I just happen to really like Hardy’s theory. That doesn’t mean it’s right but a theory that can point to many examples in the animal kingdom that explains multiple adaptations at once and that also explains a lot of modern human behavior and abilities at least deserved a hearing. Instead, Hardy was ridiculed.)

Maybe you can guess what his theory was. Chimpanzees and gorrillas can’t get fat fingers, fat thighs, fat arms, or fat cheeks because they don’t have the head-to-toe fat layer. They easily outclimb us in trees and also outrun and outmaneuver us over short distances on land. But there’s one place where humans outshine all other primates. This is a place that, tens of millions of years ago, suddenly was teeming with mammals when that had not been the case before.

The path that led to this place had a LOT of traffic on it. Did we, six million years ago, begin down this same well-worn evolutionary path? Did our walk down this path impact our behavior to this very day? Faux scientists don’t like these questions.

In case you think I’m the only one frustrated by the lack of imagination on the part of professional scientists, a very highly regarded philosophy of science professor at Tufts wrote a beautiful if somewhat dense book about evolution. In his book he talks about Hardy’s theory: in the course of his career the professor asked every expert on human evolution he could find why they still rejected Hardy’s idea out of hand. The Tufts professor, after decades of asking this question, finally threw up his hands and wrote in his what might be the best book about evolution you can read (Darwin’s Dangerous Idea), “I’ve never had an answer worth repeating.”

And this is a guy who can talk about evolution for so long you will visibly age before he’s finiishes telling you all he knows and he’s saying, literally, that there is ZERO argument for rejecting Hardy’s theory. That’s not the same as saying Hardy was right. He may have been right. Or not. But you can’t limit your the theories you are willing to consider based on whether it seems too far “outside the box” to you. Sometimes “outside the box” is right. Not always, but sometimes. Proms are great. Proms are fun. But science isn’t the prom.

Hardy and Dart were engineers. Dart, we can say for certain, was right though he was ignored for decades despite literally having rock-solid evidence. Hardy may have been right and was ignored even though his theory is probably the best thing we have at the moment. We may someday find out that streamlined posture, subcutaneous fat, and hairlessness evolved at different times (geneticists will eventually find the genes responsible for these differences between humans and the other apes and will be able to use dating techniques to determine when the adaptations happened) in which case we would have to drop Hardy’s theory. On the other hand, if it turns out that the three adaptations appeared in our genome at the same time, then Hardy’s theory would suddenly be a lot more attractive.

Right or wrong, Hardy didn’t simply repeat the party line. He was willing to think. So he gets to be called an engineer. If he’s proven wrong someday, he retains his title. Engineer doesn’t mean “always right,” it just means evidence is held above a popularity contest.

Justice, Legal Murder, and Monty Python

Let’s move on to legal questions. In a few days, the state of Texas is planning to murder Melissa Lucio. If they go through with it, she will be at least the second innocent person accused of killing his/her own child and murdered by the state of Texas with no basis whatsoever. The first was Todd Willingham. Willingham’s house burned down and his three children died. He barely escaped and was unable to save his children. He tried to re-enter the burning building but was tackled by fire fighters who correctly calculated that re-entering the house would not save his children and would just add him to the list of casualties.

In those days (the early 1990’s), something called “arson investigation” was accepted by U.S. courts. Arson investigation sounds reasonable at first but is actually yet another example of faux science. The “arson investigator” thinks he or she can determine by the patterns in the burn marks whether or not a chemical (like gasoline) was used to start the fire. But the arson investigators never subjected their techniques to any kind of rigorous testing. They just convinced everyone that they were experts and could do it and they put a lot of people in jail. Todd Willingham, watching the poison go into his vein, used his last minute of life to say that he would never kill his children and had not lit his own house on fire. The New Yorker had a nice article about him.

Bottom line: a year after he was excecuted, “arson investigation” was banned from U.S. courts because it is no different from tea-leaf reading. Tests (real ones) done on Willingham’s house showed no evidence of any chemical used to start the fire which was clearly an electrical fire. The tests were done before the trial and if the judge had understood anything about science, there would have been no trial. But since even scientists often don’t seem to understand about science, it’s hard to expect a judge to understand. Hopefully Todd Willingham was the last person executed in the U.S. in the 21st century based on Madame Trelawney’s mindless hobby (I apologize if you dear reader do tea-leaf reading for your own interest and amusement; it’s fine with me if you ask your tea leaves for guidance and then follow that guidance just as long as you don’t use the tea leaves to decide that someone should be killed and then proceed to kill that person which I’m sure you would never do).

If Melissa Lucio is executed on Wednesday next week, her death will be due to the use of coercive interrogations in which police spend hours forcing vulnerable people to say, “Okay, okay, I did it, please let me go to the bathroom.” I haven’t studied her case closely but The Innocence Project (an amazing organization) has and they don’t lightly declare people innocent. It seems quite likely that she is, in fact, innocent and that her child fell down the stairs, suffered internal injuries, and died two days later. The interrogation, as it was conducted, is meaningless and without this meaningless “evidence,” she would not have been convicted in a million years if I understand the case properly. It is likely that killing her would be murder and, since this is a democracy, we will all be responsible.

The Amanda Knox/Raffaele Sollecito case has long since been put to rest and is a perfect example of propaganda in action. Two innocent people were put in jail in a trial that rivals Monty Python’s Burn the Witch skit for inanity. Truth really is stranger than fiction.

The Italian police decided the beautiful Knox must have been involved (they had no reason to believe this) and looked at a text to her boss on her cell phone the night of the murder. Knox’s boss owned a bar and told Knox it’s slow, don’t come in. Knox texted back “see you later.” The genius cops, Columbos all, decided this meant Knox and her boss had plans to go to her house so that he could rape her housemate. They told Knox they knew she had been a witness to the rape and murder of her housemate and if she didn’t remember Knox would never see her family again. It took them a few hours but they got Knox to sign a document saying her boss had had sex with Meredith and had then killed her. Of couse, nothing even close to that happened.

The police routinely record everything that happens in every room of the police station including every word Knox said while she was waiting to be interrogated but claim they didn’t record the actual interrogation. They also claim they didn’t coerce Knox or strike her but they themselves admitted coercion and the lack of a recording is suspicious to say the least. They undoubtedly did strike Knox during the interrogation and had to hide the recording to cover this up. It’s also illegal in Italy to interrogate someone when their lawyer isn’t present but the judge allowed the “confession” to the police nonsense theory to be admitted anyway. The police said Knox was trying to trick them by agreeing to their idiotic theory. Four years later, the second judge dismissed this brilliant idea out of hand noting that it is exactly as stupid as it sounds.

Actually, the police theory about the reason Knox signed off on their theory is not what I would call stupid. The police had a predetermined conclusion and were prepared to say anything to support. All of the nonsense can be refuted and debunked but propagandists can make things up faster than people can tear it down. “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth ties its shoes” is how the saying goes I think and it is a perfect description of the power of endlessly making things up: “it could have been this and it could have been that and she possibly did this and she acted funny and did this and did this and isn’t that odd and she must be guilty.” Knox and Sollecito spend four years on prison on the basis of literally nothing.

Kercher was killed by a mentally ill burglar who left his DNA inside her body and his handprint in her blood in the room and who fled to Germany. The police didn’t ID him until after Knox had signed off on their little theory. They had Knox and Sollecito locked up and had also arrested her boss who had been serving drinks to a dozen people the whole night. Knox’s boss had to be released because of all the witnesses but Knox and her boyfriend remained on jail on the “they tricked us by confessing” theory. Sollecito told the cops that Knox had left his apartment on Halloween night (the night BEFORE the murder) and they wrote up his testimony but changed Halloween to the next day, got Sollecito to sign off, and used that to put him in jail too. During his incarceration, the cops repeatedly offered to admit the mistake about the dates and release him if he would turn on Knox, but he refused. (Years later, Raffaele visted Amanda in the U.S. and Knox told him he was a hero for remaining in prison when he had a way out.)

Five days before the actual murderer slashed Meredith’s throat, they police had caught him during a break-ins but had let him go for no apparent reason and had not charged him with any crime. It looked bad for them, but they sensationalized their way out of it by pretending that Knox, Sollecito, the murderer, and Kercher had been involved in some sort of sex game, a theory that even the first judge rejected as idiotic.

In fact, Knox was having sex at the time of the murder. She had been living in her new boyfriend’s apartment for the whole week prior to the murder of her housemate. When Meredith arrived in her house and surprised the burglar, Knox was watching Amelie on her Sollecito’s computer, smoking pot, and having sex. A witness who lived in Sollecito’s complex visited both of them in the apartment at the time of the murder. No DNA of Knox or Sollecito was found at the scene of the crime of course and there was basically no way for them to have killed Kercher in the time available. Also, they had no motive, no history of violence, and the perpetrator had been easily caught.

But the police wanted to convict three people not one. So they pulled a big kitchen knife out of Sollecito’s apartment and tested it for DNA, blood, and human residue to try to pin the murder on the two kids. The results were negative, negative, negative. But they then ran the triple negative knife through PCR amplification and got a positive result on their negative sample at an extremely low level which is a classic indication of contaminated equipment (the protocols require that negative samples NOT be amplified but the police lab said it “accidently” did PCR on the negative knife). The PCR machine was contaminated with Kercher’s DNA so both the knife and the clean control tested positive for Kercher’s DNA. The police buried the data from the clean control and the first judge allowed this but the second judge demanded the police release all of the data.

The police simply refused the court order. The defense demanded the control data be released and also demanded that the knife be taken apart and the hilt examined because if the giant kitchen knife was really the murder weapon (it was too big to have caused the wounds on Kercher’s neck) the hilt would have a lot of easily analyszed residue on it. The police refused to release the data from their lab and refused to analyze the hilt of the knife. They obviously knew Knox and Sollecito were both innocent. The judge sent the two kids home and wrote a scathing opinion.

The police, by the way, had also destroyed three hard drives containing photos and videos and Knox and Kercher enjoying each other’s company and claimed it was an accident. They created a fantasy in which the assailants switched knives in the middle of the attack in order to make it possibly that the giant kitchen knife was the murder weapon. They sprayed a pink chemical in Knox’s bathroom and released the “bloody bathroom” picture to the press but did not try to introduce it as evidence. They found Knox’s DNA in footprints in her own house and claimed they were “bloody footprints” even though the samples tested negative for even a single blood cell. The first judge, in his opinion, said the footprints were Meredith’s blood and the testing must have been wrong because he the rest of the case seemed to implicate her so strongly. The second judge simply said this was nonsense.

With Knox back in the U.S. and the rational part of the world able to see the case as a real-life Monty Python skit, Diane Sawyer had the gall to seriously ask Knox, “Did you kill Meredith Kercher?” Knox played along and answered the ridiculous question. I remember her having to restrain herself during the interview when Sawyer asked her about he police theory that she and Sollecito had removed their DNA but left the murderer’s DNA at the crime scene. Knox simply said, “That’s impossible,” but I think “Are you an infant?” would have been a better response.

Actually, Knox should have answered Sawyer’s first question as follows: “No, I did not kill Meredith. Are you a witch, Ms. Sawyer? Did you cast a spell that caused a young man to slash Meredith’s throat and then remove her clothing and then press his hands into her vagina while she bled to death? Oh, does that bother you? Did you think this story is about how nice my breasts look in a tabloid photo? Meredith died, Ms. Sawyer and I am just another victim regardless of how pretty I look in photos. Did you learn in journalism school about covering the real story or are you gunning for a job at a tabloid or are you just plain stuipid?” Maybe then Sawyer would have been too embarrassed to move on to the selective DNA removal.

The most horrible part of the whole story aside from Meredith’s death itself is that Kercher’s family actually fell for the police story about Knox and her unfortunate boyfriend. If I were Meredith’s father, I would be asking the Italian police why they released the murderer after he was arrested five days before, why they tried to pin the crime on Knox’s boss who wouldn’t hurt a fly, and why they turned my daughter’s death into an excuse to create what is now literally the textbook case for misuse of forensic evidence. One of the inventors of modern forensic genetics wrote a book about cases in which faulty (or in the Knox/Sollecito case, faked) DNA evidence did more harm than good: the Knox case was featured prominently and stands out as by far the most egregious amongst the cases discussed by the author. The Kercher family has ignored the science in the case and has never confronted the Italian police who allowed a mentally ill habitual burglar to go on a crime spree and did not charge him even after arresting him at the scene of the crime with items from previous burglaries on his person.

I often wonder how human beings can embrace absurdity so easily. It seems like if a person was that gullible, you could tell them to jump off a thousand-foot cliff “and don’t worry there’s a special updraft that will catch you and float you back up to the edge of the cliff” and they would do it before you could say you were joking. How does Diane Sawyer even cross the street safely. (Actually, she probably knew Knox was innocent before, during, and after the interview but apparently thought the situation required her to be “objective.” There’s nothing wrong with objectivity but sometimes there are not two sides to a story. Turning the sudden end of a young woman’s life by the hand of a disturbed monster wielding a pocket knife into a gigantic farce is just plain wrong.

The Story of the Terrified Astronomers

This last example before we get to the big kahuna is not cut and dried like the Knox case and it doesn’t involve life and death. This last one is an example of scientists who are so concerned about their popularity (like at a high school prom or something) that they run screaming from a huge discovery simply because it is so huge that to tell about it might make the scientists “sound funny.” The problem is the scientists don’t have certainty and they are just terrified of saying something dramatic and being wrong. But that’s just weak, sorry.

Something really dramatic happened in 2017 and yes, it might not be what it looks like, but so what? If it isn’t it isn’t. That doesn’t mean scientists should pretend it didn’t happen. It could be the biggest discovery in human history for god’s sake! Why hide it?

Suppose it’s 2016 and you are offering interviewing an astronomer and you have an idea about something that might, hypothetically, happen.

YOU: Have we ever tracked an object passing through our solar system that came from another solar system?

ASTRO: No, not yet, but we will someday.

YOU: I know we can track asteroids in our solar system and they follow predicatable trajectories. Would that be true for an asteroid coming in from outside?

ASTRO: Yes indeed. We would know from its trajectory that it came from outside and we would be able to predict its path.

YOU: That’s great. But what if it was a comet from another solar system?

ASTRO: We would also know it was from outside and we can easily track comets. However, they do go off course a bit because of the outgassing when they get close to the sun. The outgassing is random so we can’t predict the exact deviation from what we call the gravitational trajectory but they are still eminently trackable not least because outgassing comets have highly visible tails.

YOU: So when the tail is created by the sun’s heat and the particles come off, the comet gets a little random push?

ASTRO: Exactly. And the tail is bigger than the comet; you can’t miss it.

YOU: Okay, now what if something from another solar system comes in and goes off course but suppose there’s no tail?

ASTRO: There would always be a tail at least as far as we know but if somehow there were no visible tail, we would still know it was a comet because the deviations would be random and would stop when it got far from the sun.

YOU: Okay, now can we imagine an object coming in from another solar system, going off course smoothly, showing no tail at all, and continuing a smooth deviation even after it is far from the sun?

ASTRO: Of course we can imagine such a thing. It’s science fiction. You are describing some kind of alien spacecraft with some sort of propulsion system or maybe what we call a lightsail. That’s the only thing we know of that would behave as you’ve specified.

YOU: Really, that’s how we would identify an alien spacecraft, by its trajectory and its lack of any tail?

ASTRO: Yes and I can see you are hoping we see something like that. But don’t hold your breath. I’m sure the first extra-solar objects we track will be comets and asteroids spit out by distant solar systems, making their way across interstellar space, and eventually passing by our sun. It will be interesting to track such objects but maybe not quite as interesting as you would like.

YOU: Okay, but hypothetically if something came through and deviated smoothly with no tail, would we know for a fact that it was a spacecraft?

ASTRO: Well, it would be quite a big deal if what you are imagining happened, but unless it passed by very close to earth, we wouldn’t have enough data to be sure what it was.

YOU: So it would either be some exotic object that we’ve never seen or imagined or a spacecraft.

ASTRO: Right. We know there are extra-solar planets and there could be life and this life could created artificial objects and those objects could eventually reach our solar system. On the other hand, there are undoubtedly many natural objects in the galaxy that we know nothing about and maybe one such object would come through our solar system and smoothly deviate from a gravitational trajectory with no visible tail.

YOU: Speaking of alien space probes, how many have we sent out of our solar system?

ASTRO: Five.

YOU: And all of them will eventually encounter other solar systems right?

ASTRO: Probably yes, and I’m sure if there is anyone in those solar systems they will find our space probes a most interesting sight.

YOU: So it could happen here on earth. We could see an alien space probe and we’d know it by its trajectory and its lack of a tail even if we didn’t get a good look at it.

ASTRO: Well, I appreciate your excitement about the possibility.

YOU: You don’t seem to think it is very likely that we see any such thing.

ASTRO: I’ll put it this way: I’ll believe it when I see it.

Except they didn’t. Astronomers saw in 2017 that which was described above and no, they did not believe their own eyes, literally.

Oumuamua, the first object ever detected in our solar system that came from outside, passed though the plane of our solar system and is now long gone. It deviated from a gravitational trajectory indicating outgassing but there was no tail and the deviations were smooth and constant. A lone astronomer at Harvard pointed out that it acted the way a “lightsail” would. A lightsail is a type of craft we may well build ourselves one day that uses a large, flat, reflective mirror to harness sunlight the way a cloth sail harnesses wind.

Oumuamua wasn’t an asteroid or comet: its acceleration off of the gravitational trajectory made it look like a lightsail. But there was more to it than that. It also had a shape that astronomers had never seen before. The data allowed astronomers to narrow its shape to two possibilities: long and skinny like a cigar or flat and thin like a pancake. If we knew it was a pancake, that would be make it look an awful lot like a lightsail though astronomers would be probably still be unwilling to believe their eyes even in that scenario.

Almost every astronomer who had anything to say about it had a problem with their Harvard colleague stating the obvious: the only thing we know of the would behave like Oumuamua is a spacecraft. But almost the entirety of the rest of astronomy community (well, the professors anyway) shouted their colleague down saying he was being silly. Now you might wonder how they could say such a thing given the evidence that they themselves had uncovered.

It was easy: they did the possible=certain thing. It is possible Oumuamua was an exotic object never before seen, never before imagined. It is possible that Oumuamua was solid mass of hydrogen that somehow made it across interstellar space, a so-called “hydrogen iceberg.” It is possible Oumuamua was a tenuous-but-gravitationally-bound cloud of gas that likewise made the interstellar journey.

Since it was possible Oumuamua was something other than an alien spacecraft, that meant to the other astronomers that this was certain. The guy at Harvard was ridiculed. And a lot of people don’t realize that in 2017, we may have made the most important discovery since we learned to control fire. Of course, the cautious astronomers who are terrified of “sounding funny” are correct inasmuch as Oumuamua is a single data point, the first extra-solar object, and we can’t say for certain what it was.

A second extra-solar object came through after Oumuamua and it was an ordinary comet. So now we have two data points. Of couse two data points is still insufficient for firm conclusions. We’ll all have to check back when astronomers have tracked a hundred extra-solar objects.

Meanwhile, consider this. We discovered space travel basically yesterday as far as the evolution of the galaxy goes. And we’ve already launched five probes all of which will eventually encounter other solar systems. We’ve got a space telescope up and running with a giant heat shield that was roughly as hard to build as a light-sail spacecraft. We already build tens of millions of cars every year and the space above earth is, right now, filled with all kinds of artificial orbiting stuff. What is to stop us at some point in the next thousand years from sending out millions (or tens of millions . . .) of space probes as often as we want? Nothing, obviously.

There are billions of planets in the solar system and billions of years during which civilizations could have begun to fill the galaxy with probes (maybe purposely aimed at other solar systems) just as we have filled our skies with satellites. The idea that Oumuamua might (the Harvard astronomer who got yelled at by his colleagues did NOT claim certainty) be a space probe is not at all far-fetched and, in fact, Oumuamua looked EXACTLY like a spacecraft, at least what we could see of it which admittedly wasn’t as much as we’d like but was definitely enough to blow anyone’s mind so long as that mind is locked in up in the Fort Knox of “don’t say anything that might sound funny.”

Oumuamua is a reminder. The galaxy might well be as full of life as earth’s oceans. And look what evolution did. We started with single-celled creatures and moved on to fish and then reptiles on land and then mammals on land. And then some of those land mammals became coastal and then semi-aquatic and, in some cases, became fully aquatic and returned to the sea full time. Imagine four-legged furry creatures losing their limbs, losing their body hair, gaining layers of fat and becoming hippos, manatees, seals, dolphins, and whales. The hippo didn’t go all the way to fully aquatic. The manatee did become fully aquatic while its cousin the elephant stayed on land. The land mammal precusors of seals, dolphins, and whales are no longer with us (thought their fossils are). What I find interesting about this is the fact that mermaids are quite real, at least if you are an elephant.

So evolution can seemingly do anything if it has millions of years in which to do it. So why can’t the galaxy that has billions of years to do what it is going to do be filled with life and space probes that might be an inevitable result of that life? It’s not guaranteed but no reasonable person would say it is silly.

And yet this does nothing for Avi Loeb at Harvard. Many of his colleagues have said outright that his viewpoint is silly. But he isn’t silly. They are.

Something from another solar system passed through our solar system. It wasn’t an asteroid. It wasn’t a comet. It wasn’t like anything we’ve previously seen or imagined EXCEPT for a spacecraft. Of course it could be an exotic natural object. Of course astronomers who want to be cautious about postulating extraterrestrial civilizations should use their imaginations to come up with possibilities for Oumuamua that allow us to still be alone in the galaxy.

But do we really have to ignore the possibility that Oumuamua was what it looked like just because we would have to use the word “alien” to describe it? Imagination is important. But claiming that Oumuamua is certainly a hydrogen iceberg or gas cloud or some other natural object just because it is possible to create such an object in an astronomer’s imagination seems to me a horrid mis-use of imagination. Of course it could be a new type of tail-less comet or whatever the super-cautious astonomers want it to be. But the fact remains, there is every reason to believe we are not alone in the galaxy even if there are tail-less comets causing false alarms.

“Imagination is more important than knowledge.” So said Einstein. When he realized the universe was not as simple as previously thought, he allowed himself to imagine a universe that had features that were beyond what is normally thought of as “common sense.” He contemplated a speed (the speed of light) that would make two apparently distant points in the universe not distant at all, a speed that would be both a limit for us and a path to the infinite, a speed that would make those points A and B as close together as you like no matter how far apart they appear to be. When Einstein was done with his theory and when the other physicists were done verifying it, we were suddenly living in a universe where spatial separations and temporal separations were mere illusions, a universe that doesn’t just challenge our imagination but that is actually beyond our imagination.

That’s our universe. And in that universe, human astonomers looking at Oumuamua aren’t even willing to allow one of their colleagues to point out that it looked a lot like a spacecraft without ridiculing him. These astonomers know all about Einstein and the extra-solar planets and they’ve even got a guy at Harvard sticking his neck out and saying Oumuamua might possibly be the most important discovery in human history. And there are other astronomers saying we should be cautious about jumping to conclusions.

And they’re right, we should be cautious. The problem is caution isn’t good enough for these astronomers. They have squashed Oumuamua. If this is the first you’re hearing about Oumuamua, then you know that mindlessness carried the day in 2017. Practically everyone on Earth knows the name and face of the person who won the U.S. presidential election in 2016 but only a tiny fraction know about a much more important thing that happened almost exactly a year later. What’s wrong with this picture?

It is a fact that in 2017 astronomers saw what looked like an alien spacecraft travel through our solar system. But they were too afraid to make a fuss about it. Yes, really.

The Show So Far

Before we do the big kahuna, let’s review a bit.

Engineers: If you launch today, the shuttle will blow up on takeoff and everyone on board will die.

Four Bosses: Oh, come now, don’t be silly, it’ll be fine.

Real Doctor: If we wash our hands more infants will come into the world with their mothers still alive.

Fake Doctors: How dare you imply that we are dirty! “Three heads and you’re dead” are acceptable childbirth odds. You, sir, will have to leave town now. Goodbye.

Future Nobel Prize Winner: I discovered what causes ulcers.

People Who Are Never Wrong: Nyah, nyah, nyah. We’re not LiSSSteninGGGG!

Hardy: Maybe human primates evolved streamlined posture, smooth skin, and head-to-toe fat for the same reason other mammals got these three adaptations.

Faux Scientists: We’re still holding out for the tool-use theory. Maybe someday someone will discover a six-million-year-old bow and arrow. But please don’t repeat this.

Innocence Project: If you are going to kill someone in the name of justice, you had better be sure.

Arson Investigators: We divine by these markings that this fire had origins in an evil heart.

Inventor of DNA Forensics: I didn’t invent this tool so people could burn witches.

Italian Judges: We love DNA forensics because most people don’t understand it so we can twist it however we like.

Harvard Astronomer: The “Are we alone?” question may have just been answered.

Terrified Astronomers: Be vewy, vewy quiet. Don’t tell anyone what we saw. Or tell them it was a gravitationally bound gas cloud. There are no LGM’s. There are no LGM’s. There are no LGM’s.

The Big Kahuna

One might say the Shakespeare story begins with the bible since that was perhaps the great author’s most important source. Style, wording, and plotlines dating back two millenia to the Roman poet Ovid ran through the works to such an extent that “modern Ovidian poet” would get the return “Who is Shakespeare?” in an Elizabethan “Jeopardy!” game show. The play many regard as Shakespeare’s masterpiece, Hamlet, was based on a Scandanavian folktale from a few centuries prior. The classic love tragedy Romeo and Juliet pays homage to Ovid and Dante and to a plethora of 15th and 16th century Italian writers whose stories of star-crossed lovers and their feuding families were well known all over Europe by the time Shakespeare upped the stakes as it were and combined stories well told, philosophical treatises, and unforgettable poetry into by far the most popular works of the Elizabethan era.

Well-used plotlines, old stories reimagined, familiar tales told in a new voice, and other such “remakes” were standard fare for Elizabethans. Indeed, this kind of writing, the not-fully-original homage to the past, was expected and encouraged — “a feature not a bug” as we would say today. Virtually all Elizabethans writers (no doubt exceptions exist) routinely and openly adapted the work of classical and foreign writers for their own stories.

It was all good as we would say today. It was a way to show off one’s erudition. Speaking of erudition, to say Shakespeare was no slouch in that area would be the understatement of the millenium. Shakespeare was so well-read and so experienced and so knowledgeable that the density of references in his plays continues to blow modern minds. Pick any area of Elizabethan knowledge and understanding — art, music, law, seamanship, politics, botany, medicine, astrology, astronomy, and falconry together with lands and languages, stories and histories, paintings and sculptures, waterways and alleyways, and customs and celebrations throughout Europe — and there are books and articles marveling about Shakespeare’s mastery of this or that subject and/or his knowledge of this or that tiny detail.

Shakespeare’s printed source material would make for an impressive library and certainly no single library in England at the time had all of it. A story told or a discovery made, if it got anywhere near Shakespeare showed up in a play maybe in an offhand line. Of course offering a new wrinkle on a classic story was one thing and, as we know, a fine thing as was displaying technical knowledge gleaned from books or experience. But “rewriting,” as some modern scholars tactfully put it, was a different thing altogether especially when the that which was being “rewritten” belonged to a recently active or still-active Elizabethan author.

Scholars have come up with a plethora of words and phrases for this particular activity of Shakespeare’s. Some call it “borrowing” while others go so far as to call Shakespeare “an accomplished parasite” who sometimes did his borrowing “almost verbatim” making him a what one might call (at what some do call) “a reviser of genius.” The more common word for one who engages in this activity whether during Elizabethan times or now — “plagiarist” — is diplomatially avoided.

Several Elizabethan plays are so similar in title, plot, characters, scenes, language, and style that these plays and Shakespeare’s plays were then and are now treated as two versions of the same play. For example, one scholar at a well-known university in California studied some decades ago the political implications of Shakespeare’s history plays and the politics in Shakespeare’s King John in particular. There are two King Johns with slighly different titles, both with Shakespeare’s name on the byline, one obviously an early version of the other. This particular scholar noted the existence of the early version of King John and noted further that “for our purpose [studying political implications] it seems unnecessary to discuss the plays separately.”

The two King Johns were plays no monarch facing multiple threats from abroad could fail to love. They are loaded with patriotic fervor as are most of the history plays. Indeed, four hundred years post-Shakespeare during WWII as bombs fell on London, Shakespeare plays were being used to stiffen the sinew amongst a populace facing a mortal enemy just as Queen Elizabeth, who spent gobs of national security money on plays, players, and playwrights did when she faced threats.

Fine speeches from the two King Johns were typically made by the same character as in the speeches below: the character in this example is calling for unity in England against the triple threat of France, Spain, and the Papacy.

If England’s peers and people join in one,
Nor Pope, nor France, nor Spain can do them wrong. 

This was revised to the following more poetical version:

Come the three corners of the world in arms,
And we shall shock them. Nought shall make us rue,
If England to itself do rest but true. 

But here’s the rub. The California scholar quoted above and most scholars today believe the early version of King John was NOT written by Shakespeare even though his name is on the title page. But why? It’s the same play with the same characters, the same plot, parallel speeches, the same scenes, and very similar writing styles. Both plays are loaded with made-up words — Shakespeare is the undisputed champion of neologisms many of which are in common use today. And, again, the name is right there on the title pages.

Why, under these circumstances, do scholars turn Shakespeare into a plagiarist not only in the case of King John but also when they look at a number of other “early Shakespeare” plays including versions of Romeo and JulietKing Lear, Henry V, Richard III, and The Taming of the Shrew?

The answer is simple: early Shakespeare plays date from the 1580’s or before and are therefore too early to be Shakespeare according to the standard theory of who wrote the plays. The standard theory goes like this: a well-known businessman from Stratford named Shakespeare arrived in London in the early 1590’s; he happened to be a literary genius as well as a superb wheeler and dealer; he used many classical and foreign sources in the usual Elizabethan manner, but also pushed the bounds of the permissible and in several cases crossed the line between adaptation and plagiarism.

The Stratford genius-businessman-writer-plagiarist became a shareholder in London’s leading acting company in the mid 1590’s. As part of his status as a shareholder it is assumed he must have been writing plays which the acting company took ownership of. This explains why Shakespeare was the only Elizabethan playwright who did not publish any of his plays. This also explains why publishers only managed to get their hands on half of the plays in the canon and why the best they could do is publish messy versions that are universally regarded by scholars as bootlegs.

The Stratford businessman named Shakespeare died in 1616 leaving his considerable estate to his two daughters neither of whom was literate with the result that his books, letters, manuscripts, and other trappings of Elizabethan writing have been lost to history. But in 1623, the acting company apparently pulled together all of the plays and handed them over to two earls, an act of generosity that allowed the famous FIrst Folio to be published and gave us Shakespeare as we know Shakespeare: without the First Folio, Julius Ceasar, Macbeth, All’s Well That Ends Well, and many other familiar works may well have been lost.

As far as the author or authors of “early Shakespeare” go, tradition says we just don’t know. Early Shakespeare is an “insoluble enigma” and who wrote early Shakespeare is a question “of so dark a nature” that it cannot be answered.

However, according to a handful of radicals, who also happen to be credentialed experts, there is nothing enigmatic or mysterous about early Shakespeare. According to the radicals, Shakespeare wrote early Shakespeare.

The “radicals,” who are increasingly seen as not so radical, believe that Shakespeare was a member of the Elizabethan nobility, a well-known and highly regarded “literary earl” who never published a play under his own name but was nevertheless regarded as the leading court playwright, and who was frequently listed during his life and after as among the best English playwrights in history despite having zero plays to his name. The literary earl was known from childhood as a genius — he apparently outgrew his tutors at an early age. As an adult, the literary earl received unprecedented monetary support from a notoriously fiscally conservative Queen: a gigantic amount of money was handed over to every year with nothing officially expected in return.

The literary earl who might have been Shakespeare was known to be a bit wild, more than a bit irresponsible, and good for pretty much one thing — writing. He became the highest paid member of Elizabeth’s government for doing technically we-know-not-what but he might reasonably be described as the Queen’s playwright.

According to the radicals, the Stratford businessman is unlikely to have been Shakespeare since he arrived in London ten or twenty years too late to be the great author. They say the literary earl was putting the finishing touches on the Shakespeare plays by the mid-1590’s and that he wrapped things up in the early 1600’s with his last play, The Tempest.

And yet in the First Folio, the preface makes it clear that the Stratford businessman named Shakespeare was the author of the plays. The preface clearly says the businessman left his complete works with the acting company in which he owned shares and which was now generously gifting the plays to two earls to whom the First Folio would be dedicated. Two members of the acting company say in the preface that they have no thought of profit for themselves and merely want their fellow shareholder Shakespeare to be properly remembered with proper versions of his plays as opposed to the stolen copies previously published.

The two earls are the famous “incomparable brethren” to whom the great compilation of Shakespeare is dedicated. One of these brethren was married to the literary earl’s youngest daughter.

You can see right away that there is ample room for a rolicking controversy. Unfortunately, the stakes are so high that the controversy we would like to see enacted at the level of disagreeing scholars has been shattered, swept up into a dustpan, dumped in a steel box, protected by a heavy padlock, and buried in a random place in the back acreage. There is no controversy: the traditional theory is correct period. That’s where we’ve been for a long time: it’s not a good place for this really is an interesting question.

The problem is the high stakes involved. If the Stratford businessman was actually not even literate, and if such a thing became generally known, whole libraries of books about Shakespeare would have to be either burned or demoted to coasters. If the literary earl was Shakespeare, if his life is reflected in the plays, if his point of view is reflected in the speeches, if some of the characters in the plays are speaking with his voice, then every analysis of every Shakespeare play would have to be rewritten — a monumental task.

Monumental and terrifying. Questions about who Shakespeare was go back a long way and amateurs have said many silly things creating an “overhang of nonsense” that gets in the way when credentialed professionals ask valid questions. But most professionals, either unwilling to think outside the box or unwilling to stare into the pit into which many fine books would have to tossed, have been able to paint those who support the scary side as nuts pushing silly nonsense who flit from alien abduction stories to claims that Shakespeare was an alien before they get back on their anti-psychotic medications even though this is not really the case when it comes to many of the questions being asked.

Mainstream professionals have so far been successful in keeping their distance from the edge of what is to them an abyss. But their own doubting colleagues are becoming too numerous and too highly placed to stop. Mark Twain didn’t know about the Queen’s playwright because the name of the literary earl never appeared on a play and the efussive praise offered him in print only lasted a few decades after his death, but Samuel Clemens was certain “Shakespeare” was a pseudonym simply because, in his opinion, historians had dug up enough about the Stratford businessman to make it clear he wasn’t Shakespeare depite his name and despite the posthumous identification. Mark Twain guessed in the early 1900’s that historians derived from “the reasoning race” (i.e., humans) might come to their senses in perhaps three centuries if we’re lucky.

However, we seem to be ahead of schedule. In the 1990’s, less than a single century after Twain’s pessimistic projection, the professors in the comparative literature department at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst had a decision to make. A student who regarded the “Shakespeare was an accomplished parasite” idea as nonsense and who believed the Queen’s playwright was the only Elizabethan who had any chance at all of being Shakespeare and who regarded the history of the literary earl and the history of the Shakespeare plays as quite obviously linked wanted to write his dissertation about the connection between the literary earl and the works of Shakespeare.

No institution had ever granted any such Ph.D. for any such “crazy” idea. UMass Amherst has a reputation to protect. The dissertation was to focus on a bible owned by the literary earl in which a large number of passages that would later become some of Shakespeare’s favorite allusions, appearing in multiple plays, were marked. Some obscure passages also marked led the student to discover allusions in the plays that no one had previously noticed. He had ample volume of material for a dissertation, but the majority of professors at institutions of higher learning regarded the very idea of someone other than the Stratford businessman being Shakespeare as akin to sacrilege.

It couldn’t have been an easy decision.

But the professors approved the project and the student got his Ph.D. and is now a professor himself at another college. He has continued his non-traditional work and recently published research which pretty much nails down the date of The Tempest, thought by many to be Shakespeare’s last play, to around 1600. The Tempest, one of the plays not published until the miracle of the First Folio, reads as a goodbye, an envoi, an adieu, a coda. If it really was Shakespeare’s last play, the time for the Stratford businessman to write the plays becomes absurdly short.

Biographers routinely marvel at how a man with so many documented business activities could have “managed to find time to go on writing plays” but assume that the genius-businessman-writer-plagiarist somehow managed it. However, even the most credulous biographers would not be able to bring themselves to type 1590-1600 as sufficient time for the complete works of Shakespeare, not even for a great, multitasking genius. So the new research on The Tempest is a clear effort to put a nail in the coffin of the traditional theory and, as noted above, the stakes are extremely high.

Nevertheless, no less an institution than Oxford University Press added its voice to the professors at UMass Amherst. The prestigious academic publisher praised the work on The Tempest or at least allowed one of their writers to parise the work under the imprimatur of the institution. No matter how you look at it, the certainty about the traditional theory, if not the theory itself, seems to be a thing of the past.

However, it is still that case that doubters of the traditional theory, even if they are credentialed professionals, cannot publish their research in mainstream journals and must independently publish or publish in “off-broadway” journals that have been created for the express purpose of an open discussion. Wondering who Shakespeare was is the third rail of comparative literature — most people who care about career advancement won’t even discuss it.

So we’re still badly lost in “false paradigm land.” In fact, one professor at an ivy league university bragged in print about the “wall” that exists to block credentialed professionals from discussing the question in mainstream journals.

And yet the great wall of “we are absolutely sure we’re right” does seem to be crumbling. Soon enough there will be, maybe, a full discussion in the mainstream journals in which the journal editors act as impartial referees as opposed to protectors of the status quo. When this happens, we’ll have a lot better idea about the merits of the two theories because the entire community will be able to weigh in without fear and students will be able to ask questions without fear. For now, as long as the two “sides” publish in separate journals and free-thinkers are frightened into silence, we non-professionals will have to make do with just a rough idea of what is going on.

One thing is clear though: the certainty that the Stratford businessman really was Shakespeare as the First Folio preface claimed is nonexistent. The businessman may indeed have been a writer as well but the majority of experts claim near-certainty even though reading their own work makes it clear that they are extremely uncertain. Thus, they turn out to be right in the end, they will have blind luck to thank, not rationality.

In this part of the essay, though I will not attempt to settle the question by covering every detail as this would be an impossible task for a single person to do even if he were a professional literary historian which I am not, I will try to put enough flesh on the skeleton already presented so that readers can determine for themselves whether the probability that mainstream experts are correct is ten percent, fifty percent, or ninety percent. I think it is already abundantly clear that the 99.99% certainty claimed very far from realistic.

Star-crossed lovers date back to Ovid and before. The names Romeo and Juliet first appear under an Italian byline. Other Italian writers take on the theme, a French story and a Spanish story follow after that. Jumping forward, West Side Story is the most modern retelling I know of though I’m sure there are many adaptations of which I am unaware. Of course West Side Story had a unique angle and was far from plagiarism. The same is true for many of the retellings of the classic story.

In 1562, someone in England published or caused to be published the story of Romeo and Juliet as a poem. It is strikingly similar to the Shakespeare play with not just the basic plot and the names of the lovers but identical metaphors appearing again and again. The 1562 version written by someone called “Ar. Br.” and thought perhaps to be Arthur Brooke even though Brooke was not known as a poet is considered the primary “source” for Shakespeare’s play. I put the word source in quotes because the similarities are such that the two Romeos can be regarded as two versions of the same work. That is, one can argue that Shakespeare either stole the work of Ar. Br. or wrote both versions himeself.

Here is one example of the identical metaphor being used in both versions, a metaphor which to my knowledge appears in none of the Romeos that preceded them.

In both the poem of “Ar. Br.” and the play by Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet fall instantly and hopelessly in love. The fall is narrated with a complex metaphor involving fishing and poison in which love is seen as something dangerous and irrestible dangled before us by an unknown and unknowable power. The moment the soon-to-be lovers gaze into one another’s eyes, all hope is lost as if our eyes, conduits to our deepest selves, make us unbearably vulnerable. Here is Shakespeare and his “source” in a random order.

In one version, Romeo’s eyes lead to his soul:
Through them he swalloweth down love’s sweet empoison’d bait. 

In another version Romeo’s eyes capture Juliet:
And she steal love’s sweet bait from fearful hooks. 

Does it matter which line is the later version and which the earlier? No one on either side of the Shakespeare divide believes the great author did not have the early version at his side when he wrote the more mature version. Some use euphemisms for plagiarism to tell what happened; others say it is Shakespeare rewriting his own work. I hope soon to create an appendix with a long list of Romeo and Juliet mirror images in which Shakespeare and his “source” can be compared.

In the 1570’s, a number of plays with suggestive titles are performed before the Queen. The History of Error was a popular one but was never published under that title. This play may or may not have been an early version of Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors not published in any form until the First Folio came along and saved the day. A 1570’s play titled after the main characters in Two Gentlemen of Verona might have been an early version of this play. Maybe.

A number of early plays fall into the “might have been first shown with a different title” category. A good illustration of the trouble with titles is All’s Well That Ends Well. This is a play that showed up in the First Folio never having been mentioned as a published play or as a performance. But it is theorized that this play actually was mentioned as Love’s Labors Won which, unless it was renamed All’s Well That Ends Well is a lost play.

The history gets much more interesting in the 1580’s. Early versions of King JohnKing Lear, Richard III, Henry V, and The Taming of the Shrew were performed by the Queen’s Men and published in the following decade and so we have plays with almost identical titles that Shakespeare either wrote in the 1580’s or earlier or plagiarized in the 1590’s. These plays share plot, structure, word usage, made-up words, characters, innovations, and lines with the mature plays that later appear in the First Folio.

The mature versions are much better plays: for example, the forgettable “A horse! A horse! A fresh horse!” becomes the classic “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!” in Richard III. As is the case with the King John plays, the two Richard III plays are effectively the same play. All of these plays delighted the Queen who set aside a large sum of national security money to create the Queen’s Men in the early 1580’s. She loved plays in general, had no problem pitting her courtiers one against the other and so didn’t mind if many of them were lampooned in the plays, had a thick skin and so could handle it even if she herself was teased, and as noted above undoubtedly appreciated the value of plays pushing patriotism.

The writer of the plays was remarkably well informed. Whoever wrote Shakespeare either had direct access to the Queen’s court or had great connections in the gossip mill. Seen in this light, the popularity of Shakespeare at the time with the general public is not at all surprsing.

By the mid-1580’s the Queen was paying the literary earl the gigantic sum mentioned above and he was placing himself at the center of the Elizabethan literary scene. He supported Enland’s leading writers and hired as literary secretaries two who were especially close to Shakespeare — John Lyly whose works are said to mirror Shakespeare’s and Anthony Munday whose play Sir Thomas More is thought to contain at least one scene written by Shakespeare. Book after book was dedicated to the literary earl praising not only his generosity but also his writing ability, literary knowledge, and general erudition.

As 1590 rolls around, the name “Shakespeare” finally appears and it is immediately mixed up in politics. So far there’s been a lot of hinting but nothing firm. One person in 1589 spoke of Hamlet and told of a playwright he called “English Seneca” after the Roman philosopher-dramatist. This modern Seneca had written Hamlet and, if you “entreat him fair on a frosty morning” you might be lucky enough to be treated to a barrage of “tragical speeches.”

But 1589 is too early for Hamlet, Shakespeare’s career-peak masterpiece, to already be famous so, as is the case with King John, it is commonly assumed that “English Seneca” was someone other than Shakespeare — the commentator was talking about someone else’s play with tragical speeches also called Hamlet.

By 1592, a Stratford businessman named Shakespeare is documented as being in London. He is loaning someone money. Also this year there is a cryptic reference to Shakespeare written by a dying writer who is angry at someone who may have been Shakespeare. The dying writer is impoverished and blames someone who thinks he is “the only Shake-scene in a country.” He quotes Shakespeare as he paints this person as cruel to the point of being heartless — he has a “tiger’s heart wrapped in a player’s hide.” This line is from Henry VI part 3 though there has been no publication or record of performance of this play in 1592 and in fact there is no record of it ever being performed in Elizabethan times though it was published anonymously in 1595.

So a dying writer is quoting Shakespeare and complaining about an actor (a player) he calls “Shake-scene” who has a lot of money which he uses to take advantage of “rare wits” whom he imitates like an “ape.” This rich “rude groom” who can’t write his way out of a paper bag “beautifies” himself with writers’ feathers just like Aesop’s crow. This “Shake-scene” is an “upstart crow” whom all writers should avoid lest they be mistreated: “seek you better masters,” says the dying writer.

The dying writer is not known to have interacted with the Stratford businessman named Shakespeare though he did have a contentious relationship with the richest actor of the day who was known to put on Shakespeare plays. So the “upstart crow” could have been the Stratford businessman or it could have been the rich actor. Both people fit reasonably well with the agrieved commentary of the dying writer.

Finally, in 1593 and 1594 two epic poems are beautifully published and the name “Shakespeare” now appears on a printed work. The epic poems don’t have a byline but they do have extraordinarily florid dedication letters written to the Earl of Southampton making the young earl out to be the greatest of the greats. The letters are signed (a printed signature) “William Shakespeare.” The epic poems are instant smash hits. The plays have been famous for a while now and now the name is famous too.

Even though “Shakespeare” is now well known as the epic poems sell out again and again in edition after edition, the name does not appear on any of the plays which finally do come into print starting in 1594. These printings are anonymous and they are all bootlegs, obviously printed without guidance from the author either using a script that got leaked or copied by people sitting in a theater or some such. Shakespeare is the only Elizabethan playwright whose play pubilications were exclusively bootlegs.

Little is said directly at that time or as the years went by about the anonymous Shakespeare plays suddenly apppearing though there are various hints one can interpret any way one wants. One observer tells of a writer who “hides behind another’s name.” Someone else speaks of a thieving “poet-ape who would be thought our chief” and who “makes each man’s wit his own.” Someone else writes of a writer in “purple robes” (nobility) who is controversial — no name is given of course. Others note openly that there are high-born writers whose names cannot be made public.

These could be references to Shakespeare or not: the interpretation of all of this commentary depends a lot upon one’s preconceptions; it is not clear to me that objectivity is possible when the commentary is purposely opaque. Pseudonyms and hidden authors were as common as dirt in Elizabethan England. This was a society outrageously sensitive to anything political. One wrong word and you could easily have your ears chopped off along with the tip of your nose. Ben Jonson famously got into such trouble. One of the times he was jailed, he was threatened with mutilation and hatched a plan for a family member to give him poison should his sentence be carried out. He was spared in the end and released and was able to become the second-most-famous writer in Elizabethan and Jacobean England.

So we’ve got epic poems published with dedications to a great earl (Southampton) and anonymous bootlegged plays coming out more or less randomly. This is where the politics come in. The Queen, the Moon goddess of England, reigned safely now with the Spanish armada defeated, but she was far from immortal and would in fact be dead within ten years at which time Shakespeare would write in a sonnet, “the mortal Moon hath her eclipse endured.” But one did not discuss the question of succession: it was illegal to utter a word about it. And yet the question was on everyone’s mind. With no heir to the throne, a bloody civil war loomed as a distinct possibility.

Of course, discussions of the succession did take place, quietly. Two factions emerged: the Southampton-Essex faction and what we might call the Cecilian faction. William Cecil, Lord Burghley, was the Queen’s closest advisor and the most powerful man in England. His son would inherit the role along with Burghley’s network of spies. Burghley would ultimately control the succession — the Earl of Southampton and the Earl of Essex, though popular, were no match for the Cecil family and their spies.

Whoever Shakespeare was, he managed to get himself neck deep in Elizabethan politics. The history plays or their precursors had apparently been used for political purposes through the 1580’s and a number of the characters in later plays served to lampoon courtly personalities. Burghley himself was accurately and mercilessly parodied in Hamlet. Burghley’s family motto was Cor Unum Son Una (One Heart One Way): this was used against him in the first publication of Hamlet in which the monarch’s close advisor was called “Corambis” which means “two-hearted” to those schooled in Latin. Later versions of Hamlet had the name of the Burghley character changed to the less obvious “Polonius.”

So Shakespeare was dedicating work to Southampton who wanted to control the succession and lampooning the great Burghley who was a lot more likely to actually control the succession. But factions don’t have to remain factions. Burghley, ever thoughtful about power and family, had an idea: Southampton would marry his grand-daughter Elizabeth. This would create a marriage alliance between the families and effectively combine the two factions. And now young Southampton had a choice to make (the young Elizabeth of course would do as she was told; she was no Elizabeth Bennett; Pride and Prejudice wouldn’t be written for centuries yet) and was under a great deal of pressure to accept Burghley’s offer or pay the price of stubborn disobedience.

Shakespeare at this time was not just dedicating work to Southampton, he was writing sonnet after sonnet using beautiful language that perhaps would flow not so well from any other pen in history to tell the young earl to marry and produce an heir. “From fairest creatures we desire increase, that thereby beauty’s Rose might never die,” open probably the most famous sonnet sequence in the English language. No one knows why Rose was capitalized and italicized in the original version — maybe the publisher just felt like printing it that way.

In the sonnets, Shakespeare calls the young nobleman, who is the subject of the first hundred-plus sonnets, his “lovely boy.” The sonnets are written in the first-person so they sound like autobiography though this doesn’t mean they are autobiography. Southampton is not named overtly though he is commonly assumed to have been the “lovely boy” or the “fair youth” as he is termed by scholars today. Toward the end of the 1590’s, the existence of the sonnets was commented upon but the commentator said the beautiful sonnets circulated only amongst the author’s “private friends” whoever they were: it was not clear if the commentator had seen any sonnets himself.

In any case, Shakespeare tells a nobleman who is apparently Southampton, “Make thee another self for love of me” as part of repeated eloquent entreaties to do what his best for his family and his name and so forth.

The sonnets and the rest of the pressure campaign failed to get Southampton to go along with Burghley’s plan. Southampton refused a literal sweetheart deal and put his faith and support behind the Earl of Essex — an earl whose head would soon roll. In the interim, Shakespeare continued to write sonnets to the lovely boy and was evidently heartbroken when Southampton and Essex stupidly tried to control the royal succession in 1601 and wound up as convicted traitors sentenced to death. Essex added his name to a short list of other earls who had run afoul of the Queen and whom she had ordered killed at various points of her reign — the Queen was capable of forgiveness but would also be ruthless when she thought it necessary. Three knights who had participated in the attempted coup were tortured to death.

Southampton languished in the Tower waiting for a death that did not come. His sentence was commuted. We don’t know why he didn’t die with the others but we do know that whoever wrote the sonnets expressed great joy at this outcome.

When the Queen died in 1603 and James took the throne averting civil war, Southampton was immediately released with his earldom restored to him. Shakespeare celebrates this in the ebullient Sonnet 107. The great author speaks of the “mortal moon” and her “eclipse,” he tells of a “peace” of “endless age,” and he appears to exult over the release of Southampton who was “supposed as forfeit to a confined doom” but is now safe and healthy. Technically one can interpret any sonnet any way one wants but the interpretation of this sonnet and the assumption that the “lovely boy” is the Earl of Southampton is commonly accepted and has been for centuries.

Obviously the sonnets have attracted much interest and commentary as they are the only first-person writings we have of the great author.

One biographer assumes the Stratford businessman was Shakespeare and must therefore have been commissioned to write the sonnets by Southampton’s family since he obviously could not be telling an earl how to live his life. If this biographer is right, if the sonnets really were a commissined work of art, it means some of the most heartfelt poetry in the English language was written by Shakespeare from the point of view of someone else.

Other more cautious biographers simply say the sonnets are beautiful and mysterious but don’t tell us much about Shakespeare himself. Sure, they are written in the first person but they are poems not letters and we don’t have the context and poems can be imaginative and artful and could mean anything. These biographers say it is a mistake to act as if the poems are letters to Southampton or anyone else and they make fun of people who read the sonnets that way and they sometimes come up with well-crafted zingers aimed at would-be sonnet interpreters such as this perfect one delivered by one of the top ivy league professors in the field regarding the sonnets and people who regard them as personally revealing: “Who could resist such voyeuristic pleasures!”

Radicals scoff at what they regard as the mainstream’s nonsensical fear of the sonnets many of which they say are quite easily interpreted. They point out that the literary earl was married to Burghley’s daughter, had a back-and-forth contentious relationship with Burghley himself, and was the father of young Elizabeth whom Southampton was supposed to marry. For the radicals, “Make thee another self for love of me” is a line that doesn’t require interpretation that makes no sense at all coming from the Stratford businessman.

The radicals admit they don’t know everything about the relationship between Southampton and the literary earl so they can’t offer a definitive explanation for sonnets offering love, guidance, and unconditional support over a ten year period, but the fact that every word isn’t crystal clear is irrelevant. The radicals claim the sonnets disqualify the Stratford businessman as a possible author and regard the idea that he was writing them in someone else’s voice as grasping at straws. Similarly, the idea that the sonnets are not what they appear to be — private correspondence — simply because they are poems rather than prose sounds to them like fear talking as opposed to reason.

An amusing coda to this part of the story is the fact that Lord Burghley’s descendant, the 18th Baron Burghley, Michael William Cecil, today regards the literary earl as the most logical choice for Shakespeare on the grounds that he couldn’t have so accurately pilloried the 1st Baron Burghley as Corambis/Polonius in Hamlet without being an insider at the Queen’s court. Mainstream scholars point out that there was plenty of gossip floating around London and so there were plenty of ways of learning courtly secrets second hand.

Getting back to the story, Southampton refuses the match in the early 1590’s setting himself up to almost lose his head several years later, Shakespeare continues to write sonnets to his lovely boy earl, Shakespeare plays — all bootlegs — are being published without the Shakespeare byline even though the name has become famous, and, just at this moment in history, a Stratford businessman whose name is actually Shakespeare has appeared in London and is loaning money and is perhaps being attacked as the heartless “upstart crow.”

This Shakespeare soon becomes a shareholder in London’s leading acting company whose members will later identify him as the great author when the great compilation of plays is brought to the world. Toward the end of the 1590’s, the Shakespeare name finally begins to appear sporadically on plays with no particular pattern. The Shakespeare name would seem to be valuable at this point but continued to be treated by publishers as optional. These publishers can’t tell us much about Shakespeare as a person but there are references to the actor/acting company shareholder Shakespeare that say something about the man but none of these references settles anything though all are interesting.

In a play put on in London by students, one of the student actors plays a famous actor from London’s leading acting company. So it’s a play where actors are portraying actors. Anyway, the famous actor is portrayed by the student actor as a bumbling fool who loves his fellow actor Shakespeare. The bumbling fool praises Shakespeare by saying he is nothing like Ovid. Of course the audience knows Shakespeare as an Ovidian poet and so it is immediately clear that Shakespeare’s colleague knows nothing. The fool says Shakespeare doesn’t “smell too much” of Ovid and is in fact superior to “that writer Ovid.” Then he says Shakespeare is superior to “that writer Metamorphosis.” Of course The Metamorphoses are a series of epic poems by Ovid. Ha-ha, the bumbling fool doesn’t know the difference between a writer and a poem.

You can imagine how the two “sides” choose to interpret this play (it’s more like a skit). The student play/skit might be implying that Shakespeare’s fellow actors are too stupid to know that the man they are working with is the greatest writer in England. Or maybe the play/skit is meant to imply that only an idiot would think the actor named Shakespeare was a great writer.

Another “it means whatever you want it to mean” contemporary reference to Shakespeare-the-acting-company-member is a cryptic epigram by a guy named Davies. The epigram says something about Shakespeare being an actor “playing kingly parts in sport” thus identifying Shakespeare as an actor. The title of the epigram is the interesting part: it addresses Shakespeare as “our English Terence.” Terence was a Roman writer thought by Cicero to have acted as a front man for two Roman aristocrats. Roger Ascham, one of Queen Elizabeth’s tutors, Montaigne, and other scholars of the times including, presumably, Davies, were aware of this.

So maybe Davies was telling us Shakespeare was acting as a front-man for an aristocrat or maybe he just thought Shakespeare’s work and Terence’s work had some similarities. The two “sides” make the obvious interpretations that fit their preconceived notions. It is not clear to me how helpful these references are as they are something of a Rorshack test.

Biographers cannot resolve these interpretation questions with evidence from Shakespeare’s lifetime. Plenty of people knew the Stratford businessman. His neighbors in Stratford wrote to each other and those letters mention their rich townsman. But they knew him as “shrewd in practical affairs” as one biographer puts it and make no mention of his being the greatest writer in England. In London, writers dedicated work to each other all the time, but no one dedicated any work to Shakespeare.

This is part of what bothered Mark Twain about the Shakespeare story. He didn’t think a “vague file of chipmunk tracks stringing through the dust of Stratford village” was sufficient evidence to make someone named Shakespeare actually be Shakespeare. Indeed, the mismatch between Shakespeare’s life and works makes even his most ardent biographers scratch their heads. “Shakespeare seems to have fluorished with a certain annihilation of the sense of himself,” one biographer tells us before switching gears and talking about the London theater of Shakespeare’s time or something else for which there are records.

Biographers of the other famous Elizabethan writer, Ben Jonson, have it much better. For example, a friend of Ben Jonson’s was in the great writer’s house and borrowed a book. This friend then wrote his own book and at the start of the book he wrote all about how he knows the great writer Ben Jonson personally and he was even in Jonson’s house because that’s how close they are and he got to see Jonson’s fancy library and from that library he borrowed a book loaned to him by a famous writer who only loans precious books to special people he trusts . . . and so on. He was name dropping just as I would if Ben Jonson loaned me a book.

A couple of hundred books from Jonson’s library survive to the present day which is great but what of Shakespeare?

A doctor visited Shakespeare’s daughter one day long after Shakespeare was dead and shortly after his son-in-law had left his daughter widowed. The doctor found that the widow whose birth name was the same as that of a famous author was selling manuscripts. She wasn’t literate and so had no use for him and the doctor had money. Would you like to have been in Shakespeare’s house with his daughter anxious to sell written material? Sure you would. Too bad though, the doctor wasn’t big on literature. He did buy the medical journal handwritten by Shakespeare’s doctor son-in-law.

The medical journal is now in a museum but that’s all we get from Shakespeare’s house either because of bad luck or because none of the half dozen or so William Shakespeare’s living in or near London at the time was a great writer.

And so it goes. Even if we lower the bar quite a ways and forget about books, letters, and manuscripts and look just for a signature, we come up empty. There are five documents with “signatures” in five different handwritings. But these aren’t distinctive signatures which all literate Elizabethans had. One “side” says this is hard evidence of illiteracy and they point out that we have signatures for every other Elizabethan author. The other “side” says Shakespeare may simply have not had the time or the inclination to sign the documents himself or perhaps all the signatures look different because of Shakespeare’s “teeming imagination.”

In 1604, the literary earl died. Experts argue about whether there are any post-1604 references in the plays and you know how that goes. There is nothing definitive.

In 1609, the sonnets were published. In the publisher’s dedication, the author is referred to as “our ever-living poet” which sounds like a eulogy and actually is a Shakespearean eulogy from Henry VI part 1. One “side” says the publisher knew the author was dead; the other “side” says it might sound like a eulogy but obviously isn’t.

In the sonnets, the author bragged about how great the writing was and says that they will allow his subject, Southampton, to be immortal. But the author himself would not be:

Your name from hence immortal life shall have,
Though I (once gone) to all the world must die. 

Radicals say he could not have been clearer if he had said, “I am using a pseudonym.” The mainstream says the sonnets are just poems and should not be overinterpreted.

In 1616, the Stratford businessman died and left his barns, stables, houses, land, cash, silverware, and everything else to his daughters in a detailed three-page will. He listed business associates including members of the acting company who would get a bit of cash or a sword or some such. No writers or publishers or books or manuscripts or art or musical instruments or maps or quills or desks or anything remotely literary is mentioned but many wills written by local lawyer-types were pretty dull no matter who the dying person was. All we can say is that it would have stopped a lot of controversy if Shakespeare had listed a writer or publisher amongst the businessmen who were his acquantances and colleagues. Still, he did mention three members of London’s leading acting company.

Suddenly, in 1623 all the plays show up and we get some marketing copy written in what many scholars agree is Ben Jonson’s style. The marketing copy says buy these great plays by our colleague Shakespeare and you won’t be sorry because all the other published plays have been stolen copies. The “buy the plays” letters in the preface appear above the printed names of two of the Stratford businessman’s fellow shareholders also mentioned in his will.

That’s almost the end of the reasonable part of the discussion. After the First Folio was came out, two people published retrospectives of past great writers that implied the First Folio preface had been falsified. One of them listed great writers by name plus another writer who used as his name a vibrating lance. The other person listed great writers along with the literary earl (he was the Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere) and didn’t mention the greatest of them all, Shakespeare, at all. Various counter-arguments are possible of course (maybe the first guy was being cute and the second guy didn’t care for Shakespeare, there’s no accounting for taste as they say blah, blah).

According to the radicals, the fact that one of the earls behind the First Folio was a member of the literary earl’s family is yet another smoking gun. When the family of someone known as the leading court playwright who never published a play suddenly publishes an author’s complete works and Ben Jonson ghostwrites a letter saying the acting company had been holding the plays (something for which there is no precedent) why on earth would you believe it when the person they are claiming as the author doesn’t even appear to have been literate, never met Southampton, wasn’t dead in 1609, never traveled in Europe, was nowhere near London in the 1580’s, and couldn’t have ever had all the information about the Queen’s court contained in the plays? Genius is one thing. Magical thinking is another.

According to the mainstream, the fact that the supposed hoax left behind no direct evidence even though many people would have known the truth and therefore became what all agree would be the most successful literary hoax and perhaps the most successful hoax of any kind in history is a good argument against believing it. And on top of everything else, Shakespeare’s gravesite has a stone with a rather silly poem on it but also has a monument that says “all that he hath writ leaves living art but page to serve his wit” which is hard to understand but says he was a writer and would also have had to have been falsified along with the First Folio preface and isn’t this getting a little unbelievable at this point because just how much falsification do you think the First Folio publishers are capable of?

Radicals counter that the silly poem on the gravestone doesn’t fit Shakespeare at all (Mark Twain thought it laughable that this poem would be on Shakespeare’s gravestone). Radicals say the obscure writing on the monument also sounds a lot like Ben Jonson just like the First Folio preface and members of the nobility had tons of power in those days and could easily keep anything they want under wraps including babies birthed by the Queen so let’s not pretend there was some kind of freedom of the press in Elizabethan England. And if you didn’t cook up half a dozen conspiracies in those days before breakfast you just weren’t trying and this little keep-it-quiet-who-Shakespeare-was thing would be nothing for them to pull off.

The mainstream then labels the radicals “conspiracy theorists” who can’t explain exactly what was happening and why people would want to keep the name hidden. Radicals, including credentialed experts, sometimes get compared to holocaust deniers and Moonshot deniers and are called snobs because they can’t believe the great writer could possibly have been a genius commoner.

Then the two sides start throwing things.

The unreasonable part of the discussion is in some ways the most interesting. I am personally swayed in one direction by the “too successful to be a real hoax” argument of the mainstream. On the other hand, claiming that someone else wrote early Shakespeare and the sonnets are written in someone else’s voice and the inside information about the Queen’s court was derived from someone else and that someone else signed important documents is a few too many “someone else’s” for my taste.

As usual, the comments of a mainstream overstating their case are most illuminating. It is one thing to say the radicals have no proof but quite another thing to claim the traditional theory is certainly true. So let’s dig into some of the nonsense a bit via a fictional-but-nevertheless-real dialogue.

Need Another Seven Astronauts

The space shuttle blew up and now NASA stands for “Need Another Seven Astronauts.” Get it?

It’s not funny.

Christa McAuliffe died for no reason. What happened was, for me, a touchstone, something to keep coming back to, something terrible to avoid. It’s way worse than most people realize.

It was January 1986. Florida had historic cold weather. Morton Thiokol (aka MT) engineers told their bosses no fucking way (technical language, not profanity). The launch was cancelled.

Dick Scobee, Judith Resnik, Ronald McNair, Michael Smith, Christa McAuliffe, Ellison Onizuka, and Gregory Jarvis boarding the space shuttle in January 1986.

