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Listen to the Engineers


Thomas Kuhn explained it. It’s all about paradigms, he said. With apologies to Dr. Kuhn, one might say that scientists load their apples onto carts and push the carts on well-traveled roads over hill and over dale on into the sunset. Science, powerful and efficient, moves forward if not exactly in most exciting way imaginable.

A scientific revolution, what Kuhn called a paradigm shift, is like an earthquake. Afterward, new roads carry altered apple carts filled with apples of a type no one previously imagined.   

Thomas Kuhn, Ph.D. (Harvard 1949) may be rolling in his grave: he did not use an apple cart-earthquake metaphor; we cannot know if he would approve. So let us make amends. Kuhn’s book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, requires a certain amount of commitment to read cover to cover but is eminently quotable. We need some clarity about Kuhnian paradigms before engaging the subject of the present work — false paradigms, or rocks in the apple cart. 

Let us hear about Kuhnian paradigms from ipse, the man himself. Kuhn notes that scientists have plenty to do without trying to change everything. They quite reasonably limit themselves to a conceptual “box” created by their professional education.

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.

One’s job as a “normal” researcher is to make progress.

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

Once a paradigm is established, open questions exist which can be solved by making breakthroughs — big ones and little ones — that aren’t earthquakes.

Under normal conditions the research scientist is not an innovator but a solver of puzzles, and the puzzles upon which he concentrates are just those which he believes can be both stated and solved within the existing scientific tradition.

Kuhnian paradigms are necessary for scientific progress because they offer focus and clarity. If scientists just wandered off in random directions all the time, science wouldn’t function. Until anomalies pile up into a crisis, paradigms work amazingly well.

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 paradigm.

Revolutions, or paradigm shifts, don’t merely solve puzzles or accelerate advances; a paradigm shifts changes the way we see the world. After the shift, an array of never-traveled roads branch out over a landscape we never knew existed: science fiction has become science. 

When the transition is complete, the profession will have changed its view of the field, its methods, and its goals . . . Though the world does not change with a change of paradigm, the scientist afterward works in a different world.

Paradigm shifts, being such monumental things, naturally encounter resistance.

The source of resistance is the assurance that the older paradigm will ultimately solve all its problems, that nature can be shoved into the box the paradigm provides. Inevitably, at times of revolution, that assurance seems stubborn and pigheaded . . . 

Philosophers call it “fear of novelty.” This, and the fact that a Kuhnian paradigm has solved many puzzles already and may even continue to be useful after being superseded, makes Kuhnian paradigms hard to dislodge.

For false paradigms, which are useless from day one, “stubborn and pigheaded” may not fully capture the enormity of the resistance to jettisoning nonsense. When a false paradigm is finally put to rest, sometimes after fierce battle, it’s not a revolution, it’s embarrassing.

Kuhn’s book is a landmark in the quest understanding how science actually works, but Kuhn didn’t treat this important other side of the paradigm coin. If I had to pick a one book to elucidate nonsense occasionally championed by credulous experts, it would have to be James Watson’s famous memoir, The Double Helix. The work has been called “irreverent” and that seems apt.

The young Watson was nonplussed as he was surrounded by scientists more interested in “fuzzy-minded speculations” than actual progress. How could they ignore scientific dynamite?

Almost none of them seemed to take seriously the evidence that genes were made of DNA.

Watson didn’t want an academic position one step removed from parasitism.

It was better to imagine myself becoming famous than maturing into a stifled academic who had never risked a thought.

Many scientists were sure genes were proteins; such foolishness, to Watson, was laughable.   

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.

Watson’s book tells the story of an ambitious young scientist surrounded by peers with rocks in their apple carts too busy tooting their own horns about their insignificant discoveries to notice a great scientific prize there for the taking; clowns with Ph.D.’s stumbling around like blind robbers in Fort Knox evidently made Watson either giggle or gag depending on his mood.

Watson and Crick solved the puzzle and built their famous three-dimensional model of DNA on February 28, 1953. Scientists immediately embraced the structure: the “tinker-toy” model sitting on Crick’s desk fit perfectly into the genetic paradigm established circa 1900 by Gregor Mendel and others who repeated his work and still others who isolated chromosomes. Publication in 1953 was a breeze: the double helix was so beautiful and made so much sense, it had to be right.

Franz de Waal knew early in his career as a primatologist that many of his his fellow scientists were wedded to the idea of underestimating the similarities between humans and other primates, similarities de Waal and his colleagues continue to elucidate as they manage to work effectively in a system in which “authority outweighs evidence” and scientists regularly cling to  “unsupported paradigms.” Like Watson, de Waal is painfully aware of the dark side of science.

The typical scientist has made an interesting discovery early on in his or her career, followed by a lifetime of making sure that everyone else admires his or her contribution and that no one questions it. — The Bonobo and the Atheist

Joao Maguiejo didn’t know what he was in for. He’s a big bang cosmologist, a practitioner of perhaps the most speculative field in all of science. Joao wondered if the speed of light might have been faster in the early universe, if physics itself has evolved. If so, it might explain a lot about the universe as it is now. Joao called his theory VSL for “variable speed of light” and was promptly told it really stood for “very silly.” A number of professional physicists went on to embarrass themselves as they blocked a perfectly reasonable idea worked out in careful mathematical detail. Joao’s book records the battle to get published.

They employed a first-class moron as an editor . . . picture having a scientific argument with a referee behaving as if he had been bitten by a rabid dog . . . many of the criticisms you receive are pointless and simply reflect the view that anything new is bad. — Faster Than the Speed of Light

Joao was not the first VSL physicist. The “constants are constant” false paradigm already had a ten-year track record of blocking VSL. Joao calls VSL “obvious.” He’s right: I thought of it myself as an undergraduate. But when people did the hard work and created a detailed theory, the system blocked it for at least ten years: today VSL is a thriving subfield of cosmology.

Pushing aside dead weight as Watson, de Waal, and Maguiejo did is one thing. But a false paradigm might also be an avalanche; it might block the road of progress semi-permanently. The ulcer debacle is a classic example.

In the 1950’s, almost all medical researchers became convinced that ulcers were caused by too much acid. Thirty years later, Barry Marshall and Robin Warren realized ulcers were actually caused by bacteria. The cure — antibiotics — had been under everyone’s noses the whole time.

But the false paradigm had become so deeply entrenched, it took another ten years to dislodge.  Early in the battle against the “fringe” label, Marshall cultured some ulcer-causing bacteria from a patient and made himself a cocktail. On his knees, vomiting, in his house, his horrified wife watching, Marshall promised her he would cure himself by the weekend. The mother of his young children was not pleased though one imagines she forgave him when the Nobel committee gave him a call in 2005.

Usually, Kuhn’s “normal science” works fine. Dalton and Mendeleev, Galileo and Kepler, and Darwin and Wallace gave us paradigm shifts: the periodic table of the elements; a grand cosmos accessible by telescope; dramatic evolutionary changes remaking species. Today, we make three-dimensional models of molecules with objects that look like toys. We know which pairs of elements make carbon dioxide, water, and methane. We know Uranus is a fifty-earth ball of these three compounds mixed and frozen solid. We’ve discovered other solar systems; soon we hope to learn about their chemistry. 

Going back in time here on earth, Kuhn’s “normal science” tells a story of wild changes in life itself. We know single-celled life appeared soon after earth formed a little over four billion years ago. Then, less than a billion years ago, multi-celled life appeared eventually giving rise to fish, amphibians, reptiles, dinosaurs, and mammals. Fifty million years ago, some of those furry, four-footed mammals returned to the sea: millions of years later, they were manatees (basically aquatic elephants), seals, dolphins, and whales. Some mammals — hippos, capybaras, and proboscis monkeys — transitioned from terrestrial to coastal. Hippos spend half their time in the water; capybaras are diving rodents; proboscis monkeys cross rivers in Borneo aided by partial webbing between their toes. Each story of evolution is more amazing than the last.

The stories of chemistry, astronomy, and evolution indeed could be “scarcely imagined” before the Kuhnian paradigms on which they are based appeared. But this success is tempered by the presence of the false paradigms that led to Watson, de Waal, and Maguiejo’s colorful language. False paradigms are an ongoing plague and need a book all their own: examples abound.

Ocean-sized quantities of methane may or may not exist deep within the earth. Today, scientists who claim to know everything about earthly methane have a long series of incorrect predictions to be embarrassed about. The idea that large amounts of methane (aka natural gas) may be present hundreds of miles beneath the earth’s surface is still just barely acceptable to mention in scientific papers — the “fringe” label looms like the sword of damocles over the heads of scientists who dare question conventional wisdom. We’ll talk methane in Chapter 3.

For all we know, the galaxy is littered with space-junk from non-human civilizations. Scientists who point out that other civilizations may have sent out interstellar probes — humans have sent out five so far — risk being labeled “fringe” as if they are claiming to have bedded an alien. Our galaxy may contain a trillion planets: we don’t know how many civilizations have risen and fallen in the past few billion years. We’ll know more soon as telescopes improve. In Chapter 4, we’ll discuss one observation that elicited some interesting commentary.     

Something happened six million years ago to a group of apes. We don’t know what happened, but we wouldn’t be here if it hadn’t happened. Scientists used to think what drove our ancestors out of the trees was the one-two punch of tools and big brains, but now we know those changes came much later. Today, we look in the mirror and see a straight, soft, smooth, curvy primate and no definitive theory tells us why we look the way we look. The answer may be between your thumb and forefinger, but that’s a “fringe” idea. We’ll talk evolution in Chapter 5.

Before we begin discussing these false paradigms holding us back today, we need a way to recognize them without needing to become experts in this or that field. When a handful of experts challenge their peers on the conventional wisdom, how can we determine when the majority, the authorities, are defending a false paradigm? After all, maybe the rebels are just a bunch of mavericks dying to question everything. We need an identifying framework, a template.

If we can find such a thing, maybe non-experts and experts alike can identify false paradigms before they do too much damage. Maybe, if we get good at doing this, the phenomenon of scientists barking up the wrong tree for decades because they ignore their own colleagues will be more of a rarity than it is now. 

To build our template, we need a “textbook case” of irrational certainty. Such a case exists, a tragedy so terrible and so avoidable that it was studied intently by many people who left behind almost a minute-by-minute account of experts convincing themselves they had certainty or near-certainty when they had nothing of the kind. This case is dramatic, powerful, and frighteningly perfect.

On January 28, 1986, the Challenger space shuttle carrying the first “teacher in space,” Christa McAuliffe, and six professional astronauts, launched in historic Florida cold. Engineers who worked daily with the shuttle’s many components watched with sweaty palms. They knew the launch should not be taking place. A minute into the launch, at least some of the engineers breathed a sigh of relief because the most dangerous part had passed.

But thirteen seconds later, the shuttle exploded as McAuliffe’s students watched on live television. The Presidential Commission convened after the disaster interviewed everyone involved and a consensus emerged about what had happened: the Challenger case offers us rare, perhaps unique, clarity.

On the evening of January 27, 1986, a small group of engineers met to decide whether or not it would be safe to launch the shuttle in the historic cold that gripped Florida. These engineers worked for the Utah contractor that built the solid rocket boosters that powered the shuttle. They made the “launch-or-don’t-launch” decision quite quickly and then spent some time gathering the data accumulated over dozens of shuttle flights so that the decision could be made comprehensible to their bosses and the people at NASA who knew the shuttle but didn’t work with these particular components on a daily basis. 

The engineers suspected pairs of O-rings in six places on the solid rocket booster might not work at low temperatures. If the O-rings don’t seal properly in all six joints, hot propellant gases will ignite in the wrong place: the gases will explode rather than propel. There is always fine line between a rocket and an incendiary device, that is, between a rocket and a bomb. In the case of the space shuttle, the O-rings were that fine line.

The O-rings had occasionally not worked properly on previous flights, bringing these flights close to disaster even as they appeared strikingly successful. The engineers were of course extremely concerned; many people at NASA and at the Utah contractor worried about O-rings. An “O-ring task force” had been created to deal with the ongoing concerns and make suggestions for improving safety. Under the circumstances, there was no way the engineers were going to give the “go” signal for a launch in freezing temperatures. They knew that at some unknown lowish temperature, the O-rings would become too “brick-like” — too stiff — to effectively seal the crucial joints in the rocket.

The engineers gathered their data and let their bosses know the launch would have to be canceled and rescheduled. This was a routine occurrence for shuttle launches because each launch depended on many factors including weather in multiple places — shuttle hardware had to be safely recovered at sea post-launch, an aborted launch had to have a safe landing site, and so forth.

The bosses trusted their engineers. If it was too dangerous to fly, it was too dangerous to fly. The bosses sent a fax to NASA informing officials of the situation. That’s when things went bad.

Technically, the fax sent to NASA was a “recommendation,” but since NASA’s policy was to launch only with contractor approval, the fax was, practically speaking, a cancellation of the launch previously scheduled for the next morning.

NASA’s response surprised everyone: NASA officials questioned a safety postponement. This had never happened before. But now NASA officials rejected the engineers’ recommendation. What started as a careful discussion morphed into contentious debate.

It began with the word “appalled.” A NASA official told the engineers and their bosses in Utah that he was “appalled” by the postponement. Another NASA official, setting aside the concern about O-rings becoming like bricks in the cold, added, “My God! When do you want me to launch, next April?”

The low level of discourse given the life-and-death nature of the decision did not, needless to say, make members of the Presidential Commission happy. The national press too was all over these comments when they came to light. When a mechanic looks at an airplane engine and expresses concern, one does not expect his superiors to make comments about his mother’s footwear, but that’s how NASA’s comments sounded to some people. Cartoonists had a field day. NASA administrators said their statements had been repeated without sufficient context.

The chair of the Commission, William Rogers, let the matter of the possibly inappropriate commentary drop. But NASA challenging the contractor’s recommendation was another matter.

NOTE: This and other excerpts have been edited for clarity. See Appendix A for the relevant full-length exchanges.

COMMISSION CHAIR WILLIAM ROGERS: Do  you remember any other occasion when the contractor recommended against launch and that you persuaded them that they were wrong and had them change their mind?


So the debate was unusual, but maybe the comments made by NASA officials had indeed been taken out of context. However, the next stage of the conversation as recounted to the Commission made these odd-sounding comments seem like part of a pattern.

The engineers pointed to two temperature boundaries that seemed relevant. At one temperature, call it X, a partial O-ring failure brought a previous launch close to disaster. Nothing bad had happened on the flight, but when the solid rocket booster was recovered and examined, engineers got a nasty surprise: thick black soot on the wrong side of a crucial O-ring meant it had nearly failed. They recommended to NASA no flights should take place below temperature X: this is what it said on the first fax NASA received.

The other temperature, call it Y, was the lowest temperature any of the rocket components had been tested at. This temperature was lower than X. Surely, the engineers thought, going below temperature Y should be off the table. This was stated during the debate.

Temperature X was 53 degrees; temperature Y was 40 degrees; temperatures in Florida were going to be in the teens overnight and not much better by morning. No data existed that could predict O-ring behavior degree by degree. The sixty-degree temperatures predicted in a few days would be a lot safer. The engineers couldn’t offer much more than that.

The Commission wanted to know what NASA’s issue was with the engineers’ recommendation.

MULLOY: I didn’t find that argument to be very logical at all.

ROGERS: Why is that not logical if he said why don’t you at least require a 40 degree temperature? You say you didn’t think it was logical. It seems very logical to me.

MULLOY: Not on an engineering basis, sir. If one was concerned about data that said 53 degrees is unsafe, there is certainly no logic for launching at 40 degrees.

This was a surreal moment in the hearings. NASA had rejected both the 53-degree boundary and the 40-degree boundary. The shuttle had exploded. The meaning of the term, “logic,” was now at issue. Rogers moved on and just asked, essentially, “Why did you argue with the engineers?”

NOTE: “Thiokol” is the name of the Utah contractor that built the solid rocket boosters.

ROGERS: What is troubling, very seriously troubling, is why you were sure it was okay to launch. You were not able to convince any of the engineers at Thiokol who were working on this on a daily basis.

MULLOY: I was not aware they were not convinced.

This last statement opened up a new line of inquiry. Half a dozen key NASA officials said they didn’t know the engineers were not convinced. All of these officials said they would not have launched had they known that the engineers had in fact simply been over-ruled by their bosses.

During the two-hour debate between NASA officials and the engineers at Thiokol, opinions were abundantly clear, but then the phone lines were muted and Thiokol managers and engineers spent a half hour discussing whether or not to launch the shuttle on its 25th flight.

None of the engineers wanted the shuttle to launch. One of the four managers, Bob Lund, didn’t want to over-rule them. But Lund’s boss, Jerry Mason, suggested he take off his “engineering hat” and put on his “management hat.”

Bob Lund did as suggested and the four managers unanimously over-ruled the engineers in favor of what NASA seemed to want. They got back on the phone with NASA. The launch was now approved. Executives did all the talking. None of the engineers said a word. Thiokol faxed NASA a document signed by executive Joe Kilminster recommending launch. And that was that.

Commission members were not happy with what everyone agreed upon: the temperature data was not conclusive; O-rings get harder in the cold but this can’t be easily quantified; the lack of knowledge was one reason for launching; the two-hour argument didn’t matter in the end.

COMMISSION MEMBER SALLY RIDE: The engineers’ main problem was that they felt their temperature data was inconclusive. They didn’t have the data to quantify what problems the temperature could cause. They didn’t have proof that it was safe. Did you think you had proof? Did you think you had the data to show it was safe?

COMMISSION MEMBER DONALD KUTYNA: If this were an airplane and I just had a two-hour argument with Boeing on whether the wing was going to fall off or not, I think I would tell the pilot, at least mention it.

NASA officials responded to Ride and Kutyna and other Commission members who pushed them on these points by repeatedly (more than ten times) saying that they had “relied on the fax” from the contractor to make the final decision to launch.

MULLOY: I rely on Mr. Kilminster to make a flight readiness recommendation, and he has been doing that for some twenty-four flights now.

NASA OFFICIAL GEORGE HARDY: I clearly know in my mind and again reiterate the fact that I would not recommend launch over the contractor’s objection.

Ultimately, the (rather bizarre) question about whether or not the lack of conclusive, quantifiable evidence about temperature effects on O-rings was a good reason to launch became a focus of the Commission’s investigation. A clarifying moment came during the Commission hearing of 26 February, four hours and thirty-six minutes into that day’s testimony. 

ROGERS: How do you explain the fact that you seemed to change your mind when you changed your hat?

THIOKOL EXECUTIVE BOB LUND: I guess we have to go back a little further . . . I had never had those kinds of things come from the people at NASA. And so we got ourselves into the thought process that we were trying to prove to them it wouldn’t work and we were unable to do that. We couldn’t prove it absolutely.

ROGERS: In other words, you honestly believed that you had a duty to prove that it would not work?

LUND: Well, that is kind of the mode we got ourselves into that evening. It seems like we had always been in the opposite mode. I should have detected that, but I did not. The roles kind of switched.

COMMISSION MEMBER JOSEPH SUTTER: Why didn’t you just tell them it’s our decision, and this is it, and not respond to the pressure?

LUND: As a quarterback on Monday morning, that is probably what I should have done, but you know you work with people and you develop some confidence and I have great confidence in the people at NASA.

COMMISSION MEMBER ARTHUR WALKER: But when it was predicted the temperature at launch was going to be twenty-nine degrees, the O-ring was outside of qualification.

LUND: That is correct.

WALKER: Then how could you make the recommendation to launch if you were more than ten degrees outside of your lowest temperature qualification?

LUND: Our original recommendation, of course, was not to launch.

ROGERS: But something caused you to change your mind. What was it?

LUND: I guess one of the big things was that we really didn’t know whether temperature was the driver or not. The data was inconclusive.

COMMISSION MEMBER RICHARD FEYNMAN: But logically, from the point of view of the engineers, they were explaining why the temperature would have an effect, and when you don’t have conclusive data, you have to use reason, and they were giving reasons.

LUND: That’s right and that is why we included in the fax the fact that temperature could have an effect on the O-rings.

COMMISSION MEMBER ROBERT RUMMEL: I have great difficulty with this. In the usual practice, when there is any real doubt about flight safety, you simply don’t, and it seems to me this is the reverse, and I just have great difficulty understanding your answer. I just haven’t heard it as to why, if there was any doubt in your mind, why you went ahead, why you changed your mind. I just don’t understand it.

At this point, the chair intervened and said Bob Lund had been questioned sufficiently. Lund’s boss, Jerry Mason, the creator of the “hat” analogy, testified along much the same lines.

THIOKOL EXECUTIVE JERRY MASON: In every flight we have had to break some frontiers.

RIDE: The time you go through frontiers is during testing, not during the flight. That’s the way it’s supposed to work.

WALKER: Twenty-five degrees outside of your experience base is a large extrapolation.

MASON: That is the certainly the reason we had the extensive debate. We listened to all the arguments and we found ourselves in a position of some uncertainty that we were not able to quantify.

COMMISSION MEMBER DAVID ACHESON: It comes down to a point of view that says the burden of proof is on the people who want to stop the launch.

MASON: Since the incident, we have been searching our minds and our souls on the question of did we address it properly. You know, everyone has said if I could have stopped it, I wish I had. But here we are, trying to present the thought process that we went through that day rather than what we could do over.

The Commission concluded that better communication would have made a launch “highly unlikely” given that Thiokol engineers spent two hours arguing that the likelihood of O-rings failing and the shuttle exploding was too high in freezing temperatures only to run head-on into demands for “conclusive” and “quantitative” data.     

The Commission imagined better communication within the NASA hierarchy. But we wish to focus on the debate itself to see where things went off the rails in a rhetorical sense.

The launch was more or less a coin toss and the engineers knew it. But they couldn’t prove it and so they didn’t say it so starkly. They stuck to the cold, hard facts about the cold, hard O-rings. That was their training. That’s what they were hired to do. But they clearly knew just the same. 

They didn’t say, “Don’t even think about launching.” Maybe it was a matter of minding their places. They didn’t try to take over. They respected the hierarchy.

One of the engineers, the one on-site in Florida, did say this to NASA officials: “If anything happens to this launch, I wouldn’t want to be the person that has to stand in front of a Board of Inquiry.” He received for his trouble a pat on the head: “It’s not your concern.”

In Utah, after Bob Lund changed his mind, two engineers got out of their chairs. They stood next to their still-seated bosses and laid down photographs of the damaged O-rings from a launch with temperatures in the low fifties. “Look carefully at these photographs,” one of them said. All they got were cold stares. 

Engineer Bob Ebeling watched from his chair. He didn’t think the launch was even as safe as a coin toss. He had assisted in the initial presentation to NASA. After his colleagues failed to get anyone to listen to them, Ebeling left the office, went home, and boiled it all down for his wife, Darlene in five words: “It’s going to blow up.”

Ebeling died in 2016 at the age of 89. Before he died, he told the world via an NPR interview that he had never forgiven himself for his inability to convince those who needed convincing. “He shouldn’t have picked me for the job,” the former Thiokol engineer said. Ebeling was talking about God. “He picked a loser,” Ebeling said.

Nobel laureate Richard Feynman, one of the physicists on the Commission, believed the problems at NASA ran deep. He didn’t mince words when he concluded his appendix to the Commission’s report as follows: “Reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled.”

Feynman believed overzealous launch schedules in pursuit of public relations encouraged NASA officials to ignore reality. NASA administrators, he wrote, had been engaging in “fantasy” when it came to safety concerns. During the hearings, he called the process by which NASA accepted more and more risk as the number of successful flights increased “a kind of Russian roulette” and this comment became part of the Commission’s main report.

The Challenger tragedy is for us a touchstone for irrationality in general and also a touchstone for a pointless form of debating in which one or both “sides” cleaves to a preconceived notion and cannot be moved. We have before us a “textbook case” of how not to think.    

We’ve already laid the groundwork for the template we will construct in Chapter 1. In Chapter 2, we will see how the template fares when put up against the already-resolved ulcer debacle. In Chapters 3-6 we will use our template to elucidate four ongoing cases in which a majority of experts claims certainty in the face of rebellion from some of their own colleagues.

All of us, the present author included, have learned a great deal of “conventional wisdom” that we quite reasonably accept — after all, if the vast majority of experts are absolutely certain of a thing, surely they must have solid evidence. Sometimes they do; but sometimes they don’t.

Fortunately, one does not have to be an expert to recognize when the experts are fooling themselves. Our template, together with arguments made by rebellious experts, will help us to see what is going on. But it is the majority experts’ own arguments that will be crucial for us. This essay will claim that spotting guesswork masquerading as certainty is as easy as seeing sparks fly from a magician’s wand.

Shakespeare’s Titania offers a fanciful and cautionary tale. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Titania, under a spell, falls in love with an ass. Among scientists, professors, and scholars of all types, a false paradigm often takes root after the equivalent of a “spell” has been cast. 

(The ability of Shakespeare to have Titania/Queen Elizabeth fall in love with an ass has caused some controversy among academics a small number of whom believe Shakespeare had to have had a direct connection to the Queen in order say essentially anything he wanted and get away with it: this “audacity” — as Harold Bloom called it — means different things to different scholars. The controversy has majority scholars bragging about the “walls” they’ve built to block dissent. This will be the topic of Chapter 6.)

A false paradigm “spell” is not performed by a magical creature of the forest: it is a finding or claim that is taken as definitive without good reason. The claim might be made by an especially highly regarded individual or it may be nothing more than a wild guess that stuck around so long everyone saw it as an evidence-based theory even though it’s asinine. 

When rebellious experts begin questioning the false paradigm, when they point fingers and cite evidence or even prove it dead wrong, the “spell” would seem to have worn off. But now the rebels have a new enemy: pride, the same pride that made the proverbial emperor strut naked.

The real-life emperors we will meet in what follows claim to be absolutely sure they are fully clothed in spite of polite comments from wide-eyed colleagues. Professor-emperors with storied careers in positions of authority like to say their rebellious colleagues are nuisances. But they act as if they fear the results of even a brief downward glance.

The emperors instinctively cover sensitive areas. “I am most certainly not naked,” they say. Their arguments are quite convincing though not in the way they would like. Sometimes false paradigms are so obvious it makes me blush. Some emperors are not just naked: some are naked, covered with oil, and dancing on tables.

Chapter 1: The Four Horsemen of the False Paradigm


The battle to block VSL followed the pattern we will see in the ten examples we will look at here (I guess VSL is our “zeroth” example). The first thing you have to do if you want to prevent all creativity, block all original thought, push hard the idea that “anything new is bad” (that’s from Joao’s book) is get away from evidence. The best way to get away from evidence is to start with insults like “very silly” and move on to nonsense. Joao describes some of his colleagues as behaving like “rabid dogs.”

Next those whose lifework is to defend tradition can move into the evidence-based part of the battle. The key is to reverse the burden of proof. In other words, the old theory is right as long as it is possible that it is right. You are the authority so possible is good enough. If you can create plausible scenario, even if you have to make it up, even if your scenario is unprecedented, intrinsically unlikely, and/or just plain idiotic, that doesn’t matter.

The old theory or the preconceived notion is automatically assumed to be true unless the challengers have absolute, 100%, perfect, untouchable, video-and-audio-and-fifty-eye-witness proof that their new theory is right, the old theory will continue to be the standard no matter how weak it is. Reversal of burden of proof happens all the time.

In science the burden of proof is not supposed to be placed on any particular scientist but often is. The claim is often made, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” where an “extraordinary claim” is any idea that isn’t the old idea. In Joao’s case, his claim that the speed of light might not be constant over astronomical timescales was treated as “extraordinary.” However, physicists have zero idea about this: there is nothing even slightly extraordinary about the claim. Either the speed of light evolved or it didn’t. We just don’t know.

In a courtroom, the burden of proof is supposed to be placed on the prosecution. And yet legal scholars know well that juries can easily drop “innocent until proven guilty” and drift into “guilty unless proven innocent.” All it takes is a taste of a preconceived notion and suddenly a jury is perfectly willing to believe someone who has a provocative tattoo is guilty of murder even when there is no real evidence. People can die as a result.

This process in which evidence is first ignored via insults and nonsense and in which burden of proof is used as a weapon to elevate plausible scenarios for the mainstream and crush even very solid evidence presented by the mainstream’s rebellious colleague is something we will see again and again. I call insults, nonsense, plausible scenarios, and demands for perfection the “four horsemen of the false paradigm.”

A “false paradigm” might be a preconceived notion or an outdated theory or just a plain old mistake or even an unstated assumption that has been accepted by so many people for so long that it has become entrenched. It might come from a time before there was any real evidence either for or against it and it might have become entrenched just by happenstance. A mountain of new evidence might contradict it to the point where if it were proposed now, it would just be laughed it.

In Joao’s case, he ran into an unstated assumption that the speed of light has been constant from the beginning of the universe. It wasn’t even a theory, it was just what was in the back of physicists’ minds because the speed of light is called a physical constant and “constant” must mean constant forever. But of course it means no such thing. In the Challenger case, the false paradigm was a preconceived notion — the shuttle is safe unless I see it actually explode.

We will look at a false paradigm that resulted from a mistake made by a medical researcher that was accepted as fact and that persisted for forty years while people (including my great uncle) died from a curable illness. We will look at a false paradigm in chemistry that was a guess made before chemistry was even invented and that has persisted to the present day as common knowledge even though modern chemistry has pretty much proven the old guess to be a dead end useless theory that scientists regularly champion but never actually use. In this case, a number of credentialed experts have stated a simple and compelling alternative theory — I’ve spent years looking for any coherent refutation of this alternative idea and have found nothing but insults, nonsense, plausibility arguments, and demands for perfection.

False paradigms can be identified of course by mainstream “four horsemen” arguments. But false paradigms also have a two interesting precursor characteristics that can allow for a “quick and dirty” identification. The first question to ask is, “What happens if you reverse the hierarchy?” In the Challenger case disaster would have been averted by simply asking Christa McAuliffe (or one of her high school students) to weigh in. In Joao’s case, any student studying physics could be asked whether or not we should consider the possibility that physical constants can evolve and all would say “of course.” Only the arduous process of becoming a tenured professor would cause someone to worry that the idea is too “radical.”

The other trick aside from a hierarchy reversal (or just asking yourself what happens if we reverse the hierarchy) is to check to see if the theory you suspect is a false paradigm is actually ever used and if it is used, it is being used successfully. There are, after all, many useful paradigms in engineering, medicine, and science and they become deeply entrenched not simply because a lot of people accept them but because they are amazingly useful. These paradigms I call “Kuhnian paradigms” after the philosopher Thomas Kuhn who wrote The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. 

Kuhn made a strong case that paradigms used by experts are good things even if they are a little rigid sometimes because they are so powerful that they allow experts to make progress that would be impossible if said experts were constantly questioning the paradigm. So Kuhn’s book might be said to be about the bright side of the paradigm coin.

False paradigms are the dark side. They are NOT useful or powerful. And their lack of value and power is often evident because a false paradigm might have never even been proposed before it was needed to block someone’s idea — it might have been made up just for the occasion. Or a false paradigm might have been accepted for a long time but effectively ignored by researchers who have to ignore it because if they didn’t, they would get stuck and never make any progress. Or a false paradigm might get used a lot with horrific results.

In the Challenger case the theory that “the space shuttle is safe” was brand new. The engineers who were used to the essentially the opposite assumption — space flight is dangerous — normally had to prove to skeptical people at NASA that this or that concern had been adequately addressed. They were blindsided by the sudden appearance of a new (false) paradigm, one that hadn’t existed before that day in 1986.

In Joao’s case too, the false paradigm he had to deal with — the speed of light is constant on astronomical timescales — might have been a tacit assumption in the backs of the minds of many physicists but was never a theory. Joao, like the space shuttle engineers, was fighting a ghost, a theory that came into existence just to stop him from publishing.

The medical case in which people died for forty years because of a mistake we will see came about because of a false paradigm that took hold but was largely useless: doctors used it to try to help people but usually failed. In the chemistry case, the false paradigm has simply been ignored: the theory is probably wrong but this fact has little practical impact because no one uses it to do anything which is a good reason to consider moving on (aka getting off the table and getting dressed). I doubt either of these theories could have convinced students if they, the students, were allowed to form any opinion they wanted to: again, sometimes only tenured professors are vulnerable to false paradigms.

So we’ve got our two precursors: a previously nonexistent or useless theory might be a false paradigm; a theory that would instantly crumble with a reversed hierarchy might be a false paradigm. And we’ve got our four horsemen. If the mainstream is challenged by their own colleagues and they respond with insults backed up by nonsense, gibberish, foaming mouths, circular reasoning, and wild illogic we can then expect two more horsemen to come forth and mindlessly defend the status quo with plausible scenarios presented as certainties and demands that all new idea be perfect and proven beyond doubt.

False paradigms are, this essay hopes to show, self refuting. As a result, this essay claims, they are  not only easy to identify but this identification can be established by any thoughtful group of people via consensus: no clever debating is necessary. Members of this hypothetical “thoughtful group of people” might disagree about the probability of the mainstream’s false paradigm someday being proven correct after all (50%, 10%, 1% or 0%) but, I claim, can agree on the status of the paradigm as false — as an idea claimed by experts to be virtually certain that is in fact very much up in the air and that is disputed by a minority of experts.

