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Need Another Seven Astronauts

July 3, 2021

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 (this is technical language; any resemblance to profanity is coincidental). The MT bosses, quite reasonably, cancelled the launch.

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 blew up on takeoff. The primary o-ring failed; the secondary o-ring held. The shuttle launched without apparent incident. No one knew anything was amiss until the solid rocket boosters were recovered and the engineers got a look at the soot on the wrong side of the primary o-ring. 

The engineers and their bosses considered redesigning the o-ring system but instead decided to upgrade the secondary o-ring to “critical” status which recognized the fact that a failure of this component could doom the shuttle. A redesign would have fixed the problem but that would have taken a year or two and NASA had a schedule to keep. 

A year later on that terrible day in January 1986, it was 23 degrees in Florida, historic cold. Given the failure the previous year at 53 degrees and given the fact that rubber gets stiff when it’s cold, the engineers delivered the official “no fucking way” recommendation. And that should have been that.

NASA, which at that time stood for National Aeronautics and Space Administration, pushed back on the launch cancellation. On the phone call with an annoyed NASA administrator who had probably been president of the 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. 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 who were engineers by training promoted to management, 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. They pointed out that “no fucking way” is usually means “no fucking way” and fucking definitely did this time too.

On the edge of tears, two of them actually went so far as to approach the boss’s table and draw impromptu diagrams to better explain what they were saying. They got nowhere. Somehow, “we think the shuttle might explode” didn’t make an impression on what had become four brick walls that only looked human.

He was told to take off his engineering hat.

You don’t think bricks think? Think again. 

It’s always been safe in the past; therefore, it is safe now.

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

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

“Am I the only one who wants to fly?”

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

The second to last line was spoken by the senior management guy to everyone in the room. The last line was spoken by the senior management guy to the newest member of the management team. The first three lines, irrationality distilled, came out during the hearings and the late Sally Ride, staring at the faces at the heart of the disaster, 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 but died when the intact cockpit arced into the Atlantic ocean at 200 mph. Christa McAuliffe’s students watched on live TV. With the dead buried, the formal inquiry began and Sally Ride and the others on the board spent a week drowning in insanity.

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 could be tried but they did not guarantee success. Ulcers were caused by excess stomach acid. A study decades before (as in one study) had shown this definitively and absolutely and there was no point questioning it. My great uncle died at about the same time as Christa McAuliffe. (As far as I know: my family history has a few gaps.) 

At this time, in the early 1980’s a medical researcher found evidence indicating that ulcers were actually caused by bacteria and he realized that ulcers were probably curable. In fact, he believed he had proved it beyond doubt. He claimed he knew the specific type of bacteria causing most ulcers and he claimed he could cure the ulcers. 

He was able to publish, but he was ignored. He was as sure he was right as his colleagues were sure he was wrong. So he did something crazy. He cultured bacteria from an ulcer patient’s stomach, turned it into a cocktail, and drank it (it was NOT happy hour).

Kneeling on his bathroom floor after making his fateful decision, throwing up with truly horrific violence, he looked up and found himself staring into the eyes of his terrified wife. She was about to call 9-1-1 when the medical researcher, the loving husband, the father of two young children informed his partner in life that he had purposely infected himself with a dangerous disease to prove something to his not-so-scientific colleagues.

The researcher-husband-father later said his only regret was not having had the foresight to get video of his wife’s reaction. Suffice to say it was memorable. In between eruptions, he managed to promise to cure himself as soon as he collected the data he needed (another eruption ensued at that point). He did collect his data and he did cure himself.

His wife accepted his promise to never do that again and his colleagues made it clear it didn’t matter how many “stunts” he pulled: they would never believe him. The only thing he gained from his attempt to change the world was the knowledge that his wife possessed heretofore unimagined reservoirs of anger.

Ten years later, my great uncle was dead and the man who had been willing to experiment on himself had gotten exactly nowhere. And then there came the inspiration, the moment that made all the difference. He was visited by an idea even more brilliant than the analysis that led to his discovery that bacteria caused ulcers. It was a radical idea, exceptionally powerful. I mean just WOW. 

Our hero went to the offices of a big pharmaceutical company and said to the people he met there, “Do you want to make a lot of money?”

I personally think he should have gotten the Nobel Prize just for that idea, but that’s another story. Anyway, the humans in question responded as you might expect. A few years later, with ulcers being cured all over the place, the community of scientists decided to actually look into the “outlandish” claims about ulcers.  