The engineers at MT knew their shit (another technical term) and their bosses knew they knew their shit. Specifically, they knew the o-rings had never worked the way they were supposed to and they knew all about the danger this presented to the billion-dollar shuttle and to the astronauts aboard. The previous year, a launch at 53 degrees — the coldest launch ever — almost became the fires of Hell on takeoff. The primary o-ring failed, the secondary o-ring held, and disaster was averted — that time. No one knew how close the shuttle crew had come to the abyss until the solid rocket boosters were recovered: the engineers, looking at the soot on the wrong side of the primary o-ring, felt death’s dateless night settling into their bones.

And they didn’t forget.  

From the beginning of the o-ring story — they never worked the way they were supposed to — the engineers and their bosses considered redesigning the whole o-ring system but instead upgraded the secondary o-ring to “critical” status which recognized the fact that a failure of this one component would be catastrophic: the original idea that the o-rings would back each other up had to be scrapped because of the design flaw.

A redesign would (and eventually did) fix the problem but that was a year or two of work and NASA had a schedule to keep. 

On that terrible day in Florida in January 1986, the historic cold was historic as in 23 degrees historic. Given the failure the previous year at 53 degrees and given the fact that rubber gets stiff in the cold and given the fact that stiff o-rings don’t seal as well and given the fact that if both o-rings leak simulateously everyone dies, the engineers said “no fucking way” as in “no FUCKING way.” And that was that. Except that it wasn’t.

NASA, which at that time stood for National Aeronautics and Space Administration, pushed back on the launch cancellation (yes, really). On the phone call with an annoyed NASA administrator who had probably been president of his debating team in college, the MT engineers admitted they couldn’t PROVE temperature was the reason one of the o-rings had failed during the 53-degree launch. The NASA guy pointed out that the primary o-ring hadn’t worked perfectly at 75 degrees but had worked at 65 degrees: the engineers didn’t have perfect data and the thermometer was innocent until proven guilty. 

Since they couldn’t PROVE temperature was a factor, the NASA administrator suggested the MT engineers reconsider their it’s-too-cold cancellation.

Off the phone, speaking with their four bosses, the MT engineers said, again, that even though they couldn’t PROVE the o-rings were affected by temperature, they had very good reason to be concerned and strongly recommended keeping the launch fucking cancelled you morons are you batshit crazy why are we even having this conversation? They were more polite than that but they pointed out that “no fucking way” really does mean “no FUCKING way” and this instance was no exception.

They didn’t really talk that way but, on the edge of tears, two of them approached the boss’s table and drew impromptu diagrams to better explain what could happen if the two o-rings failed simultaneously. They got nowhere possibly because the safety process had always been absurdly rigorous with everyone expressing all kinds of concern about little imperfections in nozzle edges and other things that didn’t impact safety. So they had been, quite reasonably overdoing it a bit.

Now the four bosses, who, having been trained as engineers before moving into management positions should have known better, had become complacent. They thought the engineers were being overly cautious and they wanted to please NASA because NASA decides where the money flows. 

One way or another, ALL of the engineers saying, effectively in unison, “we think the shuttle might explode” didn’t make an impression on four human beings who had become four brick walls. They were smart, experienced, knowledgeable, good, kind, and honest. They were consummate professionals. But irrationality had got the better of them. 

He was told to take off his engineering hat.

THOUGHT 1: You can’t prove it is unsafe; therefore, it is safe.

THOUGHT 2: The evidence indicates it may not be safe; but evidence can be wrong.

QUOTE 1: “Am I the only one who wants to fly?”

QUOTE 2: “It’s time to take off your engineering hat and put on your management hat.”

Quote 1 was spoken by the senior management guy to everyone in the room. Quote 2 was spoken by the senior management guy to the newest member of the management team. Thought 1 and Thought 2, irrationality distilled, came out and were admitted to during the hearings. The late Sally Ride, having her “What were you thinking?” questions answered so starkly, staring into the cold depths of irrational behavior, was left momentarily speechless. 

I often imagine Christa McAuliffe and the other six occupants of the shuttle’s cockpit listening to the back-and-forth first between Morton Thiokol and NASA and then between the managers and engineers at Morton Thiokol. If McAuliffe and her fellow astronauts been privvy to the discussions, there would have been no launch.

All seven astronauts survived the explosion, by the way, but died when the intact cockpit arced into the Atlantic ocean at 200 mph as Christa McAuliffe’s students watched on live TV. 

After the funerals, the formal inquiry began. Sally Ride spent a week drowning in insanity and we humans learned a lot about ourselves.

But it gets worse. The space shuttle was by no means an isolated occurrence. This sort of thing not only happens all the time, it is happening right now. That’s what we are going to explore in this essay. I don’t know what to call it. How about this: Wherefore art thou Irrational?

The intact cockpit arced to the right. McAuliffe and the other astronauts were alive but doomed.

My great uncle was dying. It was the early 1980’s. He had stomach ulcers and there was no cure. Drastic surgeries (he had part of his stomach removed) did not guarantee success. Ulcers were caused by excess stomach acid — the bacteria theory had been thrown out. My great uncle died at about the same time as Christa McAuliffe. (As far as I know: my family history has a few gaps.) 

Right around this time, a medical researcher, inspired by a colleague who doubted the stomach acid theory, found evidence indicating that ulcers were actually caused by bacteria. He got busy curing ulcers.

He was eventually able to publish his findings but it was an uphill battle convincing other researchers. The ulcer thing was old news — doctors had treated thousands of patients for “too much stomach acid” based on the 1954 study that had supposedly ruled out bacteria but that no one had bothered to check. 

The heretical researcher, desperate to convince people, cultured bacteria from an ulcer patient’s stomach, turned it into a delicious cocktail, and then had his own stomach checked for ulcers. His boss told him he (the boss) didn’t want to know why he (the researcher) was checking himself for ulcers. The researcher, without informing his boss OR his wife, drank the delicious cocktail. It was NOT happy hour.

Kneeling on his bathroom floor after making his fateful decision, and busily throwing up, he looked up and found himself staring into the eyes of his not-happy wife. His only regret is not recording her reaction. Suffice to say the mother of four children was not happy about her partner-in-life purposely making himself sick with a potentially contagious illness that often turned into deadly stomach cancer. 

The researcher checked himself again and found ulcers. He had infected himself with bacteria. He had no ulcers prior to the self-infection. After the self-infection, he had ulcers. Ergo, bacteria (Helicobacter Pylori) caused ulcers. Now it was a matter of creating a treatment regimen that would work on most patients. 

He didn’t end up treating himself because his immune system cleared the infection without help. He got to work but his colleagues made it clear they were not going to believe him no matter how many “stunts” he pulled. It took another ten years to convcince them. Meanwhile, my great uncle died. 

The mainstream of any field is like a jackhammer. You can’t sculpt David with it but it sure is useful for the right job. One person, even a committed scientist willing to risk his life (in more ways than one), can’t make the final decision no matter how great a guy he is. The stubborn mainstream must have the the final word.

Here’s what the mainstream finally said: “Oh my God, we’ve been wrong all this time.”

Our hero, Barry Marshall, won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2005 along with his mentor Robin Warren whose research had paved the way to Marshall’s doubts about the old theory. 

Barry Marshall accepting the Nobel Prize.

The wine at the Nobel dinner is said to be exceptional and I like to imagine the researcher’s wife, with the contents of a couple of glasses of wine resting in her belly and twenty years’ distance between her and the events in the bathroom, staring into her husband’s Nobel laureate eyes. I figure he looks good in a tuxedo and his eyes are probably gleaming what with the pretty medallion you get and all. I imagine this is the moment when she finally forgives him for putting his research ahead of his own life. 

That year, 2005, was a banner year for rationality. In addition to ulcers being officially curable, the terrifying and deadly human irrationality phenomenon called “arson investigation” was finally discredited. This nonsense would no longer be admissible in U.S. courts and people convicted on the basis of drivel would be released from prison. 

It was too late for Todd Willingham. He had been executed the year before for supposedly setting fire to his house and murdering his three children with no discernible motive. Now, one year later, with the worms crawling in and crawling out of Willingham’s rotting corpse, the pseudo-scientific arson investigation that had condemned an innocent man to death was finally taken out with the trash.

This thing called “arson investigation” was a bizarre form of pseudoscience involving a coterie of people who credentialed one another so that they could provide “expert” testimony in court. This process was akin to hiring a whole team of foxes to guard your hen-house. I don’t want to repeat myself but I am saying that “arson investigation” was allowed in U.S. courts into the early years of the twenty-first century: witch trials happened in my lifetime.

Today, “arson investigation” is known to be the equivalent of tea-leaf reading not quite up to the standards of Madame Trelawney.

After being fingered by people who were basically clowns, and not the entertaining kind, Todd Willingham was convicted on the basis of “pour patterns” and “crazed glass” and other fantasies. The judge allowed it while Willingham’s lawyer, the free kind, went through the motions, punched the clock, assumed his client was guilty, and did not insist that the scientific tests using modern equipment be considered in the case. These tests, with the results available during the trial, ruled out gasoline or any other type of accelerant being used to start the fire but didn’t save Willingham.

In 2004, with his last words, Willingham professed his innocence. The New Yorker had a heartbreaking piece about it some years back. The fire that killed Todd Willingham’s three children was an ordinary electrical fire. He died for being too poor to not have space heaters in his house and for being too poor to afford Alan Dershowitz as his lawyer.

Unless the New Yorker article is a tissue of lies, there would seem to be no doubt the state of Texas killed an innocent man.

Todd Willingham did not purposely burn down his house to murder his three children.

In 2007, Rudy Guede murdered Meredith Kercher in Italy, left his DNA inside her body, and fled to Germany where he was quickly caught. But Amanda Knox was just too pretty for police to ignore. Before Guede was identified as the murderer, they bullied her into “confessing” that she had seen her boss kill her housemate. In fact, they told her they knew she was present when Meredith died and told her that she must have blocked what happened out of her mind and at 2 am had her convinced that if she didn’t “remember” she would go to jail for life as an accomplice to her housemate’s murder.

A smack to the back of Knox’s head was enough to “convince” her to “remember” the absurd story concocted by police about her (totally innocent) boss. Knox’s boss had an alibi with half a dozen witnesses. Knox had an alibi too: her boyfriend, Raffaele Sollecito. The police took care of that by nailing Sollecito with their little confession game and the two naive kids ended up in prison for four years before the judge in the second trial sent them home.

When in Italy to not underestimate the ability of the police to manipulate their system: if you’ve been arrested, say voglio un avvocato and NOTHING else; if offered a pen with which to sign your name on ANY document, touch neither pen nor document. 

The strange little farce that followed Knox and Sollecito’s display of naiveté might be called a “trial.” But calling it “Monty Python’s Burn the Witch skit brought to life” would be more descriptive. Knox and Sollecito didn’t need a defense: the prosecution’s case was their defense. The tabloids didn’t exactly embrace rationality, however, nor did the general public.  

The guilty verdict was a foregone conclusion. Meanwhile, the actual murderer (Guede) entered a guilty plea and was quietly imprisoned.

It didn’t matter how obvious the whole thing was. Amanda Knox has nice breasts and millions of people decided to believe the prosecution’s theory which was literally that she had seduced Sollecito and Guede into killing for her. The story was too good to not be true.

Even the victim’s family fell for it. To this day, Meredith Kercher’s parents and siblings believe their beloved was murdered by an irresistible woman who controlled her sweetie-pie boyfriend and a drug dealer who had been horribly abused as a child and who was suffering from what we call “mental illness” that resulted from his childhood trauma. Guede wrote of the horror of being awash in Meredith Kercher’s blood and how it reminded him of the blood that poured out of his own head when he was five years old, hit over head and locked out of his house. Guede wrote that he would never hurt a woman — who were all beautiful mothers as far as he was concerned — and said he had tried to save Meredith but could not. 

After the verdict, with Knox and Sollecito facing much of the rest of their lives in prison, the first judge explained everything in the report he produced per Italian law. This report stands as one of history’s most eloquent celebrations of circular reasoning. The judge carefully explains that all evidence is uncertain and that once you have an idea of what will be proven, you can always create a self-reinforcing scenario and a fortress of certainty that cannot be breached even by scientific data which can, the judge reminds us, be wrong. It was and is breathtaking in its overt rejection of the most basic logic.  

Knox and Sollecito and their lawyers appealed and there was another trial. The second judge knew (and said) it was all nonsense; for him, freeing the two innocent people was just a matter of dotting his i’s and crossing his t’s. He contracted a couple of scientists at Italy’s top university to evaluate the “evidence” presented in the case. The two scientists predictably wrote a careful, detailed report full of careful, detailed scientific commentary. But the report of the scientists can be boiled down to three words: That’s. Not. Funny.

The second judge put an end to the real-life Monty Python skit and sent the two kids home. On the plane ride home, Knox repeatedly forgot that she no longer had to speak Italian. Sollecito, at his home Italy, just stood in front of his open refrigerator staring at what was inside and marveling that he was allowed to eat it. The actual murderer, Guede, remained in prison and was released in 2021. 

For Knox, being pretty was a crime.

Sollecito was offered a deal by police: if he testified against Knox, he could go home. He told them to go to Hell. 

The speed of light is constant. It couldn’t have been faster in the early universe because we know the speed of light is a constant. That’s what we call things like the speed of light: physical constants. As in constant. As in unchanging. We don’t need evidence. It is constant because it is constant.  

Except for one thing. Physicists have no knowledge about how or why or when the physical “constants” were set to their present values. There is no guarantee at all that any physical constant is truly constant over astronomical time. In fact, anyone wondering about the big bang and the current uniformity of the observable universe might wonder if a faster speed of light at the moment of creation might have smoothed things out enough for the universe to look the way it does today. 

I had this idea myself as an undergraduate when I first learned about the big bang. It would be really interesting, I thought, if the physical constants weren’t constant and it might explain some things. A lot of people had this idea. A few of them pursued it seriously and created detailed theories incorporating the fairly obvious idea.

They found the door to the journals locked by physicists who, having been raised on relativity and quantum mechanics, were nevertheless so unwilling to think outside the box that they could not accept even the possibility that the speed of light might vary in astronomical time. This is more like just opening the box a tiny crack than actually thinking outside it but apparently it was still too much for mainstream scientists. 

The theory might still be languishing in the minds of a handful of people if it hadn’t been for a particularly strong-willed physicist who basically took a battering ram to the locked door. It took ten or twenty years but today variable speed of light (VSL) theories make up a thriving sub-field in physics and may have already sown the seeds of the next big breakthrough.

Joao Magueijo, the physicist who wouldn’t stay in the box.

A person sitting in the cockpit of the space shuttle listening to the NASA-MT conversations would abort the launch and the same goes for a child listening to the conversation. It was that bad. 

Anyone who is not a professional making his or her livelihood by treating ulcer patients for excess acid would pay attention when a researcher is so sure of himself that he drinks a bacteria cocktail and gives himself ulcers.

A panel of independent scientists tasked with evaluating “pour patterns” for the courts would send the “arson investigators” home to try their hand at writing fiction.

Only people whipped up with patriotic fervor or, like Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, seeking attention, would look at a prosecution’s nonsensical “case” and believe two people removed their own DNA from the crime scene but left a burglar’s DNA untouched. 

Only a professional physicist consumed by worries about peers and fashion and status to the point where he or she has lost the ability to think creatively would declare upon first hearing about the theory from a colleague that VSL stands for “very silly” because “everyone knows the physical constants can’t change” when in fact we don’t know any such thing and all physicists know we don’t know any such thing. 

In all of these cases we find that people, including professional scholars, jurists, and scientists, are capable of puting aside “evidence-based reasoning” in favor of “social reasoning.”

Evidence-based reasoning means simply following the evidence where-ever it leads which usually means creating a set of probabilities for what might be true. The number of people who believe something is irrelevant to evidence-based reasoning; how something sounds (even if it sounds “very silly”) is irrelevant; how pretty a young woman is has nothing to do with whether she murdered her housemate; politics doesn’t matter; even expertise doesn’t matter; money is irrelevant; fashion and status don’t count; your personal bias will impact your judgment of probabilities and must be acknowledged and set aside as much as possible; certainty or near-certainty must be regarded as extremely rare things, not as the goal of your investigation. Evidence-based reasoning boils down to honesty. 

I like to conceptualize social reasoning as coming in three flavors: trust-based, faith-based, and premise-based. Trust (type 1) and faith (type 2) are part of what we do as humans: we can’t get along without believing in each other at least some of the time and we have to have a set of beliefs and values that define us and that we don’t have to prove. There’s nothing wrong with trust and faith. 

But premise-based reasoning is a different beast. In premise-based reasoning, we decide what must be true and then pretend to do evidence-based reasoning in order to defend it. We don’t follow the evidence where-ever it may lead; we decide where we are going and then we stretch and twist and flip and suppress the evidence as needed to make sure we get there. In the end, reality is buried and, if we are launching a space shuttle or engaged in another life-and-death decision-making process, people may be buried too. 

Most of what I know is type 1 social reasoning: trust. I haven’t been to the Moon personally but I’m certain humans have walked on the Moon.

On the other hand, my faith in common ground and the power of common ground and the value of common ground isn’t something I can prove — I just like common ground and believe in common ground. That’s type 2 social reasoning.

I try not to do type 3 social reasoning, ever. When I found out that I had been fooled by the coverage of the Amanda Knox case I didn’t try to twist the evidence to fit my previous belief, I admitted I hadn’t looked into it properly: I had assumed that the “double DNA knife” was a real thing. It wasn’t, I was mistaken, and that happens sometimes: trust carries with it the risk of being misled. 

It’s easy enough to identify type 3 social reasoning: look for zingers. The weaker a premise-based argument is the more likely the practitioner of type 3 social reasoning is to resort to zingers, gotchas, and clever phrasing.

Legal reasoning (which was NOT done in the Knox or Willingham cases) is a variant of type 3 social reasoning. We could call it type 3* social reasoning where the asterisk alerts us to the fact that the idea of legal reasoning is NOT to find the truth but to determine if the accused can be proven guilty after being presumed innocent. The presumption of innocence is meant to prevent type 3* social reasoning from turning into ordinary type 3 social reasoning in which the accused can be assumed guilty as a premise and then that premise can be supported by zingers and other tricks of the trade (which we will discuss in a moment). This sometimes leads to an innocent person being “proven” guilty. 

On the other hand, type 3* social reasoning sometimes allows criminals to be found “not guilty” in courtrooms or in political settings. Type 3* social reasoning allows for something that modern parlance has amusingly labeled “plausible deniability.” This is a lovely construction but it is of course contradiction in terms since the denial is actually implausible but cannot be get over the legal bar of presumed innocence and is therefore not so much plausible as it is “good enough.” 

A murderer who clearly “did it” might go free because of “plausible deniability.” A perpetrator of sexual assault might achieve an exalted status even if he makes us wish we had an award for the worst liar in history. Even a president who engages in illegal weapons transfers can retain a positive legacy in many people’s minds as long as he might possibly not have “done it.” The fact is, “deny, deny, deny” works because “deniability,” even if it is only barely “plausible” is enough to protect the person (or idea) that is presumed innocent.   

The typical type 3 social reasoner is a scholar or scientist heavily invested in a long-standing paradigm like “ulcers are caused by stomach acid.” It may also be a judge heavily invested in a legal outcome such as “Amanda Knox is guilty.” For type 3 social reasoners, evidence is a tool used to defend a premise. Following the evidence where-ever it leads is not the point; the premise is the point. The tactics/techniques/methods used to defend a premise I like to group into five catagories. 

The first tactic is the most obvious: select only the evidence that supports the desired outcome and spend a lot of time talking about it. Contradictory evidence is sometimes consciously ignored by scientists and scholars and sometimes not even seen at all almost as if it is invisible to them. This tactic is dangerous for practitioners because it can damage their credibility but is commonly employed nevertheless. Marshall’s ulcers-are-caused-by-bacteria evidence was simply ignored in the United States for the better part of a decade.

If contradictory evidence cannot be ignored, it has to be “explained” by a made-up scenario: this is the second technique and makes up the bulk of paradigm-saving arguments when a paradigm is drowning as it were in contradictory evidence. It is relatively safe inasmuch as creating a plausible scenario is something we all do to fill in gaps in our knowledge though it can sometimes spin out of control and into comedy again damaging the credibility of practitioners. Meredith Kercher’s family was taken in by made-up scenarios many of which were comical. 

The third technique is to make a legal (type 3*) argument: if the other “side” can’t prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt, you can claim “plausible deniability” and ignore the other side’s case. This is how the crew of the space shuttle died. What’s ironic is that legal reasoning actually is appropriate for something like a space shuttle: however, as a horrified Sally Ride noted, it is the people who want to launch who have to prove their case, NOT the other way around. In general, paradigms that have become entrenched ban be defended by a demand that any challenge be accompanied by absolute proof. Magueijo’s Variable Speed of Light (VSL) theory ran into this obstacle. 

The fourth technique is to introduce faux-complexity. After a skeletal version of an idea or event is agreed upon, careful analysis of tiny details can improve understanding. When there is a lot of uncertainty (or outright fraud) and when the goal of of the type 3 social reasoner is to deflect attention from the uncertainty (or fraud), complexity is useful tactic. Meredith Kercher was murdered by a mentally ill drifter with no visible means of support in the middle of crime spree who left his DNA inside her body and on her purse and left his handprint in her blood on a pillow and who then fled to Germany. Type 3 social reasoners used the claim that case was “complex” as part of a cover-up of their own criminal behavior.  

The fifth and final technique is to simply resort to nonsense — either nonsensical “facts” or nonsensical “reasoning.” Arguing with factually incorrect information is dangerous for someone trying to defend a paradigm because, again, they can lose credibility. Faulty reasoning is dangerous for the same reason but is much more common. The most common type of faulty reasoning is circular reasoning. Todd Willingham was first presumed guilty in violation of his civil rights and then the premise that he was guilty was supported by “arson investigators” who claimed to be “experts” because their closed community had annointed its members as “experts” because whenever they learned to recognize the same “pour patterns” as the other “experts.”

(Yes, it really was that bad. Willingham was executed (legally murdered would more accurate) in the 21st century because evidence no more valid than tea-leaf reading was permitted in a U.S. court until 2005.) 

Thomas Kuhn’s famous book about paradigm shifts, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, makes the fascinating point that circular reasoning actually has its place in a comparison of two paradigms: consciously assuming a premise and following out the results of that assumption while keeping in mind that you are engaging in circular reasoning is one way of confirming or denying the value and even the probable correctness of the premise.

However, circular reasoning does NOT prove the premise and even quite erudite practioners can exhibit overconfidence in their premise when they carelessly use circular reasoning and then claim that they have proof. At most, assuming that your paradigm is correct can demonstrate its explanatory power which then allows you to compare it to other paradigms and see which one is more effective and having “everything fall into place.” So circular reasoning is a valid part of the debate. In such a debate, both paradigms are considered as premises that might or might not be true and their value is compared. 

However, a paradigm cannot prove itself true by circular reasoning: it can only be claimed to be superior to another proposed paradigm that must also be assumed true in order to make the comparison. Smart people frequently use circular reasoning to try to prove their paradigm: the trick is to skip the step where assume the truth of the competing paradigm. 

Before we examine the main topic of this essay, I want to relate what is a pretty much perfect, very real and very recent, “textbook example” of type 3 social reasoning combined with a technique #2, made-up scenarios, used to defend a long-standing paradigm that may very well be wrong. 

This example is also hugely consequential for all of humanity, maybe.

First, let’s go back a few decades. As a kid (I think I was about twelve), I learned that our solar system formed four billion years ago from a cloud of gas and dust. I expected that of course scientists would next say it was just a matter of time before we discovered planets around other stars in the galaxy. I looked carefully in the book I was reading but didn’t even find speculation about other star systems.

I don’t know if other books written over the last several decades were willing to make this obvious point: probably the galaxy is full of planets. It might be an interesting study to see how many professional astronomers were on record as stating the obvious. Fast forward a few decades and exoplanets are being discovered every day.

I’m shocked, shocked to see that the galaxy is full of planets. 

So it is now safe to talk about extra-solar planets (called exoplanets by professional astronomers). But what about life on those other planets? Hmm. Let’s see. Life on earth appeared billions of years ago almost as soon as the planet was formed out of gas and dust. Hmm. Might there be possibly be life that evolved on any of the billions of non-earth planets in the galaxy over the past few billion years? We don’t know. 

Or do we?

The first visual exoplanet. The twelve-year-old boy was right!

An object tracked in 2017 entered our solar system most definitely from the outside. It was the first extra-solar object ever seen and there it was just ambling through our living room as if we had an open-door policy. It didn’t knock though it did wink.

At first astonomers thought, quite reasonably, that this extra-solar visitor they were tracking was an asteroid. It might have been a comet of course but comets have tails and there was no tail hence the asteroid designation.

So it was an asteroid ejected from another solar system now wandering between solar systems. There are undoubtedly many such objects in the galaxy so it wasn’t really that big of a deal. All of the new equipment we’ve built was working well and astronomers celebrated our new ability to detect extra-solar vistors to go along with our new ability to detect extra-solar planets. All was well.

But then the visitor went off course. Way off course. Astronomers really know their gravity and they are very good at tracking things and predicting trajectories. They knew absolutely where this thing was going to go. But it didn’t do what it was supposed to do. 

Normally, an astronomical object going off course is no big deal. Comets outgas when they are close to the sun and the gas is a jet and the jet sends the comet randomly off course in a totally irregular and unpredictable manner. So it should have been nothing. Except comets have tails.

Well, maybe the tail was invisible for some reason. Our equipment is pretty good at detecting cometary tails, but a comet with an invisible tail was still the best guess. But there were problems. Its acceleration off the gravitational trajectory was awfully smooth. Even a comet with an invisible tail would not deviate smoothly. Where was the randomness? Odd

And then it got far from the sun. The outgassing and acceleration should have abruptly stopped — that’s how comets behave. But it kept right on accelerating smooth as silk. Quite odd.

And it was rotating. Every 8 hours and a few minutes it would complete one rotation. It was like clockwork. Outgassing — even with invisible gas — should have changed its rotation rate. It didn’t. Crazy odd.

Oh, and there’s one more thing. Comets are more or less round. This thing wasn’t even close to round. It was shaped like nothing anyone had ever seen. There wasn’t enough data to create a clear picture (if you saw a picture, it was an “artist’s conception”) but scientists knew it was either long and narrow like a crazy interstellar cigar or wide and thin like a wild interstellar pancake.

What do we say now? We’ve done “odd” and “quite odd” and “crazy odd.” It’s a something with a never-changing rotation and a never-seen-before shape going smoothly off course no matter how far from the sun it gets and all that’s according to the some of the most conservative scientists on Earth. So what do we say? Odd, quite odd, crazy odd, super odd?

Or maybe just “Oh my fucking God.” 

Whether the scientists did or did not use the lord’s name in this not-so-respectful but hopefully not-too-offensive manner (I’m only human for god’s sake), the scientists were, let us say, nonplussed. It’s a wonderful word nonplussed; it goes back to Shakespeare’s time. We don’t know who made it up, but it came to mean “bewildered and shocked” though it is sometimes these days used to convey “unfazed and nonchalant” which I find confusing but then words are pliable things over time and we must be flexible. But I digress.

Getting back to the story, the nonplussed astronomers called the object “Oumuamua” which is Hawaiian for “messenger from afar.” The astonomers tracked it until it left the solar system. Today, it is too far away to track; it’s gone. No one knows what it was. 

Had you listed Oumuamua’s observed characteristics hypothetically for any astronomer in 2016, they would have laughed and complimented you on your understanding of their instruments and on your creativity. Before you even finished describing your hypothetical off-trajectory-with-no-tail-and-smooth-as-silk-deviation object, you’d be interrupted: “Yes, yes, a spaceship. We aren’t going to see that. But you sure do know your stuff.”  

When presented with the real thing, astronomers went right to type 3 social reasoning: Oumuamua couldn’t possibly be what it looked like so they had to make up other possible explanations (any one of which could be true we must note). 

Oumuamua was a “hydrogen iceberg” never before seen or imagined.

Oumuamua was a “tenuous gravitationally bound gas” never before seen or imagined.

As long as their theories, however unlikely, didn’t “sound funny” the scientists would be safe from ridicule.

Avi Loeb, the chairman of the astronomy department at Harvard, doesn’t believe in type 3 social reasoning, so he stated the obvious. Loeb and post-doc Shmuel Bialy said Oumuamua might be exactly what it looked like: a derelict spacecraft built by a non-human civilization.

Based on its shape and trajectory, Loeb and the post-doc guessed it might be a “lightsail.” The concept of a lightsail has long been known to scientists: an interstellar spaceship could be built that would use the sun’s photons to accelerate with no need of fuel; very high speeds can theoretically be achieved this way. A human-produced lightsail would be an ideal way to remotely explore our nearest stellar neighbor : we may well build one in the forseeable future.

Loeb regards the scenarios his colleagues presented to avoid talking about extrasolar civilizations as unlikely in the extreme. On the other hand, he would be the first to admit that without a photograph, we can’t identify it definitively. If you were betting and you had the option of betting on “spacecraft” or betting on “anything else,” you would be perfectly justified in choosing the latter. 

From an epistemological standpoint, the Oumuamua story is a thing of beauty: I couldn’t have created a a better example of type 3 social reasoning if I were making it up. Had you presented Oumuamua’s characteristics to any professional astronomer in 2016 that astronomer would have said, “You are describing a spacecraft.” But then the real thing came through in 2017 and they couldn’t bring themselves to say it. Only Loeb and Bialy (and maybe a few others I don’t know about) could. 

Most, and probably all, of the claims that UFO’s are flying around in earth’s atmosphere or landing in our backyards or abducting our spouses are utter nonsense and can be sensibly ignored. Unfortunately, this “overhang of nonsense” has done its part to prevent nervous astronomers from admitting what Loeb notes is nothing more or less than a simple fact:

The only thing we know of that would behave like Oumuamua is a spacecraft.

A second visitor from outside the solar system was tracked recently. No imaginations were stretched: it was a comet. There will undoubtedly be more extra-solar objects to talk about in the coming years. Maybe we’ll see another Oumuamua-like thing and get a better look at it. Maybe it will turn out to be a natural object never before seen or imagined. Or maybe it will be the most momentous discovery in human history.

From an epistemological perspective, it doesn’t matter whether or not Loeb’s guess about Oumuamua is right or the mainstream’s pronouncements are right. What matters is the question, “What is science?” Here’s one answer: “I’m terrified of being lumped in with the alien abduction crowd so I have to define science as that which refuses to accept momentuous discoveries if they sound funny and therefore even though Oumuamua looks exactly like a spacecraft, I’m going to insist that it MUST be a natural object even though I have no idea what sort of natural object would behave as Oumuamua does.”

That’s not evidence-based reasoning. If you are doing evidence-based reasoning you follow the evidence where-ever it leads and you estimate probabilities without worrying about fashion or status.

What are the chances Oumuamua was a spacecraft? Our estimate isn’t based on much data because we’ve only seen two extra-solar visitors. If you assume there are three types of extra-solar object — comets, asteroids, and spacecraft — then Oumuamua was a spacecraft unless something went wrong with the astonomers’ instrumentation. With only three types of extra-solar object under consideration, the probability that Oumuamua was a spacecraft would be above 99%.

But there could possibly be many, many types of extra-solar object that we are unaware of and unless the galaxy is filled with spacecraft produced by civilizations that have come and gone over the past few billion years (a possibility!), it would seem unlikely that the first extra-solar object we see should be one of those spacecraft. Surely natural objects of all types ejected from solar systems hugely outnumber spacecraft. On the other hand, maybe once a civilization gets going technologically it becomes natural to send out thousands of spacecraft a year.

We’ve sent half a dozen or so exploratory vehicles out of our own solar system already and we’re just getting started. Remote exploration with small spacecraft can easily get cranked up to huge numbers. Maybe, over the next thousand years of so, we’ll send out millions of small craft of ever-increasing sophistication. It is a certainty that most of all of the spacecraft we’ve sent out will eventually pass through other solar systems. Who knows what the residents, if any, of those other solar systems will think?

We don’t know enough to come up with a good estimate of probability for what Oumuamua might be. It looks, from the data, exactly like a spacecraft — that’s a simple fact that has, unaccountably, caused most scientists to run away screaming nonsense about how Oumuamua MUST BE some kind of exotic object. We’ll know a lot more in ten years when we’ve seen more extra-solar objects.  

And yet we’ve learned a lot from Oumuamua — about ourselves. The scientists’ reaction to Oumuamua is indicative of the “resistance” to all momentous discovery that Thomas Kuhn talked about in his famous book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Eventually, humanity will encounter other technological civilizations or their remains. It’s just a matter of time. And that time may have been 2017. Yes, you can ignore alien abduction stories. But you can’t ignore Oumuamua. 

Harvard professor Avi Loeb says the only thing we know of that would act like Oumuamua is a spacecraft. Lucky for him he has tenure.

All of the previous cases are done deals in one way or another: the shuttle exploded; ulcers are curable; Willingham is dead; Knox and Sollecito are free; VSL is a going concern; Oumuamua is gone but not forgotten. There are other cases, showcases for epistomology, that are still in process that have a great deal to say about the nature of knowledge, reality, and what we call “truth.”

Type 3 social reasoning rears its head as always and we get to see the squid ink, demands that non-mainstream theories be perfect and proven beyond doubt, scenarios galore to “explain” any problems with the “official” premise, and a shocking stream of nonsense emitted from the pens of experts who are absolutely certain when there is no certainty to be had and are therefore driven to employ the tools of professional propagandists.

This final example carries with it the usual high intellectual cost of premise-based reasoning but we can rejoice in one thing: no lives are at stake. 

Still, I worry. If, in the long run, humanity doesn’t survive, our end may be traceable to our inability or unwillingness to make use of the great gift of rationality. There’s nothing wrong with trust (type 1) and nothing wrong with faith (type 2), but premise-based (type 3) reasoning can be downright dangerous. It killed Christa McAuliffe and the other astronauts, almost destroyed Knox and Sollecito (because the judge wasn’t impartial), sacrificed my great uncle, almost squashed some interesting physics, and ran scared from a fascinating visitation in 2017.

The Todd Willingham case was a little different as there was a strong component of type 1 social reasoning in which the judge and jury trusted the “arson investigators” who were actually tea-leaf readers. In all of the cases where people have been hurt, they’ve been hurt by an excess of certitude.  

The following exposition I dedicate to all people who have died when certainty infected their fellow humans who did not actually know anything.  

In the 1990’s, a doctoral student at UMass Amherst told his professors he wanted to write his Ph.D. thesis on a forbidden topic: “Shakespeare,” according to this otherwise completely normal student, was a pseudonym. Mainstream research, the student claimed, had uncovered this a long time ago.

The faculty members listened patiently. The student, Roger Stritmatter, said that it was actually pretty obvious from the historical record that the leading court playwright in Elizabethan England — a man known as a great playwright even though no plays were attributed to him — had been using the “Shakespeare” pseudonym as his mask.

According to Stritmatter, the main thing the traditional attribution had going for it was just that — tradition.

Stritmatter proposed to the UMass Amherst Comparative Literature faculty that he be allowed to accept what he regarded as obvious, move forward in his study of Shakespeare, and take on an interesting project for his graduate work. 

The man who Stritmatter said was Shakespeare had left behind a bible and in that bible were markings and underlinings. One thing was clear: if this man was NOT Shakespeare, his bible identified him as a big fan of Shakespearean biblical allusions!

Stritmatter proposed to study this bible and its centuries-old markings along with Shakespeare’s favorite biblical allusions and the biblical allusions of other Elizabethan authors. He would write up the results of a multi-year study as a dissertation.  

At the beginning of the 20th century physicists were doing what Stritmatter was proposing: they knew matter was mostly empty space between tiny atoms and they were studying the atoms while the mainstream complained that matter couldn’t be mostly empty space because that “sounded funny.”  Stritmatter proposed to assume the traditional authorship attribution was wrong and move on with his study of Shakespeare even if his work “sounded funny.” 

You would think the professors at a reputable university would say no to this crazy project. Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare. We know he did without a doubt. If the Comparative Literature program at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst is going to grant a Ph.D. to someone writing about the so-called “Shakespeare authorship question,” then maybe the Department of Geology will need to start granting doctorates to people who believe the Earth is flat.

No, no, no, a thousand times NO!

But the professors said YES and Stritmatter did his research, wrote his dissertation, and got his Ph.D. 

UMass Amherst: headquarters of the rebellion.

Today (circa 2020) the heretic of Amherst is a tenured professor at a small college in Maryland. He recently published a scholarly book in which he and Canadian author Lynne Kositsky examined the evidence for the date of composition of Shakespeare’s probable last play, The Tempest and concluded it was written within a few years of 1600, much earlier than previously thought. If their analysis is correct, the timing is huge problem: it’s too early for the businessman named Shakespeare long thought to be the author. William Shakespeare of Stratford had just got to London circa 1600; he couldn’t be wrapping up his career so soon.

So the stakes of the Stritmatter-Kositsky study, as far as history is concerned, are quite high. 

Oxford University Press is as mainstream as mainstream gets. They actually took the time to review the little bomb dropped by the heretic and his colleague. The review said the work was “informative and well-written” and would “spark renewed debate and discussion of this topic.”

Everyone at Oxford University Press knows exactly why Stritmatter is so interested in the dating of The Tempest. The review, in toto, could be described as glowing. Stritmatter’s book itself wasn’t published by Oxford University Press and it’s not as if mainstreamers are abandoning the traditional authorship attribution. Nevertheless, a positive review on this topic carrying the imprimatur of such a venerable institution may be regarded on the future as the crucial  breakthrough. 

After UMass Amherst broke ranks but before Oxford University Press joined them in supporting heresy, professor James Shapiro wrote a (popular) book of his own to address what he saw as a disturbing lack of reason spreading through the public and even amongst some of his colleagues. He couldn’t understand how the UMass Amherst faculty could have granted a Ph.D. to someone writing about such an unreasonable idea. He found it “vexing” that many “thoughtful and well-informed” people regarded Shakespeare as a possible pseudonym.

So Shapiro wrote Contested Will  in 2010 to study this “disturbing” phenomenon.  

Even one of Shapiro’s colleagues at Columbia, the late Professor Kristin Linklater, had questioned the usual premise. Shapiro is painfully aware that it wasn’t just her. Samuel Clemens (aka Mark Twain), U.S. Supreme Court Justices Powell and Blackmun, Sir Derek Jacobi, Sir John Gielgud, Nobel laureates John Galsworthy and Roger Penrose, Professor Don Rubin of York University, Professor Ros Barber at the University of London, and a “disturbingly” long list of other professionals and amateurs (there’s a list at have been drawn in by the siren call of what Shapiro regards as a silly conspiracy theory.  

Fortunately, Shapiro said in 2010, the journals of his profession were “walled off” from any and all of his colleagues who would question the conventional wisdom. Today, Shapiro’s wall is still standing strong except for the crack forming with UMass Amherst at one end and Oxford University Press at the other.

A personal note: I find Shapiro’s unwillingness to countenance his colleagues publishing in journals to be . . . bad, for lack of a better word. In fact, I hold it to be self evident that If some number “X” of experts want to question a premise, there exists a value of “X” of modest size such that the questioning becomes de facto legitimate. Any observer can set “X” to any value that seems reasonable to that observer: for Shakespeare, we are quite likely there. 

Continuing along the lines of my personal journey, I assumed for decades that the so-called Shakespeare authorship question was Flat Earth Society nonsense, not worth looking into. In other words, I did type 1 social reasoning, something I do rather often because I can’t research everything.

One day I was reading an author I trusted — Michael Hart, a physicist like me — who had looked into the question. Having made his initial judgment using type 1 social reasoning, Hart decided to look into the question: starting with the assumption that we don’t know who wrote the plays, he looked at the evidence ignoring the number of people who had any given opinion. In other words, he started from scratch. 

It’s easy enough to exchange type 1 social reasoning for type 3 social reasoning. You follow the usual five-step process: find evidence that supports the original premise, quote that evidence, develop scenarios to “explain” evidence that doesn’t fit, note that the “other side” has not proven its case, note how complicated it all is, throw in a little circular reasoning and Viola! you’ve saved the original theory. 

Har didn’t do that. He studied the question “from scratch” and found himself agreeing with Stritmatter. In the second edition of his great book The 100, he corrected what he regarded as a his mistake caused by type 1 social reasoning. 

Still skeptical, but now curious, I followed Hart’s example and started reading. I was surprised at what I found.   

Do scholarly journals really need walls to protect them from experts who would question a premise?

Why did the wall get built in the first place? Shapiro and the rest of the mainstream are knowledgeable and intelligent: surely their viewpoint has reason behind it.

Mainstream “Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare” people have some hard evidence to point to. On the other hand, the problems with the famous “Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare” tautology begin pretty much immediately.

A half-dozen or so people named William Shakespeare were living in and around London as the 16th century drew to a close — it was a common name. One of the William Shakespeares was a successful businessman from nearby Stratford who traveled for a few days and showed up in London in the mid-1590’s. He eventually became a shareholder in London’s leading acting company. He had an investment portfolio in Stratford as well including shares in local agriculture, a wide range of real estate holdings (his most valuable assets), and plenty of cash.

Stratford agriculture and London theater benefitted from investors like Shakespeare who in turn benefitted from good crop yields and crowded theaters. Shakespeare, who was willing to loan money and not shy about going to court to collect his due but was able to avoid a tax bill in London and put his own creditors on the slow track, outdid his father who was also a Stratford wheeler-dealer (as we would say today) but couldn’t hold a candle to his son. Houses, barns, stables, orchards, and acreage in Shakespeare’s hands both appreciated in value while he owned them and produced income.

We don’t know how much money he made as an acting company shareholder but with thousands of people packing into the Globe theater to watch Shakespeare plays and other plays, it is reasonable to assume the man from Stratford with the famous name did quite well for himself. When he died, he was one of the richest men in Stratford.

Through the 1590’s, into the 1600’s, and beyond, Shakespeare plays lined the shelves of London bookstores making all other authors put together look like so many fourth place finishers. The plays were not merely brilliant, funny, and erudite — they were loaded with insider quips and commentary that seemed to come straight from the Queen’s court. The popularity and dominance of Shakespeare plays in Elizabethan England has no modern parallel.

If Meghan Markle and Prince Harry leaked photographs of themselves kissing passionately and touching and undressing one another, stealth publication in a magazine amidst coy denials from the royals might possibly create a phenomenon reminiscent of Elizabethan Shakespeare. So far though, the Shakespeare phenomeon is unique in history. 

The core of the controversy over who actually wrote Shakespeare’s works was elucidated by Professor Shapiro in Contested Will on page 243:

“. . . he showed little interest in when or even whether his plays were published.” 

This is not quite true: actually Shakespeare showed no (as opposed to “little”) interest in the publication of his plays. That is, all publications of plays took place with no help from the author at all.  

Perhaps the most respected mainstream biographer, Samuel Schoenbaum, wrote this of Shakespeare’s unique attitude toward his works:

“Apparently he died neither knowing, nor caring, about the ultimate fate of works that posterity would value beyond all other accomplishments of the literary imagination. . . Towards the quartos [plays] printed while he lived he maintained a public aloofness . . . The man keeps his mask always firmly in place; apart from the works themselves there is only silence.”

The brilliant Harold Bloom did not dabble in Shakespeare biography (a wise move on his part) but did leave behind this characteristically pithy observation about the central mystery of his authorship:

“Shakespeare puzzles us in his apparent indifference to the posthumous destiny of King Lear; we have two rather different texts of the play, and pushing them together into the amalgam we generally read and see acted is not very satisfactory. The only works Shakespeare ever proofread and stood by were Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece, neither of them worthy of the poet of the Sonnets, let alone of Lear, Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth. How can there have been a writer for whom the final shape of King Lear was a careless or throwaway matter?”

“How can there have been a writer . . . ?” Even the mainstream wonders what was going on. Suppose yourself a London publisher in Shakespeare’s time. You want to publish a play. You stand on the rooftops shouting for Shakespeare. But answer came there none.

It was in the interests of Elizabethan publishers and Elizabethan authors to work together to produce quality copy and this they accomplished regularly and routinely. Even for anonymous work, Elizabethan authors and publishers normally collaborated to produce as high quality copy as the technology of the time would allow.

Londoners, forsaken by their favorite writer, were nevertheless treated to a massive array of printings of wildly varying quality and this was scarcely odd because every one was a bootleg. And yet those very same forsaken Londoners could be seen eating up the plays as if starved for words. Here’s Shapiro again on page 223:

“The sheer number of inexpensive copies of Shakespeare’s works that filled London’s bookshops after 1594 was staggering and unprecedented.” 

Four hundred years later, mainstream scholars, scratching their heads over this odd state of affairs, can’t answer Bloom’s question, “How can there have been a writer . . .?”

The usual assumption goes like this: the acting company shareholder William Shakespeare of Stratford worte the plays, handed them over to the acting company to be staged, and thought nothing more of them (except when he revised them). The acting company effectively owned the plays but had no interest in publishing them lest competitors have an easier time putting them on. Shakespeare didn’t have time to do publishing or didn’t care or had agreed not to publish. But they couldn’t stop the bootlegging. 

About half of the canon was published by basically any printer who could get his hands on a script or reconstruct dialogue from performances. They were all bootlegs. 

Starting in 1594, anonymous publications appeared. At that time, the title pages noted performances by minor acting companies, sometimes more than one. Eventually the name “William Shakespeare” started appearing on some of the publication while other Shakespeare plays were still published anonymously without rhyme or reason with the name Shakespeare kind of like a broken neon sign from future centuries flashing on and off at random. The title pages of the later publications either noted performances by London’s leading acting company or said nothing about performances.  

One fine day many years later, ALL the plays finally appeared in one grand volume. On that day, the publishers told what is today still the official story: the complete set of plays had been in the hands of Shakespeare’s fellow shareholders who were acting as the “guardians” of the dead writer’s “orphans,” meaning his orphaned plays that were no longer his because he was dead. Thus, Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare, case closed.  

The mainstream regards the statement of the publishers of the grand volume as solid gold. Rebels think it is describing a situation that could not have existed.

Authors known as such, including authors associated with acting companies (like Robert Armin) and authors who sold plays to acting companies (like Ben Jonson), were routinely involved in the publication of their own work. Bootlegging happened, to be sure. It happened to Greene, Beaumont, Fletcher, Marlowe, Peele, Lodge, Daniel, Chapman, and Heywood. But here’s the rub: these authors often complained about the bootlegging or put out corrected printings in response to the bootlegging or went out of their way to publish for the express purpose of preempting bootlegging.

Even if they couldn’t always stop it, no Elizabethan author was bootlegged more than twice and no Elizabethan author walked away from publication altogether. For Shakespeare, alone among Elizabethan authors, including authors associated with acting companies, bootlegging was standard operating procedure. This is what bothered Schoenbaum and Bloom though not enough to make them question the Shakespeare paradigm. 

Rebels like to ask travelers these questions three: (1) Do you show “no interest” in publishing? (2) Do you keep your “mask firmly in place” at all times? (3) Is the final shape of your art as a printed work not part of your life?

If you answer YES to all three questions, you are a hidden author. 

Rebels regard the claim by the publishers of the whole canon that the author was a well-known shareholder in London’s leading acting company whose name was appearing on some of the plays as a transparent attempt to keep a long-hidden author hidden. The publishers took advantage of what rebels regard as a happy accident: after the name “William Shakespeare” got famous, a rich guy with the same name showed up in London and stuck his nose and his money in the theater business but never wrote a single word.   

The mainstream regards the “happy accident” that supposedly allowed the “hidden author” to be completely hidden behind a front-man as a little too “happy” and a little too “accidental.” The very success of the alleged ruse is a strong argument against it according to the mainstream.

Rebels admit the whole story is pretty amazing but say once one digs into it a little more, the “alleged ruse” doesn’t look so alleged. 

Whatever happened, it started in 1594 when the first anonymous bootleg of a “Shakespeare” play was finally printed after the plays had been popular for years. Titus Andronicus, after being played by three different minor companies, had the honor of becoming the first printed Shakespeare play. The publisher evidently had a halfway decent script to work from. 

Without authorial oversight, subsequent editions of the tragedy, two of them, degraded from edition to edition like a game of “telephone.” However, the version published almost three decades later in the famous “First Folio” was restored to the quality of the original publication and contained one additional scene in which a fly is killed and mourned. There are also four new lines at the end of the First Folio version which some modern editors remove in favor of the original ending though this is, not surprisingly, a controversial move.

And so it went with bootlegged plays and a missing author and so it still goes. One of the Hamlet bootlegs had the line “To be or not to be, Aye there’s the point.” The other problem with this version of Hamlet was that half the play was missing.

The first Shakespeare play every published was a bootlegged version of Titus Andronicus with an anonymous author.

The only exceptions to the story of unpublished manuscripts and bootlegged printings are, as Bloom said, Shakespeare’s two epic poems published in 1593 and 1594, both of which contained flowery epistles dedicating the work to the young Earl of Southampton. The epistles were printed over the name “William Shakespeare.” The well-edited publications together with the dedications implies a (quiet) author-publisher collaboration for just these two poems.

The seal on “William Shakespeare” had been broken though the name would not appear on plays for another four years. The epic poems, it is reasonable to assume, were written and published in close temporal proximity. 

But no play can be dated reliably. A bootlegged play might have been in production for decades and plays listed as in production might have been written and performed years before any records appear. Elizabethans also played fast and loose with titles: Love’s Labors Won was mentioned by a contemporary observer but no one knows if it’s a lost play or if it was retitled. 

The Sonnets, yet another example of bootlegging when they were finally published in 1609, can be dated pretty well because they refer to events in the life of a “lovely boy” widely regarded as the Earl of Southampton (Shakespeare’s one and only dedicatee; Shakespeare didn’t dedicated to anyone else and no one ever dedicated any work to Shakespeare).

In the early 1590’s, Southampton was under pressure to marry Lord Burghley’s (the Queen’s closest advisor) grand-daughter. The marriage, if it happened, would have huge political consequences, allying two powerful families. A writer called “Shakespeare” got involved: the first seventeen Sonnets are called the “marriage sonnets” by modern scholars because they tell a young nobleman to take his vows. 

Seventeen passionate verses tell a “self-willed” young nobleman to honor his family and country by marrying. The boy is by turns admonished and cajoled, called a “tender churl” and praised for his “proud livery.” Assuming the “lovely boy” was Southampton and the “marriage sonnets” were focused on the Burghley alliance, we can say Shakespeare attempt to convince was a spectacular failure.

Southampton walked away from the powerful lord and his young grand-daughter. Seven years later, the rash earl tried to control the royal succession and found himself in conflict with Burghley’s family. Marrying into the family would have been a whole lot safer. Southampton and his co-conspirators wound up in the Tower under death sentences. It wasn’t pretty. Everyone died except Southampton. 

A couple of years later, the Queen died and King James ascended. Southampton was released and Shakespeare was ebullient and wrote about how happy he was in Sonnet 107 which can be dated to the spring of 1603. 

Whoever Shakespeare really was, he certainly felt close to his “lovely boy.” When he wasn’t terrified Southampton was going to be executed, he wrote a lot about another fear: aging.

Sonnet 22: “My glass shall not persuade me I am old so long as youth and thou are of one date . . .” 

Sonnet 126:  “O thou my lovely boy . . . Her [nature’s] audit though delayed answered must be . . .” 

One Elizabethan observer, a guy called Meres, published a little comment in 1598 about Shakespeare’s “sugared Sonnets among his private friends.” We don’t know who these “private friends” were and, unfortunately, none of them ever said a word in a letter or a diary entry or anywhere about their great good fortune of reading in manuscript the private poetry penned by the greatest writer in England. Until 1609, the Sonnets were well-kept secret. 

In 1609, Thomas Thorpe got his hands on the complete set of Sonnets and published them with the title “SHAKE-SPEARES SONNETS” and no byline. The publisher wrote his own dedication referring to the author as “our ever-living poet.” The Sonnets had just the one edition and disappeared for more than a century and a half. Thirteen copies of that first edition survive today. 

In 1616, the businessman named Shakespeare died. At that time, seventeen plays had not been published in any form. 

Macbeth, Othello, The Tempest, All’s Well That Ends Well, Julius Caesar, The Comedy of Errors, As You Like It, Cymbeline, The Two Gentleman of Verona, Twelfth Night, Measure for Measure, 1 Henry VI, Henry VIII, Timon of Athens, Coriolanus, Antony and Cleopatra, and The Winter’s Tale were sitting somewhere in manuscript.

Two plays — The Taming of the Shrew and King John — had been bootlegged as first drafts. The (much better) rewritten versions had not been published as of 1616.

So a total of nineteen unpublished plays were in someone’s hands in manuscript. Most of them had been performed, in some cases many times — only four plays lack any performance records though that doesn’t mean they were not regularly performed. Even popular plays frequently staged were not guaranteed publication especially with no author available. These nineteen plays, some of them masterpieces, some of them popular, and some of them popular masterpieces, could easily have been lost forever.  

In 1623 two earls came to the rescue. The First Folio — a massive compilation of Shakespeare’s plays — was published. It was popular as expected and more editions followed. Two hundred plus copies of the first printing of the First Folio survived the centuries.

The two earls saved for us the nineteen unpublished plays noted above as well as seventeen previously bootlegged plays: Titus Andronicus, Hamlet, Romeo and JulietMuch Ado About Nothing, The Merchant of Venice, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Love’s Labors Lost, The Merry Wives of Windsor, Richard II, Richard III, 2 Henry VI, 3 Henry VI, Henry V, 1 Henry IV, 2 Henry IV, King Lear, and Troilus and Cressida were published again with better editing, altered lines, and other changes sometimes big and sometimes small. 

The bulk of the First Folio is of course the text of the plays. But there is prefatory material which discusses the provenance of the plays and which eulogizes the playwright. The First Folio preface identifies, for the first time, a businessman from Stratford named William Shakespeare who was a shareholder in London’s leading acting company as the author of the Shakespeare’s works. 

Two epistles (open letters to prospective readers) in the First Folio preface bear the printed signatures of two of the Stratford businessman’s fellow acting company shareholders — men he certainly knew. The epistles clearly state that the two shareholders have “collected” the plays in their role as the “guardians” of Shakespeare’s “orphans.” They describe Shakespeare as their “friend and fellow.” It would have been better, the two shareholders tell us, if the author had “overseen” the publication of his work as he had a “right” to do but, with the author dead, publication was necessarily left to others.

The First Folio was put together under the auspices of two earls and identifies Shakespeare as a businessman from Stratford. 

The mainstream admits the publication history is hard to wrap one’s mind around. Bloom’s “How can there have been a writer . . .? commentary speaks for much of the mainstream. However, mainstream scholars are unwilling to claim the epistles in the First Folio preface are lying to us. It’s a strange situation but there is no smoking gun and an enormous amount of scholarship has assumed Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare.  

Looking at precisely the same evidence, rebels regard the bootlegging as virtually a smoking gun. They see an author nowhere near the plays. The last person a rebel would expect as the 100% bootlegged author of red-hot plays full of courtly dirt is a man named Shakespeare involved with the London theater.

There is irony here: for rebels, the six or so Elizabethans Schoenbaum noted named William Shakespeare are the first people they would cross off the list of possible writers. Rebels admit of course that if they are right, the Shakespeare hoax is the greatest ever perpetrated.   

Of course, there’s more to the story than the publication history. Here’s what rebels say to the mainstream: “The publication history doesn’t convince you. You speak of “masks” and “puzzles” but then you let go of your own cogent analysis because you think yourselves wedded to the First Folio preface. Okay fine, we accept your opinion. But what about the inside information from the Queen’s court that constantly appears in the plays?”

“No problem,” says the mainstream.

Scott McCrea, a mainstreamer at SUNY Purchase, says of Love’s Labors Lost in particular, “the Author seems to have an insider’s knowledge.” But, to McCrea, this inside information doesn’t mean Shakespeare himself was an insider. Of course he might have been but if we see him as a businessman from Stratford we can come up with a plausible scenario to explain the inside information: “one possible answer derives from a source play now lost . . .” McCrea suggests.

McCrea postulates someone with inside knowledge of the Queen’s court writing a play that was never published — there were many such plays in Elizabethan times so it isn’t so far-fetched to assume such a thing — a lost play which Shakespeare saw performed or read in manuscript, a lost play which contained inside information. Shakespeare could then have used the inside information revealed by this other author as source material for a new play called Love’s Labors Lost which, unlike the source play, was eventually published.

In fact, McCrea argues, for the inside information in any play, some combination of good contacts, gossip, and lost source material will always suffice to provide a plausible scenario. Rebels, on the other hand, regard a courtly insider as the author as a much simpler explanation for the inside information which has the added benefit of also explaining the bootlegging since a courtly insider would not have been able to admit to being the author lest the general public realize all the courtly dirt had an authoritative source: a leak is one thing but the leaker can’t go strutting around.  

Again, rebels and mainstream look at the same evidence and come to different conclusions because they make different assumptions about what is more or less likely.

But there is still more to the story than publication history and inside information.

“If you don’t mind,” rebels say, “we would like to talk about the idea that a businessman from Stratford not known to have ever met the Earl of Southampton wrote the Sonnets. We would like to assume he did write them and show how silly this is.”  

“Go right ahead,” says the mainstream. 

In Sonnet 1 the shareholder from Stratford begins his series of pleas to the young Earl of Southampton who is facing heavy pressure from the great Lord Burghley to marry into the great lord’s family: “From fairest creatures we desire increase that thereby beauty’s Rose might never die.” (No one knows why Rose is capitalized and italicized; it may mean nothing.)

In Sonnet 2, the twenty-something businessman-author warns the boy that when “When forty winters shall besiege thy brow” your “lusty days” will be sorely missed. You’ll be old but with your own child growing strong, you’ll “see thy blood warm when thou feel’st it cold.” 

The Stratford real estate tycoon/poet then waxes poetic about the lovely boy’s mother in Sonnet 3: “Thou art thy mother’s glass and she in thee calls back the lovely April of her prime.” 

In Sonnet 10, our amazingly well-connected commoner comes right out and tells the Earl of Southampton just exactly what he wants the lovely boy to do: “Make thee another self for love of me.” 

The man from Stratford darkly warns the so-far childless young earl, the “self-willed” youth, the “tender churl,” in Sonnet 14: “Thy end is truth’s and beauty’s doom and date.” 

And yet the gifted businessman dearly loved Southampton will go on loving him even if he doesn’t have children. In fact, even without children, the earl will be immortal: “And all in war with Time for love of you, as he takes from you I engraft you new.” (Sonnet 15) Beautiful poetry lives forever.

In Sonnet 16, the Stratford man returns to the “make babies” theme and perhaps uses his own experience here. We know the Stratford businessman was born “Shakspere” to use the local spelling preferred on Stratford documents. As a teenager, Shakspere had productive sex with the sixteenth century Anne Hathaway. She was pregnant and the pair married before she was showing perhaps by choice and perhaps out of a sense of doing what was required.

A fun result of the Elizabethan flexibility with spelling is that the marriage bond was made out to “Shagspere,” a choice that seems to anticipate twentieth century slang. In Sonnet 16, Shagspere pushes hard for Southampton to do exactly what he did. 

To “make war on this bloody tyrant Time,” Shagspere/Shakespeare says, you must plant “flowers” in a “maiden garden yet unset.” It’s a beautiful sentiment really.  

Finally, in Sonnet 17, Shagspere/Shakspere/Shakespeare looks to the future when he and his beloved earl are dead and pushes one last time for Southampton to do what he needs to do: “But were some child of yours alive at that time, You would live twice, in it and in my rhyme.” 

So, the rebels challenge, a twenty-something businessman from Stratford tells a teenaged “self-willed” earl to get with the program, honor the family, and don’t even think of letting those maiden gardens go unset. Yes, it’s possible a Stratford businessman could know an earl (Ben Jonson had highborn friends, for example) but this particular scenario, with the Stratford businessman intervening in a potential marriage alliance between two powerful families, seems more or less impossible.

Really, say the rebels, “Make thee another self for love of me,” that’s the acting company shareholder from Stratford named Shakespeare writing to a young earl in the early 1590’s when he had just got to London? Are we supposed to believe the earl and the businessman were that close with no independent evidence that they ever even met?

“Of course not,” says mainstreamer Professor Peter Levi, late of St. Catherine’s College at the University of Oxford.

Levi agrees with rebels that the Sonnets were NOT written in the businessman’s voice. Nevertheless, Levi believed the Sonnets were written by the businessman as implied in the First Folio preface and he had a simple answer that makes everything, including the maiden gardens, copacetic. 

Levi thought the Sonnets must have been commissioned:

“Shakespeare is attempting on behalf of his [Southampton’s] family and friends to persuade Southampton to take a wife . . . Shakespeare wrote . . . probably on behalf of the young man’s mother.”

Rebels actually appreciate Levi’s theory because it is consistent with the entire mainstream viewpoint: someone else owned Shakespeare’s plays; someone else provided Shakespeare with inside information; and, last but not least, someone else wanted Southampton to get married. 

By the time the mainstream is done with its analysis, say the rebels, Shakespeare-the-person has effectively vanished; a human being has been replaced by a theoretical construct based on the assumption that a single document (the First Folio preface) is providing an accurate provenance of the nineteen missing manuscripts.

A slight adjustment to the “someone else” theory is all that is needed to make the Shapiro-McCrea-Levi theory solid and sensible: yes indeed, someone else owned the plays and had inside information and wanted the earl married and that same someone else also wrote the plays and the Sonnets. 

Voila! Mainstream and rebels can finally agree.  

The mainstream begs to differ. The clear testimony in the First Folio preface cannot be pushed aside so easily. Early in his book, McCrea decries the refusal of “heretics” (aka rebels) to use “one document — in this case the Folio — to understand another.” McCrea has put his finger on what we have seen as the main point of contention.

Mainstreamers believe in and really are in bed with the First Folio preface and seek to understand the rest of the evidence in the light provided by the First Folio preface. Rebels, on the other hand, first look at the publication history, the inside information, and the Sonnets and draw the conclusion that a hidden aristocrat wrote the plays. Thus, when rebels look at the First Folio preface, they do not find its testimony convincing partly because they already regard “Shakespeare” as a pseudonym. 

Since it’s such an important document, let’s have a closer look at the words that appear above the names of the businessman’s fellow acting company shareholders. I’ve added emphasis to (what are to me) key words and phrases.

“We have but collected them [the plays], and done an office to the dead, to procure his orphans. Guardians [we are], without ambition either of self-profit or fame: only to keep the memory of so worthy a friend and fellow alive, as was our Shakespeare, by humble offer of his plays, to your [the two earls] most noble patronage.” 
. . . 

“To the great variety of readers from the most able to him that can but spell. There you are numbered. We had rather you were weighed. Especially when the fate of all books depends upon your capacities and not of your heads alone but of your purses. Well! It is now public and you will stand for your privileges, we know, to read and censure. Do so, but buy it first. That doth best commend a book, the stationer says. Then, how odd soever your brains be or your wisdoms, make your license the same and spare not. Judge your six-pence-worth, your shillings-worth, your five-shillings-worth at a time, or higher, so you rise to the just rates, and welcome. But, whatever you do, Buy.” 
. . . 

“It had been a thing, we confess, worthy to have been wished, that the Author himself had lived to have set forth and overseen his own writings: But since it hath been ordained otherwise, and he by death departed from that right, we pray you do not envy his friends the office of their care and pain to have collected and published them; and so to have published them as where (before) you were abused with diverse stolen and surreptitious copies, maimed and deformed by the frauds and stealths of injurious impostors, that exposed them: even those, are now offered to your view cured and perfect of their limbs; and all the rest, absolute in their numbers as he conceived them.” 

The abstruse tongue-in-cheek style of the epistles is recognizable as Ben Jonson’s. Jonson was involved with the First Folio project and obviously (according to rebels and mainstream alike) ghostwrote the epistles. The great mainstream scholar E. K. Chambers noted the Jonsonian stylistic fingerprints, but saw no reason to assume the content was fraudulent. 