Of course, there may be false paradigms that are accepted by all experts but those are, as the saying goes, “beyond the scope of this work.” It’s hard enough dealing with the false paradigms for which there is extensive minority expert commentary explaining why the mainstream has mired itself in cement. Trying to marshal one’s facts in the case of a suspected false paradigm and making the crucial first step of determining what common ground exists for all observers is just too hard without credentialed experts who have weighed in. “Too hard” doesn’t mean “impossible” of course but we’re not going to attempt it here: all four of the modern false paradigms we discuss have extensive expert analysis and a clear common set of facts for us to work with.

Before we see how the four horsemen killed seven people aboard the Challenger and before we walk through the graveyard populated with the victims of five other false paradigms and before we look at how the lack of a culture of open discussion in our scholarly community has led to the adoption of at least four false paradigms by practically the whole world, it behooves us to have look at Kuhn’s work. After all, he coined the term paradigm shift and my use of the word “paradigm” was inspired by his work.

Kuhnian paradigms are as different from false paradigms as can be imagined: when a Kuhnian paradigm is overthrown, that’s a scientific breakthrough and everything changes, but when a false paradigm is finally cast off, progress continues as before but without the ball and chain of a dead end idea. But, as the reader has undoubtedly guess, there is an important connection between the two side of the paradigm coin.







Each of these cases will have its own “Monday morning quarterback” moment, the commentary from the mainstream that reveals why they are not susceptible to discussion, logic, evidence, or even reality itself. In the Challenger case, part of the tragedy is that the engineers — many of whom still feel guilty today because they weren’t able to get through to their colleagues — didn’t know what they were up against.

Part of the motivation of this essay is to provide us with some understanding of just how bad bad can get when a preconceived notion gets its jaws around our experts. With understanding may come strategies for reform and improvement to systems and for dealing with mindless resistance to reality when it does rear its head. We’ll discuss some of these strategies in the following chapter.


Insults, nonsense, perfection, plausibility. Get away from evidence. Reversal of burden of proof.

Reverse hierarchy, squash dissent, ignore own theory, adjust theory.

Rating system








To understand the ubiquity of folly we will look at six examples from the past in which intelligent, credentialed, upstanding, experienced, authoritative, good-looking, well-dressed, well-paid, well-spoken, professional, decorated, titled, highly respected, thoughtful, decent, caring, knowledgeable experts claimed absolute certainty. In these six cases, the fools weren’t so lucky. People died, in some cases a lot of people.

Armed with the six horrific lessons and having examined the commonalities that bind them together, we will next look at four non-life-threatening examples of egregious folly with which we are beset right now, today. These are four ideas that intelligent, credentialed, upstanding, . . . etc., people have saddled us with, four ideas that just about everyone takes for granted.

In all four ongoing cases, a minority of credentialed experts have rebelled against their colleagues and have pointed out that the emperor is stark naked and covered with grease. These classic nude emperors strut with such smug certainty that they are basically caressing shiny quivering bodies to the point of deeply embarrassing obscenity. We’re way beyond walking around in underwear. It’s actually a little gross.

In all four cases we will examine, a majority of respected emperors have shouted down their own colleagues claiming certainty or near-certainty displaying a level of unbridled hubris that makes me happy no lives are at stake. No lives are at stake. And yet sometimes if feels that lives are at stake. The four ongoing cases are all in academia involving research and evidence and knowledge and experience and so forth. All four bits of overstated certainty have become common knowledge to the general public and serve as stark reminders of the power of experts immersed in hierarchies to deceive themselves and us.

In all four cases, credentialed professionals have not only silenced many of their own colleagues who have independently put forth carefully reasoned, evidence-based arguments that in some cases almost reach the level of proof (!) but the naked, shiny people atop professional hierarchies have also been amazingly effective at labeling interesting ideas as “fringe” by engaging in tactics commonly used by schoolyard bullies.

As a result, you have to be pretty open-minded to read this essay especially if you skip past the six already resolved false paradigms which prepare the reader to accept the possibility that usually intelligent authorities can be out of their minds sometimes and can fool a whole world. Propaganda is a powerful thing and it’s not just on the radio.

Now any bright new idea can be made to look interesting and/or plausible so one cannot risk embracing a cool new idea just because it is cool and new and advanced by this or that expert — all fields have their mavericks and they can’t always be taken at face value even if they are credentialed. In the four cases we will examine, it is the mainstream’s response to their rebel colleagues that really opens one’s eyes. When the mainstreamers make the rebels’ arguments for them, one really has to begin to wonder. Indeed, in all four cases it is as if the mainstreamers know deep down that something really is rotten in the state of Denmark.

They seem to know but they just can’t bring themselves to admit it even though in many cases the rebels are merely asking the mainstream to take their own, mainstream, research seriously. It often seems like their shouldn’t be such a bitter controversy at all because there is so much common ground.

One might look at a well-reasoned, evidence-based challenge to conventional wisdom put forward by multiple independent credentialed experts working at accredited institutions all over the world and wonder why the discussion of the issue can’t simply take place in mainstream professional journals. Eventually, a consensus would be reached. Why would the mainstream build walls blockading their own colleagues and then brag about the walls they’ve built?

Sometimes, looking at what the mainstreamers and the rebels say, one wonders what the fight is about. Tradition vs progress? Pride? What’s going on? It’s truly bizarre and this essay won’t answer these questions.

When one reads the mainstream’s responses to their colleagues (who must often create their own minority journals), one might feel a little embarrassed. In some (or all) of these cases, mainstreamers aren’t just naked and covered with oil, they can be seen dancing on tables in crowded restaurants. Now I’m no prude and I think if you want to strip and dance in public, well okay. I don’t care what your body looks like. If you want to have fun and there are no children around, go for it.

But a professional journal seems to me a sacred place like a church or temple or mosque or other place of worship. Does the dancing really have to extend to professional journals? Surely professors who are the keepers of the chalice of rationality can respectfully discuss — with the help of impartial journal editors acting as referees — any topic of interest.

But they can’t and they don’t. And I don’t know why.

I considered “Dancing Naked on a Table in Public” as the title of this book but decided that might be misleading for some readers and deeply disappointing for other readers. So I settled on the less provocative term false paradigm to describe what happens when experts say they are sure of something when really they aren’t at all sure and might well be wrong, when they say they are so sure that they feel justified building walls, and when they brag about the walls they’ve built.

I don’t know if I can convince journal editors to act as impartial referees as opposed to rabid fans. I don’t think I can. I’m hoping to convince students that this should be that case so that when the students become professors and when they have some power, maybe they will insist on open-minded journals as opposed to ones surrounded by walls of pure mindless, status-conscious, knee-jerk drivel.

I should note for the readers benefit that my evident frustration with journals is much more general than personal. I’ve only published one academic paper as sole author and it was accepted just fine by a journal. I explained the Twin Paradox in relativity in an especially simple way and the journal and the referees were fine with it. That same journal then asked me to referee someone else’s paper and I had to recommend rejection because several of the calculations were just plain wrong. I don’t think I had the final say on that particular paper and I don’t know if the author was able to correct his equations and get his work published. I say all this to make it clear that I have no problem with the idea of journals and referees and so forth. My problem is when I read about challenges to conventional wisdom that I would immediately publish if I were a journal editor and I find out there’s a wall.

A perfect example, sort of a zeroth example for us as it is not one of the ten false paradigms we will study in detail, is discussed in a book called Faster Than the Speed of Light written by a physicist working in the highly speculative field of big bang cosmology (how the universe may have begun). He and other physicists independently realized that the speed of light, although it doesn’t seem to evolve or change as time goes on relative to the other physical constants, may have been faster 14 billion years ago when the universe may have looked a lot different from how it looks now.

Actually going faster than the speed of light would be a Kuhnian paradigm shift and would be revolutionary like turning off gravity or controlling the electric force to the point where you could walk through a wall or something absolutely crazy like that. That level of revolution may happen in a hundred years or in a million years when our descendants (if any) will look a lot different from us or it may never happen. But this physicist was just pointing out that we don’t actually know that the physical constants are constant on astronomical timescales and, if the speed of light was faster billions of years ago, that may explain some of the features of our current universe.

I know for a fact that many physicists had this same idea. It is, as the author of the book points out, rather obvious: a fast speed of light makes the universe much more connected, effectively smaller and therefore more homogeneous and this can help a lot with big bang theory. Of course actually creating a detailed theory of a variable speed of light (VSL) is quite difficult and only a handful of people did it.

They were all blockaded by their own colleagues and not because they had their equations wrong but simply because their theory differed from the conventional wisdom which was that the homogeneity of the universe was explained by a rapid expansion of the universe that happened 14 billion years ago called “inflation” which is an ad hoc plausible theory that helps the big bang theorists come out with coherent models but is far from proven.

Nevertheless, it took ten years or more before VSL became the thriving sub-field it is today. Why would professional physicists working in the most speculative area in all of physics stop their colleagues from pursuing interesting new ideas? Was it simply because no physicist had ever tried to discuss the possible evolution of physical constants? Is a physical constant to a narrow-minded physicist like mommy and daddy, always perfect and never changing?

I don’t know what the problem was.

Our goal will be to begin to create a template that will help us identify false paradigms. We will look at six false paradigms of the past — horrific but now resolved though not without great human cost — in order to identify commonalities. What is the fingerprint of a false paradigm?

I must note here that identifying a false paradigm is not the same as proving it wrong. Experts can be absolutely sure of something they have no business being sure of and be right and then smugly say, “I told you so,” even though they were just lucky. Then again, the mainstream, which seems unduly enamored of absolute certainty (let’s face it sometimes a group of mainstreamers all hot and bothered about their precious theory act like teenage boys at a bikini contest disguised wrinkled professors wearing staid ties) seems to crash and burn again and again.

Another important note: false paradigms are NOT the same as Kuhnian paradigms. The paradigms Thomas Kuhn talked about in his famous book and the idea of a paradigm shift are MUCH bigger deals that false paradigms. A false paradigm is simply a dead end that has hobbled a field. It may have killed people. When a false paradigm is finally thrown out, scholars can breathe a sigh of relief and get on with their work; there’s been no breakthrough.

First, creative and clever insults are made almost ubiquitous by a mainstream that becomes dedicated not pursuing reality or humanity or safety or life but to power and control. Anyone can throw around an insult or two when they are arguing a point, but the insults, in the case of a false paradigm, take on a different character. When a false paradigm is holding court, insults are not just primal but primary, they become central to the “argument” made by the ruling class and are repeated again and again like talking points in politics.

Once the credentialed professionals making reasoned arguments about the possibility that maybe their colleagues have been barking up the wrong tree for a long time (or are killing people) have been put in their place by insults, the people who care only about winning the argument throw spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks. They know they can make up nonsense faster than it can be refuted and they use this fact to their advantage. Mainstream arguments supporting false paradigms contain overt circular reasoning, wordplay utterly devoid of logic, and clever zingers presented as if they end all possibility of discussion. Sometimes even utter nonsense is shamelessly stated or put in print and then repeated with straight faces even after it has been embarrassingly refuted.

Again, a real argument might have mistakes in logic or wordplay but in the false paradigm world sometimes the entire argument boils down to “we know we’re right because we’re right and therefore we’re right.”

Insults and nonsense are just the warmup. No theory or knowledge is perfect, so any rebel argument can be attacked on this entirely correct basis. The mainstream, defending a false paradigm that may only have a one percent chance of being true will demand that any alternative theory be proven beyond any doubt whatsoever in order to be published. Sometimes they will say this in writing. The “your theory isn’t perfect” approach is quite powerful because, after all, it is always true — no theory is perfect. This trick is used in politics all the time. No policy is perfect so whoever is pushing the policy can be said to “not care” about the people because this policy will have this or that (very real) negative effect.

Finally, we see in all false paradigms pushed by a terrified mainstream, the ubiquitous plausibility argument. Anything is possible. Any theory might be true. We know our theory is true (circular reasoning) and so this or that problem with it “must be” explainable by this or that possible scenario (plausibility argument). Sometimes the entire mainstream theory is one long possible scenario. If you are in power and in control of professional journals and have a death grip on professional and public opinion, all you have to do is create a “must be the case” scenario in which your theory is true and then that’s it, you’re done and you can go home and continue your work whilst ignoring the useless theory you are defending to your dying day.

Even before looking at what mainstream false paradigm warriors say, a failed idea can be identified by one or more of the following four precursors. First, a false paradigm may be strongly touted but not actually used in practice. Second, false paradigms often require constant extreme adjustment to fit new facts. Third, false paradigms can’t tolerate challenge; dissent must be squashed, sometimes viciously. Finally, if a reversal of the hierarchy dooms an idea, it may be a false paradigm.

Suppose your teacher is boarding a space shuttle. Suppose you are told that the engineers who are asked to sign off on the safety of the launch have unanimously said, “No way can we launch today because, under the present circumstances, the launch is a live-or-die coin toss for which the astronauts did not sign up; if we launch, heads says all is well, tails says the shuttle explodes takeoff so we need to postpone the launch.”

Those weren’t the exact words of the engineers. We will quote them precisely below. But they said words to that effect. No sane person would launch. You would not. I would not. Christ McAuliffe’s students would not. The fact that building space shuttles is rocket science is irrelevant: the launch-or-don’t-launch decision process is NOT rocket science. Anyone can see that the engineers should be listened to.

As part of our work towards understanding false paradigms, we will examine the arguments from atop the hierarchy, the arguments that killed seven people. We will see that they began with insults. They then threw logic to the four winds. That was the warmup. Next, they carefully and correctly and mindlessly and fatally pointed out very real imperfections in the engineers’ knowledge. Finally, the top people in the hierarchy squeezed out a perfectly sound plausible case for the possibility that the shuttle might not explode based on real experience with the actual shuttleOn this basis, the engineers were over-ruled.

It sounds absurd and it is absurd and it really happened and it happens all the time. It’s difficult to capture in words how absurd it all is. Writing a longish essay about this phenomenon as it applies to the whole world may help me to get a handle on the absurdity of it all OR it will do nothing of the kind.

I like to imagine asking one of Christa McAuliffe’s students to make the final launch decision. It’s reversing the hierarchy. One needn’t actually do this; one needs only to remember that reversing the hierarchy or imagining the hierarchy reversed offers one a certain amount of wisdom to which one might not otherwise have access.

I was a teacher for a long time and I did teach my students but I like to say I learned as much from them as I ever taught to them. And I really did. Hierarchies are okay. I do know more physics and more calculus than most of my students did. But they still had plenty to teach me. A child’s voice would have been helpful on that day cold day in January.

“Daddy, why are they doing to the count-down when the engineers say not to?”

No matter how much I learn about the Challenger disaster I can’t answer that simple question. Maybe there is no answer. What is clear however, is that it happens all the time. Hierarchical thinking if that’s what you want to call it is commonplace. It’s a ball and chain attached either to our throats or our ankles. When it isn’t killing people, it is hobbling in our quest for understanding.

False paradigms, this essay hopes to demonstrate, besiege the world. Experts say they are certain or nearly certain about this or that thing that may be life-and-death or extremely important or just interesting and the world accepts the judgment handed down from on high.

Again and again we find the Kings of the Land of Absolute Certainty have colleagues pointing out their folly. But the Kings control the discussion. Dissent gets squashed. False paradigms rule.

False paradigms of the past will illuminate for us false paradigms of the present. After cutting our teeth as it were on six “ghosts of false paradigms past,” and after mourning the people who died as a result of these false paradigms we will examine four false paradigms currently wrapped around our ankles but so far not killing anyone.

Four ideas that most of us have taken to heart because we have trusted the hierarchy of experts are actually no nearly so certain as certain Kings would have us believe. And lots of credentialed experts trained by those very Kings are saying so with well-reasoned evidence-based commentary definitely solid enough to be worthy of publication in professional journals. But dissent gets blocked.

I have a rating system that I will apply to the false paradigms of the past and that readers may choose to use (or not use) to rate the false paradigms of the present.

My rating system is morbid, maybe too morbid. The morbidity came about because the false paradigms of the past that we will discuss killed so many people. It’s true that the four false paradigms of the present that we will discuss haven’t killed anyone yet but I nevertheless can’t accept them as part a natural part of the process by which we, by hook and by crook, try to understand the world.

Even false paradigms that don’t kill seem terribly dangerous to me. Suppose I say the Moon is made of green cheese and then suppose I insist that everyone who studies the Moon accepts that idea. Okay, I’m an emperor with no clothes. Eventually I will be laughed at. But for the time being, I’m controlling how people are allowed to think. The emperor story ends with people laughing. I just don’t think real-life thought control stories end that way and I think the past false paradigms that killed people can come back in another form if we aren’t careful about how we think.

Let’s start with the launch of the Challenger space shuttle carrying Christa McAuliffe and six professional astronauts. Shuttles don’t launch unless everyone involved says a successful launch is a near-certainty. The temperature was 20 degrees above zero Fahrenheit, the O-rings were frozen, and the low-ranking experts closest to the actual day-to-day implementation of the technology said it was a coin toss whether or not the O-rings would leak on takeoff and cause the shuttle to explode: they had reams of evidence supporting this view point and they were unanimous.

The shuttle actually might have launched successfully even under those circumstances. It’s hard to do real estimate of what the actual probabilities were because we can’t set up a hundred similar situations and do the experiment. But a coin toss is an okay guess about how dangerous this way. So the people who over-ruled the engineers were claiming near-certainty about a coin toss and they had zero reason for doing this. They had no evidence, no dissent from with the ranks of the engineers. They didn’t even claim to have anything. They just decided.

Claiming certainty when it’s really a toss-up gets a “one space shuttle” rating whether or not it’s a life-or-death situation.

It gets worse of course. Certainty is sometimes claimed when it isn’t even a toss-up. Suppose it was forty below zero outside. The O-rings might seal. Anything is possible. Now there’s maybe a ten percent chance the shuttle won’t blow up. Russian roulette with five bullets in a six shooter would offer better odds. I know! Let’s launch anyway.

Claiming near-certainty when there’s only a 10% chance you are correct and ignoring your professional colleagues who point this out to you gets a “two space shuttle” rating. Amazingly, even this happens all the time. Sometimes people die, sometimes the world is numbed by mindlessness.

Is that as bad as it gets? Well, no.

It’s forty below zero AND the O-rings are visibly leaking. At best there’s a one percent chance of a successful launch. Let’s launch anyway. Why? Because we’re absolutely sure. A doctor in Vienna in the 19th century figured out that hand-washing before delivering babies could save thousands of women from “childbed fever” which you might call “I didn’t wash my hands and my patient died fever.” He pretty much proved his point. He was run out of town, literally. It took additional decades before doctors figured it out. Sure, it wasn’t exactly clear what was going on because no one knew about germs, not even the doctor who figured out hand-washing, but the bottom line is this: he knew and he had almost complete proof.

Lest you think “three space shuttle” certitude is something we’ve outgrown, something very similar happened again in the 20th century and people died, again, for no reason, my great uncle included. You may decide one of the ongoing false paradigm cases deserves a “three space shuttle authorities claim certainty but they are almost certainly wrong” rating. That will be your call.

Finally, we reach the horrific “four space shuttle” level. Your theory or idea or claim is utter nonsense and always has been. There is zero chance you and your colleagues are anything but charlatans though you all may have convinced yourselves that you are “real scientists.” And you’ve convinced a whole system or even a whole world that you are correct with your theory or idea or claim. You think, for example, you can determine arson from patterns in burn marks. You convince the U.S. legal system. People wind up on death row based on the testimony of your “arson investigators.” A man is executed in Texas in 2004.

“I didn’t murder my three children,” the man says as the poison goes into his vein. A year later, the U.S. court system bans “arson investigation” from its hallowed halls now permanently stained with the blood of a broken-hearted innocent. The New Yorker covers the story. Sixty Minutes does a piece on it. The Innocence Project is well aware.

But are we? Could anyone launch a space shuttle in forty below weather with visibly leaking O-rings and then, AFTER the shuttle explodes with the cockpit intact, would anyone watch it arc into the Atlantic Ocean with the crew inside still alive and say, “Oh, it’ll be okay.”?

Well, yes, we did do that, metaphorically. We allowed for many years in court a procedure with no more validity than Madame Trelawney’s tea-leaf reading: arson investigation by eye with no chemical testing. Todd Willingham was executed in the United States in the 21st century on the basis of “pour patterns” which don’t actually exist in real life. Todd had some things to be grateful for: while he lived and before death row and before the fire he had his three babies whom he loved more than anything he ever knew in his life. Nevertheless, very few people suffer as Todd Willingham suffered. Todd’s totally pointless death gets four space shuttles.

Christa McAuliffe and the rest of the crew actually did survive the explosion. They died instantly when the cockpit slammed into the Atlantic Ocean. No one is on record as having claimed they would survive such a crash but if someone can approve the launch in the first place, I suppose that person is capable of anything.

The Challenger crew died because an administrator at NASA and four top bosses at Morton Thiokol (that’s the company that built the engines) lost sight of reality just as I did when I pulled the switch on that magnet AND when reality was pointed out to them by their own colleagues, they didn’t budge.

How can professionals avoid losing sight of reality. First of all, they can resolve to listen to their junior colleagues. Full-on hierarchy reversals work too. If Christa McAuliffe had been asked about launching (this would have been easy to do) she would have instantly said, “Go with the engineers’ recommendation.”

And that would have been that.

For scientific disputes, it’s not that hard for journal editors to act as impartial referees as opposed to rabid fans. Most credentialed experts know how to write a well-reasoned scientific paper. Even if it’s a “fringe” idea, it might be right and even if the old theory is right, professionally written challenges to that theory will do nothing but make it stronger. Censorship is not necessary.

When in doubt, journal editors can use hierarchy reversal. Students can be asked whether this or that topic should be acceptable for discussion. Let’s look at an example, over and done with, of a false paradigm to see how this can work.

In my own field, a theory called VSL (variable speed of light) was not meant as a breakthrough or anything like that. No one knows how or when physical constants got set to their present values. Some of the constants may well vary over large enough expanses of time and/or space.

Today, the idea that the speed of light was faster in the early evolution of the universe is a thriving sub-field in a speculative area of physics sometimes called big bang cosmology. Faster Than the Speed of Light documents the ten-year effort to get the physics community to drop a rather trivial false paradigm. Any student could have told the journal editors, “No, of course we don’t know that the speed of light has been constant since the beginning of the universe, so of course you should accept a professionally written paper introducing VSL.”

VSL was actually developed by a number of people independently and I know for a fact that many physicists considered the idea without trying to publish a detailed theory. It’s a pretty obvious idea, actually, if you are a physicist. The ten-year blockading is absolutely absurd. The book about it is worth reading: the physics is described at the non-specialist level and the profanity that comes up now and then is entirely appropriate.

At some level, this essay is simply an argument for journal editors to act as impartial referees. The rabid fan thing is just absurd. So I think I’m wrong saying I’m arguing for that. I’m taking it as a premise. I daresay anyone would and no, being skeptical and careful is not the same as blockading for ten years. Being skeptical and careful is not the same as derision and insults and maligning and approbation and threats to careers. In fact, going out on a limb is to be celebrated.

So what if you’re wrong. The editor who published relativity in 1905 assumed Einstein (a totally unknown physicist working in a patent office) was wrong about the universe having a speed limit but he published the paper anyway because the theory was clearly spelled out so why not publish it? The propagation of light had been a huge mystery since Maxwell discovered it was basically ghostly electricity zipping along all by itself with no propulsion except mathematics. Einstein’s paper of 1905 simultaneously clarified and deepened the mystery and so it was quite interesting to discuss even if Albert was sticking his unknown neck way out there.

Being a good journal editor is not that hard.

Einstein’s theory was a huge breakthrough and quite hard to believe and truly revolutionary so I would have forgiven a journal editor for being extremely skeptical and I can forgive scientists for not accepting relativity for many years. I mean, if you have a particle accelerator, relativity slaps you in the face. I like to tell people that I could have easily discovered relativity. And I could have. Give me a particle accelerator and I’ll have the whole theory worked out in a few weeks. I should not that a smarter physicist than me armed with an accelerator and no knowledge of relativity would have the theory worked in a matter of hours.

VSL, on the other hand, was just an idea to add to the plethora of speculation about the early universe. It got blocked not out of healthy skepticism but because of a false paradigm.

The false paradigm that the speed of light has been constant for the past 14 billion years (a claim for which there is no evidence) can be identified as such partly because abandoning it is not only painless, it is freeing. After all, as any student of physics could have told the journal editors, there’s no theory at all about how the physical constants came to be at their present values.

One particularly stupid journal editor said VSL theory couldn’t be published until it was proven beyond doubt. A more fatuous argument can hardly be imagined. This essay takes as a premise that journal editors should be open minded and intelligent (having an ivy league degree does not guarantee that a person is open-minded and intelligent). Dissent and interesting ideas are good things to be encouraged. This we hold to be self-evident. We claim here as well that there’s plenty of high quality dissent out there for journal editors to publish. Thus, if your journal is nightmarishly boring, there’s no excuse. And no, journals that publish big bang cosmology don’t need to create a special journal for speculative theories — all of big bang cosmology is speculative for god’s sake.

If a field is loaded with propaganda writhing like so many pythons and if exaggerated claims of certainty where there is none to be had is the norm and if that field has successfully used threats to control professional meetings and tenure decisions and so forth and if that field has pushed its agenda onto the general public, then it is up to impartial journal editors and rebellious credentialed experts to remedy the situation.

I don’t actually know how to get what I am proposing to actually happen, but I claim it can be done and I offer this essay as a tool, perhaps to be wielded by students.

The distinction between breakthroughs or, as Thomas Kuhn put it, paradigm shifts, is crucial for us.

False paradigms are not like Kuhnian paradigms; false paradigms are not the basis of whole fields of endeavor. False paradigms are dead ends. One way, in fact, to determine right away that an idea or theory or claim might be a false paradigm is if it is touted again and again as absolute truth but ignored in practice even by those paying lip service to the “official” story.

Dropping a false paradigm is not at all the same as creating a new paradigm. There’s no paradigm shift. When a false paradigm is finally recognized as such, one is simply able to go on with scholarship or research without the ball and chain of nonsense. A few books (maybe more than a few) have to come out in new editions to account for the change and some new books have to be written, but mostly the field is unchanged.

A false paradigm does not define a field which, as a practical matter, has to have continued on without the false paradigm because if it didn’t no progress could be made. Once the false paradigm is dropped, however, progress might well accelerate. But it will do so along lines already well mapped.

An example of a true paradigm shift in my field would be if someone found a way to make a particle go faster than the speed of light. I would scoff at any such claim. That’s natural expert resistance to paradigm shifts. Sure, someday some descendant of ours that looks nothing like us will (if we survive long enough to have descendants) be able to turn off gravity or go faster than light. Or maybe they’ll be able to turn off the electric forces between them and, say, a wall and walk right through the wall as if it isn’t’ there just as trillions of neutrinos pass through your body and the entire planet every second.

Anything is possible. But I’m not dropping relativity lightly (get it?). I’m an expert. I’m supposed to be resistant to paradigm shifts and I am indeed resistant just as Thomas Kuhn famously noted in his book. We will need to talk about Kuhn a bit because this essay can be said to be about the flip side or the dark side of Kuhn’s paradigms.

All four of the ongoing false paradigms we will discuss are well known to the general public. In fact, the extent to which the false paradigms have become part of the public’s mindset is partly responsible for their longevity. If the false paradigms were minor technical details, the experts might have dropped them long ago. But the four cases we will discuss here, when and if they are revealed as false paradigms, will be terribly embarrassing for most experts. Fear of embarrassment is the foundation for many a false paradigm.

In one of the four cases, something happened in 2017 that everyone should know about but that most scientists downplayed because they felt like it. It might be nothing. Or it might be something absolutely earth-shattering. When I found out about this one, I was angry, not because I know precisely what happened in 2017 (no one does) but because the mass of scientists (with a few important exceptions) looked at their own data and spun a yarn that suited them. That isn’t science.

The second case involves a scientist who, almost a hundred years ago, came up with a theory about our evolution. To this day, scientists have no idea why hominids first appeared. It was, for a long time, assumed that tools made our ancestors what they were. This was a good guess and, millions of years later, tools did matter a lot. But big brains and tool use (technology, basically) wasn’t what got everything started. No one knows what happened six million years ago. The guy from a hundred years ago still has what is arguably the best theory but no one liked it back then because the tool thing was still considered the answer. Today, this brilliant insight is still basically a third rail, untouchable and unpublishable. A philosophy of science professor at Tufts who is an expert on evolution spent decades going to conferences asking why this theory is unworthy of discussion. He was wasting his time: the Tufts professor said he never got a coherent answer from any expert he asked.

The third case involves a bizarre twist in history that many modern scholars have accepted as fact but that is embarrassing to the mainstream who have a great deal invested in an idea that even they seem to have a lot of doubts about. They cling to the old theory anyway even though their own research is the best reason to drop it. Sometimes, when experts talk about this old theory, they lapse into what can only be called propaganda. It’s so bad that one wonders if the experts who are killing themselves to silence their own colleagues are consciously aware that their precious theory they’ve clung to for so long may well be wrong.

The fourth case involves something that affects the entire planet and all of us. The old theory is a bit odd-sounding actually. It’s not clear it could even be proposed today without engendering laughter. And yet its claws are dug deep into the flesh of scientists and the general public too. The old theory was actually proposed before science as we know it was developed. I want to say thank goodness no lives are at stake but actually lives are at stake. It is very important that we embrace reality. The whole planet might depend on it.

I’ve arranged the four cases in order of increasing absurdity. However, I will leave it to readers to determine how many “space shuttles” to award each case. Maybe it’s one, two, three, four. Or maybe they’re all one-space-shuttle cases. In each case, I claim the level of certainty professed by the mainstream is dangerously nonsensical. That doesn’t mean the mainstream is wrong, however. Readers will have differing opinions on the likelihood of these false paradigms eventually being revealed as “truly” false.

I write this essay and readers should read this essay based on a premise that provides the common ground we must start with: if three or more independent credentialed experts wish to discuss a theory and if they are able to provide a fact-based logical discussion of that theory, then they should be able to publish in mainstream journals without derision; in fact, journals should encourage dissent simply because even if a theory is absolutely correct, well-reasoned challenges to that theory do nothing but strengthen it. Journal editors, acting as impartial referees, can easily block the rare cases in which three or more independent credentialed experts embrace some crackpot idea but simply applying impartial standards of scholarship to submissions.

If you feel that the mainstream should have the power to control dissent like a dictator controlling the media, then this essay isn’t for you. Probably you think dissent should be allowed. But you might not like the ideas you have to entertain. I must caution you that some of the ideas held by credentialed experts will strike you as “crazy” not, I claim, because the ideas actually are crazy, but because you have been conditioned to think so. I ask you to consider the possibility that you have been conditioned and to refrain from rejecting any idea out of hand. Remember, we won’t be discussing any idea that are not held by at a minimum several credentialed experts.

It is, I think, extraordinarily hard to change the culture in which fashionable science is elevated and dissent derided but someday this might be possible though probably not in my lifetime.

Einstein is said to have become inconsolable as a child when he saw soldiers marching in uniform, in unison, like automatons. His parents spent hours promising that he would never be a soldier and even then the boy was still upset the next day. (I don’t know if that’s exactly how it went down with little Albert but the story is true in its essence regardless of whether the details have been accurately recorded.) Later, Einstein’s paper in which he said the universe has a speed limit was accepted for publication by an editor who was pretty sure it was nonsense. Einstein was a credentialed expert, unknown at the time, and his theory was clearly stated in language any physicist could understand and in no place did it conflict with known facts.

It wasn’t so hard for a journal editor to accept Einstein’s idea as worthy of discussion. I claim it is self-evident that scientists, scholars, researchers, and professors do not benefit from acting like soldiers marching in unison.

The much simpler ideas put forward by credentialed experts to try to correct their colleagues’ egregious errors are not at all revolutionary or hard to believe as relativity was (with a particle accelerator, even an ordinary physicists like the present author would immediately discover relativity, but in Einstein’s time, it was quite a shock and even today is hard to get one’s mind around) but these ideas are routinely rejected or grudgingly accepted and then viciously derided by scholars who claim absolute certainty when they have no business doing so.

I tend to see false paradigms as defined by four characteristics which I call the “four horsemen of the false paradigm” but readers are encouraged to define four or more or fewer characteristics that identify false paradigms and create their own techniques for “fingerprinting” false paradigms. Perhaps future studies of this phenomenon will coalesce on a set of telltale signs that will come to be commonly used. I hope so.

Before we dig into the ten false paradigms (six life-and-death issues long since resolve and four not-life-and-death issue) that will hopefully look like ten examples of one phenomenon even though there are big superficial differences among them, we must briefly dig into Kuhn. He coined the term paradigm shift and talked about resistance to breakthroughs and the power of paradigms and their usefulness.

All of this is relevant as we dig into what might be called the dark side of the paradigm coin. And, if you haven’t read Kuhn (he’s a bit turgid but worthwhile if you are willing to do three readings), this is a nice summary with many of the key quotes from his influential essay.

The term paradigm as applied to rational thought I am taking from Thomas Kuhn’s famous essay in which he explained that scientists, when they are practicing a healthy version of science, must embrace paradigms — which I call “Kuhnian paradigms” — in order to make progress. Kuhnian paradigms are, simply stated, useful ways of looking at the world.

Every now and then a Kuhnian paradigm is superseded by a more sophisticated viewpoint which itself will eventually be superseded. It’s like a continual and sometimes painful process of growing up which Kuhn called a paradigm shift.

So, for example, it once made a lot of sense to think of the earth as the center of everything. Having the earth go around the sun created difficulties because the constellations don’t get twisted up as the year goes on so unless the stars are ridiculously far away (which they are) the earth must be sitting still relative to the stars and NOT going around the sun (which it is). So the geocentric people had a reasonable and even useful idea.