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. Mainstream scientists must have the the final word; you have to convince the skeptical; you need lots of people verifying any new discovery; there’s no other way. And so it came to pass.

The mainstream’s final word was this: “Oh my God, we’ve been wrong all this time.”

Unfortunately, our hero did NOT win a Nobel Prize for involving big pharma in his quest for rationality for one simple reason: no one ever listens to me. Fortunately, however, he did win the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2005.

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. 

Unfortunately, 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 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. The fox was guarding the hen-house. “Arson investigation” was allowed in U.S. courts into the early years of the twenty-first century. Today, we know it as 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. 

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 his three children was an ordinary electrical fire. He died for being too poor to not have space heaters in his house. 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. (Lesson 1 of traveling in Italy: NEVER say a single word to the police without a lawyer present and if offered a pen with which to sign your name, do NOT touch it.) 

The strange little farce that ensued might be called a “trial.” Actually, it was Monty Python’s Burn the Witch skit brought to life. Knox and Sollecito didn’t need a defense to show that the whole thing was ridiculous: the prosecution’s case took care of that. The tabloids went crazy and the guilty verdict was a foregone conclusion. Meanwhile, the actual murderer entered a guilty plea and was quietly imprisoned.

It didn’t matter how obvious the whole thing was. If we don’t mince words we cas see that Amanda Knox has really nice breasts and so millions of people decided believed the prosecution’s theory that she had bewitched Sollecito and Guede into killing for her. I know that sounds crazy but that was actually the prosecution’s theory. For the general public and even for the judge in the case, the story was too good to not be true.

Even the victim’s family fell for it and, to this day, Meredith Kercher’s parents and siblings believe their beloved was murdered by an irresistible woman, her sweetie-pie boyfriend, and a mentally ill drug dealer as some sort of prank. 

For Knox, being pretty was a crime.

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 is one of the most eloquent defenses of circular reasoning you’ll ever see. 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 surround it walls so high and so strong that no amount of evidence will ever breach your fortress of certainty. It was and is breathtaking. 

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

Knox and Sollecito and their lawyers appealed and there was another trial. The second judge wanted to cut through a mountain of nonsense that had fooled so many people. He contracted a couple of scientists at Italy’s top university to evaluate the “evidence” presented in the case. The two scientists had no reason to do anything but tell the truth and they told the judge that what seemed to be nonsense was in fact nonsense. The second judge put an end to the farce. Knox and Sollecito went home. The actual murderer, Guede, remained in prison and was released in 2021. 

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.

No one gets hurt when physicists or other scholars in arenas not involving life and death dance the irrationality jig but that’s cold comfort. I’m not a believer in the guaranteed survival of humanity: if the human race dies out our end might be traceable to our failure to make use of an amazing gift: rational thought. I hope I’m exaggerating the importance of evidence-based reasoning, but I fear I am not.

 I don’t know any way to prevent scholars, scientists, researchers, and even judges from pulling the kind of nonsense they seem to pull so easily and so automatically. In the cases of the space shuttle, ulcers, Todd Willingham, Amanda Knox, Raffaele Sollecito, and VSL, smart people claimed absolute certainty or near-certainty when they didn’t have any evidence that would begin to support even a moderate level of certainty.

In all of these cases, professionals dropped evidence-based reasoning and embraced social reasoning. This is easy enough to do because even very strong evidence is always uncertain — if you don’t like a piece of evidence you can use any of four options to get rid of it: (i, squid ink) cloud it with excessive detail or (ii, demand perfection) note that the evidence isn’t 100% perfect which it never is or (iii, anything is possible) make up a plausible scenario in which the evidence you don’t like is explained or (iv, denial) you claim the evidence you don’t like is wrong or meaningless or misunderstood which often requires you to spout nonsense.

Social reasoning often relies on the four techniques laid out above: squik ink; gotcha; anything is possible; and denial as a means to block the more boring careful analysis of evidence without preconception and (this is important) without using one piece of evidence to interpret another piece of evidence.  

Social reasoning also comes in four broad types or at least I like to divide it into four types. Type I is what con artists do. They know the truth but want to fool people. The first judge in the Knox case knew she was innocent and laid out all the evidence in the case and then used mostly denial to ignore it all. Reading the report in which a judge openly ignores mountains of evidence is a jaw-dropping experience. The second judge had read this report and obviously intended to free both Knox and Sollecito before the second trial began: he stated plainly that the entire case was nonsensical (he actually said it was beyond imagination). 