Rebels, looking at the missing author, the inside information, the Sonnets, and the ghostwritten epistles see the virtuous claim of a lack of interest in profit and the cajoling “Whatever you do, Buy” line along with the melodrama of the “stolen and surreptious copies” phrase as plain old marketing copy as vapid in Elizabethan times as it is today. Rebels don’t regard it as a lie exactly — they don’t think it was meant to be taken seriously. The ghostwritten epistles are, for many rebels, more joke than lie. 

According to the rebels, the “incomparable pair of brethren” of the First Folio dedication, the Earl of Montgomery and the Earl of Pembroke, the earls to whom the shareholders were supposedly “humbly offering” the plays, were not in need of humble offerings at all: the earls already had the plays because they were connected with the deceased author’s family. 

Mainstreamers, having furrowed their brows over the anonymous bootlegs of poor quality, having creatively explained the inside information in the plays, and having not worried overmuch about the young earl’s mother in the lovely April of her prime, read the epistles as straightforward if somewhat flowery testimony. Saying it wasn’t “meant” to be taken seriously seems subjective to the mainstream: give us a solid reason and we’ll drop the First Folio preface, but we’re not going to drop it just because Jonson apparently ghostwrote it; a little marketing copy doesn’t make us think pseudonym and and we’re just not that worried about the publication history, the inside information, or the Sonnets. 

If you assume “lost” plays you can explain anyone’s access to inside information.

Despite the (sometimes bitter) disagreement about whether or not to trust the First Folio preface, there’s actually plenty of common ground between rebels and mainstreamers. Mainstream researchers like Schoenbaum, Honigmann, and Honan have always been well aware of the uniqueness of the Shakespeare story though it doesn’t tend to get emphasized because they don’t want to be the recipients of a barrage of inane theorizing about who the real author might be. 

There is an “overhang of nonsense” to which everyone, including rebels, are sensitive. No one wants to be grouped with the alien abduction crowd. So mainstreamers tend to play down the mystery of Shakespeare while rebels try to talk about it without opening themselves up to scorn. Some rebels even refuse to come up with an alternative candidate on the theory that everyone needs to get on board with doubting the businessman before raucous arguments about alternative candidates can begin. 

But, as I said, there really is a lot of common ground. No one looks at Shakespeare’s biography without a head scratch, not even the most conservative mainstreamer imaginable. 

Schoenbaum remarked on the odd fact that people in Stratford knew the shareholder only as a businessman:

“What did fellow townsmen think of the distinguished playwright of the Chamberlain’s company and the admired poet of love’s languishment who sojourned each year in their midst? They probably troubled their heads little enough about the plays and poems. Business was another matter; they saw Shakespeare as a man shrewd in practical affairs and approachable (if need be) for a substantial loan on good security.”

Actually, with all due respect to Schoenbaum, no one in London knew the businessman as the “admired poet of love’s languishment” or as the “distinguished playwright of the Chamberlain’s company” or if they did they said nothing about it. They liked Shakespeare’s works to be sure, but they usually talked about Shakespeare the way you and I do — the works are wonderful but we’ve never met the writer. 

It was different for Ben Jonson. People who knew Jonson personally plainly also knew him as a writer while he lived and explicitly described him that way: for example, his friend, the scholar John Selden, thanked the “singular poet” in print for loaning him a book from his “well-furnished” library. Such evidence, commonplace for Jonson, does not exist for Shakespeare. 

Again, there’s acres of common ground here. Schoenbaum knew all about it the problem with the Shakespeare who didn’t get talked about:

“Perhaps we should despair of ever bridging the vertiginous expanse between the sublimity of the subject [beautiful writing] and the mundane inconsequence of the documentary record [business and more business]. What would we not give for a single personal letter, one page of diary!”

But it’s not like Shakespeare of Stratford didn’t leave behind a huge trail: he did. It’s just not the trail we wanted. Mainstreamer Honigmann studied Shakespeare of Stratford’s extensive record of business activity and came to a startling conclusion given that he was solidly in the mainstream camp: 

If one lists all of these various activities in chronological order, one wonders how the dramatist found time to go on writing plays.”

Mainstreamer Park Honan offers an interesting take on the businessman who seemed to be writing in his spare time: 

“Shakespeare seems to have fluorished with a certain annihilation of the sense of himself.”

Even the great Harold Bloom, who was sure Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare, stared at his favorite author and goggled at what he could not see.

“. . . it is as though the creator of scores of major characters and hundreds of frequently vivid minor figures wasted no imaginative energy in inventing a persona for himself. At the very center of the [Western] Canon is the least self-conscious and least aggressive of all the major writers we have known.

There is an inverse ratio, a little beyond our analytical skills, between Shakespeare’s virtual colorlessness and his preternatural dramatic powers.” 

But Shakespeare was far from colorless. He lampooned the powerful in ways other writers could only dream about. Jonson was a brave man and also often spoke his mind but was repeatedly jailed for his impudence. At one point, Jonson was being threatened with mutilation and his mother mixed him a cup of poison just in case. Meanwhile, someone who seemed to have what Schoenbaum called a “mask,” was able to pillory courtiers with impunity: no one was ever jailed or theatened or even questioned about Shakespeare’s works.

So there’s a certain amount of common ground upon which Bloom, Schoenbaum, Honan, Honigmann, and the rebels stand though the rebels at this point are unable to see why the mainstream won’t take them seriously when it is the mainstream’s own misgivings that motivate the rebel theories of a hidden aristocrat using a pseudonym. The problem of course is that being flexible about the First Folio preface means being flexible about an entire corpus of literary criticism which would all have to be rewritten if the businessman were dropped as the author.  

So they may be congregating on common ground but they don’t talk to each other. And once we start looking backward a bit into the 1580’s all hope of agreement evaporates. Here’s the rub.

Like the Cheshire Cat, Shakespeare could annihilate himself.

As the 1580’s began with England facing multiple threats from abroad, history plays featuring divine monarchs and heroic soldiers were coming out. Henry V, King Lear, King John, and Richard III all date back to the 1580’s, but these early plays are not in the First Folio — it is the more sophisticated final versions that we know as Shakespeare. But, for these four plays, the early versions were eventually published as the usual Shakespeare bootlegs even as the mature versions were being bootlegged alongside them. We don’t even know with certainty who wrote these “early versions.” 

Of these four early plays, three were published anonymously and one had the Shakespeare byline (which is not a guarantee that Shakespeare wrote it). The early plays were clunky but brilliant too with innovative plot structures and engaging characters that were carried over into the rewritten versions we know and love. They stressed patriotism, loyalty, the divinity of the monarch, and the honor of dying for one’s country. They were pure gold for any leader. 

Queen Elizabeth, aided by her chief advisor, Lord Burghley, was as shrewd and as successful a monarch as there ever was: she knew a good (and useful) thing when she saw it and she was more right than she could ever have imagined. To this day, Henry V, is revered for the same patriotic rhetoric that turned the heads of the Queen and her advisor.

Star Trek, set in a time seven hundred years after Shakespeare, features the brave captain quoting from Henry V as he and his crew bravely face a well-armed and aggressive enemy. During the very real Blitz of World War II, with Londoners facing threats from the air as their ancestors had faced threats from the sea, humans little changed though living in a different world stiffened their sinews yet again as explosions shook their city and Shakespeare’s timeless classic played on the big screen.

For the Queen, cognizant of Spain’s armada, going all in on Shakespeare was presumably an easy decision. She had a skin thick enough to withstand the gentle teasing of her august majesty and she certainly didn’t care if a few of her courtiers squirmed as she regularly played them one against the other anyway — it was all good if it would make the plays popular. And, one can argue, every monarch needs someone empowered to tell the truth.  

Whatever Elizabeth’s true motivations were, history tells us Sir Francis Walsingham, the Queen’s top national security man, was directed to create the largest acting company ever seen in England. He poached the top actors from London’s leading companies, making them offers they literally could not refuse. The Queen’s Men was thus born full-grown in 1583.

Walsingham also tapped London’s leading court playwright, Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford.

England’s literary earl would be paid the unheard-of sum of one thousand pounds a year, more than anyone in the Queen’s government was ever paid even when the circle is widened to include Burghley himself (note, however, that Burghley had other sources of income besides his official salary). Only King James of Scotland, handed four thousand pounds a year to stabilize his realm, merited a larger sum. James eventually became the next King of England — that prospect and the money may have bought his continued cooperation with Elizabeth and Burghley even after they entrapped and legally murdered his mother. 

The literary earl received the gigantic stipend for the rest of his life, first from Queen Elizabeth and then from King James. 

The Queen’s 1580’s maneuver was called by one contemporary observer the “Policy of Plays” and it arguably changed history: London became, and still is, a city of the theater and the media became, and still is, a powerful way to wield influence. This is not to claim that Elizabeth invented the idea of state-sponsored media, but, by nurturing what one might call the “Shakespeare phenomenon,” she clearly took the Policy of Plays to a new level.

In this crucial decade, much of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale appeared in the form of a novel called Pandosto written by the notorious hack writer and plagiarist Robert Greene. He took the plot and characters for his novel including verbatim lines either from a performance of The Winter’s Tale or from a manuscript that passed beneath his gaze — the play was among those that appeared in print only decades in later in the First Folio.

John Lyly, also active in the 1580’s, wasn’t a plagiarist though he was Shakespearean. Lyly’s biographer (Bond) regarded Lyly and Shakespeare as the co-creators of Elizabethan theater. Shakespeare’s work and Lyly’s work share so much there is no way to determine who was influencing who — probably the influence flowed in both directions. They may or may not have known each other but they certainly knew each other’s works. 

Anthony Munday was also busy with Shakespeare as the 1580’s gave way to the 1590’s and, even more so than Lyly, seems to have been in the great author’s physical presence. Munday’s play, Sir Thomas More, extant in manuscript in Munday’s handwriting, contains a scene so Shakespearean in character that scholars, rebel and mainstream alike, regard that particular scene as having been written end-to-end by Shakespeare.

The Munday-Shakespeare play appeared in the early 1590’s and is the closest thing we have today to an authentic Shakespeare manuscript. 

Hamlet, too was apparently part of 1580’s Shakespeare: there’s no performance record or printing from the 1580’s but Thomas Nashe in 1589 threw off a (published) quip about being barraged by “whole Hamlets of tragical speeches.” No other Hamlet complete with “tragical speeches” is known from the period so Nashe presumably had seen some version of Shakespeare’s play either in performance or manuscript. 

The relationship between the four early Shakespeare plays we are lucky enough to have printed versions of and the later, more polished plays in the First Folio, is masterfully elucidated by Ramon Jiménez in his book Shakespeare’s Apprenticeship. It is fascinating to study the evolution of forgettable lines like A horse! A horse! A fresh horse! into classics like A horse! A horse! My Kingdom for a horse! 

Jiménez has reviewed all of the scholarship pertaining to early Shakespeare and has added his own analysis of Shakespeare’s development as a writer. The early plays, for example, though they do not possess the sophisticated character development of the mature playwright, do show off his penchant for neologisms. Shakespeare is the undisputed master of made-up words, having added at least 2000 words to the English language and this tendency is illustrated clearly even in his imperfect but still groundbreaking early work.

Despite all this, 1580’s Shakespeare is not something mainstream biographers accept at all. It doesn’t fit with the First Folio and 1580’s Shakespeare including Hamlet, The Winter’s Tale, Henry V, King Lear, King John, and Richard III have to be relegated to someone else.

Stritmatter is hacking away at the mainstream chronology from one end by redating The Tempest and Jiménez is creating even more trouble with his claim that Shakespeare wrote 1580’s Shakespeare. It’s a squeeze play: Shakespeare arrived in London in the 1590’s. Even writing his last play in 1603 is too early. Likewise, anything in the 1580’s is also too early.  

So A Horse! A Horse! A Fresh Horse! from the early version of Richard III was written by someone else from whom Shakespeare plagiarized for his improved version of Richard III

The Winter’s Tale was NOT stolen by Greene but was written by Greene and later plagiarized by Shakespeare.

Hamlet complete with tragical speeches — Schoenbaum calls it “the mysterious lost play of Hamlet” (S. Sch. Life p. 136) — was written by someone else and Shakespeare borrowed the title for his play with tragical speeches but Nashe was quipping about the other Hamlet. 

The early version of King John, played in the 1580’s and later published with the Shakespeare byline was, according to the mainstream, not really Shakespeare — the publisher was lying or mistaken (both of which commonly happened though not, so far as is known, with this particular publisher). 

Early versions of Henry V and King Leir (with that spelling), published anonymously and very similar to the rewritten versions published as Shakepeare plays, were also written by some other author in the 1580’s and then rewritten ten or more years later by Shakespeare after he got to London in the 1590’s.

So the early versions of King John, Henry VRichard III, and King Lear, including the one attributed to Shakespeare by the publisher, were actually written by some unknown other person with many stylistic innovations that we’ve come to recognize as Shakespeare and these four works were plagiarized by Shakespeare in the 1590’s — any thought that Shakespeare might have written these early works is, according to Schoenbaum, “preposterous.” The term “plagiarist” is only rarely applied to Shakespeare though would certainly be appropriate if the mainstream is correct in its assumption that 1580’s Shakespeare was written by someone else: Honan, for example, calls Shakespeare “an accomplished parasite” but doesn’t use the other “p-word.” 

Let’s review the mainstream theory (I apologize for the repetition here but it’s hard to get one’s mind around this part of the story because it is just a little bizarre). So 1580’s Hamlet is explained by a mysterious “lost” play, the four early plays that were eventually printed and that look just like first drafts of Shakespeare plays are also explained by a mysterious lost author plagiarized by the Shakespeare who finally showed up in the 1590’s. The Winter’s Tale, a play first published in 1623 long after whoever wrote it was dead, is an unusual case of the greatest writer in a country’s history plagiarizing a notorious plagiarist who published a novel called Pandosto in the 1588.

Finally, sometime after the mid-1590’s, Shakespeare brazenly stole the plot of Pandosto including many lines which he stole “almost verbatim” according to one mainstream analysis. Pandosto is the cherry atop the Shakespeare-as-plagiarist-because-1580’s-Shakespeare-is-too-early theory.

For me, at this point in the analysis, a mainstream that expresses absolute certainty that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare but then speaks of masks kept firmly in place and makes comments beginning with “How can there have been a writer . . .” and questions how the businessman could have found the time to write the plays and marvels at the fact that his “townsmen” didn’t know him as a writer and throws in the image of the vertiginous expanse and even Shakespeare’s annihilation of the sense of himself and that throws hands in the air to declare the whole thing beyond our analytical ability . . . well, it doesn’t fill me confidence that they really are absolutely certain and then 1580’s Shakespeare comes along and now the guy with the mask is also plagiarizing like crazy.  

Still, the mainstream theory could be true. Shakespeare did use many sources for his plays and did use plotlines created by classical and foreign authors and could have crossed the line into out and out plagiarism and could have used material from London authors as well. In general one can never be sure which way influence flows when composition dates are uncertain and authors at any point in history are bound to influence one another. And there’s another way to account for the evidence that some mainstreamers embrace. One can assume Shakespeare of Stratford began his visits to London and his writing career early than previously supposed. Most mainstreamers simply regard the 1580’s as too early for someone who turned twenty in 1584 to already be a heavy hitter in the London literary scene but if it is ever proven that Shakespeare wrote 1580’s Shakespeare, the early-arrival theory might become more popular.    

We can sum up the whole discussion up to now with McCrea’s idea that someone else provided inside information; the general mainstream belief echoed by Shapiro that someone else took ownership of the plays; Levi’s contention that someone else was close to Southampton; and a strong consensus noted by Schoenbaum that someone else wrote 1580’s Shakespeare. Again, the mainstream theory, though it has the advantage of taking the First Folio preface at its word, is not something I would want to stake my life (or any substantial amount of money) on. And yet Schoenbaum and the others sound so sure of themselves despite their own stated misgivings. It’s a strange business, n’est ces pas

In one of his books, Internal Evidence and Elizabethan Dramatic Authorship, Schoenbaum seemed to consider actually discussing the issue but then seemed to leap off the deep end as it were. Schoenbaum, in discussing the early version of Henry V, notes that the printer left the publication anonymous even though he could have put Shakespeare’s name on the title page. This means to Schoenbaum that Shakespeare didn’t write it because what would be the motivation for NOT putting “Shakespeare” on a title page when the name was famous?

And it is true that the printer of the early version of Henry V did print Shakespeare plays and did include the “Shakespeare” byline on some of those plays. So, at first, one can follow Schoenbaum’s reasoning. But there’s a problem. This particular printer, like all printers and publishers of Shakespeare plays, included the byline when he felt like it, while other times, when he didn’t feel like it, he didn’t. As noted above, the “Shakespeare” byline flicked on and off like a broken neon sign without rhyme or reason.

When the same printer who left the “Shakespeare” byline off the early version of Henry V, got around to printing two editions of the mature version of Henry V, he left the byline off both times, hitting a perfect three for three blank bylines on one version of the early Henry V and two versions of the mature Henry V. 

Schoenbaum notes how strange it is for a printer to leave the byline blank when “Shakespeare” was so popular. Schoenbaum uses the blank byline on the early version of Henry V to support his claim that it was not written by the businessman named Shakespeare who was in London and involved with the theater. Ironically, rebels agree that the bylines which were left blank roughly half the time tell us a lot about authorship. 

Plays known to have been performed in the 1580’s were published in the 1590’s and beyond often with blank bylines. More mature versions of these plays and a whole series of other plays were also published often with blank bylines. According to Schoenbaum, the 1580’s plays weren’t Shakespeare but the other plays, despite the frequent blank bylines, were Shakespeare. According to rebels, none of the plays were Shakespeare or rather they all were but “Shakespeare” was a pseudonym which explains why printers and publishers were careless about the bylines — from a marketing perspective, if the author is unknown anyway, there’s not much difference between an anonymous play and a pseudonymous play. 

It’s ironic that Schoenbaum would use a blank byline to argue for another author and it’s even more ironic that the mainstream in general say their own “Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare” theory depends upon “Shakespeare didn’t write 1580’s Shakespeare.” 

For rebels, Jiménez’s analysis offers a compelling model for the pseudonymous Shakespeare: 1580’s Shakespeare influenced pretty much every famous Elizabethan author from Marlowe to Munday. The author using the pseudonym paid homage to classical plotlines and brilliantly versified and re-imagined plotlines from ancient and foreign works originally published in English, Latin, Greek, Spanish, French, and Italian. Far from being a plagiarist, Shakespeare was the leader of the revolution in staged drama that lead to the plays-as-literature world we live in today.

Jiménez says this is not just wishful thinking — the Shakespeare fingerprints on 1580’s Shakespeare are easy to see, numerous, and undeniable. 

I have relegated further discussion of 1580’s Shakespeare to an appendix. While we wait for the mainstream to offer serious commentary on Jiménez’s work, we must move forward. For some people, the bootlegging, the inside information, the Sonnets, and 1580’s Shakespeare offer sufficient cause to doubt the veracity of the First Folio preface. So you might be a rebel already. However, all those professors who are so certain of their theory naturally gives one pause before one jumps onto the rebel bandwagon.

Therefore, we now naturally ask about the details of the documentary record of the life of Shakespeare of Stratford (1564 – 1616). Perhaps there is a reason the mainstream is so set on retaining the Stratford businessman as the author of the plays and poems. If there is a good reason, we’ll find it because the Stratford businessman is very well documented. We note here that the mainstream does NOT claim it is possible the attribution in the First Folio preface is accurate — they say it is certain.  

This is a scholarly and heavily researched book but the mainstream won’t talk about the issue at this level.

Shakespeare of Stratford was a rich man who, along with a few other people, basically owned the town. If you grew a bit of grain in Stratford, you would pay something to Shakespeare and that was a good thing: farmers need capital to operate. Investors like Shakespeare were part of the system. Shakespeare outdid his investor father and, in the end, owned houses, land, pastures, orchards, barns, and stables — the works, so to speak.

Shakespeare stored grain, sold stone, loaned money, and repeatedly went to court to collect what he was owed. In the mid-1590’s he began to make regular visits to London where he avoided paying taxes and caused a number of documents to be produced listing him as owing taxes.  He also became a shareholder in London’s leading acting company. He died quietly in Stratford in 1616. His will mentions his cash and his land and his houses and includes a list of business associates who were to receive modest bequests at his death. The list of people, obviously, is of interest.  

Mentioned in the will is daughter Judith (known to be illiterate), daughter Susanna (known to be illiterate), neice Elizabeth, sister Joan, nephews William and Michael, the poor of Stratford, business associates Combe, Russell, Nashe (not the writer), Robinson, Collins, Heminges (acting company shareholder), Condell (acting company shareholder), and Burbage (acting company shareholder), neighbors Sadler and Reynolds, godson William, son-in-law John and of course Shakespeare’s wife who received a perfectly good bed even if it was “second-best.”

Lyly and Munday are, as you can see, not mentioned. Unfortunately, no writer is mentioned. No manuscripts, books, inkwells, art, music, maps, or anything intellectual is mentioned. Shakespeare’s two illiterate daughters and the future “issue of their bodies” got his cash and real estate and that was that. Thus were the high hopes when the will was discovered dashed on the rocks of either bad luck or illiteracy depending on who you ask. 

Shakespeare’s will does not identify him as a writer and no one in 1616 or in 1617 or even in 1618, 1619, or 1620 commemorated the loss of England’s greatest writer. If Shakespeare of Stratford really was the great writer and not just a businessman, then the literary world waited until 1623 when, in the same document that first identifies him as a writer, he was finally eulogized as the immortal great writer we all know.

Ben Jonson is also well documented. Like Shakespeare, he left behind dozens of documents. The comparison is crucial as most Elizabethan writers did not leave behind dozens of documents. However, Jonson did. And a businessman from Stratford who may also been a writer also did. Hence the following comparison.  

It’s quite a bit of fun actually to flip through a Jonson biography at random and of course it is also worth reading such biographies in their entirety as one gets a real appreciation for the life of a self-taught genius commoner writer in Elizabethan times: it wasn’t easy. I recommend the Jonson biography by Rosalind Miles though they’re pretty much all worthwhile if you are interested in Jonson.

For my random-flip-through-the-biographies experiment, I wanted a set of effectively random numbers that would be easy to remember and that would have nothing to do with the book or its contents. There are 52 cards in a deck, 88 keys on a piano, the numbers 111 and 222 has symmetry, the number 123 has a pattern, 256 is a power of two, and there are 270 degrees in a three-quarters of a circle, so I used those numbers to do my random look through of RM’s biography. I wasn’t sure what I would find. I would have used the nice round number 300 but RM’s book isn’t that long. 

Flipping to page 52-cards-in-a-deck, we find that Jonson gave to a countess friend and patron of his a poem as a gift and told a poet friend (who recorded Jonson’s thoughts) that the countess was herself a pretty darn good poet which is a meaningful compliment coming from Jonson who assiduously avoided obsequiousness in his effort to lead a life of authentic bravery. This attitude, we note, almost cost him his life on at least one, and probably more than one, occasion. 

On page 88-piano-keys, we find that Jonson lived for a time in the home of a patron and wrote poems for the patron’s children. RM mentions other patrons on this page and vaguely refers to Jonson’s “varied contacts” with them, but we can forgive her for not providing all the details of these “contacts” because she has an eleven-volume set of Ben Jonson documentation to refer to and doesn’t have room in her book for every single tiny detail. And speaking of details, on this same page, page 88, a little lower down, Jonson is writing to another writer friend about a conflict he is having with a yet another female patron. A few lines of the still-extant letter are quoted by RM. 

Any of this, the gift, the letters, the personal poems, the multiple contacts with patrons — any tiny part of it — would be explosive front-page news if found for Shakespeare calling for champagne, feasting, and general worldwide celebrations complete with fireworks and fancy speeches in every city anywhere in the world where people like Shakespeare. I exaggerate but little.  

Let’s try page 111 in RM’s biography. Here Jonson gives another gift of a book with a handwritten inscription to a scholar friend (the one who was in Jonson’s library and described it as “well-furnished”). Then, on the same page, we find that Jonson is commissioned to write an entertainment for King James in 1607 which was presented on May 22nd and eventually published in Jonson’s complete works which Jonson himself supervised through to publication. 

On page 123, Jonson is again commissioned by an earl to write an entertainment presented on 11 April 1609 and Jonson is paid a little over thirteen pounds for the elaborate work. RM quotes the exact amount of the payment.

On page 222, Jonson is recorded as testifying in court on behalf of the widow of one his patrons (the widow is involved in a lawsuit over some jewelry). What’s interesting to RM is that the deposition lists Jonson’s address as at a college which means he was probably teaching there as a deputy instructor and receiving lodging in return as was the custom. So now we have evidence that Jonson did some teaching. 

Moving on to page 256 which is two to the eighth power, a young woman Jonson knows dies in childbirth and an aging Jonson writes a sad poem mourning her and honoring her memory.

Finally, on page 270, Jonson has died and a man named Wilford writes a sneering “anti-eulogy” that same year in which he nastily calls Jonson a man who spent his days writing comic plays for which no tasteful readers would ever find praise. Jonson, who killed two people between his own birth and death, evidently had no problem making enemies. But a couple of pages later we find the book entitled “Immortal Jonson” (RM translation from the Latin Jonsonus Virbius) containing forty-six eulogies celebrating Jonson and his brilliant writing published six months after his death. 

Now let’s do Shakespeare. This is going to be fun. We’re going to learn all about Shakespeare, the greatest and most popular writer in all England. Samuel Schoenbaum (SS) was a brilliant scholar. We could not be in better hands. 

On page 52, the state of catholicism in protestant Elizabethan England is discussed. SS speculates about whether the young Stratford Shakespeare grew up in a secretly catholic or truly protestant household. He either did or did not, SS can’t be sure, but knowing the great writer’s religion is surely important so, assuming the Stratford Shakespeare was a writer, this is an important question. 

On page 88, the teenaged Stratford Shakespeare has taken out the famous “Shagspere” marriage bond and is marrying his pregnant bride. SS offers us scenes from Shakespeare plays:  Romeo and Juliet had just one night together but to it they brought “a pair of stainless maidenhoods” as told in the play. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream we hear that, “Such separation as may well be said, Becomes a virtuous bachelor and a maid . . .” from one of the characters as she notes the importance of waiting. In The Tempest we find Prospero warning of dire consequences if “thou dost break her virgin-knot” before marriage. SS doesn’t try to guess how Shagspere’s shotgun wedding may have impacted these dramatic moments. 

On page 111 we find that a discussion of William Shakespeare as a soldier was bought to a halt by the fact that the soldier named William Shakespeare was one of the other William Shakespeares living in and around London at the time which then led to the question on our current page about whether or not the Stratford William Shakespeare was ever a schoolmaster — a question SS says cannot be answered but from which SS segues into a discussion of the fact that acting companies traveled which, we find out, means that the young Shakespeare, along with everyone else in and around London, would have been able to see plays in their hometowns. If the not-soldier maybe-schoolmaster was indeed the writer Shakespeare, it is true that it might indeed have inspired him to see plays performed in his childhood. 

Moving on to page 123, we get a tour of London almost as good as actually visiting. We learn about London architecture including the famous Tower of London which Shakespeare would have seen for the first time sometime in the 1590’s when he came to London and which SS describes in brick-by-brick detail. We find that “The mortar of the Tower walls, according to FitzStephen, the twelth-century monk of Canterbury, was tempered with blood of beasts.” SS doesn’t tell us whether or not Shakespeare of Stratford knew about the blood of beast thing or whether he used in any of his works but he does point out that “No other edifice figures so importantly in Shakespeare’s plays” and so the Stratford businessman must therefore have been impressed the first time he saw the Tower or at least this is a reasonable assumption. 

On page 256, Schoenbaum has found a variety of speculations about what Shakespeare was like personally and physically. SS quotes people who never saw Shakespeare but who did interact with someone who may have known him and who can therefore report anecdotes. A couple of pages later, with our eyes full of these anecdotes, SS responsibly informs us that the afforementioned anecdotes are “dubious” relative to other types of historical records which unfortunately don’t exist for Shakespeare and whose substitution with the dubious anecdotes we should therefore forgive which of course we do because SS is doing the best he can under the circumstances.

We finally arrive at page 270 where the Sonnets are discussed or not so much the Sonnets themselves but the publisher’s dedication in the Sonnets. SS notes that we don’t know who is the “Mr. W. H.” in the dedication and, in fact, we can’t solve any of the mysteries of the Sonnets themselves which SS calls “riddles.” No matter how much one guesses, SS explain, “the problem persists” and who wants their guess to be called “not the most idiotic guess ever made” by a future pundit? No one. Thus, Schoenbaums makes a cogent argument for not looking too carefully at the Sonnets. The good professor, seemingly distressed by the subject, exits from any detailed discussion of the Sonnets as if (one might say) he was being pursued by a bear. 

Schoenbaum’s book is longer than RM’s book so we have the opportunity to reach page 300 where SS goes through the businessman’s will in loving detail. SS lists each and every person mentioned in the will, a listing which, as we know, contains zero writers. SS does seem just a little bit miffed at the lack of any corroboration in the will for the businessman’s dual life as a wheeler-dealer and England’s foremost writer as he curtly informs us that “Shakespeare neglects to mention Southampton . . . or for that matter any peer of the realm.” Schoenbaum, of course, is far from the only person to express disappointment with Stratford Shakespeare’s will and its list of not-so-important personages who would receive Shakespeare’s final gifts. 

So there you have it. I tried this random thumbing experiment exactly once. For Jonson I got the following:

  • Jonson gave books with handwritten inscriptions as gifts;
  • Jonson wrote letters written to friends;
  • Jonson received commissions for writing;
  • Jonson was paid for writing;
  • Jonson was sometimes housed by his aristocratic patrons;
  • Jonson had a residence at a college;
  • Jonson composed poems for friends;
  • Jonson’s death was honored (and dishonored) by other writers. 

The Shakespeare biography with one extra page thrown in nets us the following:

  • practicing catholicism in England was fraught with peril;
  • virginity at marriage finds its way into Shakespeare plays;
  • a Stratford boy might have seen a play while growing up;
  • the Tower of London has a fascinating history;
  • “dubious” anecdotes about Shakespeare’s physical appearance and personality exist;
  • the Sonnets are unsolvable riddles;
  • the businesslike will mentions no peer of the realm.

Lest you think SS didn’t read his own work, think again: the great Schoenbaum knew exactly what was going on. He had done the best he could and, obviously, had failed to write a literary biography of William Shakespeare. He candidly let us know in another of his books:

A certain kind of literary biography, rich in detal about (in Yeats’s phrase) the momentary self, is clearly impossible. 

One page from Jonson manuscript with his signature.

Poem handwritten by Jonson celebrating an earl’s wedding.

So literary biography is “impossible” for Shakespeare but not for Jonson. Of course, one has to consider the possibility that Jonson’s records are the exception. Yes, Jonson and Shakespeare were the two leading writers of Elizabethan times and we have dozens of documents for both men and Jonson’s say he was a writer and Shakespeare’s say he was a businessman. But what about other writers who weren’t as famous as Jonson or as rich as the businessman from Stratford? They left behind fewer documents. If they could be identified as writers even given a smaller number of documents, that says something. If, on the other hand, other writers typically left behind documents that did not link to their profession, then we could say that Jonson with his plethora of linkages might have been an exception. So the comparative biography question is important here.  Could they be identified as writers even with fewer documents? 

Diana Price, aka the Elaine Morgan of the authorship question, was just an ordinary person as opposed to a rebel super hero. Until, that is, Price read Schoenbaum. After reading SS Price stepped into a phone booth and exited with Shakespeare’s Unorthodox Biography: New Evidence of an Authorship Problem, a carefully researched rebel classic published by Greenwood Press, a respected academic publishing house since purchased by Houghton Mifflin.

Prices book offers a Shakespeare attribution study that might have been produced by an open-minded mainstream scholar. Price argues that what has been discovered and analyzed and commented on (!) by mainstream scholars about the publication history, the inside information, the Sonnets, 1580’s Shakespeare, and the businessman’s life story as compared to the life stories of other Elizabethan authors disqualifies the Stratford businessman from serious consideration as the author of the great works or at least demonstrates that there is a serious problem with the traditional attribution. The present work would have been impossible with Price’s groundbreaking book. 

Price notes that ALL Elizabethan writers produced documents identifying them as writers while they lived even if the number of documents found for these writers is dwarfed by the number found for the Stratford businessman or Ben Jonson or others who have been intensely studied or who were prominent enough to leave a significant paper trail. At the end of her chapter called Literary Paper Trails she concludes as follows:

“Scholars have retrieved literary fragments for those lesser contemporaries with far fewer man-hours and fewer research grants behind them. Still, in every case, the personal documents reveal writing as a vocation for the individuals in question. If we had the sort of evidence for [Shakespeare of Stratford] that we have for his colleagues — that is, straightforward, contemporaneous, and personal literary records for the man who allegedly wrote Shakespeare’s plays — there would be no authorship debate.”  

If you’re looking for books, manuscripts, or letters you can find them for the following Elizabethan writers: Jonson, Nashe, Daniel, Spenser, Massinger, Peele, Harvey, Drayton, Chapman, Drummund, Marston, Munday, Lyly, Heywood, Lodge, Middleton, Dekker, and Kyd.

There are exceptions and these are interesting to look at. Francis Beaumont and Robert Greene didn’t leave many documents behind of any kind but their deaths were both noted: Beaumont was buried at Westminster Abbey and Greene’s death caused a huge fuss in the literary community. Marlowe didn’t leave us much, but we know he shared a room with Kyd where they wrote together because Kyd described it in a letter. Peele mourned Marlowe’s — “the Muses’ darling” — famously dramatic death in yet another letter that has survived the centuries.

One thing virtually every writer did is write or receive what Honigmann calls “complimentary verses addressed to them by their friends.” Shakespeare’s works show evidence of collaboration with many other writers — Lyly and Munday are really just the tip of the iceberg. And yet the Elizabethan mutual admiration society didn’t seem to include Shakespeare. People knew his works but they didn’t write him letters or any letters they did write have not survived. No author claimed to know Shakespeare in print either: the “complimentary verses” so common in printed works don’t exist for Shakespeare either written by him or written to him. Here’s how Honigmann, a committed mainstreamer put it:

“What I find astonishing is that, in an age when writers so frequently [virtually always] adorned their books with complimentary verses addressed to them by their friends, not a single such poem survives from [Shakespeare’s] pen.” 

Rebels say there’s nothing “astonishing” about it — no one knew Shakespeare-the-great-writer because there was no Shakespeare-the-great-writer. The mainstream continues to be shocked, shocked that Shakespeare would not exchange dedications with his fellow writers even though analysis of his plays indicates frequent collaboration with other writers such as Lyly and Munday. 

Arguably, even more “astonishing” than the missing complimenary verses is the fact that none of the seventy documents produced by Shakespeare of Stratford are letters, books, manuscripts, legal documents pertaining to writing, records of payments for this or that piece of writing, third-party letters about Shakespeare-the-writer, or even mentions by anyone at all circa 1616 that the most famous writer in England recently died. 

The lack of documentation in general is more than astonishing because for non-Shakespeare Elizabethan writers about half of their documentation are letters, books, manuscripts, etc. Thus, for Shakespeare of Stratford we expect thirty or forty such documents and get zero.

That is there are zero writing documents for Shakespeare unless you count the First Folio preface as a “writing document.” It is the case that a group of people who suddenly doubled the size of an author’s complete works did claim in a document called the First Folio preface that a businessman never recognized as a writer in his lifetime was actually the author. Thus, one could say that the First Folio preface is a “writing document” and that there aren’t seventy non-writing documents.  

But I’m looking for some kind of corroboration for the claims made in the First Folio preface and so I don’t count it as corroborating itself. Since I’m asking whether or not the “Shakespeare” on the title pages is a pseudonym, the title pages don’t count either as documents confirming that the “Shakespeare” on the title pages is a real person. Mainstreamers don’t like any suggestion that the First Folio preface “doesn’t count” as a document. Of course it does count. However if cannot corroborate itself. And you can’t use title pages to claim that a name on those title pages is not a pseudonym. 

So the question asked by Price and other rebels, carefully phrased, is this: “Is the claim in the First Folio preface that the “Shakespeare” found on the title pages refers to a businessman from Stratford corroborated by the documentary record from his life and if it isn’t what are the chances that a documentary record containing zero documents identifying a great writer as a great writer can be chalked up to the vicissitudes of historical accident?”

Put more simply, Can we estimate the odds that Schoenbaum’s “vertiginous expanse” and Bloom’s “colorlessness” and Honigmann’s “astonishing” missing verses would happen because of bad luck? Bloom says explaining it is “a little beyond our analytical ability.” Maybe it is, but we can construct a simple model.

Flip a coin seventy times. If you get seventy tails in a row, that’s a little bit like an Elizabethan writer producing seventy documents none of which are letters he wrote or received, books he owned or gifted, manuscripts he penned and retained, etc. while actually being the great writer Shakespeare whose name appears on the title pages and who is identified in the First Folio preface as the great writer. 

You can try this at home. You just need seventy coins and you can throw them in the air and see if they all land tails. You might do it on the first try. Or you might try for a hundred trillion years and not succeed which you can’t really do because the universe won’t last nearly that long since all the stars will have gone out by then. On average, it would take forty trillion years to succeed. My calculation is a bit rough but the point wouldn’t change with a full computation: the universe is “only” 13.7 billion years old; even if you started at the beginning of the universe and flipped seventy coins once per second, chances are you would still be waiting to see seventy tails; to take a word from Schoenbaum, what you are attempting is “impossible.” 

This doesn’t prove anything of course: special circumstances could have caused the businessman’s name to appear on title pages and could prevented any identification of him as writer until 1623 when all of this businessman’s works were gathered and finally published and when he was finally acknowledged as the greatest of the greats. Maybe just the fact that he was commuting from Stratford to London caused the record to be missing a few telling details.  

Or not. Rebels say the “special circumstances” that caused the businessman to not look like a writer are “someone else writing the plays and poems.” Many rebels regard the likelihood of the businessman living and dying and leaving nothing as about the same as flipping seventy tails in a row: so unlikely it isn’t worth considering. 

But the mainstream looks at the First Folio preface and the title pages and says, “No one at the time openly stated that the First Folio preface wasn’t true. Also, there are documents produced at the time that may be ambiguous but that can be interpreted as supporting the attribution in the First Folio preface, namely that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare.” 

We’ll get to the ambiguous documents produced by Londoner who were part of the Elizabethan literary scene and who made some interesting-though-hard-to-interpret comments.

For now we note what is perhaps Price’s stickiest point, which I’ve tried to illlustrate with my coin-flipping model: the difference between the records for Shakespeare and the records of every other Elizabethan writer is, as noted frequently by Bloom and other mainstream scholars, a stark one, one that has long been recognized by everyone and one whose implications are shied away from NOT for any scholarly reason but simply out of habit. 

Price asks why the mainstream is ignoring its own discovery.

Price has challenged a paradigm held to rather tightly by most scholars to the point where most people regard any challenge to it as equivalent to saying human have not walked on the Moon. This level of cetainty is, one can see by now, unwarranted. And yet paradigms are notoriously hard to move. 

Arguments supporting paradigms, Kuhn tells us, tend to be circular. One assumes the paradigm is true, draws a series of conclusions and then declares, “See! The paradigm makes perfect sense.”

The “Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare” paradigm tells us that there must be some explanation for the bootlegging, the inside information, and the Sonnets: the acting company owned the plays, the businessman had his sources, and the earl’s family offered a commission. The paradigm explains the First Folio preface and the title pages and, with a few assumptions, holds together perfectly well and therefore the paradigm must be true. 

The “hidden aristocratic author” paradigm automatically explains the bootlegging and the inside information and, if the hidden aristocrat had some interest in Southampton’s marriage, also explains the Sonnets. It holds together as long one assumes the First Folio preface is a hoax. 

So we start with two reasonable paradigms each of which has certain advantages to recommend it.

But then we reach 1580’s Shakespeare and we have hard evidence to ponder — four published early Shakespeare works from the 1580’s. The first paradigm turns Shakespeare into a plagiarist. The second paradigm has Shakespeare leading the Elizabethan theatrical revolution rather than following in others’ footsteps. The second paradigm is attractive but has Jiménez really proven that Shakespeare wrote 1580’s Shakespeare? Without a full scholarly back-and-forth refereed by journal editors, we don’t know.

Even without being able to make definitive statements we non-experts can pass the inflection point of 1580’s Shakespeare and allow Price to take us to the top of the curve as it were where we find that the businessman was well documented as a businessman but was not documented as a writer. The circumstantial evidence of seventy non-writing documents is powerful despite being circumstantial and is predicted by the “hidden aristocratic author” paradigm but seems anomalous under the “Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare” paradigm.

For the mainstream, even though the lack of documentation is reasonably described as “anomalous,” the idea of an author hiding behind the name of a real person — the front-man theory — is also anomalous as in intrinsically unlikely, unprecedented, and bizarre and thereby requires smoking-gun evidence to be considered.  

Here at the top of our logical curve, we worry about having left out information as we of course have done since it is not possible to cover all the information at once. In fact, any “battle of paradigms” is best examined with two readings so that on the second reading one can have all the relevant information in the back of one’s mind.

Some interesting-but-ambiguous information — two stone monuments at the gravesite of the Stratford church and four pieces of comtemporary commentary about Shakespeare-the-man by Londoners who knew whether or not “Shakespeare” was a pseudonym — is certainly worth a look but, given the what is really insurmountable ambiguity, this information is best looked at after the unambiguous information is laid out. (But a second reading allows the reader to keep all the information in mind simultaneously including the information I regard as ambiguous and this might make a big difference in your final opinion.)

In this context, “unambiguous” does NOT mean only explainable in one way; it means only that there is an obvious straightforward interpretation upon which everyone can agree. For example, the First Folio preface is unambiguous — the First Folio preface says Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare. However, the First Folio preface can be explained as EITHER straightforward testimony OR as misleading marketing copy. Yes, there are multiple interpretations, but no, since a straightforward interpretation exists, I would not call the First Folio preface “ambiguous.”

On the other side of the coin, the lack of writing documents is also unambiguous — no surviving books, letters, or manuscripts left behind by a well-documented businessman implies that the businessman was not a writer. However, the lack of writing documents can be explained EITHER as straightforward testimony OR as bad luck. The businessman appears, from the documentary record produced during his lifetime, to be only a businessman and not a writer. However, if the First Folio preface is considered accurate then there “must be an explanation” for the lack of writing documents. 

With ambiguous evidence like the gravesite and the London commentary, multiple interpretations are of course possible but none of these interpretations could be called “straightforward.”  Ambiguous evidence often generates as many theories as there are observers and this is one way of identifying it as truly ambiguous — when even observers on the same side of a debate disagree amongst themselves and generate theory after theory after theory. 

Thus, I hope the reader will forgive me for putting off the examination of evidence I regard as ambiguous where “ambiguous” is defined as “admitting of a variety of theories all of which are on an equal footing.” Of course, determining which evidence is ambiguous involves some judgment and may therefore be regarded as subjective. Thus, some readers may ultimately decide that evidence I regard as ambiguous actually is not. In fact, if I am providing the information in a fair and reasonably balanced way, this disagreement should happen at least for some readers. If so, I beg forgiveness.  

All that said, there is one last piece of (in my opinion) unambiguous evidence to look at — the signatures of the businessman William Shakespeare on legal documents. With it we begin our well-earned slide down the logical curve.  

Schoenbaum quotes an expert who wants nothing to do with the authorship question but is simply doing her job at the London Office of Public Records. The expert, Jane Cox, states (1) it is “obvious at a glance” Shakespeare’s signatures are written by different people and (2) it is “inconceivable” that a literate Elizabethan would not have a consistent signature. Strong words from Jane Cox. 

Schoenbaum agrees with the expert since there’s nothing to argue about and the expert is merely stating the obvious. However, Schoenbaum must, somehow, salvage the First Folio preface since that seems to be his job as a mainstream biographer. Schoenbaum therefore makes two preface-saving suggestions: (1) Shakespeare of Stratford must not have been present in London when the real estate deal was signed with two completely different Shakespeare signatures and (2) Shakespeare of Stratford must not have been healthy enough to write as he usually would when he tried to sign his will. 

Schoenbaum praises the expert from London for being willing to “milk a sacred cow” and exits with some alacrity as if pursued by a bear. 

Professor McCrea studied the signatures also and offers a characteristically honest discussion. Here’s an excerpt on from page 49 of his book:

“The autographs are curious and it’s easy to see how one might question them. But they don’t prove the man who signed them wasn’t a writer. Their oddness might just as easily reveal their maker’s teeming imagination.”

I am happy to have the three (altogether) suggestions of Schoenbaum and McCrea. At least they are discussing the issue — some book-length treatments don’t even mention the signatures.  If one does deign to discuss the signatures, an infinite number of possible explanations may be created to “explain” them and save the First Folio preface.

Though I could be convinced to defer to Scott McCrea’s expertise in this matter, I thought with my amateur’s mind that perhaps a quick look at the signatures of other Elizabethan writers might be interesting. Chapman, Daniel, Dekker, Drayton, Drummond, Fletcher, Greene, Harvey, Heywood, Jonson, Kyd, Lyly, Munday, Marlowe, Massinger, Middleton, Nashe, Peele, Spenser, Watson, and Webster all left behind signatures that looked the part. I could find no precedent for a variation in signatures that Jane Cox noted for any literate Elizabethan: if the great writer William Shakespeare signed his name five different ways or had clerks sign for him, he is the only literate Elizabethan known to have done so though I must admit my knowledge of the field is imperfect so I should say I have personally been unable to find any precedent for Shakespeare’s teeming imagination as represented by signatures and this continues to be the case no matter how many mainstream books I read.

Shakespeare’s signatures that Jane Cox says were obviously written by different people are shown below. The first four signatures are completely different from one another. However, the last name in the fifth signature seems to match the fourth signature though the first name in the fifth signature is in a different handwriting.

For comparison, I have included the signatures of Ben Jonson, Christopher Marlowe, Francis Bacon, Edward de Vere, and Edmund Spenser. To save space, I have provided single examples; however, other extant examples either of signatures or prose from these men confirm their status as provably literate Elizabethans. 

Especially interesting are four additional signatures — that is, two pairs of signatures — from two of Shakespeare’s business associates, Joseph Jackson and William Johnson. Jackson and Johnson signed the same two real estate documents as the Stratford businessman on the same day. The same documents that contain Shakespeare’s two non-matching “signatures” also have two pairs of matching signatures. That is, Shakespeare’s business partners (at least for this deal) Joseph Jackson and William Johnson could evidently write their names when it came time to sign the documents.   

Court document. Shakespeare had to testify in someone else’s domestic dispute. This signature matches none of the others.

Real estate deal in London involving three people (Shakespeare, Joseph Jackson, and William Johnson). This signature is also unique.

A second document from the same London real estate deal. We now have three distinct signatures without even a hint of consistency.

Second page of Shakespeare’s will. He may have written this himself.

Last page of Shakespeare’s will. The first three words are obviously written by a scribe. He may have written his last name himself.

Ben Jonson. His signature never changed.

Christopher Marlowe. Elizabethans didn’t care about spelling even of names. The handwriting is distinctive.

Francis Bacon. Also distinctive and consistent with other examples.

Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, the greatest of the court playwrights.

Edmund Spenser’s signature was smooth and distinctive though not easily readable.

William Johnson signed his own name twice on the real estate deal in which Shakespeare of Stratford was a participant.

Joseph Jackson also signed his own name twice on the London real estate deal with William Shakespeare and William Johnson. Mr. Jackson seemed to have a little trouble with the ink flow but still wrote two smooth reasonably consistent signatures as one would expect of a literate Elizabethan.

“At the least, shaky penmanship is an odd characteristic to find in a professional writer,” says Price with remarkable understatement on page 128 of her book.

Price’s book covers what I call LISSE. It’s not a town in Holland, at least not in this context. She examined a vast swath of mainstream research and found that mainstream scholars have noted Shakespeare’s familiarity with abstruse Legal language and concepts, tiny details of Italian geography, the Signatures that aren’t really signatures, the clear connection between Shakespeare and Southampton evidenced in the Sonnets (that’s three S’s but I’m only using one), and finally the fact that the Epistles in the First Folio preface were ghostwritten by Ben Jonson. 

So we need an author trained in the law, who visited Itlay, and who knew Southampton. And you need to explain why the epistles were ghostwritten and you need to explain why the greatest writer in England couldn’t write his name. If you don’t like LISSE, because it causes you to doubt the traditional attribution, you have to jetison essentially all mainstream scholarship because LISSE is decidedly mainstream. 

As noted above, we are on our way down the logical curve. “Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare” is a Kuhnian paradigm and is circular by its nature and often by the arguments offered on its behalf. It certainly successfully explains the name on the title pages and it explains the statements in the First Folio preface in which two acting company shareholders refer to themselves as “guardians.”

However it does not explain the fact that Shakespeare of Stratford, the acting company shareholder, was apparently unable to write his name.

The signatures explode the certainty of the Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare paradigm because they qualify as unambiguous noncircumstantial testimony: signatures are hard evidence. That no other literate Elizabethan left us with five different signatures strengthens this straightforward interpretation of this evidence.

Non-straightforward interpretations of the signature evidence include ascribing them to Shakespeare’s “teeming imagination,” his lack of time, his poor health at the end of his life, or (with thanks to a friend) an injury which required him to dictate all of his work. An infinite number of interpretations are possible including (if one is good at keeping a straight face) “the signatures are perfectly consistent” and “there is no need to discuss the signatures.” The old paradigm lives because their “must be an explanation” for anything that challenges it. 

Though paradigms are hard to kill where they stand, paradigms can grow old and die as Max Planck suggested in the famous quote in Kuhn’s book. For some rebels, the “Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare” paradigm is as dated as the idea that solid objects are truly solid. For many rebels, a nobleman was Shakespeare and yes it sounds strange but that’s just the way it is. The mainstreamers, waiting for a smoking gun, may eventually die off while rebels move forward with the rewriting of every bit of analysis of every bit of Shakespeare. 

Thus, we see that the heart of a paradigm beats in the eyes of its beholders. Is the “Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare” paradigm really as mortal as its most vocal adherents. For now, we non-experts must await a rapprochement between the rebels and the mainstream that would lead to a full discussion in refereed journals that do not block research based on its conclusion but do demand solid scholarly work — something experts on both sides are fully capable of doing.

Or, short of an actual discussion, eventually one or the other group might dwindle in number unter the intervention of Planck’s ultimate referee — mortality.

All of the discussion above is subject to critiques and correction of this or that aspect of my presentation of the agreed-upon facts. However, even given such critiques and corrections, I claim that any view of the agreed-upon facts makes it abundantly clear that a mainstreamer who claims certainty or even near-certainty is launching a two-billion-dollar space shuttle with six professional astronauts and one teacher-astronaut on board when all of engineers recommend against launch and lay out their reasoning in careful — but not perfect! — detail.

Again, we are at this point most certainly NOT certain that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare. Neither are we nearly certain.

In a certain sense, being uncertain about a paradigm is a contradiction in terms. As Kuhn explained, widespread acceptance of a paradigm allows scholarship and science to move forward and is extremely practical as constant questioning of the paradigm(s) would be a distraction from the task of what Kuhn calls “normal science” which is an endeavor whose success and efficiency is predicated on having a majority of scientists and scholars agreeing on the validity of a paradigm or set of paradigms.

And yet I claim here as my central thesis that certainty about a paradigm has a nuanced subtlety typically ignored by the practitioners of the given paradigm. I propose here that one can act as if one is certain of the truth (or approximate correctness or usefulness as a model) of a paradigm without actually being certain of the truth of that paradigm. In particular, I propose here that researchers can carry on their work assuming a given paradigm is valid but need not block their colleagues from questioning that paradigm whenever some crucial number (I called it “X” above) of credentialed professionals wish to question it. 

The determination of the optimal value of “X” is a subjective process that is up to journal editors: I claim here merely that a value of “X” exists and that journal editors need not defer to Planck’s ultimate referee but may decide for themselves when “X” is large enough to warrant tolerance of paradigm-questioning activities by a minority of experts even if all journal editors disagree with that minority of experts

Put another way, a paradigm is a paradigm — only this and nothing more — and its perceived resemblance to a young child requiring vigilant protection is an illusion born of insecurity. Being wrong is a good thing for we cannot move forward if we are never wrong. That prescription (being wrong) applies equally to those who regard a paradigm as extremely likely and those who question the paradigm. One expects it to be the case in fact that the questioners of a paradigm will be wrong more often than not. But again, that’s a good thing, for the questioning process, once completed and having failed to dislodge the paradigm, will, in such cases, strengthen the original paradigm. 

Einstein, when he published his theory of special relativity, was, in the eminently reasonable view of the journal editor, probably wrong. The theory was published anyway. 

In the Shakespeare case, I hope I have demonstrated that the mainstream is arguing an indefensible point: they claim to be certain of an increasingly uncertain paradigm. Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare. We are 100% sure. We don’t care if he couldn’t write his name. We just won’t mention it or we’ll use our teeming imaginations to come up with an explanation. And so it goes. One is reminded of a Monty Python skit as we will see below (I told you, this is the fun part of the discussion). 

Even with hypothetical beautiful, perfect signatures, Price has demonstrated that the identification of the businessman as the great writer Shakespeare in the First Folio preface is NOT supported by the documentary record of the life of the investor, landowner, creditor, grain dealer, and acting company shareholder. 

Shapiro, contra-Price, says, “Yes, it IS.” Shapiro says the businessman’s life story shows three important characteristics of a writer: connection with a patron (Southampton); eulogies at death; and payments for writing.

Price readily agrees with Shapiro that if we could find a connection between the Stratford businessman and Shakespeare’s dedicatee (Southampton), that connection might well establish the businessman as the great writer even without books, letters, manuscripts, court appearances, signatures, etc. 

Price likewise agrees completely that if any event or letter or diary entry or publication beyond the reading of the businessman’s will could be found to have attended the death of the Stratford Shakespeare, that would also qualify as proof of authorship if he were commemorated as a great writer or as any kind of writer.

Finally, Price absolutely agrees that a record of payment for any play or poem as is commonplace for Elizabethan writers like Jonson would, if found for Shakespeare, be proof that he was a writer. 

Scholars, with these issues in mind, have spent centuries looking for a connection between the Earl of Southampton and the great Stratford businessman/shareholder and for any documents produced near the time of the Stratford man’s death that would indicate that the greatest writer in England had just died and for any records or contracts or receipts that would indicate that Shakespeare’s investment in the acting company was different from his investments in real estate and agriculture, that he was not only an investor in the company named William Shakespeare but also their chief writer. Any documentation of any one of these things would make a strong case for the businessman.  

But scholars have found no connection between the businessman and Southampton: the earl and the businessman appear never to have met. Shakespeare’s will created a lot of excitement when it was discovered but proved disappointing to say the least: nothing about the transfer of cash and land to two illiterate children indicated a writer. And, though he was definitely named William Shakespeare, he was not treated any differently than any of the other shareholders until the First Folio preface identified him as the great writer in 1623. 

Nevertheless, Shapiro has no worries: he says there is proof that the businessman knew Southampton and, he says, there is proof that the businsessman was eulogized, and, he says, there is proof the businessman was paid to write. The following is taken from Contested Will beginning on page 243:

“Price and her followers define authorship in such a way that Shakespeare is always excluded, if need be on semantic grounds. According to [Price], there’s no evidence of [the businessman] having had a direct relationship with a patron, though he wore the livery of the Lord Chamberlain [as a shareholder in the acting company], served King James both as a King’s Man and as a Groom of the Chamber [as a shareholder in the acting company] and directly addressed a patron, the Earl of Southampton, in the . . . [dedications in the published epic poems] Venus and Adonis and Lucrece.” 

Shapiro goes on to counter Price’s point that there was no known reaction to the businessman’s death in 1616. Shapiro explains that the First Folio eulogies should not be discounted by Price’s claim that “time had apparently expired” but should themselves be regarded as eulogies to the businessman as a great writer thereby proving that the First Folio identification of the businessman as a great writer is accurate.

Finally, Shapiro points out that the businessman, as an investor in agriculture, real estate, and the London theater, was “paid to write.” Even though, as a shareholder in the London acting company, he was “not paid directly for each play by [the] playing company,” his status as a shareholder named Shakespeare constitutes proof he was “paid to write.”

Here’s the full quote:

“[Price] also insists that Shakespeare had no ‘Notice at death as a writer.’ I’m not sure how those who wrote memorial tributes to him or paid for or carved his monument or labored to create the . . . First Folio, might feel about that. But according to [Price], time had apparently expired before all these memorial efforts were realized. And though Price knows that Shakespeare was a shareholder and therefore not paid directly for each play by [the] playing company [Price] assures us that there is no evidence of his ‘having been paid to write.'”

“Readers are invited to make up their own minds.”

For some reason, Shapiro mentioned in the quote above money the acting company received for producing a decorative item called an “imprese” as part of his argument that Shakespeare was paid for writing plays. I replaced this with ellipsis in the quote above. I also gave Shapiro’s zinger its very own paragraph because I appreciate it so much.

Shapiro does make one valid point here: there are two monuments at Shakespeare’s gravesite that we have not yet examined and that could be regarded as “notice at death as a writer” and we will look at both monuments below — one is a gravestone with doggerel and one is an enigmatic epitaph that could be taken as an indication that the businessman was also a writer.   

I said earlier that when I looked into the question I was surprised by what I found. And, reading Shapiro, knowing Shapiro is knowledgeable, careful, experienced, talented, focused, ethical, and brilliant, surprise was indeed the first feeling I had. But it’s also scary to see this kind of argument from an ivy league professor. After all, I could be on a space shuttle or some kind of similar vehicle someday and maybe intelligent people will declare the o-rings safe because they just are and no one can prove otherwise. Of maybe I’ll be charged with murder and people will believe I selectively removed DNA from a crime scene. Or a judge might allow a tea-leaf reader to testify against me if my house burns down. 

Shapiro says the fact that the name “William Shakespeare” appears beneath a dedication to Southampton proves the businessman knew Southampton and he says Shakespeare’s status as a shareholder means he had patrons because he wore livery and he says Shakespeare was paid to write because he was a shareholder in an acting company. None of these arguments would get a passing grade at a state college but maybe are okay if a student is wealthy enough to be attending an ivy league school. I’m sorry to be so mean about it, but Shapiro’s arguments here are insulting and, as I said, a little frightening. At least he’s not launching space shuttles.  

Again, obviously, at any college outside of the ivy league, the eulogies in the First Folio preface cannot corroborate the epistles in the First Folio preface. However, Shapiro also mentions the people who “paid for or carved his [monuments]” at the gravesite one of which may offer some support for the First Folio preface. So, with great relief that we have a real argument from Shapiro (the only one in his whole book) to discuss, we will, after reviewing the road we have thus far traversed, visit the gravesite. 

Here’s what we have so far: the businessman, investor, and theater shareholder, born with the common name “William Shakspere” in Stratford in 1564, did not leave us books or manuscripts or letters. Both daughters were illiterate; he was not, as far as we know, known to his friends as a writer and did not list writers or publishers in his will. His court appearances did not involve writing and there is no record of receipt of cash for writing. There is no record of him meeting Southampton nor is there any known connection between the businessman and the earl. If the businessman could read and write, he would be the one and only literate Elizabethan who left behind a series of inconsistent signatures and no books or letters. 

However, in 1623, everything changed. Thirty-six plays appeared in a compilation called the First Folio. The First Folio combined seventeen previously bootlegged plays with nineteen unpublished plays. Regardless of who actually wrote the plays, the First Folio marks the first time an Elizabethan playwright needed to be dead before plays could be published in anything like an authorized edition. In the First Folio, two ghostwritten epistles said two shareholders of London’s leading acting company had been acting as the “guardians” of the “orphans” of the great writer who was too dead to exercise his “right” to publish. But there would be no more “frauds” and their “friend and fellow” Shakespeare would be remembered.

Oh, and by the way, we have no interest in profit. 

If the First Folio is fraudulent (or a joke) every analysis of every Shakespeare play will have to be rewritten or much of the analysis will at least have to be revised in some way. It’s hard to say how big a blow it would be to someone like Shapiro. The professor has to decide how certain he is because, like all of us, his time on earth is limited. If he is going to do a lot of revising, he would need to start soon. Shapiro claims to be absolutely certain Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare though I suspect he has never actually considered the possibility that someone else may have written the plays.

Shapiro and others have repeated to themselves the phrase “Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare” so many times that the words have lost their meaning. Of course Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare, but was Shakespeare an apparently illiterate businessman or was he a nobleman hiding behind a pseudonym? That is the question for those few (if any) mainstreamers who are willing to ask it.  

We must ask here, What is certainty? I propose the following working definition: you can say you are “certain” if you are willing to stake your life that you are correct.

There was no certainty before the space shuttle launch and it (predictably) blew up. I am “certain” humans have physically stepped on the Moon. I am “certain” Amanda Knox and Raffaele Sollecito did not help Rudy Guede murder Meredith Kercher. I am “certain” most stomach ulcers can be cured with antibiotics.

No one is “certain” that a businessman born William Shakspere in 1564 was the great author we know as “Shakespeare,” not even Shapiro if he ever takes even one second to stop and think about it. But the situation is, in my opinion, far worse than a mere lack of certainty. Even a 1% chance of being wrong would be definable as uncertain for all but the most risk-tolerant people. In the case of the space shuttle, I don’t think the odds of it blowing up were nearly that low. It is unprovable speculation of course since we can’t try an experiment with a thousand space shuttles launching in the cold with faulty o-rings, but I think it is reasonable in hindsight to regard the space shuttle launch as essentially a coin toss.

So a coin toss may have been taken for certainty in the space shuttle incident. What of Shakespeare? Of course it is possible the First Folio preface is telling it like it is: the businessman somehow wrote the plays and the bootlegging, the inside information, the intervention in Southampton’s life, 1580’s Shakespeare, the missing books, letters, and manuscripts and the five varying signatures all have an explanation. But is the mainstream’s businessman-author theory even as good as a coin toss? Can an apparently illiterate businessman named William Shakespeare who came to London in the 1590’s after the name Shakespeare was already famous and who invested in an acting company possibly actually be the writer Shakespeare just as the First Folio says? What are the odds?

Don’t answer yet. 

I haven’t mentioned the gravesite and many mainstream people follow Shapiro in pointing to the monuments in the Stratford church as crucial external evidence that supports the First Folio preface. One can argue that the probability that the First Folio preface was falsified AND the gravesite was falsified is low enough to justify saying that without solid evidence to the contrary, it is a waste of time to pursue the “authorship question” and therefore building walls to exclude credentialed professionals from publishing their authorship resesarch in journals makes sense.

Rebels readily admit that any theory that assumes evidence has been falsified runs into inherent limitations when it looks at multiple pieces of evidence all of which must have been falsified according to the theory. Everyone agrees that any theory that assumes omnipotent ability to create any amount of falsified evidence is not worth considering. So, if the gravesite is a second piece of evidence supporting the businessman-author theory, rebels have to posit two pieces of falsified evidence with no rock-solid proof.

Of course, two pieces of falsified evidence is a far cry from claims of an omnipotent conspiracy, though it does have to factor into any analysis. Thus, a good summary of the mainstream argument is as follows: First Folio preface + gravesite + no smoking gun. Shakespeare’s status as a shareholder in an acting company is important to mainstreamers but does not actually support their theory. The fact that he was in London and involved with the theater does not comport with the apparent distance the actual author kept from the works as mainstreamers Schoenbaum, Bloom, Honan, and Honigmann have all repeatedly and eloquently noted so his status as a shareholder does not help the mainstream.