Kuhn pointed out that paradigms are so useful that even when they are superseded by a more sophisticated point of view, they continue to be used. So we still talk about the sun coming up and we note when mercury in retrograde motion even though we all have a viewpoint that spans the solar system and says the sun doesn’t really “come up” and mercury’s “retrograde” motion is to be expected.

Kuhn reminded us not to be too proud because whatever we think is the big fat truth is going to be superseded someday by a more grown-up viewpoint and though we might feel all grown up with our new viewpoint, we will still use the old paradigms that we’ve supposedly moved beyond. And if you really want to get fancy, the earth doesn’t really move around the sun, the earth travels in a trajectory determined by the warping of space by the sun so even motion itself isn’t so simple as we believe it to be.

Newtonian dynamics — baseball physics essentially — was a paradigm superseded by relativity. Motion isn’t what we think — the universe has a speed limit, a speed limit that it most certainly should not have by any “reasonable” viewpoint. But there is a speed limit at least for us for now. Quantum mechanics also pushed aside Newtonian physics. Quantum mechanics has been defined in many ways. If you don’t mind I will cheekily define it as the knowledge that everything we think we know about the universe is wrong.

We have a high-tech society. We all use relativity and quantum mechanics and the fact that earth goes around the sun. And yet the sun still rises in the morning and in our minds, spacetimes does NOT warp in our bedrooms, and the people we live with have definite locations. So who needs the new paradigms?

We don’t really need them per se but we, or some of us anyway, like the progress we have made which Kuhn likes to see as an ever-growing sophistication that never arrives at a final version of reality. Kuhn didn’t think truth was relative, he simply thought understanding was an ongoing process and regarded the current paradigms as more advanced than the old paradigms but not necessarily any more True with a capital “T.”

Now you may argue that the idea that the sun goes around the earth was just plain wrong while Newtonian physics is still correct to a very good approximation in many instances. But Kuhn argued that if you are going to say the geocentric theory and Ptolemaic epicycles and so forth are flat-out “wrong” then you have admit that your everyday baseball physics is also flat-out “wrong” because it really is just an illusion and the real world is quantum mechanical and relativistic.

I will take Kuhn’s viewpoint and see Kuhnian paradigms, even the ones that have been superseded, as perfectly acceptable descriptions of reality bearing essentially no resemblance to false paradigms which are basically wrong turns that never did anyone any good. A false paradigm is not like the geocentric theory. A false paradigm is when someone says they have a “theory” that the sun is going to go out in 2020 because, they say with no evidence, a giant comet is going to hit it and cause it to disperse. We’re all going to die in 2020. You believe him and get your affairs in order. When it doesn’t happen, he then he says it’s going to happen in 2050.

You ignore him. He didn’t have a theory. He was just spouting nonsense and was happy to adjust (rather than abandon) his theory when it made its incorrect prediction. Maybe he’ll be right the second time. Anything is possible. But anything is possible isn’t a theory. “Anything is possible” is true but it doesn’t save a theory that runs contrary to experience and evidence.

All theories have to make some assumptions. We never have complete information. We have to fill in gaps with speculation, guesswork, and deduction. But that’s not “anything is possible.” Anything is possible is your ticket to the false paradigm train (we should not here that anything is not, in fact, possible though even if anything were possible, this would still not be a good basis for a theory). Anything is possible is a telltale sign of a theory dominated by assumptions and is as likely to be an indicator of a viable theory as a meal made entirely of salt, pepper, and sugar is likely to be delicious to a professional chef.

Another way to identify a false paradigm is to ask what is lost if one gives it up. If the answer is “nothing,” it is probably a false paradigm. Kuhnian paradigms are just the opposite: giving up a Kuhnian paradigm is a big deal because Kuhnian paradigms, by definition, have proven themselves useful (and often continue to be useful even after they are superseded).

In fact, Kuhn notes that most scientist have no significant interest in inventing or exploring possible new paradigms. They don’t want new paradigms because the old paradigm allows them to make progress. The idea of “normal science,” Kuhn tells us is to make progress. If you spend your career trying to make that big breakthrough that will set you down in history forever, if you think you are Einstein, if you aren’t realistic and focused, you are liable to just get stuck and stay stuck and never contribute anything.

Better to stick to the guidelines offered by Kuhnian paradigms. It’s okay to have your thought process guided by by a useful paradigm even if you get blindsided when a breakthrough comes because you’ve gotten a lot of work done. A Kuhnian paradigm is not like a false paradigm which substitutes for thinking. In the Kuhnian case, the paradigm is merely guiding one’s thinking: make a small number of assumptions, trust the paradigm, move forward. That’s a recipe for success in science.

Kuhn regarded this as a necessary evil, perfectly reasonable even if scientists sometimes become rigid in their thinking. Kuhn was looking at the bright side of the paradigm coin: he never said a word about false paradigms. But his (somewhat turgid, truth be told) treatise on paradigms and paradigm shifts gives us a jumping off point for our study of the dark side of the paradigms coin.

The importance of Kuhnian paradigms partially explains why scientists, scholars, researchers, and professors in a variety of subjects are vulnerable to false paradigms. It is after all their habit to accept certain ideas without question. The superficial similarity between Kuhnian paradigms and false paradigms explains why ordinary non-experts like you and me are vulnerable to false paradigms. It would be silly of us to routinely question that which is accepted by a large swath of professionals in a given field.

So it’s crucial for us to know a bit about Kuhnian paradigms as we follow the path of this essay and try to train ourselves to discover the wolf in the fold as it were. Most paradigms are perfectly fine, like sheep. But every now and then a false paradigm lurks in our midst shielding us from reality itself and costing us a clear-eyed view of the world or even killing us.

What follows is a short summary of Kuhn. Don’t worry, it’s really short. And it’s a lot easier to read than Kuhn himself. And when you read my summary you’ll feel (perhaps incorrectly) that you can get away without ever wading through Kuhn. Really you should, though, at least twice and maybe three times (that’s what it takes I’m afraid). But if you’d rather not, I understand. I’m doing you a favor here; just don’t tell anyone.

Thomas Kuhn pointed out in his famous essay, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, that scientists and, by extension, experts in all fields, are very good at limiting themselves with what he called “rigid” paradigms which reward the rigidity by allowing researchers to operate in an amazingly efficient manner.

Here’s how Kuhn, looking squarely at the limitations of healthy science, described most research in pretty much any field:

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

Kuhn tells us that scientists and researchers typically don’t even try to make big 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.

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

But it’s totally worth it, Kuhn convincingly argues:

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 paradigm.”

We can already see that within Kuhn’s bright side lurk the seeds of what I call the dark side: the need for researchers to stick to a Kuhnian paradigm makes them vulnerable to getting stuck on a false paradigm. That’s the other side of the paradigm coin, the side Kuhn avoided. That’s the subject of this essay.

A false paradigm is NOT part of the never-ending march toward ever-greater sophistication. A false paradigm is more of a wrong term. False paradigms are NOT useful at all and, in fact, experts will often quietly (not admitting it even to themselves) ignore a false paradigm because if they don’t, they might not be able to make any progress.

A false paradigm often has virtually no evidence supporting it and ends up being used as evidence to support itself. A false paradigm has nothing to do with growing up  — it’s more like a drug addiction or any wrong turn that a scientist or scholar must overcome.

False paradigms can be identified by their defenders. The rebels, experts in the given field, will offer a convincing story indicating that the paradigm followed in their field has never had the status of a Kuhnian paradigm; they will say it’s been nonsense from the beginning. But the story told by the rebels, though it provides important background, doesn’t help us determine if the paradigm is really false. The mainstream response does that.

We will see that the mainstream response to their colleagues in the cases of false paradigms follows a recognizable progression like a deadly disease might. It is the mainstream response that we must focus on to determine if the paradigm is really false. When A (the rebel argument) and B (the mainstream argument) lead to the same conclusion, you know you’re dealing with a false paradigm.

Both the A and B arguments will have weaknesses and will sometimes contain nonsense. But the B argument, in the case of a false paradigm, will be defined by weaknesses and nonsense — in fact the B argument will consist of little else. It will almost be funny.

Beyond that, I won’t list characteristics of B arguments though the reader can use the information in the following chapters to create their own list which I realized as I wrote this essay would probably be better than anything I could come up with especially if the list of characteristics is a product of discussion amongst many people.

I will note only that B arguments are often so transparent that one begins to wonder whether or not the mainstream even believes what it is saying or if they know they are defending a false paradigm and are actually lying when they say they believe it. In one of the examples below, there is good evidence that in fact those making a B argument were doing so fraudulently. That is, they knew they were spouting nonsense and were engaging in conscious propaganda hoping to fool as many people as possible. However, in general, we will assume (perhaps wrongly) that mainstream defenders of false paradigms are themselves deluded while keeping in mind that the extent to which this is NOT true is an interesting area for study or at least speculation.

Without further ado, here are six life-and-death reasons to remember that experts can delude themselves and do monstrously stupid things.

The Touchstone of Rationality

The schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe and the six professional astronauts in the cockpit of the Challenger didn’t hear the conversation. They didn’t know all five engineers said the O-rings won’t work at cold temperatures. The didn’t know all five engineers said launching was insane (without using the word “insane”).

“It’ll be all right.” That’s what the people in authority who over-ruled their own engineers literally said. They didn’t have a reason. They just wanted to launch.

If Christa McAuliffe, Francis Scobee, Michael Smith, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Gregory Jarvis, and Judith Resnik had been informed of the situation, had they heard the conversation, had they known about the O-rings, they would have instantly vetoed the launch. No one would ignore five unanimous engineers. “Why are you even discussing launching at all?” the seven daughters and sons, sisters and brothers, mothers and fathers would have said.

It was January 28, 1986 and there was nothing to discuss. The shuttle’s engines operate on the principle of a controlled explosion. As long as the combustible gases mix in the right place and at the right time, the rocket takes off. If the primary and secondary O-rings both fail in either engine, the explosion becomes uncontrolled and that’s the end of the shuttle.

Frozen O-rings don’t work. Coin-toss safety isn’t safety. Russian roulette with three bullets in a six-shooter isn’t what Christa McAuliffe signed up for.

The details matter only inasmuch as they help us understand the level of insanity that a false paradigm can bring, so we’ll talk about them from that point of view. Regardless of how complex the details might seem if you dig into them the fact remains that there was nothing to discuss. That said, here are some details.

It boiled down to five numbers: for a 75-degree launch, there had been a bit of a problem with the primary O-ring; for the 53-degree launch the previous year, that same O-ring failed completely and the shuttle would have exploded if the secondary O-ring hadn’t held; below 40 degrees the whole engine including the primary O-ring, the secondary O-ring, and every other component, was NOT rated for flight. That’s three numbers so far 75, 53, and 40.

That day, the temperature in Florida was in the twenties — call it 22 degrees if you like; precision is irrelevant here. Unbeknownst to anyone at the time, there was a fifth number in the mix. Cold gases venting from the liquid oxygen tank were accumulating near the O-rings on the right side of the shuttle. The light breeze that day wasn’t enough to push away the gases and the O-rings on the right side were at 10 degrees — a measurement made by an infrared sensor but not communicated to the engineers at the time. That’s the fourth and fifth number: 22 and 10.

The book Truth, Lies, and O-rings tells all, and I mean ALL. Every detail about the engines and the fuel and the discussions that can be packed into a few hundred pages is. The details are interesting to us not in and of themselves but because obscured the fact that seven people were being condemned to death. Of course one can discuss to what extent one can extrapolate from the numbers the precise risk of low-temperature launches and one can ask how safe the secondary O-ring is since it has never failed. One can talk about these questions for hours without being able to come up with anything definitive.

Unfortunately, that’s exactly what happened.

When experts and authorities go down rabbit holes, reality can get buried by details and people can die: in such cases, the devil isn’t in the details, the devil is the details. In the end, the experts and authorities find themselves arguing about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, rational discussion becomes mindless debate, and you don’t want to be in the cockpit of a space shuttle when that happens.

In the Challenger disaster, one might say details were used as “weapons of mass delusion” because it’s such an extreme example. Authorities embraced a false paradigm absurd on its face — we are absolutely sure the space shuttle is safe to launch in sub-freezing temperatures even though all of the engineers effectively say we’re insane.

If the engineers had known they were about to face the four horsemen, they might have just said, “It’s a coin flip. If you approve the launch, you may be committing murder.”

Or they could have said something more formal but just as strong such as the following:

“The shuttle is not safe to fly at these temperatures. We rate the odds of survival at no better than 50%. We cannot in good conscience discuss the details of this assessment until our superiors have accepted our recommendation and canceled the launch because the cancellation must not be subject to debate and we are concerned that going down rabbit holes might distract us from an undeniable fact: there is absolutely no way the shuttle can be launched safely at these temperatures.

“We do not have absolute proof of anything: in particular, the fact that the launch is roughly a coin toss at these temperatures is not provable but is our unanimous assessment. This may not be what you want to hear. That’s too bad. We will not accept insults or new definitions of what logic is or plausibility arguments about how the shuttle might possibly launch successfully even at these temperatures.

“We don’t care about what is possible. We don’t care about the fact that our data isn’t perfect. Our assessment stands. We can launch in a day or two when the temperature is forty degrees higher.

“We would be happy to discuss the details of our assessment so long as everyone understands that our unanimous determination is not subject to insults and gibberish, zingers and one-liners, wild guesses and fantasies, and finger-pointing and posturing. You can technically launch without our approval but you cannot ethically launch without our approval so — and we’re sorry to put it so bluntly — don’t even think about launching.

“If you over-rule us, we will go straight to the newspapers and this will be a national scandal before the sun rises in the morning.”

But the engineers didn’t make any such statement in real life. Why would they? They were used to NASA being rational. Normally, NASA pushed hard on every possible safety issue to the point where the engineers knew if they couldn’t convince NASA that every single possible issue was under control and that none of a multitude of concerns actually threatened the shuttle there would be no launch because NASA wouldn’t allow it.

“We’ve analyzed this very carefully and we think it is safe,” the engineers would say. NASA would respond, “Are you sure? What about this and this and this?” The engineers would say, “We knew you would ask that and so we’ve prepared three fifty-slide presentations covering each of those concerns which will be presented in each case by a different engineer who has put in hundreds of hours working through that particular issue.”

In the old days, that’s what it took to get a launch approved.

But everything had changed. To this day, we don’t know why this one guy at NASA decided to drop all previous caution and actually pressure the engineers to launch when the engineers had already decided a safe launch was not possible. The NASA guy’s name is not noted here because for our purposes it doesn’t matter.

The “it doesn’t matter” claim above requires some discussion. We want to know how irrational decisions get made, how false paradigms get embraced. It happens all the time, so naming and blaming, while it may be necessary for example in determining who should play what role in the future at NASA, doesn’t help us much long after the fact.

It’s not that this one person at NASA wasn’t responsible for his actions, of course he was. It is easy to look up his name and print out a photograph for use on a dartboard for those of us who still feel angry about the loss of the shuttle all those years ago (I’m still angry, for example). But for the purposes of this essay, I am leaving out his name because I hope, at length, I am able to convey the following at-least-partly-true notion: the NASA guy who killed the McAuliffe and the others could be anyone, even you or me.

That said, the five engineers were totally blindsided by the sudden irrationality they were facing not just from the NASA guy but from their own colleagues, people who happened to be managers but who were just as intelligent, experienced, and caring as the engineers. Somehow, the engineers were unable to convince their own colleagues of the danger. The long conversation they had, NOT prefaced by the fantasy-statement above or anything like it, obscured what was happening.

For years and even decades afterward each of the five had to deal with inevitable guilt feelings: given the situation we found ourselves in, facing irrational behavior, what more could we have done? They didn’t yell or scream or throw things or make threats. They didn’t even flatly say, “It’s a coin toss whether they live or die. You’ve all gone crazy!”

The engineers believed the facts — even facts that didn’t allow for proof — would speak for themselves; they believed this deep in their bone marrow. But facts only speak for themselves when people are in a place where they can calmly listen.

The dialog below shows the horror of what happened to the engineers. The dialog is fictionalized but NOT made up. Every tactic, every bizarre argument, every idiotic claim that appears below was actually part of either the discussion prior to the disaster or the investigation after the disaster. What I’ve done here is simple: I’ve removed the veil of civility and given everyone a little taste of truth serum.

The dialog below, BECAUSE it is fictionalized, is, I claim, in some ways a MORE accurate representation of what actually occurred than a perfect word-for-word reproduction (which is available in books and video) could ever be. This is how seven people died. The four horsemen — insults, gibberish and nonsense, possible=certain, and imperfect=wrong — are all here. A “fifth” horseman, lies and corruption, also makes an appearance. Quotations are used when the exact words of the participants appear. But, again, I claim this entire conversation actually happened.

ENGINEERS: We can’t launch tomorrow. The O-rings are frozen and won’t seal at these temperatures.

NASA: Temperature has never been an issue before! This is “appalling,” just absolutely “appalling.” I am shocked, shocked to hear that we have to have a longer safety discussion just because it’s colder than it has ever been in south Florida. My God! When do we get to launch? “April?”

ENGINEERS: The O-ring system has never worked as designed. We even had a problem with the primary O-ring at 75 degrees. At 53 degrees the primary O-ring failed. If the secondary O-ring had also failed we would have lost the shuttle.

NASA: But there was no problem at launches in the 60’s so you haven’t proven anything.

ENGINEERS: We aren’t claiming to have perfect ability to predict O-ring failures. They don’t work right at any temperature and the chances of failure go up at low temperatures. The soot we saw on the other side of the primary O-ring after the 53-degree launch was terrifying. If it was any worse we could have lost the shuttle. Launching below 53 degrees makes no sense.

NASA: Your data is “inconclusive.”

ENGINEERS: We don’t claim it is conclusive. We claim the O-rings have never worked properly, the O-rings had a big problem at 53 degrees, and the O-rings might not seal at all at 20 degrees.

NASA: Your data is “non-quantitative.” We can’t accept it.

ENGINEERS: We’re not trying to win a Nobel Prize. We’re just trying to protect the seven human beings aboard the shuttle.

NASA: We need to see perfect data.

ENGINEERS: Well, the shuttle engines as a whole beyond just the O-ring issue, aren’t rated below 40 degrees. So why are we even talking about launching?

NASA: Aha! You said forty degrees. But just before you said fifty-three degrees. Which is it? Oh, I guess you don’t know do you?

ENGINEERS: No, we don’t know. The shuttle could explode even at 75 degrees for all we know. At 53 degrees it was a bit scary but the secondary O-ring held. At 40 degrees we’re at the edge of what is specified for all the engine components. At 20 degrees, the primary O-ring is almost guaranteed to fail.

NASA: Your temperature requirements are “inconsistent” and therefore “illogical.” We can’t have two different temperature boundaries.

ENGINEERS: There is no temperature boundary. The colder it is, the greater the risk.

NASA: You didn’t pick a temperature and stick to it. Your argument started off non-quantitative and inconclusve. Then it became inconsistent and illogical.

ENGINEERS: It doesn’t matter whether or not you like our argument. We will be relying on the secondary O-ring holding at sub-freezing temperatures.

NASA: Aha! There’s a secondary O-ring. It has never failed and it might well hold on this launch. We think it will hold. It sounds to me like you think it’s okay to launch.

ENGINEERS: It’s not okay to launch. Both O-rings could easily fail.

NASA: If that happens, we’ll just say you told us the secondary O-ring was a safe backup.

ENGINEERS: You’re actually willing to lie in the event of a disaster?

NASA: It won’t be lying. You said the secondary O-ring is crucial.

ENGINEERS: It is crucial but that doesn’t mean it’s safe to launch.

NASA: But your statement about the presence of a back-up O-ring can be interpreted as being in favor of launching.

ENGINEERS: Dr. Ride is sure to be on any investigating commission. You won’t be able to fool her [she was not, in fact, fooled].

NASA: We don’t have to fool her. We just have to keep a straight face while we testify.

ENGINEERS: How can you be so callous?

NASA: It’s easy. I’m under a lot of pressure and my humanity has been squeezed out of me.

ENGINEERS: Have you thought about getting another job?

NASA: I like being a big-shot. We need BOSS approval on this. You BOSSES should keep in mind that we will be deciding where billions of dollars get spent.

BOSSES: Let us now “take off our engineering hats and put on our management hats.”

ENGINEERS: This should be an engineering decision, not a management decision. Would you please let us draw you a diagram right here in this room right here on this table?


ENGINEERS: But you are reversing the usual burden of proof used for decades in space flight.

BOSSES: True but we can always tell any investigators that they being “Monday morning quarterbacks.”

ENGINEERS: But we’ve already cancelled the launch. We sent the fax with the official recommendation. If you uncancel it now and the shuttle explodes, your “Monday morning quarterback” comment will be remembered for centuries as among the stupidest things anyone has ever said.

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

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

BOSSES: “It’s no longer your responsibility.”

ENGINEERS: Fine, but know this: if those seven people die, we are not going to lie for you.

BOSSES: We think you’ll knuckle under if it comes to that. But for now we are going ahead with the launch.

ENGINEERS: We won’t knuckle under.

BOSSES: Yes, you will.

ENGINEERS: No, we won’t. Try us. [The engineers ignored the company lawyers.]

NASA: I hate to interrupt the bickering, but there’s one more thing. Under the circumstances, we’re going to need a “signature” from an ENGINEER or a BOSS and a clear  recommendation that it is safe to launch.

ENGINEERS: But you’ve never needed this type of documentation before! We never have to sign anything!

NASA: Look, we need a “signature” because we’re over-ruling five engineers who say not to launch. I’m not going to take responsibity for that.

ENGINEERS: It was your idea to overrule us.

NASA: I didn’t overrule anyone. I consulted with the experts in Utah and eventually got an answer I liked from those in authority. That’s the way it goes sometimes. All I need now is a signature.

ENGINEERS: None of us are signing any such document.

NASA: It’s a management decision.

BOSSES: Where do we sign?

A few hours later, the engines ignited and the shuttle lifted off. A minute passed; the shuttle was high in the sky and moving fast. Christa McAuliffe’s students were proud of their teacher, the first civilian in space. The engineers, fearful of an explosion immediately upon liftoff, breathed a sigh of relief.

A few seconds later their breaths got stuck in their throats. On the right side of the solid rocket booster, the primary and secondary O-rings, frozen but somehow holding for the first minute, now failed. The engines exploded but the cockpit, with the teacher and six professional astronauts still alive, was intact. It arced into the Atlantic Ocean at 200 mph. At that speed, McAuliffe and the others were crushed by the sudden deceleration. They died instantly.

After the unthinkable disaster, with the nation mourning and the gravestones erected, sanity briefly and narrowly prevailed as people realized that there was no safe temperature at which to launch a space shuttle with an O-ring system with a known design flaw. The shuttle program was suspended for a two-plus years while a new O-ring system was designed, built, and tested.

Bulletproof was what was needed and bulletproof was what the engineers now delivered: in a test with half the parts in the system purposely broken, the O-rings sealed perfectly anyway. The test conditions were far worse than anything that would happen during an actual launch: no one else was going to die from an O-ring failure if the engineers could possibly help it. Even with the new invincible system, launches at freezing temperatures were strictly ruled out.

Sanity reigned too late for the Challenger crew and too narrowly for the Columbia crew who would die seventeen years later.

The engineer who guided the O-ring redesign driven by the narrow window of sanity that opened after the disaster was also one of the people who tried to stop the launch of the Challenger. He was proud of his work and said he was so confident in the new O-ring system that he himself would be willing to fly in the space shuttle though he noted that he would not, under any circumstances, allow a family member anywhere near the space shuttle.

He knew better than to think the shuttle was suddenly safe but even this insider didn’t really understand how bad things were at NASA. O-ring system can be fixed in a couple of years. Cultures are another story. As false paradigms go, “Authority trumps reality” is as bad as they get.

To say the NASA culture was borderline psychotic sounds like an overstatement but isn’t. Richard Feynman, the Nobel laureate physicist who had been part of the presidential commission investigating the disaster understood as well as anyone can the dangerous mix of ego, authority, and public relations pressure causing NASA officials to behave like rabid dogs.

Feynman wrote Appendix F in the commission’s report. He discussed insanity at some length without actually using that word.

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.

. . . an almost incredible lack of communication between the managers and their working engineers.

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

Feynman’s Appendix F was stronger language than the other commission members wanted to use. One can understand the commission members’ desire to be circumspect and to avoid strong words like “fantasy” and “incredible” and “reality” and “fooled.” Even Feynman didn’t go so far as to use the word “insanity.” But maybe he should have. In hindsight, one can say that Feynman’s Appendix F perhaps didn’t use strong enough language.

It’s hard to imagine a more insanse disaster than the Challenger disaster. But NASA found a way to not only imagine it but to do it.

We Have a Lot to Learn Including How to Learn

The Columbia launched in January 2003 with seven astronauts on board. It’s not a spoiler at this point to tell you that they all died.

ENGINEERS: The wing was hit during takeoff by a piece of insulation but thank God the shuttle is safely in orbit.

NASA: We need to check on the debris-hitting-the-wing-issue. I want us to cross it off our list as soon as possible. One phone call ought to do it. I pride myself on my efficiency.

ENGINEERS: Um . . . wait . . . we need to study the problem in detail. If the wing was damaged even a little bit, it will rip off the shuttle during re-entry. The shuttle will disintegrate. Everyone will burn up in the upper atmosphere. It will be bad.

NASA: Hmm. Let’s see. Who do I need to talk to get this cleared up?

ENGINEERS: We’re working on “clearing it up.” We’ve already set up a satellite flyby with the air force so we can get high resolution images of the wing and see if the damage looks like it can be repaired by the astronauts. Of course they should also do a spacewalk to get a hands-on look at the wing.

NASA: This is interesting. I see there’s been an satellite flyby scheduled. That seems like unnecessary extra work for us. It doesn’t seem efficient. I’m going to cancel the photographs.

ENGINEERS: But . . . but. Wait . . . I don’t think anyone can hear us. That’s odd? What’s going on? Maybe we don’t have the security clearance to be involved. The higher-ups must be taking care of this without us but it’s odd that we say and do things and it’s as if we aren’t here at all.

NASA: Hello. Yes, I’m calling about the wing issue. Is re-entry safe? It is? Good. I’ll put a check next to that one and move on to the next item on my checklist.

ENGINEERS: It would really have been nice to see some pictures. And the spacewalk would have helped too. If the wing is damaged beyond repair the astronauts might be rescued if we can launch another shuttle before their oxygen runs out. I guess the higher-ups determined all that without us but I don’t see how. Do you think we should rattle some chains or something?

The engineers from the above not-literal-but-truer-than-truth dialog were the “Debris Assessment Team.” They had no authority.

Again, the engineers didn’t throw things or push anyone’s office door open or do anything extreme. They assumed their superiors were behaving rationally. They assumed appropriate measures were being taken but that they, the engineers on the Debris Assessment Team, were out of the loop. They never considered the possibility that their bosses were doing nothing at all.

Like the Bruce Willis character in Sixth Sense, the engineers on the Debris Assessment Team didn’t know they were ghosts. Everyone at NASA was existing in their little boxes, blissfully unaware of anything but their own worlds. One imagines them occupying the same hallways walking toward one another and then walking through one another.

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. That was normal enough. The shuttle slowed down in the intense atmospheric forces. That was normal too. When the wing tore away from the shuttle, the vehicle disintegrated. The astronauts came home but only as ash.

A hierarchy topped by confident up-and-comers is mighty impressive. But, as Feynman reminded us, impressive humans can’t change reality.

Hierarchies are practical necessities. But hierarchies historically have had problems with reality and those problems have killed people in very large numbers. Let’s go back to 1850 and look at a nightmarish hierarchy.

Irrational Doctors

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 hope I would not shun him. Who would do that? You don’t have to have watched a space shuttle explode to have humility. And you don’t have to be Mother Theresa to care when your patients die.

But false paradigms are blinding. “I’m a fancy doctor. I know what I’m doing. I’m not killing my patients.” But you are.

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 about germs. They didn’t wash their hands. They didn’t wear gloves.

For a woman in labor, having one of these Vienna doctors deliver a baby was like tossing three coins: if all three land heads, you die. They called it “childbed fever.”

But women still came to the hospital even as the bodies began to pile up. The doctors saw what was happening. But they couldn’t believe they were killing their patients.

One of the more concerned doctors noted that a colleague cut his hand during a cadaver dissection. He proceeded to die of childbed fever. It was quite clear he had not just given birth and his surviving colleague put two and two together.

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: childbed fever didn’t have to kill and kill and kill. All we have to do is wash our hands.

CARING DOCTOR: There must be some kind of “cadaverous particles” that are deadly if they get into a person’s bloodstream.

AUTHORITY: Are you saying it’s our fault when a woman gets childbed fever? How dare you!

CARING DOCTOR: Of course not. I’m saying our colleague died of childbed fever after cutting himself during a dissection.

AUTHORITY: So what? People die all the time. You don’t know it was “cadaverous particles” that killed him. You’ve never seen a “cadaverous particle.” You sound like an idiot.

CARING DOCTOR: He had the exact symptoms of childbed fever and he’s a man. Everyone in my clinic has been washing their hands and no one gets childbed fever in my clinic anymore. Giving birth is suddenly far less dangerous. Isn’t that a good thing?

AUTHORITY: Get out of town!

CARING DOCTOR: You mean to say that you are surprised by what you are hearing? I was surprised too but then pleasantly surprised to find out how easily the problem was solved. Think of all the lives we can save if my idea of “cadaverous particles” and handwashing becomes widely known. What’s strange is that that idiom you just used won’t be invented for another hundred years.

AUTHORITY: We mean it literally. It’s not an idiom yet as you point out. So get out of town. Now.

The caring doctor was in fact driven off by angry colleagues. 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. He was right but he was ignored and women kept dying of childbed fever. It would be decades before germs were discovered. In the interim, a lot of people died unnecessarily.

It happened again a century later.

That’s Some Stunt You Pulled

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. For the next thirty years, most doctors didn’t use antibiotics to treat ulcers; they focused on stomach acid; frequent treatments were necessary because stomach acid wasn’t the problem.

Fast forward three decades and thousands of dead ulcer patients (ulcers too often lead to fatal stomach cancer) and a conversation something like this took place.

AUSTRALIAN DOCTOR: I’ve cutured the bacteria that causes ulcers.

COLLEAGUES: We know what causes ulcers. Acid.

AUSTRALIAN DOCTOR: That’s wrong. It’s bacteria and I can prove it.

COLLEAGUES: This was solved thirty years ago and we’ve been treating ulcers based on the acid theory ever since. We’re not changing.

AUSTRALIAN DOCTOR: Then I’ll culture more bacteria, drink them down, give myself ulcers, and cure myself with antibiotics just to prove it to you even if doing so causes my wife and the mother of our two young children to freak out.

COLLEAGUES: That’s a stunt. Make yourself sick if you want. We’ll need a lot more research if you want us to change the way we do things downtown.

Ten years later, my great uncle was dead from ulcers that were NOT caused by stomach acid. By then, the medical community had accepted reality. My great uncle was rolled so much in his grave, they had to soundproof the coffin. In 2005, the Australian doctor won a Nobel Prize and his wife finally forgave him. (Actually, I don’t really know that she took twenty years to forgive him but I’m sure the Nobel Prize caused her to look at the whole affair a bit differently.)

Lethal Injection by False Paradigm

Todd Willingham’s house burned down and his three children died. Some houses have safe electrical wiring, some don’t. The father woke up to a house about to collapse. He barely escaped and was unable to save his children. Standing outside with fire fighters on the scene, he tried to re-enter the burning building but was tackled by fire fighters who correctly calculated that re-entering the house would do nothing but possibly add him to the list of casualties.

In those days (the early 1990’s, NOT four hundred years ago), something called “arson investigation” was accepted by U.S. courts. An “arson investigator” is a person who had been led to believe by other “arson investigators” — who had created an impressive-but-nonsensical hierarchical system of “trained experts” — that he or she was capable of determining by the patterns in the burn marks whether or not a chemical “accelerant” such as gasoline was used to start a fire. “Pour patterns” and “crazed glass” and other “don’t try this at home only trained experts can see it” nonsense was allowed in court.

Of course, arson investigators never subjected their techniques to any kind of rigorous testing. They never asked themselves if they were, possibly, fooling themselves. They were people who wanted to do good and they put a lot of other people in jail some of whom had actually committed arson. Todd Willingham had not.

In the early days of arson investigation, the investigators were humble: they looked for (real) tell-tale signs of arson in order to alert authorities. At that point — and this is crucial — the police, thinking arson was something that may or may not have occurred, would order testing to determine whether this possible case of arson was actually that. The investigators were, now and then, correct, and, now and then, mistaken in their assessment.

Looking over a fire to check for obvious signs of arson (NOT “pour pattens”) is a good idea and sometimes led to testing when it might not otherwise be conducted. Eventually, a whole field was created. This field was called “arson investigation.” But then it happened. The possible became the certain.

Suddenly (actually, it took decades), the testimony of “arson investigators” was deemed accurate enough to count as evidence of arson even when there was no corroborating evidence of arson such as chemical tests. 

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. He had not. The New Yorker article about his case is definitive.