He may have been a shareholder-writer with a special arrangement with his fellow shareholders and unfathomable motivations regarding his literary legacy, but (and this is important) there is no evidence of this. All we know is that he was a shareholder and that after he died his fellow shareholders said they had the plays and their fellow shareholder was the writer. If shareholder-writers leaving their entire canon with their acting company had any sort of precedent or even if it made any sense at all to do this, then the businessman’s status as a shareholder would be evidence in favor of his alleged status as a writer. But, because the “guardianship” claimed in the First Folio preface is unprecedented, the mainstream doesn’t get to claim the businessman’s status as a shareholder as an indication that he was also a writer. Just the opposite is the case: the alleged writer’s presence in London and his involvement in the theater is suspicious given the bootlegging that went on and this actually damages the mainstream’s theory.

Robert Armin is an example of a writer-shareholder in this very same acting company: Armin was involved in the publication of his work.   

Nevertheless, we do have First Folio preface + gravesite + no smoking gun and so there is a real mainstream theory backed up with evidence which, in the case of the gravesite, is literally rock-solid. So let’s have look. 

Once you’ve seen the gravesite, you’ll be able to estimate the odds that the businessman was Shakespeare. It might have been more fair to the mainstream to have discussed the gravesite earlier so I hope you are prepared to find the gravesite evidence compelling. I think one can make a strong argument that the gravesite is so ambiguous as to be almost useless: I tend to ignore it in my own thought process for that reason. But you may well disagree with me when you see the evidence and, as Shapiro might say (except I really mean it), the final decision about the gravesite is yours to make.  

One of the monuments at the gravesite is a nameless stone identified as Shakespeare’s gravestone by contemporary observers who were physically in the church centuries ago looking at the original versions of the monuments. The nameless gravestone contained an epitaph (it’s still there) consisting of four lines of ridiculous doggerel:

Good friend for Jesus’ sake forbear
To dig the dust enclosed here.
Blessed be the man that spares these stones
And cursed be he that moves my bones.

That’s about as un-Shakespearean as one can imagine. Mark Twain asked us to compare what he thinks of as Shakespeare’s real epitaph. It’s from The Tempest and contains these four lines:

And like the baseless fabric of this vision
The cloud-capp’d tow’rs, the gorgeous palaces, 
The solemn temples, the great globe itself, 
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve . . . 

The full Shakespeare verse is reproduced below along with images of the monuments. Suffice to say the doggerel was not written by Shakespeare unless one believes PIcasso would draw a stick figure for his epitaph (which I suppose he might do depending on his mood).

There is another monument, a bust, with Shakespeare’s last name and date of death on it though not his first name. This other monument has an epitaph that is cryptic and bizarre compared to other Elizabethan gravesites. And yet the words on this second monument aren’t doggerel though some regard them as gibberish.  

We first get a comparison in Latin between the deceased and three figures of antiquity: King Nestor of Pylos; Socrates; and either Virgil or Maro the Grammarian. Scholars have no way of knowing which “Maro” the epitaph refers to.

Scholars do know that these comparisons are not at all appropriate for Shakespeare. Socrates wasn’t known to have written a single word. Shakespeare was known as an Ovidian poet not as anything like either Maro. Nestor is just nonsensical. On the other hand, a businessman being compared with figures of antiquity can be an argument that he was more than a businessman if one wants to examine many epitaphs and see if there is any precedent for ordinary people being lauded as having the intellect of Socrates and so forth. This might be an interesting project; no one’s done it to my knowledge. 

The rest of the inscription rambles unintelligibly but the last one-and-a-half lines are quite interesting indeed: all that he hath writ leaves living art but page to serve his wit. This either confirms that the businessman was a great writer or is worthless gibberish or is purposeful obfuscation or is something else I haven’t thought of — take your pick.

The full inscription is reproduced below. No one understands it: even experts in Elizabethan prose have made no headway in the last four hundred years. 

Diana Price quips, “If this epitaph commemorated a cryptographer, it could not be more baffling.” She cites a number of examples of straightforward literary epitaphs but does not perform a systematic study of Elizabethan epitaphs or refer to any such study. 

Here are the two earliest engravings of the bust. The first, from 1634, does not have pen and paper. The second, from a hundred years later, does have pen and paper. No one has any idea why the engravings disagree. Mainstreamers assume the first engraving is inaccurate. Rebels say the pen and paper may have been added later when the businessman-writer mythology had created expectations for a pen. Today, the bust has pen and paper. 

Engraving of Shakespeare bust circa 1630.

Engraving of Shakespeare bust circa 1730.

Good friend for Jesus’ sake forbear to dig the dust enclosed here. Blessed be the man that spares these stones and cursed by he that moves by bones. 

In judgment a Pylian, in intellect a Socrates, in art a Maro. The earth covers, the people mourn, Olympus holds. Stay passenger . . . all that he hath writ leaves living art but page to serve his wit. “Sieh” is the German for “look there” which I read as “see how.”

Judicio Pylium, genio Socratem, arte Maronem
Terra tegit, populus maeret, Olympus habet

Stay Passenger, why goest thou by so fast?
Read if thou canst, whom envious Death hath placed,
With in this monument Shakspeare: with whom,
Quick nature died: whose name doth deck this Tomb,
Far more than cost: see how all that he hath writ,
Leaves living art, but page, to serve his wit.

Here’s a rebellious translation (read: guess) of the English:

Hold it right there “passenger” (says a man known to have initials BJ).
There’s obviously no way anyone is actually buried in the wall,

So you are forewarned about that which follows. 
It cost us not much to put a name on this not-tomb: 
See how what Shakespeare wrought leaves an artful jest
For the living
 with just these words to serve the ruse.

Here’s a mainstream translation (read: focus on the good part) of the English:

He’s buried in the wall? Is that what they are saying?
We don’t know here what is the meaning,
But all that he hath writ must mean he wrote things.
And his art will live on; of the rest we know nothing.

The mainstream interpretation has the virtue of simplicity. As for the “rebellious translation,” it is my own and I make no claims about its value. I regard the gravesite as offering no relevant information because of the doggerel and the obscure epitaph.

Here are a couple of elegies to the dead written by our friend BJ (Ben Jonson) that you may find interesting. Compare this to Stay Passenger . . . Read if thou canst . . . 

If Passenger, thou canst but read,
Stay, drop a tear for him that’s dead:
. . . 
What could their care do against the spite
Of a disease that loved no light
. . .
[Nothing] could stop the mallice of this ill
That spread his body over to kill
And only his great soul envied
Because it durst have noblier died. 

Here’s another BJ elegy which uses “record” and “page” and “book” to refer to the elegy itself. We also get the customary “crown of immortality” bestowed on the dead. 

‘Tis a record in heaven. You, that were
Her children, and grand-children, read it here!
. . . 
                                                          Do but look
With pause upon it; make this page your book;
Your book? Your volume! Nay, the state, and story!
Code, digests, pandects of all female glory!

. . . 

For this did Katherine, Lady Ogle, die
To gain the crown of immortality,
Eternity’s great charter; which became
Her right, by gift, and purchase of the lamb:
Sealed, and delivered to her, in the sight
Of angels, and all witnesses of light,
Both saints, and martyrs, by her loved lord.
And this a copy is of the record.

Asking someone to “read this if you can” is a surreal request reasonably called Jonsonian. So he seems to have ghostwritten the epistles in the First Folio preface (even mainstreamers agree) and, if he also wrote the cryptic epitaph for the businessman, the mainstream theory starts to crumble. Thus, rebels often claim that the First Folio preface and the inscription on the bust in the church were part of the same attempt to mis-identify the author as the businessman Shakespeare. They point to Jonsonian fingerprints as evidence. 

The mainstream counters with the “omnipotent conspiracy” charge which is somewhat exaggerated given that rebels are claiming just the two fraudulent items. Still, without a smoking gun, rebels are vulnerable to the charge that the greatest hoax in history resulting from a falsified First Folio preface AND a falsified gravesite inscription is an inherently unlikely claim.

The First Folio says straightforwardly that the two acting company shareholders were the “guardians” of their “friend and fellow” Shakespeare’s “orphans” and the inscription on the bust says not-so-straightforwardly that “all that he hath writ leaves living art but page to serve his wit.” The mainstream begins and ends the discussion with the First Folio preface and “all that he hath writ . . .”

Mark Twain regarded the doggerel on the gravestone as probative and wittily exaggerated its importance while ignoring the inscription on the bust. He had already decided for other reasons that the businessman wasn’t the author. Mr. Clemens’s suggestion for a better epitaph follows. I appreciate it because it reminds us who we are talking about: 

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d tow’rs, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

. . . 

and my name far more than cost doth deck this page of my wit as living art

The living descendent of Lord Burghley, Michael William Cecil, along with Mark Twain, Roger Penrose, and other famous rebels, often laugh in the general direction of the traditional attribution. A lot of people think it’s obvious who wrote the plays. Kuhn tells us that paradigms rarely fall without a viable replacement — Twain didn’t have one but the modern Lord Burghley does.

Diana Price told me she thinks it is better to squash the old paradigm before looking for a replacement. She has a point: since there are so many other possible authors, rebels risk losing focus if they look under every possible rock for the “real Shakespeare.” Mainstream scholars often use the profusion of candidates as a way to make rebels look unhinged though this “argument” is more of a zinger than a reasoned position: of course there are going to be a large number of alternative candidates when the claimed author turns out to be illiterate. 

With apologies to Diana Price, I will follow Kuhn’s prescription and lay out the case for the alternative candidate that has attracted the most interest. There is a playwright from Elizabethan times who was heavily praised for his literary talents and who was even sometimes listed with the great Elizabethan writers without Shakespeare’s name even mentioned as if that particular observer either didn’t think much of Shakespeare or knew the name to be a pseudonym (needless to say this particular reference leads to no end of inconclusive debate between rebels and mainstreamers). What’s interesting in my opinion about this particular playwright is not so much that he appeared on a list that left Shakespeare out but that he was known as a playwright but no one ever named a play that he wrote.

That is, there is exactly one Elizabethan playwright with no plays attributed to him. There is also exactly one set of Elizabethan plays published without help from an author. If the playwright with no titles and the titles with no playwright are the same person and the same plays, then Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare.  

Michael William Cecil, descendant of Lord Burghley himself (the Queen’s right hand man) is the 18th Baron Burghley. He believes the businessman was not the author.

When the Queen was setting up the largest acting company ever assembled we know she added a crucial element: a courtly writer.

When Edward de Vere was a teenager, he was already outgrowing some of the finest tutors in England. As an adult, he was known to be wild, irresponsible, and brilliant. He was also known as a great playwright.

Other authors dedicated dozens of works to him and praised his literary skills to the skies. This level of praise continued long after his death. Edward de Vere was “matchless” and “the best” and “more polished than Castiglione” and “sacred to the muses” and so forth.

In 1586, Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, became the highest paid person in Elizabeth’s government. Here’s what (may have) transpired between de Vere (aka Oxford) and the national security man, Sir Francis Walsingham, who was in charge of putting together the Queen’s Men and setting de Vere up with his money.

OXFORD (glaring at Walsingham): You took the top actors from my company you mouldy rogue! I know the Queen ordered it but what kind of flesh-monger would take all my best actors?

WALSINGHAM: I’m afraid I had no choice. Orders are orders. But that was three years ago and today there is a happy ending for you. 

OXFORD: Yes, I have a nice troup of players to write for. But I had that before. 

WALSINGHAM: Ah, but there is more in heaven and earth than even you have dreamt of.

OXFORD: You butchered the line. Don’t quit your day job!

WALSINGHAM: Well, here’s another line for you, one that might soothe your tiger’s heart. You are going to get a thousand pounds a year for life. 

OXFORD: Ha! Mirth cannot move my soul! Away with your poorly timed jests!

WASLINGHAM: I must stay for I have not yet discharged my duty.

OXFORD: Then do so. You know I need money. And yet you torment me with unearthly exaggeration. Please tell me how much it will be and in truth this time, I beg you. Dare I hope for two hundred pounds a year? 

WALSINGHAM: It is a thousand my lord just as I said in my first speech. Can you not believe?

OXFORD (smiling): I am that I am and though I live on a stage of fools I am yet no fool. Of course I don’t believe you. 

WALSINGHAM (smiling more broadly and handing him two hundred and fifty pounds): This is your first installment. The Queen orders that you’re to be paid four times a year. Or shall I take it back to her majesty with your regrets?

OXFORD (reeling): Uh, well, I, now, how, uh, where, it’s uh, hmm, I think . . . I just . . . uh, really?

WALSINGHAM (shaking his head and bowing slightly): The most eloquent man in England speaks! I am in the presence of greatness and I am sure her majesty will not regret her choice (exit stage left as OXFORD drops to his knees and gazes at the firmament).

The Queen indeed had no regrets and Oxford received the unprecedented stipend throughout his life; it continued even after King James ascended the throne. 

Becoming the Queen’s paid playwright in 1586 (unless he was being paid for his pretty eyes) is pretty good but we would like to see if there are other reasons for believing Oxford was Shakespeare. The 1000 pounds a year and the businessman’s five different “signatures” are a good start but we want more.

A line in Shakespeare says “I know a man who sold a goodly manor for a song.” The leading composer of the day, William Byrd, did have a large property gifted to him by a nobleman. Shakespeare may or may not have been writing about that particular transaction but the nobleman who signed over the property to Bryd just happened to be Edward de Vere.

In the early 1580’s, Edward de Vere slept with one the Queen’s ladies-in-waiting. The high-born young woman was striking physically, brilliant socially, and exceptionally elegant. She got pregnant and had the baby and it was a huge scandal. The Queen tossed mother, baby, and her wayward earl in the Tower. (Don’t worry, the baby was fine.)

When her highness cooled off and released the now ex-lovers, members of the young woman’s family and parts of de Vere’s retinue met on the streets of London. Swords were drawn; blood was spilled. 

Modern protrayal of the famous sword-fight scene in Romeo and Juliet.

That’s nice but is there anything stronger than possibly coincidental connections between the plays and de Vere’s life that really only sound convincing if you already think de Vere wrote the plays? There’s something a bit circular about guessing that de Vere wrote the plays and then looking for connections to his life in plays that are about life in general and that may have connections to any random person’s life.

After all, what rich person with a lot of property wouldn’t hand some of it over to a musician he appreciated and how many of us have not seen our family and our lover’s family fighting in the streets? We need yet more.  

What about Lyly and Munday, the two Shakespeare collaborators conspicuously absent (along with all other writers) from the businessman’s will — did de Vere know them? If he did, that would be start.

Edward de Vere did hire two literary secretaries in the 1580’s. If one of them was Lyly or Munday and the other was someone with whom Shakespeare may have collaborated, that would be helpful. Actually, one secretary was indeed John Lyly. The other was Anthony Munday. Of course de Vere, as England’s literary earl, had documented contact with much of the Elizabethan literary world. Still, we’ve got both Lyly and Munday rather close to Oxford.  

What about the First Folio itself? Is there any connection. Did de Vere know the Earl of Montgomery and the Earl of Pembroke, the “incomparable pair of brethren” who made the First Folio happen? Of course, they were both earls and so the Earl of Oxford would have known them both. But how close were then.

The lady Bridgit Vere was to marry the Earl of Pembroke but the marriage fell through. However, de Vere’s youngest daughter Susay, did marry the Earl of Montgomery. So the “incomparable pair of brethren” were part of de Vere’s family.   

The rebel case begins with some disparagement of the man named Shakespeare, a fact which causes the mainstream to label them “anti-Shakespearians.” For rebels, the businessman is, compared to Shakespeare-the-great-writer an illiterate poseur who may have strolled into London with a handful of cash the moment he heard that “William Shakespeare” was famous but nowhere to be found and who then bought his way into the acting company and started strutting around for real like an upstart crow.

But now rebels can say there was brilliant literary earl, the highly privileged Edward de Vere, who was perfectly placed to be Shakespeare. Yes, say the rebels, there was a brilliant self-taught Elizabethan writer with an enviable knowledge of the classics, genius, insight, and superb lyrical talent — his name was Ben Jonson.

For rebels, privilege positively drips from the works of Shakespeare and it is silly to pretend that privilege doesn’t matter. Of course it matters. And, say the rebels, unless history itself is conspiring to deceive us, Edward de Vere was Shakespeare and we are not “anti-Shakespearian,” you are.

The mainstream says the rebels are “reasonable people with unreasonable opinions.”  

Susan de Vere Montgomery. The manuscripts apparently pass from her to the Earl of Montgomery to the First Folio.

One nice thing about jumping on the de Vere bandwagon (should you choose to do so) is that it partially solves the mystery of Southampton, the only dedicatee of Shakespeare’s works and, even according to many mainstream scholars, the most likely subject of the Sonnets.

In the early 1590’s, as you know, Lord Burghley proposed a hugely consequential marriage alliance when he ordered Southampton, who was a royal ward at the time, to marry his grand-daughter. Shakespeare’s first seventeen Sonnets coax the “lovely boy” to marry and produce an heir. The Sonnets do not make mention of any specific young woman the boy is suppoed to marry.

History tells us that the young woman Southampton was supposed to marry was Lady Elizabeth Vere, the eldest daughter of England’s literary earl, Edward de Vere.

With the 1000 pound stipend, the connection to Lyly, the connection to Munday, the connection to Montgomery, this connection, to Southampton, completes the picture for rebels: de Vere was Shakespeare. Many rebels feel there is little point even considering any other possible author, including the man named Shakespeare identified as Shakespeare in the First Folio preface. Rebels understand that there is no hard proof as might be needed in a legal case but, they say, legal proof is not needed: Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare and Shakespeare was Edward de Vere.

Mainstreamers point out that we don’t actually know that the Sonnets’ subject is Southampton; we don’t even technically know that the Sonnets refer to real events; they might all be fictional. Rebels regard this as nonsensical. Here, in the land of the Sonnets, there is little common ground unless one considers Levi’s guess that the Sonnets were commissioned by Southampton’s family. I have relegated further discussion of the possibility that the Sonnets are fictional to an appendix.  

Anyway, as you know, Southampton said No to the marriage alliance, but “Shakespeare” kept writing Sonnets to him. Eventually the grievously stupid Southampton attempted, with the Earl of Essex, to control the royal succession. Essex and a number of other conspirators lost their heads if they were lucky. Unlucky conspirators were tortured to death in public.

Meanwhile, Southampton languished in the Tower under a death sentence.   

There was obviously something special about Southampton, something that saved him from Essex’s fate. The Queen, without explanation, commuted his sentence to indefinite imprisonment. When James ascended, the stupid earl got back his earldom and was made a knight of the garter, a singular honor to this day.

The Sonnets hint about Southampton’s specialness — “your worth, wide as the ocean is” (Sonnet 80) — but don’t resolve the mystery of this “worth” which Southampton apparently didn’t know about at one point — “thy own worth then not knowing” (Sonnet 87). Whatever his “worth” was, it seem to have saved his life to say nothing of his earldom.  

Shakespeare’s “lovely boy” of the Sonnets and an earl of extreme controversy.

The ebullient Sonnet 107 marks the death of the Queen aka the mortal moon, the peaceful transfer of power to King James despite concerns of civil war, Southampton’s miraculous (or not so miraculous) release from the Tower, and Shakespeare’s own triumph over death by virtue of his brilliant verse. The Queen, by the way, was always the Moon, so this Sonnet is easy for experts and non-experts alike to place in context. It was presumably written in the spring of 1603 when these momentous events unfolded.  

Not mine own fears, nor the prophetic soul
Of the wide world dreaming on things to come,
Can yet the lease of my true love control,
Supposed as forfeit to a confined doom.
The mortal moon hath her eclipse endured,
And the sad augurs mock their own presage;
Incertainties now crown themselves assured,
And peace proclaims olives of endless age.
Now with the drops of this most balmy time,
My love looks fresh, and Death to me subscribes,
Since, spite of him, I’ll live in this poor rhyme,
While he insults o’er dull and speechless tribes:
   And thou in this shalt find thy monument,
   When tyrants’ crests and tombs of brass are spent.

The other key poem is Sonnet 81. It is an explicit recognition of the situation “Shakespeare” found himself in. He is the greatest writer in England and his works will be immortal as will be the subject of his Sonnets. The name “Shakespeare” is known to everyone, wildly famous because of the popularity of the plays and epic poems. Editions of the plays and poems dominate London’s bookstores. There’s never been anything like it. Nevertheless, the great author, the most valued of all English authors even during his lifetime, will be “forgotten.” 

Or I shall live your epitaph to make,
Or you survive when I in earth am rotten,
From hence your memory death cannot take,
Although in me each part will be forgotten.
Your name from hence immortal life shall have,
Though I, once gone, to all the world must die:
The earth can yield me but a common grave,
When you entombed in men’s eyes shall lie.
Your monument shall be my gentle verse,
Which eyes not yet created shall o’er-read;
And tongues to be your being shall rehearse,
When all the breathers of this world are dead;
   You still shall live, such virtue hath my pen,
   Where breath most breathes, even in the mouths of men.

Sonnet 81 is not difficult to interpret. Shakespeare says, “Though I (once gone) to all the world must die” and says his writing will make Southampton immortal. 

After circulating amongst Shakespeare’s “private friends” for a decade or more, the Sonnets were finally published by Thomas Thorpe in 1609 complete with not only a eulogy, but a Shakespearean eulogy which, in 1609, is a trifle early for the businessman who didn’t die until 1616 and whose daughter was definitely not betrothed to Southampton. 

In Shakespeare’s Henry VI part one, the previous Henry, Henry V, lies dead and is extolled by Henry VI as “that ever-living man of memory.” Thorpe, echoing Shakespeare, calls the great author “our ever-living poet” in 1609 when he, Thorpe, publishes “Shake-speare’s” private, first-person Sonnets, some of the most heartfelt poetry in the English language written from an older nobleman to a “lovely boy” and containing sage advice, unconditional love, and unwavering support despite the occasional admonishment.  

Only thirteen first editions survived. The manuscripts are gone.

If the businessman wrote Shakespeare, the “our ever-living poet” reference was a bit premature. Edward de Vere died in 1604.

Fourteen years later, in the First Folio preface, with de Vere and the businessman Shakespeare both dead, the author, whoever he was, would likewise be immortal four more times.  

Thou art a moniment without a tomb, 
And art alive still, while thy Book doth live. 

For though his line of life went soon about,
The life yet of his lines shall never out. 

Be sure, our Shake-speare, thou canst never die,
But crowned with laurel live eternally. 

We thought thee dead, but this thy printed worth,
Tells thy spectators that thou wen’st but forth
To enter with applause. 

And so we have the Second Great Irony of the Shakespeare Authorship Question: the First Folio preface itself tells us that referring to Shakespeare as immortal is a eulogy.

For the mainstream, the quadruple-immortal Shakespeare in 1623 was being eulogized while “our ever-living poet” in 1609 was not being eulogized. Diana Price was unable to find any instance of “ever-living” being used to refer to a living person. Price says the problem is “generally ignored” by biographers and sums up her view on page 153 of the paperback version of her book: “An ever-living poet is a dead poet.”

Even people arguing that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare usually ignore the “our ever-living poet” apparent eulogy (e.g., Shapiro). It could be because there is no good way to pretend Thorpe wasn’t eulogizing an author he knew to be dead in 1609. No one wants to be made fun of for saying that the poet in 1609 was not dead but was merely tired and shagged out following a prolonged squawk. But, despite such dire risks, we do need a counter-argument here.   

Scott McCrea, our hero, a man of surpassing bravery and integrity, the man who gave us Shakespeare’s “teeming imagination,” the man who squarely faces nearly all rebel arguments, comes to the rescue yet again. On page 185 of his book, after guessing that “Mr. W. H.” should have been “Mr. W. Sh.” and would have been but for a misprint, McCrea explains that “our ever-living” poet must therefore be NOT a reference to a Shakespearean eulogy from Henry VI part one at all but actually a reference to God and a commonly used one at that.

As my Monty Python zinger above indicates, I’m biased on this point especially at this point in the discussion. However, McCrea may be right and should be taken seriously. Here is his argument:

The “ever-living poet,” then, must be someone other than the Author — someone dead but immortal. In fact, Foster notes, “ever-living” was a conventional ephithet for God. Sidney addresses God as “ever-living thee”; Marlowe refers to “ever-living Jove”; Breton calls God “the Ever-Living.” Jesus was conventionally “the only and ever-living savior.” In addition, God was sometimes styled an author or poet. For example, the first verson of Psalm 19 was translated, “the firmament proclaims the poetry of HIs Hands.” . . . The promised eternity of the fourth line [of Thorpe’s dedication], therefore, is nothing less than heaven. As in other dedications of the time, the publisher is wishing happiness and heaven to the Author of the Poems.

So maybe an ever-living poet isn’t a dead poet after all. 

To begin wrapping up, there are the four comments by Londoners that constitute ambiguous evidence (no straightforward interpretation). Rebels and mainstreamers agree that the London commentary appears to be directed at the acting company shareholder Shakespeare of Stratford. However, rebels say the commentary makes it abundantly clear that the shareholder was acting as a front-man for the real writer, was not himself a writer of any kind, and, in fact, was a thief and phony who had a lot of money and bragged about his coincidental name. 

Mainstreamers interpret the references as saying the shareholder was indeed a writer just as the First Folio says though his fellow shareholders were not as brilliant as he and though his fellow writers were sometimes jealous and angry at him for beating them at their own game and for plagiarism. Some members of the mainstream believe these references corroborate the First Folio preface and should be counted as “writing documents” in analyses such as the one conducted by Diana Price. 

One can pick one’s favorite interpretation, but the mainstream’s attitude toward these four pieces of ambiguous and possibly even damning evidence and the mainstream’s repeated use of this at-best weak evidence in a desperate attempt strengthen its position reminds me of a famous story from the world of chess.    

Some years back, a little girl named Judit Polgar whom one might choose to describe as “adorable” nevertheless developed devastating attacks with her knights and bishops and regularly crushed adult male chess masters on her way to becoming the youngest grandmaster in history. Kasparov called her “a monster with a ponytail” and adult male chess masters not able to believe they were losing, sometimes refused to resign until they were practically checkmated, an act unheard-of in the world of high-level chess.

At age 10 she won a game against an international master. At age 11 she defeated a grandmaster. At age 15 she became a grandmaster, the youngest in history at the time though the record is now 12! Judit’s two sisters are also world-class chess players. The three girls were homeschooled in Hungary with chess a major focus. Judit Polgar was born in 1976; in 2004 she ranked 8th amongst ~1500 GM’s worldwide.

It is 2002. Kasparov is the best in the world but he’s being ka-rushed by the adult Judit Polgar in a speed-chess tournament spectacle — Russia vs The Rest of the World. You must move in ten seconds. Polgar destroyed him; the game was never close. The team representing “the rest of the world” beat the powerhouse Russian team by one point.

It is a lovely coincidence that Stritmatter was, the last time I checked, sporting a long gray ponytail. The moral here seems plain enough: watch out for people with ponytails. But seriously, is the mainstream, sensing a weak position, battling on even when the game is all but over? Let’s have a look.

John Davies openly called Shakespeare a “Terence.” We know Terence as a writer. Elizabethans did not. To Elizabethans, Terence was a front-man for two Roman aristocrats, Scipio and Laelius. Montaigne told the Terence story via Cicero (Montaigne was not the only contemporary of Davies to tell this story):

And if the perfection of well speaking might bring any glory suitable unto a great personage, Scipio and Laelius would never have resigned the honor of their Comedies and the elegancies and smooth sportful conceits of the Latin tongue unto an African servant [Terence]. For, to prove this labor to be theirs, the exquisite eloquence and excellent invention thereof doth sufficiently declare it: and Terence himself doth avouch it. 

Davies and every other educated Elizabethan knew all about Terence through Cicero, Montaigne, Florio, Ascham, and others. 

Beset by knights and bishops, the mainstream might claim Davies was thinking about Terence’s writing and not his reputation as a front-man. This is a bit like someone calling you the “English Benedict Arnold” and then, to quell your anger, saying that he meant your mustache was similar to Arnold’s. But maybe Terence wasn’t really a synonym for “front-man.” Maybe the little girl isn’t crushing us. Maybe

But let us see the next move. Davies followed with two related, but still cryptic, epigrams.  

Yet I am some-body with much adoo. “Some-body” appears to have written Much Ado About Nothing. Davies isn’t saying who. 

McCrea cites Epigram 159 in his book as important confirmation of his paradigm: the acting company shareholder Shakespeare is a writer, the English Terence, because Terence was a Roman writer. McCrea doesn’t mention Cicero, Montaigne, Scipio, Laelius, No-body, Some-body, or Much Ado About Nothing.

Polgar would have something to say about this I believe if it were a chess game. In English that is charmingly imperfect to my ear, Polgar described a game she won against a top male adult player: “He blundered and I ka-rushed him.” To continue with the Polgar-inspired chess analogy, ignoring “Some-body” in Davies’s epigrams is like ignoring the fact that your opponent’s knight is one move from attacking your queen and king simultaneously.

Let’s move on to the next mainstream move which either is or is not a blunder. A second contemporary reference to the businessman was made by a group of Elizabethan students putting on a madcap skit. The skit features one of the businessman’s fellow acting company shareholders, a man named Kempe, speaking idiotically about his associate Shakespeare. 

Here’s what “Kempe” says:

Few of the university men pen plays well, they smell too much of that writer Ovid and that writer Metamorphosis . . . Why here’s our fellow Shakespeare puts them all down . . . 

The audience of Cambridge students knew Shakespeare as an Ovidian poet and knew The Metamorphoses as a poem by Ovid. Now they knew Kempe as a fool who regarded his fellow shareholder Shakespeare of Stratford as a writer superior to “that writer Metamorphosis.” 

McCrea, on page 7 of his book, cites the students’ skit as proof that the students regarded Kempe’s fellow acting company shareholder, the businessman named Shakespeare, as a writer. What would Judit say?

Two other references may be to the acting company shareholder Shakespeare though these don’t name him explicitly. Ben Jonson wrote a Shakespearean sonnet (ababcdcdefefgg rhyme scheme) called On Poet-Ape in which he calls someone a fraud, a thief, and a phony writer. 

Poor poet ape, that would be thought our chief,
Whose works are e’en the frippery [thrift-store clothing] of wit
From brokage is become so bold a thief,
As we, the robbed, leave rage and pity it,
At first he made low shifts, would pick and glean,
Buy the reversion of old plays; now grown
To a little wealth and credit in the scene
He takes up all, makes each man’s wit his own,
And told of this he slights it. Tut, such crimes
The sluggish gaping auditor devours,
He marks not whose t’was first and after times
May judge it to be his as well as ours,
   Fool! As if half eyes will not know a fleece
   From locks of wool, or shreds from the whole piece.

Rebels say Jonson knew the Stratford businessman as a play broker who went around claiming to be Shakespeare (“our chief”) and taking credit for other people’s work (“after times may judge it to his as well as ours . . .”). The mainstream says Shakespeare was a plagiarist and exits hastily.   

Finally, Robert Greene famously referred in 1592 in a posthumous publication to an “upstart crow beautified with our feathers” (like the crow in Aesop’s fable) who has a “tiger’s heart wrapped in a player’s hide” (from 3 Henry VI) and who “supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you” and who thinks he’s the “only Shake-scene in a country” and who is an “Ape” who will “imitate your past excellence” and a “Usurer” and a “rude groom” who will rob you blind. Rebels say Greene was talking about a rich guy who bought and sold plays and took the credit. The mainstream says Shakespeare was a plagiarist. 

So here are the mainstream’s opening moves (McCrea started on page 7 and the mainstream generally has a great deal of faith in these references to support the First Folio preface): the businessman named Shakespeare was a writer just like the writer/front-man Terence and he was a writer just like “that writer Metamorphosis” and he was a writer who “buys the reversion of old plays” and he was a writer-usurer who stole the work of lesser writers.

I’m not sure we need Judit Polgar to counter the mainstream’s moves here. In fact, I’m not sure these “moves” need to be countered at all. Your guess as to what these references mean is as good as anyone’s: I’ve never seen a analysis that removes the ambiguity from these references though I admit I have a difficult time understanding the mainstream view of the Davies epigrams which seem rather clear to me.

Anyway, now you’ve seen it all from the First Folio’s “guardians” of Shakespeare’s “orphans” to Thomas Thorpe’s “our ever-living poet” to the London literati’s “our English Terence” and “that writer Metamorphosis” and “poor poet-ape” and, last but not least, the “only Shake-scene in a country.” If Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare, the proof is right there.  

Sir Derek Jacobi, a renowned Shakespearean actor, promises that if we ignore a bunch of professors who seem to be protesting a bit too much and if we learn about the life of Edward de Vere, we will understand Shakespeare’s plays infinitely better. It worked for him, he says.

Jacobi wrote the foreward to Mark Anderson’s biography of de Vere. Anderson’s work is among the first books that elucidate the world under the new paradigm: de Vere was Shakespeare.

Anderson’s biography is a fascinating read though I don’t see it as a way to convince someone that de Vere was the author: Anderson is more interesting if one already accepts de Vere as the author. Using the match-up between de Vere’s life and the plays to prove that he was the author seems unnecessary to me and is a little bit circular if that’s how you’re thinking about it. There are many, many compelling connections between de Vere’s life and the plays but I prefer to view them more as a benefit of the realization that de Vere is the likely author as opposed to proof that he was. 

Bloom’s Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human is still a wonderful read as well and is, in fact, enhanced to a surprising degree by knowledge of de Vere’s life. Where Bloom scratches his head about strange scenes inserted into the plays and lines that seem out of context, he seems almost prescient. Anderson and the other rebels can read Bloom and smile knowingly and so can you and I if we are willing to imagine de Vere as the author.

Edward de Vere was probably Shakespeare . . .

. . . and if that’s true, Anderson’s book gives you the full inside scoop on the Queen’s court.

Let’s review.

The rebel theory boils down to this:

  • The plays were anonymous until 1598 and even then were often anonymous. 
  • One and only one Elizabethan author wrote plays but did not collaborate with publishers: Shakespeare. 
  • Shakespeare plays are loaded with inside information and lampoon powerful people.
  • The alleged author of Shakespeare’s plays had the right name but owned five houses and zero books.
  • The alleged author was a businessman through and through and was also called a front-man and a fraud.
  • No one named Shakespeare was in London to write 1580’s Shakespeare.  
  • The Sonnets are intimate, private first-person writings telling an earl who to marry and how to live.
  • The gravesite of the alleged writer offers insipid doggerel, Jonsonian gibberish, and no mention of Shakespeare’s work. 
  • One and only one Elizabethan was well known as a playwright but had zero plays attributed to him: Oxford.
  • Oxford was lavishly paid by the Queen, hired Lyly AND Munday, wanted Southampton as a son-in-law, and got Montgomery as a son-in-law. 

The mainstream argument is usually given as follows: 

  • The First Folio preface says Shakespeare of Stratford was the writer.
  • The inscription on one of the memorials to Shakespeare of Stratford reads in part “all that he hath writ leaves living art but page.”  
  • The title pages of half of the bootlegged plays say “Shakespeare” or “Shake-speare” (yes, really). 
  • Shakespeare of Stratford was involved with the theater as a shareholder in London’s leading acting company. 
  • 1580’s Shakespeare was written by an unknown author with a similar style and later plagiarized by Shakespeare of Stratford (yes, really). 
  • The Sonnets are fictional creations that do NOT refer to real events or real people (yes, really).
  • References to “our English Terence,” to “that writer Metamorphosis,” to a “poet-ape,” and to an “upstart crow” are references to a writer. 
  • The First Folio preface says the shareholders were “guardians” of the plays which explains the absence of the author from the publication history. 
  • There was sufficient leakage of courtly information and other information to commoners to explain the content of the plays.
  • The 1000 pounds a year paid to Oxford was his reward for being a rascal (yes, really).  

There’s nothing really wrong with most of the mainstream theory. After all, his name was Shakespeare, he was involved with the London theater, his fellow acting company shareholders claimed they were “guardians” of his plays, his monument says “all that he hath writ,” he was called “our English Terence” which may or may not have been meant as a reference to Terence’s reputation as a front-man, and as far as the businessman not having the knowledge necessary to write the plays — well, it’s hard to prove a negative. 

However, there is some desperation in the mainstream’s argument indicated by the “yes, really” notation. The arguments make the mainstream look bad and I wanted to show their viewpoint in its best light. So I have discussed the (rather interesting from a Kuhnian perspective) “yes, really” arguments in appendices. 

Despite the weakness and desperation of mainstream arguments that they are certain who wrote the plays, it is still possible they are correct. Maybe we’ll find a Shakespeare manuscript traceable to the businessman or a receipt for delivery of a play or maybe we’ll find a book Shakespeare of Stratford gifted to a friend a la Ben Jonson or there could be a diary entry written by one of Shakespeare’s literate Stratford friends commenting on the businessman’s dual life as an investor-author or perhaps a letter the businessman wrote home to a literate friend in Stratford while he, Shakespeare, was in London researching one of the history plays will turn up or . . . well, anything is possible. 

It may be the case that almost anyone who reads Shapiro, McCrea, Schoenbaum, Price, Jimémez, and the current work would conclude that de Vere probably wrote the plays. Of course, this hypothetical person might be wrong. However, it doesn’t matter. The business about being wrong is a matter of philosophy and, as I learned from a brilliant young woman while we were climbing a New Hampshire mountain many years ago, “All good conversations end in philosophy” and so it shall be today.

Suppose the space shuttle had launched successfully in January 1986 and suppose Christa McAuliffe were alive today. Had it gone that way, had we been lucky, does that mean it is suddenly okay to ignore engineers when they say “no fucking way”?

Of course not.  

If an apparently illiterate businessman was actually the most erudite man in all England, does that mean we should drop rational thought and embrace wall-building over honest inquiry?


If we find out de Vere was paid a thousand pounds a year because he had pretty eyes, does that mean hallowed tradition should always Trump evidence-based reasoning?


If someone making wild guesses turns out to be right about something important, should we start trusting wild guesses whenever they are made?


Pretend there is proof about who wrote Shakespeare that everyone will agree to and pretend this proof is in a locked box. The box is about to be opened. You must bet a thousand pounds on the outcome. Who would you bet on?

I’m going to guess that you would bet on Edward de Vere. I will guess further that, if you’ve read this far, you could read Schoenbaum, Shapiro, and McCrea and still bet on de Vere.  

But suppose you are offered odds. What odds would you need to bet on the businessman who appears to have been unable to write his name over the Queen’s playwright who appears to have been paid 1000 pounds a year to write Shakespeare? 

Would you take ten to one? How about a hundred to one? A thousand to one?

There are some very smart people with solid credentials who wouldn’t even take ten thousand to one in this situation. And yet the mainstream builds walls. How about we tear them down?

— Thor Klamet 

APPENDIX A: The Earl of Oxford was paid 1000 pounds a year for being a rascal. 

Yes, really.

When I read what mainstreamers say about the stipend the Queen handed her top playwright, I can’t help regarding it as the strongest possible argument that he really did write the plays. Mainstreamers are smart and knowledgeable and they apparently feel they have to go to extremes to defend the “turf” of Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare. 

Here’s Scott McCrea, a SUNY Purchase professor: 

“By 1586, Oxford was ruined politically and financially. He had been selling off estates to pay his bills for years, dramatically reducing the value of his earldom. If there was to be an Earl of Oxford in generations to come, Elizabeth would have to provide [italics added] funds to support him. Which she did. She granted Oxford a pension of a thousand pounds a year.”

Here’s Alan Nelson, a UC Berkeley (!) professor:

“Then, beginning in 1586, in exchange for his good behavior [italics added], Oxford accepted an annuity of 1000 pounds carefully disbursed in quarterly increments.” 

Queen Elizabeth I was a brilliant and successful monarch, ruthless when she needed to be and forgiving when she needed to be. If you displeased her, you would find yourself in the Tower. She did NOT draw the line at murder. Elizabeth’s ability to “forgive” in  16th century context means she might not kill you if you apologize and behave yourself thereafter.

To say the Queen handed over a gigantic sum as some sort of bribe for “good behavior” or because an earl had lowered the “value of his earldom” is an argument that makes questioning the Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare paradigm seem absolutely necessary. I’m sure McCrea and Nelson are great professors but neither would have lasted five minutes as a 16th century monarch and, given their expertise, it is bizarre that they would make these suggestions about the Queen’s motivations.

This is a common enough mistake (though this example is particularly egregious). Motivations are difficult to ascertain from historical evidence. Why did the Queen fund a new acting company in 1583? Why did she hand de Vere 1000 pounds a year for life? It seems obvious that she regarded the theater as a politically potent force as any monarch would. But her specific motivation for this or that act cannot be known with any kind of assurance. And this is where the mistakes come in. Since a person’s motivation could be almost anything, it is hard to resist just making something up as McCrea and Nelson have done.   

Here’s what we know. The only thing anyone ever said Oxford was good for besides spending money and telling stories was writing plays and poetry. The Queen, notoriously tight-fisted with money, never handed out cash unless she was getting something in return. She granted Oxford 1000 pounds a year in 1586 and King James continued the stipend when he took the throne.

The money doesn’t make de Vere Shakespeare. He was apparently being paid for his literary talents but, even if that could be proven, it still doesn’t make him Shakespeare. He could have been doing any number of things whether it was writing plays all of which have been lost or even editing the work of a Stratford businessman who was a literary genius. McCrea and Nelson can easily argue that the money doesn’t make de Vere Shakespeare. Instead they have embarrassed themselves.

The paradigm that McCrea and Nelson are defending is NOT a small child in need of parental sacrifice; it is a paradigm and paradigms are supposed to be abandoned now and then. Of course we must not lightly abandon paradigms, but when a paradigm must be abandoned we do not mourn, we celebrate. McCrea and Nelson seem not to understand that. 

In The Double Helix, Watson, who had to ignore most of the scientists around him in order to discover DNA, offers a famous and rather nasty commentary on scientists that all scholars should pay attention to:

One could not be a successful scientist without realizing that, in contrast to the popular conception supported by newspapers and mothers of scientists, a goodly number of scientists are not only narrow-minded and dull, but also just stupid.

I don’t mean to imply that McCrea and Nelson are stupid. But they have both said something stupid. I agree that it — saying something stupid — could happen to anyone including the present author. However, professors and scholars have been entrusted with what I regard as a sacred chalice of knowledge and understanding, so they should be careful about saying whatever they want and if they do say something ridiculous, it is incumbent upon them to correct the record.

In general, ad hominem attacks are not useful and I don’t like having to stoop so low. However, the two comments above, made by professors who know better, are, in my opinion, reasons to reach for the Watson quote.

Appendix B: Someone else wrote 1580’s Shakespeare.

Yes, really. 

This one is even more stunning than the 1000 pounds a year for being a bad boy; it goes all the way to stupid and few steps beyond, but I suppose it is understandable because the First Folio preface says a businessman who showed up in London in the 1590’s wrote Shakespeare and so 1580’s Shakespeare has to be “explained” no matter what the cost.

The “explanation” is simple: 1580’s Shakespeare wasn’t Shakespeare. 

Considering that the mainstream loves to bludgeon rebels and rebel sympathizers with the “Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare” tautology despite the fact that it is meaningless, it is ironic that when faced with 1580’s Shakespeare, the mainstream effortlessly does a 180 and says, without even cracking a smile, “Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare.”

Well, he did. Someone wrote Henry V, King LearRichard III, King John, The Winter’s Tale, and Hamlet in the 1580’s and it was the same person who wrote the rest of Shakespeare. It might have been a man who eventually became the acting company shareholder: he could possibly have slipped into London as early as 1585 or maybe even earlier. 

But mainstreamers have a real problem with the 1580’s, so they usually say the Hamlet mentioned by Nashe in 1589 couldn’t have been Shakespeare’s Hamlet and must have been someone else’s play with the same title complete with tragical speeches. 

The mainstream can get away (just barely) with the Hamlet gambit because there’s no text to look at because Hamlet was not published until many years later. So maybe there was an “ur-Hamlet” (those erudite mainstreamers use “ur” to mean “original) that Nashe quipped about. Anything is possible.

But The Winter’s Tale was stolen in the 1580’s, in some places verbatim, by the notorious plagiarist Robert Greene for his novel Pandosto. The mainstream, desperate to keep Shakespeare out of the 1580’s, must claim that the greatest writer in England plagiarized a lesser writer who was a known plagiarist

Okay, maybe. How does the saying go? Oh, yes. Anything is possible.

But the other four plays were published as plays with the Shakespearean characters and the Shakespearean plots and Shakespeare’s unmistakeable style including Shakespeare’s trademark neologisms all intact and on full display. These plays are early Shakespeare through and through. Three of the four were published anonymously, one had the “Shakespeare” byline, all are clearly Shakespeare. 

But Schoenbaum says that the idea (proposed by a mainstream scholar) that Shakespeare wrote the early version of Henry V is “preposterous” and he explains why the idea that Shakespeare wrote 1580’s Shakespeare is preposterous: when the early version of Henry V was printed by a guy Schoenbaum identifies as Thomas Creed on page 167 of Internal Evidence and Elizabethan Dramatic Authorship, the printer left it anonymous when he could easily have put Shakespeare’s name on it as he did with four Shakespeare plays that he also printed.

Schoenbaum, in explaining why it’s “preposterous” to have Shakespeare author his own early play, points to Creed’s “strange failure to advertise the name of an extraordinarily popular dramatist whose authorship of the play he would be in a position to know.”

This is a stunning argument given that Schoenbaum is the best we have — a truly superlative scholar. And yet he makes this statement.

Schoenbaum was well aware that publications of Shakespeare plays at the time haphazardly used the “Shakespeare” byline or no byline as they saw fit at the time of printing. Schoenbaum knew Creed himself printed eight other Shakespeare plays besides the early version of Henry V including two later versions of Henry V. In four of the eight cases, including the two later versions of Henry V, Creed’s printing contained no byline and Schoenbaum knew this too. He was a world-class expert; there is no way he didn’t know the printing history of Shakespeare’s bootlegged plays.  

Shakespeare plays sold well whether they were anonymous are not. Printers knew this four hundred years ago and all modern scholars are aware of this. Schoenbaum’s shocking lapse in judgment here is telling: he calls an idea of one of his colleagues “preposterous” and then makes an argument that doesn’t even reach the level of “preposterous.”

Now we can understand how the Morton Thiokol experts could fool themselves in the face of clear evidence. The shuttle was going to blow up. They knew it was going to blow up. The engineers explained to them (but couldn’t prove it beyond any doubt) why it was going to blow up. The Morton Thiokol managers over-ruled their own engineers, launched the shuttle, and killed seven people with wishful thinking. 

Schoenbaum couldn’t bring himself to accept Shakespeare’s own play from the 1580’s because he is completely stuck on the traditional authorship attribution. I can think of no other reason someone as smart and knowledgeable as Schoenbaum would claim that it is “preposterous” that Shakespeare wrote his own play because it was published along with half of all of Shakespeare’s bootlegged plays without a byline. 

You can’t launch a space shuttle when all of your engineers say it’s going to explode. You can’t even consider it. You can’t do it even once. It’s just not an acceptable mistake.

Schoenbaum gives himself some cover by noting that the anonymous byline argument is just one reason Shakespeare’s early version of Henry V can’t possibly be Shakespeare. Maybe Schoenbaum did have other arguments in mind, but it doesn’t matter. The argument he made makes it clear what is going on: the paradigm is right because the paradigm is right. 

You can find ways to have the Stratford businessman in London in the 1580’s unbeknownst to history. But you can’t make up some fantasy about a mysterious unknown author who wrote 1580’s Shakespeare and then claim any other idea is “preposterous.” 

If mainstreamers, even mainstreamers of the caliber of Schoenbaum, are going to spout nonsense just to see if they can get away with it or out of desperation because they are terrified that 1580’s Shakespeare conflicts with the First Folio paradigm, I’m going to reach for my Watson quote.

Appendix C: He WAS literate: his name is on the title pages. 

Yes, really. 

This one is so bad it’s hard to write.

Dr. Roger Stritmatter (Ph.D. UMass Amherst; dissertation on Oxford’s bible and its possible connection to the Shakespeare canon) believes “William Shakespeare” may have been a pseudonym used by Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford and points out that the documentary record of William Shakespeare of Stratford produced during his lifetime is insufficient to prove or even suggest literacy much less a life as the greatest writer in England. 

PROSPECTIVE STUDENT: Might Dr. Stritmatter be right? Might Shakespeare of Stratford have been illiterate and might “Shakespeare” have been a pseudonym?  

PROFESSOR: We know Shakespeare was literate even though he apparently didn’t own books or write letters or leave behind manuscripts and even though none of his friends or neighbors described him as a writer in any surviving document and even though he doesn’t seem to have been able to manage a consistent signature.

PROSPECTIVE STUDENT: Wow. Please professor, tell us, how you are able to see past all of this and conclude that he did, after all, write the plays with “Shakespeare” or “Shake-speare” on the title pages?

PROFESSOR (adjusting his tweed jacket): His name appears on title pages. That’s what we in the ivy league call “overwhelming evidence.”

PROSPECTIVE STUDENT: Wow. Please professor, how do I apply to your fine institution . . .?

I know, you don’t believe me. You don’t believe truth is stranger than fiction. But I couldn’t have made this up.

Anyway, I don’t blame you for doubting. You might need to get his book and see it for yourself, but here it is:

The Ivy League Professor speaks:

“Those who question Shakespeare’s authorship of the plays never get around to explaining how this alleged conspiracy worked. There’s little agreement and even less detail about this conspiracy, despite how much depends on it, so it’s not an easy argument to challenge. Some suppose that only Shakespeare and the real author were in the know. At the other extreme are those who believe that it was an open secret, so widely shared that it wasn’t worth mentioning. Most doubters also brush off the overwhelming evidence of the title pages of these dozens of publications by claiming that “Shakespeare” — or as some would have it, “Shake-speare” — was simply the pseudonym of another writer — that hypen a dead giveaway.” 

The Ivy League Professor continues with an impossibility claim:

“But such arguments are impossible to reconcile with what we now know about how publishing worked at the time. This was not a world in which a dramatist could secretly arrange with a publisher to bring out a play under an assumed name . . .” 

I’m not sure how to respond to this level of nonsense. 

Pseudonyms were common in Elizabethan England and Shapiro knows it. Martin Mar-prelate is perhaps the most famous. There was also Cuthbert Curry-Knave and Pierce Penniless. Typically, authors wrote anonymously or used pseudonyms when the work was controversial. Most Elizabethan authors either published anonymously or used a pseudonym at some point in their careers. It was standard procedure.  

Of course, if “Shakespeare” was a pseudonym, it is the king of Elizabethan pseudonyms. Other authors used their real names at some point in their lives. Maybe this is what Shapiro was trying to get at — just the fact that an entire body of pseudonymous work is unique to Shakespeare.

But “impossible” is a strong word, strong to the point of being misleading. Shapiro knows the period was called “the golden age of pseudonyms” and he can probably give you the reference and the page number off the top of his head. 

Now about that hyphen. 

On occasion literate people hyphenated their names. This was rare but easy to identify because the hyphen would then appear on legal documents. Otherwise, hyphens commonly showed up in pseudonyms, another fact Shapiro is well aware of.

The Stratford businessman did not use a hyphen, ever. When people signed or printed his name on legal documents, there was no hyphen, not even once. But the hyphen appears on about half of the title pages that have bylines. It is “Shake-speare” as often as it is “Shakespeare.” 

And John Davies used hyphens in Shake-speare, No-body, and Some-body to slap us in the face. 

Shapiro, impervious to being slapped around by Davies and even impervious to his own knowledge, blithely fires off his zinger: “that hyphen a dead giveaway.”

This is not a search for truth. This is gamemanship. In a debate, you want Shapiro on your side. But truth, unfortunately, is an innocent bystander in any debate. 

Appendix D: The Sonnets are “fictional creations.” 

Yes, really. 

“Make thee another self for love of me.” 

Well, that could be fictional. 

“My glass shall not persuade me I am old so long as youth and thou are of one date.” 

A young author can pretend to be old in a poem. 

“Thou art thy mother’s glass and she in thee calls back the lovely April of her prime.” 

In theory . . . well  . . . anything is possible. 

“From fairest creatures we desire increase that thereby beauty’s Rose might never die.” 

Hey, Southampton wasn’t specifically named in the Sonnets. The fair creature could be just some hypothetical person who needs to do some increasing so that his garden doesn’t whither away or something like that. It might not have been about Southampton’s betrothal to Elizabeth Vere. 

“Not mine own fears nor the prophetic soul of the wide world dreaming on things to come can yet the lease of my true love control, supposed as forfeit to a confined doom.” 

Lots of people get released from the Tower of London on any given day and anyone can be “forfeit to a confined doom” and it might just be fiction. 

Fiction. Fiction. Fiction. FICTION. 

“Your name for hence immortal life shall have, though I (once gone) to all the world must die.”

This can’t mean what it says. If it did that would be bad. Shapiro is a professor. He says once a name is on a title page, it can’t be pseudonym. What part of “overwhelming evidence,” he says, don’t you understand?

Then again, despite the somewhat shrill nature of the mainstream’s insistence that the Sonnets be fictional, it is the case that one cannot prove in a legal sense that Shakespeare wrote Sonnets to Southampton because he wasn’t explicitly named in the Sonnets.

But legal proof is a high bar — too high sometimes.

In the Knox case for example, the police said they had forgotten to record their interrogation of the terrified young woman. Now the Italian police are the Olympians of recording conversations. Every room in the police station in Perugia for example is bugged and the police listen to every conversation including the ones you have with your lawyer even though this is illegal.

They listened to every call made by every member of Sollecito’s family for four years — tens of thousands of calls and texts.

The Italian police not recording the interrogation of the crime of the century would be like Michael Phelps, Katie Ledecky, Ariarne Titmus, Caleb Dressel, Emma McKeon, and Bobby Finke all showing up to the Olympics without their goggles and without their swimsuits and the swimmers and the coaches and the families of the swimmers all saying “we forgot.” 

But it was impossible to PROVE that the Perugia police had recorded their brutal interrogation of Knox (they also “forgot” to record Sollecito’s interrogation). The police said “oopsie whoopsie” and the court had to accept it even though it was outrageous nonsense. The police had “plausible deniability” even when it wasn’t plausible. 

This is the case with the Sonnets. Are they written to Southampton? Yes. Are they about real events? Yes. Can we prove it in court? No. 

We don’t have the context we would need to connect every Sonnet unmistakeably to real events. Some of the Sonnets are mysterious. When the Sonnets talk about a love triangle, we don’t know exactly what was going on. We might be tempted to speculate.

Should we be so incautious, Shapiro will be waiting in the shadows with one of his zingers.

UNWITTING SPECULATOR: In one of the Sonnets the author alludes to a love triangle involving his subject and . . . 

SHAPIRO: Who could resist such voyeuristic pleasures?

Gotcha! Shapiro’s zingers really are things of beauty: this one was perfectly delivered on page 53 of his book. 

Shapiro says on page 267 that the Sonnets are “fictional creations” and treats them that way at all times. Of course, he doesn’t believe his own claim. Right there on that same page, 267, in the “fictional creations” phrase itself, there is a beautiful extra word that acts like a fig-leaf.  

The Sonnets are “primarily fictional creations,” says the professor weaving in and out, zigging and zagging brilliantly. “Primarily” is a fine word and saves Shapiro like a life preserver after a shipwreck. 

The “Sonnets might be fictional” piece of driftwood is regularly grasped by mainstreamers who find themselves floating in the scary ocean of the Sonnets. McCrea bravely admits some concern about the Sonnets which, as Levi noted are written in the voice of an older peer of Southampton.

McCrea, after admitting his concern, points out that a poet can put on a persona that isn’t his own in a poem or two. For example, a young T. S. Eliot wrote, according to McCrea, “I grow old . . . I grow old . . . I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.” And so on. Needless to say, McCrea doesn’t treat the issue of an author putting on a persona for dozens of poems in a privately circulated sequence.

McCrea tries out a couple of weak examples of authors writing a voice that isn’t their own and exits pursued by a bear. At least McCrea doesn’t play word games and for that we may be thankful.   

Schoenbaum notes that while a “majority” of scholars seem to favor Southampton as the subject he, Schoenbaum, is “haunted” by the possibility that the Sonnets could possibly be fictional. Here’s the full quote with emphasis added:

“And what of the role of the speaker himself, the naked ‘I’ which we here encounter for the first and only time in the entire Shakespeare corpus? ‘With this key,’ Wordsworth said of the cycle, ‘Shakespeare unlocked his heart.’ But the doubt haunts us that the speaker may be at least in part, another dramatic characterization. If the persona of the Sonnets addresses us with the resonance of authenticity, so do Shylock and Hamlet. Here, as elsewhere, the biographer, in his eagerness for answers to the unanswerable, runs the risk of confusing the dancer with the dance.” 

It’s so well written one can almost forget that the Sonnets read exactly like a cohesive series of letters offering a young man guidance, support, admonishment, and love. We don’t know the precise nature of the relationship between elder author and younger earl, but we know enough: the Sonnets were kept private for more than ten years; the Sonnets were written in the first person; the Sonnets describe identifiable events.

Is the fact that we lack sufficient context to fully explicate all of the events described in the Sonnets justification for treating the entire sequence as fictional? No. 

Do the Sonnets play nice with the First Folio preface? No. 

After telling us about how “we” are “haunted” by doubts about the reality of the Sonnets, the dean of Shakespeare biography abruptly switches gears and spends a number of pages talking about an obscure poem by an unknown author that may or may not refer to the Sonnets. Then, having made his escape from that which “haunts” him, Schoenbaum gloriously immerses himself in the soothing bath of Shakespeare’s business relationship with the acting company and all is well in the mainstream world.

Before you can say “make thee another self for love of me” the great Shakespeare biographer has spoken of hauntings and can be seen running away screaming as if pursued by a bear.

Schoenbaum is “haunted” all right but NOT by the concern that the Sonnets aren’t real. Just the opposite: if the Sonnets are real, mainstream biographers have a problem as in “Houston, we have a problem.”

If the Sonnets are real, then the First Folio preface is probably nonsense. That really is scary for someone like Schoenbaum and that fear runs through his entire biography, a biography of William Shakespeare that must talk about his only first-person writing (!) only in the most superficial possible manner for fear the entire tapestry will unravel. 

Diana Price tells a priceless and somewhat predictable story about reading Schoenbaum. Price, like every other reasonable person, assumed Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare and never gave it a second thought. Why would she? Why would anyone? Silly theories are a dime a dozen.

So how did Diana Price come to write one of the most important works questioning the attribution in the First Folio preface? How did she become the Elaine Morgan of the authorship question? Yes. That’s exactly right. You guessed it. 

Price read Schoenbaum. 

If you believe the Sonnets must be fictional because the First Folio says they were written by a businessman who was not involved in Southampton’s marriage negotiations, then so be it. But bear with me for another minute before you run off with Schoenbaum. 

“Make thee another self for love of me,” says the author to his subject. Is this fictional? Southampton really was being pressured by Burghley to marry. Burghley threatened to fine Southampton 5000 pounds.

Yes, the “marriage sonnets” could be fiction. Or they could be what they seem to be: Elizabethan power politics.

Your name from hence immortal life shall have,
Though I (once gone) to all the world must die.

No wonder Shapiro treats the Sonnets as “fictional creations” and no wonder McCrea speaks of created personas and no wonder Schoenbaum runs away as fast as his legs can carry him.

I’m sure these mainstreamers know about Levi’s theory that the Sonnets were commissioned. But I guess after you claim the inside information comes from some magic source and 1580’s Shakespeare was written by someone else and Shakespeare didn’t own his own plays, it’s hard to then add “Shakespeare spent ten years writing Sonnets in someone else’s voice” to the littany of “someone else” theories. 

So they say the Sonnets are fictional and then exit pursued by a bear. 

Shakespeare loved a boy whose youthful face he regarded as his own.

My glass shall not persuade me I am old so long as youth and thou are of one date

The modern mainstream needs this line to be about a relationship that didn’t really exist four centuries ago.

Appendix E: What really happened?

This, obviously, is a best guess based on the evidence we have. What follows is somewhat strongly stated as is typical when one wraps oneself in the mantle of a paradigm. The strong statements says we “know” de Vere wrote the plays; we are going to take this “knowledge” out for a spin and see where it goes. But we will always keep in the back of our mind that strong statements aren’t right just because the speaker displays confidence and perhaps even has charisma or credentials or clever phrasing. In the end, the evidence must have the final word and even then, even when we bow before the God of Evidence, reality may nevertheless be elusive. 

The old paradigm, as strongly stated as it often is, is probably wrong. Shakespeare was, most likely, NOT a Stratford businessman who owned many houses but couldn’t write his name. Probably, Shakespeare was Edward de Vere, the Queen’s highly paid and highly placed playwright. Probably the only playwright who never got involved in publishing a play and the only playwright to have no plays attributed to him were the same person — Edward de Vere, the highly privileged 17th Earl of Oxford. 

There is no guarantee but if my life was to depend on either coin toss or Oxford being Shakespeare, I would go with Oxford and worry a bit but not overmuch for “The coward dies a thousand times before his death; the valiant taste of death but once.” So let us be unafraid to make a rebellious assumption: de Vere was Shakespeare. 

Edward de Vere was born in 1550. By the time England’s future Ovidian poet was a teenager, he was helping his uncle Arthur Golding translate Ovid’s Metamorphoses and impressing his uncle and his tutors with his knowledge of history and his command of languages. He started writing plays in the early 1660’s; the Queen’s intellectually stimulating and entertainment-hungry court where he was living as a royal ward was a perfect outlet for a young creative genius. 

By the early 1570’s the literary earl was married to Lord Burghley’s daughter and was cutting a dashing swath through court, even sleeping with the Queen and provoking this daring commentary from one who could observe de Vere and the Queen’s “delight” with him but who obviously had to be careful what he said in polite company: in his diary he daringly wrote of the Queen and de Vere, “my Lord Burghley [de Vere’s father-in-law] winketh at these love matters.”

Royal favor waxed and waned throughout the life of an earl who was very good at living in the moment. Our intrepid diarist predicted de Vere’s “fickle head” would prevent him from climbing the ladder of royal favor and remaining perched at a lofty height looking down upon other would-be influencers. 

By 1575, the fickle and brilliant earl was, by permission of the Queen, traveling in Italy, depleting his ancestral wealth, and discovering firsthand the microscopic details of Italian art, literature, customs, and geography that appear in those many Shakespeare’s plays with exquisitely rendered Italian settings — settings that no one, not even Shakespeare, could have gotten from a book. Even today, with the all-powerful internet and the great teams of researchers and the libraries Elizabethans didn’t even dream of, those who wish to verify the details of Shakespeare’s Italian settings (as opposed to engaging in useless debate) must often physically go to Italy.

Modern mainstreamers for whom de Vere is little more than a bad dream marvel at how a commoner-businessman who had never been to Italy could possess such accurate knowledge. Sometimes, even the smartest mainstreamers beset the Italian question find themselves grasping at straws and declaring in brief, bizarre, forgettable statements that the great author’s (essentially perfect) grasp of Italian geography wasn’t, to quote Schoenbaum himself, “all that secure.” Exit, pursued by a bear. 

Post-Schoenbaum, we now witness the spectacle of active professors saying things like Shapiro’s, “A curious Shakespeare could have learned everything he needed to know about the Italian settings of his plays from a few choice conversations” or implying that an activity part and parcel of trade between Italian city-states in the 16th century (intercity water travel on rivers and canals) was “absurd” (McCrea). Shapiro’s statement is the equivalent of “Einstein could have learned everything he needed to know about physics by attending a few lectures” and McCrea’s statement, we learn from Alexander Waugh, can be negated by a few minutes of research in an amazing place called a “library” where one can easily verify that Shakespeare’s description of Italian life is, yet again, accurate down to the fine details.   

It might be waterways connecting city-states or any one of a thousand other details, it doesn’t matter: Shakespeare knew things about Italy that were not in books. When you are physically there, it is hard to be wrong: always it is the modern mainstream scholar who is mistaken. Alexander Waugh’s stinging rebuke, alluded to above, of what passes for mainstream “scholarship” re Italy in an essay called “Keeping Shakespeare out of Italy” is my favorite single article on the authorship question. It starts on page 72 of the collection of essays called Shakespeare Beyond Doubt?.

Richard Roe’s book on the subject called Shakespeare’s Guide to Italy is a stunning, easy-to-read overview of the Italy that bustled on crowded 16th century streets, the Italy that was captured by Shakespeare’s steel-trap mind and that flowed by way of his pen onto now-lost handwritten manuscripts before finally making its way to the actor’s script and the stage and to the printing press and, nowadays, to those ever-present screens. 

A small town in Vermont that begins with a “V” and is a French word mispronounced by the inhabitants has many banks but one in particular is adjacent to a short set of gently winding concrete steps that will take you below street level to a redolent shop where the proprietor will flow from the big open “creation area” to the smallish “sales area” and explain to you the difference between a “chocolatier” and a “chocolate maker” and sell to you the same chocolate — in the form of discs — that she stirs melted into great and spotless metal pots and that she uses in her creations for not very much per pound while the creations themselves with their cherries and cocoanuts and caramels come somewhat dearer but make almost as good an impression as the proprietor and her yoga-instructor friend who sometimes runs the shop when she is away.

Try verifying the above paragraph without going to Vermont. You might be successful. However, whoever wrote Shakespeare’s Italy didn’t have the internet — whoever it was who knew all about Saint Gregory’s Well and knew that it was not really a well either traveled to Italy or had magic powers. The businessman may indeed have been to Italy unbeknownst to history and this would safe the traditional story, but “keeping Shakespeare out of Italy” is a fool’s errand that some mainstreamers (this means you James and Scott) continue to fall for.  

Waugh’s contribution is a priceless, ungentle, well deserved takedown of mainstream Italy denial.

In Italy, Roe discovered that Shakespeare’s Duke’s Oak capitalized was a real place. The reason for the capitalization had long eluded scholars. Roe dug into all the details of Shakespeare’s Italy by visiting archives and personally visiting the settings for the plays much of which has remained intact through the centuries.

By the late 1570’s, de Vere’s anonymous A History of Error (also called Errors) was a popular courtly diversion. It later became The Comedy of Errors (also abbreviated Errors) published in the First Folio. By 1577 de Vere had already become Shakespeare, the great courtly playwright. By the time a businessman named Shakespeare arrived in London, more than half the canon had already been written and performed as 1580’s Shakespeare, a fact which has caused mainstream scholars to declare Shakespeare a plagiarist whether or not they actually can bring themselves to use the “p-word” to describe the great author. 

In fact, the actual author set up shop at one of his properties with fellow writers Munday, Lyly, and others. They partied, wrote, and spent the wealth accumulated by the sixteen previous Earls of Oxford. Yes, de Vere was on the way to bankrupting himself but he and his crew of writers revolutionized Elizabethan theater with dramatic and original innovations. They re-imagined many classic plotlines; they were not, by any stretch of the imaginations, plagiarists. 

For the Queen, surrounded by threats foreign and domestic, her life frequently on the line, the celebrations of divine monarchs whom it was an honor to die for combined with the titillating courtly exposés and de Vere’s brilliance was as irresistible as a dashing young earl’s body had been early in the previous decade. She not only responded, she went all in. She set up the Queen’s Men to act the plays and, while she was at it, she set de Vere up for life.

By the way, there was, at this time, a self-taught genius of humble origins (his father was a bricklayer) who became a great playwright even with the odds heavily stacked against him. But that isn’t Shakespeare’s story, it’s Ben Jonson’s story. Yes, Jonson beat the odds. But only de Vere could have been the courtly playwright who lampooned the Queen’s court at will.

Who created the “Corambis” character in Hamlet? This was the monarch’s counselor, an officious, spying, meddling, powerful boor who bore a striking resemblance to the real Lord Burghley whose family motto was “cor unum son una” (one heart one way). Shakespeare liked to identify his characters with reference to their family mottos — Corambis of course is the Latin for “two-hearted” and is a rather nasty twisting of Burghley’s actual motto. In fact, if the publication history is any indication, “Corambis” was too nasty. After the first version of Hamlet was published, the character’s name was changed to Polonius in the next version and in the First Folio version.  

No one, not Ben Jonson, not a businessman from Stratford, no one without many, many protective layers including anonymity and high birth and the Queen’s support could have written the Corambis character. An earl yes, a commoner no. If the Earl of Oxford wrote plays loaded with detailed knowledge of not just the Queen and her court but of Italy, falconry, law, botany, medicine, languages, and music, the plays make sense. Otherwise, everything is another one of Schoenbaum’s “riddles.” 

Since the businessman is such an unlikely Shakespeare, many people have been put forward as possible Shakespeares and for all we know one of them is the real Shakespeare as opposed to Oxford. But whether it was Oxford or someone else who became the most erudite person in England, they needed the tutors, the fabulous libraries, money, time, space, travel opportunities, collaborators, the support of the Queen, and a thousand other things. Genius is great but it isn’t enough.

Ben Jonson was erudite too and read and owned many, many books. But he wasn’t Shakespeare and he could not be Shakespeare no matter how hard he worked and no matter how much genius he had. Privilege matters. Mainstream scholars, most of them highly privileged, say the businessman from Stratford could have written the plays without privilege. Anything is possible, but the scholars don’t explain how he could have done it. Then they brazenly accuse rebels of “snobbery.”

Does talent really will out? Do all geniuses end up in the ivy league? It is really “snobbery” to recognize Shakespeare’s privilege?

I’m not sure what to make of privileged scholars waxing poetic about the possibility of fantastic poetic talent rising in a boy from an illiterate household surrounded by the dust of Stratford village where he had no access any of the things he would have needed to accomplish what Shakespeare accomplished. Is this story told by the privileged a little self-serving or is that my imagination?   

In the 1590’s, with much of the canon already written and the manuscripts unavailable to publishers, the Sonnets began to scandalously follow Southampton’s travails as the young earl refused Burghley’s marriage offer, threw his hat in the ring with the Earl of Essex, and, seven years later, watched as Essex was fortunate enough to lose his head with one clean stroke while co-conspirators were tortured to death.

Essex and Southampton had tried to control the royal succession. Since much of the staff at Southampton’s and Essex’s estates were Burghley spies, their conspiracy was doomed from the start; the powerful Burghley family had already decided James would be King. In retrospect, marrying Elizabeth Vere as the Sonnets seemed to advise might have been a wiser course. 

Only select people got to see the Sonnets back then, but the two epic poems were for everyone’s viewing. Some thought the heavy-breathing vixen in Venus and Adonis was the Queen herself. The next poem, The Rape of Lucrece, was titillating too for Elizabethans but darker, obviously. The fact that de Vere had slept with the Queen couldn’t have hurt the popularity of the epic poems. 

Both epic poems, dedicated to Southampton as he pondered Burghley’s kind offer, could not possibly have de Vere’s name on them. A pseudonym, perhaps already whispered about in years past, was created for the poems. That’s where Shakespeare came from, not from some random guy named Shakspere. 

The illiterate Shakspere, whose name was easily close enough to “William Shakespeare” for the spelling-flexible Elizabethans, showed up in London as the written, performed, and revised de Vere plays were coming out as anonymous bootlegs sometimes with a byline and sometimes without: it didn’t matter because Elizabethans knew the plays by reputation and they knew “Shakespeare” was just a label not a person. 

In 1598, Lord Burghley died and was replaced by his son. Also that year (and this may or may not be a coincidence) de Vere’s plays could now be published with the “William Shakespeare” pseudonym — when the publisher felt like it — making the source just a tiny bit more obvious than the blank bylines of years past, blank bylines that continued to be common for the plays even after the “Shakespeare” ice was broken on the plays in 1598.

Mainstreamers say the title pages support their premise. The title pages actually indicate a pseudonym. The byline might say “Shake-speare.” The byline might say “Shakespeare.” There might be no byline. The printings were extremely popular regardless and printers just didn’t care just like the author “didn’t care” about publication. And the “Shake-speare” byline is, in fact, as Shapiro sarcastically noted, “a dead giveaway.” Some real people did hyphenate their names and when they did, they signed their names that way and their names appeared on legal documents with hyphens. The businessman’s name never had a hyphen. But Cuthbert Curry-knave’s name did have a hyphen. It was a pseudonym. So was Shake-speare hyphenated or Shakespeare not hyphenated or Shakespeare not printed at all. The goddess of the theater, Athena, was the spear-shaker so it was a good nom de plume for a playwright. And yes, there was a rich guy in Stratford actually called William Shakspere with that spelling. Lucky him. 

The writer of the Sonnets, the author of the epic poems, and the writer of the plays was, post 1598, clearly the same person though not many people had yet seen the Sonnets and no one dared to publicly comment on the hidden author except to call his front-man “our English Terence” and to associate him with “that writer Metamorphosis.”

Sometime between 1598 and 1604, de Vere finished his last play, The Tempest. It was copied by a German producer and put on in that country soon after it was written, but there’s no recorded performance in England until much later, a fact which caused people who like weak theories to guess the wrong date for the play’s composition until Stritmatter and Kositsky set the record straight. 

In 1603, the Queen died, James ascended, and Southampton walked free, treated with kid gloves, rewarded, feted, coddled, and carefully watched by a wary King James. There was something about Southampton, something that had saved him from death, something that had allowed a convicted traitor to retain his earldom (to say nothing of his head). To this day, no one knows what was so special about Southampton.

“From fairest creatures we desire increase that thereby beauty’s Rose might never die” is how de Vere started his series and already we are lost. We think the “fairest creature” is very likely Southampton, but we don’t technically know even that. If it is Southampton, we don’t know what is so “fair” about him except that he is an earl and de Vere thinks he is special. 

The Sonnets dwell on “worth” — the word appears dozens of times.

In Sonnet 80, de Vere speaks of “your worth, wide as the ocean is” but doesn’t tell us what he is talking about.

In Sonnet 87, de Vere says “The charter of thy worth gives thee releasing” and then in the same Sonnet compounds the mystery with “thy own worth then not knowing.”

Shapiro would say the businessman wrote the Sonnets and the businessman merely meant that a fictional character didn’t have high self-esteem and therefore didn’t know his own worth. According to Shapiro, any interpretation of the “primarily fictional creations” is acceptable except of course for the obvious one.  

We who read the Sonnets as written don’t know what Southampton’s “worth” was except that it apparently saved his life. We also don’t know why de Vere capitalized and italicized Rose in the second line of the first Sonnet. If you can understand “worth” and “Rose” you might know everything. You would be guessing and Shapiro wouldn’t like it. He thinks you should look up the words in a dictionary, forget about context, and move right along, nothing to see here.

The Sonnets had to be private. Even after they were published, the first-person writings of the most famous writer in England only went through one edition while the epic poems continued to go through edition after edition after edition with no end in sight. The Sonnets were published that one time in 1609, the author was referred to as “our ever-living poet,” and that was that. We almost lost them altogether. It is possible they were suppressed but this is a conspiracy theory and we all know conspiracies didn’t happen in Elizabethan England. It must be that the first-person private writings of the most famous writer in history weren’t popular and that’s the ticket, that’s why the Sonnets only went through one edition and weren’t included in the First Folio. It can’t possibly have anything to do with Southampton and Southampton’s eventful life and his brush with death and his magical clemency.  

We know de Vere was deeply unhappy about the secrecy. In fact, he was bitter (unless of course the bitterness in Sonnet 66 is fictional). 

Tired with all these for restful death I cry . . . [lists many bad things] . . . And art made tongue-tied by authority.

Sonnet 66 in full would depress a groom on his wedding day, but that was the (real) life de Vere was stuck with. He had to watch his step. He knew the Sonnets were immortalizing Southampton even though his art had to be “tongue-tied.” He wrote in the Sonnets, “Your name from hence immortal life shall have” and then told us exactly what was going on when he said, “Though I (once gone) to all the world must die.

And so he did in 1604.

Before 1920, no one knew who wrote Shakespeare. It was already obvious by then that the businessman was a very unlikely author. No one had researched Edward de Vere. But then someone discovered that England had a literary earl who fit perfectly and a hundred years of research followed. Now rebels, including credentialed professionals, have mostly proved their case for de Vere as the author. The only reason it is “mostly” proved is that the mainstream refuses to have a serious discussion.

Once discussion begins in earnest in mainstream journals, de Vere will quickly become the accepted author. This is a guess of course. But we may see the answer to this in within another generation or so.

The First Folio preface will be regarded as hilarious. Scholars will roll up their sleeves and do what Waugh calls some “real work. Edward de Vere’s fascinating biography will make Shakespeare come alive for all fans of the plays and ivy leaguers like Shapiro will be able to stop their campaign to disassociate the works of an author from the life of that author. Yes, of course you have to be careful not to view everything an author does as autobiography but ignoring the life is to misunderstand the works and campaigns to save premises can degenerate in propaganda. 

We want to understand the Sonnets NOT as fictional creations but as expressions of desire that could not be made public. We don’t know what was going on but the idiotic tendency of modern editors to change the format of the word Rose in Shakespeare’s original first Sonnet has got to stop. The lines read, “From fairest creatures we desire increase, That thereby beauties Rose might never die . . . ” And we don’t know what it means but we do know it’s not fiction. 

If you can figure out the Rose mystery and understand why Southampton was such a fair creature that he couldn’t be executed even after being convicted of treason, you’ll be famous especially if you can prove it.

Appendix F: What of the First Folio preface?

The single most important sentence in the annals of authorship attribution.

Schoenbaum called the First Folio preface “the single most important document in the annals of authorship attribution.”

Of course he was right. William Shakspere (that was the name he was born with) of Stratford might be one of the most important writers in history — he might be the “William Shakespeare” named on the dedications of poems published in 1593 and 1594, on some of the title pages of plays published after 1598, and in the title of “SHAKE-SPEARES SONNETS Never before Imprinted” published by Thomas Thorpe in 1609.

If the “Shakespeare” of these publications is Shakspere of Stratford the well-documented businessman, he is the one and only Elizabethan writer and maybe the only writer in history whose identifcation depends on a single document. So, as Schoenbaum notes, the First Folio preface is pretty important.

We can’t do the experiment so I cannot even imagine proving the following claim, but it is arguably the case that without the First Folio preface, no one would have ever even considered the businessman as a possible author even though his name was Shakspere and even though he was a shareholder in London’s leading acting company. However, Scott McCrea (bless his heart) explicitly disagrees with the idea that the First Folio preface is necessary for the identification of Shakspere as Shakespeare.

“But even if the First Folio never existed, we would still have enough evidence to establish [Shakspere’s] authorship.”

McCrea cites three pieces of evidence that he claims would prove Shakspere was Shakespeare without the First Folio preface: (1) the title pages that say “Shakespeare”; (2) the fact that Shakespeare was compared with “that writer Metamorphosis; (3) the monument that says “all that he hath writ . . .”;

McCrea also cites a fourth item: a poem published ten years after the First Folio in book of Donne’s poetry that complains that Shakespeare should have been buried in Westminster Abbey when he died. The printed poem says nothing about who wrote the plays. However, in the First Folio, Ben Jonson comments about where Shakespeare is buried and his comments indicate that he had already read Donne’s poem even though it wouldn’t find its way into print for another ten years (poems often circulated in manuscript prior to printing). This still means nothing but a few dozen handwritten copies of Donne’s poem written by a number of different people have turned up over the years and some of these handwritten copies say the poem was actually written by Basse which still means nothing but, don’t worry, we’re almost at the relevant part of this story. Some of the handwritten copies have a title that is slightly different from the Donne-or-Basse poem printed in 1633 — some of the handwritten copies have a little appendage added to the title and the appendages note that the date of Shakespeare’s death was 1616.

So if Ben Jonson saw the Donne-or-Basse poem before 1623 and if the poem he saw was one of the ones that say Shakespeare died in 1616, then this would be an independent piece of evidence that the great author Shakespeare had died in 1616 which is when the businessman Shakspere died which would therefore indicate that Shakespeare and Shakspere are the same person. Obviously a printed poem appearing ten years after the First Folio that doesn’t say anything about Shakespeare’s date of death doesn’t mean much but if a handwritten manuscript with the 1616 death date was circulating prior to 1623, that would constitute evidence that Shakspere was not only literate but was the greatest writer in England.

There are a few too many if’s in this fourth item to convince me that there’s more to Shakspere’s identfication as the author than the First Folio preface but the point is arguable. We’ll leave it there and move on to McCrea’s first three reasons that the First Folio is not necessary to identify the author. 

McCrea is admirably explicit and this helps us to paraphrase his three main points: (1) title pages can’t have pseudonyms on them; (2) a favorable comparison to “that writer Metamorphosis” is favorable to the idea that the man being so compared is a writer; and (3) “all that he hath writ leaves living art but page to serve his wit” cancels out the doggerel and commemorates a writer.    

Let’s go in reverse order. For (3) we have William “good friend for Jesus’ sake forbear. . . ” Shakspere without a signature and with no books or letters is dying and identified by a strange and uninterpretable “Stay, passenger . . . read if thou canst . . . all that he hath writ leaves living art but page” epitaph carved on a stone bust. There is no reference to anything Shakespeare wrote and the Jonsonian bit at the beginning isn’t great for the mainstream. But the epitaph does say “all that he hath writ” and if Jonson didn’t ghostwrite it as he did the epistles in the First Folio preface then McCrea may have a point. 

For (2) we have a character representing Kempe saying his fellow shareholder, Shakespeare, is better than “that writer Metamorphosis.” This is guaranteed to be true no matter who you are talking about since any human is a superior writer to a poem which can neither lift a pen nor write with it. If we regard the reference to “that writer Metamorphosis” as indicating that Kempe’s fellow shareholder was a writer then we can indeed eschew the First Folio preface as McCrea suggests. 

Trying to understand McCrea’s first idea that (1) “Shakespeare” can’t be pseudonym because it appears on title pages is harder to fathom. The title pages sometimes said “Shakespeare,” sometimes said “Shake-speare” and sometimes were left blank. The businessman’s name was never hyphenated on legal documents though pseudonyms were often hyphenated. It is the case that none of the title pages said “No-body” or “Some-body” a la Davies but that is cold comfort here. The title pages with their persistent blank bylines are suspect.

It is, however, arguable that, with the exception of the Roman Terence acting as a front-man for Scipio and Laelius, front-men for authors are not a common part of history (unless you include the McCarthyism era in the United States). So maybe McCrea meant to say that a pseudonym/front-man theory is hard to believe since it is such a rare thing. Fair enough. Unfortunately, the “front-men are unlikely” theory is undermined by Davies’s reference to Shake-speare as “our English Terence.” Thus, I am unable to make head or tail of McCrea’s listing of title pages beginning on the bottom of page 6 of his book after he informs the reader that “even if the First Folio never existed, we would still have enough evidence . . .”

Although I appreciate McCrea’s honest attempt to make his book “The End of the Authorship Question” (that’s the subtitle), I think the first ten pages tell the reader quite clearly, “Without the First Folio preface, we have nothing at all.” 

But does the First Folio preface even say the businessman was Shakespeare? In a sense, it does. The epistles Jonson ghostwrote in the First Folio preface clearly state that a man who was in London and involved with the theater and who was the greatest writer in England and who routinely resorted to legal action to collect modest amounts of money he was owed allowed an acting company to be the “guardians” of ALL of his plays and also allowed “stolen and surreptitious copies” that were “maimed and deformed by the frauds and stealths of injurious imposters” to be brazenly bootlegged in printings of wildly varying quality for decades.

We have to wonder whether or not these two epistles were ever meant to be taken seriously. 

Whoever the author was, he was involved enough to make sure the epic poems were properly published: Venus and Adonis was no bootleg; Lucrece wasn’t a bootleg either. But then he just didn’t bother to do the same with the plays even though he was in London and involved with the theater and became the only Elizabethan writer to hand every play over to an acting company forever. 

Robert Armin was part of the same acting company. He knew publishers and had his work published; he didn’t “orphan” his works. Why did the businessman disappear like a Cheshire Cat when it came to publication? It is unprecedented and doesn’t make sense to anyone and that includes mainstreamers.  

Bloom couldn’t understand how such a thing could be and said so.

Of course, Bloom accepted the First Folio preface. He meant only that it was surprising not that it couldn’t happen. But the First Folio preface does not seem like very strong evidence when one has in the back of one’s mind that it might have been meant as a joke.

Maybe there is a weak link in the chain of reasoning. Maybe, somehow, the theater investor Shakespeare, in London with his name eventually appearing on some of the plays, was the actual author and really did turn over the “guardianship” of his entire canon because he was too busy with his business activities to attend to his art or for some other reason. Perhaps a business arrangement related to the value of putting the plays on in theaters and the concern about competition. So maybe the acting company owned the plays as the mainstream assume (but that is NOT claimed in the First Folio preface or any other document).

But then we see that one of the two earls in the “incomparable paire of brethren” who undoubtedly controlled every aspect of the expensive First Folio project was the Earl of Montgomery, the son-in-law of Edward de Vere who just happens to be the leading court playwright paid by the Queen but with no plays attributed to him and who just happens to be the employer of two important Shakespeare collaborators Lyly and Munday AND the father of the young woman betrothed to Shakespeare’s dedicatee.

Let us assume you are an objective observer. Do you regard the First Folio preface as stronger evidence for the businessman or for de Vere?  

To me, the First Folio preface as a document is clear and convincing: the Earl of Montgomery, Philip Herbert and his wife the Countess of Montgomery, formerly Lady Elizabeth Vere, present to you, dear reader, “Shakespeare’s” plays written by their dear departed father-in-law and father, the best-paid writer in Elizabethan history, the man whose biography tells us that Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern were real people, and if you would like to believe instead that the businessman Shakspere wrote the plays then we’ll make it easy for you and four hundred years later experts in Elizabethan history will probably say with straight faces that Ben Jonson would NEVER mislead you and we will roll in our graves laughing.

Of course I’m biased. However, if the First Folio preface really is stronger evidence for de Vere than it is for the businessman from Stratford, then the mainstream’s entire argument evaporates spectacularly. And the mainstream seems to understand how weak their argument is. 

Professor Stanley Wells, an erudite, famous, and committed mainstreamer, lays it out so beautifully and honestly that I am overjoyed to forgive him for calling me a “bugger” — I am bugging him so it is appropriate and I take it to be light-hearted ribbing. Anyway, here is professor Wells: 

“I would love to find a contemporary document that said William Shakespeare was the dramatist of Stratford-upon-Avon written during his lifetime. There’s lots and lots of unexamined legal records rotting away in the national archives; it is just possible something will one day turn up. That would shut the buggers up!”

Professor Scott McCrea, the mainstream author of The Case for [Shakspere], made a similar and similarly inarguable statement for which I am likewise grateful:  

“One private letter, one diary entry that mentions a rumor that the earl [of Oxford] was the real playwright of Romeo and Juliet and [Shakspere’s] authorship would come crashing down.” 

Wells wishes for ONE document; McCrea fears ONE document. Together they speak of an authorship case so fragile that it almost collapses under its own weight. The “case” for Shakspere is rests upon a document that may have been a ghostwritten joke. 

It actually comes down not so much to one document but to one WORD, one word that must stand in the middle of stadium before a rapt audience with its right arm holding aloft Shakspere’s five signatures. In the left hand of this magic word we see the gigantic sum of money paid to de Vere likewise held aloft, and in this pose, with this burden, the word “guardians” must also carry John Davies’s whole self on its strong back.

Davies is chanting epigrams about Shake-speare and Some-body and No-body. And it’s not just Davies. E. K. Chambers himself has piled on top of Davies’s back with his admission that the First Folio epistles were probably ghostwritten by Jonson. Yes, the word “guardians” was Jonson’s word. And oh how Jonson’s progeny groans. Stitmatter’s dissertation sits upon Chambers’s head. Edward de Vere’s son-in-law and Lyly and Munday stand on Stritmatter’s dissertation.

Teetering on top of the whole improbable pile is a bookless house, the biggest house in town with Shakspere’s two daughters sitting on the front porch. Scipio and Laelius are on that same porch reading Ovid’s Metamorphoses to the two illiterate Shakspere girls. Aesop’s “upstart” crow sits on the roof of the house fluffing its feathers as the whole assemblage shifts back and forth, left and right even though there is no wind. 

The crowd, impressed with the ability of a single word, “guardians,” to stand up under all this weight, begins to murmur “Whatever you do, Buy.”  

The word, so impressive and yet so put-upon, now speaks. The crowd goes silent.

We hear the word loud and clear as if its voice were projected by a modern speaker system: “Houston . . . we have a problem . . . Houston? Houston? Do you read?”

Now the word “guardians” drops to its knees and finally, almost gratefully, falls backward to be buried under the whole impossible structure.

Sitting lightly atop the heap, Aesop’s “upstart” crow is screeching about “vertiginous expanses.” The crowd, thinking the word “guardians” has died, is likewise screaming about the “frauds and stealths of injurious imposters.”

But the great and powerful word, strong, almost invincible is, even after its collapse, is still, somehow, conscious. The word isn’t speaking and cannot be seen but it is making a sound and the sound is rising and seems as if it might fill the stadium. The crowd goes quiet again. Even the crow shuts up.

Peals of hilarity boom out from the buried word, on and on and unstoppable almost raising the roof of the stadium: HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!

That’s the end of the Shakespeare story and the beginning of our story, yours and mine for I have a deal to offer you.

Let’s assume the “contemporary document” imagined by Wells or the “diary entry” imagined by McCrea does turn up one day and let’s suppose that all scholars, mainstream and rebel, agree that this document proves beyond a doubt who wrote the plays.

And suppose it’s a big secret and it’s going to be revealed at a press conference attended by eight experts: Professor Alan “paid for good behavior” Nelson, McCrea, Shapiro, and Wells are joined by Stritmatter, Jacobi, Price, and Ramon “1580’s Shakespeare was Shakespeare” Jiménez.

All eight are are friends now (it was never personal, after all) and all of them are smiling and celebrating the end of the controversy. They will be happy to answer questions.  

They have told us that either Shakspere or Oxford wrote the plays and that they are all in complete agreement. Four of the eight have received an enormous blow that obviates much of the work they’ve done but their demeanor gives nothing away.

The Big Reveal is coming. We are on tenterhooks about it. The secrecy has been remarkable. Only these eight people know the truth: they haven’t even told their spouses.  

I’m taking bets. I’m offering 100 to 1 if you bet on Shakspere (I’m not taking any Oxford action, sorry). 

How do you feel about betting one hundred dollars on Shakspere?

You get ten thousand dollars if the man who never went to Italy, never met Southampton, never met Lyly, never met Munday, never heard of Rosenkrantz until he saw Hamlet, never heard of Guildenstern until he saw Hamlet, was still alive in 1609, and never wrote a letter and couldn’t write his name somehow wrote Shakespeare anyway. (All of the letters could have been lost and it might have been his teeming imagination that gave us the signatures and Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern were common Danish names and “our ever-living poet” could mean anything and he could have learned about Italy from travelers and the Sonnets might have been commissioned and he might have run into Lyly and Munday at some point . . . c’mon take the bet.)

Ten thousand dollars is a lot of money. A hundred to one is good odds is it not?

Actually, I feel a little guilty for proposing such an unfair wager, but I can’t back a bet with the true odds of a demonstrably illiterate man writing Shakespeare because I’m not Jeff Bezos. 

No, not really.

Appendix G: Coda

Is the Shakespeare story full of complexity, nuance, and controversy or is it straighforward, easy-to-understand, and obvious?

Courtly plays, brilliant and popular, began coming out in the 1580’s. They lampooned courtiers and peddled patriotism; it was a perfect storm. The Queen was all about it. She created an acting company and paid the leading court playwright, Edward de Vere, an ungodly sum. 

For ten years, plays brimming with legal terms, Italian details, and inside jokes were performed at court and in public while not a word was published. Then, finally, poems were published with a name on them: Shakespeare. They were instantly popular and obviously printed with the cooperation of the hidden author. After that, plays started to come off the presses — anonymous bootlegs of wildly varying quality: the author was nowhere in sight. The bootleggers eventually put the name “Shakespeare” on about half of their cobbled-together publications and half the time didn’t bother with any byline. Many plays, such as Macbeth, were not published at all. “Some-body with much adoo” had the manuscripts according to John Davies who clearly knew who “some-body” was but who just as clearly wasn’t spilling the beans. 

In the 1590’s, when the plays and poems had been outrageously popular for ten years or more, an apparently illiterate businessman from Stratford named, more or less, Shakespeare appeared on the scene. The businessman was born “Shakspere,” married “Shagspere,” died “Shackspeare,” and, posthumously, was remembered in his grandson’s first name as the same “Shakspere” that the grandfather was born with. However, legal documents in London clearly referring to the Stratford businessman sometimes had the “Shakespeare” spelling and some people may have actually thought this guy was the great writer.

Shakspere/Shagspere/Shackspeare/Shakespeare of Stratford became a shareholder in London’s leading acting company adding further interest to the story. To his neighbors, the businessman continued to be a businessman. To in-the-know Londoners like Davies, he was a “Terence” just like the Roman writer who fronted for aristocrats. In 1623, de Vere’s family published all the plays at once, including Macbeth, and identified the Stratford businessman as the author. Modern scholars take this identification at face value even though it was made by de Vere’s family.

The modern scholars might be right. Anything is possible. Books and letters can be lost. There could be some explanation for the fact that the Stratford businessman did not have a consistent signature. All of the plays written in the 1580’s could have been plagiarized by a businessman who was too busy to teach his daughters to read and he could have slipped over to Italy without anyone knowing and maybe he had courtly connections who hooked him up with Southampton’s family and taught him about falconry and gave him inside information about the Queen’s court. Just because de Vere was being paid by the Queen, was the only playwright to have no plays attributed to him, hired Lyly and Munday, traveled in Italy, trained in the law, had his daughter betrothed to Southampton, and had his family involved in the publication of the plays doesn’t make him the author. 

Anything is possible.  

If you don’t find “anything is possible” to be a good argument then you can note that Edward de Vere was dead when the author of “SHAKE-SPEARE’S SONNETS” was referred to as “our ever-living poet.” If de Vere was hiding behind the Shakespeare pseudonym, the lines he wrote to Southampton — “Your name from hence immortal life shall have, Though I (once gone) to all the world must die” — are nothing even close to a “riddle” but instead make perfect sense.  

Here is where the simplicity comes in. You get to weigh the evidence: EITHER the businessman only appears to have been illiterate and the 1623 identification is correct OR Ben Jonson was telling a tall tale when he wrote on behalf of two acting company shareholders that they were the “guardians” of the great writer’s “orphans” and were offering the plays with no thought of “self-profit or fame.”

One and only one Elizabethan playwright didn’t work with publishers who wanted to publish the plays: Shakespeare. Choose your solution to this mystery. 

  1. The businessman-author went to London and got involved with the theater, but didn’t bother with publication and didn’t care about bootlegging OR
  2. “Shakespeare,” whose plays were printed without an author, and de Vere, the playwright with no plays, were the same person.

In the past hundred years since a lunatic named Looney (pronounced Lowney) identified de Vere, Schoenbaum’s “vertiginous expanse” has shrunk and Bloom’s concern about an “inverse ratio a little beyond our analytical ability” has, one might say, come to be less “inverse.”

If you suspect the lunatic was right, there’s fun game you can play with any literature professor anywhere in the country. Here’s a little dialog to show how the game works. 

YOU: I love the falconry metaphors in Shakespeare.

PROF: Understandably so. Shakespeare is famous for his falconry metaphors. 

YOU: I especially like the one in Romeo and Juliet where Juliet says, “Hist! Romeo, hist! O for a falconer’s voice, To lure this tassel-gentle back again!”

PROF: Very good. Even just that little bit of verse is jammed with falconry terms, expertly and seemingly casually used. He makes it look easy n’est ces pas?

YOU: Yes. And there’s also the one in Othello where the tortured husband says, “If I do prove her haggard, Though her jesses were my dear heartstrings, I’d whistle her off and let her down the wind, To prey at fortune.” 

PROF: Another beautiful one. You may have noticed that the “haggard hawk” metaphor for a love-interest that needs to be lured or tamed appears in a number of other plays as well, in Taming of the Shrew for example. 

YOU: I have indeed noticed. But I have a question if you don’t mind.

PROF: By all means. Fire away.

YOU: Did other poets use these kinds of falconry metaphors?

PROF: None that I know of at least not in just this way of luring or taming a lover.

YOU: Do you know this poem?

If women could be fair and yet not fond
Or that their love were firm, not fickle still
. . .
Unsettled still, like haggards wild they range
These gentle birds that fly from man to man
. . . 
Yet for disport we fawn and flatter both
. . . 
And train them to our lure with subtle oath. 

PROF: Excellent! I don’t know that particular poem. It seems you’ve found someone who either influenced Shakespeare or who was influenced by Shakespeare. This poem has that same parallel between wooing and falconry that Shakespeare loved so much. Nice work. 

YOU: How about this one?

Resign thy voice to her that caused thy woe
. . .
For she thou lovest is sure thy mortal foe
. . . 
The stricken Deer hath help to heal his wound,
The haggard hawk with toil is made full tame
. . . 
And shall I I live on earth to be her thrall?
. . . 
And shall I kiss the steps that she lets fall?

PROF: Another good one with “haggard” as a difficult lover yet again! It must be a fairly obscure poet you are quoting because none of what we can call the “canonical Elizabethan poets” use that metaphor with the exception of course of Shakespeare himself.

YOU: Really, I guess I thought it might be a common metaphor.

PROF: Not at all. And what you may also find interesting is something you may not have realized reading this poem. That phrase, “stricken deer,” also happens to appear in Hamlet in Act 3 if memory serves. I wouldn’t expect you to make the connection but I’ve practically memorized that particular play you know because I once directed a performance in New York City though it was many years ago . . . anyway, you’ve got a great Shakespeare connection here. Congratulations. You might have something to write up for one of the journals.   

YOU: Actually, your memory is quite good. The phrase “stricken deer” does appear in Act 3 of Hamlet: Act 3, Scene 2, line 287 to be precise. I even did a database search for “stricken deer” and found that it is only in Hamlet and the poem I just read.

PROF: My goodness, you’ve certainly done your research. Superb, just superb. Now who is the only other author to use the haggard/lover metaphor and the “stricken deer” phrase? I must know. 

YOU: Edward de Vere.


YOU: What’s the matter?

PROF: You tricked me.

YOU: I didn’t mean to. It’s just that you get the Shakespearean haggard-hawk-as-lover metaphor twice in his youthful poetry and I kind of like the “stricken deer” connection too. I realize of course it doesn’t prove anything.

PROF: Indeed, and there’s no reason to think Shakespeare couldn’t have seen de Vere’s poems which, as I’m sure you know, aren’t up to the Shakespearean standard and can even be described as a bit clunky. And I’m sure you know also that Shakespeare was “an accomplished parasite” to use Honan’s phrase, often borrowing and improving on others’ work. 

YOU: Oh yes, of course. I don’t really think de Vere was Shakespeare. After all, if he were, it would mean a huge number of really smart people have been horribly mistaken for a long time and that does seem unlikely.     

Scipio Who?

Most days your typical crew of mainstream scholars are models of good behavior — coherent, intelligent, professional. But one day a colleague challenges a cherished premise. Groupthink manifests: the denizens of the sometime-dignified professorial class strip off their clothes and smear blood upon their naked bodies. They gather in silence, ancient instincts not so deeply buried as we would like to believe. 

The hearts of the professors beat in synchrony thirty-six times. On the thirty-sixth beat, a terrific battle cry rises and the professors rush — sprinting, screaming, blood streaming — into the office of the premise-challenger who looks up from their desk the picture of nonplussed. Innocently questioning a premise, not claiming certain knowledge, pointing out a few anomalies, the poor premise-challenger most certainly did not expect some sort of inquisition.

It would be reasonable to ask at this point if such things really happen: literally, no; metaphorically, yes. 

A century ago, premise-challenger Raymond Dart innocently said “look what I found!” His fellow archeologists made every effort to bury him alive but soon desisted and then simply refused to look at his find. Twenty years passed. In the interim, Alister Hardy, a marine biologist not aware of Dart’s find, had an idea. Still a wet-behind-the-ears professor, he revealed his dangerous thoughts to a few of his friends who, in an effort to protect him, pinned him to the floor of his living room. They let him up only after he promised to remain silent about his idea for thirty years. Hardy told his friends they were being overprotective: “It isn’t that bad,” he said. But his friends wouldn’t budge. They took turns holding him down until he finally gave in and gave his word. Hardy kept his promise even though it was made under duress. 

Decades later, with Dart’s discovery finally accepted but its implications thoroughly unplumbed, Hardy finally said what needed to be said. Dart’s discovery and human physiology were clues to the answer to the biggest question in human evolution: what caused the human line to split off so dramatically from the evolutionary paths followed by every other primate? To Hardy, the answer seemed obvious, especially considering what Dart had discovered. 

By then Hardy had been knighted, but, needless to say, Sir Alister Hardy was ignored anyway. Hardy was comforted by the fact that knighthoods can’t be taken away but it wasn’t fun for him to contend all the nastiness thrown his way: his idea, twisted and changed, was ridiculed. In some cases, even his own colleagues joked about a theory far from the one he had put forward. Some experts criticized his actual idea but even they did not exhibit scientific skepticism: they said his idea was not worth discussing but didn’t offer any reasons worth repeating.

By then, every professional evolutionary theorist knew that our ancestors did NOT evolve toward bipedal locomotion because tool use created evolutionary pressure for two free hands. Everyone knew the split of the human line from the other primates was a huge mystery. Experts entertained any number of wild ideas to resolve the mystery including ideas involving unprecedented steps in evolution that had not happened with any other species. Experts seemed wedded to the idea that humanity had carved out a unique path for itself. Hardy assumed that humanity had followed an evolutionary path followed by many other mammals throughout evolutinary history. It was almost as if his theory was too obvious to be worthy.

Enter Elaine Morgan, talented amateur. She read about Dart’s amazing discovery: millions of years before humans appeared, millions of years before tools became the central feature of human existence, millions of years before our brains enlarged, our evolutionary line was occupied by bipedal apes, very real Sasquatches, Bigfoots, Yetis, and/or Yerens as they are called today in various cultures. Sasquatch is a legend, but bipedal apes, one of whom left a fossil waiting for Dart’s shovel, were real; they paved the way for their “wiser” bipedal descendents with the big brains who call themselves Homo Sapiens

Morgan also read about Hardy’s insight. She realized that Hardy’s theory would cause one to expect just what Dart found: bipedalism evolving long before tool use. She realized that the “man-the-hunter” image in everyone’s mind was far from the reality: hunting did NOT make us what we are today. She marveled at Dart’s find and Hardy’s parallel insight. Why didn’t everyone know about it? It should be front-page news. 

Elaine Morgan found herself face to face with the concerted efforts on the part of Dart’s and Hardy’s colleagues to squash out-of-the-box thinking and out-of-the-box hard evidence (!) and stick with old theories or slightly altered versions of old theories. She was, to put it mildly, not happy with the studied indifference, frozen immobility, and intellectual barrenness of the professors in whom thoughtful people like her (and you and me) perforce put their trust. She wanted (needed!) fertile discourse, productive exploration, and mental stimulation but instead saw academia hobbled by what I call the “Star Wars Writers Effect” — mindless repetition of what worked in the past. Book after book about human evolution ignored Dart and Hardy.

Tired with all these, Elaine Morgan felt her options limited. She felt, in fact, that she had no choice but to become a warrior. So she sharpened her spear and brandished it (rhetorically) at the cartoon image of man-the-hunter still being passed off as science by professors who were better at politics than science. Morgan wrote a bestselling book called The Descent of Woman showing that politics could be a double-edged sword. She carved out a permanent place for herself as the bane of mainstream archeologists and anthropologists everywhere.

If Morgan’s title raised eyebrows, the contents of her book raised the dead. One has to admit she was tactless. But it is a better thing, I Aver, to be enduring than it is to be endearing. And yet Morgan, like Dart and Hardy before her, eventually played nice, patiently putting forward ideas while making efforts to unruffle the professors’ foever ruffled feathers. She told me toward the end of her life that she regretted her previous gladiatorial stance and I respected her regret. Nevertheless, I wouldn’t trade The Descent of Woman for a whole library of mainstream anthropology.  

It’s been almost a full century since Dart’s stunning find and Hardy’s parallel insight and another half a century that the mainstream has been face to face with Morgan’s relentless logic and impolitic truths. And here we are still stuck with a long series of theories of human evolution — none of which are as good as Hardy’s — proposed and discarded one after another. Three heroes are dead, the professors (Daniel Dennett at Tufts excepted) remain firmly anti-Hardy, and we in the general public are the losers.

I will not here delve into the Dart-Hardy-Morgan revolution-that-wasn’t. Suffice it to say that humans, physiologically speaking, do very well in coastal environments. It was this that Hardy pointed out to his friends almost a hundred years ago; it was this that led to him being pinned to his living room floor.  

The mainstream will have none of it and it’s been almost a hundred years so capitulation seems appropriate. I AGREE with the mainstream that when a human pearl diver descends for her living one hundred feet or more beneath the waves without need of technology, this feat of humanity should NOT be considered relevant when discussing human evolution. And while it is true that human babies, properly exposed, easily dive ten feet to the bottom of a pool before they can walk, this, we Aver, tells us NOTHING about the evolutionary steps our ancestors took millions of years ago which obviously did NOT take place in a coastal environment. 

Il sangue scorre troppo freddo (quasi tutti i giorni) verrà sventatamente versato : One’s blood runs too cold (most days) to be blithely spilled. 

Allora, è meglio aspettare (quasi tutti i giorni) : And so, it is better to wait (most days). 

What Is Reasoning?

I must apologize to my readers for lapsing into bad Italian. Most importantly, I must apologize for the images sketched above. The images are either hyperbole or understatement — I am never sure which — but they are not the hard facts my readers have every right to demand of me and so I am truly sorry if you feel any of your time has been wasted. Let me now atone for my literary sins with a brief foray into respectable formality.

We can state with some certainty that it — the will to block the winds of change — is a well-studied phenomenon. It is so well studied, in fact, that we shall not study it here so much as we shall exemplify it. But first, by way of the promised atonement, I will tip my hat to the philosophers who have studied this phenomenon. Let us call it the Dart-Hardy-Morgan effect: the sad reality in which proponents of new ideas die before their wisdom can be received.

Philosophers tell us that baked into our social, cultural, scientific, historical, educational, and political structure is a sort of “Zeroth Law,” a law which comes before all others, a law saying incremental progress is safest. Leaps are to be avoided, not merely skirted carefully or examined skeptically but run from as one avoids a plague. Leaps are dangerous. A premise, on the other hand, is a loved child.

The premise-child must be protected at all costs. One abandons a premise-child only when one’s own death leaves one no other choice.

Thomas Kuhn, in his famous book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, talked about the importance of premises and especially groups of related premises he called “paradigms.” A paradigm in Kuhnian philosophy has many definitions one of which is this: “a foundation of indubitable usefulness and exaggerated permanence which underlies a specialist’s understanding of the universe.” Kuhn explained that paradigms are useful because they narrow the field of view in a productive way thereby allowing a group of experts to pick out important experiments and make steady progress as opposed to endlessly exploring an infinte array of possibilities most of which lead to dead ends.

Electricity, for example, was made practical without scientists knowing exactly what it was composed of (even today, we can describe electric charge only as a property possessed by charged particles) because the scientists found a powerful paradigm which helped them choose the most productive experiments. So paradigms are good things, necessary things. The problem with a paradigm is that its limited validity tends to be exaggerated which can lead to dogmatism which can then, ironically, impede progress.

But paradigms are limited in scope and are routinely not so much replaced as encompassed by a new paradigm which contains within it the old paradigm as a sort of approximation. These “paradigm shifts” are inevitable because even powerful mathematical, diagrammatical, and logical conception of reality is merely a model of that reality as opposed to being reality itself. On the other hand, a paradigm might be more precarious than the word “limited” implies: sometimes a paradigm shift is not merely an advance in our understanding but represents an egregious error being corrected.   

However it happens and whatever the level of drama that attends it, the popular notion of the paradigm shift which came out of Kuhn’s book involves proud scholars changing their tune. It might be relatively painless as when Einstein’s theory of gravity triumphantly predicted wobbles in mercury’s orbit that Newton’s theory would never have imagined and astonomers confirmed Einstein’s theory causing newspapers and the physics community to immediately celebrate the new science of warped space. But sometimes, especially when the old paradigm is not just limited but actually looks downright silly in hindsight or was (perish the thought) flat-out wrong, a paradigm shift is excruciating.

No one wants to admit they have been barking up the wrong tree for decades especially if it’s been killing people. 

Stomach ulcers and many stomach cancers are caused by bacteria not stress and stomach acid. In 1981, Barry Marshall and Robin Warren had to deal with colleagues who treated their research proving that simple fact as if they were proclaiming the earth to be flat (that’s how Marshall described it). The wrong paradigm had dug itself in so deeply that Marshall ended up having to purposely infect himself causing painful and dangerous ulcers in order to then cure himself and finally prove in 1985 that an entire industry of ulcer treatment was based on a false premise. It is not known how many people died or how long the cure was delayed because young scientists who questioned the premise were told to stop saying the earth is flat. 

Telling credentialed professionals not to question the premises is irrational. Of course the person questioning the premise will often be wrong. So what? A new theory that is wrong or not as useful as the old theory nevertheless solidifies our understanding of the world when it, the new theory, is examined and perhaps rejected by open-minded people. And what if the new theory is correct? That’s a breakthrough. In any rational system, credentialed professionals would be encouraged to take risks, to question premises, to stick their necks out. No one would pin anyone down to any living room floors the minute they say, “I have an interesting idea . . .” 

We define here “Kuhnian irrationality” as the social and cultural reluctance or the social and cultural outright inability to question a premise manifested by gray-haired professors plugging their ears while shouting “nyah, nyah, nyah I’m not LISTENING.” We take it as self-evident that premises should be questioned and we hope Professor Kuhn, who died in 1996, doesn’t mind our use of his name to encapsulate the key concept of the present work.  

Dart, Hardy, and Morgan questioned a premise and watched helplessly as their insights ran aground on the sholes of Kuhnian irrationality where they founder to this day. Alfred Wegener questioned a premise about geology and, in fact, proved beyond doubt that the continents were once a single landmass and of course ran into Kuhnian irrationality. Wegener’s stunning revelation has made the transition from crazy idea to common knowledge but Wegener didn’t live to see it happen.  

Marshall and Warren won a Nobel Prize but did not change the way we view premises or out-of-the-box thinking or “crazy ideas” that might not be so crazy. This is a work in progress. How can we move forward? How can we open closed minds? What do we do about Kuhnian irrationality?

We turn now to what I consider the touchstone of Kuhnian irrationality. This is an extreme example showcasing beautifully and bloodily the susceptibility of anyone, no matter how intelligent, responsible, and accomplished, to the siren song of a false premise. Its inherent drama and unspeakable tragedy make the point as sharply as it can be made. After collecting, as it were, our touchstone, we will will move on to what I consider the most amazing case of Kuhnian irrationality still in process today. But first, the horror. 

It was January 1986 and colder in Florida than it is ever supposed to get with temperatures in the low twenties Fahrenheit. The space shuttle launch was not quite a toss-up. By this I mean that the seven humans in the cockpit, had they heard the engineers discussing the problem, would have immediately refused to launch. If Christa McAuliffe’s high school students heard what the engineers were saying, they would have demanded the launch not take place. It was obvious. It was obvious that risking one’s life on a coin toss would be a better deal than sitting in the cockpit of the space shuttle on that cold day.  

It was too cold to launch and the engineers knew it. 

It was not too cold in the sense of being too cold to go out without a coat — it was, but that’s not what we’re talking about. It was too cold in the sense of being too cold for a corpse to rot but that still does not tell what must be told. It was cold the way an executioner’s eyes are cold. We are closer to the right metaphor but we aren’t there yet.

It was as cold as an equation. Do you see what I mean? Maybe you don’t, but fear not, you soon will. Nothing is colder than an equation with the possible exception of the moment of death itself. 

Truth, Lies, and O-Rings tells the horrific story in microscopic detail. The engineers at Morton Thiokol in Utah knew the O-rings were a problem. A year before, one of two crucial O-rings had been breached during a somewhat chilly fifty-three-degree launch. If both O-rings go, everyone dies. Since it was thirty degrees colder that day than it was a year before when they had come too close for comfort to losing the shuttle, Morton Thiokol, on the advice of the engineers it employed not to mention common sense, cancelled the launch.

That’s right, they cancelled the launch.

But then a whole flock of premises came home to roost: the space shuttle is perfectly safe; we’ve had a lot of safe launches; there are many redundancies in our systems; the engineers can’t prove the O-rings will leak at low temperatures; the problems with the O-rings aren’t yet fully understood and the shuttle has been launching safely for years; it’s possible there’s nothing to worry about; the O-ring data is inconclusive

It was possible that the shuttle could launch in the cold. Of course it was possible. Anything is possible. How long does it take, you might wonder, for the possible to become all-but-certain? Decades ago, Morton Thiokol taught us the answer: thirty minutes. 

During the thirty minute conference at Morton Thiokol when the engineers and the managers followed the NASA administrator’s urging to rethink the cancellation, the engineers admitted to the managers they couldn’t prove the O-rings would be affected by temperature. They admitted the data they had was inconclusive.

So the engineers couldn’t prove the shuttle unsafe. Therefore, it was safe. (Yes, really.) 

One low-ranking engineer, not falling for the reversal of the burden of proof perpetrated by his four bosses, stood and approached them. He walked right up to them paper and pencil in hand. He tried to explain his concerns. He drew a diagram. He was ignored. He could see that he was being ignored. He gave up. He returned to his seat. Another engineer tried the same thing with the same result. 

The two engineers would never forget their failure to make themselves heard. Their palms sweaty, they watched as the cancellation was undone. A few hours later they would watch, their palms still sweaty, as the shuttle launched with nothing between the seven astronauts and death except a cold equation: the flexibility of rubber is inversely proportional to temperature. 

Ignition was successful. The shuttle defied gravity at T minus zero. Seventy-three seconds later, etched with terrifying beauty against a clear sky, the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded. The cockpit, intact with the astonauts still alive, arced into the Atlantic ocean at 200 mph. The crew, including high school teacher Christa McAuliffe, died instantly. 

After the dust and debris had settled, after the dead were buried, while the nation mourned, Sally Ride sat with her colleagues on the presidential commission tasked with finding out what the Hell had happened. They would never understand. The engineer who wrote Truth, Lies, and O-Rings never understood. I don’t understand. To know in your bones what happened — to know how intense questioning over every tiny detail could be suddenly converted to mindless indifference to a critical problem — you would have to go insane.

Everyone in Dr. Ride’s profession — the astronauts, the engineers, the administrators, the bosses, the employees, the newbies, the old hands, everyone — knew in their bones that the people concerned about safety don’t have to prove anything. They knew it. They knew it one moment and then the next, like a sudden death, they acted as if their heads had been suddenly emptied of all thought. 

Sally Ride looked at Bob Lund. She had flown on that same space shuttle in previous years. Just before the disaster, Lund had been promoted to management after a career as an engineer. He knew the launch should be cancelled. The other three managers wanted him to agree with them that it was okay to undo the cancellation and “fly” as they put it. The data about cold and O-rings was inconclusive they pointed out to Bob Lund. He wasn’t fooled. He knew the launch should NOT proceed. He knew until he didn’t know.

Bob Lund acquiesed.

The four decent human beings who had committed murder without realizing what they were doing sat deathly silent with Dr. Ride and Richard Feynman and Neil Armstrong and the whole commission. The murderers wished they could change the past. As they examined what had happened, they came to know again. “You can’t prove the O-rings will fail . . .” is a true statement, true and powerless.

Reality doesn’t obey authority.

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On their way to death: Dick Scobee, Judith Resnik, Ronald McNair, Michael Smith, Christa McAuliffe, Ellison Onizuka, and Gregory Jarvis. Had they been listening to the engineers being chided because they couldn’t prove the O-rings would fail, the crew would have stopped the launch instantly.
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The Nobel Prize-winning physicist who devoloped and simplified quantum electro-dynamics with his famous “Feynman diagrams” reminded everyone that when you don’t have all the data you would like, you must take a probabilistic viewpoint in your analysis.
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Christa McAuliffe and the others survived the explosion but died when the cockpit (on the right) crashed into the Atlantic Ocean at 200 mph.
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Dr. Ride knew better than anyone that concerned engineers don’t have to PROVE anything.
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He almost said NO on launch day. After he and his three bosses killed seven people, he explained that the burden of proof had been reversed. “I should have detected it,” he said. 

The more I think about irrationality among engineers, scientists, scholars, and in the legal system (and even in politics — don’t get me started) the more it seems helpful to divide reasoning into categories. I wound up with three: (1) social reasoning; (2) legal reasoning; (3) scientific reasoning.

Social reasoning tells us that the photographs of the spherical Earth from space and the videos of Neil Armstrong walking on the Moon are NOT the products of an omnipotent conspiracy that has deceived us about the nature of our planet and society. Social reasoning is based on a broad premise — the existence of a shared reality and its associated self-evident truths. We need not examine evidence when people make absurd claims that they themselves often do not believe. For a rock climber scaling El Capitan, each foothold and handhold must be solid: objective reality, like gravity, is not optional and some things really are inarguable.

Legal reasoning is often a matter of safety. We begin with a conservative premise that we do not abandon without hard, undeniable proof: the space shuttle is UNSAFE until we prove otherwise; the accused are INNOCENT until proven guilty. It’s a bit shocking sometimes how easily the burden of proof can get reversed. One minute an engineer is being questioned about every minute possible danger to the shuttle and the next he is being asked for hard proof to back up concerns about catastrophic O-ring failure, concerns that will be ignored unless he can come up with proof. 

The shuttle exploded, as you know, because the burden of proof got reversed. It was as if someone held up an evil magic mirror to the usual process. The magic mirror of proof reversal combined with the cocaine of confirmation bias has had horrific results throughout human history. The shuttle exploded, people died. But that didn’t stop it from happening again in another place, in another context. And then again . . .

In 1992, Todd Willingham couldn’t prove he hadn’t killed his three children; therefore, he was guilty of purposely setting the fire that burned down his house and killed his children.

Amanda Knox and Raffaele Sollecito were provably innocent but corrupt officials who had released a dangerous criminal five days before he committed murder were able to convict two innocent people to cover up their own incompetence and then, having fooled much of the public, had a grand time using a lovely young woman as a jailhouse showpiece for four years. 

Willingham’s house burned down in an electrical fire. He was convicted of murder on the basis of “pour patterns” found by arson investigators. Tests for traces of flammable chemicals in the “pour patterns” were all negative. But the tests could have been wrong, theoretically. 

Knox’s housemate in Italy was killed by a mentally ill habitual criminal who left his DNA inside the victim’s body and fled the country. He was identified by a handprint in the victim’s blood at the scene of the crime and was quickly caught by German police. Knox and her boyfriend, already arrested, were obviously innocent but were convicted in a trial that was Monty Python’s “burn the witch” skit in real life. People assumed, and the victim’s family still assumes, using social reasoning, that a judge would not participate in a bizarre farce. 

In 2004, Willingham was injected with a deadly chemical. As the chemical moved toward his heart, Willingham used his last breath to tell the world he was innocent. “Pour patterns” are no more informative than Madame Trelawney’s tea leaves and are no longer accepted as evidence in U.S. courst. To this day, Todd Willingham’s own lawyer — assigned to him because he was too poor to pay for his own lawyer — thinks he was guilty, again using social reasoning.  

When social reasoning and backwards legal reasoning are mixed into a toxic brew, dumped into courtrooms, and guzzled in the court of public opinion, there’s a name for the phenomenon: “miscarriage of justice.” We know all about it. In the U.S., an organization called “The Innocence Project” fights for rationality in courts.

But surely, you say, this irrationality doesn’t happen with brilliant scholars at our finest universities? How could it? After all, the job of scholars is to model rational discourse. Experts doing scientific tests helped us see for what it was the nightmarish nonsense called “arson investigation” that convicted Willingham and Italian scientists were instrumental in freeing Knox and Sollecito. They’re all pretty rational. 

This means we can be sure scientists, experts, professors, and scholars are not susceptible to the kyptonite of a cherished premise. Right?

At this point the answer is predictable but I’ll say it anyway: Wrong. A new idea, if it is too new or too challenging or sounds funny or seems too simple or might be said by a child (“Look mom, Africa fits right into South America!”) might as well be a flat Earth or a faked Moonshot. Social reasoning and legal reasoning are routinely weaponized to fight the new idea with one goal in mind: kill it.

If Gerta Keller at Princeton thinks volcanic activity and not a meteor might possibly have killed the dinosaurs, she’s obviously just crazy because we know it was the meteor. The evil Dr. Keller is making wild accusations: the meteor theory is innocent until proved guilty; Keller doesn’t have absolute proof and must therefore be ignored.

Keller has been dealing with Kuhnian irrationality for decades. Her fellow scientists have not become physically violent, but that’s as good as it gets. At least she’s been able to publish, with difficulty. 

If scientists were rational, if scientists always used the third type of reasoning, scientific reasoning, Keller’s theories, whether her fellow scientists agreed or not, would be accepted as worthwhile and even encouraged. Even if she’s wrong, the discussion is valuable. Even if all it does is strengthen the mainstream theory, that makes it worthwhile. And if she’s right, by God she has given us the gift of a breakthrough. Yes, it’s painful when it happens but it’s better than doctors continuing on and on forever believing that ulcers are caused by stomach acid.

Scientific reasoning is so powerful because it is based on an anti-premise: we don’t know. Those three words are harder to hang onto than one might suspect because we naturally get attached to our assumptions. We are all subject to confirmation bias. Keeping our heads clear requires a constant effort. 

We refuse to rally around one answer. Instead, we make our best guess about the probability associated with each possibility: choice A might be 80% likely and choice B might be 20% likely. If choice B turns out to be true, we were not wrong. Remember, we said it choice B might be true: a twenty percent chance can easily happen. That’s the fun of scientific reasoning: you get to keep all possible outcomes; you might be better or worse at estimating probabilities but you are never wrong.  

Scientific reasoning is the essence of openmindedness. Scientific reasoning lets us accept the changes that happen when some out-of-the-box thinker hands us a priceless gift, a breakthrough. Scientific reasoning is the antidote to dogma. Maybe all would-be scientists and scholars should be required to minor in scientific reasoning in college. Maybe then Gerta Keller wouldn’t have such a hard time. 

Physicists are (usually) very good at scientific reasoning, maybe better at it as a group than any other group of scholars. It’s relativity and quantum mechanics that makes that happen. You have to drop pretty much all of your preconceived ideas about space and time, because, even though these ideas are quite useful in everyday life, they are bizarrely wrong at a fundamental level in ways physicists are still exploring. Physicists get trained in we don’t know early on.

Even so, physicists are perfectly capable of planting their faces in the snow as they ski down the mountain of scholarship.

Faster Than the Speed of Light tells the (true) story of mainstream physicists faced with an interesting new idea as the 20th century came to a close. You already know what happens in the story: mainstream physicists run away screaming but finally see reason. It’s a good story with a happy ending. 

Read the book, but here’s the executive summary: physicists are comfortable believing that what they call “physical constants” such as the speed of light are truly constant. It is indeed simplest to assume that these constants have not changed in value at all since the universe began 13.7 billion years ago with a “big bang” — a term first used in a pejorative sense by people who, surprise, didn’t like the theory because it was a new idea.

Anyway, a faster speed of light in the very early universe seems like a strange idea at first but does seem to explain a lot about the way the universe looks today. If a full-fledged theory could be constructed and verified, knowing how a physical constant can change in value could ultimately open up a whole new level of inquiry in which we may someday learn how the physical constants are related to each other and even begin ponder the origin story of physics itself. In short, big stuff.

So it is an enormously interesting theory and you won’t be surprised at the mainstream’s reaction. “It cannot be so,” they said. “We are certain that the speed of light has been constant for all time. It is certainly true because you can’t prove it isn’t true.”

It was worse than they expected. The professional scientists trying to nurture their new idea knew their colleagues would be skeptical of a theory postulating a variable speed of light (VSL). The seasoned professionals didn’t think their colleagues would treat them like random people stumbling out of a bar spouting gibberish.

Fellow scientists dubbed the idea “very silly” (get it?). Scientific papers sent to leading physics journals were first blocked entirely and then held up for years. The blockade might have lasted decades if one of the proponents of the theory hadn’t been especially stubborn.

Today, VSL theory is socially acceptable to physicists and many professionals work on it without fear. It might ultimately be the greatest breakthrough of 21st-century physics. Or it might not. The good news is the attention VSL is getting means we will find out one way or another. The bad news is the mainstream did everything it could to strangle the new idea in its crib. New ideas aren’t like Hercules as a baby — they can be killed off before they have chance to fight back. 

But how does one distinguish crackpot nonsense from interesting ideas? Must we accept all new ideas, even stupid ones, even crackpot nonsense? How did the person editing the journal Einstein sent his first relativity paper to know that he had damn well better publish that paper written by an unknown guy with a physics degree who couldn’t even get a real physics job and had to work in a patent office?

Einstein was making extraordinary claims about how the universe worked, claims that anyone, including the journal editor, would have to think were most likely wrong. The guy reading the paper, the journal editor, said later that he thought publishing the paper was his greatest gift to physics. Einstein started with known facts and laid out his idea clearly. The new idea might be wrong and probably is wrong, thought the journal editor. Then again, it might be a breakthrough. Of course Einstein’s work (he was far from famous at the time) should be published.

That was the special theory of relativity which predicted the speed limit of the universe later seen in particle accelerators. Fifteen years later, the general theory of relativity resolved the mystery of anomalies in mercury’s orbit: the sun bends space itself. Physicists were “agog” as the New York Times said at the time. This was not something humanity would have wanted to miss. Thank goodness for that editor. 

The hard part isn’t so much recognizing evidence-based scientific reasoning, that part’s easy. The hard part is convincing yourself of three things: (1) premises, even long-standing ones, do not need to be protected and shielded as if they were small children; (2) all new ideas, including breakthroughs, look wrong or even sound absurd at first; and (3) smart people, including very large numbers of smart people, may be so unable to accept the loss of their premise that they speak and act hysterically.

Watching an irrational mainstream react to a new idea as it begins to look more and more likely to be correct is most illuminating. Their arguments become increasingly desperate. Circular reasoning rears its head and roars. Logic is twisted so horrifically, you need to look away. The “other side,” they say breathlessly, is motivated by malice. Weak arguments are pounced upon. Strong arguments are ignored. If there are no weak arguments, they are made up and then triumphantly pounced upon. 

Kuhnian irrationality is easy to spot. The mainstream starts with its unshakeable premise and then immediately launches into a pointless debate. You can debate anything. Debating is wordplay. Debates are harmless fun but are ultimately meaningless. In a debate, the search for truth is left out in the cold.

Nevertheless, a deepset premise can take decades to uproot. Social reasoning or social reasoning combined with legal reasoning takes over and there’s nothing to be done.  It may even take a few generations to put social reasoning aside, to walk past legal reasoning, to end the wordplay and to finally reclaim thought, humility, and evidence. Kuhn’s readers coined the term “paradigm shift” to label this arduous process. 

We who love to tell ourselves stories about people living happily ever after tend to assume paradigm shifts always happen soon enough whenever they are needed. I wish to suggest here that this notion may be a fairy tale. I wish to suggest that there are paradigm shifts waiting to happen almost everywhere one looks.

In case after case, the situation looks the same: a small number of credentialed professionals have spent years or decades challenging a premise. The mainstream has reponded predictably with misplaced social reasoning and self-serving legal reasoning. The mainstream’s response (when they deign to respond at all) sometimes goes completely off the rails.

The Italian police, while Knox was in a jail cell awaiting trial, sprayed her bathroom with a chemical that would turn pink after a thirty minutes. They snapped a photo of the “bloody bathroom” Knox showered in while her roommate lay dead behind a locked door and released it to the press. The whole trial was like that. Knox did not need a defense. Even just looking at the prosecution’s case, it was obvious she and Sollecito were innocent. That’s what I mean here by “off the rails.”

You don’t have to be an Italian cop to do go off the rails. 

Who Is the Most Irrational of Them All?