After Willingham died, scientists purposely produced electrical fires exactly as would happen in a non-arson accident. The scientists did their experments using abandoned buildings. The “pour patterns” and the “crazed glass” showed up. Arson investigation was, provably, nonsense. It has been banned from U.S. courts because it is no more accurate that Madame Trelawney’s tea-leaf reading. But it was too late for Todd Willingham, executed for a crime that no one had committed.

Actual scientific tests done on ash from various places in Willingham’s house before the trial showed no evidence of any chemical used to start the fire. There should have been no trial, much less a conviction, much less a death sentence, much less an execution. But the judge didn’t know enough to throw the case out of court.

There are people who can look at the remains of a fire and tell you whether or not it is likely to have been caused by arson. But it is obviously easy for them to overstate their abilities. In the case of arson investigation, the entire field became a false paradigm.

Monty Python in Real Life

A mentally ill man who had been abused by his father was in the middle of a crime spree. The police caught him in the act with loot from previous crimes on his person but let him go because he was apparently acting as an informant for them. It is a normal part of police work to use criminals as informants and sometimes police have to look the other way when their informant commits a crime.

Meredith Kercher interrupted the man burglarizing her house and he cut her throat and sexually assaulted her while she was dying.

Her housemates, three of them, were not in the house at the time. Two of them were Italians and wisely retained lawyers for all of their interactions with police. Amanda Knox didn’t know this was necessary in Italy and she talked to the police by herself assuming she was helping with their investigation.

Since Knox and her boyfriend, Raffaele Sollecito, alerted the police that something was wrong and were present when Kercher’s body was discovered, the police regarded Knox as a suspect. They questioned her and her boyfriend, who also did not retain a lawyer, repeatedly and eventually decided they were guilty of the crime.

A “see you later” text to Knox’s employer — a bar owner — was taken literally by police (in idiomatic English “later” in this context is an indefinite later; in Italian this is not the case) and they concocted a theory that Knox, Sollecito, and the bar owner had killed Kercher.

The police immediately set about coercing “confessions” from the lawyerless young man and the lawyerless young woman. It isn’t clear exactly why the young man didn’t retain a lawyer — as an Italian by birth he should have known better. He had very little experience with women before he met Amanda and he had certainly not had anyone as beautiful as she fall for him. After a week of romantic encounters mostly taking place in his apartment, he was in love and perhaps not thinking straight. He certainly didn’t think he would spend the next four years in jail in one of the most egregious miscrarriages of justice in history.

The police of course succeeded in getting their “confessions.” In Knox’s case they insisted she verify their theory that her boss had first raped and then murdered Kercher. She signed a document (NEVER do this) that said she had let her boss into the house and heard the whole thing happening but had blocked it out of her memory because it was so traumatic. That was good enough for the police who admitted that it was their theory and that Knox only signed off on it after they broke her. Nothing in Knox’s “confession” had any relation to the actual crime except for the end result: Meredith’s death.

Sollecito was harder to crack so the police purposely put the wrong date into a statement they wanted him to sign. He told them the date was wrong but they told him to sign anyway and he did. He had described his girlfriend leaving the house the night before the murder and in the house with him the night of the murder. By transposing the dates, they had him saying she had left the house the night of the murder. Later, when he said the date was wrong, they blamed him for lying and used that to convict him of murder. And yes, it really was that ridiculous.

The police recorded both interrogations (they record everything that happens in the police station including waiting-area conversations) but denied, for obvious reason, having recordings of either interrogation.

When the actual murderer was caught — his handprint in the victim’s blood was at the crime scene and his DNA was inside the victim’s body — and the bar owners patrons told the police their prime suspect had been serving drinks at the time of the murder, police had to let the bar owner go. By this time, photographs of the beautiful Amanda Knox had circled the globe and the police felt they had no choice but to manufacture evidence.

They took a large knife (too large to have been the murder weapon) from Sollecito’s house and tested it for blood, DNA, and human tissue with the results negative, negative, negative. They then tested the negative knife using an amplification process called PCR. The technicians running the equipment got extremely low-level positive results matching Kercher’s DNA from both the negative knife and their negative control samples indicating that the lab had become contaminated with Kercher’s DNA after many, many tests had been run on bloody items from the bedroom where she bled to death while being sexually assaulted.

In the first trial, the knife was the primary piece of evidence used to obtain convictions and even Knox and Sollecito were fooled by the finding of Kercher’s DNA on the knife — they knew they hadn’t killed her and they knew they hadn’t brought the Sollecito’s kitchen knife to Amanda’s and Meredith’s house so they tried to figure out how the victim’s DNA had gotten on the knife. Of course, it hadn’t. The police simply didn’t release the positive results on the negative control samples, so everyone was fooled.

The judge (there was no jury; everything was up to the judge) wanted a conviction. He decided the knife — even though it had tested negative three times and was too big to be the murder weapon — actually was the murder weapon and that two knives had been used with the assailants switching to the larger knife to create the fatal wound even though it was obvious that all three wounds on Kercher’s neck were made with a pocket knife. He also decided that footprints in the house with Knox’s DNA in them were “bloody footprints” even though the footprints had tested negative for blood.

The police had destroyed (“by accident”) three hard drives containing photographs and videos of Knox and Kercher getting along just fine so the judge was able to make up a motive — Knox hated her housemate, was jealous of her, and so forth. Sollecito’s motive was that he would do anything for a young woman with amazing curves.

The judge made a remarkable statement in his report in which he “explained” that even a scientific test that can detect microscopic amounts of blood can be wrong and, since he believes for other reasons that Knox and Sollecito are guilty, therefore the tests must be wrong and there must really have been large amounts of blood in the footprints which actually contained no blood. So a judge in Italy was behaving, one might say, like a rabid dog.

Knox had not tracked blood all over her house. But the judge wanted this to be the case. In his report he wrote the following:

“In considering these specimens [all of which tested negative for blood], one must also consider the possibility that they arose from other sources [Knox walked around barefoot in her house all the time] and are irrelevant to the investigation. But it must be noted that the negative result for blood does not necessarily indicate that no blood was present [the test is positive if there are five blood cells]. The result may have been negative because there was not sufficient material . . . “

This was not even the most deranged statement in the judge’s report but it’s enough for us. We should note that the judge himself is clearly not literally insane. However, he finds himself immersed in a system that causes him to make insane statements.

As horrible as the young woman’s murder was, it was equally simple. A burglar killed her, left his handprint in her blood on her pillow, stole money out of her purse, and fled to Germany where he was quickly caught. Even when something is quite simple, false complexity can fool lots of people. False complexity can turn the absurd into the plausible. Then all you need is a reversal of the burden of proof and now the plausible has become the certain.

Even Meredith’s own family was fooled. To this day, they believe two people with no motive killed their daughter and sister and they haven’t asked the police to answer for the poor judgment that caused them to let a deragned young man walk away from a crime spree. There’s no way to know whether the first judge was fooled like the Kerchers or was simply corrupt and didn’t want Italian law enforcement embarrassed in the eyes of the world.

The second judge cut right through the false complexity. He called the University of Rome: “I need forensics experts to look at the data.” The experts in Rome didn’t have to look too hard. They delivered a fancy report, but, again, it was a simple case. The PCR test on the triple-negative knife should not have been conducted at all because one is testing a sample already known to be negative. Even if one accepts a test on a negative sample, it is meaningless without a negative control (basically a white glove test) to prove the equipment is not itself contaminated with the murder victim’s blood as a result of dozens of tests performed.

The Italian scientists said the positive result for Kercher’s blood on the triple negative knife looked to them like clear indication of contaminated lab equipment. If the negative controls came back clean (that is if the blank sample showed nothing) then in theory one might accept the knife data. But you can’t say anything at all without seeing the data from the negative controls.

The second judge issued a court order for the negative controls to be released. The police lab refused repeated orders from the judge to release the data. And that was that. The judge sent the two kids home.

Obviously, the negative controls — something done routinely by lab techs with each sample — showed the contamination and the police lab didn’t want to admit that they had entered into evidence a triple-negative kitchen knife too big to be the murder weapon that only tested positive because the PCR machine was contaminated. Two crimes had been committed: murder and evidence suppression.

Raffaele said when he got home, he just stood in front of an open refigerator full of food he hadn’t tasted in four years. He stared. He doesn’t remember how long he stood there. He revealed that the police had offered to have him released if he would testify that Knox left his apartment the night of the murder. He refused. Knox called him a hero. “I don’t feel so,” he said. He never considered helping the police frame Knox.

Knox, on the plane ride home, kept forgetting that her family didn’t speak Italian.

Raffaele also shared a moment years later when he visited Amanda in the U.S. and at one point while remembering the horror of it all from the cold blustery day Meredith’s body was discovered to the interrogations for which the police “lost” the tapes to their learning from jail about the knife that supposedly had DNA on it to the show trial to the horrific conviction to the second trial with the real judge to their release from prison after four years all of it deeply colored by the worldwide attention focused almost entirely on Knox’s breasts. Together, they both fell apart unable to contain themselves. But they weren’t crying.

Sollecito said they laughed together uncontrollably for a couple of minutes.

And it was funny. In fact, it’s hilarious. It’s a Monty Python skit (“Burn the Witch” comes to mind) played out in real life. And yet millions of people were fooled including the victim’s family. The funniest part to my mind was the Harvard Law School professor saying he thought Knox was lovely-I-mean-guilty and would probably get the death penalty here in the good old USA. He didn’t actually say “lovely” instead of “guilty” but he might as well have. I won’t look at Harvard Law the same way ever again.

With Knox back in the U.S. and the rational part of the world able to see the case for what it was, Diane Sawyer had a serious question for the beautiful yoga afficionado: “Did you kill Meredith Kercher?” Sawyer asked.

Sawyer went on to ask Knox about the police theory that she and Sollecito had selectively removed DNA from the crime scene and Knox restrained herself. She quietly informed Ms. Sawyer that the reporter was asking her about a feat that no human being could accomplish even if they had a world-class lab and a thousand assistants at their beck and call. “That’s impossible,” Knox said.

The engineers trying to keep the Challenger launch cancelled had self-restraint. Look where it got them. What might Knox have said when asked if she killed Meredith Kercher?

“Are you a witch, Ms. Sawyer? Did you cast a spell that caused a young man to tear out a hunk of Meredith’s hair, slash her throat, and then remove her clothing and press his hands into her vagina while she literally drowned in her own blood? Oh, does that bother you? Are you perhaps laboring under a false impression? Did you think the story you are covering is about how nice my breasts look in a tabloid photo?”

Maybe then Sawyer would not have asked Knox if she had discovered a new method of selectively removing DNA from a crime scene. But Sawyer did ask about the “clean up” and Knox had to explain that when an Italian court says Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy are real this should not alter our sense of what is real and what is not.

Sawyer, ironically from the viewpoint of this essay, made the mistake of not being certain enough. Usually, with false paradigms, the problem is experts become overly sure of themselves. In the Knox false paradigm, which is a social false paradigm, we assume western police and courts in the 21st century would never act like deranged children. This assumption is incorrect not only in Italy but here in the U.S. as well as The Innocence Project has repeatedly shown. In the Knox case, nonsense was foisted upon the Italian, British, and American public — and upon Meredith Kercher’s grieving family — but we did not call it nonsense because we made an assumption: “It can’t be that bad.”

One of the important points I hope to get across in this essay is that sometimes it really is that bad. Sometimes you are sitting in the cockpit of the space shuttle and a guy at NASA is pushing hard to ignore five engineers who say it’s too dangerous to launch.

One might say that we all — certainly Sawyer fell for this — are vulnerable to the false paradigm in which we assume that otherwise reasonable people cannot be taken over by false paradigms and start behaving like rabid dogs . . .

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.

Human Evolution and Faux Scientists

No one has the slightest clue about what happened six million years ago when our branch primates separated from the branch containing chimpanzees and bonobos and, if you go back a little further, gorrillas and the other apes. In fact we humans are in the primate order and ape family: we still have a lot in common with our evolutionary cousins.

But we’re different, a lot different. It has nothing to do with making and shaking spears or with writing Shakespeare or with typing on computers. The separation was physical. A group of apes found a new way of living and they changed.

How did they change? Well for one thing, they stood up. It was NOT to free their hands to use spears or type on keyboards: that came much later. Standing up is nice. Standing up lets you wield a stick better and allows you to walk long distances so maybe we became stick-wielding nomadic apes and maybe that’s why half a dozen species of upright small-brained apes roamed the earth six million years ago like so many sasquatch species.

But these creatures were not human at all. They were just ordinary apes with ordinary ape brains. What were they doing? A hundred years ago someone figured it out. Humans don’t just stand up. We are also hairless, relatively speaking. We have smooth skin that our cousins don’t have. Maybe the sasquatch creatures all had smooth skin too. Maybe bipedalism and smooth skin go together. Maybe these adaptations are somehow advantageous in the right situation.

There’s another difference. Chimpanzees have fat just like us, but not really just like us. Our primate cousins can all get fat, but they store their fat internally. A fat chimpanzee doesn’t have fat fingers or a fat face or fat thighs or fat butts or fat arms any more than a human can get fat ankles. Even the stomach fat on a chimp isn’t the same as our stomach fat: for the chimp, the fat is internal as opposed to just under the skin.

Humans have a head-to-toe layer of subcutaneous (under the skin) fat. No other primate has anything remotely like this. We stand up straight and we have smooth skin. No other primate has these three major adaptations.

But what (think outside the box) is the point of straight posture, smooth skin, and head-to-toe fat. What advantage does it give a small-brained ape with no spears? What can we do physically that other primate can’t do? Does straight posture, smooth skin, and head-to-toe fat exist in any other mammalian species? That is, is there precedent for these three major adaptations that separate us from our scramble-on-all-fours, hairy, skinny cousins?

For the moment, we don’t have proof that the changes to posture, body hair, and fat deposition happened at the same time. We would need to isolate the genes that govern these characteristics and use DNA studies to determine how long the genes have been extant in order to find out if these adaptations were simultaneous. We don’t have the ability to do this yet, but someday we will know if that upright ape from six million years ago was also naked and curvy.

Assuming it is the case that the three big changes — bipedal posture, smooth skin, subcutaneous fat — all evolved six million years ago, what is the best guess for WHY they evolved? The wonderful thing is that it is obvious. For one thing, other mammals have evolved these three characteristics and always for the same reason — they confer a huge advantage under certain conditons. Again and again throughout evolutionary history, mammals have changed the way they live and created new evolutionary lines of wondrous creatures that have streamlined postures, smooth skin, and subcutaneous fat.

And there is one thing humans can do that no other primate would even try to do. Imagine if you and twenty friends were going to transported someplace naked without tools. You have to survive. Where do you want to be?

How about a nice island with a seashore with plenty of shellfish available? Or would you rather hunt big game on the African savannah without a spear or any other handmade tool? Of course you are better off on the seashore.

Do you know what happens when a human baby spends a lot of time in the water or at the seashore? Human babies are born to swim. Human babies, as long as they have a chance to learn (and even baby dolphins have to learn to swim) will swim and dive and retieve objects from several feet under water BEFORE they learn to walk. For humans, learning to swim is completely natural. We have the physiology for it. No other primate does.

What the great professional anthropologist Alister Hardy realized a hundred years ago is the simple fact that every aquatic or semi-aquatic mammal evolved NOT in the water but on land as a hairy, four-footed mammal without subcutaneous fat that then went BACK to the water to become hippos, manatees, dolphins, seals, and other aquatics all of which are outfitted with the standard set of three aquatic adaptations.

Whether you personally love to swim or hate the water is irrelevant. If you have a baby and expose it to the water and play with it in the water, it will swim and dive before it walks. It doesn’t matter whether your baby is a boy or a girl: if he or she is human, he or she is born to swim. If you are human, you are a semi-aquatic primate, the only surviving species out of half a dozen branches that split off from the other apes six million years ago.

Of course, it is possible that the ability of humans to out swim and out dive by far any other primate (how many gorrillas have you seen swimming across the English channel or pearl diving a hundred feet down with no technological aid?) is just a coincidence. All this theorizing is predicated on the guess that the changes to posture which are preserved in the fossil record occured right along with changes to skin and fat that are not preserved as hard fossils. The DNA “soft fossils” that could prove that our distant ancestors were coastal apes that walked and waded and swam and dove have yet to be dug up and examined so we can’t claim the theory proven just yet.

If an elephant were to watch a manatee swimming, the elephant would be watching an actual mermaid because from the elephant’s point of view, the manatee is a mermaid — a fully aquatic elephant. Manatees and elephants share a common ancestor which was probably semi-aquatic or at least coastal. Elephants of course are superb swimmers and their famous trunks may well have first evolved as snorkels. Anthropologists know all about the manatee/mermaid and they know all about the elephants semi-aquatic past and they are happy to consider the possibility that the elephant’s trunk evolved as a snorkel, but they do a 180-degree shift when anyone talks about humans.

Humans were supposed to have separated from the other apes because we got big brains and started using tools. Anthropologists have yet to wrap their little minds around the fact that this was long since proven untrue and they are unwilling to accept even the possibility that Hardy may have been right: our ancestors evolved on the coast or on an island and the current human swimming and diving ability is not just a lucky accident.

The great philosopher of science, Daniel Dennett of Tufts University, knows all about Hardy’s theory and is himself an expert on evolution. He wrote the rather Turgid but also brilliant Darwin’s Dangerous Idea which I regard as the best book ever written about evolution, as if all the knowledge and understanding of all the most brilliant evolutionary theorists in the world were woven together in one package. Dennett doesn’t say much about Hardy’s idea except for one thing.

Dennett has been all over the world to conferences and has asked every anthropologist he could find about Hardy’s theory. Dennett understands why Hardy’s theory isn’t yet proven. What he wants to know is why it isn’t even possible to discuss it in journals. Dennett wants to know why the theory isn’t mentioned in textbooks. Dennett wants to know why anthropologists who have no idea at all what happened six million years ago when our ancestors stood up with their small brains and with no tools claim not merely that Hardy’s idea is unproven but that it is definitely wrong.

Do you think Dennett ever got an answer to his simple question: why are anthropologists certain that Hardy’s theory is definitely wrong to the point where the idea shouldn’t even be discussed? The answer is NO:  Dennett got no answer at all. Dennett wrote in his book that he’s never heard an answer worth repeating.

How could he have heard an answer worth repeating? Humans have the same three adaptations as every aquatic or semi-aquatic mammal. Humans are naturally equipped to learn to swim and learning to swim happens for us quicker than learning to walk as long as we have a beach or a pool. There’s nothing natural about walking, we have to learn. If you grew up in a gravity-free environment, you would fall on your face as soon as you landed on a planet with gravity.

Humans in particular and mammals in general do hardly anything right out of the womb. Human babies can grasp and suckle pretty much immediately. Their next trick is swimming. If we developed streamlined posture, smooth skin, and subcutaneous fat simultaneously, we were following a path traveled over millions of years by many other mammalian species. But Hardy, a professional anthropologist, was certainly wrong even though he correctly predicted that we would find that tool use happened millions of years AFTER our ancestors split from the other apes and even though his theory has ample precedent throughout the animal kingdom.


The Big Kahuna

In 1990, a student at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst approached his professors with an unusual request. He wanted to write his doctoral thesis in comparative literature assuming that the greatest playwright of Elizabethan times was NOT a Stratford businessman named William Shakespeare who arrived in London in the early 1590’s but was instead a literary earl who used his direct access to the Queen’s court and the protection of the Queen herself to write plays whose sheer audacity would still be raising scholarly eyebrows centuries later.

Here’s the late Harold Bloom, that scholar of scholars, most impressed.

“Many in the original audience [of As You Like It] must have appreciated Shakespeare’s audacity in alluding to Marlowe having been struck dead . . . by . . . a member of . . . the CIA of Elizabethan England . . . Shakespeare hints strongly that it was a state-ordered execution . . .”

The ability of Shakespeare to “hint strongly” about anything and everything he felt like bringing up in thirty-six explosive, informed, daring works of art without being dragged before the authorities is where the mystery begins. Shakespeare was not just tolerated by the Queen — she embraced the works and took advantage of their popularity.

An anonymous play called The Famous Victories of Henry V captivated the Queen, her court, and the people of London with its stirring message of communal courage in the face of looming threats. Most likely played through most of the 1580’s and definitely played before 1588, its title was on the Queen’s lips in the crucial summer of 1588. If the Spanish Armada could not be prevented from crossing the English Channel, England would likely be unable to resist the invasion that would follow: England would be forced back into the orbit of papal Rome.

The Queen rallied her people:

“We shall shortly have a famous victory.”

And they did.

The woman who was perhaps the greatest of the English monarchs may have been consciously quoting the title of the early version of Henry V and why sholudn’t she? Since 1583, when she went “all in” on the theater with the creation of the Queen’s Men and the initiation of what Thomas Nashe called “the policy of plays,” the theater had been an arm of the state. In 1586, she approved an extraordinary grant of gold and silver to support the leading court playwright, a literary earl whose abilities were compared to Homer’s and his words likened to mother’s milk but whose name never appeared on a play.

The Queen and her chief adviser Lord Burghley and the top national security man, Francis Walsingham, did not use the modern idiom “all in” but they would have understood the phrase from context. A lot was at stake, everything as a matter of fact. A wild, unpredictable, brilliant insider singing the praises of the Tudor Rose dynasty while also delivering the biting satire and dark humor that helped make the scandalous plays outrageously popular was just what the doctor ordered.

A minority of credentialed experts — I call them “rebels” — believe the anonymous author of Famous Victories was Shakespeare and, what’s more, that he was the literary earl who officially became the Queen’s playwright in 1586 and who was allowed wide latitude in his writings as long as he didn’t openly take credit for the works.

The Henry V from the 1580’s, part of a group of plays referred to here as “1580’s Shakespeare,” featured classic Shakespearean innovations including comic scenes interspersed with history scenes, experimentation with the artifice of a play within a play, foreigners comically butchering English creating bawdy multilingual puns, and so on. This relatively crude Henry V was the basis for what came to be known as Shakespeare’s “Prince Hal trilogy” — the two parts of Henry IV and the mature version of Henry V.

The close relationship between canonical Shakespeare and 1580’s Shakespeare is widely recognized. Mainstream scholars who aren’t quite sure who wrote the early Henry V note that the Prince Hal trilogy “emulates the stagecraft” and “follows exactly the contours” of the 1580’s play but generally regard the question of who wrote 1580’s Shakespeare as a mystery “of so dark a nature” as to be permanently unsolvable.

John Dover Wilson expressed the mainstream view as follows:

“. . . a very intimate connection of some kind exists between Shakespeare’s plays and this old text.”

One “intimate connection” we can list is the Queen herself: she seemed rather enamored of both canonical Shakespeare and 1580’s Shakespeare. How could she resist? “His cause being just and his quarrel honorable . . . ” and so on from soldiers facing death in Henry V getting at the all-important inherent goodness of dying for king and country — is surely manna to a monarch whether one is a king or a queen. The patriotic fervor of Henry V was and is arguably irresistible in as many contexts as one can imagine.

The UCLA scholar Lily Campbell wrote a book in 1947 holding up a lens to the intimate connection between Shakespeare plays and Elizabethan politics. In the introduction and in chapter 11, Shakespeare’s Histories: Mirrors of Elizabethan Policy, Campbell sketches for us a 16th century tableau.

“Shakespeare’s plots were clear and sure because he had a definite, fundamental conception of universal law . . . each of Shakespeare’s histories serves a special purpose in elucidating a political problem of Elizabeth’s day and bringing to bear upon this problem the accepted political philosophy of the Tudors.”

And so it was that Henry V was valuable to 20th century leaders just as it was to Elizabeth centuries before: at war once more with bombs raining down upon London released from devices that would have fascinated and terrified Elizabeth and Burghley and Walsingham, Henry V appeared on the magic silver screen stiffening the sinew once again of Londoners facing destruction and conquest.

Fictional centuries later, the Starship Enterprise helmed by the brave Captain Picard portrayed by sometime Shakespearean actor Patrick Stewart crossed the Neutral Zone only to be confronted, outgunned, by two Romulan Warbirds. “Now, if these men do not die well, it will be a black matter for the king that led them to it,” a brooding PIcard muttered to himself before giving the fateful order taking the ship and its crew into danger.

Trapped by the aptly named Romulans and facing imminent destruction, Picard challenges the confident Romulan commander:

“If the cause is just and honorable, they are prepared to give their lives. Are YOU prepared to die today . . .?”

The representative of Romulus, thinking his position secure and superior, scoffs at this “idle threat.” But then the fruits of Picard’s forethought appear before the suprised eyes of the clever-but-not-clever-enough Romulan. The galactic version of the Spanish Armada turns tail and heads home.

We are fortunate that Henry V in all of its various versions finally found its way to the printing press for it was almost lost to us. It wasn’t until 1598 that the early version of the play was printed. It was still anonymous even though the name “Shakespeare” was famous by then. The first play of the Prince Hal trilogy also came out in print that year, anonymous as well.

But soon after that, the famous name “Shakespeare” (famous from epic poems published four and five years before) finally began appearing on plays. The first two installments of the trilogy were published WITH bylines. Interestingly, the mature version of Henry V, a shortened version of the play we know but more polished than the early version, also appeared at this time and in multiple editions BUT with no byline.

It may be the case that once a play had been published sans byline, publishers tended to continue the trend. Romeo and Juliet was also published repeatedly as if it were anonymous though it was anything but. Titus Andronicus, another recognized Shakespeare play, was published anonymously before 1598 and again and again with a blank on the title page even though the anonymity seal had been long since broken.

So the mystery of 1580’s Shakespeare is compounded by the mystery of the bylines that didn’t appear on plays until the 1598 and even then seemed to be treated as optional by publishers. But the haphazard bylines are really nothing compared to the haphazard quality of the published works. This is where the mainstream’s choice of author, the Stratford businessman named William Shakespeare, comes in.

He arrived from the town of Stratford — a few days’ journey away in those days — in the early 1590’s. He was one of several William Shakespeares living in and around London at the time — Shakespeare, from the French Jaques-Pierre, was a moderately common surname so “William Shakespeare” wasn’t exactly “John Smith” but a name more like “Robert McIntyre” or something similar.

By 1595, this William Shakespeare, a Stratford investor in real estate and agriculture and a dealer in grain and malt was one of the major shareholders in London’s leading acting company, a fact that would both comfort and confound biographers centuries later.

Despite the apparent high profile of the author, if you wanted to publish a “Shakespeare” play, the author was nowhere to be found. Two epic poems had been published (everyone agrees) as authorized versions but after those publications in 1593 and 1594, the author vanished. The plays were huge, but whoever was writing them wasn’t cooperating with publishers.

This odd state of affairs with high profiles and low profiles and authorized poems and bootlegged plays and the Shakespeare name appearing and disappearing becomes one of the many mysteries of Shakespeare: the greatest of them all is the one and only Elizabethan playwright to be exclusively bootlegged.

Now bootlegging happened to many Elizabethan authors but it happened sporadically — except for Shakespeare. Bloom is probably the most famous Shakespeare scholar of them all with full rights to be confident in his view of the Shakespeare world and so we go to him, the great man himself, ingenio ipsum, for understanding and clarity.

But Bloom comes across rather humble when he confronts what we might call the invisibility mystery.

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

An “inverse ratio” is, from a mathematical standpoint, meaningless, but it is nevertheless poetry to my physicist ears. How can I resist the come hither of an “inverse ratio” that challenges even the analytical skills of Yale’s late great Shakespeare standard-bearer?

I’m sure I don’t know what an “inverse ratio” is exactly but I know I like it. How could there be a more fitting math-poetry amalgam to delineate the mystery of the invisible author: if great writing combined with famous plays combined with a shareholder named Shakespeare combined with no one to feed hungry publishers does not make for an “inverse ratio” why then I daresay nothing does.

As we’ll see, Bloom is far from the only mainstreamer to wonder aloud about that which rebels are wont to scream from rooftops.

For the UMass student and for rebels in general, the story of the Queen’s playwright — who was anything but colorless — saves us from having to strain our “analytical skills” or turn ourselves upside down to try to understand what conquered the redoubtable Bloom. Rebels point out that there’s nothing mysterious about the Queen’s playwright who had plenty of courtly dirt to dish, gold in his saddlebag, and a name that graced no play.

The  Queen’s playwright aka the literary earl was at the center of London’s literary scene: he knew personally most if not all of the major Elizabethan writers; they dedicated work after work to their mentor and their compliments went way beyond polite obsequiousness to a patron. The literary earl’s erudition, intellectual abilities, and “dramatic powers” were noted throughout his life and beyond. The encomiums began in childhood and persisted after his death for a few decades until he was mostly forgotten.

No play byline ever had his name. None of the people praising him for his literary work ever mentioned a title. He vanished, seemingly forever, into the mists of history.

Secrecy was the watchword: the lavish support the literary earl was receiving from the crown was a state secret not openly discussed at the time. It was not discovered by historians until three centuries had passed. By then what the worms had left us of the literary earl’s life boiled down to a historical footnote: he was an “interesting” figure; only this and nothing more.

But then the documents were discovered: the equivalent of a Nobel Prize every year for life was awarded to a wild young man with one outstanding talent — writing. And that’s more than interesting. For people who wonder, taking Bloom more seriously that than ingenio ipsum would like, how it could be that the Stratford real estate genius was also the writer of the Prince Hal trilogy, 1000 pounds a year for life is a lifeline.

The grant was set up with more than the usual level of secrecy: there was to be no overt tracking of the money as it left the crown’s possession; no indication appears noting what the recipient is being paid to do; and the recipient was explicitly exempt from any accounting.

With the discovery of the payments, the literary earl was a footnote no more. Suddenly, rebels say, everything makes sense.

In contrast, the businessman who breezed into London in 1592 — twenty years too late to hear rebels tell it — and supposedly took the Queen’s court and the London populace by storm but left no record of having done so, confounds every biographer who looks into the question.

The fact that there is no shortage of paperwork documenting the businessman’s mercantile life only deepens the mystery.

To rebels, the documents from his lifetime end the discussion: he wasn’t a writer; he was just a man named Shakespeare (born Shakspere) who opportunistically bought into London’s leading acting company and may have pranced around London bragging about his name but never raised more than a jocular eyebrow in London and lived and died as a well-known deep-pocketed money-man in Stratford-upon-Avon, a hundred miles northwest of London. Rebels and mainstreamers look at the same documents and, interestingly enough, reach amazingly similar preliminary conclusions considering how far apart their final determinations are.

E. A. J. Honigmann was no rebel and yet he is often quoted by rebels who don’t understand why he didn’t come over the dark side as it were.

Honigmann was passionate about finding hints of Shakespeare’s writing career so he studied the trove of more than seventy documents. He was disappointed. Honigmann discovered a businessman apparently writing great literature between real estate deals. He continued to disagree with rebels but he was so honest about his findings that he might as well have been knighted as a honorary member of the rebel clan. Here is the brilliant, thoroughly mainstream scholar, a man I call Sir E. A. J. Honigmann, commenting on the business activity of the man he was sure (not without reason as we’ll see) was the greatest writer in Elizabethan England.

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

Park Honan, another fully committed mainstreamer, looked at the same documents as Bloom and Honigmann. With a bit of what one might call rhetorical fluorish, Honan made a concerted effort to explain some of these mysteries starting on page 115 of his book and ending on page 118. Here is the flickering picture he paints for us of the man who lived centuries ago. NB: John Lyly was an Elizabethan writer whose writings and Shakespeare’s have much in common.

“Throughout his life, he had little to gain [financially] from seeing his name in a London bookshop . . . Shakespeare may have begun with The Two Gentlemen of Verona . . . [with] its elegant Lylyan theme . . . Borrowing and assimilating widely, as if he could hardly trust what he knows of life, Shakespeare is an accomplished parasite . . . despite the ambiguous evidence of the Sonnets, Shakespeare seems to have fluorished with a certain annihilation of the sense of himself . . .”

So, according to Honan, William Shakespeare, the Stratford businessman and erudite genius and acting company shareholder and courtly playwright, annihilated himself not so much like matter meeting anti-matter in a huge explosion but more like the Cheshire Cat of Lewis Carroll’s (real name: Charles Dodgson) imagination, fading out of existence with a sly smile in a way that would drive future historians (rebels would say literally) batty.

Mark Twain (real name: Samuel Clemens) didn’t believe a word of the story about the audacious-hyper-efficient-colorless-businessman-writer-dramatic-powerhouse-Cheshire-Cat great writer.

Claiming mainstreamers were all out of their collective minds in insisting “Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare,” Twain/Clemens wrote a satirical tract (before the grant to the literary earl was discovered) containing an oft-quoted satirical remark that sounds bizarrely like what mainstreamers say in their writings.

“We are the reasoning race and when we see 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.”

An inverse ratio of colorlessness, a man who can manufacture time, a Cheshire Cat, and vague file of chipmunk tracks — that’s what we’ve got. Sometimes the mainstream seems to agree with Twain/Clemens with what might be called a paradoxical vehemence.

Without an accessible author in London in the 1590’s even though “William Shakespeare” was in town and holding shares in the most famous acting company of the time (this company had picked up where the Queen’s Men left off) publishers were lucky if they could get their hands on a partial script. If unlucky, they might sit in theaters furiously taking notes. That was how it was and sometimes it was terrible. The first edition of Hamlet contained the immortal line (corrected the following year), “To be or not to be, Aye, there’s the point.” And — small problem — half the play was missing.

Maybe the author was so appalled by the first edition that he actually got involved and saw to it that a decent edition made it to press: no one knows.

Schoenbaum, arguably the premier Shakespeare biographer, like everyone else found the “absent author” part of the story frustrating and bizarre.

“Towards the quartos 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 messy “quartos” — printed works on “quarter” sheets of paper — from which the Cheshire Cat was “aloof” are just the beginning of the “masquerade” for most of the plays weren’t published at all: no quarto, no mistakes, no mixed up scenes, no missing lines, just a lot of nothing.

MacbethJulius Caesear, All’s Well That Ends Well, As You Like It, The Tempest, Othello, The Comedy of Errors, and many other plays rested somewhere with someone in manuscript until finally thirty-six plays, essentially the entire canon, appeared all at once in 1623 long after anyone who might have written them was dead.

Some plays, including HamletKing Lear, King John, Taming of the Shrew, and even Henry V had been published after a fashion, but the great 1623 compilation — called the First Folio for its larger-sized paper — contained new versions of these plays. Hamlet and King Lear now appeared with changes scattered throughout the plays; King John had been completely rewritten and was now mature Shakespeare; Taming of the Shrew too had grown up and now sported a richly detailed Italian setting; The Life of King Henry the Fifth in the First Folio was almost twice as long as the original mature version, the anonymous Chronicle History of Henry the Fifth, which itself was vastly improved from the also-anonymous Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth.

By my count (I compiled a complete list below) nine of the plays in the First Folio previously existed in print close to the author’s final form. The other twenty-seven plays were either not published at all or had significant changes between the author-who-doesn’t-care quarto printings and the author-who-is-dead folio printing.

All of this mystery — the “ambiguous” sonnets, the “annihilation,” the “vague file of chipmunk tracks,” the “aloofness,” and the “mask” — isn’t a mystery to rebels. Rebels say the sonnets — kept private and written in the first person — tell the story of an author who had to remain hidden though he cared deeply about posterity.

Reading the sonnets as written, Shakespeare seems concerned about his works living on. Actually, he’s extremely concerned, obsessed almost. He speaks of works that must outlast stone and brass. He seeks immortality for himself and for the subject of his sonnets who sounds an awful lot like a real not-ambiguous person (typically regarded as the Earl of Southampton by reluctant mainstreamers and rebels alike). The excerpt below is typical of the sonnets’ author expressing his need to carve out his place in the literary afterlife.

For himself and for his subject (commonly thought to be the Earl of Southampton) Shakespeare wanted immortality.

Not marble, nor the gilded monuments
Of princes, shall outlive this powerful rhyme;
But you shall shine more bright in these contents
Than unswept stone, besmear’d with sluttish time.

Given that he wanted his works to endure, that he was very concerned about it, he must have had a good reason for keeping his distance from publishers. One might guess that he was given no choice in the matter.

The great Bloom was “puzzled” to study a writer who had to have cared about his works but didn’t act like it.

“Shakespeare puzzles us in his apparent indifference to the posthumous destiny of King Lear . . . the amalgam we generally read and see acted is not very satisfactory. The only works Shakespeare ever proofread and stood by were [epic poems] 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? Bloom asks. He calls it a puzzle. Schoenbaum refers to a mask. Honan sees annihilation. Honigmann practically invented the Harry Potter time turner in his effort to understand what magic was this.

Rebels say it is much ado about nothing. Rebels say there’s no magic. The businessman named Shakespeare investing in the London theater wasn’t hidden and wasn’t the hidden writer. All the puzzlement is due to a false premise. It’s obvious, rebels say, who Shakespeare was. He was a connected, protected, 1580’s literary trailblazer, keeping a low profile vis a vis the public and receiving an unprecedented royal stipend.

If rebels are right, the Queen’s playwright used his position and the protection of the Queen to write explosively popular plays full of jabs at courtiers (including himself), informed political commentary, advice aimed directly at his sovereign, scary comments about state-sponsored executions, and full-blown lampoons of powerful people. He even got away with writing a play (Richard II) with a deposition scene. The price of this unheard-of freedom, the freedom to be brutally honest, was anonymity.

The author of the sonnets is perhaps telling us about this compromise.

Tired with all these, for restful death I cry,
. . .
And strength by limping sway disabled
And art made tongue-tied by authority,
And folly, doctor-like, controlling skill,
. . .
Tired with all these, from these would I be gone . . .

To rebels, the literary earl, a playwright with no plays, and Shakespeare, a playwright invisible to publishers, pretty much had to be the same person: two invisible men are one. The Queen’s support and the content of the works and the publication history make a compelling case that rebels say is confirmed by the sonnets which were finally published in 1609 with the title “SHAKE-SPEARES SONNETS” and no byline. “Shake-speare,” to rebels, was a label that identified the works, not the name of a person.

Rebels say this is confirmed by the author himself in the not-at-all-ambiguous Sonnet 81:

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:

Rebels regard this as a direct statement, not in need of interpretation.

Mainstreamers disagree but must face a businessman disconnected from the works he is supposed to have written and disconnected from the tribe of Elizabethan writers of which he was supposedly the chief.

No writer claimed to know personally the great playwright Shakespeare and, except for a set of sonnets that begin with “From fairest creatures we desire increase . . .” and finish with “O thou my lovely boy . . .” written to an unnamed person who was evidently very important to the author and another set of sonnets written to a powerful dark-eyed “mistress” with whom the author evidently had a tempestuous relationship, Shakespeare-the-author wrote the dedications to the Earl of Southampton and was otherwise totally isolated as far as the record is concerned.

Here, again, is Sir E. A. J. Honigmann putting his finger on the central problem Shakespeare biographers face.

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

It’s only “astonishing” rebels say, if you insist that Shakespeare was the Stratford businessman.

After all, the Stratford businessman knew many, many people. None of them were writers but some were literate and some of these literate friends wrote letters mentioning Shakespeare. None called him Homer or said anything about mother’s milk. Schoenbaum hung on every word any of the businessman’s friends and associates said.

Schoenbaum was disappointed though not so dissappointed he couldn’t turn his usual fine phrase.

“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.”

The businessman, as we know, was a member of an acting company: he even mentioned three of his fellow shareholders in his will. That sounds like the start of something but is it really? Here is a man named Shakespeare in London and part of London’s leading acting company and therefore cutting a very high profile with a name that matches his on title pages. He’s as large as life on one hand but on the other hand. he is not connected with writers or publishers and all of his plays are either bootlegged messes or just sitting in manuscript somewhere, basically rotting.

And we have a stack of documents covering the life of this theater man and nothing about his writing.

But we have the sonnets. Maybe they tell us something about this msyterious “business was another matter” author. The sonnets were written in the first-person and were kept private for a decade or two before finally being published in 1609 so they might be pretty useful. The Earl of Southampton, Shakespeare’s sole dedicatee, is regarded by rebels and mainstreamers alike as the most likely subject of the “lovely boy” sonnets (the “mistress” in the second set of sonnets is more of a mystery) as they seem to follow his life pretty well.

Shakespeare apparently knew the young earl so well he could admonish, advise, and counsel him offering love and unconditional support through an eventful ten-year period of the “lovely boy’s” life. This is wonderful — at least in theory — and gives us a solid connection between Shakespeare and the outside world.

Unfortunately, the businessman did not make any recorded visits to Southampton’s home, exchange any known gifts with Southampton, accept any known commissions from Southampton, or mention Southampton in his will. Centuries of sleuthing have turned up nothing at all to verify a connection between the businessman from Stratford named Shakespeare and the Earl of Southampton unless one assumes he was the author of the epic poems which assumption makes the dedications proof of connection.

But the connection between Shakespeare and Southampton indicated by the sonnets makes no sense. The sonnets are intimate, too intimate. How could the Stratford businessman have been telling an earl when to get married and have children and how to live his life and don’t be a churl and don’t be self-willed and we need you to do this and that? He could not have done. So the dedications in the epic poems and the sonnets together create well-recognized problems for biographers.

Mainstream biographer Peter Levi has a solution to this problem, an obvious one: the businessman may have written the sonnets as a commission. So they sound odd coming from a Stratford businessman because they are actually written from someone else’s point of view. Here are some Levi excerpts.

“The first few sonnets . . and perhaps many more, are clearly written to Lord Southampton . . . Shakespeare is attempting on behalf of [Southampton’s] family and friends to persuade Southampton to take a wife . . . Shakespeare wrote . . . probably on behalf of the young man’s mother. . . . The Sonnets, which were commissioned poems . . . are among the most perfect poems . . . Shakespeare is writing a polite, intimate set of verses from the point of view of Southampton’s mother . . . almost as an older brother at times.”

So Shakespeare’s most intimate writings are from someone else’s point of view (cue rebels gagging). Southampton was under pressure to marry Lord Burghley’s grand-daughter. Since Burghley was the Queen’s closest adviser and the most powerful man in England and the likely arbiter of the royal succession, a marriage alliance into his family was a huge offer Southampton would have done well to accept. The first seventeen sonnets are called by scholars the “marriage sonnets” and this is why Levi regards them as “clearly written” to Southampton.

Schoenbaum did not comment on the “sonnets were commissioned” theory but it is clear from his work that he had little patience for such theories. About one sonnet-related theory, for example, he agreed that it was “not the most idiotic guess ever made” and said nothing more. Schoenbaum was an honest biographer who necessarily engaged in some storytelliing but who for the most part eschewed speculation. In the case of the sonnets in particular, Schoenbaum kept a respectful distance.

Nevertheless, the sonnets come up repeatedly for Schoenbaum because the Southampton dedications appear 1593 and 1594 and the sonnets are published in 1609. On page 271, Schoenbaum summarized the situation with sonnets and Southampton as far as he was concerned as a cautious biographer:

“All the riddles of the Sonnets — date, dedication, sequence, identity of the dramatis personae elude solution, while at the same time teasing speculation. This writer takes satisfaction in having no theories of his own to offer.”

Not going down the rabbit hole of sonnet speculation wasn’t all that much help to Schoenbaum. He was still stuck with no “complimentary verses” either to friends or by friends, a dedication to an earl but no known contact with said earl, and a set of mysterious first-person sonnets that may have been written as private missives to the earl but that create more mysteries if this was indeed the case.

If a biographer doesn’t want to follow Levi and assume Southampton’s family commissioned the sonnets then, Schoenbaum realizes, it is best to drop Southampton altogether which tactic he employs on page 179 after discussing the 1594 dedication. In the follow-up on page 180, the great biographer seems to comfort himself and his readers with a beautiful explanation for the unfortunate uselessness to biographers of Shakespeare’s private first-person writing:

“Southampton now departs from the biographical record . . .  the ambiguous language of poetry resists the fragile certitude of interpreters . . . it is not clear to what extent the personages of these poems . . . represent real individuals: the imperatives of Art, no less than the circumstances of Nature, dictate their roles.”

Southampton may have departed from the biographical record that Schoenbaum wishes to consider but Southampton most certainly did not depart from the historical record in 1594. His adventures were just beginning. In 1601, the earl tried to control the royal succession. He was convicted of treason and sentenced to death in 1601. The sonnets may have been written to Southampton — Schoenbaum notes that Southampton is the leading candidate for the subject of the sonnets even among mainstream scholars — and may have recorded these real events as poetry.

Southampton’s sentence was commuted in a stunning reversal with no reason given in any surviving. Southampton’s amazing good fortune is a mystery to historians. But Shakespeare appears to have known all about it and appears to have celebrated this turnaround in the sonnets. Rebels disagree with Schoenbaum’s “we don’t know exactly where the imperatives of Art end and history begins” stance. Rebels don’t think this line of inquiry should be dropped.

When the sonnets are published in 1609 they contained a publisher’s dedication which creates more problems. Schoenbaum notes a dedication would normally be supplied by the author and calls what the publisher said one of the more “mystifying problems” associated with the riddle ridden sonnets. He then prints the dedication for the reader’s edification throws in his quip about “idiotic” guesses. Schoenbaum finishes off with his announced “satisfaction” in his “no theories” stance and moves on to other things.

Rebels agree that the publisher’s dedication is mystifying though part of it seems quite clear. The publisher refers to the author of the sonnets as “our ever-living poet.” This, rebels say, is obviously a eulogy reminiscent of a Shakespeare king calling his dead predecessor “that ever-living man of memory” in Henry VI part 1. Schoenbaum, if asked, would undoubtedly regard eulogizing the still-living Stratford businessman as “mystifying” and leave it at that but he didn’t mention the “ever-living poet” reference that rebels regard as important evidence.

No biographer or scholar has ever explained it. Many have pointed out (correctly) that “our ever-living poet” might not be a eulogy. If one assumes that the businessman from Stratford wrote Shakespeare and if the publisher regarded the businessman as the author of the sonnets and if the publisher knew the businessman was still alive then “our ever-living poet” must NOT have been a eulogy.

Rebels say there is no way the person who held the priceless sonnet manuscripts in his hands in 1609 did not know who Shakespeare was and almost no way he would have referred to him as “our ever-living poet” while he was still alive. For rebels the publisher’s dedication comes close to excluding the businessman as a possible Shakespeare even when considered by itself. Considered in the context of the historical record, a 1609 eulogy is regarded by rebels as definitive.

Mainstreamers disagree but have nothing to say except, as in Schoenbaum, literally nothing, or, in other books, simply that it’s a matter of interpretation which of course is always the case.

So Schoenbaum, Honan, Honigmann, Bloom, and other biographers and scholars, leaving Southampton and sonnets mostly out of the picture, have always been stuck with a series of bootlegged plays, a large number of unpublished manuscripts, and no known contacts with patrons, publishers, or fellow writers. But a bereft scholar like Schoenbaum attempting a biography must deliver around three hundred pages.

It couldn’t have been easy. Reading Schoenbaum’s work, one sympathizes. For comparison one can look at, for instance, the work of Rosalind Miles who wrote a biography of Ben Jonson, another great Elizabethan writer who, like the Stratford businessman, left behind dozens of documents for scholars to pore over.

But the dozens of documents in the case of Jonson are of an entirely different character.

Jonson was a largely self-taught classical scholar whose brilliant, controversial, and sometimes dangerous writings reflected his hard-won knowledge. Jonson’s classical erudition didn’t have nearly the breadth and depth of Shakespeare’s, but the lesser of the two greats nevertheless had a library big enough to impress his scholarly friend John Selden who, Miles tells us on page 161, borrowed a work of Eurpides from his “beloved friend, that singular poet Ben Jonson” who graciously allowed Selden access to a “well-furnisht” library in his home.

Modern scholars estimate at least a few hundred books needed to impress Selden. Two hundred books (206 last time I checked) with a Ben Jonson provenance survive to this day, many of them decorated with Jonson’s distinctive signature. None survive for the Stratford businessman though a bible owned by the Queen’s playwright which has many of Shakespeare’s favorite verses underlined does survive and formed the basis for the UMass student’s dissertation which the faculty approved as a proposal and accepted as a completed work, awarding the Ph.D. in 2001.

The student, like many rebels or pre-rebels, had read Schoenbaum and found it well written, well researched and convincing . . . convincing in the sense of a clear indication of a problem. Miles, after reading Schoenbaum, is said to have muttered to her spouse, “There but for the grace of God go I . . .” But this story may be apocryphal.

Miles, whether she checked her privilege or not, was fortunate. She had John Selden to look at along with plenty of other people who knew Ben Jonson as a writer and who left a record of it. For Shakespeare, arguably the most erudite man in Elizabethan England with access to essentially every book in the land, there is no Selden. One imagines a library with a thousand books or more and a long list of scholarly Seldens but all one gets is grain dealing, real estate holdings, and a business relationship with an acting company that might have involved plays written for the company, given to the company, paid for by the company, and maintained in manuscript over the decades in the hands of company shareholders . . . if only there was a clear record of this agreement and exchange (mainstreamers say there is such a record as will be discussed forthwith but it is a posthumous record).

A comment about a Greek authors and a borrowed book would have set Schoenbaum, Honan, Bloom, Honigmann, and Wilson quivering and squealing with delight. One might guess that Shakespeare biographers don’t read Jonson biographies unless they have a high tolerance for pain: virtually every page of the book by Miles refers to evidence that would be front-page news if found for Shakespeare.

But surely a great scholar like Schoenbaum must have white-knuckled his way through at least one Jonson biography. I can see him in my mind’s eye, reading and keeping his despair in check as his jealous eyes scan page after page packed with information. Maybe getting through a book by Miles or one similar was what inspired the great Shakespeare biographer to make the following oft-reproduced comment, pain begest pith, despair is distilled, the abyss is faced:

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

Is it possible that Schoenbaum, even though he regarded alternative author theories as mostly “nutty,” harbored if not doubts then maybe some nagging concerns?

I think this is possible. But we must consider comforting thoughts that might allay concerns. It could be that we’re just unlucky when it comes to the Stratford businessman. Maybe we should not despair. Suppose we simply temper our expectations.

Yes, the man named Shakespeare seemed to arrive in London a bit late to write Famous Victories and Hamlet and other plays in the “1580’s Shakespeare” category but maybe he arrived unbeknownst to history in time to write these plays. And maybe, even though he was cutting a high profile as a theater shareholder and should have been involved with publishers and writers, he had his reasons for being “aloof.”

After all publication didn’t pay very well. The proofreading that Bloom says he didn’t do takes time. We know from Honigmann that the man from Stratford didn’t have much time. And why should the country folk in Stratford be expected to “trouble their heads” about poetry and love and such?

One can’t eat et tu Brute but thousands of paying customers could be packed into a London theater. So what if Julius Caesar wasn’t published until 1623? Of course, this is contradicted by the sonnets which definitely did not say, “So what?” when it came to posterity. Then again, Schoenbaum says the sonnets were just Art.

It could be that the sonnets don’t say anything about anything real and it could be that Schoenbaum’s’ “vertiginous expanse” is nothing more than a measure of our frustration with the vagaries of history. It’s not so much an abyss as an illusion that has fooled doubters for centuries convincing them to seek another author. So we don’t have documents. So what?

We might do well to say “So what?” about the documentary record from the businessman’s lifetime because in 1623, with the literary earl and the Stratford businessman named Shakespeare both long dead, the First Folio came out under the auspices of two earls. Now one of these earls happened to be married to the youngest daughter of the Queen’s playwright and that’s more grist for the rebels’ mill (cue rebels saying “What else is new?”) and even mainstreamers have to admit it is hard to keep the literary earl out of our story.

We must remember he had three daughters and marriageable earls didn’t exactly swarm out of the woodwork in Elizabethan England so it could easily be a coincidence (cue rebels snorting) that Shakespeare’s missing plays ended up in the hands of the literary earl’s family.

But, rebels say, this is the last straw: we have a connected, protected playwright getting 1000 pounds a year straight from the crown but not putting his name on any play while people call him a great playwright but don’t name plays and all that is added to widely acknowledged erudition dating back to his childhood and so many known contacts with so many writers that one loses count. And now his family is JUST BY COINCIDENCE publishing the plays all at once more than doubling the size of the canon. Come on, rebels say, seriously?

Why, rebels ask, is there even a question about who the “real Shakespeare” was?

Here’s why. The First Folio says different. It’s that simple and it is the First Folio that caused Bloom, Honigmann, Honan, Schoenbaum, Campbell, Wilson, and the rest of the mainstream to find a way, any way, to make the Stratford businessman who was an acting company shareholder into the author. The First Folio, a highly reliable source, identifies the man named Shakespeare as the author.

For the first time, in the First Folio preface, the author of the plays is explicitly identified by more than a name on a title page: Shakespeare of Stratford, the businessman, was most definitely the author.

According to two letters in the First Folio preface, the Stratford businessman’s fellow shareholders — the ones he mentioned in his will — have “collected” the plays and these shareholders are now gifting the complete set of plays “without ambition either of self-profit or fame” to the two earls one of whom happens to be married to the daughter of an interesting figure in Elizabethan literary history.

The letters in the preface, apparently ghostwritten by Ben Jonson (they have his unmistakeable style) but over the names of the shareholders, calls the Shakespeare plays “his own writings” and does not say anything about the acting company actually owning the plays but does say the shareholders collected them doing an “office to the dead.” Still, it is possible the acting company owned the plays all along. And it is possible they held them in manuscript though a few decades.

And there you have it, Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare. It says so in the First Folio. And no one at the time cried “Foul!” — at least not directly.

Rebels, taking a chronological view of the story, say if you start in 1577 and proceed from there, by the time you get to the First Folio, you already know enough to have grave doubts about the attibution of the great works to a Stratford real estate mogul who got nowhere near the Queen’s court, would not have survived writing the plays even if he did have access to the Queen’s court, was not in London in the 1580’s, did not cut anything like a low profile when he was in London except for his lack of connection to any writers, and, far from being the most erudite man in England, could not write his name.

That last is a big thing even to non-rebels. The one thing everyone agrees on is that the owner of the second largest house in Stratford who was born “William Shakspere” was a businessman. So he would need to sign his name now and then. We don’t have books, letters, or manuscripts that can be traced to the businessman’s warm body but we do have five signatures that would qualify as so traceable IF they weren’t in five different handwritings.

When Schoenbaum had a good look at the signatures, he is said to have muttered, “Houston, we have a problem.” This may be apocryphal. Still it would make sense if it were true. He later used the word “impossible” in the context of discussing the likelihood of anyone ever writing a true literary biography of Shakespeare. In any event, Schoenbaum didn’t pull punches when discussing the signatures. He quotes documents expert Jane Cox of the London Office of Public Record who sums up the signature situation as follows:

“It is obvious at a glance that these signatures . . . are not the signatures of the same man. Almost every letter is formed in a different way in each. Literate men in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries developed personalized signatures much as people do today and it is unthinkable that Shakespeare did not . . .”

Schoenbaum accepts Cox’s analysis, praises her for having the courage to “milk a sacred cow” and also throws in a couple of plausible excuses for the signatures.

Maybe Shakespeare wasn’t present when documents were signed in which case the signatures would be proxies done that way for convenience. Other people signing the same documents were present, however, and their recognizable signatures provide a stark contrast to those of the businessman. Schoenbaum also said some of the signatures are on the businessman’s will and he may have been “gravely ill” for the signing and this may explain their “shakiness.”

Professor Scott McCrea, writing his book, The Case for Shakespeare: The End of the Authorship Question (emphasis added), had yet another excuse.

“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.”

It’s plausible. But if you were going do die if the businessman was illiterate, would you be happy with plausible?

George Chapman, Samuel Daniel, John Daye, Thomas Dekker, Michael Drayton, Robert Duborne, Edward Dyer, Nathan Field, John Fletcher, Gabriel Harvey, Richard Hathway, Thomas Heywood, Thomas Kyd, John Lyly, Thomas Lodge, John Marston, Philip Massinger, Thomas Middleton, Anthony Munday, Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Nashe, Henry Porter, George Peele, John Philips, Edmund Spenser, Anthony Wadeson, William Smyth, Robert Wilson are hardly documented at all compared to Ben Jonson and the Stratford businessman, but ALL of these people were demonstrably able to write their names.

I was unable to find a signature or much of anything for Francis Beaumont except a letter in his handwriting and the record of his burial in poet’s corner at Westminster Abbey. Thomas Watson and John Webster also left us almost nothing but, even with almost nothing, we have for Watson education records and avowed friendships with Lyly, Marlowe, and Peele and for Webster multiple payments specifically for writing plus avowed friendships with Heywood and Rowley. That’s what we get with a tiny handful of documents.

The businessman was well known and left record after record after record including the five non-matching signatures. It’s not just a handful; it’s a big pile. There is no precedent for literate Elizabethans appearing to be unable to write their names. Is it possible? Of course it’s possible. Anything is possible. If all we need is a plausible scenario, “teeming imagination” is just the beginning: we an easily make up ten more scenarios under which the Stratford businessman only appears to have been illiterate.

But if your life were at stake you would not be happy. You would want certainty. We have plausible. We don’t have certain. We don’t have anything even in the ballpark of certain or even in the same universe as certain. The fact that many scholars have assumed “Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare” and have written a vast library of extraordinarily unsatisfying analysis based on a dubious plausibility argument does not make that plausibility argument so certain that credentialed experts should be “walled off” from thoughtful inquiry.

Schoenbaum, bless his heart, was writing a biography starting with the premise that the businessman wrote the plays. And there’s nothing wrong with that. You can’t write a biography and constantly question whether or not the person whose life you are researching is really the person everyone thinks he is. So Schoenbaum can note the signatures, speculate a bit and leave it there. When the nonexistent relationship with the Earl of Southampton rears its head and the sonnets with their “I” that biographers are forced to assume is the poetic “I” and the mystifying publisher’s dedication hits poor Schoenbaum over his mystified head with a 1609 reference to “our ever-living poet,” the unfortunate biographer has no choice but to speak of “riddles” and move on.

Professor Scott McCrea is a different story. He wasn’t writing a biography; he was writing about the authorship question. His subtitle said he wanted to “end” the authorship question. But ending the authorship question isn’t any more likely than launching the space shuttle safely at 40 below zero (Fahrenheit and Celsius are the same number at this temperature). The four horsemen cometh and in particular the third horseman comes up a lot.

McCrea’s book is a textbook case of a false paradigm in action providing textbook example after textbook example of plausibility mistaken for certainty. It’s a great book actually with a perfect and perfectly ironic subtitle.

In a perfect world, people who overstate their case to the point of absurdity would always be wrong. But it is possible that the businessman was the playwright after all just as it was possible for the Challenger to take off safely. In fact, a little bit more wind might have saved the lives of the crew and Voila! a false paradigm would be proved true. It can happen though I think it would take more than a bit of wind to turn an apparently illiterate businessman into Shakespeare.

We must remember, however, the First Folio attribution is quite clear — it definitely says the Stratford businessman wrote the plays. In fact, it goes out of its way to make this crystal clear.

The people who held the priceless Macbeth manuscript in their hands knew who wrote it. Rebels claim the earls behind the publication of the First Folio instructed Ben Jonson and to falsify the preface either as some kind of joke that they didn’t think anyone would take seriously OR as a serious attempt to deflect attention from the Queen’s playwright even though he was long since dead OR as both depending on who was reading it.

But there’s no smoking gun where someone writes a letter with the truth or pens a diary entry saying how silly the First Folio preface is or scribbles the name of the Queen’s playwright on a copy of Shakespeare. With no smoking gun, that is with no certainty that the old theory is wrong, the mainstream persists in claiming certainty that the old theory is right.

The rebels keep asking their questions. How did he know courtly details that went into the plays? How did he get away with it? Where was he in 1580? Where are his books? Where are his writer friends? Why all the bootlegging? And, finally, five different signatures, seriously?

All of these questions are well known to the McCreas of the world and all of them have plausible answers. Take Love’s Labors Lost for example. This play, published in 1598 and the first play with the “Shakespeare” byline, has a scene that seems to indicate first-hand knowledge of a member of France’s royal family at the time, Henri of Navarre and negotiations he was involved in. It, like many scenes in Shakespeare’s plays is full of accurate detail taken from real life. McCrea knows all about this particular scene.

“In Love’s Labors Lost, the Author seems to have an insider’s’ knowledge of a foreign court . . . He knows [details of a land dispute] . . . he knows [details about the French queen’s retinue] . . . he’s aware [of political and social details attending the meeting at the French court] . . . he even knows [the French queen’s favorite story]. How could he know all these things . . .?”

And he knows more. He knew how Henri of Navarre like to write his love letters, how he folded them, and how he signed them. The Queen’s playwright knew Henri personally and visited France in the mid-1570’s. In the late 1570’s, a French delegation visited England and a play was performed for them with a different title but with plot elements that sound suspiciously similar to Love’s Labors Lost which rebels say dates to the late 1570’s, twenty years before it was published.

Throughout his book, McCrea points out that all of the “inside information” in the plays could plausibly be acquired from gossip or good connections or access to source material. In the case of this particular example he says, “All of the details known to the Author would have been familiar to many French men and women who were adults in 1578.” Fair enough. Just in case, McCrea throws in a suggestion about a “source now lost,” that common fallback for biographers — who also regard 1580’s Shakespeare as “sources” — when there are no other explanations for how the author knew what he knew or wrote what he wrote.

Plausible answers may be had for the price of guesswork, that is for free. Does that mean credentialed experts who disagree with the traditional theory should be locked out of mainstream journals? Ivy league professor James Shapiro says YES and brags about the power wielded by the mainstream in his book Contested Will.

“There remains one subject walled off from serious study by Shakespeare scholars: the authorship question . . . Those who would deny [the businessman’s] authorship, long excluded from publishing their work in academic journals or through university presses . . .”

The ivy league professor professes no doubt. But in a long book covering the whole history of the authorship question the brilliant expert does not mention the five different signatures or the Queen’s grant to her playwright. People who believe the businessman wrote the plays are called by Shapiro “Shakespeareans” while the dissertation written by the UMass student and accepted by the faculty should not (he strongly implies) have been accepted because “independent [uncredentialed] scholars . . . pointed out a good deal that [the] dissertation committee had apparently failed to notice.”

The term “Shakespearean” used by Shapiro and others asks for a definition other than “people who agree with the majority.” I propose that “Shakespearean” be defined as follows.

Shakespearean: A professor who writes a book subtitled “Who was Shakespeare?” but doesn’t mention the five different signatures.

Despite the unacknowledged doubt demonstrated almost comically by the mainstream in every biography and even more starkly when they write books discussing the issue directly, it’s not surprising to see no doubt directly professed except by a tiny minority of credentialed experts. Our UMass student now a professor has been telling a thousand politely debating fellow scholars arguing about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin that angels don’t dance.

No wonder they get mad (the professors, not the angels). Recently Oxford University Press effectively added its stamp of approval to the one offered by UMass Amherst. Can we say the era of Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare as an automatic assumption is over? No, not really. Many professors who have devoted careers to the Stratford businessman’s Cinderella story will only let go of their assumption on one condition: if it is taken from their cold dead hand.

Even ordinary people who aren’t professional Shakespeare scholars are pretty attached to the story of the businessman-genius from Stratford showing up in London and proving once and for all that “talent will out,” that brilliance cannot be shaded, that nothing can stop the flow of creativity, that advantages and coddling and tutors and libraries and money and time are not necessary if one has the spark of greatness within one . . . cue rebels retching.

It is a nice story (without the retching part) but, in the end, according to the great Vermont aphorist Peter Fried, who once regarded “Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare” as self-evident, the mainstream story just doesn’t hold up. The grain dealer and real estate mogul from Stratford was not Shakespeare, says Fried.

Mr. Peter has read my little treatise and was a little bit shocked. He trusts me but he didn’t believe me. He checked with another friend (a woman of towering intellect, wiser in the ways of literature than a poor old physicist could ever be) to be sure that his first friend (that would be me) was not making it all up. Having asked a few questions and checked up on a few facts, he felt a bit put out by the wool that had been pulled over his eyes by academia.

His emotional reaction sublimated into one of his classic aphorisms, one for the ages I think, reproduced here with permission:

“Saying Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare is like saying Mike Pence wrote On the Road.”

I don’t think even this whole essay would convince the late great Harold Bloom of Connecticut but I’m pleased to have (rather easily) convinced the still-living great aphorist of Vermont. But let’s have a closer look at the history. Maybe we can see where the mainstream went wrong. Or maybe we’ll see that the rebels’ case is only circumstantial (which it is) and therefore somewhat convincing but not so entirely clear as the aphorist now believes it is.

Or maybe you’ll lose all hope in the ability of humanity to embrace rational thought. Anyway, the sketch below is just a that, a sketch. But that’s all that should be needed if we’re really looking at a false paradigm which, by definition, is something that can be identified without expert-level knowledge.

Even if we conclude (and we will) that we are looking at false paradigm, we will not, of course, make the same mistake as mainstream scholars: it is possible that the businessman did, after all, write Shakespeare. The certainty that he did is, I think, a classic false paradigm, but that doesn’t mean the false paradigm isn’t true: the Challenger, we recall, almost made it — a bit more wind might have saved the crew.

I hope the false paradigm isn’t true mostly because if it turns out that the businessman really did write the plays, it will encourage professors to continue to embrace ideas mindlessly. There’s nothing worse than a lucky fool unless it’s me flipping magnet switches.

With that, let’s dig a bit.

A fine play, a wonderful play (presumably), called The History of Error entertained the Queen and her court in 1577 and in 1583 and probably many times in between. It was anonymous. We hear about A Comedy of Errors in 1594. It gets called Errors in 1598 and again with the same shorthand a few years later. Finally, in 1623, it shows up as The Comedy of Errors, an early play that pays homage to two plays by Plautus, the ancient Roman writer.

We don’t know if History was a Shakespeare play because we don’t have text for it. We do have text for Twelfth Night finally published in 1623. This play seems to have an audacious reference to the 1581 execution of a priest named Campion whom the author boldly implies was mistreated. But we have no idea when Twelfth Night was written.

But we do know some things and we do have some text. In 1583, the Queen decided plays were a matter of national security and the Queen’s Men appeared. This move was followed by extraordinary grant of 1000 pounds a year in gold and silver to be delivered by horseback and under guard to the literary earl in quarterly installments for the rest of this life.

The grant was continued by King James after Elizabeth died.

The boy who had lost his father at age twelve and who had become a royal ward and who had impressed his uncle Arthur Golding (the first person to dedicate work to the literary earl and the translator of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Shakespeare’s most important source next to the bible) and who had also impressed the finest tutors in England was now the Queen’s playwright.

It wasn’t an easy road. Golding expressed concern about his nephew who was irrepressible to the point of wildness and irresponsibility. He spent money without a care in the world and, in 1581, one of the Queen’s ladies-in-waiting gave birth to his bastard son. After the Queen released him from his vacation of a few weeks in the Tower and after he was wounded in a battle with family members of his former lover (the beautiful, brilliant, witty Anne Vavasour whose family evidently disapproved of the earl’s seductions), the Queen banished him from court for a few years.