In the present work, we will tackle the most striking example of Kuhnian irrationality I know of. The example discussed here is in that late stage of development in which a mainstream with a perfectly plausible but deteriorating theory struggles to uphold an idea that is nowhere near as certain as legions of smart people once thought it was.

At this stage in the process, the mainstream slowly loses its battle to silence all discussion as more of its credentialed membership questions the once-unquestionable premise; serious discussion in journals seems imminent in this case though it has yet to occur. VSL spent about ten years in this stage; today, as you know, the constancy of the speed of light is a perfectly acceptable area of research.

The present example, because the battle has been raging for more than a century, offers us another crucible in which we can examine closely — in all its horrific detail — what Kuhn examined from a safe distance. Mainstream adherents of what I call the Shakespeare mythology — that we know with near-certainty who wrote the plays and poems — are still in a position to convince most people that social reasoning is the only appropriate way to respond to suggestions, incuding suggestions made by credentialed experts, that “William Shakespeare” was a pseudonym used by a member of the Elizabethan nobility and the businessman who was one of many William Shaksperes living at the time wasn’t even literate. 

As was the case with VSL or continental drift or the extinction of the dinosaurs or the cause of ulcers, the consensus reached among most experts about what is likely to be true is perfectly reasonable but far from certain. The absolutely certain experts were embarrassingly wrong in the cases of continental drift and ulcers. However, in the cases of VSL and the K-T extinction and the Shakespeare mythology, it is still possible the mainstream will turn out to be correct. What all of these cases have in common is a wild exaggeration on the part of the mainstream of the certainty of their position and an unwillingness of mainstream professionals to accept uncertainty and seriously discuss the issue with their own colleagues. 

Following the precepts of scientific reasoning, we will assume here that we don’t know who wrote Shakespeare. A businessman who lived in a town called Stratford a few days’ journey from London whose name was William Shakspere is a strong possibility for the man who wrote the plays which eventually had the “Shakespeare” byline appended to them. However, a reasonable person (i.e., you, dear reader) might not even say there is a 50% chance that the businessman was Shakespeare.

Imagine if it is really the case that most Shakespeare scholars regard as almost certain what might not even be as certain as a coin toss. That goes beyond overstating one’s case. That’s Kuhnian irrationality in spectacular relief. 

To put the Shakespeare question in the tiniest nutshell possible for readers familiar with US government, imagine the following: an insider at the White House or someone with access to inside information creates dramatic work in which the president and the people around the president are portrayed as thinly disguised caricatures, often NOT charitably; no one openly takes credit for the work but publishers and cinematographers get their hands on it and produce it anyway; it is beautifully executed and becomes surprisingly popular; the name appended to the work is “Bob Wilson.”

A real person named Bob Wilson lived near Washington DC and was sometimes known to be in the capital city and was known to have friends and associates who were cinematographers. Years after Bob Wilson dies, the “Complete Works of Bob Wilson,” much of it never-before-published, appear in a magnificent volume and in that volume, two of Bob Wilson’s friends identify their friend Bob Wilson as the author Bob Wilson. 

Posterity, obviously, can never be sure exactly what went on.

The basic facts of what happened in Elizabethan times are well known and mostly undisputed. A series of anonymous plays filled with inside knowledge about Queen Elizabeth’s court began to come out either in the 1580’s or in the early 1590’s. The plays became outrageously popular and, by 1598, had the “William Shakespeare” byline attached. Many of the questions we ask now were asked back then as well: Who was writing the plays? How did whoever it was know all that stuff about the Queen’s court? How did whoever it was get away with it? Why were all of the published plays bootlegs? Why were only half of the plays published at all? How did all the plays eventually come to be published?

The mainstream is 99.99% certain it has the answers to all of these questions. Their certainty has a tinge of the insane to it. The fill in gaps with what Mark Twain called “must have beens.” Challenges from credentialed experts, Nobel Prize winners, famous writers, Supreme Court Justices, or ordinary people are sniffed at as unworthy of serious consideration. The journals are “walled off” from any discussion of the matter.

There was a William Shakspere living at about the right time in a town called Stratford. His life created many documents, all of which are business-related. There’s nothing about writing. However, evidence from after he died strongly points to this man as the author. The reason I referred to this as “mythology” is not so much that it can’t be true — the posthumous evidence cannot be ignored — but is due to the fact that the evidence from Shakspere’s lifetime points so strongly to illiteracy: no books, letters, or manuscripts belonging to Shakspere have ever been found and no one who knew him knew him as a writer. On legal documents requiring a signature, clerks signed his name for him. So we don’t even know if he could write his name. 

Mainstream scholars say Shakespeare must have been literate because he wrote his works. They say the lack of books, letters, and manuscirpts, and the absence of references to him as a writer during his lifetime by friends, familty, and colleagues is unfortunate but is merely bad luck. Sometimes they resort to the automatically true tautology, “Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare.” They say its odd that he didn’t sign legal documents but they regard the posthumous evidence as definitive and assume there must be some explanation for the not-signatures.

Heretical scholars call the businessman from Stratford “Shakspere” since that’s the name that appears on his birth and death records. The rebels say Shakspere not only appears to have been unable to write his name but was actually unable to write his name. The rebels think it is more likely that Shakesepare was a pseudonym used by a member of the Elizabethan nobility. One of them even wrote a Ph.D. thesis about this possibility and was granted a degree by a well known university causing no end of consternation in the mainstream community who do not call the colleagues who disagree with them “rebels” or “heretics.” People who think Shakespeare was a pseudonym get called “anti-Shakespeareans.” 

A man named James Shapiro is a professor at Columbia and wrote a book called Contested Will in which he examined the history of the Shakespeare question. He didn’t use the term “anti-Shakespearian” in that book. Instead, he bragged about the journals being “walled off” from colleagues who disagree with the premise that “Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare.” He questioned the competence of his colleagues (at a different university) who granted the Ph.D. He diplomatically called the student (now a professor) and people like me who think Shakspere may have been illiterate “unreasonable” which is as good a word as any. I prefer the word “insane” but the difference here is rhetorical rather than substantive.

I think Professor Shapiro and I can agree on one thing: one of us, the present author or the Columbia professor, is insane. It’s not that we are dangerously insane (as long as we stay away from space shuttles) but, at least when it comes to Shakespeare, either I need a straitjacket or the professor does.

You, dear reader, get to decide. Someone needs to be (metaphorically) wrapped in a straitjacket and placed in a padded cell. I hope it isn’t me but if it is I promise to go quietly. I must put aside my bias and provide you with the strongest possible argument that the businessman from Stratford wrote the plays while also presenting the pseudonym argument that I regard as even stronger. I believe I can not only do this but that the mainstream argument, as presented here, is stronger than what Shapiro provides. Shapiro, as a member of the mainstream, has had to paint himself into a corner: he must present certainty where no certainty exists and is therefore led to saying ridiculous things and weakening (and maybe even demolishing) his own argument.

Despite the mainstream’s insanity, there is an argument that Shakspere should be considered as a possible author despite apparent illiteracy. There is also an argument for a member of Queen Elizabeth’s court who was known as a playwright but who never published under his own name. It’s easy enough to present the whole story fairly despite personal biases when you don’t have to claim certainty. My task is immensely simplified by the existence of a body of  facts disputed by neither of the two “sides.” 

William Shakspere was a common name in those days and there were many of them who lived at about the right time. But it was the businesman from Stratford who was later identified as the author. This businessman left behind extensive documentation of his business activity: he was a well-known creditor in his home town with investments in agriculture, land, barns, stables, orchards, grain, malt, houses, and, notably, London’s leading acting company. His literate friends and neighbors and business associates wrote to each other about him and his money, but said nothing about him being the greatest writer in England until seven years after his death. At that time, in 1623, two of his London business associates explcitly identified their late friend as the great writer Shakespeare. 

It is this identification that, not without reason, causes the mainstream feel confident that it is correct. 

So the posthumous identification is solid evidence. But there’s a problem. If this identification is not valid, if the project undertaken seven years after Shakspere’s death was designed to conceal the true author’s identity, the mainstream theory is weakened, probably fatally. Shakspere’s biography is, even mainstreamers readily admit, extremely odd if he was the greatest writer in England. So it’s hard to overstate the importance of the one piece of evidence that identifies him a writer named Shakespeare as opposed to an illiterate businessman named Shakspere.  

I think a good argument can be made that the identification seven years after death is like the secondary O-ring in the space shuttle: absoutely critical, a sine qua non of the mainstream’s theory. Certainly no one would claim the posthumous evidence is not extremely important.

In addition to the concerns about Shakspere’s biography and the importance of a single piece of evidence, there is someone other than Shakspere whose biography has been examined closely starting about one hundred years ago. Although many possible “Shakespeares” have been suggested over the years, this particular candidate’s biography seems ideally suited to make him a plausible Shakespeare. It is fair to say a consensus among rebellious experts has formed around this person. We will assume for the purposes of the present work that one of these men wrote the works of Shakespeare and we will assume that we don’t know which one it was.

The lack of a definitive answer is of course necessary if we are going to engage in what I call scientific reasoning. Our goal is to reach a point where a reasonable person can assign rough probabilities to the two possibilities. If you think there is a 99.99% chance that Shakspere was the author then you agree with the mainstream. If you think Shakspere is 50-50 or not even 50-50 then you agree with me that the mainstream has driven itself to insanity when it comes to this particular issue. 

The 99.99% certain mainstream has a lot of problems, none quite so bad as the lack of a signature. William Shakspere “signed” his name five times on documents that have survived. But each “signature” was written by a different person. The mainstream discovered this, NOT the rebels. No other Elizabethan writer had people signing important documents in their stead.

Writers and literate people in general of that time period left behind identifiable signatures that made their literacy clear: there are hundreds of examples. The lack of a signature in Shakspere’s case might not be such a problem if not for the rest of his biography. We have title pages that say “Shakespeare” on them and we have a man with the right name who was identified as the author after he died. But we have nothing from his lifetime to show that he was literate or thought of as a writer. 

Ben Jonson, the second-most-famous Elizabethan writer, could write his name and was known as a writer. Jonson left behind books, letters, and manuscripts. No one would ever say, “We know a man named Ben Jonson who lived in London in 1600 was literate because the name Ben Jonson is on a large number of printed title pages.” But Shapiro regards the title pages that say “Shakespeare” as “overwhelming evidence.” He weakens his argument with statements like this. 

Ben Jonson’s biographers do not regard title pages as “overwhelming evidence.” Instead, they spend years looking at the books, letters, manuscripts, court appearances regarding written works, payments for written works, jail time for writing the wrong thing, and eulogies praising him as a writer. This man’s name was Ben Jonson and he was the writer Ben Jonson while he lived. Ben Jonson biographers rarely rely on posthumous testimony about Jonson’s life. And a Ben Jonson biographer would be no more likely to rely upon title pages to prove literacy than he would be to strip naked while cold sober in the middle of a formal dinner party and start dancing on the table saying “Jonson wrote Jonson.”  

Title pages and tautologies aside, Shakspere did have a connection to the theater and this does mean something. The problem is Shakspere was a shareholder, a part-owner of London’s leading acting company, but was not documented as a writer for that acting company or for any of the other acting companies that put on Shakespeare plays.

Shakspere also invested in agricuture but was not a farmer. He invested in grain but was not a brewer. He invested in real estate but was not a builder. Most playwrights weren’t involved in the business of putting on plays. In fact, if Shakspere was both an author and a shareholder, he was the only one of that era. Still, being a playwright doesn’t stop a person from being involved in the entertainment business. Moliere, centuries later, is an example of someone who did both. So it is possible Shakspere was a businessman-writer. 

Thoughtful people who look at Shakspere’s life and who begin to wonder if the possbility that he wrote the plays is really enough to put it beyond question usually do so only after reading one of the classic biographies. That was the case with Diana Price who has become the Elaine Morgan of the authorship question. 

Price read the classic Schoenbaum biography and that was the beginning of the end of her belief in the traditional story. Then she read all of the mainstream research or a lot of it anyway and it only got worse. She decided to write a book since the experts didn’t seem willing to confront the problem they had discovered. She was among the first or perhaps the first to use comparative biography to make the Shakspere problem crystal clear in a book-length work. She wrote the groundbreaking Shakespeare’s Unorthodox Biography. 

In her book, published by an academic press, Price points out that by the standards of the biographical information available for other Elizabethan authors, Shakspere’s biography as a writer is far-fetched at best and astronomically improbable at worst. 

I’m going to end this section with a macabre question: if you had no other choice, if you had to stake your life on Shakspere being the author OR on a coin flip, which would you choose? The shuttle astronauts, had they had the corresponding choice (Thiokol experts or coin flip) would have picked the coin flip — the engineers’ concerns, stated openly at the time, were that serious. In this case, would you pick the mainstream’s claimed 99.99% certainty or a coin flip?

You can’t answer yet because you don’t know enough. But I will ask you again. 

Monstrous Popularity, a Virtual Particle, and a Bad-boy Earl

Queen Elizabeth loved Shakespeare. King James loved Shakespeare. One thing we know about Shakespeare is that the written word was his life. In his Sonnets he wrote to his beloved and to posterity, to us, of his life as a writer: The worth of that is that which it contains, And that is this and this with thee remains. 

But it started with the plays. During Queen Elizabeth’s reign, a series of remarkable plays came out properly described by one or two or all three of the following characterizations: (1) a brilliantly written reimagining of an old classic; (2) an extremely useful piece of pro-protestant, pro-monarchy propaganda; and/or (3) a juicy delight full of inside dirt from the Queen’s court including gentle pokes at the Queen herself and not-so-gentle pokes at her courtiers.

The Queen, always happy playing her courtiers one against the other and no stranger to the value of controlling the media, had lots of reasons to support the plays. In fact, she put her top spymaster, Walsingham, in charge of the Queen’s Men acting company so that he could do what he did best — watch over and protect her realm manipulating the public always to the benefit of the powerful.

Someone was dishing courtly dirt and getting away with it and the Queen liked it enough that she put big players in the game and perhaps even rewarded the dirt-disher.

Needless to say, the plays became ridculously, outrageously, almost unbelievably popular. In terms of sheer poplularity, Shakespeare far outstripped all other Elizabethan playwrights put together. Nothing like it had been seen before. And such utter literary dominance hasn’t happened since. I suppose if Meghan Markle and Prince Harry posed for Penthouse, we might see something like the fuss that Shakespeare plays enjoyed, but short of that, I would argue that Shakespeare’s popularity as a playwright was unique to history.

That the playwright wasn’t available was a problem for publishers who desperately wanted the plays in print. Would-be publishers were forced to work off what scripts they could get their hands on or even sit in the theater copying down lines. The results were substandard: missing scenes, misnamed characters, and garbled speeches were the norm for Shakespeare plays published while the author was alive.

As far as anyone knows, all Shakespeare plays published during Elizabeth’s reign were either entirely unauthorized or published with essentially no help from the author. Mainstream biographers who would never in a million years suggest that they had the wrong man nevertheless scratch their heads about the missing author.

Bootlegging happened certainly but no other Elizabethan playwright was 100% bootlegged. It is, everyone admits, a bit strange. The light touch, to put it mildly, of Shakespeare-as-author next to the hammer blow, to put it bluntly, of Shakspere-as-businessman is impossible to explain though not impossible to comment on.

The late great Harold Bloom wondered how any artist could regard the final form of King Lear as “a careless or throwaway matter.” Bloom didn’t claim to know what was going on four hundred years ago; he settled for entertaining himself and his readers by waxing poetic about genius-Gods like Shakespeare casting their stars to the floor.

Bloom was smart to avoid trying to actually answer the central mystery of Shakespeare’s biography — where are the footprints of the greatest writer in England? — but even Bloom couldn’t help going on a bit about the oddness of it all. He writes of a mysterious “inverse ratio.” It is “beyond our analytical ability” he says.

Bloom’s inverse ratio is a comparison of the “virtual colorlessness” of the well-known businessman on one hand and the “preternatural dramatic powers” of a writer with more heart than Bloom could easily imagine fitting into one person on the other hand. For Bloom to say it is beyond his analytical ability is a big deal — Bloom had no shortage of analytical ability.

Bloom’s vision of “virtual colorlessness” paints a perfect picture if you happen to be a physicist: virtual particles in quantum mechanics exist in a mathematical sense but not in a literal sense. A virtual particle is and yet is not. So Bloom’s words are, as always, especially apt.

Park Honan captured the same idea and he might even claim to have done so more pithily than even Bloom did. Park Honan, who wrote a full-length biography of the man he thought was the author, encapsulates his subject’s life with fine rhetorical economy: “Shakespeare,” he says, “seems to have fluorished with a certain annihilation of the sense of himself.”

I added italics to emphasize Honan’s Bloom-like vision of a great author who regularly visited the business world and then somehow disappeared to visit the literary world, annihilating himself at will just like the Cheshire Cat in Charles Dodgson’s (Lewis Carroll’s) classic fantasy.

The brilliant and thorough Samuel Schoenbaum, a more prosaic observer than either Bloom or Honan, ran into the same problem they did. Schoenbaum, writing the classic Shakespeare biography, finds that he must write of an author who had many friends and associates who wrote to each other about the local businessman Shakspere, but said nothing useful.

Letters back and forth amongst Shakspere’s associates indicate that people in Stratford didn’t know or care about their “townsman” being the greatest writer in all England. It must be, Schoenbaum speculates, that they were more interested in the business side of things. “They probably troubled their heads little enough about the plays and poems,” Schoenbaum guesses.

So we don’t need Alice and we don’t need the quantum. People who knew personally “the admired poet of love’s languishment” also apparently knew even better who buttered their bread. “Business was another matter,” Schoenbaum reasons. “They saw Shakespeare as a man shrewd in practical affairs,” he concludes.

E. A. J. Honigmann went straight at the business-versus-writing issue. He researched Shakspere’s business activities thoroughly: “If one lists all of these various activities in chronological order,” Honigmann says, “one wonders how the dramatist found time to go on writing plays.” 

Honigmann didn’t imagine for a microsecond that the businessman might not be the author. He was just pointing out the difficulty of holding down two full-time jobs.

Bloom, Honan, Schoenbaum, and Honigmann and other mainstream biographers were and are under the spell of a simple premise: we know with virtual certainty who wrote the plays. They would be unable to question it no matter what the evidence was because if the premise a wrong a LOT of time has been wasted.

Mainstream biographers are to be pitied like Shakespeare’s Titania who loved Bottom unquestioningly.

And yet these biographers are game as they proceed bravely forward with nothing to go on: no letters written or received, no books owned, no manuscripts found in his house, and no references by friends, family, or business associates to Shakspere as a writer until he had been dead seven years. If only they could let go of the conceit of certainty, they might wonder if someone else could possibly have written the plays.

If, indeed, we permit uncertainty, we can accept Shakspere’s biography as it stands and consider therefore a possible author who was (we thank our lucky stars) certainly literate. A prodigy from an early age he was, a member of the Queen’s court as an adult, known publicly and privately as the greatest of the courtly playwrights, praised to the skies during and after his eventful life, he was the ultimate insider-author and he was also a man who never published a play under his own name.

Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford had dozens of books dedicated to him and received florid praise from professional writers such as Harvey: “I have seen many Latin verses of thine, yea, even more English verses are extant; thou has drunk deep doughts not only of the Muses of France and Italy, but has learned the manners of many men and the arts of foreign countries.”

After his death, Oxford was worshipped on the same page as other ever-living literary giants of the Elizabethan era like Edmund Spenser and Samuel Daniel. In one book appearing and reappeaing in multiple editions, Oxford was listed first; other great authors were listed after him;  “Shakespeare” wasn’t even mentioned. Other books mentioned Shakespeare but not Oxford. Still others mentioned both. Of course, just as there’s no accounting for taste, there’s no knowing who knew what when.

Oxford, though good with words, was not a good boy. He was known as “fickle” and irresponsible, not good for anything but writing. The Queen repeatedly refused to grant him positions of responsibility within her realm despite his repeated requests. Nevertheless she set him up for life in June of 1586.

The spymaster, Walsingham, as you know, was at that time running the Queen’s Men. He was executing what was called “the policy of plays,” using the acting company for state-sanctioned entertainment. A letter to Walsingham from Lord Burghley written in June of 1586 discusses Oxford and the Queen and something momentous that the Queen is about to make happen that will change Oxford’s financial situation forever. Nothing is said about exactly what was going to happen. Burghley wanted Walsingham to let him know in the event the Queen informs Walsingham of a final decision.

At the same time, Oxford was busily writing a letter to Burghley asking for a familiar favor — a loan of 200 pounds (a large sum). Oxford assured Burghley he would be able to pay him back as soon as the Queen “fulfills her promise.”

Something was about to go down.

And so it did. That week in June of 1586 Oxford was officially granted an extraordinary lifetime stipend by the Queen. I’m no Shakespeare so I’m having trouble finding the right word here: “extraordinary” doesn’t quite capture it. So bear with me if you will.

The life of the literary earl was changed at a stroke. The man who sold his lands to fund his revelry and his travel, the irresponsible worshipper of the written word, the man who never could get his hands on enough money to live his life to the fullest and beyond was now guaranteed 1000 pounds per year forever for doing we know not what. For the amount was spelled out in the written record but Oxford’s end of the bargain was not.

The gargantuan sum was more even than Lord Burghley himself — the Queen’s right-hand man and the most powerful man in England — was paid. Instantly, the “fickle” Oxford who did nothing right (except write) became the best-compensated member of Elizabeth’s government. He would never be as rich as Burghley who had plenty of non-salary income on top of the payments out of the royal treasury, but the Queen’s largesse made Oxford rich beyond the dreams of (ordinary) avarice though clearly not beyond the great Earl’s ability to spend every pound that came his way.

If, indeed, you weren’t an insatiable earl, you could live on a few pounds a year. Fifty pounds a year was a great salary for a senior official. Burghley got 800 pounds a year as Lord High Treasurer. Only King James VI of Scotland, the recipient of 4000 pounds per year, drew more gold out of the treasury than the man who this same King James, now King Jame I of England, called “great Oxford.”

Great Oxford didn’t have a country to run. In fact, the award stipulated that he could spend his 1000 pounds per year however he wished. Only one thing is certain about the award: the Queen NEVER handed out money without gettting something in return.

This hasn’t stopped at least one mainstreamer, evidently terrified of Oxford, from suggesting that Queen Elizabeth paid Oxford 1000 pounds a year in exchange for his good behavior! Though it is hard to imagine a more fatuous argument Oxford did make name for himself with his rash behavior.

In 1581, the literary playboy slept with one of the Queen’s ladies-in-waiting and got her pregnant. The Queen’s ladies, needless to say, were not on offer to her male courtiers. The lustful earl spent some time in the Tower contemplating his sins. His mistress and her baby were locked up as well with mother and child in different quarters from Oxford. Meanwhile, the Queen cooled off.

After the couple and Oxford’s bastard child were released, Oxford’s retinue and that of the irresistible Anne Vavasour met on the streets of London to do battle. (Of course they did, what else would happen at this point in the story?) History tells us that sword met sword and that blood was spilled. At least one person died as the battles flared repeatedly. Oxford himself was injured.

That was then. By 1586, the brilliant and cocksure earl had become a paid luminary in Elizabeth’s realm. He could continue to pay his long-time literary secretaries, the writers John Lyly and Anthony Munday and he would work with them as the 1580’s ended and the 1590’s began. The three men, along with other writers in their circle, went to town as it were during those early years vowing to one another that literature would never be the same.

Lyly, Munday, and other writers such as Robert Greene and George Peele produced an avalanche of original work, dedicated some of it to Oxford, and did indeed remake the Elizabethan literary scene. The dedications and the praise were all the credit Oxford received unless you count the 1000 pounds a year which, IF it was being paid to him for writing, pretty much makes him Shakespeare.

Many of the plays that came out in the 1580’s did not have Lyly’s or Munday’s or Greene’s or Peele’s byline on them; instead, they were anonymous. In fact, anonymous work very similar to what were later officially Shakespeare plays began appearing. Four important Shakesepare precursors were King John, King Leir, Henry V, and Richard III with longish titles spelled and worded only a little differently from the eventual Shakespeare plays and plots and dialog so similar it is assumed that Shakspere, after arriving in London from Stratford, must have used these plays to create his own.

IF, instead, these four plays were first drafts of Shakespeare plays, written long before Shakspere got himself to London, then Oxford could step up to the podium and declare himself Shakespeare and we would have to agree.

Shakspere was certainly in London in the early 1590’s and in 1594, a play called Titus Andronicus appeared in print with no byline. Titus Andronicus is thought to be the first Shakespeare play to be published. In 1598, with Shakspere appearing now and then in London, Love’s Labours Lost appeared in print as the first play with the Shakespeare byline.

Of course, Shakespeare was already a household name by then because the byline appeared on two epic poems published WITH help from the author — they were the only Shakespearean author-publisher collaborations but the publishers left us nothing about their experience with the actual author who for all we know was Shakspere or Oxford or someone else. The epic poems were published in 1593 and 1594 and the Shakespeare byline, whoever was behind it, knew instant fame.

A Shakespearean Tragedy in 2020

The stipend handed to Oxford by the Queen proves nothing. But the mainstream is so worried about it that one of them was willing to go on record claiming Queen Elizabeth I could be bent to the will of a wanton courtier and made to part with gigantic amounts of money! Someone’s torn right through his bathing suit. Obviously, the woman who eventually became the most celebrated monarch in English history wouldn’t have lasted five minutes as Queen if she was as weak as this mainstreamer suggests. The mainstream, when it comes to the most difficult points in the Shakespeare story, seems willing to embrace gibberish even when they don’t need to. Again, the stipend proves nothing.  

But there are a couple more facts to add before we have a good sketch of Oxford as a possible Shakespeare. An English English Professor, R. W. Bond, active circa 1900 collected John Lyly’s works in a three volume set and wrote this of his subject: “There is no play before Lyly.” Of Lyly and Shakespeare he wrote this: “In comedy, Lyly is Shakespeare’s only model.” Bond thought Lyly was more influential on Shakespeare than any other writer.

Oxford’s biography was not well known when Bond was working so Bond didn’t know that Oxford had hired Lyly and he didn’t know that Oxford was frequently listed as the greatest of the courtly playwrights. Today, we take the level of information and research available to everyone for granted, but Bond didn’t have all the facts in the world at his fingertips the way modern scholars do.

Of course, we can see that Shakespeare and Lyly may well have been influencing one another all through the 1580’s and it is certainly a matter of interest that Oxford’s secretary, Lyly, happened to be the Elizabethan writer most closely tied to Shakespeare. Bond isn’t alone in his opinion either: “Drawing on Ovid [Shakespeare’s favorite classic poet] and Plutarch and emphasizing a beauty of style, his [Lyly’s] works suggested more dramatic possibilities to Shakespeare those of any other comic playwright.” That’s a Park “Cheshire Cat” Honan quote. 

So Shakespeare certainly knew of and appreciated Lyly’s works and, if he was Oxford, knew Lyly personally and worked with him directly. Also in the department of who did Shakespeare know? is the writer of the only surviving Shakespeare manuscript. Although no manuscripts or handwritten works of any kind belonging to Shakspere were found after he died, there is a handwritten play part of which is, everyone agrees, authentic Shakespeare found amonst the papers of an Elizabethan writer with whom Shakespeare evidently worked. This writer is NOT John Lyly.

The play is Sir Thomas More and the original manuscript plus an edited version both survive. The edited version includes a number of different handwritten pieces by a number of different people. Not all of the pieces can be identified; some may be written by unknown scribes. Some mainstreamers, embarrassing themselves in a truly horrible way, say that the handwriting in the five different Shakspere “signatures” can be matched to the handwriting on part of the Sir Thomas More manuscript. This argument is NOT embarrassing like a torn bathingsuit; we’re in the realm of public masturbation here. The reader may wish to quickly recall that the fact of the multiple people signing documents for Shakspere can be found in the work of Schoenbaum himself, perhaps the best-known mainstream biographer, and then as quickly as possible forget that a number of mainstreamers spew such nonsense as part of Sir Thomas More being in Shakspere’s nonexistent handwriting. 

Anyway, the handwriting on the primary manuscript has been identified. It is, you will not be surprised to hear, in Anthony Munday’s hand. No one thinks Munday or Lyly was Shakespeare: they both published plenty of their own non-Shakespearean work. Sir Thomas More was never published though the manuscript and the edits tell quite story: Munday wrote a play and Shakespeare and a number of other writers worked on it. 

So the most famous of the Elizabethan courtly playwrights hires Shakespeare’s biggest contemporaneous influence (Lyly) and also hires the man (Munday) responsible for the only Shakespearean manuscript so far found. And he was getting 1000 pounds a year from the Queen for God-knows-what. Given these very basic (and inarguable) facts, it isn’t hard to understand why a reputable institution like the University of Massachusetts at Amherst would allow Roger Stritmatter to write his dissertation on evidence for Oxford’s authorship of the Shakespeare canon. UMass Amherst, to the horror of a frozen mainstream, granted Dr. Stritmatter his Ph.D. in 2001.

Mainstreamers don’t have kind words for their colleagues on Stritmatter’s dissertation committee — in fact, they routinely imply that incompetence caused said colleagues to improperly grant Stritmatter a Ph.D. I would say it’s hard to imagine anything so graceless as a one professor telling another he doesn’t deserve his Ph.D., but it is November 2020 as I write and people who matter to me are dying while a graceless leader pretends the election is fake news so it isn’t so hard to imagine, unfortunately. 

It’s tragic in other ways too if Oxford really did write the plays. Sir Derek Jacobi has said one cannot understand Shakespeare without knowing Oxford’s biography. If that’s true, I often wonder, then what of Harold Bloom? If scene after scene in play after play takes its cue from Oxford’s life then what can we say for Bloom, who loved Shakespeare, who graced us with his brilliance, who knew the scenes and speeches and characters by heart and who died possibly missing out on knowledge of the true author simply because mainstream scholars, our truth seekers, the people we depend on for enlightenment refused to even discuss it. Bloom was a brilliant man who I think was open-minded though he dismissed the authorship question; I believe if his colleagues had allowed work to be done on Oxford and if that work was sound, Bloom might have been convinced before he died.   

RIP Harold Bloom 1930 – 2019.

The First Folio Strikes Back

There’s nothing wrong with intelligent skepticism about Oxford. After all, nothing directly naming Oxford as the author has ever appeared. He died in 1604 without a will and without eulogies. A play that he wrote about a “mean gentlemen rising at court” (possibly Twelfth Night) that existed in manuscipt into the 1700’s has been lost. So the Stritmatters and Jacobis of the world who sometimes seem pretty sure of themselves (and perhaps have a right to be) don’t have blatantly obvious proof. If they have less obvious proof (and they may have) we ordinary people can’t say whether or not they have a right to their confidence because the full discussion in peer-reviewed journals we would need to make such a determination isn’t happening.

We’re stuck with the same old problem: we don’t know. For all we know, even though Oxford, what with his family sword battles over his love affair, is a compelling candidate, Shakspere may have written the plays after all. Remember, he was identified as the author seven years after his death. And it’s a pretty good identification. 

The businessman named Shakspere died in his hometown of Stratford in 1616. There are no surviving eulogies but a three-page will written in broken legalese (far below the legal ability of the expert who wrote Shakespeare’s plays with their clever use of fancy legal concepts) does survive. Someone in Stratford took down the will for Shakspere bequeathing his lands, stables, barns, orchards, houses, and cash to his two illiterate daughters (Judith signed her name with a mark; Susanna held her husband’s medical journal in her hands but told the person buying it she didn’t know what it was). 

The will which goes on and on for three pages but never mentions a book or a manuscript or education or a map or a musical instrument or even an inkwell is explained by the mainstream by comparing wills of other writers that were equally boring if not equally lengthy. The absence of eulogies has been explained as follows: Shakespeare was mostly a playwright as opposed to a poet and, even though he was more famous than all other writers put together, he didn’t get eulogies because playwrights were held in lower esteem than poets. Some mainstreamers have noted the absence of eulogies for Shakspere and explained this by noting that he was mostly thought of as a playwright and playwrights didn’t get the same treatment when they died as pure poets.

Like most of the excuses made for Shakspere’s all business birth-to-death biography, the will excuse and the eulogy excuse arent’ especially good or especially bad. We are, as always, left with the fact that the businessman seems to have been just a businessman who perhaps didn’t have time for his daughters because he was so busy and didn’t see to it that they learned to read because they were country girls. It’s all plausible if not especially satisfying. 

But then a miracle happend. Seven years after the apparent businessman died, in 1623, half of Shakespeare’s plays existed in print with varying levels of accuracy. That year, thirty-six manuscripts materialized like the flame of the lord on Mount Sinai. 

Macbeth, Julius Caesar, The Tempest, Taming of the Shrew, A Comedy of Errors, As You Like It, Twelfth Night, All’s Well That Ends Well, Antony and Cleopatra, The Winter’s Tale, and other masterpieces would now be published for the first time. Bootlegged plays like Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, King Lear, Richard III, King John, Henry V, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Much Ado About Nothing, The Merchant of Venice, The Winter’s Tale, and all the others would now be published properly.

Someone had the manuscipts. Someone actually held in their hands a stack of the handwritten priceless documents. Perhaps they didn’t know how much posterity would treasure them. Perhaps whoever it was had other things on their mind. But the fact is, all of Shakespeare’s works in his handwriting had been in someone’s possession, saved en masse for three decades or more.

This miracle is known to us as the First Folio — Shakespeare as we know Shakespeare. The First Folio was published under the auspicies of the Earl of Montgomery and his brother, the Earl of Pembroke. These are the famous “incomparable pair of brethren” to whom the First Folio is dedicated. They had the plays and arranged for their publication. But where did they get them?

As usual, we don’t know. But prepare to NOT be surprised. The Earl of Montgomery was married to a fellow earl’s youngest daughter. Her name was Susan. Perhaps you’ve guessed who her father was. Of course, you are quite right: before Susan became the Countess of Montgomery, she was called Lady Susan Vere because she was the Earl of Oxford’s — Edward de Vere’s — daughter.

The involvement of Oxford’s family in the publication of the First Folio would seem to close the case and not in the mainstream’s favor. Obviously, Oxford’s family had the manuscripts for all those decades. Obviously, Oxford was not just the greatest of the court playwrights paid gigantic sums direct from the crown but was Shakespeare himself.

The mainstream candidate, the illiterate businessman who didn’t own any books or write any letters or go to Italy or practice the noble sport of falconry whose language permeates the works or hobnob with courtly nobility or even go to school, the man who couldn’t even write his name has got to be the most nonsensical candidate for a highly placed genius author ever proposed by the mind of man. Here we were trying to explain why the mainstream is absolutely certain Shakspere wrote Shakespeare and we ended up in Oxford-land yet again.  

But it’s not over till it’s over. And it’s not over, not yet.

The mainstream candidate’s name on his birth and death notices is William Shakspere and it was, as you know, a common name. The spelling of the name, if not its ubiquitousness, is mostly irrelevant. It is easy to imagine one of the Shaksperes becoming Shakespeare for the purposes of the plays. Elizabethan spelling was nothing if not fluid and Shakspere was certainly referred to as “Shakespeare” with the right spelling on occasion especially when he was in London. 

The name alone, even spelled “Shakespeare,” is obviously not enough given the commonness of the name. But Shakspere/Shakespeare of Stratford didn’t just own land and barns and stables and houses; he wasn’t just interested in grain and malt and credit; he wasn’t just some random guy who died without leaving behind books, letters, or manuscripts. Well, he was all of those things, but he was, as you know, also a shareholder in London’s leading acting company.

The connection to the theater is huge, but still not enough. Judith Quiney, Shakspere’s daughter, was pregnant when her supposedly famous father died and she and her literate husband named their son “Shakspere Quiney,” using the family spelling and not the famous one so we’ve still got a problem with the name though obviously not an insurmountable one. If all we had were ties to the theater and a close-enough name, no one would believe Shakspere Quiney’s grandfather, a man who appears to have been unable to write his own name, was Shakespeare. But that’s not all there is. 

In 1623, the man with the name and the acting company association was identified with unmistakeable clarity as Shakespeare-the-poet-and-playwright. And you can’t argue with the source. Oxford’s family did indeed publish thirty-six plays in a big book of inestimable value to the world. But that same book identified the author as most definitely NOT Oxford and they had the plays so they clearly knew who wrote them. Not just one but a few letters in the preface repeatedly tell readers that Shakespeare was Shakespeare of Stratford, the acting company shareholder. There isn’t a scintilla of doubt about what the preface meant to say: Shakspere WROTE Shakespeare and don’t you forget it.

In the most informative letter in the preface, two men Shakspere certainly knew have their names printed beneath a printed letter. The men so named were Shakspere’s fellow shareholders in London’s leading acting company and were listed in Shakspere’s will with other business associates who would receive small bequests. No one doubts these men knew Shakspere.

In the letter in the First Folio, the two men specifically refer to their business partner — they call him their “friend & fellow” which he clearly was. They say he was the author of the plays. There is no other way to interpret this letter and no one has been foolish enough to try. If Oxford is the real author, then this letter and the other letters which support it are filthy lies plain and simple.

Shakspere’s two business associates, acting apparently on behalf of the company of players now known as the King’s Men but previously known as the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, claim that THEY had been holding the thirty-six manuscripts for all those decades. The letter claims they are GIVING the precious manuscripts to the two earls to honor Shakespeare’s memory. The letter says they have NO thought of receiving any profit for themselves but just want to preserve Shakespeare’s memory.

You could argue they are protesting a little too much but that argument is neither here nor there; it certainly isn’t going to go anywhere. The letter is either true or it isn’t, fact or fiction. If true, then the businessman with a biography you would never expect in 37 trillion years wrote Shakespeare. If Oxford’s family falsified the preface, the entire mainstream theory comes crashing down in a twisted, broken mess.

If you use legal reasoning, you can say the First Folio preface clearly identifies Shakspere of Stratford as the author and that only hard evidence that it is false shall be sufficient to impeach it. Legally speaking, Shakspere’s “friends and fellows” are innocent until proven guilty. Legally speaking, their claims must be taken as fact. Legally speaking, Shakspere is Shakespeare.

The only way for Oxford’s partisans to unseat the Stratford businessman in a legal sense would be to present hard evidence that proves the First Folio preface was part of a plan to conceal the truth, namely that Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, was the author.

Most real judges, using legal reasoning, would find for Shakspere based on evidence currently available. But real judges have weighed in on the scientific side as well. Judges can do lots of different kinds of reasoning, after all. Someone who happens to work as a judge can focus on the non-premise upon which scientific reasoning is based: we don’t know. Indeed, Lewis Powell, Harry Blackmun, John Paul Stevens, Sandra O’Connor and others with a bit of legal training have gone public with their doubts about Shakspere. 

The Deadly Coin Flip Grows Nigh

What, in your opinion dear reader, does scientific reasoning say about Oxford being the greatest of playwrights versus Oxford being a powerful earl with a taste for the theater? Is Oxford’s connection to Lyly and Munday definitive or coincidental? Did Oxford turn the sword battles on the streets of London into an autobiographical tidbit in Romeo and Juliet or is this another coincidence? Did the Queen hand Oxford 1000 pounds a year because he was Shakespeare or was there some other reason no one has guessed?

What about Shakspere? Was he a businessman who wrote plays on the side or was he a businessman who couldn’t write his own name? Is the connection to the First Folio preface definitive or was the preface falsified? If the preface was falsified, why would Oxford’s family feel they had to go to such lengths? And if they did point at a front-man author, how is it that the hoax was so successful and where is the direct commentary about it from the many people who would have known the truth?

We will keep digging. By way of warning, I should note that no firm conclusion is possible without a full discussion taking place in scholarly journals over a period of years and we’re probably a decade away from that process even beginning. Still, with a reasonably complete account, a non-expert reader can form a perfectly good opinion as to the probabilities if they haven’t already.

To stay streamlined, we will assume that either Shakspere or Oxford was the author while (of course) keeping in mind the possiblity that even this may not be the case. The vast majority of the mainstream favors Shakspere and a solid majority of rebels favor Oxford so I’m comfortable continuing to focus on these two primary candidates.

The Stratfordian Framework

People who believe “Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare” are sometimes called “Stratfordians.” There’s nothing wrong with their belief really as it has a solid foundation and framework. The businessman from Stratford has the right name and a clear connection to the theater. The publishers of the First Folio identified him as the author William Shakespeare and no one questioned this. It is true that no documentary evidence for his life as a writer that was produced during his lifetime has survived making his case unusual relative to that of other Elizabethan writers, but there could be many reasons for this and, on balance, it seems safer to assume that he was the author in the absence of hard evidence that the First Folio preface was falsified.

So goes the mainstream argument and it is perfectly sensible.

It is indeed plausible that a businessman from Stratford might also have been a literary genius and might have, as Bloom postulates, been such a genius that he just didn’t care about getting involved or not with the publication of his work when he was already hard at work on his next masterpiece. It is likewise plausible that he might have, as Honan postulates, simply wanted to keep to himself and so did not cut a clear path through literary London. Schoenbaum’s idea that people who knew him in Stratford were more focused on business than on plays and poems explains why we got no clues from them. Honigmann’s idea that Shakspere himself paid more attention to the business end of things ties up the biography as well as can be done under the circumstances.

We would like to have something direct from Shakspere’s lifetime that says he was Shakespeare but we don’t and that unfortunate fact is simply a combination of bad luck and the circumstances of Shakspere’s life. His own priorities and temperament may have contributed to the lack of a literary biography as well.

Again, the Stratfordian framework is perfectly sound. But should we build a wall?

That’s what Stratfordian scholar James Shapiro at Columbia calls it: there is  a “wall” between his Oxfordian colleagues all over the world and the peer-reviewed journals. He’s proud of it. Shapiro believes the Oxfordian case is “unreasonable.” He even wrote a book called Contested Will in which he disparages Oxfordian claims as ridiculous as part of his effort to understand why otherwise intelligent people would have silly ideas like Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare.

Shapiro must defend his premise as unquestionable. This cannot be done without circular reasoning, twisted logic, straw-man arguments, ad hominem arguments, and outright nonsense. Shapiro uses all of these techniques in his book.

The Stratfordian framework is reasonable but does not allow Shapiro to claim certainty no matter how much ivy climbs the walls of his institution.  The only valid question to ask is this: is the Oxfordian framework so strong that Oxford should be considered the likely author or should we stick with the traditional theory until we have more information?

The Oxfordian Framework

It bothered Mark Twain no end that people thought Shakspere was the author even though he left nothing behind but “a vague file of chipmunk tracks stringing through the dust of Stratford village.” Today, Oxfordians note that Edward de Vere cut a rather clear path through literary London.

Elizabethan authors like Ben Jonson and Edmund Spencer and John Lyly and Anthony Munday and Christopher Marlowe and Robert Greene and Thomas Nashe knew each other, dedicated work to each other, went to jail together, could write their names, owned books, wrote and received letters, were eulogized at death, and on and on and on. Ben Jonson did all of these things; the others did some of these things. Even for writers not as well documented as Jonson, no one in their right mind would think any of these names were pseudonyms and no biographer relies on posthumous testimony to verify that they have the right Ben Jonson or the right John Lyly or the right Anthony Munday etc.

If Shakspere wrote the great works, he did so while living the life of a pure businessman. This conclusion includes his association with the theater: a number of documents indicate that he was a shareholder in the Lord Chamberlain’s Men which later became the King’s Men; other documents show that he invested in theater real estate. But, until the First Folio preface identified him as a writer, zero documents say anything about him writing plays or poems; even literacy is out of reach for the biographer until the First Folio preface comes along unless we assume Shakspere was Shakespeare and then say, as Shapiro does, that the title pages are “overwhelming evidence.”

Diana Price — not a big fan of circular reasoning — examined the lifetime document output of Elizabethan writers aside from the title pages. She found that consistently half of all documents left behind by professional writers were personal documents like birth or death notices while half were writing documents like books, letters, and manuscripts. This is what one would expect from people whose life was writing.

Shakspere left behind many personal documents and many documents covering his business activities. He was born and died, got married and had children, bought property and buildings, was in court suing over debts and out of court counting his money, etc., etc. Seventy documents covering his life from birth to the immediate aftermath of his death have been found — only for Ben Jonson do we have more documents.

For Ben Jonson, of course, we have every kind of document you could possibly want. With seventy Shakspere documents, we would expect, IF he was Shakespeare, at least a couple of dozen writing documents to have survived. If you found even ONE such document for Shakspere, you would instantly become world famous. Think about that.

Let’s create a model for documents indicating literacy. We will of course (!) NOT include title pages as documents indicating literacy. We will also exclude claims made long after the person in question has died. All we want to do is prove that the person, while alive, was literate. If, at death, the person was eulogized as a writer, then we will accept such evidence, but after the last worm has burped, we no longer accept unquestioningly what someone says about their friend the writer. 

As noted above, Price found that for Elizabethan writers, a coin-flip model works well. In the coin-flip model, heads means a document indicates literacy; tails means it does not. The couple of dozen Elizabethan writers Price looked at — Beaumont, Chapman, Daniel, Dekker, Drayton, Drummond, Fletcher, Greene, Harvey, Heywood, Jonson, Kyd, Lodge, Lyly, Marlowe, Marston, Middleton, Munday, Nashe, Peele, Spencer, Watson, and Webster — all left behind literacy documents. In each case, roughly half indicate that the person whose name appeared on title pages was at least literate and they usually specifically indicate that the person was a professional writer. For none of these writers is it necessary to rely on statements made years after death

In Shakspere’s case, as you know, we have seventy documents all of which are “tails” in our model. The man whose name appears on many title pages left behind a trail of documents zero of which indicate literacy and four of which (the legal documents signed for him) specifically indicate lack of literacy.

What are the odds? There is good news here. No calculation is necessary. It’s a nice convenience we get when the numbers are this large that we are freed from the calculator. The probability of throwing seventy coins into the air and having them all land tails is zero.

But it is still possible, strictly speaking. So let’s try this at home. You’ll need seventy coins. You’ll want to set up a device that throws the coins once per second and maybe some intellgent monitoring system that instantly records whether or not they all landed tails. You’ll need to solve the problem of your mortality because, though you might be very lucky and flip seventy tails on your first try, a more conservative guess for how long it will take to hit the jackpot is 37 trillion years. Setting aside this much time gives you a better-than-even chance of success during your attempt. However, if you want to begin your efforts with a near-certainty of success predicted, you’ll want to set aside a quadrillion years. 

The mortality problem you might solve by creating “The Cult of the Seventy Tails” into which you would induct new adherents who could take over for you after your death. However, the cult will run into a problem in a few billion years because, at that time, the sun will have exhausted its fuel and will go out. Unfortunately, this will happen before your coin-flipping project has even really gotten a good start though there is a small chance you might have succeeded by then. So, unless you move the project to another star or figure out how to keep the sun burning, The Cult of the Seventy Tails will need extraordinary luck to succeed before the end of the world comes. 

Oxfordians typically start with this idea. Even given that Shakspere has the right name, a connection to the theater, and is identified as literate in the First Folio, the simple model proposed above causes us to doubt that he could even write his own name much less be Shakespeare. The seventy documents covering land, barns, stables, malt, grain, stone, money, houses, roads, pastures, orchards, and theater investments and the four signatures written for him and the utter lack of books, letters, or manuscripts found in his twelve-thousand-square-foot house after he died is just too much to NOT engender doubt. 

Then one looks at Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford who was, like Ben Jonson, known as a writer. Oxford was born into privilege unlike Jonson though both became accomplished writers. Jonson’s biography matches his writing and biographers have plenty to work with. Oxford’s biography likewise fits Shakespeare pretty much perfectly giving biographers who believe he was Shakespeare plenty to do. There’s a great book by Mark Anderson that assumes Oxford was Shakespeare and writes the biography — it may change the way you look at the great author. 

Oxford made a big splash as 21-year-old courtier in 1571: he became a favorite of the Queen. She “delighteth in his valientness” and so on . . . according to a diary entry. The diarist noted that Oxford was married to Burghley’s daughter and noted that the great lord didn’t seem to mind the attention Oxford was getting from the Queen. “My lord winketh at these love matters,” the diarist said.

So began the life of the ultimate literary insider. If Shakspere wrote the plays, he had to learn all about the Queen’s court from gossip while he was visiting London.

In 1575, Oxford went on a grand tour traveling through France eventually spending a year traveling in Italy where ten of Shakesepare’s plays are set. Shakespeare didn’t just set plays in Italy as an afterthought. The settings are created with loving, microscopic, assiduous detail some of which are still being discovered in the 21st century by scholars who traveled to Italy and stumbled on a long-lost Shakespearean bit of detail. Geography, art, culture, and all things Italian overflow from these plays. Whenever it looks like Shakespeare made an error is his desciption, it always turns out he was right and the critics were wrong.

Whoever wrote the plays also had first-hand knowledge of Italy. Shakspere may have visited Italy but it seems unlikely that he did so and this causes mainstreamers to engage in some of their most spectacular contortions. Shapiro claims Shakspere could have learned enough about Italy to write the plays by talking to travelers who had been there. My only question is this: did the emperor believe he was dressed?

After Oxford returned from Italy in the late 1570’s, the Shakespeare era began. By the early 1580’s, it was going full steam ahead. A Comedy of Errors, Twelfth Night, Romeo and Juliet, The Winter’s Tale, Julius Caesar, King John, Henry V, King Lear, Richard III, and Hamlet define the decade.

Errors, assuming it was originally called A History of Error, had been written anonymously in the late 1570’s and was played frequently at court starting in 1577. Twelfth Night portrays the early 1580’s rise of Sir Christopher Hatton whom Shakespeare tore to pieces and whom we know Oxford hated; Romeo and Juliet is set in Verona eleven years after the 1570 earthquake; much of The Winter’s Tale was actually published as a novel in 1588 by a notorious plagiarist who stole parts of the Shakespeare play word for word; and the famous line et tu Brute was being bandied about by a number of other writers by the end of the decade. Shakspere still had never been to London.

The versions of the four “King” plays from the 1580’s bear many fingerprints of the great author such as his habit of making up words. If they really are first drafts of Shakespeare plays that would make it virtually impossible for Shakspere to have written them. But Oxford was there, in the right place at the right time.

A famous quip by Thomas Nashe about “whole Hamlets of tragical speeches” is likewise bad for the mainstream as it dates an early version of what eventually became Shakespeare’s masterpiece to sometime before 1589, when Shakspere would have been just getting ready to explode onto the scene as the magical twenty-something genius from Stratford. But the timing is perfect for Oxford who was about to turn forty. Most mainstreamers assume there MUST HAVE BEEN an earlier “Hamlet” written by another author. 

In 1593 and 1594, the great author, whoever he was, got involved in publishing and two epic poems appeared, beautifully done and floridly dedicated to the Earl of Southampton — the most controversial earl in England. At the same time, the great author was writing private sonnets to this same earl. Southampton is not named in the sonnets but they fit his life from his refusal to marry a young woman to his imprisonment for treason to his miraculous release after the Queen’s death.

Private sonnets written in the first person to the young, headstrong earl aka “O thou my lovely boy” telling him what to do and how to live his life and offering unconditional support and forgiving him for his mistakes cause problems for the mainstream’s Shakespeare-was-a-commoner theory.

For some Oxfordians, the Sonnets disqualify Shakspere. The first seventeen sonnets — the “marriage sonnets” — are intense exhotations beseeching the boy to marry and create a male heir for his own good and for the good of his family. Here are the first two lines of the first sonnet.

From fairest creatures we desire increase
That thereby beauty’s Rose might never die. 

No one knows why Rose was capitalized and italicized.

The sonnets were personal to the point of being invasive: they admonish — the earl is called a “tender churl” — and they finger-wag — the earl is ordered “be not self-willed.” The sonnets were (of course) not published for many years, but were eventually rumored to be circulating amongst the author’s “private friends.” The Queen’s death and the new King’s ascension are recorded in the sonnets toward the end. Finally, “O thou my lovely boy” is advised, as only Shakespeare can advise, to make the most of every precious minute of life.

A year later, Oxford died. Five years after that, the sonnets were published and with the hope that the promises made in the sonnets by “our ever-living poet” would be delivered by fate.  

One mainstream biographer, Levi, confronts the obvious issues brought up by the sonnets. A commoner can’t write personal sonnets to the Earl of Southampton, telling him how to live his life and so on. There’s just one answer: Shakspere wasn’t writing in his own voice. That is, the sonnets must have been commissioned. There is no evidence for this, but it does fix the problem assuming it is true.

According to Levi, a series of over 100 sonnets written to Southampton over ten years were, not only “among the most perfect poems ever written in any language” but were also “commissioned poems.” Although there is no evidence connecting Shakspere to Southampton, there must have been some connection at least with a Southampton family member that has been lost to history.  

Let’s review where we stand. Someone wrote probably to the Earl of Southampton “thou art thy mother’s glass and she in thee calls back the lovely April of her prime . . .” and this person either knew Southampton as he wrote and the boy’s mother when she was young or was writing “probably on behalf of the young man’s mother.” There is a third possibility of course: maybe the sonnets are not written to anyone at all and are just poems and are “not personal” as Shapiro informs us in Contested Will. 

Oxfordians, eschewing wild guesses and not willing to embrace utter nonsense and realizing that their guy seems to show up pretty regularly when one talks about Shakespeare, politely ask the following question: Who was Southampton supposed to marry in the early 1590’s? The idea here is that history might perhaps provide us with more clues than premises, wild guesses, and desperate assumptions.

Is it possible, say Oxfordians (those sly dogs), that Southampton’s betrothed could give us a clue to the identity of the man who wrote the marriage sonnets? Maybe the young woman he was supposed to marry was Shakespeare’s daughter or something momentous like that. That would almost be too good to be true but if it were true, say the Oxfordians, would you then be willing to have a beer with us without spitting in our faces?

Just asking.  

Southampton’s betrothal was obviously a big deal in Elizabethan England with huge political implications. Marriages among the nobility were almost always more about power than about love. So it’s easy to find out who it was Southampton was supposed to marry. History tends to (and does in this case) record this sort of crucial information. 

Lord Burghley, quite sensibly, wanted Southampton to marry his grand-daughter. It was Burghley’s decision because Southampton’s father, having gotten on the wrong side of the Queen and having been tortured one too many times, died when Southampton was young. So Southampton was a ward of the state and Burghley had authority as his legal father.

Burghley’s grand-daugher was called Susan though to be polite, you might call her Lady Susan Vere. Perhaps the biggest decision of Southampton’s life — should he or should he not ally himself with and become dependent upon the most powerful man in England?  — was being writ large in the marriage sonnets and we want to know now who was this Lady Susan Vere.

Oxfordians note gain, that it is NOT a big surprise at this point to discover that Lady Susan Vere was the daughter of Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford. It’s almost as if history itself if taking sides in the Great Shakespeare Authorship Debate. It’s not really very fair to the mainstream, is it? 

The mainstream, despite this foul play on the part of history in delivering to the Oxfordians yet another amazing coincidence, remains absolutely certain that Oxford was not Shakespeare and absolutely unwilling to have a beer with any Oxfordian unless said Oxfordian promises not to discuss religion, politics, or Shake-Speare’s Sonnets.

If Oxford wrote the sonnets the point of the marriage sonnets — Oxford who had himself boarded the Burghley train through his marriage wanted Southampton to do the same. That said, we still don’t know why Oxford identified so strongly with the young earl of his daughter’s generation: “My glass shall not persuade me I am old, so long as youth and thou are of one date.” That’s strong stuff. Whoever wrote it, Shakspere or Oxford, we don’t know why he felt that way about the controversial earl.

In 1609, the sonnets came out in a little book. As usual, no author participated in the publication. The date and the dedication are important to Oxfordians. The publisher wrote his own dedication telling a mysterious Mr. W. H. that he (the publisher) hoped this Mr. W. H. would be granted the “eternity” promised by “our ever-living poet” — Shakspere according to the mainstream and Oxford according to the rebels. 

Whoever wrote the sonnets repeatedly claims the poems will give the lovely boy eternal life because they are just so damn good that even brass and stone will turn to dust while the sonnets will be good as new forever and forever. Southampton’s name was Henry Wriothesley so it could be him with initials transposed, but his earldom was restored in 1603 after he avoided being executed for treason so the appellation “Mr.” was not appropriate in 1609. 

Ben Jonson was also called “The Immortal Jonson” after he died and 1 Henry VI has a line in it extolling Henry V as “that ever-living man of memory” so “our ever-living poet” is a perfectly good Elizabethan eulogy especially apropos for Shakespeare.

For some Oxfordians, the “our ever-living poet” reference in 1609 makes it incomprehensible that the mainstream would claim absolute certainty about Shakspere’s (d. 1616) authorship. Most mainstream commentators wisely omit it from their discussion. When they do mention it, they say it could mean anything (a technically correct statement) and leave it at that. 

If you believe Oxford wrote the plays, they suddenly look completely different. In the Oxfordian framework, it is assumed that Oxford wrote all the plays between about 1580 and 1600 and it is assumed he was unhappy about having to conceal his name and also unhappy that there was a real person named, more or less, William Shakespeare who might get credit for his, Oxford’s, work. A scene in As You Like It that is otherwise pointless and that otherwise seems out of place in the pastoral love comedy devoted to all things Rosalind and that some critics note could easily have been left out of the play is suddenly loaded with real-life pathos. 

In Act V, Scene I, a character called Touchstone is ready to draw blood. Touchstone is one of those characters who act as a classical Greek chorus telling us what must be told. Touchstone is clearly, according to none other than Bloom himself, a stand-in for the author. That is, he speaks to us with the author’s voice.

Touchstone wants to marry Audrey, a nondescript character who doesn’t seem to understand much and who asks naive questions. It isn’t clear who or what Audrey stands for but your guess is as good as anyone’s. Anyway, to marry Audrey, Touchstone must first drive away an idiot who has nothing to do with her but who wants her anyway. Audrey tells Touchstone that this idiot who wants her “has no interest in me in the World.” 

We will jump part way into Act V, Scene I, where by this time Touchstone has worked himself into a rage. He is speaking to the idiot character. Nothing Touchstone says has anything to do with the rest of the play and it is not clear what he is getting at. 

Touchstone mentions “writers” but there are no “writers” in the play. He says “to have is to have” which also means nothing. He launches into a fine point of “rhetoric” in which a liquid is poured from cup to glass. We don’t know what he is getting at but it may be a reference to Plato where there is a discussion of wisdom: in the Platonic discussion, the ease of pouring a liquid from a cup into a glass is contrasted with the difficulty of one person’s wisdom being tranferred to another. Finally Touchstone offers a meanspirited lesson in Latin which, again, makes little or no sense in the context of the play. No wonder critics regard the scene as disposable 

If you are an Oxfordian, it may be your favorite scene in all of Shakespeare. If, for other reasons, you think Oxford wrote the play, Act V, Scene I, makes perfect sense.  

TOUCHSTONE [angrily]: Then learn this of me: to have is to have [Itlalian: avere è avere]; for it is a figure in rhetoric that drink, being poured out of a cup into a glass by filling one doth empty the other; for all your writers do consent that ipse [Latin: he himself] is he: now, you are not ipse for I am he.

WILLIAM [stupidly]: Which he, sir?

TOUCHSTONE: He, sir, that must marry this woman. Therefore you, clown, abandon, which is in the vulgar leave, the society, which in the boorish is company, of the female, which in the common is woman; which together is, abandon the society of this female, or, clown, thou perishest; or, to thy better understanding, diest, or, to wit I kill thee, make thee away, translate thy life into death, thy liberty into bondage: I will deal in poison with thee, or in bastinado [a club], or in steel; I will bandy with thee in faction [throw you down]; I will overrun thee with policy [talk you to death]; I will kill thee a hundred and fifty ways: therefore tremble and depart.

William departs. 

Even the parrot in Monty Python wasn’t dead in so may ways as “William” might have been. William is a decidely odd character by all acounts who has nothing to do with the play except serve as fodder for Touchstone who is murderously angry at William because you are not ipse for I am he

Oxfordians theorize that Edward de Vere chose the pseudonym “William Shakespeare” without considering that there might be a number of people with that name in and around London and that when a man actually named William Shakespeare arrived in London and became a shareholder in the acting company, Oxford and other Londoners thought the coincidence both amusing and — if Touchstone’s rage at William is to be interpreted as the anger of the true writer — maddening.

The scene cannot be used as evidence for Oxford because there’s much too much interpretation involved to make it valid even as circumstantial evidence. It’s nothing like “our ever-living poet” and Southampton’s betrothal to Oxford’s daughter or the top literary earl getting a huge stipend and being involved with Lyly and Munday and having the plays published by a member of his family. All of that is compelling-though-circumstantial evidence for Oxford.  

Act V, Scene I of As You Like It is better viewed as a reward you get once you have boarded the Oxfordian train. Suddenly, you know what Touchstone means when he utters those eight words to the stupid William: You are not ipse for I am he. 

Legal Reasoning

To stem the tide of Oxfordianism, the mainstream has something to offer beyond the name, the theater connection, and the First Folio preface. There exists a stone monument in the church where Shakspere is buried — it is referred to in the First Folio as “thy Stratford moniment” — and this monument is literally rock-solid evidence that Shakspere was the great writer.

But there are actually two Shakspere monuments in the Stratford church which dilutes the mainstream’s triumph somewhat. One is Shakspere’s gravestone itself which has some ridiculous doggerel on it which is so un-Shakespearean that Mark Twain takes this monument as proof that Shakspere wasn’t Shakespeare.

It’s the other monument the mainstream focuses on. Affixed to the wall of the church is a plaque with an inscription comparing Shakspere to  Socrates, Nestor, and Virgil. The Socrates-Nestor-Virgil monument clearly implies Shakspere-the-businessman was some kind of intellectual though it is too cryptic even for experts to translate. We simply don’t know what the person who composed the inscription was talking about.

Shakespeare was known as an Ovidian poet. So the Socrates-Nestor-Virgil connection doesn’t make sense unless the person writing the text for the monument knew nothing of Shakespeare’s works. Nevertheless, it is a “Stratford moniment” and it does say the businessman was wise, practical, and artful and that’s that.

Fom a legal standpoint, the Stratford monument is unimpeached evidence as long as you don’t regard the gravestone’s testimony as definitive or as impeaching the veracity of the plaque’s testimony. Still, stone is stone and Socrates was a smart guy so the mainstream has a real argument here, especially if you include the First Folio preface and take a legal perspective.

If Shakespeare Didn’t Write Shakespeare, You Die

You’re life is on the line. You can choose the mainstream story, but if they are wrong you die. The mainstream is brilliant, erudite, and even decorated. They profess 99.99% certainty or, anyway, sufficient certainty to prevent their own colleagues from publishing in the journals about Oxford as a possible Shakespeare.

If you don’t like the mainstream’s case, you may choose a 50-50 coin toss instead: heads you live; tails you die.

Now that the facts are laid out, let’s step back and have one last look at the theoretical frameworks created out of those facts by the mainstream and by the rebel Oxfordians. Then you can finally decide what’s better, 99.99% mainstream certainty or a coin toss. 

In 1623, the year of the First Folio, England was going through one of its periods of boiling catholic-protestant strife and the Shakespeare manuscripts —  strong pro-protestant propaganda — were in someone’s hands gathering dust. Oxfordians theorize that the renewed religion-focused power struggles may have motivated the publication of the First Folio. It’s a cliche to say the situation in England at the time was “fraught with peril” but it undoubtedly was. Oxfordians believe the political situation led to both the First Folio itself and the extraordinary efforts to conceal the dead author’s identity.

The mainstream says the First Folio preface especially together with the acting company affiliation makes a very good argument for Shakspere (and it does). They note also (correctly) that there is no direct evidence for Oxford. There is some ambiguous commentary from the period all of which, with some effort, can be interpreted to align with the First Folio claims. The mainstream ends the discussion there. They profess certainty, explain that everyone knows that “Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare,” and leave it at that. 

So, dear reader, assuming you don’t find the mainstream’s mindless tautologies convincing but are prepared to weigh the First Folio preface against the circumstantial evidence for Oxford, what say you? Would you rather stake your life on Shakspere or on a coin flip?

Before you decide, there are a few more things you should know.