The Queen was perfectly capable of killing earls who crossed her too often but she forgave this one for these and other transgressions and, by 1586, with the Queen’s Men active and “the policy of plays” in full force, the brilliant but wild literary earl was working for the crown. He had already set himself up at his estate as the man at the center of the Elizabethan literary scene.

Robert Greene called the earl’s home a “shrine” where Greene and other writers could soak up “learning” from the master playwright who wrote we know not what. Gabriel Harvey said the earl’s pen was “more polished” than Castiglione’s and all but called him a literary God. Angel Day, dedicating work to the earl, told readers the earl was “sacred to the muses.” The great Elizabethan trailblazer, John Lyly, introduced to us above by Honan, was literary secretary to the literary earl. Lyly likened his boss to Homer and the knowledge he bestowed to mother’s milk. Anthony Munday, also serving as a literary secretary, found his boss’s “special knowledge of languages” especially noteworthy.

Of all the writers who consented to drink the “mother’s milk” offered by the literary earl, Thomas Watson may have owed the most to his patron and mentor. A work of Watson’s — a collection of one hundred poems — was one of dozens eventually dedicated to the literary earl and is interesting because of external commentary Watson included. Watson thanks the earl directly for “perusing” his work “favorably” and then, in the work, the reader is treated to a series of brilliant critiques (one for each of Watson’s poems) made by an uncredited someone, either the earl himself or some hitherto unknown literary genius.

The comments are breathtaking. Educated Elizabethans were very good classicists by modern standards but the range, precision, economy of language, and pithy wisdom dispensed by whoever wrote the critiques would make any ten classicists raise twenty eyebrows. Whoever it was put on quite a display casually quoting legions of obscure classical writers: a photographic memory seemed to back up a finely honed sense of classical philosophy. Rebels typically assume the critiques were written by the literary earl (who else?).

Greene published a novel in 1588 called Pandosto which is a version of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale not published until 1623. Thomas Lodge, who probably also knew the literary earl, published Rosalynde as a novel in 1590 with its many similarities to Shakespeare’s As You Like It also not published until 1623. John Lyly’s biographies mention prominently the similarities between his work and Shakespeare’s.

Munday is a known Shakespeare collaborator. One scene from his play Sir Thomas More is not his style at all. It is thought by mainstreamers and rebels alike to be Shakespeare through and through. Needless to say, the businessman from Stratford never met Munday as far as anyone knows unless one assumes he was Shakespeare and one then says this is proof that the businessman knew Anthony Munday.

Whether he was Shakespeare or not, the literary earl was earning his pay if his contacts with other writers are any indication. If he was Shakespeare, he may have borrowed or even plagiarized for The Winter’s Tale and As You Like It but it is also well within the realm of possibility that Greene and Lodge were the borrowers. Then again, his position as a mentor and patron of writers doesn’t necessarily make him Shakespeare despite the Munday connection: for all we know, he was helping a Stratford businessman develop from a country boy into a great writer.

One can look at the evidence and see what one wants to see up to a point. Mainstreamers dismiss the literary earl as too irresponsible to have been Shakespeare. Rebels disagree. It is not clear that experts have any good method for determining just how irresponsible one can be and still be Shakespeare.

Rebels tend to look for clues in the works themselves — a method derided by the mainstream. But rebels say some of the plays have lines in them that seem to come from out of the blue as if the author is trying to tell us something.

In The Comedy of Errors one character is angry because some other characters have locked him out of his house. He sends a servant to buy a rope which he plans to use to beat the people who locked him out. The servant’s name is DROMIO and he mutters rather oddly to himself as he exits the stage. The muttering has no clear meaning in the play. No Shakespeare annotator can interpret it. It could just as well be left out.

DROMIO: I buy a thousand pound a year! I buy a rope!

All we can say about this for sure is this: “What on earth is DROMIO talking about?”

DROMIO is equating a thousand pounds a year to a rope. Money is mentioned in a number of places in the play — a thousand marks comes up now and again as the cost of bailing oneself out of jail — but this is the only mention of pounds and the only mention of a yearly stipend.

Rebels regard this as an obvious aside to a knowing audience.

DROMIO: I’ve been ordered to buy a rope to so my master can beat people with it. Probably I will end up being beaten by the rope myself because that’s how these farces tend to go. My master is very concerned about money and is always blaming me for losing forty ducats or five hundred ducats or a thousand marks. People will find “a thousand pound a year” confusing but anyone who knows what’s going on will get the joke.

The author might be complaining about the limitations imposed upon him by the Queen. Or not. Maybe this was supposed to have something to do with the marks and ducats mentioned elsewhere in the play and just didn’t come off clearly. Many of the published plays suffered from poor editing, even those in the First Folio. Rebels see this particular line as a winking “message in a bottle.” Mainstreamers scoff.

Bottom line: no one knows.

Technically, we don’t even know that the literary earl was the Queen’s playwright at all. The document granting him 1000 pounds a year doesn’t specify any exchange — he just gets the gold (and silver). If we want to speculate and if we don’t want the literary earl to be the Queen’s playwright, we can say the Queen was paying her bad boy earl to obtain his good behavior. Or we can say the Queen didn’t want his earldom to go down the drain because of the bad boy earl’s spendy habits.

It could be that he had pretty eyes and the Queen was rewarding him. The Queen often rewarded courtiers with property or state monopolies that would create income. The grant of cash was unprecedented especially if it was for pretty eyes. Also, if it was for pretty eyes, it means King James also appreciated the earl’s optics and there’s no evidence of that so it’s not something we are going to stake anyone’s life on.

We do know the literary earl was a playwright and poet at least because he was repeatedly identified as such. George Puttenham listed the literary earl as a great writer in 1589. Nine years later, Francis Meres put the literary earl and Shakespeare on a list of 16 classical writers followed, oddly, by 17 Elizabethan writers. The chapter in Meres’s book comparing classical and Elizabethan writers has dozens of paragraphs all with an equal number of each writers from each group.

There are a handful of paragraphs which are “off by one” and Meres seems to ask us to figure out the game. One of the “off by one” paragraphs mentions the Elizabethan writer John Davies. Aha! There were two well-known writers named John Davies, so one name stands for two people.

The 16/17 list seems to have one extra writer on the Elizabethan side. The first writer on the Elizabethan side is the literary earl; the eighth is Shakespeare. But the eighth writer on the classical side is “Aristonymus” which means “aristocratic name.” If you replace Shakespeare with the literary earl then he lines up with the obscure Greek writer Aristonymus.

At the same time, all the other writers suddenly line up nicely. Archippus who wrote The Fishes lines up with Nashe who wrote Red Herring and so forth.

Aha! say some rebels. We’ve assumed Meres is playing a little game with his readers and we’ve figured it out.

Mainstreamers, with justification, are suspicious (to say the least) of this kind of analysis. Rebels think Meres knew “Shakespeare” was the pen name for the Queen’s playwright and carefully let readers know he knew. Experts argue about the extent to which Elizabethan writers played such games. It is certainly the case that Elizabethan writers had to be careful what they wrote and often used obfuscation to say things and leave themselves what we would today call “plausible deniability.”

We are not experts. We can note that the the 16/17 thing in Meres’s book is interesting. It either means something or it doesn’t. We have to leave it at that (though I am tempted to buy myself a copy of Meres and see for myself if I agree with the rebels; I’m not a fan of code-breaking because of its obvious limitations but if the game-playing is obvious enough and the code simple and clear enough, I might be willing to be convinced; I don’t think this is crucial to the rebels’ case).

We can say that if indeed the literary earl was using “Shakespeare” as a pseudonym, it is quite likely Meres would have known all about it. He knew Shakespeare was a playwright even though the name hadn’t appeared on any play as of 1598.

Meres knew the previously published Titus Andronicus and Romeo and Juliet were Shakespeare plays. He knew Shakespeare wrote a play he called Errors even though The Comedy of Errors wouldn’t be published for another quarter century. He knew about a dozen plays in toto including Love’s Labors Won which was either lost or retitled to All’s Well That Ends Well.

Meres even knew about the sonnets being circulated in manuscript amongst Shakespeare’s conspicuously nameless “private friends.” So he knew pretty much everything though he did not quote any sonnets or allude to who the private friends were.

The “balanced list” argument is worth considering but can’t be seen as undeniable evidence simply because it involves an assumption that Meres was playing numerical games and such an assumption — whether you ask mainstream experts or experts who happen to be rebels — is just that, an assumption. Game-playing by a writer is impossible to prove. It’s not like Meres is alive and challenging us to break his codes.

Peacham, on the other hand, did not play any numerical games. He was, like Meres, well informed and in 1622 told us what he knew.

Peacham took Puttenham’s list from the pre-Shakespeare-the-famous-name days, dropped five writers and added two keeping the long-dead literary earl on the list. With 1589 long gone and Shakespeare the most dominant writer in history ever to watch edition after edition rain down upon London bookstalls (he remains uneclipsed to this day: J. K. Rowling, despite her massive presence and number one status in our time, never came close to selling more books than every other writer combined as Shakespeare appears to have done), Peacham rather conspicuously didn’t put Shakespeare on his list of famous writers.

Peacham, whose extant hand-drawing of scene from Titus Andronicus is, today, a priceless piece of Shakespeare history (I’d take it in a second over my favorite gem, the 500-carat star saphire known as the Star of India), may have chosen to ignore Shakespeare but keep an earl who wrote we-know-not-what for some reason other than “Shakespeare was a pseudonym.” We don’t know. Maybe Peacham’s omission and Meres’s alleged numerical game-playing are being used by goal-oriented rebels cherry-picking the data.

Perhaps in 1628, Thomas Vicars, who did the listing thing too, tells us what was really happening.

Vicars had a list that didn’t have Shakespeare on it and decided to add three writers to it including Shakespeare. Probably Vicars would have known if Shakespeare was pseudonym and yet there is Shakespeare along with two other people added to a list of writers. No one has claimed Vicars was doing numerology. And Vicars didn’t say a single word about the literary earl. So now we’ve got Meres who has both the earl and “Shakespeare” and we have Peacham who has just the earl but NOT Shakespeare balanced by Vicars who does NOT have the earl but does have “Shakespeare.”

Vicars’s three writers added to his list were John Davies, John Vicars (no relation), and William Shakespeare. Vicars wrote out the first two names in full but did not include the first name of Shakespeare, “William.” Actually, Vicars didn’t include the name “Shakespeare” either. Instead he referred to the greatest English writer since Chaucer as “the celebrated poet whose name comes from shaking and spear.”

Feel free to stand back while mainstreamers and rebels clash in a predictable and horrific melee — hopefully with no one being injured — over what Vicars was saying. Vicars was writing in Latin which adds another fun layer to the discussion: maybe the fact that he was writing in Latin is what drove him to refer so obliquely to the great businessman-writer. Who knows? Anything is possible. But I wouldn’t want my life to depend on William Shakespeare of Stratford being “the celebrated poet whose name comes from shaking and spear.”

Meres, Peacham, and Vicars said what they said and meant whatever they meant. Mainstreamers ignore the 16/17 “Aristonymus” thing and just note Meres’s list treats the literary earl and Shakespeare as separate people. They say Peacham didn’t like Shakespeare and they don’t know why Vicars turned Shakespeare’s name into a verb and a noun. Mainstreamers have an ace in the hole as we would say today: No one came out and said, “We all know Shake-speare was a pseudonym.” Without a smoking gun, rebels have to be satisfied with a circumstantial case.

Had The History of Error from 1577 been published, if we had text and if that text was undeniable Shakespeare, rebels might have their smoking gun going all the way back to the 1570’s. Too bad for them there’s not text of History. It was played again in 1583 and probably many times in between but there’s still no text. But then the 1580’s came along and the Queen’s Men was formed on the Queen’s orders by her national security man, Walsingham. They put on Henry V, King John, Richard III, and King Lear (cue rebels smiling and licking their chops).

Beginning in 1591, these early plays were published and those publications survive. Now we have text. And thereby hangs a tale. The titles are slightly different from the official Shakespeare plays. For example, the 1591 King John is called The Troublesome Reign of King John while the 1623 King John is called The Life and Death of King John. But there’s text for both.

All four of these plays are definitely early versions of Shakespeare plays. This is huge for rebels. The early versions aren’t as good as the mature versions of course: they are clunky and unpolished with weak characterizations and confusing stage directions. Individual lines aren’t as clever. The famous line from Richard III started life as, “A horse! A horse! A fresh horse!”

I’m not sure how many English speakers would not recognize, “A horse! A horse! My Kingdom for a horse!” I know I was no expert on Shakespeare (I’m STILL no expert, mind you) but even I recognized the famous line though I hadn’t known its early incarnation until I started digging into this lovely issue of who was Shakespeare. Anyway, King Richard in both versions suffers from precisely the same desperation as he willingly faces the abyss. The scenes are arresting and powerful in both versions. Despite the unpolished nature of the early version, it’s still recognizable (even to me) as Shakespeare.

Rebels say Shakespeare wrote The History of Error by 1577 and also wrote the early versions of the four Queen’s Men plays by the 1580’s. The mainstream ignores The History of Error because there’s no text. However, the situation for the mainstream and the four plays with text is completely different: these four plays are yet another Shakespeare mystery for mainstreamers.

As is typical with the mainstreamer mysteries, the number of theories and the number of mainstream scholars may be said to be roughly the same. Even if this “roughly the same” business somewhat exaggerated as a claim, we can safely say no mainstreamer would claim 1580’s Shakespeare is a settled matter.

Most mainstreamers begin with the assumption that since Shakespeare wasn’t in London in the 1580’s, he must therefore have appropriated and rewritten these plays improving them greatly in the process. So there is some consensus if you don’t include the rebels who are, to put it mildly, not big fans of the theory that Shakespeare rewrote the plays of other Elizabethan writers.

It is indeed a big claim the mainstream is making though it is often soft-pedaled, de-emphasized, played-down, and glossed over. Everyone who knows Shakespeare knows The Comedy of Errors was Shakespeare’s version of two Plautus plays melded into an enriched and complex farce with a love story added in. Comedy was regarded as an homage to the classical writer as it was both highly original while also clearly harking back to the two-millenia-old classical plays.

The same is true for Romeo and Juliet which closely follows a story repeatedly told in novel form by mutiple Italian authors. The original star-crossed lovers story goes back to Ovid. The fact that Shakespeare turned Italian novels into an Elizabethan play was well within the bounds of acceptable practice. Even today, it would simply be taken as an English-language remake altered for the stage.

But 1580’s Shakespeare isn’t Plautus and it isn’t Italian novels or Danish folktales or any other of the multitude of “sources” used by the brilliant wordsmith who happily and openly re-imagined many classic plot-lines. Appropriating and rewriting Elizabethan plays scene by scene would be in an entirely different category assuming Shakespeare had really done this. Rebels point out, quite rightly I think, that mainstream analysis makes a gigantic shift from ordinary sourcing to, let us say, aggressive appropriation when in its presumption that 1580’s Shakespeare was written by someone else.

Rebels say, with no little irony, “Shakespeare wrote 1580’s Shakespeare.”

The mainstream dances around the issue with phrases like “gut renovation” and “loose piracy” and “accomplished parasite” and “reviser of genius” and so forth. Rebels have a very strong point when they say this dance borders on being purposely misleading. Rebels say many in the mainstream have found it necessary to cast Shakespeare as an astonishingly successful Elizabethan plagiarist, and, rebels say, if that’s the theory, mainstream scholars should come out and say it.

Some do. McMillin and Maclean for example note that the four plays comprising 1580’s Shakespeare for which we have text were all Queen’s Men plays. They say this seems to indicate that the Stratford businessman must have been part of this acting company even though there is no record of it. They believe the four plays were written by someone else. They say the plays became Shakespeare plays, “in an act of appropriation extensive enough to make us think it could have occurred from the inside.”

Not all mainstreamers agree, however, that Shakespeare stole 1580’s Shakespeare simply because the connection is TOO intimate.

Honigmann and Bloom and their view of King John offer an instructive example. Both experts have an issue with the someone else theory applied to the invention of a classic Shakespearean character in King John, a character that in many ways was as Shakespearean as Shakespeare gets.

Here’s Honigmann not happy with someone else writing the early King John.

“Who except Shakespeare could have imagined Philip the Bastard.”

Bloom’s famous book is entitled, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. He brilliantly discusses each play and is happy to delineate the many mysteries of Shakespeare’s biography though he is thoroughly mainstream as he regards the businessman as the author; Bloom ignored throughout his career suggestions that someone else wrote the plays. He doesn’t believe anyone but Shakespeare himself could have written King John and just assumes that the “early” King John is a stolen, dumbed down, broken version of the Shakespeare play that didn’t see print until 1623 but was around anyway before 1591 so that it could be rewritten by someone who removed the poetry to create an unpolished, rough version of King John with a slightly different title.

Here’s Bloom on the Philip the Bastard character in King John.

 “. . . he is the first character in Shakespeare who fully can charm and arouse us . . . it is not too much to say that the Bastard in King John inaugurates Shakespeare’s invention of the human . . .”

Wilson respectfully regards the Bloom-Honigmann dumbing down theory as nonsensical. No one would do that, Wilson says. Shakespeare must have appropriated the early King John from some other writer not the other way around.

What Bloom, Honigmann, and Wilson agree on is the idea that Shakespeare didn’t write the play that was published as The Troublesome Reign of King John in 1591. But this play was republished in two more editions after 1600 both of which had Shakespeare’s name on the title page. Also, when the First Folio was published in 1623, no new entry for The Life and Death of King John was created in the official registry indicating to mainstream biographers such as E. K. Chambers that the authorities accepted King John as a previously published Shakespeare play.

But none of that matters to any mainstreamer. It is generally agreed that the second and third editions of King John must have been misattributed to Shakespeare either by fraud or by mistake or by God’s will for all anyone knows.

Campbell, in her study of the history plays as political mirroring, agreed with the consensus about the authors being two different people and simply assumed they were kindred spirits sharing a single point of view about Elizabethan politics and rallying the troops with stylistically similar exhortations.

“. . . it is generally agreed that [Shakespeare] derived his play of King John, scene by scene, from [the early version] . . . King John is, indeed, so like [the early version] that for our purposes it seems unnecessary to discuss the plays separately.”

The author of the first King John wrote this:

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

The mature King John following the early King John “scene by scene” famously rewrites the patriotic exhortation like so:

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.

Campbell didn’t speculate about the identity of the possible kindred spirit of her politically engaged Shakespeare. She did not discuss the Shakespeare byline on the second and third editions of the early King John.

Rebels find the endless theorizing of Campbell, Bloom, Honigmann, Wilson, and the rest of the mainstream instructive inasmuch as it indicates a failed theory. Stop this useless debate, rebels say: 1580’s Shakespeare isn’t a mystery worth a thousand theories; the angels aren’t dancing.

Rebels say it’s simple. Shakespeare wrote both The Troublesome Reign of King John and The Life and Death of King John as indicated by the style, content, brilliance, characters, and political message in both plays not to mention the bylines on two of the editions of the early version. Yes, the play was probably performed by the Queen’s Men in the 1580’s, possibly as early as 1583. It was not stolen.

Shakespeare was active in London in the 1580’s. Yes, that seems to point to the Queen’s playwright. But partisans of the literary earl theory did not go back in time to London and create 1580’s Shakespeare. They didn’t even discover the existence of 1580’s Shakespeare: it’s a mainstream discovery that their own analysis indicates significantly reduces the likelihood that the Stratford businessman wrote the plays. The mainstream have simply been unwilling to accept the results of their own research.

Mainstreamers regularly insist that the name on the title pages of plays published after 1598 proves the businessman named Shakespeare was Shakespeare. But when the name appears on two editions of the early version of King John, mainstreamers cry fraud. This makes rebels want to throw themselves from the top of the nearest building.

The anonymous texts from 1580’s Shakespeare — The Famous Victories of Henry V, The True Tragedy of Richard III, and The True Chronicle History of King Leir — are in the same boat as King John according to rebels even though these plays, like the pre-Folio Romeo and Titus and Henry V, never got bylines. Arguing along exactly the same lines as Bloom and Honigmann, rebels claim these plays are too closely tied to Henry V, Richard III, and King Lear to be anything but first drafts written by a young author who, despite his evident genius, developed and learned his craft over time.

What’s interesting, according to rebels, is that the mainstream analysis, taken as a whole, largely supports their conclusion about 1580’s Shakespeare. Campbell, Wilson, Bloom, Honigmann, McMillin, and Maclean might as well be honorary rebels. Yes, rebels say, the connection between 1580’s Shakespeare and Shakespeare is intimate. Yes, “who except Shakespeare” could have written the plays. Yes, it is “unnecessary to discuss the plays separately.” Yes, 1580’s Shakespeare “inaugurate” Shakespeare. Yes, 1580’s Shakespeare “occurred from the inside” — Shakespeare wrote all four plays and you can’t get any more “inside” than that.

The 1580’s Shakespeare issue strongly favors the rebels. It’s not that the mainstream must be wrong. But even they seem to realize that the only reason they are killing themselves to explain the “mystery” of 1580’s Shakespeare is that the First Folio identified the Stratford businessman as the author and they feel they must find a way to understand history under the assumption that this identification is real and “history” is refusing to cooperate.

Why bother? says rebels.

A number of other plays from the 1580’s have titles reminiscent of Shakespeare plays and rebels wonder if they might also be early Shakespeare. It is possible that Cymbeline, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Timon of Athens, Much Ado About Nothing and Troilus and Cressida were performed in the 1570’s and 1580’s under different but suggestive titles. In Cymbeline, for instance, the queen is the stepmother to the king’s daughter and tries to marry the daughter to her step-brother who is an idiot. A 1570’s play (for which we have no text) called An History of the Cruelty of a Stepmother might or might not be an early version of Cymbeline. 

Titus Andronicus was published anonymously in 1594 and remained anonymous. It was referred to by Ben Jonson in 1614 as a 1580’s play. Rebels guess that most of the plays, including Hamlet, were written by 1590 though rebels think the plays may well have been more or less continuously revised until the literary earl died in 1604. After 1604, very few new plays appeared until the avalanche of 1623. Rebels note that no one knows when any given Shakespeare play was first written. For some plays, no record at all exists until 1623.

According to rebels, the historical record makes it quite clear that Shakespeare plays can easily be written long before any record of their existence shows up. The claim that plays like The Tempest were written after 1604 is, rebels say, nonsense. In fact, the UMass student who later became a professor published a book recently that was a bombshell. And its reception was an even bigger bombshell.

The book details evidence dating The Tempest, widely regarded as Shakespeare’s farewell play, to around 1600 or before. The fact that this work was actually praised by Oxford University Press (!) possibly marks the beginning of the crumbling of the wall blocking credentialed experts from challenging the orthodoxy. If this dating of The Tempest is widely accepted — and the work is rock solid — the mainstream’s dating of the plays might fall apart completely.

This brings us to what Bloom calls the “greatest mystery in Shakespeare” — the Hamlet from 1589 mentioned prominently by the great Elizabethan satirist, Thomas Nashe.

In 1589, Nashe engaged in what an imaginative person might call a conspiracy to make life difficult for 21st century mainstream scholars. Imbuing Nashe with psychic powers is just a joke of course but one can say with some certainty that if there is anything left of Nashe overlooking the present state of affairs, this version of Nashe would be overjoyed to learn of the trouble he caused in his flesh and blood form.

But let us not wallow in fantasies about mysterious people dumbing down Shakespeare and Nashe watching over us and seeing what he hath wrought (though I think some rebels would believe the latter before the former), let us tell the story. Nashe introduced a fifth 1580’s Shakespeare play into the mix that, like the plays with text, is rather had to ignore. Though there’s no text for 1589 Hamlet, there’s plenty of evidence Shakespeare had already written some version of his great masterpiece by 1589. As rebels gleefully point out at this point, Nashe dedicated work to the literary earl and likely knew him personally.

Nashe introduces us to Hamlet via a quip in a delicious satire serving as prefatory material to a work of Greene’s called Menaphon (after the name of a character in the story). In his preface to Greene’s work, Nashe made brutal fun of university graduates overusing their Latin and mindlessly convincing themselves that they were great poets because they knew Latin. Nashe bemoaned the lack of real greatness in modern London amidst an outpouring of junk, Hamlet being a conspicuous exception as we’ll see.

The junk was manna to the satirist. Nashe warmed up with a thousand-plus words complaining about “vainglorious tragedians” and “choleric encumbrances” and “threadbare wits” and “apish devices” and “over-racked rhetoric” and “trivial translators.” He didn’t generally name his targets. He alluded to Thomas Kyd as more clerk than poet and eventually openly ridiculed Richard Stanihurst. Otherwise, as far as I can tell, he was pretty careful to avoid direct, named attacks.

It was a different story when it came to praise. Nashe eventually delivered a profusion of praise as if to provide a contrasting canvas against which to set off his barbs. Nashe would not let it be said that he “should condemn all and commend none” so he spoke of those “men of import” who quietly wrote high quality work despite being surrounded by “lovers of mediocrity.” There was no shortage of men to praise. Nashe was overjoyed to call them out by name and sing their praises.

Roger Ascham was on a list of eight people who “set before our eyes a more perfect method of study.” Edmund Spenser was “divine” and Thomas Watson “high-witted.” Nashe positively worshipped George Peele as the “Atlas of poetry” with a “pregnant dexterity of wit” and “manifold variety of invention.” Arthur Golding was one of more than a dozen named “exquisite” scholars.

And then there’s Hamlet. After Nashe’s vitriolic warmup iced with the jab about “trivial translators,” we finally get to his first compliment. This is his only compliment directed at an unnamed recipient. So we don’t technically know who it was — we have only the nickname Nashe used likening this great Elizabethan writer to a classical writer.

Here’s the end of his last barb followed by a reference to the mystery writer who was, for Nashe, a breath of fresh air.

“. . . that could scarcely Latinize their neck-verse if they should have need; yet English Seneca read by candlelight yields many good sentences as Blood is a beggar and so forth, and if you entreat him fair in a frosty morning, he will afford you whole Hamlets, I should say handfuls, of tragical speeches.”

The bit about the “neck-verse” is Nashe’s sour cherry atop the bitter icing of “trivial translators.” In Elizabethan England, if you could prove literacy by reading a passage from the bible in Latin, you would get better treatment in court. Ben Jonson, for example, charged with murder, read the “neck-verse” in Latin and literally saved his neck. Jonson had killed a man in a fight and now he received a brand on his thumb and a warning that next time would be different.

Nashe meant if it was all you could do to Latinize your “neck-verse,” you were literate but just barely and definitely not artist material.

This great Elizabethan writer, known here only as English Seneca (Seneca was a great Roman dramatist who wrote tragedies such as The Madness of Hercules two millennia ago) was different from those that could scarcely Latinize their neck-verse. Nashe apparently knew this paragon well enough to know that he could, under the right conditions, be generous with his tragical speeches, maybe in manuscript and maybe ex tempore, we don’t know. But if approached properly, this author might bestow upon you some pretty language. English Seneca wrote a whole Hamlet full of tragical speeches. English Seneca also wrote “many good sentences as Blood is a beggar.”

So who was this nameless great writer of tragical speeches worthy of comparison to Seneca and worthy of Nashe’s admiration after more than a thousand words of creative insult? Shakespeare wrote Hamlet but no Elizabethan wrote “Blood is a beggar” as far as anyone knows. The phrase “Beggared of blood” appears in one of Shakespeare’s sonnets. That’s as close as we can get.

Demands for perfect evidence aside, Nashe’s reference seems clear enough: he knew the author of Hamlet personally as of 1589 and had seen the play performed or read the play in manuscript or both; he had seen Shakespeare’s Sonnets (not to be published for another twenty years) in manuscript. Finally, it seems this great writer was so unnameable he couldn’t be praised along with more than a dozen other living writers all of whom Nashe saw fit to worship by name when he was resting from his outgasing of scathing satire.

After rhetorically making love to English Seneca, Nashe goes back to vitriolic eruptions concerning “twopenny pamphlets” and “home-born mediocrity” at which point he interrupts his diatribe to deliver his first named praise followed by more complaints about “our idle age” and “divinity dunces” and “abject abbreviations of arts” and “penury of art” and “barren compendiums” and “bungling practitioners.”

Nashe’s capacity for stringing together novel insults seems bottomless so when he throws in some more named praise and finally finishes attacking the “rabble of counterfeits” with a promise that he will “persecute those [unnamed] idiots and their heirs unto the third generation that have made art bankrupt of her ornaments and sent poetry a-begging up and down the country” one breathes a sigh of relief and one thanks one’s lucky stars Nashe didn’t set his sights on us or anyone we know.

Nashe’s Hamlet comment is fascinating of course. But technically, we can’t even be sure English Seneca was Shakespeare at all. Maybe this Hamlet was written by someone else and maybe Shakespeare later wrote his version of Hamlet with different “tragical speeches.” Who knows if Nashe really saw the sonnets in manuscript? There was no Shakespeare in London in 1589 as far as the historical record is concerned so this Hamlet is assumed by most in the mainstream to be someone else’s Hamlet.

Bloom disagrees. He thinks the Hamlet Nashe went on about was Shakespeare’s first draft. For Bloom, the Hamlet question piled atop the mystery of King John becomes “the greatest mystery in Shakespeare.”

“I associate the mystery of the play [King John] with the greatest mystery in Shakespeare, which is the missing first Hamlet, where I have followed Peter Alexander’s lead in believing that “lost” work to be Shakespeare’s own, partly embedded in the texts of Hamlet we now possess.”

For rebels, 1580’s King John and 1580’s Hamlet aren’t mysteries: they are exactly what one would expect if the Queen’s playwright was Shakespeare.

That takes care of the 1580’s. In 1593 and 1594, the name “William Shakespeare” appears in print on two Ovidian epic poems — sexually charged instant successes. The name “Shakespeare” is now famous. The writer of these poems clearly worked closely with the publisher as the poems were beautifully executed and accompanied by letters dedicating them to the young Earl of Southampton.

Southampton, at the time, was involved in highly consequential negotiations about who he was going to marry. Marriage alliances were part and parcel of power politics in Elizabethan England and Southampton’s marriage decision would determine the balance of power in a country with an aging and heirless monarch.

Whether or not Southampton married Lord Burghley’s grand-daughter or tied his fortunes to the “Essex faction” could impact the succession itself — a topic whose very discussion was illegal. The dedication to Southampton at this time by Shakespeare may have had something to do with all of this manuevering especially when one considers what are called today “the marriage sonnets.”

The first seventeen or so sonnets are all about marriage and making babies. Sometimes they’re called the “procreation sonnets.” Shakespeare repeatedly, eloquently, and earnestly encouraged an unnamed young nobleman (Southampton of course is the leading candidate) to take some vows and take his bride to bed. The young nobleman is complimented and admonished, encouraged and driven, advised and ordered in intimate terms: get married; get a son; “Make thee another self for love of me.”

But the sonnets were not published at this time and no one can prove they were written while Southampton was making his big decision. The sonnets were first mentioned in 1598 and published in 1609 at which time the publisher wrote a dedication referring to the author as “our ever-living poet.” Mainstream scholars, unable to explain even the publisher’s dedication (the Stratford businessman was born in 1564 and died in 1616) do not usually try to interpret the sonnets. Indeed, they must come up with creative alternative meanings for “our ever-living poet.” The search for a connection between the Stratford businessman and Southampton has been fruitless not for lack of effort. The mainstream regards the sonnets as another mystery.

Rebels regard the sonnets as easy to understand in broad terms and often perfectly straightforward. Unconditional support, guidance, deep caring, and love seem to characterize a real relationship between author and subject. Rebels regard as self-evident the status of Southampton, Shakespeare’s sole dedicatee and a hot property in Elizabethan England, as the subject of the sonnets.

Southampton is also the leading candidate for the “fair youth” of the sonnets among mainstreamers though the mainstream reminds us that the sonnets are poetry, not personal letters. That is, we don’t know if the “I” in the sonnets is the actual “I” or the poetical “I.” Mainstreamers favor the poetical “I.” For rebels, the sonnets, written in the first person and kept private for many years, are as personal as they sound.

If one reads the sonnets as personal, one learns a lot about Shakespeare.

The great author seems to identify with Southampton to the point where he regards the young earl’s life as a mirror of his own.

My glass shall not persuade me I am old,
So long as youth and thou are of one date;
But when in thee time’s furrows I behold,
Then look I death my days should expiate.
For all that beauty that doth cover thee,
Is but the seemly raiment of my heart . . .

The great author seems to have known Southampton’s mother when she was young.

Thou art thy mother’s glass and she in thee
Calls back the lovely April of her prime;

The great author represents himself as a generation older than his subject.

When forty winters shall besiege thy brow,
and dig deep trenches in they beauty’s field
. . . [you’ll be old and wrinkled and god-forbid childless]
If thou couldst answer ‘This fair child of mine
Shall sum my count, and make my old excuse,’
Proving his beauty by succession thine!
This were to be new made when thou art old,
And see thy blood warm when thou feel’st it cold.

The great author regarded it as very important that Southampton have an heir:

Be not self-willed, for thou art much too fair
To be death’s conquest and make worms thine heir.

The great author takes Southampton’s actions VERY personally:

Make thee another self for love of me,
That beauty still may live in thine or thee.

There is no evidence the Stratford businessman ever met Southampton. The Queen’s playwright was  However, we do know that Burghley’s grand-daughter was also the literary earl’s eldest daughter.