Have you ever sold anything or bought anything “for a song”? Whether or not you have actually done such a thing you probably know the saying though you might not know you are quoting Shakespeare. It’s a line in All’s Well That Ends Well: “I know a man . . . sold a goodly manor for song.”

Who would sell a goodly manor for a song? Well, how about an earl with 350 properties and no desire to hold them? The wildly generous Oxford actually did sign over an estate, apparently with no remuneration, to the great Elizabethan composer William Bryd.

And then there’s travel. It’s quite expensive. There’s a line in As You Like It where Rosalind says to Jaques (who is another author-chorus just like Touchstone in the same play), “I fear you have sold your own lands to see other men’s.”

When Oxford wasn’t giving his lands away he was indeed selling them — pretty much all of them — to fund his lavish life of travel and revel. He was almost as well known for this behavior as he was for his literary talents. 

And then there’s the scary swashbuckler named Peregrine Bertie who married Oxford’s strong-willed sister Mary against pretty much everyone’s wishes. The pair began began a scandalously tempestuous marriage complete with alcohol-fueled feuds and terrified family members writing horrified letters which survive. Oxford hated Bertie — at first. Of course, it didn’t take long for the two bad boys to become besties. 

When Bertie wasn’t making scenes or carousing with his literary brother-in-law he was off to Denmark as an abassador. On his return, his unpublished report to the Queen (the original document survives) made mention of a certain habit of firing canons during meals and also named certain Danish courtiers. If you already know two of the fine polysyllabic appellations appearing in Bertie’s penned report, I’ll give you a hint: think of the letters “R” and “G.”

So who wrote All’s Well That Ends Well and As You Like It and The Taming of the Shrew and Hamlet? Was it Shakspere of Stratford or the man who really did sell a goodly manor for a song?

I know what you’re thinking. You’d rather stake your life on Oxford than have to choose between Shakspere and the coin.

Sorry, scholars aren’t even allowed to publish articles in journals about the possibility that Oxford wrote the plays so, in solidarity with them, you don’t get an Oxford coin. It’s Shakspere — 99.99% likely according to almost anyone you ask — or the coin. I’ll let you bet your life on Oxford when the journals let credentialed experts publish their research. 

The Thiokol managers were smart people who decided that a playing Russian Roulette with five bullets in the gun was perfectly safe. The question you have to ask yourself is this: could it possibly be the case that hundreds of academics over a period of decades are really as mindless as the Thiokol nincompoops? 

I’ll tell you what I would do (feel free to disagree): I would go with the coin flip and hope for the best. 

I give Shakspere no better than a 1% chance of being the author even with the First Folio preface. I go back and forth between the “our ever-living poet” reference and the two illiterate daughters when I ask myself why I think the way I do. But when it comes down to it and I try to ignore those two bits of information and just focus on the First Folio as the mainstream does, I’m still an Oxfordian because I just don’t buy all those unpublished manuscripts sitting in the hands of the acting company for decades and then suddenly appearing in one grand volume. I don’t think there’s any precedent for it. The fact that Oxford’s family was involved puts an end to it for me. 

The Lawless Bloody Book of Forg’d Rebellion

I’m a physicist so I’m big on evidence. Shakespeare doesn’t seem like a close call to me. The Cheshire Cat/virtual particle magical businessman-artist who doesn’t own books or write letters and literally can’t write his own name, but supposedly does write his only first-person work in someone else’s voice falls flatter than flat at my feet.

It could be true, but am I really supposed to believe that the most erudite man in all of England, the creator of Rosalind, Beatrice, Portia, and Cordelia, didn’t see to it that his daughters learned to read? Not bloody likely.

For me, Lyly’s connection to Shakespeare, Munday’s connection to Shakespeare, 1000 pounds a year for life, Southampton’s betrothal to Oxford’s daughter, an obvious eulogy delivered in 1609 by the man who held in his hands Shake-Speare’s Sonnets in manuscript, and a spendy literary earl whose romances come with family sword battles and who can’t spit without hitting Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and who really does sell a manor for a song and who really did sell his lands to see other men’s, and whose sister’s marriage was so crazy that horrified letters flew back and forth like so many bullets . . . it keeps adding up and ultimately seems like an avalanche.

Maybe I’m kidding myself and maybe you could pull connections to Shakespeare from anyone’s life. I’m biased. Oxford was just some narcissistic earl who liked writers. Maybe the Queen paid him 1000 pounds a year to keep quiet about their love affair.

But then the plays show up in 1623, the whole stack of them. With Oxford’s family behind it, I’m told that an acting company held the manuscripts for thirty years and then just gave them away? Acting companies don’t collect an author’s life’s work. The mainstream has offered no precedent any more than they’ve offered a precedent for an Elizabethan author signing his name five different ways (different spellings, yes, but not different handwriting, oh my God!).

Mark Twain just couldn’t abide the gravestone in the church in Stratford with doggerel that Shakspere supposedly wrote himself:
Good friend for Jesus’ sake forbear
To dig the dust enclosed here;
Blessed be he that spares these stones

And cursed be he that moves my bones.

This, Mark Twain reminds us, is Shakespeare:
The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like an insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

Of course there’s the Socrates-Virgil-Nestor monument too and of course if the First Folio and the monument are twin pillars of deception, it slipped by without any direct evidence against it. It’s success is one reason to disbelieve it. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

Is Oxford extraordinary evidence? You now know enough to decide for yourself and make up your own probabilities. How hard would it have been for Oxford’s family to falsify the preface and have the Socrates-Virgil-Nestor monument put up? Yes, it’s a conspiracy theory, but if an Elizabethan nobleman didn’t concoct five conspiracies before breakfast, he was behind the curve.

I haven’t forgotten that I’m just a lowly physicist as opposed to a Shakespeare expert or a professional historian and I know I don’t have the background to make strong claims. How about this for a claim: it’s ridiculous for mainstream scholars to stop their own colleagues from publishing their ideas in peer-reviewed journals.

Other lowly physicists believe the mainstream with the “wall” it is so proud of is out of its narrow little mind. One such is Roger Penrose. He’s kind of smart. Actually, he’s one of the most brilliant people who has ever lived. He just won a Nobel Prize. So how about a little grace for Stritmatter and company? I don’t expect anyone to listen to me. But Stritmatter has a Ph.D. in the field and yes, he deserved to get it. 

Michael Hart, another physicist, wrote a wonderful book of short histories of influential people called The 100. For the first edition of his book, Hart swallowed the traditional theory whole and used it to write about the great grain-dealing author. But then a friend asked Hart to look into it and like a good physicist, he quickly changed his mind when confronted with evidence. The second edition of The 100 corrects the error unless of course Hart was right the first time.

And the real experts — not mere physics Nobel Prize winners — are finally making waves in their professional pool.

Recently, Stritmatter and Lynne Kossitsky published a pretty clear proof that Shakespeare’s probable last play, The Tempest, was written in the early 1600’s, a fact which does a lot of damage to the conventional chronology and may even put an end to any possiblity that Shakspere wrote the plays.

It’s a lot better for the mainstream if Shakespeare is writing until at least 1610. Having things wrap up around 1600 leads to the necessity of considering the 1580’s as prime Shakespeare time and the mainstream really doesn’t want that.

You would think the mainstream wouldn’t mind including the 1580’s as productive time for Shakespeare since et tu Brute and “whole Hamlets of tragical speeches” and “King Leir” were the talk of the town during that decade. The problem for them is Shakspere was a teenager who had never been to London when 1580 rolled around. He was probably not in London at all until the early 1590’s.

So mainstreamers have to say the 1580’s Shakespeare wasn’t Shakespeare at all but that all the Shakespeare from the decade instead proves that Shakespeare copied work from others to write his plays including the outright plagiarizing of The Winter’s Tale from a novel written by a notorious plagiarist! So now the Cheshire Cat-virtual particle who holds down two full-time jobs and writes first-person heartfelt sonnets because he was commissioned but can’t seem to sign a legal document and doesn’t teach his children to read even though he’s the most erudite man in England, now he’s a plagiarist too. But he must be kept away from the 1580’s at all costs.

The mainstream is stuck with the plagiarist theory. If they accept the 1580’s Shakespeare, they would have to abandon their man: he just wasn’t old enough and he wasn’t present enough either. But now, with The Tempest likely written around 1600 rather than around 1610, they face the necessity of compressing Shakespeare’s productive period into ten years. They’re caught between a rock and hard place. Maybe they can wriggle out, but they’ve got a big problem.

A death knell is ringing and Stritmatter is under the bell.

Some mainstreamers are hearing the bell tolling for them and they are all but admitting the change. You see, Stritmatter and Kossitsky’s research was praised by Oxford University Press itself. The famous OUP has full institutional knowledge of the implications of Stritmatter’s and Kossitsky’s work for the once-forbidden authorship question. It was an OMG moment if there ever was one. The wall Shapiro is so proud of is crumbling. 

Mark Twain was sure what he called the mainstream’s “fetish” would persist for at least three centuries beyond 1909, but we may do better than that. I daresay it’s looking better and better as we proceed into the 2020’s. Honestly, as I write, not much is looking better for this decade, but at least there’s Oxford University Press which of course has no relation to Oxford as in the Earl of Oxford except maybe for geographic overlap.

Congratulations. Unlike virtually anyone you ask, you know something about Shakespeare. You even know enough to disagree with your humble servant who is writing this for you. Maybe the fact that no one said the First Folio preface was a big lie is crucial by your lights. It is a fair point not to be ignored. Feel free to disagree. This is scientific reasoning, not a debate. I don’t think the mainstream is even 50% likely to be correct, but I don’t claim to know either way. 

So what’s next? Well there are a few things to learn about to fill in the story. The biography of another well-documented Elizabethan, Ben Jonson, is illuminating. Jonson, of course, was actually a writer and we’ve got more than title pages, investments, and posthumous claims to prove it. The contrast with Shakspere, who left behind a similar number of documents, couldn’t be more stark. So I’ll share some of the details and some of the telling denials the mainstream offers about evidence for other Elizabethan writers that they discovered but that they now pretend doesn’t exist. 

It is also interesting to read some of the cryptic things people were saying about “Shakespeare.” There’s a good argument that a lot of people knew exactly what was going on. The mainstream interprets these comments to support their theory and you may find these interpretations convincing. Or not.

The signatures are worth a look along with signatures of actual writers. When it comes to the signatures, the mainstream arguments are funny. They just fall off their collective rocker. 

You’ve already seen the best mainstream sonnet theory, that they were commissioned. Other mainstream sonnet commentary is scary-crazy but worth looking at just so you can see how low they can go. Studying the sonnets without the mainstream nonsense takes you places: they appear to be connected to the Essex Rebellion (even some mainsreamers recognized this in the old days before they realized they had better shut up). So the sonnets open up a fascinating historical connection between Shakespeare and the nightmare (averted) that England faced as the Queen lay dying without a clear successor.

Finally, Shakespeare’s Italian travels so beautifully represented in the plays have to be denied by the mainstream and they REALLY fall on their faces when they do that. It’s embarrassing like someone’s bathing suit splitting wide open. It’s as bad as bad gets.

The closer one looks at the agreed-upon evidence and at desperate commentary by brilliant scholars, the more one absorbs the horror of Kuhnian irrationality. It is interesting in the sense of a horrific accident being interesting, but I can’t say I like it even though I’m studying it. It’s scary. The only comfort is this: the “Shakespearians” aren’t launching space shuttles.

UMass Amherst, where the lawless bloody book of forg’d rebellion was sealed.

A Kuhnian World

It’s a simple question really: How do you know a person was a writer as opposed to someone whose name (or a close approximation thereof) appeared on title pages? We know the man born “Benjamin Johnson” was also the author “Ben Jonson” because he wrote letters about writing, received letters about writing, gave inscribed books as gifts, went to jail for writing, was paid for writing, visited patrons who were supporting his writing, had an extensive library much of which survives to the present day, left behind dozens of pages of handwritten manuscripts, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. When Jonson died, he was called “the immortal Jonson,” eulogized in print, and buried in Westminster Abbey next to Beaumont, Spenser, and Chaucer.

Ben Jonson’s Library

In 1974, David McPherson — a heroic figure in the annals of famous private libraries — published the still-definitive “Ben Jonson’s Library.” Some interesting excerpts follow:

Although the books once owned and annotated by Ben Jonson are scattered all over Western Europe and America, his habit of inscribing his name and motto has enabled scholars to reconstruct his library. 

In 1614, Jonson’s library was called “well-furnisht” by the great scholar John Selden, who would not use the term lightly. Because only 206 extant books can be safely placed on the genuine list at present, it seems likely that many of his books were destroyed in the fire of 1623 which he immortalized in the poem “Execration Upon Vulcan.”

Jonson’s habit of selling his books explains why they are so widely scattered today.

He owned so many anthologies that it has been impractical to insert cross references to individual authors contained therein. It is safe to assume, however, that Jonson owned works of every single Greek and Latin Poet of any importance whatsoever.  

Personal libraries of about five hundred books seem to have been fairly common in the first half of the seventeenth century. 

So we know a lot about Jonson’s library and what see above is only the tip of the iceberg for a Jonson biographer who must do a great deal of work to even begin to assemble the literary evidence pertaining to Jonson. A Shakespeare biographer, by contrast, has no work to do at all.

If Shakspere was really the most famous writer in England, it is more than a little odd to find document after document concerning the business transactions of Shakspere of Stratford, whilst simultaneously finding nothing at all about writing activities, about the process of writing, or about living as a writer.

Commonplace evidence for Jonson . . .

When his “Poetaster” was published, he sent Camden a gift copy with the inscription: “Alumnus offin, acternum amicus” — “a pupil once, now a friend forever.” Another copy went to an equally important recipient in another way, his patron the Countess of Bedford. For this copy, Jonson had a special dedication printed and bound in with the text: “Go little book, go little fable unto the bright and amiable Lucy of Bedford; she that bounty appropriates still unto that County . . . But with a kiss (if thou canst dare it) of her white hand; or she can spare it.” — Rosalind Miles

. . . would give a Shakespeare biographer heart palpitations.

Even though Shakspere of Stratford was a teenager in 1580, his work was already appearing in London. By 1588 work from a mature play, The Winter’s Tale, appeared word for word in London along with virtually the entire plot. Biographers have to explain this somehow and the only way is to assume Shakespeare didn’t merely rework plots from classical stories but also stooped to outright plagiarism.

There’s no evidence of Shakespeare’s writing life, so biographers have to do a lot of assuming and the assumption of plagiarism (it is not limited to that one play although this is the worst example) is perhaps the most pernicious result of the furious work of fitting Shakspere’s life into Shakespeare’s works.

Frank Kermode, late of Cambridge University, editor of The Arden Shakespeare, analyzed the striking similarities between Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale and Greene’s Pandosto (1588). Kermode assures us, “the picture is inescapable of a Shakespeare [who was a plagiarist.]

Kermode theorizes that sometime after 1600, Shakespeare copied The Winter’s Tale, “sometimes almost verbatim,” from the notorious plagiarist Robert Greene. Kermode was forced to his conclusion by a premise he was unwilling to question.

Let us escape the tyranny of certainty. The giants in the field cannot accept the possibility of another author even when their own work points to it. But we can. I offer you here the belly of a sheep and a waiting ship. The occasional rock may splash off the gunwale; pay it no mind.

We will escape.

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Read on but do not trust me. Ivy League Professor James Shapiro provides an erudite-but-never-dull, must-read overview of the whole history of the authorship question from the point of view of the mindless mainstream. His book is well worth a look and is frequently quoted below.

A shameless First Folio-esque plug for “Contested Will” by James Shapiro

It is your privilege to read and censure. Do so. But buy it first. Indulge your six-pence-worth and your wisdom. But, whatever you do, buy.

Shapiro’s delicious takedown of Mark Twain, his spirited attack on Roger Stritmatter’s dissertation, and his stinging dismissal of Diana Price and “her followers” are not to be missed.

James Shapiro’s great work, a fortress of certainty built in the swamp of reality, is a monument to Thomas Kuhn, our ever-living philosopher.

Read it sooner rather than later.

We are the reasoning race, and when we find a vague file of chipmunk tracks stringing through the dust of Stratford village, we know by our reasoning powers that Hercules has been along there. I feel our fetish is safe for three centuries yet. — Samuel Clemens aka Mark Twain 1909

The Mythical Writer

Shakspere — that’s his family name, the name he was baptized with, the name of his seven siblings, the name of his three children, the name on his burial record, and the (first) name of his grandchild — couldn’t write his own name.

Five “signatures” are extant. One is a blotted scrawl on a court document — he testified in a domestic dispute case. Two appear on two copies of a real estate document for one of the biggest transactions of his life, but they don’t match one another and neither of them matches any of his other signatures. Shakspere’s final attempts to write his name are on his will. One signature is a childlike scrawl, the other has the first name written by a clerk who knew how to hold the pen and the last name written by someone not used to writing or perhaps someone used to writing but extremely ill.

We don’t have anything that qualifies as handwriting from Shakspere and we don’t have anything that qualifies as a legitimate signature either. Jane Cox of the London Public Records Office was quoted by no less than Samuel Schoenbaum. Here is Cox.

It is obvious at first glance that these signatures, with the exception of the last two, are not the signatures of the same man. Almost every letter is formed in a different way in each. Literate men of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries developed personalized signatures much as people do today and it is unthinkable that Shakespeare did not . . . Some [mainstream] scholars, perhaps more familiar with literature than with the calligraphy of the period have failed to recognize the problem . . . [heretics] on the the other hand, have argued that [Shakspere of Stratford] did not sign the documents himself because he was illiterate . . . the legal sanctity of the signature was not firmly established; the medieval tradition was that of an illiterate landowning class with scribes to do their writing and signing. 

To be clear here, Cox does not mean to take sides. She is clear on the obvious fact that Shakspere did not write all of the signatures and she understands that this can be interpreted as evidence of illiteracy. But she also points out signatures were just not that big a deal in those days (from a legal standpoint) because there was a tradition of people having documents signed for them. So Shakespeare could have been illiterate and unable to sign OR he could have been literate, but using proxies to sign for him as a matter of convenience. About the real estate signatures, Cox says, “Possibly Shakespeare was not even in London to sign the mortgage deed . . .”

Without books, letters, or manuscripts and without documented contacts with patrons, publishers, or fellow writers and without even a signature, mainstreamers grow desperate: they worship the title pages. Yes, really.

Title pages from the period do indeed overflow with printed “Shakespeares.” And these title pages constitute “overwhelming evidence” (Shapiro, page 225) that Shakespeare was not a pseudonym, that Shakspere could write his name, that Shakspere could write complete sentences, and that Shakspere was the most famous writer in England. Here’s Shapiro.

Most doubters also brush off the overwhelming evidence offered by the title pages of these dozens of publications by claiming that “Shakespeare” — or as some would have it, “Shake-speare” — was simply the pseudonym of another writer — that hypen a dead giveaway. 

Shapiro mocks the fact that some people see the hyphenated name as a bit strange and possibly indicating that the publishers knew Shakespeare was a pseudonym, but, as we’ll see below, the hyphen that often appears in the name on the title pages may indicate just that. 

WARNING: You are entering a place of imagination, a dimension of mind where logic and reason are bit part actors in a universe where Euclid never existed. It is a place we call the “Title Pages Zone.”


It is March 1616. The writer Francis Beaumont has died. He is buried in Westminster Abbey. March passes. April comes. William Shakspere dies in Stratford. The businessman’s illiterate wife and two illiterate daughters and their husbands hear the will. Shakspere’s eldest daughter (Susanna) and her husband are the executors. The great wheeler-dealer of Stratford has surpassed his wheeler-dealer father and has left his heirs all that they could wish for: boatloads of cash; five houses; zero books.

Even in the Title Pages Zone, professional writers didn’t own more houses than books. We have a bookless mansion. What is a Professor Shapiro to do?

The problem is the plays and poems come from a place of unparalleled learning and extraordinary understanding requiring access to books. Scholars (e.g., Shapiro himself) say so many books “echo through” Shakespeare’s works that even the Queen’s own library would not have been sufficient to satisfy the needs of the great author.

Another problem is that the money-man who supposedly read all those books was far richer than Ben Jonson, richer, in fact, than any ten Elizabethan writers put together. Jonson, as we have seen, owned hundreds of books.

Yet another problem is that Shakspere’s house stayed in his family for decades after his death. When someone showed up at the house many years later, he did find a book there and he bought it. It was the medical journal of Susanna Shakspere’s husband who was a (literate) doctor. That book is in a museum. Everything else, all of Shakspere’s books that he had to have owned to be the writer, are gone.

Shapiro notes that the inventory of possessions that sometimes accompanies Elizabethan wills has, sadly, been lost and that there are other Elizabethan writers who didn’t leave behind any books and whose wills didn’t mention books. Shapiro assures us that if the inventory is ever found, it will of course list Shakespeare’s books. Two points for the professor.

But Shakspere’s five signatures are still with us and there’s nothing Shapiro can say to fix it because the signatures are hard evidence of illiteracy. So, in keeping with the tenets of the First Failure, Shapiro simply doesn’t discuss the signatures because that’s not a question he wants to talk about.

But here they are along with actual signatures of Ben Jonson, Edmund Spenser, George Peele, and Christopher Marlowe.

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Blotted scrawl, court document.
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This signature on a real estate document was obviously written by a clerk.
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This signature on another document for the same real estate transaction was written by a different clerk. 

Below are the signatures of the other two people involved in the real estate deal above. Unlike in the case of Shakspere, the two other signatories obviously wrote their own names.

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A scrawl on Shakspere’s will. He may have written this one.
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This is the last thing Shakspere of Stratford did and he appears to have only done half of it. 
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The first half of the signature is beautiful. 
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One biographer says “his strength failed him” at this point in the signing process. That’s absurd. He simply had help as with all of the signatures except maybe the fourth. 
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Ben Jonson. All of Ben Jonson’s many extant signatures look exactly like this. 
Edmund Spenser had a flowing hand.
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George Peele wrote with straight clarity.
Christopher Marlowe’s wild and wooly but still pretty signature. 
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Thomas Nashe wrote this as an inscription, more like a work of art than a signature. But he was certainly literate. 
Shakspere may not have been literate. But his son-in-law certainly was. The one book known to have been in Shakspere’s house was found in 1642 by James Cooke. Cooke was pleased to acquire a handwritten manuscript from the hands of Susanna Shakspere Hall herself. Susanna wasn’t literate and could not recognize her late husband’s handwriting, but that didn’t matter. Cooke knew what he had found. Dr. Hall’s medical journal is now in the British Museum where it resides today alone in a room set aside for all the books found in the great author’s house, a room that echoes with austere and sad grandeur.

Scipio Who?

The signatures are hard evidence but they can be explained by hypothetical logistical necessities or they can simply be ignored.

The will, with its plethora of bookless detail — cash, real estate, a sword, a bowl, and a bed — might read the way it reads and detail what it details by happenstance: other book owners left bookless wills as Shapiro breathlessly emphasizes every chance he gets.

And the daughters’ illiteracy may be ascribed to any number of versions of fatherly neglect.

The lost library was, well, lost.

The letters are missing too, but still there’s no problem. Andrew Hadfield of the University of Sussex, writing for the collection of essays called Shakespeare Beyond Doubt, tells us that “Personal letters did not survive in an age when paper was scarce and expensive, and so was invariably re-used for a host of purposes.”

We humbly ask how many Elizabethan writers besides Jonson can be proven to have written letters: Nashe, Daniel, Spenser, Massinger, Peele, Harvey, Drayton, Chapman, Drummond, Marston, . . . STOP! I think that’s enough. We don’t want to hold things up too much.

The mainstream will object at this point that not every Elizabethan writer wrote letters that survived. That is true.

Scott McCrea at SUNY Purchase is a master at explaining everything and his discussion is worth quoting at length before we get to piece of evidence that is not, in fact, explainable. McCrea also uses the First Failure in his reasoning. He doesn’t ignore the question of the signatures; he seems to confront it but then notes that the signatures don’t offer absolute proof.

This classic First Failure move is the same one that doomed the space shuttle crew. Of course the question at this point is whether or not there is reason to consider authors other than Shakspere: of course it is possible Shakspere was the author, but that’s not what we’re asking.

McCrae wrote “The Case for Shakespeare: The End of the Authorship Question.”

Either he didn’t sign his name very often and thus his autograph never developed a consistent pattern, or he was a man so creative he never let it become static, or both. The autographs are curious, and it’s easy to see how one might question them. But they don’t prove the man who signed them wasn’t a writer. Their oddness might just as easily reveal their maker’s teeming imagination.

. . . other factors — like unsharpened quills, arthritis, ill health, or writer’s cramp — may have contributed to the imperfect state of his autograph . . . none of the extant signatures was penned before 1612; they may all post-date his writing career. 

If he were the only writer of the time with few biographical traces, then we would have cause to be suspicious . . . we know less about Marlowe, Kyd, Dekker, Heywood, Fletcher, or Webster — to name just a few. 

McCrea argues that since it is possible Shakspere could possibly have been literate, that means we can be certain he was the author. Then McCrea makes use of the Fourth Failure: outright nonsense. He says we know less about Marlowe and others. But this is false and he knows it is false.

Three weeks after Marlowe’s death, George Peele wrote a tribute to him praising his verse; Kyd wrote a letter noting his experience writing with Marlowe; a letter written by Dekker to Edward Alleyn survives as do numerous records of payments to Dekker for writing; Heywood’s manuscript of “The Escapes of Jupiter” survives; Fletcher and Webster were repeatedly paid for writing and the payments were documented.

Our betters remind us that the current absence of books, of letters, of manuscripts, of inscriptions, and of anything approaching the signature of a professional writer, is NOT, logically speaking, evidence of absence of these items then.

We bow to the mainstream’s experience, knowledge, and impeccable logic and concede this point. Maybe, somehow, Shakspere was Shakespeare. But there’s a little a problem. He wasn’t and John Davies of Hereford, a contemporary knew this and said so.

John Davies of Hereford was a teacher, specifically a writing master — he wrote The Writing Schoole-Master, a popular manual that saw its 16th edition in 1636. In 1611, he published a series of 292 epigrams about various timely topics and numerous real people, including Shakespeare whom he called “Shake-speare.” It was called The Scourge of Folly. Epigram 159 tells us all we need to know.

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EPI. 159. To our English Terence Mr. Will: Shake-speare.

SOME say good Will (which I, in sport, do sing)
Had’st thou not plaid some Kingly parts in sport,
Thou hadst been a companion for a King;
And, beene a King among the meaner sort.
Some others raile; but raile as they thinke fit,
Thou has no rayling, but, a raigning Wit;
And honesty thou sow’st, which they do reape;
So, to increase their Stocke which they do keepe.

EPI. 160. To his most constant, though most unknown friend; No-body.

You shall be sev’d; but not with numbers now;
You shall be serv’d with nought; that’s good for you.

EPI. 161. To my neere-deere wel-knowne friend; Some-body. 

You looke th as myself I you should use;
I will, or else myself I should abuse;
And yet with rimes I hut myselfe undoo,
Yet am I some-body with much adoo.

Davies also addresses Ben Jonson for example. He calls Jonson his friend and says that even though some people have criticized Jonson for being too envious of others, he, Davies, would be happy if Jonson envied him but he, Davies, figures he’s probably not good enough to elicit Jonson’s envy.

So he writes a nice clear poem to the unhyphenated Jonson and three impenetrable poems to Shake-speare, No-body, and Some-body all three names hyphenated and not because they were on two lines. None of the other of the hundreds of names in Davies’s book of epigrams was hyphenated. Maybe professor Shapiro should do a little more reading before he mocks the ideas of his fellow scholars.

The List of Davies’s Friends

Fifty-five of the 292 epigrams in The Scourge of Folly addressed by name or by initials individuals that Davies either knew or knew of. The addressees were earls, knights, fellow writers, friends, students, and the author’s wife.

Thirty-six salutations included one of the following words: “friend,” “deere,” “beloved,” “loving,” “wife,” and “pupill.” These thirty-six people were named by Davies as follows: Alexander, Ashfield, Boughton, Brooke, Butler, Cheyny, Daniell, Mistress M.D. (Davies’s wife), Gough, Gwin, Mr. H.H., Hackwell, Holcroft, Johnson, Jones, Locky, Lucy, Marbery, Maynwarring, Murray, Murray (brother of the first Murray), Norton, Panton, Parrham, Poynes, Sanderson, Seager, Sharpe, Sherley, Simonds, Smith, Speed, Towne, Tracy, Twiddy, and Welsh.

Davies also addressed nineteen epigrams without including anything personal in the salutation. Nineteen people were named as follows: Bond, Carre, Chapperline, Coningesby, Constable, Dun, Fletcher, Hayes, Hall, Harrington, Herbert, Marston, Marten, Mountgomerie, Northumberland, Ormond, Percy, S.I.H., and Smith.

The hyphens are interesting certainly but nothing compared to the dead giveaway of “our English Terence.” Terence, as you know, was a Roman playwright who acted as a front-man for Roman aristocrats. We don’t know if that’s true but it’s what the Elizabethans believed. But the mainstream is absolutely certain that Davies did not mean to call Shake-speare “our English front-man” because he can’t have meant that because if he did then Shakspere didn’t write Shakespeare and we know he did so therefore . . .

First of all, we can’t ask Davies what he meant so this doesn’t count as absolute proof that Shakspere was an illiterate businessman. Second, we already know Shakspere wrote Shakespeare and therefore we know Davies didn’t mean to refer to Terence’s status as the most famous writer in history to have been a front-man for an artistocrat. Third, and lastly, anyone who thinks the Davies reference indicates a front-man is an idiot. Fourth, and really that’s all, we can just ignore the whole Scipio thing.

Various members of the mainstream collectively practice all four of the Four Failures when it comes to Scipio: they insist that the question is, “Is there absolute proof?” or they use circular reasoning to interpret Davies or they spew invective or, when all else fails, they keep quiet about Scipio.

We don’t have certainty about “Our English Terence Mr. Will: Shake-speare.” If you must have certainty, you can always gouge your own eyes out, but this is not recommended. Let us look, with open eyes, at actual evidence.


Roger Ascham was an Elizabethan scholar who wrote about Terence. Ascham was one of Queen Elizabeth’s tutors. Ascham’s book, The Scholemaster, was published in three editions in 1570, 1579, and 1589. Here’s Ascham.

It is well known by good record of learning, and that by Cicero’s own witness, that some Comedies bearing Terence’s name were written by wise Scipio and worthy Laelius.

Montaigne’s Essays, published in French in the 1580’s and translated in 1603 into English by John Florio tells the same story. Here’s Montaigne.

For, to prove this labor [the Comedies with the Terence byline] to be theirs, the exquisite eloquence and excellent invention thereof doth sufficiently declare it: and Terence himself doth avouch it.

Montaigne went on with a detailed explanation of what he thought was going on in the Terence-as-front-man history: Scipio and Laelius were “great personages,” Montaigne tells us (in French) for whom “the perfection of well-speaking” would not bring them appropriate “glory.” Thus, they “resigned the honor of their Comedies” to Terence. Simply put, it wasn’t cool for aristocrats to stoop to comedy and so they needed a front-man. That front-man was Terence.

Of course, Shapiro’s book and McCrea’s book are Scipio-free zones even though they are both well aware of this issue and this trick of ignoring important facts goes under the heading of the Fourth Failure: outright nonsense.

Who is Scipio? No one. Scipio is a refreshing drink of which one partakes after one attends the theater.

The Upstart Crow

It is not altogether surprising to find that Shakspere appears not to have written the plays and poems. He was a shareholder in London’s leading acting company, part-owner of the Globe Theater, part-owner of the Blackfriars Theater, and a major Stratford real-estate and agricultural investor with over 100 acres, multiple buildings, and an interest in corn, grain, hay, and wool as well as a seller of malt and grain.

Ernst Honigmann, late of the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, discussed Shakspere’s business activities in detail in William Shakespeare: Businessman: “If one lists all of these various activities in chronological order . . . one wonders how the dramatist found time to go on writing plays.

Honigmann was certain the businessman had somehow written the works in his spare time but must ignore his own analysis because it doesn’t match a premise. Still, like “virtual particle” Bloom and “Cheshire Cat” Honan, Hongimann gets points for honesty.

Shakspere appears to have been a theater magnate who in fact did not have the time to write plays. Instead, he purchased the works of others and sometimes took credit for them. And Davies wasn’t the only one who knew about this.  

Robert Greene wrote a deathbed story about an impoverished writer called “Roberto” who meets a rich “gentleman.” The gentleman is a “player” (i.e., an actor). The gentleman player owns clothes worth 200 pounds, spouts doggerel, and offers to buy Roberto’s work. Greene warns his writer friends about this dangerous man whom he calls “Shake-scene.”

Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit may be the first personal reference to Shakespeare. If it is, Greene is telling us about an idiot who pretends he is a writer.

Robert Greene’s Dying Words

Greene famously called the theater owner an “upstart Crow” who was “in his own conceit the only Shake-scene in a country.” He’s also a “Usurer” and an “Ape” who can do nothing but “speak from our mouths.”

Greene’s friends (usually identified as Peele, Marlowe, and Nashe) should “seek better Masters.” They must not allow their “admired inventions” to fall into the hands of this Ape who by rights should be left with nothing but the ability to “imitate your past excellence.”

“Base-minded men all three of you, if by my misery you be not warned.”

Greene’s moneyed monster had a “Tiger’s heart wrapped in a Player’s hide.” Shakespeare’s remorseless Queen Margaret had a “Tiger’s heart wrapped in a woman’s hide.”

Ben Jonson knew also. He wrote an epigram called “On Poet-Ape.” Poet-Ape is an egregious phony who, Jonson says, “would be thought our chief.” This man, who is impersonating whoever Ben Jonson regards as “our chief” is “so bold a thief” that he “makes each man’s wit his own.”

Jonson describes the play broker in some detail: “Having grown to a little wealth and credit in the scene,” this hack can now commit his “crimes” with impunity. Jonson points out that no one has been fooled except maybe the criminal himself if he thinks anyone living actually believes his nonsense. Presciently, Jonson worries that posterity might indeed be fooled. And, although it might be a bit obvious, Jonson writes his attack on this phony in the form of the Shakespearian sonnet (abab-cdcd-efef-gg rhyme scheme).

Here is Jonson’s tell-all Shakespearian sonnet. Here is an interpretation by a non-mainstream scholar. Note: Frippery is from the French freperie, discarded clothing.

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Finally, London students knew what was going on as well. They wrote and performed a trilogy known as the Parnassus plays in which Shakspere-the-phony is spoofed yet again. In one scene, an actor (Kempe), portrayed by a student, gives the audience a rip-roaring speech in which he explains idiotically how his “fellow Shakespeare” is a wonderful writer. This writer better than “that writer Ovid” and better even than “that writer Metamorphosis.” Ha-ha.

The audience knows perfectly well that Metamorphosis is not a writer at all and that the real Shakespeare is a writer famous as an Ovidian poet.

A Deep and Abiding Whiff of Ovid

Kempe: “Few of the university pen plays well, they smell too much of that writer Ovid, and that writer Metamorphosis, and talk too much of Proserpina and Jupiter. Why, here’s our fellow Shakespeare puts them all down, aye and Ben Jonson too. O that Ben Jonson is a pestilent fellow, he brought up Horace giving the poets a pill, but our fellow Shakespeare hath given him a purge that made him bewray his credit.”

Kempe is portrayed here as a moron who has no idea who the actual writer is.

Calvin and Hobbes ROFL
Elizabethan audiences appreciated the classical roots of Shakespeare’s work. Meanwhile, actors were commonly regarded as lower forms of life.

Scholarly Schizophrenia

Schoenbaum understood the problem: “Perhaps we should despair of ever bridging the vertiginous expanse between the sublimity of the subject and the mundane inconsequence of the documentary record.”

Modern scholars such as Shapiro, David Kathman (a linguistics Ph.D.), and McCrae follow in the footsteps of Schoenbaum, Bloom, and Honan and practically kill themselves to keep Oxford as far from the plays as possible. And it is sad.

Scholarly Schizophrenia

Kathman and McCrea pretend they’ve never heard of Scipio.

Terence was an ancient Roman playwright who came from humble origins, just like Shakespeare. Kathman.

Although this epigram is cryptic, two things are certain: Davies thinks Shakespeare is a poet and a player and thinks he’s still alive. McCrea.


Greene’s warning about a gentleman player who spouts doggerel and will steal your work must be re-interpreted.

[Shakespeare] doesn’t need Greene, in other words, because he can do the writing himself. McCrea in a WTF moment.

A lot is packed into the attack, a good deal more than we can understand four hundred years later. But we are left with the impression of a veteran writer shrewdly taking the measure of an upstart he doesn’t much like. Shapiro whistling in the dark.


Jonson’s Poet-Ape sonnet quite clearly speaks of a total phony who can’t write his way out of a paper bag. Again, we must re-interpret.

This mocking sonnet’s subject is being accused of plagiarizing from Jonson and from other writers, not of concealing someone else. Many scholars think that Jonson’s Poet-Ape is Shakespeare, who indeed stole lines and ideas from Marlowe and from old plays like “The Famous Victories of Henry V.” McCrea.


Kathman and McCrea manage to read the Parnassus plays without getting the joke.

This passage establishes that the playwright Shakespeare was a fellow actor of Kempe. Kathman.

Kempe is made to seem ignorant here, like his stage characters, which is why he thinks “Metamorphosis” is a poet instead of a poem. Since the Author’s plays are also redolent of Ovid and speak of Porserpina and Jupiter, the joke may be that Kempe doesn’t realize his “fellow” writes like the scholarly graduates. But Shakespeare and Jonson are clearly contrasted with the university men. McCrea

Monty Python goes all the way back to Shakespearian times. In this scene the idiot who actually works with Shakspere would be saying, “E’s a better writer than Metamorphosis init e, I erd it from a litl bird.”

A Euclidean Debacle

Another problem for the businessman-who-was-obviously-not-a-writer is that he never met the Earl of Southampton, the beloved dedicatee of Shakespeare’s two epic poems. The first 126 sonnets address the young nobleman.

The subject of the sonnets was first identified as Southampton in 1817 by Nathan Drake. Even modern scholars, despite their terror of the authorship question, will admit Southampton is the most likely candidate for the “lovely boy” of the sonnets.

“The love I dedicate to your Lordship is without end . . .” (Lucrece, dedication);
“From fairest creatures we desire increase,
That thereby beauty’s Rose might never die” (Sonnet 1);
“Make thee another self for love of me” (Sonnet 10);
“thou art all the better part of me” (Sonnet 39);
“Your name from hence immortal life shall have” (Sonnet 81);
“O thou my lovely boy . . .” (Sonnet 126).

Centuries of searching turn up no link between the businessman from Stratford and the earl. Meanwhile, the link between Southampton and Oxford is immediate and convincing: the young earl was supposed to make a politically consequential choice of Oxford’s daughter (Burghley’s grand-daughter) as a bride and the sonnets began with repeated imprecations on the imporance of marrying of making babies.

But Shapiro “proves” that the businessman knew Southampton by ignoring everything he (Shapiro) has ever learned.

Shapiro’s Words of Kuhnian Beauty

Price and her followers define authorship in such a way that Shakespeare is always narrowly excluded, if need be on semantic grounds. According to [them], there’s no evidence of Shakespeare having had a “direct relationship” with a patron, though he wore the livery of the Lord Chamberlain, served King James both as a King’s Man and as a Groom of the Chamber, and directly addressed a patron, the Earl of Southampton, in the letters prefacing both [epic poems] “Venus and Adonis” and “The Rape of Lucrece.” 

Shapiro says the actor Shakspere wore livery and was a Groomsman (TRUE) and “directly addressed a patron” (FALSE). In fact, the author,  whoever he was, addressed a patron. For this Columbia University Professor, the conclusion (actor = author) supports the conclusion (actor = author).

Two thousand years ago, Euclid built what is still the outstanding example of a complete deductive structure and changed the world forever, not with his geometry but with his reasoning process. Euclid of course says no to circular reasoning, something Shapiro should have learned in tenth grade. This is a perfect example of the Second Failure: twisted logic.

If professors abandon Euclid, the ivy will wither and die.

Conspiracy Theory

Maybe the mainstream’s strained interpretations of “our English Terence,” the “Poor Poet-Ape,” the “gentleman player,” the “upstart Crow,” and “that writer” who doesn’t “smell too much of Ovid” are right; they would have to be if we are to accept Shakspere as a great author.

Do we re-interpret the documentary record so that it fits the prefatory material in the First Folio? Or do we accept the documentary record for what it appears to be and regard the prefatory material in the First Folio and the monument in Stratford phony or as a joke?

Technically, Oxford = Shakespeare is a conspiracy theory: his family conspired to publish the plays and keep his name out of it. Conspiracy theories are justifiably looked down upon because you can use the idea of a conspiracy as a tool to support any idea no matter how outlandish.

But there are two important points here. Keeping the actual spiller of the beans who wrote the plays full of Elizabethan dirt unknown to the general public is not exactly a crazy conspiracy; there are plenty of good reasons to do something like that. Front-men for example were quite common for us during McCarthyism and Elizabethan Jacobean politics were every bit a fraught with peril as our own McCarthyism.

The second point is that conspiracies were the norm in Elizabethan and Jacobean life as the nobility jockeyed for power. Poisonings and other methods of murder were quite common: Marlowe was apparently murdered for political reasons, for example. And there was a very real Elizabethan conspiracy relevant to the present discussion called the Essex Rebellion.

The Essex Rebellion was aimed at the crown itself and the Earl of Southampton was neck-deep in it.

The Earl of Southampton

Note: We do not wish to impose too much upon the reader’s credulity, but we shall assume in what follows that the dedicatee of Shakespeare’s epic poetry was indeed also the “lovely boy” of the sonnets since this is fairly obvious and not terribly controversial.

Outrageous Fortune

In 1601, the Earl of Southampton, the Earl of Essex, and four extraordinarily unfortunate knights were arrested and charged with high treason. Southampton, Essex, and the four commoners were swiftly convicted on all charges and sentenced to gruesome deaths. At the same time, scattered sympathizers among the nobility got away with fines.

Queen Elizabeth had been ailing and the succession was in doubt: no one except Lord Burghley and perhaps Elizabeth herself knew who would be the next monarch. Essex and Southampton evidently had ideas of their own. They planned an assault on the palace. They didn’t get far.

The first Lord Burghley, William Cecil, had created a vast network of spies still in operation in 1601. Burghley’s son, Robert Cecil, having taken over from his father as the right-hand man of the monarch, easily outwitted the Southampton-Essex amateur hour. The two earls and their knighted friends got dates with the axeman, the hangman, a knife, and four horses — not a fun date.

In mulling the fate of the popular Earl of Essex (who had once been “master of the horse” giving him daily close contact with the Queen just as the Earl of Leicester had enjoyed years before), the ailing Queen, the last of the Tudor Rose monarchs, Cynthia the Moon Goddess herself, chose mercy. Elizabeth could not bear to see Essex hung by the neck, his intestines torn out, his arms and legs ripped from his body thence to be beheaded. He had, after all, been one of her favorites in better days.

One. Two. Three. And it was over. Three strokes of the axe severed Essex’s fool head from his body. He died (mostly) painlessly. The four knights, unfortunately, hadn’t had a close relationship with the Queen but only two of them were actually tortured to death while the other too died like Essex.

With his five friends worm food, Southampton languished in the Tower perhaps contemplating the “long life still lengthened with all happiness” wished for him by Shakespeare himself in his epic poem. The great writer’s wish was looking more and more forlorn. With luck and with mercy and by the grace of God, Southampton could hope that once it began it would be over quickly.

But then something happened that no one understands. The Moon Goddess chose a totally different kind of mercy for Southampton. The clouds parted to reveal a ray of light shining cutting through a young fool’s darkness.

Guilty of a crime worse than murder, having threatened the God-sanctioned Crown, the young nobleman would live on, and not just in Shakespeare’s poetry. Southampton’s sentence was set aside. He would remain in the Tower indefinitely.

No one knows why Southampton was not torn limb from limb or at least divested of his head. But he lived on in the Tower while the Queen slowly died of old age.

Two years passed. Finally, the Queen died. King James of Scotland packed his bags. He would succeed Elizabeth just as Burghley and his son had planned for years. Yes, it was a conspiracy.

And then it happened. King James ordered Southampton released. 

By the grace of no-one-knows-what, the Earl stepped into the sunshine with his intestines comfortably curled in his body and his head firmly attached to his shoulders. But that’s not all. His Earldom was restored along with all of his privileges and all of his lands. And even that’s not the end of it.

Southampton accepted two promotions that summer. The new King made him Captain of the Isle of Wights and a Knight of the Garter, this last a singular honor throughout history up to and including the present day. Short of actually becoming royalty, gaining entrance into the Royal Order of the Garter is about as high as you can rise in the nobility in England.

So now the convicted traitor who spent his entire life battling the great Lord Burghley and who tried to keep Burghley’s choice, James, from the throne, was granted by this same King James admission to the most exclusive club in all England. And no one knows why, but Shakespeare seemed to know.

Shakespeare, we know by now, was an insider. He wrote of these events in Southampton’s life in two sonnets, not published until a few more years had passed but indicating the same intimate knowledge with the royal court the Shakespeare had exhibited throughout his career.

Sonnet 106 tells of “fairest wights” and “lovely knights” apparently speaking of the stunning promotions that would come after Southampton’s release. But the author cannot “sing” of Southampton’s “worth” and he lacks the “tongue” to praise the still-imprisoned earl. In other words, he can’t tell us why things are going to go so well for Southampton.

In the ebullient Sonnet 107, the mortal moon (Elizabeth was always the moon in Elizabethan poetry) has endured her inevitable eclipse. The Queen was dead. The country, having feared civil war, was universally relieved as “peace proclaimed Olives of endlesse age.” Southampton’s life, no longer “forfeit to a confin’d doome,” glowed anew as the idiot earl stepped into the sunshine for the first time in more than two years.

In Sonnet’s 106 especially Shakespeare’s insider’s voice is, in my view, not just apparent but glaring. The sonnets can be interpreted in other ways of course (we don’t technically know what the author means when he speaks of “prefiguring” and “divining” and “wights” and “knights” and “prophecies” and “praises” and not having “skill enough your worth to sing” but Sonnet 106 is at least interesting. This is as close as history gets to explaining why a convicted traitor was first spared, then released, then restored to his earldom, and then honored beyond all other honors.

Sonnet 107 is much clearer: the Queen is dead, you are being released, peace reigns, and your memory will live forever in this beautiful sonnet.

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Twenty years after Southampton’s stunning deliverance, the First Folio compiled all thirty-six Shakespeare plays in one magnificent volume. But something was missing — namely, all things Southampton. Half of Shakespeare’s plays were rescued from oblivion, but the two epic poems and the 154 sonnets were left to fend for themselves — they would survive Time’s scythe, or not.

The epic poems, overtly dedicated to Southampton, had been published in several editions each and were still popular; they were relatively safe from Shakespeare’s dreaded scythe. The sonnets, however, had seen just a single edition. They were not safe at all.

In 1609, Thomas Thorpe got his hands on the sonnets and made a little book out of them. Thorpe wrote his own dedication calling the dead author (Oxford, obviously) “our ever-living poet.” The great author’s most personal writings, his “sugared sonnets,” previously circulated only amongst his “private friends,” were now public. But the sonnets, unlike the epic poems, didn’t get reprinted.

By this time, Shakespeare was already the dominant figure in English literary history with tens of thousands of copies of his plays blanketing London. Either no one wanted to read the only first-person writing of the most famous writer in history or Thorpe’s little book was suppressed.

The first 126 sonnets, written to Shakespeare’s “lovely boy,” were an everlasting “monument” to him — such virtue hath my pen. There followed a particularly intense series of twenty-six missives addressed to a “mistress” whose eyes are raven black. In my favorite of these sonnets, Shakespeare dramatically warns her to be wise as thou art cruel.

Finally, two sonnets about a little Love-god lying once asleep as the author watches over the boy bring tears to the eye. The author’s anguish has a “cure” dependent upon his mistress’ eyes.

It’s hard to imagine anything more juicy than Shake-speare’s Sonnets.

Let us summarize: Shakespeare dedicated the first works published under his name to Southampton; Shakespeare wrote a series of heartfelt sonnets to the young earl; Southampton committed treason; Southampton’s comrades were butchered; Queen Elizabeth died; King James ascended the throne; Southampton was released into a shower of royal favors; Shakespeare’s sonnets and his epic poems were excluded from the First Folio; the Sonnets continued to languish in a single edition; the prefatory material in the First Folio pointed to a businessman named Shakspere and identified him as Shakespeare.

The Sonnets

Sonnet 87 contains the following line: “So thy great gift upon misprision growing, comes home again on better judgement making.”

Misprision is a legal term referring to a failure to carry out one’s duty; Shakespeare used it once in the sonnets and five times in his plays. Misprision of treason is a non-capital offense in which one does not report treasonous activity. Misprision would have saved Southampton’s life and, in fact, it probably did.

History doesn’t explain what happened to Southampton. Shakespeare did explain it. Shakespeare was obviously quite close to the most consequential politics in the realm. He was not a commoner.

In Sonnet 22 Shakespeare tells Southampton, “My glass shall not persuade me I am old, so long as youth and thou are of one date” showing, perhaps better than any other line the close identification of the author with his subject a generation younger than he and matching Oxford’s age but not Shakspere’s.

Professor Shapiro suggests we “steer clear of reading these remarkable poems as autobiography.” It’s hard to imagine a stupider suggestion. Does Shapiro, one of the top Shakespeare scholars in the world, not know that the sonnets are the only first-person writings of Shakespeare and some of the most personal poems ever written?

Rational Speculation

Shakespeare loved the Earl of Southampton to whom he dedicated his first two published works.

Shakespeare wrote 126 heartfelt sonnets to a boy whom he loved beyond measure: Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton.

Ten sonnets speak of the unkillable earl’s “worth.”

Southampton’s “worth” is “wide as the ocean is” (Sonnet 80).

Once upon a time — “thy own worth then not knowing” — Southampton himself was in the dark about this “worth” (Sonnet 87).

Southampton’s “worth” is a secret. We don’t have “skill enough your worth to sing” says the author. We bear witness to “these present days,” but we “lack toungs to praise” (Sonnet 106).

What was Southampton’s “worth”? Why did he think he could control the succession? Why wasn’t he executed along with Essex? What was his relationship to Oxford?

We can’t answer these questions, but saying these aren’t good questions seems like nonense to me.


Utter Nonsense

An astute businessman from Stratford in his late twenties dedicated two epic poems to a teenaged earl he had never met.

The businessman from Stratford addressed the “lovely boy” earl in 126 sonnets calling him “my love,” “my all-the-world,” “my Rose,” and “all the better part of me” and telling him how to live his life but they are just poems, not personal at all because if they are personal the businessman didn’t write them and we know the businessman wrote them because we believe the preface in the First Folio.

The businessman dared admonish him as a “tender churl” and a “self-willed” young man while waxing poetic about the boy’s mother whom he had never met: “thou art thy mother’s glass and she in thee calls back the lovely April of her prime” but the sonnets have nothing to do with Shakesepeare’s life; they’re just poems written by a businessman who was certainly Shakespeare.

The fact that the author was called “our ever-living poet” while the businessman still lived does not create even a whiff of doubt about the traditional authorship attribution. All facts can be ignored if they don’t fit the premise.

Houston, Houston, Do You Copy?

Today, almost 400 years after the First Folio buried the sonnets and elevated the shrewd businessman to what would eventually be worldwide fame, Lord Burghley’s heir, Michael William Cecil, the 18th Baron Burghley, is a signatory on the “Declaration of Reasonable Doubt.

The “Declaration of Reasonable Doubt” is a rational document that basically says to mainstream scholars, “Houston, we have a problem.” There is obviously a HUGE problem with the traditional story of Shakespeare and just about everyone who looks into the issue is convinced it is worth discussing (the only people who don’t want to talk about it are academics).

James Shapiro bucked the mainstream’s usual silence by writing Contested Will. For that, we thank him since his book makes clear the weakness of his argument. Shapiro’s book, needless to say, is a Scipio-free zone. No serious arguments in favor of Oxford are discussed. Shapiro, a brilliant man, stoops to pot shots and then travels to the theater for a play and a glass of Scipio who of course is not a Roman aristocrat who used Terence as a front-man.

Diana Price is NOT an ivy league professor. Her book, Shakespeare’s Unorthodox Biography, explains the rational viewpoint with extensive references to primary sources and mainstream scholarship. Her book, unlike Shapiro’s, actually discusses the issue. She does not purposely mischaracterize opposing arguments, use circular reasoning, or resort to insults. Her book is scholarship. Shapiro’s isn’t. Price is NOT ten thousand times smarter than the ivy league professor Shapiro. Price is rational and that makes all the difference.

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Lord Burghley’s descendant, Michael William Cecil, discussing Shakespeare’s apparent intimate knowledge of his ancestor.

P.S. For a fuller general discussion with details about the documentary records of Shakespeare and his contemporaries, click here. For the full story of Southampton, the sonnets, and the Essex Rebellion, click here.

P.P.S. I offer one last appeal to the 99.99 percenters.

Let us assume you are a mountain climber and that you have scrambled past the ten rocky possibilities below and have the Shakspere wrote Shakespeare peak in your sights.

It is possible the five different signatures were a result of Shakspere’s teeming imagination and that he was literate.
It is possible Shakspere wrote letters but they were all lost.
It is possible Shakspere had a magnificent library which was also lost.
It is possible Shakspere created Rosalind, Portia, Cordelia, and Beatrice even while not bothering about whether his daughters learned to read.
It is possible Davies did NOT mean Shakspere was a Terence/front-man.
It is possible Greene did NOT mean Shake-scene was a rich idiot who put his name on the works of real writers.
It is possible Jonson did NOT mean a phony Shakespeare was strutting around London.
It is possible the Cambridge students really meant Shakspere of Stratford was a great writer, better than “that writer Metamorphosis.”
It is possible calling Shakespeare “our ever-living poet” in 1609 was NOT meant as a eulogy.
It is possible a Stratford businessman wrote a ten-year series of private sonnets to the most controversial earl in England.

Shakspere must have written Shakespeare, so any sequence of possibilities upon which this depends, no matter how unlikely, must be true. You have almost reached the top of the mountain. Just one more rocky pitch to conquer and you’ll be there: you’ll be standing on top of a mountain of 99.99% certainty that Shakspere was Shakespeare.

But what if the man who was the most successful writer in history up to that point, the man whose influence during his lifetime reset every standard ever written, the man whose popularity with Queens, Kings, Princes, and commoners was beyond overwhelming to the point of being utterly dominant like Katie Ledecky swimming the 1500, the man who was a great among greats, the magical (and far from modest) William Shakespeare who repeatedly predicted his immortal works would outlast stone and brass monuments — what if he wrote in his private sonnets that he was going to be forgotten as if he never existed?

Don’t look down! Keep climbing.

This is a man already as famous as a writer as Chaucer. And this man predicts his name will mean NOTHING to history. But don’t worry. Stay focused.

He didn’t say it once: “Although in me each part will be forgotten.” He didn’t even say it twice: “Though I (once gone) to the all the world must die.” He said it three times: “The earth can yield me but a common grave.”

He said it in his most personal writing, the only thing we have from him in the first person, the sonnets, kept private for more than ten years and finally published and dedicated to “our ever-living poet.”

Again, one can interpret to one’s hearts content. Maybe the most famous writer since Chaucer, when he talks about being forgotten and dying to all the world and having a grave no one visits, wasn’t talking about writing under a pseudonym. Maybe he was just being humble.

Maybe. But if I thought my professional life depended on Shakesepeare NOT being a pseudonym, I would be VERY unhappy to read Sonnet 81. I’d be better off on top of Everest without oxygen. But that’s just me.

furuiue = survive

It’s a long way down when you’ve made assumption after assumption and declared absolute certainty.


P.P.P.S. It is hard to imagine a worse fate than being Professor Shapiro. I would not want to spend my days looking over a sheer drop with no bottom. Keep your eyes closed, James, and live as long as you like. But after you die, the truth may come out and you may be seen as willfully blind.

Truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it. — Max Planck, quoted by Thomas Kuhn in “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.”

Scary Question: Did Shakspere Write Shakespeare?

Before walking into the dark alley that is the Shakespeare authorship question, let us briefly explore another scary question: Why did some apes become bipedal millions of years ago?

Humans are class: mammals, order: primates. Like some other mammals, but unlike any other primate, we have a head-to-toe layer of subcutaneous fat. Like some other mammals, but unlike any other primate, we have fairly smooth skin. Under the right conditions, human infants routinely swim and dive before they learn to walk.


The swimming primate.

In the 1930’s, Alister Hardy theorized that our ancestors were coastal apes whose posture, skin, and fat allowed them to swim and forage in moderately deep water. It’s not such a shocking theory: all aquatic and semi-aquatic mammals that exist today evolved from land mammals. Hardy simply believed the physical differences between humans and other primates began with our ancestors’ steps down a well-worn evolutionary path.

After thirty years, Hardy finally spoke. His colleagues who supposedly understood evolution scoffed. More years passed. Elaine Morgan, shocked to learn Hardy’s idea was not being seriously discussed by professional anthropologists, wrote a series of books that were five parts evidence, three parts clarity of thought, one part scathing criticism. Professionals scoffed anew.

The authorship question has been subjected to exactly the same knee-jerk treatment as the aquatic theory. Some professionals resort to word games: “Of course Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare.” Mainstream scholars sometimes ask you to “look at the title pages” if you aren’t sure who wrote the plays. Here’s a good example of the official argument.

No matter of who doubts the official line, regardless of credentials, experience, Nobel Prizes, and so forth, the mainstream remains firm in its conviction that the question is not worth asking. There is great concern among the mainstream that discussing the authorship question will discredit Concordia University, the University of Massachusetts, Washington State University, Brunel University, York University, and other institutions where scholars insist on delving into this silly issue.

Of course, the mainstream may be quite right — not in its insistence that universities not question conventional wisdom, but simply because Shakspere may have actually been Shakespeare.

To begin, we note that “Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare” is catchy, but not accurate: William “Shakspere” was baptized with the same family name as his seven siblings, all Shakspere; William’s two marriage certificates to two different women on adjacent days spell the name “Shaxspere” and “Shagspere” (he married the woman who was pregnant). William’s three children were all baptized as Shakspere; William’s burial record reads Shakspere; finally, his grandson, born to his younger daughter the year he died, was baptized Shaksper (first name).

Right from the beginning, we see the mainstream absurdly overstating its case. It’s not a good sign and it is certainly not necessary: there is a perfectly reasonable case for Shakspere writing Shakespeare. It’s only the mainstream’s insistence that its case is 99.99% bulletproof that sends them off the rails.

Between 1593 and 1609, Shakspere of Stratford, a businessman, grain dealer, and real estate investor was spending time in London (a three-day ride from Stratford) where he made investments in the theater industry. There was a lot of money to be made in London theaters at the time, not by writers or actors particularly, but by people such as Edward Alleyn or William Shakspere who possessed the necessary capital and business acumen.

In London, Shakspere acquired a piece of the Globe theater and a piece of the Blackfriars theater. He was a shareholder in the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, later the King’s Men. His name, even in London, was still Shakspere: two signatures on a London real estate document use the “Shakspere” spelling or something close to it.

None of this stops Shakspere from being Shakespeare. In fact, in the text of the document he signed “Shakspere,” his name is spelled “Shakespeare.” Thus, the documentary record tells us of Shakspere of Stratford, real estate investor and Shakespeare of London, theater investor.

That it was all one money man making these investments is confirmed by Shakspere’s will which contains a cash bequest to three of his fellow members of the King’s Men. Shakspere/Shakespeare may also have graced the stage at some point though his acting career is not especially well-documented — we don’t know what parts he played, for example.


The Globe Theater today. Shakspere/Shakespeare was a part owner of the 1590’s theater which, like the modern version (designed to be similar to the original), could accomodate at least one thousand paying customers. The original owners may have crammed 3,000 people into the space.

Despite the mainstream’s evident insecurity about their case for Shakspere as a writer, they do have four good reasons for believing as they do: (1) he has more or less the right name; (2) he was involved with the theater as an investor; (3) seven years after he died, twelve Shakespeare plays published in reasonable versions in his lifetime and twenty-four plays that were either not published at all or published in disastrous editions were collected in a single volume — this publication included prefatory material identifying Shakspere not as merely as an investor but specifically as the great author too; (4) there is a monument at Shakspere’s gravesite in Stratford that spells his name “Shakspeare” and says he was a great and wise artistic genius — Nestor, Socrates, and Virgil rolled into one.

The mainstream therefore states as FACT that a literary genius named Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare. Doubters regard the mainstream’s case as reasonable but grotesquely overstated. Doubters say there is some posthumous evidence that seems to support the THEORY that an astute businessman named Shakspere may have written Shakespeare.

Doubters regard the posthumous evidence as a likely hoax and note that the hypothetical responsible parties, as powerful as they may have been, could not alter the documentary record of Shakspere’s life which indicates that he was a semi-literate businessman.

In rejecting the posthumous identification of Shakspere as Shakespeare, Mark Twain and others have focused on the following fact: from the time of the first Shakespeare publication in 1593 to Shakspere’s death in 1616, no one, no friend, no colleague, no patron, no publisher, no authority, no family member ever said or implied or suggested anything about having any connection whatsoever to the greatest writer in England. Simply stated, there was much ado about real estate but nothing about writing.

Even hard-core, we-know-Shakspere-wrote-Shakespeare biographers have noticed the extraordinary gap-void-chasm in the documentary record: they could hardly have missed it.

Shakespeare in Wonderland

Perhaps we should despair of ever bridging the vertiginous expanse between the sublimity of the subject and the mundane inconsequence of the documentary record. — Schoenbaum

There is an inverse ratio, a little beyond our analytical skills, between Shakespeare’s virtual colorlessness and his preternatural dramatic powers. — Bloom (Only a little beyond?)

[Shakespeare] seems to have flourished with a certain annihilation of the sense of himself. — Honan (Wow!)

If one lists all these various [documented] activities . . . one wonders how the dramatist found time to go on writing plays. — Honigmann

What did fellow townsmen make of the distinguished playwright of the Chamberlain’s company and admired poet of love’s languishment who sojourned each year in their midst? — Schoenbaum

See “The Schoenbaum Effect” below for Schoenbaum’s answer to his “townsmen” question.

Writers in London were writers to friends, family, publishers, patrons, and legal authorities. Ben Jonson is the perfect example. His work was popular and acclaimed on par with Shakespeare’s. Jonson’s writing activities were well known to the authorities of the time: he was questioned repeatedly and jailed twice for writing the wrong thing. The documentary record shows Jonson being paid explicitly for writing. While he lived, Jonson was referred to again and again as a writer by people close to him.

Shakespeare wasn’t. Pick a piece of Jonsonian evidence that a biographer would pore over. Pick any piece. Now look for something similar for Shakespeare. It isn’t there.

But someone wrote two epic poems, thirty-six plays, and a book of sonnets. In 1593 and 1594, the epic poems introduced the Shakespeare byline. In 1598, Love’s Labors Lost became the first Shakespeare play to be published with a byline. The sonnets were circulating privately by 1598 (no one knows who the early readers were) and were published as “SHAKE-SPEARES SONNETS” in 1609.

Shakespeare was a massive literary force in London. Between 1593 and 1609, Shakespeare plays and poems were printed in more than forty editions. It was a feat “staggering and unprecedented.” One thousand or more printed copies per edition meant tens of thousands of books blanketing a city with a population of two hundred thousand.

Is it really possible for a man to remain “virtually colorless” as fifty thousand copies of his books rain down upon Elizabethan London?

London was a place where writers loved to name-drop as in the following from John Selden: “I went to the well-furnisht Librarie of my beloved friend, that singular poet M. Ben: Jonson.” Selden had borrowed a book from his beloved friend — we even know what book he borrowed. The period overflows with personal literary references like this one, not only for Jonson, but for authors far less famous.

Someone in London was blowing the lid off of literature itself. Someone was simultaneously strangely elusive, like the Cheshire Cat. Meanwhile, Shakspere/Shakespeare was highly visible as a businessman and theater investor.

A literary shadow-creature and a wealthy theater man of similar name occupying the same space at the same time was bound to draw some interesting commentary as indeed it did. John Davies said enough to instill reasonable doubt in any reasonable person. Ben Jonson was there and knew all about the idiotic man who would be Shakespeare. A hilarious group of college students hammed it up and over the top. Robert Greene was burned and burned so that he would never forget it.

The Cheshire Cat and the Clever Capitalist

John Davies wrote verse “To our English Terence Mr. Will: Shake-speare.” Terence was a Roman writer who is described in Elizabethan texts as a man who took credit for the works of two Roman aristocrats, Scipio and Laelius.

Ben Jonson published an epigram describing a “Poet-Ape” who “would be thought our chief.” This man, said Jonson, was “so bold a thief” that he made “each man’s wit his own.” Jonson’s commentary was 14 lines long with three rhyming quatrains (abab) and a rhyming couplet (aa) — the form of a Shakespearean sonnet.

The Parnassus Plays put on by students made fun of a bumbling actor who didn’t like the “smell” of Ovid but who nevertheless thought his “fellow [actor] Shakespeare” was God’s gift to writing, moronically unaware that Shakespeare was an Ovidian poet. The man is portrayed as so outrageously stupid that he thought his “fellow Shakespeare” was a better writer than “that writer Metamorphoses.”

In one of the earliest references to Shakespeare, Robert Greene wrote of a big-mouthed “upstart Crow” who had been “beautified with our [literary] feathers” and who was so arrogant he thought he was the “only Shake-scene in a country.” He had a “tiger’s heart wrapped in a player’s hide” [alluding to a Shakespeare play]. This knave was an “Ape” and a “Usurer” and “rude” and was someone Greene warned his fellow writers to avoid at all costs.

The contemporary references may, as always, be interpreted according to a dizzying variety of preconceptions (fuller quotes appear below). Obviously, assuming Davies, Jonson, Parnassus, and Greene were on about a phony Shakespeare is easy enough. But, if you go down this road, you are stuck with a conspiracy perpetrated in 1623 to make that “phony” Shakespeare seem real.

This, in short, is the meat of the matter: mainstream observers trust the posthumous evidence and regard a deliberate deception as inherently unlikely. If there was a hoax, the mainstream says, then prove it. Otherwise, all you have is a “conspiracy theory” that isn’t worth discussing.

Doubters cannot prove anything. They say, simply, that the possibility of a deliberate deception should be considered. The documentary record from Shakspere’s lifetime makes him appear to be a semi-literate businessman. The contemporary references confirm this: Shakspere wasn’t Shakespeare until seven years after he died.

To form an opinion, you need knowledge — unexpurgated knowledge, knowledge that has not been carefully pruned so that it will take a preconceived shape.

Debating is a silly waste of time and energy — a useless game that only gets in the way of truth-seeking. A doubter of the official story such as the present author loses nothing by presenting mainstream arguments in their full force. After all, the mainstream might be correct in its basic assumption. There is much to gain by an honest accounting.

In what follows, the case for at least considering the issue to be worthy of discussion will be made in some detail based largely on the work of Diana Price. The mainstream point of view will be clearly represented throughout though stripped of prejudicial word play and goal-oriented fact-pruning. The mainstream’s “nuclear bomb” — the prefatory material in the First Folio — will get its own section.

Here is Shakspere/Shakespeare’s documented life in Stratford and London. All spellings are as in original documents. All events and transactions take place in or near Stratford unless otherwise indicated. Theater associations are in purple and are all in London. Documents clearly identifying Shakspere/Shakespeare as a writer are in orange.

1564: Born Shakspere.
1582: Marries as Shagspere.
1583: Daughter born Shakspere.
1585: Twin boy and girl born Shakspere.
1587: Court re: real estate.
1592: Loans money to Londoner John Clayton.
1595: Kempe, Shakespeare, and Burbage paid for performances.
1596: Son dies.
1596: Applies for coat of arms, London.
1596: Formal complaint in London that William Shakspare is dangerous.
1597: Cited for tax evasion, London.
1597: Purchases one of the biggest houses in Stratford.
1598: Tax evasion, London.
1598: Cited for grain-hoarding during a famine.
1598: Neighbors Sturley and Quiney exchange letters re: Shakspere, money.
1598: Sells stone.
1599: Coat of arms document, London.
1599: George Buck asks Shakespeare who wrote an obscure play. 
1599: Shakespeare, theater shareholder.
1599: Tax evasion, London
1600: Sues John Clayton, London, to recover debt.
1600: Tax evasion, London.
1601: Father dies.
1601: Shackspeare, theater shareholder.
1602: Real estate, 100 acres from John Combe.
1602: Real estate, buys cottage.
1602: Law student, diary, heard Shakespeare stole woman from Burbage.
1603: Shakespeare, acting company member.
1604: Shakespeare, “player” issued ceremonial cloth for procession. 
1604: Sells malt in commercial quantities to Philip Rogers.
1604: Loans money to Philip Rogers.
1604: Sues Philip Rogers to recover debt.
1605: Makes substantial agricultural investments.
1605: Augustine Phillips, actor, cash bequest to Shakespeare.
1608: Sues John Addenbroke to recover debt.
1608: Document indicates “Shakespre” owes money on agricultural investment.
1608: Shakespeare, theater shareholder.
1609: Continues legal action re: Addenbroke debt.
1610: Real estate transaction involving John Combe.
1611: Agricultural investments yielding good returns.
1611: Real estate document re: lease of barn.
1611: Real estate documents re: road improvement, default protection.
1612: Testifies re: third-party domestic dispute, London, illegible signature.
1613: Real estate purchase, theater, two legible but inconsistent signatures.  
1613: Shakspeare and Burbage paid for tournament accessory.
1614: Real estate documents re: pasture enclosures.
1615: Real estate document, theater, Shakespeare.
1615: John Combe, cash bequest to Shackspere.
1616: Will with three semi-legible consistent signatures, one assisted.
1616: Will with real estate, sword, silverware, bowl, bed, “household stuff.”
1616: Will, cash bequest to three actor “fellows” Heminges, Condell, Burbage.
1616: Jonson’s works published: Shakespeare on cast lists.

1616-23: Stratford monument identifies “Shakspeare” as a great genius.
1623: First Folio identifies Shakespeare as the man buried in Stratford. 

Following in the footsteps of Elaine Morgan, Diana Price examined the evidence and employed simple, careful reasoning. Her book, “Shakespeare’s Unorthodox Biography,” discusses a question she is not afraid to ask: Did Shakspere write Shakespeare?

Price’s scary answer: “Probably not.”


There was a writer who annihilated the sense of himself. There was a wealthy theater man. There was a thieving Poet-Ape. Two of these were the same person. Which two?

Diana Price and Her Followers

The simplicity of Price’s approach makes her difficult to ignore. Ben Jonson, like Shakespeare, was quite famous. His life, like Shakspere’s, was well documented. Thus, Price argues, the documentary record whose analysis fills years in the lives of Ben Jonson’s biographers is a useful measuring stick to hold up to Shakspere/Shakespeare.

To begin, we know the man born into the “Johnson” family and named Benjamin was the writer known as “Ben Jonson” not because the names are similar (!) but because when Ben Jonson died in 1637, he was buried in Westminster Abbey where he kept company with Geoffrey Chaucer (d. 1400), Edmund Spenser (d. 1599), and Francis Beaumont (d. 1616).

Jonson’s estate included a library with over one hundred books. It included letters received from friends and colleagues. Many of these letters discussed writing. Some of his friends owned gift copies of his books inscribed with his signature; they saved letters received from their friend discussing writing. As stated above, Jonson was sometimes paid and sometimes jailed for his writing. A 40-page handwritten manuscript survives along with more than a dozen poems in Jonson’s hand.

Like Shakspere/Shakespeare, Ben Jonson lived and died with his name spelled inconsistently. The memorial in Westminster Abbey has “Ben Johnson” with the ‘h’ carved in stone, for example. He was called “Johnson” frequently during his lifetime despite the fact that he had dropped the ‘h’ on purpose, preferring the more distinctive version of his name.

Johnson/Jonson creates no uncertainty. Nor is it necessary to say, “Jonson wrote Jonson because his name appears on the title pages.” Ben Jonson was known to his friends as the writer Ben Jonson, was buried in Westminster Abbey, and left behind a clear documentary record of his life as a writer.

As a result, a Ben Jonson biography is most illuminating. There is sometimes more information about Jonson’s literary activities in one paragraph of a Jonson biography than you find in hundreds of pages of a Shakespeare biography.

That is Price’s point.


Ben Jonson was buried in Westminster Abbey with Chaucer, Spenser, and Beaumont.

Obviously, not every Elizabethan author left a trail like Jonson’s. Most weren’t as well-known or as successful for one thing. We hardly know anything, for example, about the John Webster whose name appears on the printed title pages of The Duchess of Malfi.

Nevertheless, the name John Webster appears on published verse praising a fellow writer (Heywood) whom Webster describes as a “friend.” A third writer (Rowley) praised his “friend” John Webster for writing The Duchess of Malfi. A fourth person (Henslowe) recorded payments to “John Webster” specifically for writing. That’s not much, but it’s something.

The evidence for John Webster as a writer (NOT the title pages on the printed works) constitutes what Price calls a “personal literary paper trail.” It’s a simple idea: if someone or something can be reasonably placed within handshake-distance of the writer, that’s personal. If not, not. It is beyond bizarre that even Webster has a stronger personal literary paper trail than Shakespeare.

The mainstream decries Price’s insistence on personal evidence, claiming she splits hairs in order to make it look like Shakspere wasn’t a writer. Price directs the mainstream’s attention to the comments made by mainstream biographers who have run into the same brick wall that is the Shakspere/Shakespeare documentary record. She believes the writer did not actually annihilate the sense of himelf but rather simply used a pseudonym.

Mark Twain thought the mainstream’s interpretation of the nonexistent Shakespeare paper trail was laughable.

We are The Reasoning Race, and when we find a vague file of chipmunk-tracks stringing through the dust of Stratford village, we know by our reasoning powers that Hercules has been along there.  I feel that our fetish is safe for three centuries yet. — Mark Twain, 1909

Speaking of fetishes, some members of the mainstream no longer argue that the printed title pages themselves identify Shakspere as Shakespeare. We are pleased with this development from a logical and rhetorical perspective and also from the standpoint of propriety and modesty. However, we sincerely hope mainstreamers will nevertheless feel free to indulge their title-page fascination in private.

A Closer Look

Let us review the case for Shakspere writing Shakespeare.

We know William was in London in the 1590’s. It was most likely William who renewed his family’s application for a coat of arms. In a 1596 document created in London, William’s father is referred to as “John Shakespeare.” Through the 1590’s and beyond, William, whose name is now often spelled “Shakespeare” on legal documents, is a shareholder in London’s leading acting company. In his will, Shakspere of Stratford leaves cash to his “fellows” Heminge, Condell, and Burbage, three members of the acting company, “to buy them mourning rings.”

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A London clerk used the Shakespeare spelling for the family name.

We are one small step away from Shakespeare the author. If theater investing, theater acting, and theater writing were intertwined in Shakspere’s life to the point where the three vocations were effectively one, then we have all we need.

Shakspere the real estate investor goes to London and becomes Shakespeare the theater investor. Shakespeare is part of an acting company and appears on cast lists; thus, he is an actor as well. Acting and writing, for Shakespeare, are two sides of the same coin. The actor = writer assumption is a simple but crucial and often unspoken part of the traditional biography. It is obviously an assumption, but it is strongly supported by the posthumous evidence. Therefore, Shakspere wrote Shakespeare. QED.

Great. Even resisting those tempting title pages, we have put together a perfectly good case for Shakspere.

But let us channel some of Price’s trademark clarity. There is one posthumous document and one posthumous monument saying Shakspere was a writer. This must stand against an avalanche of evidence from Shakspere’s lifetime.

Shakspere owned one of the biggest houses in Stratford. He left a three-page will disbursing the house and the possessions therein along with his real estate empire; the house remained in his family for many years. You will not, at this point, be surprised to learn Shakspere did not quite have one hundred books in his library.

He didn’t have a library at all or bookshelves or writing desks or ink or quills.

In 1616, London bookstores were full of Shakespeare books. But Shakspere’s three-story, twelve-thousand-square-foot house apparently had no books in it at all. Of course, his books may simply not have been mentioned in his will, but we would also have to assume that the books owned by England’s greatest (and richest) writer all simply disappeared.

However, Jonson, Nashe, Spenser, Peele, Harvey, Chapman, Drummond, Marston, Heywood, and Kyd all left behind books.

Shakspere’s estate also differs from Jonson’s in that there were no letters discussing writing. Neither has anyone found letters written by Shakspere to anyone else discussing writing.

One would expect to see a few letters if not about writing then about Shakspere’s favorite topic: real estate. Unfortunately, no letters written or received by Shakspere about any topic survive.

Jonson, Nashe, Daniel, Spenser, Massinger, Peele, Harvey, Drayton, Chapman, Drummond, Marston, Lily, Lodge, Dekker, and Kyd all left behind correspondence.

But wait! A Stratford man by the name of Quiney exchanged letters with another Stratford man named Sturley in which they discussed borrowing money from “Shakspere.” Quiney even wrote a letter to “Shakspere” to ask for money, but he never sent it and eventually this unsent letter became part of Quiney’s estate. Also, a clerk in Stratford named Greene referred in his own records to two letters he had written to “Shakspeare” about real estate, but these have been lost.

So at least two people believed Shakspere could read. They might have sent him letters about business. We also have solid evidence that Quiney, Sturley, and Greene could read and write. But this is a consolation prize. None of these men and no one else in Stratford or London ever referred to their friend, neighbor, or colleague Shakspere/Shakespeare as a writer while he lived.

Jonson, Nashe, Daniel, Spenser, Massinger, Peele, Harvey, Drayton, Chapman, Drummond, Marston, Munday, Greene, Lyly, Heywood, Lodge, Middleton, Dekker, Watson, Beaumont, Fletcher, Kyd, Marlowe, and Webster were ALL called writers by friends while alive.

Shakspere invested in real estate, sold stone, malt, and grain, loaned money, invested in the theater and maybe acted. Fifty-thousand-plus Shakespeare books rained down on London for more than twenty years. Nothing connects them to the investor. Two epic poems were dedicated to the Earl of Southampton, but centuries of searching has turned up no independent connection between the earl and the investor.

Shakspere, if he was the writer, might have been paid due to his status as a shareholder in the King’s Men which supposedly owned the plays. If there was some special deal under which Shakspere received additional cash as not just a shareholder but also as a writer, documentation of this special deal has not survived. Also, no action by the King’s Men concerning publication of plays was recorded during Shakspere’s lifetime until, in 1623, dozens of manuscripts suddenly turned up and became part of the First Folio.

Jonson, Nashe, Daniel, Spenser, Massinger, Peele, Harvey, Drayton, Chapman, Marston, Munday, Greene, Lyly, Heywood, Lodge, Middleton, Dekker, Watson, Kyd, and even our friend Webster were paid explicitly and personally for writing and/or had a documented personal connection to a patron.

Manuscripts were (of course) not part of Shakspere’s estate. At this point we would have been surprised if we found out the bookless house of a businessman had a manuscript in it. Why would it?

Jonson, Nashe, Daniel, Massinger, Peele, Harvey, Drummond, Munday, Heywood, and Middleton left behind manuscripts.

The Signatures

That ends of the “absence of evidence” part of the discussion. As the mainstream correctly proclaim, absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence. They have a point: direct evidence that Shakspere wasn’t a writer would be more convincing.

As always, one should be careful what one wishes for.

We have five intact signatures on legal documents. These lead to a simple, inescapable conclusion: Shakspere couldn’t write his name.

The Not-so-literate Writer

Shakspere’s five signatures are as follows:
(1) legal document, illegible;
(2) mortgage document, in a completely different hand;
(3) copy of the same mortgage document, in still a third hand;
(4) last will and testament in yet a fourth (!) hand;
(5) will, again, last name consistent with fourth signature (finally!).

Have a look.

Ben Jonson’s signature.

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Shakspere’s first known signature, 1612.

Two printed “signatures” on two copies of a 1613 document.

Joseph Jackson’s two signatures on those same documents.

William Johnson’s two signatures on the same two documents.

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Shakspere’s first and last name on his will (second page).

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Shakspere’s last name on his will (third page).

The authorship question is not some mind-bending paradox in Special Relativity. But sometimes it seems to be.

For example, one can say Shakspere was a shareholder in an acting company which performed his plays and so, therefore, since he wrote the plays, he was paid out of the profits of the acting company and that constitutes evidence that he was paid for writing.

One can go on to say that since the two epic poems included loving dedications by “Shakespeare” to the Earl of Southampton, that therefore, since Shakspere was Shakespeare, he must have known the Earl and so therefore he must have met a patron at some point who would have supported his work.

One can also say Shakspere’s signatures don’t give one a moment’s concern and that they are really similar to signatures of other Elizabethan writers, but, at this point, the mathematics underlying the mainstream’s case is far beyond that of even the most esoteric physics.

The Schoenbaum Effect

Many reasonable people reject the apparent verdict of the documentary record because they find the idea of falsified posthumous evidence hard to swallow. This stance need not be embarrassing so long as one does not attempt to repair the documentary record using circular reasoning or, especially, altered reality: the man’s name was Shakspere, not Shakespeare and his signatures are a problem plain and simple.

Many people choose to accept the apparent verdict of the documentary record. They regard the continuing search for even a single sentence written by Shakspere as equivalent to the search for the Loch Ness monster. They note, quite reasonably, that conspiracies do actually happen sometimes.

There is no proof either way, but we are “the reasoning race,” so we can think it through, can we not? Samuel Schoenbaum was most helpful in this regard.

Schoenbaum, ever the optimist, boldly accepted the challenge posed by the acute lack of literary documents and wrote a classic biography of Shakspere as Shakespeare. It was an important and clarifying work as Schoenbaum was very much aware of the strangeness of the documentary record. Price is one of many people who initially believed the authorship question was a silly one, but who changed their minds after reading Schoenbaum.

I call this phenomenon “The Schoenbaum Effect.” Schoenbaum himself, of course, was immune.

“What did fellow townsmen make of the distinguished playwright of the Chamberlain’s company and admired poet of love’s languishment who sojourned each year in their midst?”

” . . . They probably troubled their heads little enough about the plays and poems. Business was another matter; they saw Shakespeare [sic] as a man shrewd in practical affairs.”

No doubt they did. But they never called him “Shakespeare.”

Schoenbaum knew the “they” in his discussion of Stratford residents extended to Shakspere’s two adult children. Schoenbaum avoided authorship quicksand, steering clear of Judith and Susanna. My own anti-authorship-question steering system has never functioned up to specs, so, with apologies to Professor Schoenbaum, I’m going to careen into a discussion of Shakspere’s daughters.

As the wealthy landowner lay dying, his illiterate (!) daughters, Judith and Susanna, were, we imagine, by his side. They would have had tears in their eyes as Time’s scythe (Sonnet 12) took the man who, with his pen, had dared Make war upon this bloody tyrant, Time (Sonnet 16).

Shakespeare’s battle with his own mortality had frequently energized his pen and the great writer foresaw in Sonnet 74 his eventual capitulation to the “bloody tyrant.” He would be, inevitably, the coward conquest of a wretch’s knife. At the same time, he would live on in his poetry, forever — My life hath in this line some interest. 

Judith and Susanna knew nothing of this.

If only they had learned to read. The final two lines of Sonnet 74 — The worth of that is that which it contains / And that is this, and this with thee remains — would have given them comfort in their time of loss.

If only Shakspere’s house had contained copies of the sonnets, they could have at least held the precious books close to their chests. Susanna’s husband, John Hall, might even have read a sonnet or two to them. Hall was a literate Stratford doctor whose handwritten diaries survived.

The man who didn’t teach his daughters to read was himself so well-read that mainstream observers marvel at the sheer number of books that “echo through his plays” — a set of readings so immense that even the Queen’s own library would not have satisfied Shakspere/Shakespeare. His non-fiction sources spanned human knowledge from botany to law to medicine to seamanship; his literary sources were similarly broad and not limited to English: literature in French, Italian, Spanish, Latin, and Greek influenced him as he updated and recast old works, some of which had yet to be translated.

Despite the tragedy of two young women trapped in darkness, unable to read of brilliant Beatrice, wise Portia, or moral Cordelia, to say nothing of French, Italian, Spanish, Latin, and Greek literature, there is a silver lining here: their father’s shrewdness in practical affairs ensured their financial security long after he passed on.

For those of you who can read, here is Sonnet 74.

But be contented when that fell arrest
Without all bail shall carry me away,
My life hath in this line some interest,
Which for memorial still with thee shall stay.
When thou reviewest this, thou dost review
The very part was consecrate to thee:
The earth can have but earth, which is his due;
My spirit is thine, the better part of me:
So then thou hast but lost the dregs of life,
The prey of worms, my body being dead;
The coward conquest of a wretch’s knife,
Too base of thee to be remembered.
The worth of that is that which it contains,
And that is this, and this with thee remains.

The death of the Stratford businessman, possibly the most well-read man in England, possibly the greatest writer the English language had ever seen, possibly the most absent father in history was duly recorded in April, 1616.

To his wife, he left his second-best bed. Judith and Susanna he covered with the careful financial arrangements that make up the bulk of his will. To three of his “fellows” in London, members of the King’s Men, he left cash.

The wealthy Combe family of Stratford was especially near and dear to Shakspere’s heart: he had purchased 100 acres from them in 1602 and had been the recipient of a cash bequest in John Combe’s will. To John’s nephew, Thomas Combe, Shakspere bequeathed his sword.

William Shakspere, one of the richest men in Stratford, was quietly buried at the Holy Trinity Church in the town of his birth.

“His death evoked no great outpouring of homage. That was reserved for his rival Jonson, who was accorded, six months after he expired, an entire volume of eulogy.” — Schoenbaum (and no, no one believes Schoenbaum was a closeted doubter)

There would be no Westminster Abbey burial for the great writer: Chaucer, Spenser, the still-warm Beaumont, and the still-alive Jonson would have to journey to eternity without their “chief.”

Jonson, as we know, used the word “chief” in his Poet-Ape complaint-poem. Here it is in full. It was published in book of epigrams in 1616; the date of composition is unknown.

Poor Poet-Ape, that would be thought our chief,
Whose works are e’en the frippery of wit,
From brokage is become so bold a thief,
As we, the robb’d, leave rage, and pity it.
At first he made low shifts, would pick and glean,
Buy the reversion of old plays; now grown
To a little wealth, and credit in the scene,
He takes up all, makes each man’s wit his own:
And, told of this, he slights it. Tut, such crimes
The sluggish gaping auditor devours;
He marks not whose ‘twas first: and after-times
May judge it to be his, as well as ours.
Fool! as if half eyes will not know a fleece
From locks of wool, or shreds from the whole piece?

But Jonson’s commentary must not mean what it sounds like it means. How could it? We must interpret Poet-Ape in a way that fits the facts as we know them. Jonson must have been talking about someone else.

It must be so, because Shakspere wrote Shakespeare. Really, he did.

The Mainstream Has Its Day

Sometime after Shakspere’s death, the documentary record turns dramatically in the mainstream’s favor, suddenly becoming deeply orange. Between 1616 and 1623, a monument was built at the Holy Trinity Church commemorating “Shakspeare” as the equal of Nestor, Socrates, and Virgil for wisdom, genius, and art respectively.

The misspelt monument well and truly built, the repairs to a terrible oversight of history continued: Shakspere of Stratford was finally documented as a writer.

In 1623, the First Folio combined in a single volume ten plays published accurately during Shakspere’s lifetime, two plays published in both accurate and corrupted versions during  his lifetime, five plays published only in corrupted versions during his lifetime, two plays published in unrecognizable versions during his lifetime, one play published accurately after his death, and sixteen plays that had never before been published.

The First Folio saved the day as far as the Shakespeare canon is concerned.

But it was the prefatory material included in the First Folio that completed the transmogrification the doubters believe occurred: Shakspere the businessman-actor became Shakespeare the famous author. On the other hand, perhaps the prefatory material ensured that Shakspere would get the credit he deserved.

In the all-important prefatory material, the “Stratford moniment” is mentioned in a memorial addressed to Shakespeare. Two of Shakspere’s “fellows” from the King’s Men, mentioned as such in his will, together signed each of two letters — one to the reader and one to the two earls to whom the First Folio is dedicated. In their letters, they refer to Shakespeare as their “fellow” and “friend.” Shakespeare is called the “Sweet Swan of Avon” by none other than Ben Jonson. Shakspere was born and died in Stratford-upon-Avon.


The prefatory material is powerful evidence for the mainstream.

So there we have it. Either the businessman-actor who was Shakspere of Stratford and also Shakespeare of London was also Shakespeare the writer or someone highly placed went out of their way to make it look like Shakspere wrote Shakespeare when in fact some nobleman or other had actually been using the name Shakespeare as a pseudonym.

There is no smoking-gun evidence for the theory that the prefatory material and the monument are fraudulent. No one has produced a written exchange amongst the perpetrators outlining their nefarious plot, for example. We don’t even have a written accusation by a contemporary observer that the monument and prefatory material are fakes.

Thus, we may wish to take the posthumous evidence at face value. In that case, we need to explain (or at least try to explain) the mismatch between Shakspere’s documented life and the life of a writer.

It is a difficult exercise, but not an impossible one.

Maybe Shakspere’s work as an actor/investor/landowner/money-lender simply overshadowed his work as a writer; maybe this explains the lack of personal references to Shakspere the writer. Maybe, since Shakspere’s daughters were country girls as opposed to Beatrice, Portia, and Cordelia from his fiction, Shakspere didn’t feel his real-life daughters needed to learn to read. Maybe it wasn’t his decision. Perhaps, in general, Shakespeare/Shakspere wanted his life as a literary Londoner and his life as a Stratford businessman kept separate. Maybe he disposed of his books and letters before retiring in Stratford around 1610.

So far, the mainstream has not attempted to explain the oddities in the Shakspere documentary record; they seem more sanguine with the claim that the oddities either don’t exist or that they actually support Shakspere as the writer.

Let’s look at some of the impersonal references in detail.

As you know, in 1610, John Davies published an epigram referring to Shakespeare as “our English Terence” and, in the same epigram, portrayed Shakespeare as an actor playing parts. Terence, the mainstream will tell us, was a great Roman writer. Shakespeare was thus clearly being portrayed by this poet as both actor and writer and this is extremely powerful evidence that Shakspere was Shakespeare.

But really, the mainstream would be far better off if this poem never existed. Here are excerpts from two Elizabethan books in four editions identifying Terence as a person who put his name on other’s work.

Houston, We Have a Problem

Roger Ascham, Queen Elizabeth’s tutor, The Scholemaster, 1570, 1579, 1589: “It is well known that . . . some Comedies bearing Terence’s name were written by worthy Scipio and wise Laelius.”

Michel de Montaigne, Essays ca. 1580, John Florio translation, 1603: “. . . to prove this labor to be theirs [Scipio’s and Laelius’s], the exquisite eloquence and excellent invention thereof doth sufficiently declare it: and Terence himself doth avouch it.”

Mainstream:  Davies refers to Shakespeare as an actor playing parts and as a “Terence” who was a great writer of humble origins. Therefore, Shakespeare was both actor and writer. We know Shakspere was an actor. Thus, Shakspere is Shakespeare. QED.

Price: Um . . . Houston, did you copy that last message?

As you know, the Parnassus Plays feature an actor who refers to his “fellow Shakespeare,” the great writer. Not only that, but the actors being portrayed are named: they are members of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, the company that included Shakspere as a member. Not surprisingly, the mainstream loves Parnassus.

Here are some key lines.

The Joke is on Us

Actor playing Kempe: Few of the university pen plays well; they smell too much of that writer Ovid and that writer Metamorphoses . . . [laughter]. Why here’s our fellow Shakespeare [the Ovidian poet] puts them all down — ay, and Ben Jonson too. O that Ben Jonson is a pestilent fellow . . . our fellow Shakespeare has given him a purge that made him bewray his credit.

Actor playing Burbage: It’s a shrewd fellow indeed.

Mainstream: Shakespeare is portrayed as an actor in the Lord Chamberlain’s Men and as a great writer. Therefore, Shakspere is Shakespeare.

Price: Um . . . Metamorphoses wasn’t a writer any more than Shakspere was.

The Parnassus Plays aren’t the disaster for the mainstream that “our English Terence” or “Poet-Ape” is. The mainstream is actually quite fond of Parnassus. But they may be misguided: a close reading actually hurts their case.

Finally, there is the open letter written by Robert Greene and published after his death that is the first reference to Shakespeare. It is not complimentary.

From Greene to (presumably) his fellow writers Peele, Marlowe, and Nashe: . . . trust them not: for there is an upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his Tiger’s heart wrapped in a Player’s hide, supposes he is as well able to bombast out blank verse as the best of you: and being an absolute Johannes factotum is in his own conceit the only Shake-scene in a country. O that I might entreat your rare wits to be employed in more profitable courses: and let those Apes imitate your past excellence, and never more acquaint them with your admired inventions. I know the best husband of you all will never prove a Usurer . . . for it is a pity men of such rare wits, should be subject to the pleasure of such rude grooms.

Mainstream: Again, Shakespeare is an actor and a writer.

Price: Again, Shakspere is an actor and a thief.

According to Greene, Shakespeare was a “player” which was a term used for actors. With his Tiger’s heart, he perhaps had pretensions of being as good a writer as Greene, Peele, Marlowe, and Nashe. He’s an arrogant “Johannes factotum” (jack of all trades) who thinks he can do it all. Thus, says the mainstream, Shakespeare was clearly both an actor and a great writer.

Price points out that reading Greene’s complete work of which this letter is one part makes things rather clear. In the scene played out before the letter, a character “Roberto” (an obvious stand-in for Greene himself) is taken advantage of by a “gentleman player” who is clueless but rich and who hires the destitute Roberto to write plays for him.

To the mainstream, Greene is jealous of a mere actor who can write better than he can. For doubters, Greene, like Jonson, is complaining about a wealthy thief.

The Fetish Becomes a Phobia

Except for the First Folio and the monument, centuries of searching for a clear connection between a man who (apparently) owned no books and who (apparently) wrote no letters and who (definitely) was not buried at Westminster Abbey and the author William Shakespeare have yielded what Price contends is an incredible mountain of nothing.

In fact, the clearest connection between Shakspere and Shakespeare is the “our English Terence” poem by Davies which is overt, direct, and quite clear. It seems a huge stretch to assume Davies was not familiar with Terence’s reputation. By itself, the lifetime documentary record of the businessman is enough to instill reasonable doubt. Terence, the signatures, and the ever-living sonnets (discussed below) turn reasonable doubt into deep suspicion.

For mama-duck Price and for the very scary people the mainstream really do call “her followers,” the Shakespeare authorship question is a mystery worth exploring.

It is not clear why the mainstream has moved from its title-page fetish to a duckling phobia, but it is what it is. For those readers who don’t wish to wear the mainstream’s straitjacket and who are willing to permit a very small amount of speculation, we can discuss an intriguing possible explanation for the whole farce (cue mainstream screaming bloody murder).


Mama Price and her anti-Stratfordian chicks.

Food For Thought

To say the Earl of Southampton — the dedicatee of Shakespeare’s epic poems and possibly the subject of the first 126 sonnets — was controversial would be an enormous understatement. As the reader will expect at this point, there is no record that would suggest Shakspere and Southampton ever met unless you first assume Shakspere is Shakespeare and then cite the dedications as evidence for a presumed meeting. Ivy league scholars are embarrassingly susceptible to reasoning in precisely this way.

Let us pause to empathize with our ivy league friends. Let us wait a moment for the red in our faces to clear. Let us now consider the implications of the fact that Shakespeare’s one and only dedicatee, the Earl of Southampton, was convicted of high treason in 1601 along with five other people, including the Earl of Essex. This incident is known as the Essex Rebellion.

The four knights and one earl, fools all, were summarily executed. They died, and not quickly. Then Southampton’s sentence was commuted to life in prison (!) by Queen Elizabeth. Then Elizabeth died and King James ascended the throne. Then Southampton was pardoned and released (!!) with his earldom fully restored. Then, that same summer, he was promoted (!!!) by the new King. This is where you say, “OH MY GOD.”

Southampton’s five co-conspirators were worm-food while the very fortunate Henry enjoyed his new goodies (he was made Captain of the Isle of Wights and a Knight of the Garter in the summer of 1603).

Conspiracy theories are of course inherently unlikely. However, we know a convicted traitor who survived and was then rewarded. Is the overwhelmingly special treatment of someone who targeted the throne directly and who was convicted of doing so a big enough and clear enough conspiracy for the mainstream to consider? Don’t answer.

Let us suppose, briefly, that Southampton was not only the dedicatee of Shakespeare’s two epic poems published in 1593 and 1594, but that he was also the “lovely boy” of Shakespeare’s first 126 sonnets published in 1609. He is now and has always been a leading candidate if not the leading candidate for the subject of the sonnets, so we are not sticking our necks out very far at all in making this assumption.

In the sonnets, Shakespeare repeatedly tells Southampton that he (Southampton) will live forever in his verse (“such virtue hath my pen”). But the author won’t for some reason. He says to Southampton the following:

Your name from hence immortal life shall have
Though I (once gone) to all the world must die.

The origin story of the sonnets assuming Southampton as subject is as dramatic as any Shakespeare play. We don’t have absolute proof of the (rather obvious) connection between the sonnets’ story and Southampton’s survival, but the sister article to this one (previous link) will give any reasonable person who is not an ivy league professor food for thought.

This diet is unpalatable in the extreme to the poor mainstream: most would sooner eat worms and some would sooner be eaten by worms than admit even the possibility that the sonnets tell the story of Southampton’s outrageous good fortune. It’s a shame because they are not only missing out on a great story, they are missing an opportunity for productive scholarship.

If you mention the sonnets and Southampton’s luck and turn your back, the mainstream will likely have mounted its horse and galloped away before you can turn again. The sonnets, they will say mid-gallop, are NOT personal. The fact that they were written in the first person to a particular individual, were concerned with private matters, and were kept private for at least ten years before being published (1609) is irrelevant.

Just before the behorsed mainstream disappears over a rise, they will shout hoarsely that the publisher’s dedication in the sonnets’ prefatory material does NOT mean the poet was dead in 1609.


Sometimes you eat the prefatory material. Sometimes the prefatory material eats you.

Pity the Poor Mainstream

We may sympathize with the poor, frightened mainstream in this field and in other fields. For when the schoolchild says Africa and South America fit like puzzle pieces, the idea MUST be disregarded: think of the embarrassment if she is right!

When a professional anthropologist wonders if bipedalism was an adaptation to coastal living, ridicule is de rigueur: we are brave hunters, not fish!

When a researcher with temerity but without an ivy league professorship waves the documentary record like a red flag, it is imperative that she and “her followers” be gored to death: Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare; just look at the title pages!

I do apologize for exaggerating: the ivy leaguers aren’t really so bad. But they could learn a thing or two from history.

In 1905, Einstein sent Special Relativity to a journal. The editor naturally assumed the theory was wrong. But, he thought, what is lost by discussion? The discussion would likely disprove the scary new idea, but this too would have value.

The editor knew what to do. Later, historians realized that a number of other scientists had discovered much of Special Relativity prior to Einstein’s paper, but simply hadn’t been able to quite make themselves believe that something so surprising could be true and therefore hadn’t turned their findings into a coherent theory. Interesting, don’t you think?


I need your help. I’m offering ten dollars.


I need someone to do the following:

  1. Analyze every letter Shakspere wrote.
  2. Analyze every letter Shakspere received.
  3. Catalogue all letters written or received by Shakspere’s two daughters.
  4. Read every book in Shakspere’s library in the original language.
  5. Read every book known to have been in the hands of Shakspere’s two daughters.
  6. Examine all correspondence regarding Shakespeare produced by his publishers and patrons.
  7. Create a timeline for interactions with authorities concerning his writing.
  8. List every person who both knew Shakspere personally and knew him as a writer.

N.B. A similar effort for Jonson took years.

If you devoted one minute to reading the eight requirements and another minute to realizing the names Heminge and Condell are all you need, then my ten-dollar offer is equivalent to three hundred dollars per hour.

I’ll send the ten dollars in cash to the first person to write “Heminge and Condell” with a mailing address in the comments section.

No Evidence ===> Evidence

William Shakspere of Stratford was an actor in London. The company he was a part of put on Shakespeare plays.

That’s it. That’s the evidence.

Shakspere’s life is pretty well documented. He lived from 1564 to 1616 and was known as a businessman-actor. No evidence from his lifetime beyond the association with the acting company connects him to Shakespeare. He died mostly unknown.

What happened next gives the expression “Never say die” new meaning.

Seven years after Shakspere died, thirty-six Shakespeare plays, the majority of which hadn’t been published before, showed up in a monumental publication called the First Folio. Shakspere was gone but not forgotten. His tombstone read in part, “Blessed be ye man that spares these stones, and cursed be he that moves my bones.” Now this doggerel would be canceled out by the beauty of the First Folio.

Shakspere was suddenly a great writer. Indeed, the preface to the First Folio referenced him, personally. There’s no doubt about the meaning of the reference.

A monument was also built sometime between 1616 and 1623 in the church at Shakspere’s burial site. The monument changed Shakspere’s name to Shakspeare and likened him to Socrates, Virgil, and Nestor all rolled into one.

Congratulations were clearly in order. It’s just a shame Shakspere wasn’t around to revel in all the attention.

Some people such as Shakespearean actor Sir Derek Jacobi and Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens and the scholars at the Shakespeare Authorship Research Center are suspicious about what we might call the Great Shakspere Apotheosis.

No Evidence

Shakespeare plays were published and sold for many years, sometimes in corrupted versions, and Shakspere never sued for the rights to “his” plays and poems. No one, not Shakspere and not the company he was a part of, complained when Shakespeare plays were published, regardless of how badly butchered the publication was.

Shakspere did occasionally sue his neighbors for small sums, however. Those records survived just fine.

No one regarded Shakspere as a writer while he lived. There were plenty of personal references to him, just none that mention writing. To his friends and neighbors, Shakspere was a businessman and an actor, nothing more. Shoenbaum, the classic Shakespeare biographer, marveled at this little fact without considering its implications.

If you were an Elizabethan author, your friends said you were. In fact, they wrote it down. These personal references survive today in large numbers, whether you are Ben Jonson or Francis Beaumont or Thomas Nashe or any one of two dozen authors analyzed by Diana Price.

The best the mainstream can do for Shakspere along these lines is a comment from Leonard Digges, who lived near Shakspere and might (theoretically) have met him at some point. Digges wrote briefly that the Spanish have their Lope de Vega and we [English] have our Shakespeare. This is supposed to be a personal reference!

This kind of reasoning indicates desperation. It goes nicely with the equally powerful claim that the published Shakespeare plays are evidence that Shakspere wrote them.

Shakspere had a big house full of possessions that he disbursed in a three-page will which mentioned no books, no letters, no bookshelves, no writing desks, no inkwells, no quills, no manuscripts, no paper.

Shakspere had two children who reached adulthood. They weren’t literate. Obviously, literacy in the case of children is not inherited genetically, but it is nevertheless inherited. If your father is the greatest writer in England, you can read his works.

That’s the end of the Shakspere story. He and Francis Beaumont died in 1616, Beaumont in March, Shakspere in April. Beaumont was buried in Westminster Abbey with Chaucer and Spenser. Shakspere wasn’t.

Except for Shakspere’s association with an acting company that put on various plays including Shakespeare plays, no evidence from his life has been found by anyone indicating he was the author. And it’s not for lack of trying. People have been searching for centuries for any tiny reference that might connect Shakspere to Shakespeare.

Unless you are willing to believe that a person can suddenly become a writer seven years after his death, the sixty or seventy documents (it depends how you count them) that have been uncovered make it clear he was a semi-literate actor with a name similar to a pseudonym being used by someone else.

In some ways, it’s a very easy discussion to have. No one ever claimed to have met Shakespeare the great writer. There are no documents suggesting that Shakspere of Stratford was a writer of any kind much less Shakespeare and that’s it, we’re done. Unless you say acting is the same thing as writing or published work under a similar name is evidence of authorship or someone who lives near you saying “our Shakespeare” is a personal reference, there is nothing to even create a basis for discussion much less certainty that Shakspere wrote Shakespeare!


Seven years after Shakspere died, everything changed. Shakspere transmogrified into Shakespeare. A couple of earls got their hands on 24 plays that had not been published in decent versions during the author’s lifetime, added the 12 accurately published plays, left out the sonnets and epic poems, made some cryptic comments about Shakespeare being from Stratford, complained about stolen and surreptitious copies having been published all these years, and built a monument to Shakspere in Stratford in which his name was changed to Shakespeare. Shakespeare was thus immortalized in what is known as the First Folio.

And that was that.

The reason for the deception is obvious. Shakespeare dedicated his two epic poems to the Earl of Southampton and wrote a series of sonnets about Southampton’s life. Southampton had been convicted of high treason in 1601 and sentenced to death for trying to control the succession when Elizabeth was dying. His co-conspirators were all executed, but Southampton was released when King James ascended the throne. Southampton was even rewarded: he was made a Knight of the Garter and captain of the Isle of Wights.

No one knows what was going on. Southampton obviously had a claim to the throne or some other ace up his sleeve. Whatever the truth is, the earl was white-hot. He was lucky to survive. There is more than enough intrigue here to explain why epic poems dedicated to him and sonnets discussing his life were left out of the First Folio.

Southampton’s politics are also sufficient to motivate a cover-up of the true author of the plays and poems, especially if Southampton really had a claim to the throne as seems likely given his extraordinary treatment.

For whatever reason, a semi-literate actor was turned into Shakespeare and we all fell for it, including yours truly. But really, it’s quite weak as hoaxes go. The people building the monument and writing the preface to the First Folio could not alter the documentary record.

As Mark Twain noted, it is surprising anyone fell for it.

P.S. Technically, we don’t know who built the monument in Stratford. I claim it is obvious that it was the same people who put together the First Folio, but if you want Shakspere to have written Shakespeare, you might reject that claim and say it was built by his family or others close to him who wanted to commemorate the man they knew as a great writer. Sure.



The Professor Doth Protest Too Much, Methinks

I am deeply skeptical. When I read that Shakesepeare didn’t write Shakespeare in a book written by someone I trusted, I didn’t believe it. The book gave a good argument, but it didn’t convince me. I read a couple more books written by reputable professionals expanding on the argument and was still not convinced. Then I read the other side of the story. I read several books by eminent Shakespeare scholars explaining why all the “authorship questions” were just so much nonsense.

Now I was convinced. The eminent Shakespeare scholars seem to know Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare. They seem desperate. They say bizarre things that don’t make sense; they make circular arguments that are way, way beneath them; they look for easy rhetorical points to score while studiously ignoring the meat of the main arguments; they take nasty potshots when they have nothing left to say.

Here are six little bites to give you an idea why there is a Shakespeare Authorship Studies Center at Concordia University and why Roger Stritmatter got a Ph.D. at UMass Amherst studying the authorship question and why the famous Shakespearean actor Sir Derek Jacobi believes the traditional attribution is totally absurd.

Six Brief Bites

(1) William Shakespeare, unfortunately, never existed. It sounds like a strong thing to say, but details really do matter. A man baptized William Shakspere who signed his last will and testament William Shakspere and who never used the name William Shakespeare was an actor in a company that put on Shakespeare plays. But the actor had the wrong name.

If that was all, it would be nothing. One would simply explain the difference in the personal spelling and the publication spelling in any one of a hundred different ways and move on. But it isn’t all.

(2) Shakspere tried to write his name a few times. The signatures, such as they are, survive. He couldn’t write his own name. His signature looks nothing like the smooth, flowing signatures of other professional Elizabethan writers who wrote millions of words without benefit of word processing and therefore, amazingly, were pretty good with a pen.

You can take one look at Shakspere’s signatures and know he is not a writer. No handwriting expertise is necessary.

(3) Shakspere wasn’t referred to as a writer by anyone who knew him until seven years after his death when he magically turned into the famous writer Shakespeare. He was referred to as a businessman and as an actor, but not as a writer.

No other Elizabethan writer had to die in order to become a professional writer.

(4) Shakspere was born in 1564 and died in 1616 and in all that time never wrote so much as a letter to his family, to a business associate, or to a “fellow” writer. He didn’t receive any letters either. He owned no books.

A great deal of material survives even for writers that were far less famous in their lifetimes than Shakespeare. No other Elizabethan writer left behind zero personal items indicating their profession. The “bad luck” theory doesn’t hold water.

(5) The majority of the non-history plays are set in Italy with extraordinary local detail. Mainstream authors have tried mightily to suggest that Shakspere could have learned enough about Italy from books and travelers to write the Italian plays.

Of all the arguments the mainstream has lost, this one is the most spectacular. To read the mainstream’s claims that books and travelers were sufficient set against the details Shakespeare includes in the Italian plays is like watching a man engage in a boxing match with an angry elephant.

(6) Shakespeare’s two epic poems were dedicated to the Earl of Southampton and, subject to interpretation, the earl’s politically charged personal life appears to be revealed in the sonnets including some things that would have been state secrets. If the sonnets really contain inside information about the results of Southampton’s attempt to control the royal succession, Shakspere-the-businessman-from-Stratford can be confidently excluded as an authorship candidate.

The Southampton interpretation of the sonnets, if true, explains parts of Southampton’s political life that history knows only the outlines of.

Six Bites and You’re Out

(1) Shakspere was a family name. William was baptized Shakspere as were all seven of his siblings. William signed his name as well as he could, Shakspere. He never used Shakespeare. On the other hand, Shakespeare was used consistently on the published works.

Spelling was quite variable in those days, including the spelling of names. The consistency of Shakspere for personal documents and Shakespeare as a publication name wasn’t perfect, but it was more than clear and even the deviations from Shakspere are almost all phonetic spellings such as the Shagspere on his marriage certificate. No other author avoided using his publication name in his personal life the way Shakspere did.

(2) Shakspere couldn’t write his own name. Take a look.

Screen Shot 2017-06-21 at 10.23.56 AM

Last page of will. The “By me William” part was obviously written by someone else. Shakspere may have been sick at the time.

Screen Shot 2017-06-21 at 10.23.43 AM

Closeup of the part Shakspere wrote.


Ben Jonson was a writer and had a smooth hand.

Screen Shot 2017-06-21 at 10.09.06 AM

Five years before Shakspere died he tried to sign a legal document.

Screen Shot 2017-05-31 at 2.16.03 PM

Thomas Nashe, like every other professional writer of the time, had some facility with the pen.

Shakspere’s shaky signatures are reminiscent of Raymond Dart’s discovery in the 1920’s. He discovered a fossil of a bipedal ape before the mainstream was willing to consider such things. For our small-brained bipedal ancestors, the spine enters the skull along the midline rather than along the back. No microscope is needed. One look at the skull and the difference is instantly visible. The same is true for Shakspere’s signatures. Dart was ignored by his fellow researchers for twenty years simply because his discovery was destined to change the way they thought about human evolution. Shakspere’s signatures have been studiously ignored for two hundred years although various perfectly good excuses — maybe he was sick or distracted or someone else was doing the writing — have been proposed.

(3) If it were just the name and the handwriting, that still wouldn’t be enough to convince a reasonable person that we were all fooled by the greatest hoax in history. But Elizabethan writers were ALWAYS described as writers and/or referred to as writers by people who had physical contact with them. It was a long time ago, but such documents survive for every Elizabethan writer EXCEPT Shakspere.

Shakspere biographer Schoenbaum marvels that Shakspere’s “townsmen” didn’t seem to know he was a writer — he says they didn’t “trouble their heads about the plays and poems.” Schoenbaum goes on to say, “business was another matter.” Schoenbaum was immune to his own research.

Diana Price picked up where Schoenbaum left off and verified that what the classic biographers marvel at — Schoenbaum was far from the only one — is indeed worth wondering about: among 24 Elizabethan writers plus Shakspere that Price studied, ONLY Shakspere was never referred to as a writer by those who knew him.

(4) In addition to the lack of references, there is no evidence Shakspere wrote anything at all. All of his letters (if any), written or received, have been lost. All of his books (if any) were lost.

Shakspere died in a big house (a mansion) full of stuff and had two children and left a long will. No books were mentioned, no quills, no inkwells, no bookshelves, no desks. No manuscripts or writing of any kind were part of his estate.

The fact that a name similar to his appears on published works, despite repeated circular reasoning indulged in by ivy-league professors, means nothing if there is nothing to connect him to those works. Being an actor in a play whose author has a name similar to yours does not make you the author. The arguments made by experts using Shakspere’s acting as an indication that he was a writer are simply embarrassing.

Shakspere’s two grown daughters were demonstrably illiterate. Other writers not only saw to it that their children could read their work, they also left bequests to ensure their grandchildren would be taught to read. Such a bequest would have been totally out of character for Shakspere.

Let’s do some very elementary statistics. Elizabethan writers left behind documents roughly half of which relate to their profession. For some writers, it was a little less than half of documents, for others it was a little more than half. Roughly speaking, for an Elizabethan author, a document referring directly to writing was a coin flip: heads it is some mundane part of life; tails it has something to do with their chosen profession.

Shakspere had seventy surviving documents. ZERO documents having to do with writing requires astronomical bad luck. You could flip coins long enough to watch single-celled life evolve into mammals without flipping seventy tails in a row.

(5) Shakespeare knew so much about Italy that he could mention the Duke’s Oak (capitalized) in “Athens” and confuse even modern scholars equipped with modern tools.

It took Richard Roe physically going to Italy and visiting a town the Italians have always called “Little Athens” and stumbling upon the Duke’s Oak (capitalized) which is an entryway to a forest constructed centuries ago. Now we understand the reference, finally. The Duke’s Oak was capitalized in the original Shakespeare but the capitalization was never understood and was sometimes removed. Shakespeare’s Italian plays are filled with similar minute detail.

The necessity of placing the commoner Shakspere in Italy at some point troubles the mainstream hence their desperate pleas that you don’t learn about the level of detail in the Italian settings.

(6) Finally, Shakespeare seems to have written a series of sonnets about Southampton’s life in addition to his two epic poems lavishly dedicated to the earl.

Shakespeare, the author, called his subject his “lovely boy” in Sonnet 126. In Sonnet 10, he asked him to “make thee another self for love of me.” Pretty intimate stuff.

Shakespeare who was obviously extremely close to Southampton and knowledgeable about his situation was deeply preturbed when Southampton was sentenced to death for high treason and tossed into the Tower where Shakespeare visited his imprisoned love only to find that when he returned home, he could not sleep.

Weary with toil, I haste me to my bed,
The dear repose for limbs with travel tired;
But then begins a journey in my head
To work my mind, when body’s work’s expired: 
For then my thoughts–from far where I abide–
Intend a zealous pilgrimage to thee,
And keep my drooping eyelids open wide,
Looking on darkness which the blind do see:
Save that my soul’s imaginary sight
Presents thy shadow to my sightless view,
Which, like a jewel hung in ghastly night,
Makes black night beauteous, and her old face new.
Lo! thus, by day my limbs, by night my mind,
For thee, and for myself, no quiet find.

In Sonnet 87, the line “the charter of thy worth gives thee releasing” could mean a lot of things. The references to “misprision” and to a “better judgment” seem apt as misprision of treason (knowing about it but not reporting it) is not a capital crime and Southampton certainly got a better deal than the Earl of Essex or the four knights who were all slaughtered.

Shakespeare is overjoyed in Sonnet 107 when Southampton, who was “supposed as forfeit to a confined doom,” was released. “The mortal Moon hath her eclipse endured” and “incertainties now crown themselves assured.” That is, the Queen (often poetically compared with the Moon) had died and James had ascended the throne.

After he became King, James promptly released Southampton and restored his Earldom and all his lands. No reason was given.

Southampton and his ally, the Earl of Essex, had tried to control the succession. Bad idea. History does not tell us what was so special about Southampton that he got to keep his head (not to mention his Earldom).

The same summer he was released, Southampton was made captain of the Isle of Wights AND also a Knight of the Garter. Again, this is not at all understood by history.

Sonnet 106 has the following suggestive lines which may or may not mean anything:

When in the chronicle of wasted time
I see descriptions of the fairest wights,
And beauty making beautiful old rhyme,
In praise of ladies dead and lovely Knights,

Later in the sonnet, Shakespeare speaks of “prophecies” and “prefiguring” and “divining.” Shakespeare seems to have known what was going on behind the scenes.

IF the speculations indulged in in this “bite” regarding Shakespeare’s knowledge of Southampton’s fate are true, we can eliminate Shakspere as an authorship candidate.

Conspiracy Theory

With James firmly in power, in 1623, the Earls of Montgomery and Pembroke gathered together 24 unpublished (or badly published) Shakespeare plays and 12 previously published plays, recruited two of Shakspere’s acting buddies, hired Ben Jonson, and got a publisher. They preserved the work of whoever wrote the plays in what we call the First Folio.

At the same time, they either made it look like Shakspere was the author, connecting the actor with the work for the first time in the preface to the First Folio or, if you prefer, they cleared up the terrible confusion that had dogged poor Shakspere all his life causing people to think of him as merely an actor and hard-nosed businessman when he was really the greatest writer in all England.

The earls and their team also had a monument built praising Shakspere as Virgil, Socrates, and Nestor rolled into one. The monument spells the name “Shakspeare” which may be a fortuitous error being neither Shakspere nor Shakespeare.

As hoaxes go, it wasn’t a very good one. The paper trail left by Shakspere during his lifetime is pretty much irrefutable: he wasn’t a writer.

On the other hand, reasonable people can disagree. There is another side to the story, as always.

Maybe Shakspere didn’t like the name his publishers used and maybe that explains the gap between his personal name and his published name. Maybe he simply had bad handwriting or maybe the signatures were scrawled under difficult conditions. Maybe his unusual dual career as an actor/writer caused people he knew to refer to him as an actor or businessman rather than as a writer during his lifetime. Maybe all of his letters were unfortunately lost. Maybe he made arrangements for his books outside of his will. Maybe the mention of “household stuff” in his will included his bookshelves and writing desks. Maybe he didn’t teach his daughters to read because they were country girls and/or he was too busy in London to bother. Maybe he went to Italy with some nobleman or other during the years for which we have no record of him (1585-1592). Maybe he had a relationship with Southampton for which there is unfortunately no independent evidence. Maybe the sonnets are not about anyone in particular and should be treated as fiction and not connected to the historical record.

Occam’s Razor

Occam’s razor is a wonderful thing. What is the simplest assumption for us to make? All five “bites” based on hard evidence can be explained. The sixth bite is speculative (although you might not think so once you read the sonnets) and doesn’t require an explanation.

Should we explain away the five bites with a million maybe’s and hope the sixth is nonsense or would it be simpler to imagine an author who could write his name, who wrote letters, who owned books, who went to Italy, who knew Southampton, and who used a pseudonym?

Here are two lines from Sonnet 81.

Your name from hence immortal life shall have,
Though I, once gone, to all the world must die:

When this was written, “Shakespeare” had already taken his place amongst the most famous writers in English history.

Of course, one can argue that any cover-up theory is full of unknowns and unknowables. What was the reason to go to all the trouble of a cover-up? Did King James want to keep Southampton’s claim to the throne (assuming he had one) out of history? What was the nature of such a claim? Does this explain the commutation of his sentence and his release from the Tower? Were the goodies he got after being released some kind of bribe to purchase his silence? We’ll never know.

The timing of Shakspere’s arrival in London is a problem if you want to believe in the cover-up (conspiracy) theory. Why did the first Shakespeare performances occur in the early 1590’s coinciding with Shakspere’s arrival at about the same time? There is a 1589 reference to “whole Hamlets of tragical speeches,” which might help disqualify Shakspere, but there is no record of any 1580’s performance of any Shakespeare play. If you want to prove Shakspere wasn’t the author, a firm record of a performance or two or three or four in the 1580’s, well before Shakspere arrived in London, would be very helpful.

If we ignore the tragical speeches comment, the timing for the early performances of Shakespeare plays makes it look like Shakspere may actually have written them. Was Shakspere really nothing more than a semi-literate country boy when he showed up in London just as Shakespeare the author was becoming well known?

The problem here is not that Shakspere couldn’t have written the plays. The problem is that the mainstream try to argue that there is NO issue, that the whole idea that Shakspere wasn’t Shakespeare is ridiculous and shouldn’t be discussed. But whether one looks at his signature or the Italian plays or the Sonnets or the comparison to the records of Elizabethan writers or Shakspere’s extensive business-related documentation or any of the other rock-solid reasons to doubt the traditional attribution, there is simply no rational way to argue that there is NO issue here.

The mainstream scholars are, essentially, fools even though they are very smart.

The professors doth protest too much, methinks.

A Rational Person Reads Shakespeare (Sonnets, Origin Story)

Thou art thy mother’s glass and she in thee
Calls back the lovely April of her prime;
So thou through windows of thine age shalt see,
Despite of wrinkles, this thy golden time.
But if thou live, remembered not to be,
Die single and thine image dies with thee.

It was 1590 and time for the teenaged Earl of Southampton to get married and create for the world a worthy heir. The golden good looks the boy inherited from his mother were, insisted Shakespeare, some waiting baby’s birthright.

The young earl, Henry Wriothesley (RYE-zlee), begged to differ.

No one knows how William Shakespeare got involved in the attempt by Henry’s elders to convince him to marry a particular young woman, but the six lines above and sixteen of the first seventeen sonnets — often called the “Marriage Sonnets” — begged the recalcitrant earl to marry and (more importantly) to produce a male heir.


Begun in the early 1590’s, the sonnets weren’t published until 1609.

So “Marriage Sonnets” isn’t quite the right name. In sixteen sonnets, Shakespeare finds sixteen ways to refer to Southampton’s potential progeny: tender heir, fair child, thine image, acceptable audit, flowers distilled, beauty’s treasure, new-appearing sight, concord of well-tuned sounds [as in a harmonious family life], form of thee, another self, copy, breed, sweet issue, truth and beauty [as in “Thy end is Truthes and Beauties doome and date”], living flowers, and, finally, some child of yours. In sixteen “Make-Us-A-Baby Sonnets,” marriage is nothing more than a means to an end.

Sonnet 15 is an important outlier, being the only one of the first seventeen that refrains from shouting the joys of fatherhood from rooftops: this sonnet offers eternity in another form. Shakespeare says his immortal words will refresh Southampton’s “youthful sap” despite the “decay” perpetrated by “wasteful Time.”

At length, this becomes the central theme of the entire one hundred and twenty-six sonnet sequence: poetry and progeny versus aging and death. For Shakespeare, Time, capitalized, is the ultimate enemy. He calls Time, variously, never-resting, wasteful, bloody tyrant, coward, devouring, swift-footed, old, cruel, confounding, sluttish, injurious, thievish, filching, crooked, and, finally, fickle. 

In Sonnet 126, “Time’s fickle glass” treacherously shows us youth one moment and wrinkles the next. In Sonnet 74, Shakespeare sees his own body becoming the “coward conquest of a wretch’s knife” taken dishonorably as it were from behind. In Sonnet 12, he warns Southampton that Time’s scythe is a terrible weapon against which nothing but babies “can make defense.”

In Sonnet 15, Shakespeare declares all-out “war” on Time. His reason: love. His weapon: art. Shakespeare will do battle with Time armed with only his pen.

And all in war with Time for love of you
As he takes from you, I engraft you new.

As Queen Elizabeth’s reign entered its final decade, Shakespeare celebrated his love for a noble child, calling him variously, the world’s fresh ornament, most rich in youth, beauteous and lovely youth, thy mother’s glass, tender churl, beauteous niggard, profitless usurer, possessed with murderous hate [childlessness = murder], love, my love, sweet love, my true love, Dear my love, Lord of my love, Suns of the world, my all-the-world, all my art, my sovereign, my Rose, my all, all the better part of me, too dear for my possessing, Time’s best jewel, fair friend, sweet boy, and, finally, O thou my lovely boy. 

The sonnets were private, shared at first only with a select few; they were almost lost. How we got them, how they prevailed against Time’s scythe — the sonnets’ origin story — is as fascinating as one might expect. Indeed, the story is as good as any Shakespeare drama.

A Story Rarely Told

At the end of the sixteenth century, a young earl was living in a maelstrom of political intrigue. From an early age, Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton, weighed tempting offers and all-in risks. Shakespeare, connected somehow to this earl, offering loving guidance and unconditional support, put the boy’s/young man’s life into poetry where it would be safe from Time’s scythe.

For some ten years or more, poetry and history intertwined, involving, ultimately, a whole nation. The cast of characters includes Queen Elizabeth herself, Lord Burghley (the Queen’s closest advisor), Burgley’s grand-daughter Elizabeth, the Earl of Essex (Southampton’s friend and ally), and the Earls of Pembroke and Montgomery as well as Shakespeare and Southampton. Love and longing, power and fate, life and death, and the terrifying roller-coaster of Elizabethan politics enlivened the art of England’s greatest poet.

Shakespeare knew all about his greatness — he expected his skill to go toe to toe with Time itself. In Sonnet 32 Shakespeare speaks ironically of his “poor rude lines” that might someday be outstripped by a poet with superior “style” (not bloody likely). But never, he says, will his lines be matched for “love.” Here is the highest of high compliments to his lovely boy: writing for the ages with matchless skill, his talent is nothing next to his love for Southampton.

But the boy was reckless. He lost his friend to an axe he himself dodged only by the slimmest of margins. The sonnets celebrating him hung by a thread. Eventually published, but oddly shunned, the sonnets were as good as dead for more than a century. Eventually, hope triumphed over circumstance and the sonnets returned, as it were, from the grave. To this day, the poems cause trouble.

Their story, the story of the sonnets themselves, has yet to end.


All’s well didn’t end well for Southampton’s friend, the Earl of Essex.

One Thousand Seven Hundred and Sixty-Five Lines of Controversy

No one involved in the modern acrimony over the sonnets is going to lose his head, but wild theories fly like pollen in early spring. The 14-line poems seem to have a Harry Potter-esque curse upon them, placing them always at the nexus of trouble.

We cannot even say with certainty to whom the sonnets were written. Southampton is a very good guess, but one can quibble if one wants to. Shakespeare’s epic poems were overtly and lavishly dedicated to the young earl making him an automatic suspect for the subject of the sonnets. The sonnets contain thirty-six lines repeated almost word for word from the first epic poem. Most importantly, the sonnets fit Southampton’s exciting life quite well. Shakespeare never dedicated anything to anyone else — Southampton was his one and only.

Thus, in 1817, Nathan Drake proposed in print Southampton as the obvious candidate for Shakespeare’s great love. The subject of the sonnets, whoever he is, is usually called the “fair youth” as opposed to “Southampton.” We shall use Shakespeare’s term — “lovely boy.” But we shall assume Drake was right: the “lovely boy” is almost certainly the Earl of Southampton.

We gamble when we assume, but our modest wager rewards us: a coherent and dramatic story is our payback.

Honor, Public and Private

In 1590, Shakespeare’s plays had yet to enliven a printing press. Even so, the bard’s voice had already found its way into the local vernacular: in 1589, the quick-witted hipster Thomas Nashe giddily quipped about “whole Hamlets, I should say handfuls, of tragical speeches.” Nashe had evidently seen Hamlet, talked about Hamlet, and heard what others had to say about Hamlet with enough frequency to make Shakespeare the target of his fun-loving pen.

Nashe did not mention Shakespeare by name which is not surprising given the lack of Shakespeare publications at the time. Finally, in 1593, in the midst of the Southampton marital negotiations, Shakespeare introduced himself to the public with his epic poem Venus and Adonis. It featured a beautiful young man who refuses love and dies. Shakespeare and Southampton are now linked in the public eye.

If your honor seem but pleased,
I account myself highly praised,
and vow to take advantage of all idle hours,
till I