Given that the marriage alliance proposed by Burghley would alter the balance of power in England, there is every reason to believe the father of the proposed bride had a strong interest in it.

For rebels, the sonnets end the discussion: if they are regarded as personal, even as partly personal, they identify the Queen’s playwright — who was indeed a peer of Southampton and a generation older AND heavily interested in the marriage alliance — as the author even if the full extent of the relationship between Southampton and the literary earl remains mysterious.

But the mainstream persists and emphasizes the businessman’s status as an acting company shareholder spending time in London and involved with the theater at the very time the plays finally started to get published. By the middle 1590’s, with the bootlegging going full tilt and the Shakespeare name famous, the Stratford businessman named William Shakespeare had officially become a shareholder in London’s leading acting company either by putting cash on the barrelhead or by writing brilliant plays as the company’s chief author. But we don’t know what the arrangement was amongst the shareholders as there are no records other than the record of the businessman named Shakespeare as a shareholder.

The idea that the acting company owned the plays — often presented as fact by mainstreamers — is actually a guess based on the the claim in the First Folio preface that two of the shareholders “collected” the plays.

London records don’t say much about the businessman’s status. He was a shareholder. That’s all we know. But in Stratford, Shakespeare shows up again and again. He’s in court to collect debts and gets in trouble for storing too much grain. He owned one of the biggest houses in town. When land was to be enclosed, he was involved. If you needed money, you might ask him.

He may have written poetry for a moneylender friend. John Combe loaned money at the legal maximum of ten percent. Legend has it that Shakespeare suggested the following humorous epitaph:

Ten in the hundred lies here engraved.
‘Tis a hundred to ten his soul is not saved!
If any man ask who lies here in the tomb,
Oh ho! quoth the devil, ‘Tis my John-a-Combe.

This seems a little different from the lovely April of her prime but Shakespeare might have been quite versatile. As Schoenbaum noted, Stratford isn’t much help for understanding the businessman’s alleged writing career.

Back in London, though the legal documents say only that he was a shareholder, two direct, non-legendary, well-documented references to Shakespeare-the-acting-company-shareholder are quite interesting to both rebels and mainstreamers.

Both of these references mention writing. If the acting company shareholder was identified as a writer during his lifetime by two different sources, it would be impossible to make a reasonable claim that the First Folio preface had been falsified. It’s one thing to mislead in a publication but quite another to alter history itself.

So we need to take a close look at these two references.

The first reference is a series of skits put on by Cambridge students. It’s called the Parnassus Plays and is all about writers. It’s a lot of what we would call slapstick or farce today. The plays are also topical mentioning and alluding to real people throughout. Shakespeare may be parodied quite a bit in many skits but here, in this particular scene, he is mentioned by name and by profession along with his acting company buddies including Kempe. On top of that, Shakespeare’s favorite author, Ovid. is mentioned along with Shakespeare’s favorite poem, The Metamorphoses. 

This one speech from this one skit has it all — Shakespeare as an actor, Ovid, writers in general, Ben Jonson, Kempe, The Metamorphoses — it’s a gold mine. No wonder it appears in virtually every Shakespeare biography.

KEMPE. Few of the university [men] 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.

This is a farce. Kempe is an idiot. He doesn’t know the difference between a writer and poem. He thinks Shakespeare, the Ovidian poet, is nothing like Ovid. He loves his fellow shareholder Shakespeare saying he’s better than Ovid, better than Ben Jonson, and better than “that writer Metamorphosis.

The mainstream says, “See, Shakespeare-the-actor was also a writer.” Rebels say, “Metamorphosis wasn’t writer.” You are neither mainstream nor rebel. Interpret it however you like. There’s one more example and that’s all we’ve got from Londoners referring to Shakespeare as a person as opposed to referring to the works without knowing the person the way you or I would.

John Davies of Hereford wrote many epigrams, generally straightforward ones, often to his friends.

He told his friend Ben Jonson that he (Davies) wished to someday be good enough to elicit Jonson’s envy. He congratulated his friend Samuel Daniel on having his works accepted in courtly circles and predicted that for Daniels the sky was the limit. The epigram to Shakespeare compared him to a Roman writer and also talked about him as an actor. So Davies may have been identifying Shakespeare as an actor and writer. He didn’t call him friend, but since he talked about acting, that points specifically to the Stratford shareholder, so this counts as a reference to Shakespeare-the-person.

Davies addressed thirty-six epigrams to his friends whom he named 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.

Another nineteen people not referred to in familiar terms were named as follows: Bond, Carre, Chapperline, Coningesby, Constable, Dun, Fletcher, Hayes, Hall, Harrington, Herbert, Marston, Marten, Mountgomerie, No-body, Northumberland, Ormond, Percy, Shake-speare, S.I.H., Smith, and Some-body.

Here are the three epigrams that may tell us who Shakespeare was.

   To our English Terence Mr. Will: Shake-speare.
Epig. 159.
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.

   To his most constant, though most unknowne friend;
                           Epig. 160.
You shall be sev’d; but not with numbers now;
You shall be serv’d with nought; that’s good for you.

   To my neere-deere wel-knowne friend; Some-body.
                           Epig. 161.
You look that as myself I you should use;
I will, or else myself I should abuse;
And yet with rimes I but myselfe undoo,
Yet am I some-body with much adoo.

As was the case with the student’s skit, there’s some funny stuff going on. Why Shake-speare with the hyphen? Davies didn’t hyphenate anyone else’s name in the fifty-five epigrams addressed to people. Who is No-body and why does No-body get “nought.” Who is Some-body and what’s with the apparent reference to Much Ado About Nothing?

No one knows but we do know something about Terence besides the fact that he was a Roman writer. One Roman writer was also known to Cicero and Elizabethans as a front-man for aristocrats.

Ascham: “. . . it is well known . . . that some comedies bearing Terence’s name were written by . . . Scipio and Laelius . . .”
Montaigne: “Scipio and Laelius . . . resigned the honor of their comedies . . . unto an African servant . . . and Terence himself doth avouch it . . .”

Shake-speare and No-body and Some-body and “Some-body with much adoo” and Terence and Scipio and Laelius are fighting words if rebels and mainstreamers are duking it out. I’m too close to all of this at this point to even have an opinion. I don’t know what it means.

Shakespeare died quietly in Stratford in 1616 having outdone his father at wheeling and dealing. His three-page lawyerly will lists twenty-two friends, family members, and business associates including three members of the acting company. His acting company fellows received modest cash bequests. John Combe of “ten in a hundred” fame had a living nephew who got a sword. A great deal of ink was spilt explaining what any given “issue of the body” of his daughters would get.

Five houses, land, cash, silverware, and so forth were disbursed. Shakespeare-the-author could reasonably be called the most erudite man in England. Certainly he was high on a list of scholars vying for the “most erudite” crown just based on the breadth of knowledge — from horticulture to music to falconry to horsemanship to Italian art, culture, and geography to medicine to law — evinced in the works. He had to have had a library but, if he was also Shakespeare-the-businessman the bound sources of his vast learning would not have interested his illiterate daughters or his illiterate wife. To make a long story short, if the businessman owned any books, no one knows what happened to them.

But a book-buyer walked into the businessman’s house, now occupied by his daughter whose doctor husband had just died. The book buyer was a doctor too and recognized his colleague’s medical journal. The businessman’s daughter didn’t know what it was but she sold it to the book buyer. The journal is now in a museum — the only written or printed material known to have been in “Shakespeare’s” house and perhaps a touch more famous than it might otherwise have been.

We don’t have books, but he seems to have left us a four-line poem, an epitaph along the lines of the one he supposedly composed for his friend John Combe but this time for himself. It appears on his gravestone and may be seen today by those who travel to Stratford to see his gravesite.

Good friend, for Jesus’ sake forbear
To dig the dust enclosed here.
Blessed by the man that spares these stones
And cursed be he that moves my bones.

It’s another mystery. How is it that we have two four-line pieces of doggerel and no books, no letters, and no manuscripts? We don’t even have a signature.

One of the essays in the book, Shakespeare Beyond Doubt, written by a credentialed expert, looks at Nashe, Harvey, Lodge, and Lyly in particular and points to “frustrating gaps” in each man’s biography. Nashe, even though he was quite famous and wrote many things, died at some point and we don’t even know when.

And yet, these four men together left behind a couple of dozen signatures, letters, books, and manuscripts.

But the First Folio epistles in the preface, letters written in high style loaded with allusions to Pliny and Horace, tell us Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare. Mainstream researchers have no trouble identifying Jonson’s style in the letters — the shareholders were not writers or classicists of any kind and they weren’t in the process (as Jonson was) of translating works of Pliny. Seeing thus-far untranslated Pliny in the First Folio letters is about as Jonsonian as one can get.

The point about Jonson as ghostwriter can be argued of course but there is no reason to. Classic Shakespeare biographers like Chambers regard Jonson as a the likely author of the letters and this doesn’t tell us about their truth: ghostwriters aren’t necessarily making up what they write — they are simply practicing their craft in writing for someone else.

Jonson explains on behalf of the shareholders that now that Shakespeare is dead, his work “asked to” become the property of two brother earls, Pembroke and Montgomery, the “pair of incomparable brethren” to whom the works are being presented as a “present” by the two shareholders who are the “presenters.” Jonson, in marketing mode, hopes people looking at the book will be “weighed” the way silver and gold is weighed. In other words, don’t just stand there, buy the book, you won’t be sorry unless of course you aren’t able to understand Shakespeare which is your problem.

Jonson also tells us, as if we don’t already know, that past printed versions of Shakespeare have been sub-standard to say the least and this First Folio, the first authorized publication of plays, will finally and for all time correct that horror. But Jonson said it better. Here are excerpts.

. . . they out-living him, and he not having the fate, common with some, to be executor to his own writings . . . the volume asked to be yours. We have but collected them, and done an office to the dead, to procure his orphans. [We are] guardians, 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 most noble patronage . . .

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. [It is your privilege] to read, and censure. Do so, but buy it first. That doth best commend a book . . . But, whatever you do, Buy.

. . . It had been a thing, we confess, worthie 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 . . . have collected and 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 . . .

Read him, therefore; and again, and again . . .

People have very different responses to this, the most important of ALL attribution documents according to Schoenbaum: rebels DON’T buy it; the mainstream SWEARS by it.

In addition to the outright claim in the First Folio that the businessman named Shakespeare was also a great writer, there is an inscription on a monument in the Stratford church where the businessman’s doggerel-etched gravestone resides. The monument is mentioned in the First Folio as “thy Stratford moniment” with that spelling. It doesn’t say much but it says something the doggerel doesn’t: the businessman was a great man. He is compared to King Nestor for judgment, Socrates for genius, and Virgil for art which would make a lot more sense if the monument was for Beaumont, Chapman, and Spenser who were often described in these terms and who are all buried in Westminster Abbey where Elizabethans buried famous writers and other important people.

Gravestones were not typically written with gibberish but this one is as cryptic as cryptic gets, nearly meaningless.

Stay passenger, why goest thou by so fast,
Read if thou canst, whom envious death hath plast
With in this monument Shakespeare: with whome
Quick nature dide whose name doth deck this tomb
Far more than cost; sieh all that he hath writt
Leaves living art, but page, to serve his witt.

No one can translate this. Mainstreamers say, “See it says he wrote things.” Rebels say it’s gibberish but might mean the following: “Figure out from this monument, if you can, with whom Shakespeare is buried because his name is here but his body is elsewhere.”

That’s the whole story. Mainstreamers say there are lots of strange things about the biography but, with no smoking gun to back the rebel theory, a clear identification in the First Folio preface and an odd sort of identification at the gravesite monument (they ignore the doggerel on the gravestone), there’s no reason to toss centuries of Shakespeare scholarship into the trash heap.

Rebels say all that scholarship has failed to elucidate anything at all about Shakespeare as an author; they say it is a failed theory. They say assuming the Queen’s playwright was Shakespeare leads to clarification and understanding and pays for itself almost immediately by allowing us to understand Shakespeare in ways that were closed to us before. Hamlet becomes naked autobiography, a hundred times more interesting to read and perform (so says Sir Derek Jacobi, a famous rebel) when you have the right author.

I boil it down to ten characteristics seem to be must-haves for anyone regarded as Shakespeare. The name “Shakespeare” on your birth record isn’t among them nor is prancing around the London theater scene with the name “Shakespeare” while the plays are published as bootlegs.

If we’re looking for Shakespeare, we’re looking for someone with the most, or preferably, all of the ten characteristics below.

  1. Courtly playwright.
  2. Invisible to publishers.
  3. Untouchable by any authority short of the Queen herself.
  4. Active in the 1580’s.
  5. Close to the Earl of Southampton.
  6. Dead by 1609.
  7. Erudite in the extreme.
  8. Traveled extensively in Italy.
  9. Trained in the legal profession.
  10. Collaborated with Anthony Munday.

Shakespeare biographers know these ten characteristics better than anyone. Each of these characteristics has been called a mystery by this or that biographer. Some biographers leave them as mysteries. Other biographers speculate. For each of the ten mysteries, a plausible scenario exists that allows the Stratford businessman to be Shakespeare.

For example, even though he appears to have been unable to write his name, the signatures can be explained by his “teeming imagination.” An infinite number of plausible scenarios can explain the five different signatures. Maybe he was too busy to be present to sign documents. Maybe he was sick. Maybe he hurt his hand. Maybe this and maybe that.

All ten mysteries have been “explained.” Rebels don’t have to explain anything. The literary earl who never put his name on a play while receiving the direct support of the Queen was at the center of the Elizabethan literary scene in the 1580’s, was the father of the bride Southampton was supposed to marry, died in 1604, was recognized from childhood as brilliant, spent a year in Italy, received a law degree, and hired Anthony Munday as a literary secretary.

If you made up a candidate for Shakespeare, you couldn’t do better. The rebels candidate hits ten out of ten characteristics AND his son-in-law was behind the First Folio. So the rebel candidate is better than perfect. It’s like asking the fates for ten million dollars and winning an eleven-million-dollar the next day.

If my life depended on the rebels being right about who wrote Shakespeare, I wouldn’t be happy as I don’t want my life depending on any conjecture. But I wouldn’t be too worried.

But scholars, though presented with a candidate who could not be more perfect don’t even look into the possibility that the Queen’s playwright was Shakespeare. Instead, they go insane.

Really. Scholars, many of them, look at the five signatures in five different handwritings and decide they can use these signatures to do a handwriting analysis. The handwriting analysis on these five different signatures can then, according to people working at universities not bouncing around in padded cells, be used to identify a handwritten scene that survives in manuscript. The scene appeared in a play authored by someone with known handwriting. The scene was not in the author’s handwriting or in his style.

Everyone, including rebels, agree that this scene in someone else’s play is Shakespeare. What the insane people have done is claim that the handwriting matches Shakespeare’s five different signatures. Actually, they pick one letter of one signature and try to match it to the manuscript written in Shakepeare’s style and they claim a confident match.

I couldn’t make something like this up. It’s so crazy it’s hard to believe. The play is called Sir Thomas More. This is a true “Monday morning quarterback moment.”

Actually, no one can identify the handwriting in the manuscript pages from Sir Thomas More. Elizabethans used two types of writing, Italian hand and secretary hand; the manuscript is in secretary hand. Of course we have no idea what the businessman’s handwriting looked like — the best guess from the five different signatures is that he couldn’t write at all. We also don’t know what the literary earl’s secretary hand looked like because his letters are all in Italian (aka italic) hand. So we can’t use the scene from Sir Thomas More to solve our mystery.

But there is one interesting fact to note about Sir Thomas More. We may not know who Shakespeare was but we know with whom he was collaborating. We know who was the author of Sir Thomas More. It was Anthony Munday, literary secretary to the Queen’s playwright. What do insane academics say about the fact that their precious manuscript of a Shakespeare scene was probably written in the literary earl’s house where Munday did a lot of his work? They say look at the gravesite and at the First Folio preface.

They have a point, nutty as they are. We mustn’t forget the doggerel and the gibberish at the gravesite. We mustn’t forget that we can ignore the doggerel and that the cryptic phrase “all that he hath writt leaves living art but page to serve his witt” might mean the businessman was a writer. We mustn’t forget the ghostwritten marketing copy in the First Folio said the shareholders have “collected” the plays and are making a “present” of them to the two earls. That too might mean the businessman was the author after all.

And yes, a hoax involving a front-man so successful as this one is indeed hard to get one’s mind around. So we can’t pretend the mainstream doesn’t have its reasons for going insane though we can ask them if insanity is really useful here and if we might make some progress if sanity were made a requirement of discourse.

Because even though the a hoax seems inherently unlikely, the fact is front-men are real things even in modern times when it is arguably much harder to pull off. Roman Holiday won an Oscar for the screenplay and the “author” Ian Mclellan Hunter accepted the statue which remains in the possession of his family to this day. Despite photography and video and reporters and telephones to augment old-fashioned gossip, decades passed with no correction. Finally, a new statue was created for the family of the real author, Dalton Trumbo, who had been blacklisted by nutcase politics. The truth came out, finally.

Could a couple of earls have pulled off a hoax that fooled us for four centuries and that continues to fool us?

I don’t know if such a hoax could be executed in Elizabethan times or not, but if I just look at the ability of people to fool themselves, it almost seems easy to pull off the Shakespeare hoax. Mainstream scholars, many of them, take seriously the idea of using five different signatures to match “Hand D” to Shakespeare. Why? Because they’ve decided to believe something and they are quite capable of ignoring reality in their overwhelming need to believe what they want to believe. Would they launch the space shuttle at 40 below zero if they got it into their heads that it was “safe to launch” no matter what engineers say?

Yes, they would.

If I had to stake my life on knowing who Shakespeare was, it would be nice to have a smoking gun like a manuscript copy of Twelfth Night written in the earl’s handwriting or something similar. We do have letters written by the earl in Italian hand and they have nice lines in them like “I am that I am” and “Truth is truth though never so old” and “Time cannot make that false which was once true” which are, respectively, exact duplicates and close approximations of Shakespeare lines. But we don’t have Twelfth Night though someone in the 1700’s said they had a manuscript of a play by the literary earl about the rising of a “mean” gentlemen at court circa 1580 which sounds a lot like Twelfth Night but no one’s ever found the manuscript.

So there’s no smoking gun. Yet.

But still, if you had to pick one of the two choices, would you really choose someone who couldn’t write his name, never went to Italy, didn’t know Southampton, was alive in 1609, had no known education, owned no books, cut a high profile as an acting company shareholder with the name “William Shakespeare” but had nothing to do with publishers, and who could never in a million years have gotten away with writing Richard II with its deposition scene or Hamlet with its lampoon of CORAMBIS/Burghley or the As You Like It scene featuring commentary about Marlowe’s murder or any of the plays that put on the stage that which other playwrights wouldn’t dare to whisper to the person they trusted most in all the world?

You would have to choose the literary earl. You would be worried if your life was at stake. But there’s just no argument for the businessman being more likely. Possible, yes. Likely, no way. Diana Price, in her book, Shakespeare’s Unorthodox Biography, went over all the documents left for Ben Jonson and other Elizabethan authors. Some fraction of documents are literacy documents like signatures and books and letters. It doesn’t take much to generate literacy documents — they appear for Elizabethan writers even who leave behind just a handful of documents. You can pick any probability for a document attached to the life of a professional writer being a literacy document.

I would pick fifty-fifty for the probability just to keep it simple. Then we can ask, What is the probability of a professional writer leaving behind seventy documents none of which demonstrate literacy? Seventy documents. No books. No letters. No manuscripts. No signatures even. No publisher mentioned in the will. No writers mentioned in the will. No friends referring to him as a writer. Heads you’re literate, tails you can’t even write your name. Is it possible to be literate and leave seventy documents NONE of which are literacy documents?

Mainstreamers argue that Price’s definition of what document would prove Shakespeare literate is not right. There was a letter written to him but not sent found in the possession of one of his neighbors. It was all business but if you wrote a letter to Shakespeare, even if you didn’t send it, isn’t that proving him literate? And what about the people who said he was better than “that writer Metamorphosis”? Doesn’t that prove him literate? And what about calling him “our English Terence”?

You can see the argument can tend to go in circles. But let’s cut to the chase. Mainstreamers say the businessman was Shakespeare. Rebels say they’ll believe that when you flip seventy tails in a row (if you had a billion years, your chances of success would be quite small).

I think the rebels are probably right though I understand their case is circumstantial. It just seems quite strong and the more mainstream stuff I read, the more I’m convinced that even mainstreamers know there are lots of problems with their theory.

It is possible of course that someday someone will discover something that proves Mike Pence did write On The Road after all. Anything is possible. For instance, a letter written by someone living in Stratford at the time of the Essex Rebellion might be found. This is a wonderful fantasy for mainstreamers to savor. Everyone in England knew about the Essex Rebellion. People in Stratford might have written about it. They might have mentioned Shakespeare. Such a mention could end all doubt in favor of the mainstream. Something just like this might “shut the buggers up” as one put-upon mainstreamer once colorfully dreamed.

So let’s tell the story of the two stupidest earls who ever lived. The day before the Earl of Essex threw his life away in an idiotic gambit to control the crown, he arranged a presentation of Richard II presumably with the deposition scene intact. After his idiotic plan crashed and burned spectacularly, he was charged with treason as sort of an encore to the play whose performance he had recently arranged.

The Queen likened herself to Richard the Second: “I am Richard the Second! Know ye not that!” she said to William Lambarde who wrote about his meeting with the Queen. Essex tried to bring the play “from the stage to the state” as it was put during his trial. Essex lost his fool head. Four knights were also executed. Some nobility implicated in the plot escaped with fines. It’s impossible to imagine a bigger scandal.

In Stratford, in the mainstream world, the townsmen of the businessman-playwright had to have been worried for the great and daring author’s safety. It was a scary time in England. Civil war was possible. A rebellion had been squashed. A nobleman lost his head. Another (Southampton!) languished in the Tower waiting for death. And a Shakespeare play had been staged the day before — a play with a deposition scene!

Ben Jonson wrote the wrong thing once and was jailed and threatened with mutilation; his mother brewed poison for him to take should the authorities make good on their threat. Jonson managed to pull strings and extricate himself. Would the author of Richard III, the epitome of the local boy made good, be so lucky as Jonson? His house, the second-biggest in Stratford, might be surrounded by men utterly loyal to the Queen at any moment.

We know “Shakespeare’s townsmen” regarded him as shrewd in business. If only a townsman’s concern about his non-shrewd play that included and deposition scene and that was staged the day before a rebellioin was recorded somewhere! With such a letter in our hands, authenticated by experts, we could rejoice and stop arguing.

What would the mainstream say. “I told you so,” would be kind. “Never doubt us again,” would be not entirely out of line. “Next time you waste our time with wild theorizing about courtier playwrights you will be beheaded just like Essex,” would be maybe overdoing it a bit.

Someday it could happen. We could find something like this, maybe written by the businessman’s “cosen” Thomas Greene who wrote quite a bit about his friend Shakespeare about whom he felt such a kinship that he called the businessman “cosen.” Greene might have written something like this.

I fear for our townsman, his audacity may finally be his undoing for all know the play was the thing Essex hoped would rally the rabble to his sinful cause. And now see what has become of Essex, a headless corpse, his soul burning in Hell with four other traitors. Southampton awaits death, his worry as sharp as any axe. No company will dare stage Richard II until Essex’s grave has decayed to dust. But what of our beloved Shakespeare for whom time cannot pass fast enough?

My concern about false paradigms would have to be re-examined!

It would be an interesting story — the false paradigm that was true. Unfortunately, all we have is a play with a deposition scene played on the eve of a rebellion with no consequences or even commentary about possible consequences for the author of the play, the Elizabethan Cheshire Cat, not just unfindable by publishers but untouchable by the Queen herself.

It may seem like we have no information to work with, like the mystery of who wrote Shakespeare is unsolvable. But we have Southampton. For rebels, Southampton is the key to everything.

As he was contemplating the Burghley marriage alliance, the dedications of Shakespeare appeared. Sonnets may have been delivered to him. If so, they didn’t convince him to drop Essex and embrace Burghley and take Burghley’s grand-daughter/the literary earl’s daughter to the marriage bed. Seven years before the Essex rebellion, the young earl refused the marriage alliance (bad idea) and metaphorically got into bed with Essex.

It was he and Essex who together attempted in 1601 to control of the succession. He and Essex were tried together. He and Essex were sentenced to death. Essex was dead in a week give or take a day. Southampton brooded, literally sick with fear.

In Sonnet 87 Shakespeare writes enigmatically: “The Charter of thy worth gives thee releasing . . .”

A nod of Elizabeth’s head at this point would have cost Southampton his. But she commuted his sentence. No, we don’t have an exact account perfect in all its particulars. But we have something. Maybe she thought that killing Essex and four knights was enough. Maybe that’s all it was. Or not.

Maybe “The Charter of thy worth gives thee releasing . . . ” means what it sounds like it means.

Southampton remained confined in the Tower, eating again (one imagines) and no longer worried about a falling axe. No one knows what saved Southampton. The Queen should have killed him.

But in 1603, the Queen went to where queens go when that bloody tyrant time settles its accounts. Burghley’s choice of monarch, King James VI of Scotland, became King James I of England. He took the throne what was his very first order? We don’t know exactly but a good candidate was, “Release Southampton.”

The much-luckier-than-Essex earl stared up at a blue sky with the sun in his blinking eyes not only free but his earldom restored and not only an earl once again but one about to made a Knight of the Garter, a HUGE honor then and even today. His freedom he had; his earldom he presided over; honors were his. But King James never gave Southampton any real power. For obvious reasons, the new king watched the once-rebel earl extremely closely, constantly wary.

The “Charter of thy worth” and “since your worth wide as the ocean is” and “thy own worth then not knowing” and “they had not skill enough your worth to sing” and seven other references to the “worth” of Shakespeare’s subject might just be admiration for Southampton on the part of Shakespeare. But it’s not crazy to wonder if, maybe just maybe, it was this “worth” that allowed Southampton to live through a literal death sentence, “worth” known to Shakespeare but not to historians.

What happened to Southampton was something of a miracle, one entirely unexplained by history. If the sonnets are really the private missives to Southampton that rebels say they are, then Shakespeare indeed knew what was going on. We can’t be certain of anything, but, rebels say, there’s no need to pretend that a common assumption made by plenty of mainstreamers over the years — that the sonnets were written to Southampton — is not worth pursuing.

Mainstreamers will note with justification that mere poems are not properly treated as authoritative autobiography. But do these poems really fall into the category of historically ignorable Art? These poems written over a ten-year period with a unity of treatment, a clear subject, first-person statements, and utterly private handling with no publication for years and years and years — are these poems really to be set aside entirely from any historical analysis?

The sonnets sit at the center of the “Who wrote Shakespeare” controversy. Levi’s commissioning theory aside, if they are personal letters to Southampton, the businessman was very likely not their author. The sonnets present us with a stark choice.

It is therefore not surprising that a very smart high school student I was tutoring in math once told me there was only one thing he needed to know for his Shakespeare class: the sonnets aren’t personal. What a wonderful thing that high school students can KNOW this information! I did not try to counter the programming his teacher had downloaded.

Despite the supposed “danger” of interpreting sonnets like Sonnet 87 as anything other than mysterious poems, many scholars on both “sides” of “Who was Shakespeare?” have over many years regarded Sonnet 107 as a clear celebration by Shakespeare of Southampton’s release upon the Queen’s death and simultaneously a celebration of the peaceful ascension of James. Reading it that way, for whatever it is worth, strengthen the emotive power of the sonnet considerably which is probably why so many mainstreamers are willing to consider this particular sonnet to be “real.”

Mainstreamers sometimes treat this sonnet as some kind of exception. This one we understand. The others we don’t. So we’re done. But is that really the safest route? What if that’s not right? Should we really ignore the possibility that the sonnets offer us a glimpse into Shakespeare as a person?

Rebels don’t claim to understand every sonnet but simply say it might be worthwhile to treat the sonnets in a unified way, as what they appear to be, private poems written in the first person from Shakespeare to the Earl of Southampton. Why not at least consider this interpretation especially since it could answer questions mysterious to historians but possibly not mysterious to Shakespeare.

Sonnet 107 seems to starkly chronicle history: “sad augurs” of a feared civil war did not come to pass; Elizabeth, called the Moon Goddess throughout her reign, had died and would not return; death would “subscribe” (capitulate) to Shakespeare’s pen; the monument of his verse would outlast monuments made of harder stuff. And Southampton, Shakespeare’s sole dedicatee, his “lovely boy,” was not only not dead, now he was free.

Nothing in Shakespeare or really in any poem I’ve ever read is as ebullient as Sonnet 107 though I am no doubt biased in this regard. Still, I think one can safely say this is not a sad sonnet.

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.

Can you (assuming you are not an ivy league Shakespeare expert) read this without getting chills or tears or having some reaction? Is this really “just a poem”?

And so, released from the Tower with his head still attached to his body, the still-young earl apparently immortalized in the sonnets walked in real life into the sunshine of his restored earldom under a generous but suspicious monarch. Shakespeare wrote nineteen more sonnets to the subject that would be called by posterity the “fair youth” and most commonly identified, even by mainstreamers, as Southampton.

Shakespeare completed the sequence with Sonnet 126, the envoi, his farewell beginning with the five words, “O thou my lovely boy . . .” and ending with a muse upon existential brevity in a universe ruled by Nature whose debts are always collected.

Quietus est = “it is settled” (lawyer talk).

O thou, my lovely boy . . .
If Nature, sovereign mistress . . .
Yet fear her . . .
Her audit (though delayed) answered must be,
And her quietus is to render thee.

The sonnets may be all we’ll ever have to anwer mysteries about Shakespeare.

Suppose the hoped-for letter written in Stratford about Richard II never materializes; suppose what we see is what we get as far as the Stratford businessman is concerned. Suppose the sonnets really are the equivalent of personal letters? Must we ignore this possibility?

The mainstream asks us to do just that not because they love their colorless Cheshire Cat who conducts business deals and then vanishes into a vertiginous expanse; not at all. The mainstream is clearly unhappy with their inability to write a real biography. But they aren’t going to budge. And it’s clear why.

Here’s the problem. If the mainstream woke up one morning and everyone agreed the “I” in the sonnets might be a personal “I” and not a poetic “I,” the mainstream might be faced with their worst nightmare: the need to re-write entire libraries of Shakespeare books. The personal “I” would almost have to be the “I” of the Queen’s playwright. And that’s scary.

If the Queen’s playwright wrote the sonnets and the plays, every play and every sonnet published with annotations would have to be re-annotated to account for this critical new information — all of Shakespeare written from within the Queen’s court!

Shakespeare, whoever he was, wrote a million words or so (not counting revisions). Just the eight words from Sonnet 87 “The Charter of thy worth gives the releasing . . .” could spawn a dozen books.

After Shakespeare scholars and historians dealt with the new information offered by these eight words, a lot of work would remain: eight down and another 999,992 words to go!

FORL — the fear of rewriting libraries — is a powerful thing.

And so the four horsemen cometh. They’ve only been alluded to in the discussion above. Mostly I’ve presented the sensible, intelligent mainstream arguments. And the mainstream might yet be perfectly correct. I haven’t forgotten about the businessman’s fellow shareholders who say they collected his works and gave them to two earls. Their testimony is clear enough. Evidence is evidence. But evidence is not certainty. The fact that the secondary O-ring might hold is not a reason to launch a space shuttle.

I’ve left the desperate arguments or us to review separately as we complete our study of analyze this classic false paradigm.

But before we delve into the muck of insults, nonsense, plausibility seen as certainty, and perfection demanded of anyone daring to be rational, here is the promised convenient list of some of Shakespeare’s major sources followed by another convenient list of all thirty-six plays that eventually appeared in the First Folio followed by yet another convenient list of the five (5) published early versions of Shakespeare plays likely performed in the 1580’s.

The Folio plays are listed in three groups: plays not published at all until they appeared in the Folio (18 + 1 published the year prior); plays significantly updated from their old “quarto” editions and then published in the Folio (8); and quartos published in the Folio with relatively minor changes (9).

Some observers regard 2 Henry VI and 3 Henry VI as appearing for the first time in the First Folio because the quartos were such a mess as to be hardly recognizable as the eventual First Folio version. If we assume the second and third parts of Henry VI first appeared in 1623, then the three numbers above get amended in that case to 21 never before published, 6 updated, and 9 reprinted. However you look at it, the First Folio is Shakespeare as we know Shakespeare. As far as posterity is concerned, the First Folio is everything.

Performance records, edition dates, presence or absence of a byline, and sources in bold with closely followed sources in italics are included for each play. This list will necessarily be imperfect as I am not a Shakespeare scholar and, even if I were, this kind of list would be open to examination and discussion and nitpicking. But this will give you a good background in the publication history that I wasn’t able to find gathered in one place anywhere.


History and Philosophy:

  • Il Cortegiano (The Book of the Courtier) philosophical treatise Castiglione Italy 1528.
  • History text Edward Hall 1548.
  • History text Raphael Holinshed 1577.
  • Biographies Plutarch Greece 1st century AD translated by North Plutarch’s Lives 1579.

Italian Stories:

  • Il Pecorone (The Simpleton) novella “Fiorentino” 14th C.
  • Decameron (Ten Days) stories and adapations Boccaccio 14th C.
  • Giletta di Narbona (Decameron III, 9) story Boccaccio 14th C.
  • I Suppositi play Ariosto 1524.
  • Orlando Furioso epic poem Ariosto 1532.
  • Giulietta e Romeo (Romeo and Juliet) story adapted Da Porto 1531.
  • Hecatommithi (One Hundred Myths) story collection Giovani Battista Giraldi aka Cinthio 1565.
  • Un Capitano Moro (A Moorish Captain) story Cinthio 1565.
  • Epitia (proper name) story Cinthio 1565.
  • Novelle (stories) story collection Bandello 1570.
  • Giulietta e Romeo (Romeo and Juliet) story adapted Bandello 1570.
  • Gl’inganatti (The Deceived Ones) story adapted Bandello 1570.

Other European Stories:

  • Vita Amlethi (The Life of Amleth) folktale Saxo Denmark (In Latin) 13th century.
  • Troilus and Cressida Chaucer 14th century.
  • Tale of Gamelyn in Chaucer. 
  • The Boke Named the Governour Elyot England 1531.
  • Los Siete Libros de la Diana (The Seven Books of the Diana) Montemayor Spain 1559.
  • Histoire Tragiques collection incl. transl. Bandello’s Giulietta e Romeo Boaistuau France 1559.
  • Romeo and Juliet re-re-adapted narrative poem “Ar. Br.” England 1562.
  • Des Cannibales essay Montaigne France 1580.
  • Pandosto novel Greene England 1588 (may have been based on 1580’s Shakespeare).
  • Rosalynde novel Lodge England 1590 (may have been based on 1580’s Shakespeare).


  • The Manaechmi (The Brothers Manaechmus) comic play Plautus Rome 3rd century BC.
  • The Amphitruo (proper name) comic play Plautus
  • Thyestes play Seneca Rome 1st century AD.
  • The Metamorphoses twelve thousand line narrative poem Ovid Rome 1st century AD.
  • Timon the Misanthrope story Lucian Greece 2nd century AD.


Published 1st time in any form 1623 (exc. Othello 1st pub. 1622; King John (early version) pub 1591, 1603, 1622; Taming (early version) pub 1594, 1596, 1607).

  • Macbeth: one possible performance record; no other records; Hall and/or Holinshed.
  • The Tempest: some performance records; Ovid, Montaigne.
  • Julius Caesar: one performance record (diary entry); Plutarch.
  • As You Like It: no performance records; one mention, legal context; Lodge Rosalynde unless Lodge saw As You Like It in the 1580’s, Chaucer, Tale of Gamelyn. 
  • The Comedy of Errors: On Meres’s list 1598; some performance records; Two Plays by Plautus, The Manaechmi and The Amphitruo
  • The Two Gentleman of Verona: On Meres’s list 1598; no records at all ex-Meres; Montemayor, Elyot.
  • All’s Well That Ends Well: no records at all unless it is “Love’s Labors Won” in Meres retitled; BoccaccioGiletta di Narbona. 
  • Othello (second edition): 100+ new lines; some performance records; Cinthio, Il Capitano Moro.
  • Henry VIII: one performance record (letter mentioning play); Hall/Holinshed.
  • 1 Henry VI: one performance record; Hall/Holinshed.
  • The Winter’s Tale: one performance record (diary entry); Ovid, Greene Pandosto unless Greene saw The Winter’s Tale in the 1580’s.
  • Twelfth Night: one performance record (diary entry); Bandello Gl’inganatti.
  • Measure for Measure: one performance record; Cinthio Epitia.
  • Timon of Athens: no records at all; Lucian.
  • Cymbeline: one record (diary entry); Hall/Holinshed, Boccaccio, Ovid.
  • Coriolanus: no records at all; Plutarch.
  • Antony and Cleopatra: no performance records; title reg anon 1608; no other records; Plutarch.
  • King John (mature version): no perfomance records; Hall/Holinshed.
  • The Taming of the Shrew (mature version): no performance records; Ariosto and traditional folktales.

Published 1623 with major changes from or additions to original “quarto” editions:

  • 2 Henry VI: pub anon 1594, 1600; org title is The First Part of the Contention Betwixt the Two Famous Houses of York . . . TLDR; ~2X longer than messy orig; no records; Hall/Holinshed.
  • 3 Henry VI: pub anon 1595, 1600; orig title is The True Tragedy of Richard Duke of York . . . TLDR; ~2X longer than messy orig; no records; Hall/Holinshed.
  • Richard II: pub anon 1597; Meres 1598; pub byline 1598, 1608, 1615; partial deposition scene 1615, full scene 1623; one record; Hall/Holinshed.
  • Richard III (mature version): pub anon 1597; Meres 1598; pub byline 1598, 1602, 1605, 1612, 1622; 200+ new lines; no performance records; Hall/Holinshed.
  • Henry V (mature version): pub anon 1600, 1602, 1619; full-length play first pub. 1623; some performance records; Hall/Holinshed.
  • The Merry Wives of Windsor: pub byline 1602, 1619; ~2X longer than messy orig; one performance record; no clear sources.
  • Hamlet: pub byline 1603 half of play missing; pub byline 1604, 1611, 1622; multiple editions often combined to create coherent whole; one performance record; SaxoCastiglione.
  • King Lear (mature version): pub byline 1608, 1619; one performance record; multiple editions often combined to create a coherent whole; English legend, Hall/Holinshed.

Published 1623 with minor changes from original “quarto” editions:

  • Titus Andronicus: pub anon 1594; Meres 1598; pub anon 1600, 1611; some performance records; Ovid, Seneca.
  • Romeo and Juliet: pub anon 1597; Meres 1598; pub anon 1599, 1609, 1622; no records; Da Porto, BandelloBoaistuao, “Ar. Br.” Giulietta e Romeo.
  • 1 Henry IV: pub anon 1598; Meres 1598; pub byline 1599, 1604, 1613, 1622; possible records w/ different titles; Hall, Holinshed.
  • Love’s Labors Lost: pub byline 1598; Meres 1598; first play with byline; accounts of diplomatic visit to France in 1578 somehow obtained by the author.
  • The Merchant of Venice: pub byline 1600, 1619; Meres 1598; Fiorentino, Il Pecorone Giornata Quarta Novella Prima. 
  • A Midsummer Night’s Dream: pub byline 1600, 1619; Meres 1598; one record; Ovid.
  • Much Ado About Nothing: pub byline 1600; some records; Bandello, Ariosto.
  • 2 Henry IV: pub byline 1600; possible records w/different titles; Hall/Holinshed.
  • Troilus and Cressida: title reg anon 1603; pub byline 1609; no records; Chaucer, Boccaccio.

Early versions published or registered 1590’s NOT published 1623:

  • The Troublesome Reign of King John: pub anon 1591; Meres 1598; pub byline 1603, 1622; the only early version to have the Shakespeare byline; no records.
  • The Taming of A Shrew: pub anon 1594, 1596, 1607; set in an unconvincing Athens; one record.
  • The True Tragedy of Richard III: pub anon 1594; in this version the famous line reads “A horse! A horse! A fresh horse!”; no records.
  • The Famous Victories of Henry V: pub anon 1598; amateurish but contains Shakespearean innovations; no records.
  • The True Chronicle History of King Leir: title reg anon 1594; pub anon 1605; Leir spelling occurs sporadically in Lear; no performance records.







Without further ado, here’s the dialog.


STUDENT: You may be right but other evidence is far stronger than the Davies epigrams, so they are secondary for me. What is interesting is that the mainstream’s search for contemporary evidence that the Strat-ford share-holder was the author of Ham-let and Mac-beth leads them straight to Shake-speare and Terence and No-body and Some-body with much adoo and they tout this as evidence in their favor which is an odd thing for them to do.


STUDENT: In my favorite book, Shakespeare Beyond Doubt, one of the essays written by an expert in the field reproduces the Davies epigram as part of a list of Shakespeare references that he says constitutes “overwhelming” evidence that the businessman wrote the plays. He notes that the Davies epigram is “obscure,” but ignores the fact that none of his other epigrams are the picture of indecipherable, abstruse, enigmatic, arcane, and perplexing.

PROFESSOR: What does the essayist in Shakespeare Beyond Doubt say about the epigrams?

STUDENT: The author of The Case for Shakespeare on page 162 tells us all about the grant:

“By 1586 [the literary earl] 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 [earldom] in generations to come, Elizabeth would have to provide funds to support him. Which she did. She granted [the literary earl] a pension of a thousand pounds a year.”

PROFESSOR: So the bad boy earl got paid for being a bad boy. That’s insane.

PROFESSOR: Ha-ha. No, I’m going to remain aloof and give no opinion until you seal your lawless bloody book of forged rebellion.

STUDENT: Henry IV Part 2, Act IV, Scene 1. Maybe that should be the title of my dissertation. It’s time to draw my sword: SHAKE-SPEARES SONNETS as they were called.

PROFESSOR: Ah, yes. I thought we would be talking about the sonnets. But you haven’t told me what the author of Contested Will says about the signatures.

Rebels say the literary earl wrote The Tempest in the early 1600’s as an envoi, a coda, a farewell, a goodbye, a finis, an epilogue as the play is often understood. The literary earl died in 1604 and is for this reason alone a better candidate for “our ever-living poet” than someone who was still alive. If the personal nature of the sonnets written to Southampton together with the 1609 publisher’s dedication don’t make the situation sufficiently clear, one simple fact about the young woman Southampton was supposed to marry to unite two powerful Elizabethan families should, finally, end the discussion.

She was Lord Burghley’s grand-daughter but she was also the literary earl’s eldest daughter.

If that doesn’t wrap things up what would? ask the rebels. Why come up with speculative theories whose justification is necessarily circular as a means to explain away “make thee another self for love of me” and explain away “our ever-living poet” when a simple explanation has been handed to us on a silver platter? Of course the writer of the explosive courtly plays who did not want to reveal himself and who also wrote the marriage sonnets to Southampton was the father of the prospective bride, the Queen’s playwright, a man who was indeed an older peer of Southampton precisely as presented in the sonnets.

Rebels are incredulous about this. Getting Shakespeare wrong because of the First Folio preface given the evidence pointing to the literary earl is, rebels say, like a wide awake adult expert swimmer in good health surrounded by other people drowning in the shallow end of a pool. What gives?

The trap that the mainstream fell into is a classic false paradigm trap — over-reliance on a single piece of evidence.

Yes, the First Folio preface says the businessman was Shakespeare. But it behooves anyone who wishes to discern what is real and what is not to imagine a world without any one piece of evidence in order to avoid this classic trap.

Without the First Folio preface, how many scholars would identify the Stratford businessman as the author based on his name and his acting company affiliation? How many would look at Hamlet — already famous in the 1580’s — and the rest of the evidence and wonder if perhaps the businessman traveled to London and purchased shares in London’s leading acting company simply because the name “William Shakespeare” had become famous?

There is direct evidence offered by people alive at the time that this “late arrival” followed by “opportunistic posturing” is exactly what happened, but, as in the case of the “our ever-living poet” phrase in the Sonnets’ dedication and virtually every other piece of evidence, the commentary made by Londoners is subject to interpretation.

Rebels who have dismissed the First Folio preface claim poetry written by the Queen’s playwright as a teenager prefigures the mature Shakespeare. The argument that two and only two Elizabethan writers were virtuosos with falconry metaphors is either compelling or inconclusive depending which way you are already leaning.

A “haggard” is an untamed hawk or, if you are either the literary earl or Shakespeare or both, a faithless lover:

. . . mark the choice they make and how they change,
How oft from Phoebus they do flee to Pan;
Unsettled still like haggards wild they range,
These gentle birds that fly from man to man.
Who would not scorn and shake them from the fist,
And let them fly, fair fools, which way they list? [The literary earl as a teenager]

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. [Shakespeare, the mature author of Othello]

Only the Queen’s playwright as a teenager and the mature Shakespeare wrote of haggard hawks as wayward lovers as far as anyone knows. All we really know is that Shakespeare loved to use falconry terms in his plays — many of them, like hoodwinked, are part of the language now. More parallels appear in the appendices.

Finally, there’s a scene in As You Like It that seems; there is broad agreement that it serves obvious no purpose. The play with the scene deleted flows just fine, better actually without the interruption.

And yet the scene has hot emotion that edges close to violence. “Writers” are mentioned in this scene just once. The word “writers” appears six times in the canon, always referring to specific writers or their specific writings; this is the only instance of “writers” in a general sense in any Shakespeare play.

On the other hand, if the Stratford businessman was really strutting around pretending to be Shakespeare, the scene is devastating.

The authorial character — Shakespeare often used characters that, like a Greek chorus, offered commentary and the author’s viewpoint  — TOUCHSTONE confronts a know-nothing fool, WILLIAM, who wanders into the play just for this scene.

WILLIAM does nothing and says almost nothing. He listens to the angry TOUCHSTONE make fun of his lack of education, erudition, and knowledge. He listens to a lecture TOUCHSTONE gives about a classical metaphor in which widsom can be imagined as a liquid: a liquid, Plato says, can be poured from one vessel into another emptying the first vessel and filling the other; wisdom cannot be treated so.

Then comes the scary and completely meaningless Latin lesson about intensive pronouns.

The Latin “intensive pronoun” ipse tells us who the big guy is and can be translated as “he himself” or “the one and only.” We use intensive pronouns all the time: Walt Disney himself cut the ribbon when Disneyland opened; Matt Damon himself appeared at a screening of Good Will Hunting.

TOUCHSTONE, angry enough to kill, rhetorically grabs the intellectually defenseless WILLIAM by the shirt. If acting this scene, the TOUCHSTONE actor would speak inches from WILLIAM’s face.

TOUCHSTONE tells WILLIAM EXACTLY what ipse means in the bitter rivalry that is evidently their relationship. The “writers” who appear here appear nowhere else in the play:

“. . . all your writers do consent that ipse is he.
Now you are not ipse for I am he . . .”

TOUCHSTONE then unleashes an overdone barrage of every possible threat including a promise to KILL WILLIAM in “a hundred and fifty ways.” That’s the end of WILLIAM’s role in the play. He exits and the play returns to the original plotline.

The First Folio preface, on the other hand, says in no uncertain terms it was the businessman from Stratford, the shareholder in London’s leading acting company, who was Shakespeare himself.

If the preface is telling it as it was, it means Shakespeare had a double life as both “a man shrewd in practical affairs” in Stratford and, simultaneously as “the admired poet of love’s languishment” in London. That’s how classic biographer Samuel Schoenbaum put it. In theory, the scene in As You Like It could be interpreted as an illustration of Shakespeare’s two personas dueling with one another but good luck trying to find a mainstream scholar willing to dig himself into that hole!

The scene in As You Like It is much more likely to be ignored by scholars who assume the First Folio preface accurately identified the author. For them, a dolt named WILLIAM being told who is who in a gratuitous scene tells us nothing — we  simply don’t know why the author put it in. Without the preface of course, the scene might well raise more than a few scholarly eyebrows. In fact, without the First Folio preface, it seems unlikely the businessman would be regarded by anyone as the author.

And yet mainstream observers regularly claim that the case for the businessman as author does NOT rely on the First Folio preface!

We can only guess of course whether or not sans preface a mainstreamer might see much of the Shakespeare story — Hamlet from the 1580’s, “our ever-living poet” in 1609, Jonson’s “poet-ape” who fooled no one, haggard hawks as wayward lovers, “you are not ipse for I am he” — by the rebels’ lights.

I believe if there were no preface, the Queen’s playwright would be regarded as the obvious author and someone digging up the fact that someone named “William Shakespeare” owned shares in an acting company and claiming he was the real author would be laughed at — “How could an illiterate businessman have written the plays?”

But we do have the preface and there is no direct contradiction to it in any letter or diary entry. No one scratched out William Shakespeare on their copy of the First Folio and wrote in the name of the literary earl. So the mainstream can continue to hold to the traditional idea that the businessman was also the greatest writer in England, and can continue to argue that “you are not ipse for I am he” is being overinterpreted by partisans of the Queen’s playwright.

The question for us is not so much a matter of “Are the rebels right or wrong?” Rather, the question is, “Is the mainstream claiming certainty when there is none to be had?”

The answer to this second question is unequivocally yes. The reliance on a single piece of evidence is, by itself, sufficient cause for doubt. If the whole theory evaporates without the First Folio preface, that doesn’t mean the theory is wrong but it does mean the theory cannot be considered a certainty or a near-certainty.

If indeed the preface is nonsense that would put “Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare” right up there with “the Pope doesn’t have sexual partners” as nonsense touted in the sixteenth century that had no connection whatsoever with reality.

If the businessman-author is a hoax like Hunter-Trumbo, the strange scene in As You Like It is historical narrative; Hamlet becomes nakedly autobiographical; the complaint in Sonnet 66 about “art made tongue-tied by authority” drips with real-life bitterness; and Sonnet 81, ringing with the confidence of a genius who writes for the ages who says he knows his words are immortal but laments, “Though I (once gone) to all the world must die,” is telling us outright that “Shakespeare” was a pseudonym.

PROFESSOR: Very good, yes, yes. If the sonnets were commissioned they were written in the voice of SOMEONE ELSE. I’m starting to see how your argument is coming together.

STUDENT: Do you know who Southampton was supposed to marry?

PROFESSOR: The grand-daughter of Lord Burghley.

STUDENT: But do you know who was the father of the bride?

PROFESSOR: Again, I see your point. The father of the bride was the literary earl was it not? That might mean something.

STUDENT: Indeed it might very well mean an awful lot of something. The literary earl hired Lyly and Munday AND it was the eldest daughter of the literary earl who was supposed to marry the subject of Shakespeare’s marriage sonnets in the most important marriage alliance of Elizabethan times. So we have a courtly playwright supported by the Queen writing courtly plays who is connected to all of the people Shakespeare had to have been connected to and he was actually active in the 1580’s but has zeo plays attributed to him even though he was praised to the skies as a playwright and handed an ungodly sum of money year after year.

PROFESSOR: That’s your argument in a nutshell. But don’t you think you are overstating your case if you say the proposed marriage of Southampton into the Burghley family was THE most important marriage alliance of Elizabethan times? Certainly, it was ONE of the most important.

STUDENT: That’s a fair point but I’m not sure I am overstating here. Southampton, as you know, refused the match and joined the Essex faction which tried to control the succession ten years later and failed. Essex and Southampton were convicted of treason and sentenced to death. Essex was beheaded a week later, but Southampton’s sentence was commuted and he was released from the Tower after James took the throne. No one knows why Southampton wasn’t also executed.

PROFESSOR: You are suggesting there was something special about Southampton.

STUDENT: Yes, but there’s not enough evidence to determine exactly what was going on. All we know is that everyone, including Shakespeare, made a big fuss about Southampton throughout his life.

PROFESSOR: Okay. I’ve followed you so far. Give me a quick summary of your position based on what you’ve said so far.

STUDENT: I think the plays had been performed regularly since the 1570’s, became so popular in the 1580’s that the Queen created an acting company and set her playwright up for life, and then in the early 1590’s the name “William Shakespeare” finally appeared in print. That’s when the guy from Stratford who was one of half a dozen people with that name in and around London, decided to show up in London, twenty years after the fact, and buy his way into the acting company and prance around with his fortuitous name.

PROFESSOR: That’s all pretty speculative, you must admit.

STUDENT. It is speculation. But if you assume the businessman was Shakespeare, you have to turn him into some sort of absurdly well-connected genius plagiarist commoner who wrote sonnets to a young earl in someone else’s voice and stole work from someone who could have been a younger version of himself but who had turned his back for a moment.

PROFESSOR: It is the case that many commentators have imagined that the writer of the plays ought to be one of the “wolfish earls” as opposed to a commoner just because of the viewpoint in the plays. But that is a subjective judgment. Your plagiarism comment is a good point — there’s no point using euphemisms, if the Stratford theory requires plagiarism then so be it. And I agree that the connection between the literary earl and Southampton is compelling.

STUDENT: And let’s face it, even Shakespeare’s biographers who assume he was the businessman openly wonder how he even had time to write plays given all the business he was transacting. They openly wonder why his business activities are so well documented while his writing activities aren’t documented at all. They express surprise that none of his family members or friends or neighbors ever said a word about him being the greatest writer in England until he was long dead and his fellow shareholders in the acting company finally said, “Oh yes, he was the great Shakespeare, the guy who wrote the plays, and here they all are, you should really buy them.”

PROFESSOR: I see you’ve read Honigmann and Schoenbaum. You seem to find their biographies to be convincing demonstrations that the subject of their biographies was NOT the playwright. If you can make the case that even mainstream biographers have some doubt or at least some incredulity about their subject being Shakespeare the great writer and a businessman, that would certainly strengthen your case.

STUDENT: Yes, I think all the work that has been done so far, including the work of mainstream biographers, indicates that we need a member of the nobility who was active in the 1580’s, who knew Southampton and had an interest in his marriage, and who knew Lyly, Munday, and other writers. That person is not the Stratford businessman, it’s someone else and I think the someone else was the Queen’s playwright. I don’t think the Queen handed him the equivalent of a Nobel Prize every year for his whole life because he was pretty good.

PROFESSOR: Okay, but the literary earl who you call the Queen’s playwright died in the early 1600’s. Are you prepared to discuss the dating of the plays?

STUDENT: More than prepared. I think I can prove that The Tempest, arguably Shakespeare’s last play, was written in the early 1600’s just before the literary earl died. A play being performed in Germany at the time was too similar to The Tempest to be anything but an adaptation and the people putting it on were known to frequently adapt English plays.

PROFESSOR: Well, that’s a big question which you might want to come back to after you’ve earned your doctorate. But you haven’t talked about the First Folio. You’ll have to have an extensive discussion since that is really the source of the focus on the Stratford businessman.

STUDENT: I know. Suddenly in the early 1620’s, the size of the canon more than doubles. Nineteen plays never before published including Macbeth, Othello, Julius Caesar, The Tempest, As You Like It, and All’s Well That Ends Well appear out of nowhere and a massive thirty-six play compilation is published in 1623 with the Earl of Montgomery thanked on the dedication page. I know the First Folio is the main evidence favoring the Stratford businessman but I think just the fact that half the plays hadn’t yet been published and that fact that they all show up at the same time and the fact that the Earl of Montgomery was involved makes the First Folio good evidence in favor of the literary earl.

PROFESSOR: What’s so important about Montgomery?

STUDENT: He was married to the literary earl’s youngest daughter. He and his brother were the dedicatees of the First Folio. They were nobility. They obviously bankrolled the project and they got all the plays together. The fact that the literary earl’s immediate family member — his daughter — was that close to the First Folio is almost a smoking gun in my view.

PROFESSOR: But the preface to the First Folio was quite clear about who the author was and it didn’t say anything about any literary earl.

STUDENT: Ah yes, the First Folio preface — the source of all the problems.

PROFESSOR: Or one might say the primary piece of evidence supporting the Stratford businessman because it clearly identifies him as the author.

STUDENT: Macbeth, Othello, Julius Caesar, The Tempest, All’s Well That Ends Well, As You Like It, The Comedy of Errors, The Two Gentleman of Verona, the mature version of The Taming of the Shrew, the mature version of King John, Henry VI part 1, Twelfth Night, Measure for Measure, Timon of Athens, Antony and Cleopatra, Coriolanus, The Winter’s Tale, Cymbeline, and Henry VIII. Diary entries occasionally mention some of these plays as having been performed though three have no mention at all prior to the First Folio. These and seventeen previously published plays, some with alterations never before seen, were published all at once in the First Folio in 1623.

PROFESSOR: You’ve sketched out a case saying that it may have been the literary earl’s family retaining the manuscripts as opposed to the acting company. Do you have any other thoughts? Any putative smoking guns?

STUDENT: A couple. First, the businessman’s two daughters were known to be illiterate. We are being asked to believe that the man who wrote Beatrice, Cordellia, Rosalind, and Portia, four truly great heroines even by modern standards, didn’t see to it that his daughters could read his works.

PROFESSOR: It’s usually assumed — there’s that word again — that he didn’t have time to teach them or that he didn’t bother because they were country girls and didn’t need to read.

STUDENT: All we really know is that his daughters were illiterate and he didn’t sign important documents himself. Everything else is speculation.

PROFESSOR: Those are indeed the bare facts.

STUDENT: The second smoking gun is Sonnet 81 two lines of which read, “Your name from hence immortal life shall have, though I (once gone) to all the world must die.”

PROFESSOR: I can see where this is going.

STUDENT: The sonnets would outlast brass and stone and so forth and be eternal. The works with the Shakespeare byline were the most famous in England. But what happened? The author complained in the sonnets about “art made tongue-tied by authority” and hinted that “every word doth almost tell my name” and then (once gone) he died to all the world just as Sonnet 81 said. I see only two ways to interpret the author’s only first-person writing: either the author was constrained by politics to use a pseudonym or the sonnets are so uninterpretable that they are gibberish.

PROFESSOR: And you vote for the former.

STUDENT: As did a number of people alive four hundred years ago. After the First Folio was published, with Shakespeare still considered the greatest writer ever and with no plays attributed to the literary earl, some commentators published lists of late great authors including Chaucer, Spenser, Daniel, and the literary earl but they didn’t bother with “Shakespeare.” The canon had just doubled in size but “Shakespeare” might as well have been alphabet salad. The literary earl had no bylines and these early dabblers in comparative literature eventually died without spelling out their opinions about who wrote what so we don’t have anyone saying in any direct way, “the literary earl was Shakespeare.”

PROFESSOR: Even one comment to the effect “the author of Hamlet was the literary earl” would probably bring the Stratford theory crashing down. But no such direct comment exists. Traditional theorists claim that if the literary earl had written Shakespeare, a direct comment would have been made at some point.

STUDENT: I would counter that with the fact that although a lot of people praised the Queen’s playwright — one writer called his home a literary “shrine” — they always carefully avoided anything that would tie him to a specific play. If he were named as the author of even one non-Shakespeare play, that would change my view. But that is not the case. He was, to his contemporaries, a playwright who must not be linked to any play. I think it is obvious that the only Elizabethan playwright to have no plays attributed to him and the only Elizabethan playwright to have no authorized plays published in his lifetime are the same person.

PROFESSOR: Well, even if many people would say your conclusion is not “obvious,” I think it is at least defensible. If you put together a detailed proposal, I will endorse it and I think the rest of the faculty will be willing to accept it even if it is, in some circles, considered controversial to even discuss the question of who wrote the plays.

Mark Twain wrote a book in which he argued the point that Shakespeare couldn’t have written the plays without having been immersed in the law at a professional level. Mr. Clemens regarded the idea that “Shakespeare” was not a pseudonym as proof that humans as a group are incapable of reason. In 1909, he estimated three centuries at least before humanity corrected this particular blunder.

Also along the lines of “how did he know that?” are the Italian plays with their lovingly detailed settings. It is clear that Shakespeare visited Italy and learned about the waterways connecting sixteenth century Italian city states that at first confused modern scholars until they did some research and discovered the author knew whereof he wrote. He knew a lot about Italian art and artists that was not common knowledge in England at the time. Even today, with the advantages of photography and video and google earth and so forth, scholars have to physically travel to Italy to catch up to Shakespeare. As of the beginning of the 21st century the Duke’s Oak (capitalized) in a Shakespeare play was mysterious to countless editors who sometimes removed the capitalization. This remained the case until a researcher visited Italy and stumbled upon the no-longer-mysteriously-capitalized Duke’s Oak.

Scholars dealing with the Italy “issue” face a stark choice: note that it is possible the businessman went to Italy at some point OR embarrass themselves by claiming that it was possible for someone to write the Italian plays without ever actually going to Italy. If you are a betting person I offer you a good way to make money: find a mainstream researcher, it doesn’t matter how big an expert they are, who says Shakespeare was wrong about this or that Italian detail and bet on Shakespeare. Making such bets with researchers who have in the past questioned an Italian detail in a Shakespeare play would been extremely lucrative. But who knows, maybe someday someone will find an inaccurate Italian detail in Shakespeare play. It hasn’t happened yet to my knowledge but there’s always a first time.

The Stratford businessman may indeed have traveled to Italy and may have read a lot about legal proceedings and may have been politically astute and even politically connected. It would mean a lot if he could write his name and if researchers could find a way for him to write 1580’s Shakespeare (he was sixteen and living in Stratford in 1580). Then maybe I could ignore the fact that he was eulogized while still alive.

Whoever wrote Shakespeare had a number of the following characteristics (most likely he had all of them): he could write his name, he spoke multiple languages, he knew details of the Queen’s court, he had first-hand knowledge of Italy, he had legal training, he was an avid falconer, he was close to Southampton, and he was writing in the 1580’s.

Also of interest is one person writing in Latin who didn’t mention the literary earl but didn’t quite mention Shakespeare either. Instead, the great writer was referred to in Latin as “the celebrated poet whose name comes from shaking and spear” — celebrem poetam qui a quassatione et hasta nomen habet. Two other writers had their names Latinized in the more traditional way: Ioannem Davisium (John Davies) and Ioannem Vicarsium (John Vicars).

To create “from shaking and spear” in Latin, the verb quassare, to shake, becomes the noun quassatio, the act of shaking, which becomes in the “ablative” case quassatione which case implies an origin for which in English we would use a preposition like “from.” No one knows why the great author was referred to in this roundabout way.


Ben Jonson writing a sonnet in the “Shakespearean” abab cdcd efef gg form.

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.


STUDENT: And how would you Latinize John Vicars?

PROFESSOR: Ioannem Vicarsium obviously.

STUDENT: William Shakespeare?

PROFESSOR: Guilielmus Shaxperium.

STUDENT: Very good. Can you translate “celebrem poetam qui a quassatione et hasta nomen habet?”

PROFESSOR: Ah, that uses the ablative of the noun quassatio, the act of shaking, which comes from the verb quassare, to shake.

STUDENT: You don’t seem rusty to me.

PROFESSOR: I’m just getting lucky. Anyway, it translates as “the celebrated poet who has a name from shaking and spear.” The ablative case implies an origin, hence the insertion of “from” in the translation.

STUDENT: What do you think of that way of naming Shakespeare after the First Folio came out.

PROFESSOR: It’s pretty roundabout, not a straightforward Latinization.

STUDENT: I think it indicates that the writer who Latinized Davies and Vicars normally, knew the “celebrated poet” wasn’t actually named Shakespeare.

Before we get to the dialog I must clarify for the reader that what we have here really is a false paradigm as opposed to an ordinary controversy and so we must make a brief foray into my favorite book of all time, Shakespeare Beyond Doubt. 

On the second page, of the introduction of a book destined for legendary status we meet the first horseman:

“Thoughout this book, we use the term ‘anti-Shakespearian‘ to describe those who propagate any theory which disputes Shakespeare’s authorship and co-authorship of the works attributed to him.”

An essay goes after the “anti-Shakespearians” for being concerned that the businessman was not identified as a writer while he lived:

Anti-Shakespearians often proclaim this fact in self-satisfied triumph, brandishing the phrase ‘in his lifetime’ like a mantra but . . . the evidence that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare is overwhelming and to dispute it is to challenge the entire validity of historical research.”

The anti-Shakespearians, we learn in another essay, are bad people:

“In general, anti-Shakespearians’ depictions of sixteenth-century Stratford-upon-Avon and Warwichshire are rooted in distortions, driven by an irrational hatred of William Shakespeare of Stratford and all he represents.”

The second horseman cometh and that right soon.

The literary earl, we learn at the feet of Shakespeare Beyond Doubt (did you catch that? BEYOND DOUBT), had a “fickle head.” So said a contemporary. The fickle-headed earl spent his daughters’ inheritances and left their care to their grandfather Lord Burghley marking him as a “classic dead-beat father” with a “self-indulgent lifestyle.” Thus, the irresponsible literary earl was NOT being paid by the Queen to write. Here’s the one sentence proof as presented by an experienced expert at a top university:

“Then, beginning in 1586, in exchange for his good behaviour, [the literary earl] accepted an annuity of 1000 pounds carefully disbursed in quarterly increments.”

It is not impossible but it would be surprising if a historian not associated with this “who was Shakespeare” issue offered even the tiniets shred of evidence for any claim that Queen Elizabeth AND King James could be wrapped around the finger of a “fickle-headed” earl with a penchant for misbehavior and improvident spending.

I believe the suggestion that these two monarchs could be made to pour out gold like a couple of royal volcanoes without two IQ points to rub together would be regarded as laughable outside the context of Shakespeare which seems to make otherwise smart people engage in commentary and analysis that is hard to describe without falling into ad hominem attacks.

But what do you call such an idea as that Queen Elizabeth, regarded as among the canniest monarchs of all time, known for her parsimony, unafraid to use the Tower and the axe to her benefit, would yield a mountain of gold to a bad boy earl and get “good behavior” in return? I want to say the smart people have gone berzerk, barking mad, batshit crazy but that’s just not nice so I will disavow those statements and just call it the desperation of someone defending a false paradigm with the second of the four horsemen — utter nonsense.

It gets worse as it always does with false paradigms.

Gibberish comes next: the five signatures by five different people, we learn, can be analyzed and the handwriting of these five signatures written by five people can be compared to the handwriting on Anthony Munday’s Sir Thomas More (known as Hand D). Thus, the Shakespeare contribution to the play written by the literary earl’s secretary definitely came from a man who couldn’t write his name based on official paleographic analysis.

Yes, really. Here’s the quote.

“From the point of view of Shakespeare study, the most consequential finding is that the hand otherwise known simply as ‘Hand D’ is Shakespeare. The evidence is complex but finally compelling. The most numerous and most expert studies of the handwriting find strong links between Hand D and the few samples of Shakespeare’s writing in legal documents.”


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.