Type II social reasoning is based on faith. If there is something you want to be true, you believe it for that reason alone and just ignore any evidence to the contrary. Many ordinary people regarded the Knox-as-murderous-seductress story to be too good not to be true so they believed it and ignored evidence. This doesn’t mean religious faith is bad: if you believe a higher power wants us all to be kind to one another, there’s no need to prove it. But you don’t want arson investigation or space shuttle launches to be faith-based. 

Type III social reasoning is based on fashion. If everyone believes something, then so do you. It’s embarrassing and sometimes dangerous to be a maverick. Many Italians regarded believing Knox guilty was a matter of patriotism. Most physicists were unwilling to even consider VSL mostly because they feared ridicule. A theory that “sounds funny” will be almost impossible to even discuss. 

Type IV social reasoning is based on trust and is very practical. I believed Knox was guilty because I trusted the Italian legal system. I believe we went to the Moon because I trust my own sense of what sort of hoaxes are possible. Most scientists studying ulcers trusted the stomach acid study and then reverted to type III social reasoning when it was challenged.

Evidence-based reasoning requires us to be scrupulously honest, ignore our personal interests, ignore authority, and drop premises. It’s hard to do: often all four types of social reasoning work together to defeat evidence-based reasoning.  

Before we have a look at the “main course,” there’s one more example of social reasoning Trumping evidence-based reasoning that we should look at. This is a matter of type III social reasoning taking hold of an entire scientific community. 

When I was twelve years old, I learned that our solar system formed about four billion years ago from a cloud of gas and dust. Based on these theories, I concluded that of course there must be planets around most stars in the galaxy.

I also learned that life arose almost immediately on Earth after it was formed (though mult-celled life took a very long time to evolve). I concluded that the galaxy was probably teeming with life although 99.9999% of it would be far removed from us developmentally simply because a billion years is a long time so running into anyone within 1000 years of us developmentally would be like finding a needle in a haystack.

I was surprised scientists didn’t speculate about this or at least state their expectation that most stars would also have planetary systems. But type III social reasoning means real scientists can’t talk about or be imagined talking about or allude to or speculate about anything that might have anything to do with “space aliens.” 

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

Of course, I was right about the exoplanets. And I may have been right about a galaxy teeming with life. 

An object tracked in 2017 came from outside the solar system. At first astonomers thought it was an asteroid. But then it went off course which is something comets do because gas evaporates from them and acts like an accelerating engine. Comets have visible tails from this gas and comets stop accelerating when they get far from the sun and comets change their rotation rate when the gas evaporates and comets are more or less round. 

This thing didn’t have any of the comet characteristics and it was still traveling far from the gravitational trajectory. What was making it accelerate? Astronomers had no idea what it was and they still don’t know. They called it “Oumuamua” which is Hawaiian for “messenger from afar.” It’s out of the solar system now and we’ll never know what it was unless we chase after it someday.

This is where type III social reasoning comes in. Obviously we know of something that isn’t and asteroid and isn’t a comet but that would deviate from a gravitational trajectory. But we’d better not say the words. It might sound funny. We might lose our status as scientists. Careful now. Oumuamua must be a natural object that is different from anything we’ve seen before. Maybe it’s a “hydrogen iceberg” or a tenuous cloud of gravitationally bound gas or some other exotic thing.

But . . . don’t say it! Except he did. Avi Loeb, the chairman of the astronomy department at Harvard did evidence-based reasoning. He said it might be some exotic thing but it might also be a derelict spacecraft. Uh oh. So much for your reputation. 

The ridicule was automatic. 

Someone should have taken the Oumuamua data to an astronomer who hadn’t heard about it yet and presented the data as a hypothetical: “What would you think if you saw this?”

The astronomer would have laughed and said, “You’re describing a spaceship. Don’t worry, we’ll never see anything like that.”  

Harvard professor Avi Loeb says the only thing we know of that would act like oumuamua is a spacecraft.

All of the previous cases are done deals in one way or another. The shuttle exploded, ulcers are curable, Willingham is dead, Knox is free, VSL is a going concern, and Oumuamua is long gone. Of course, there are cases that are still in process, one in particular that is a virtually perfect example of the power of social reasoning and its intellectual cost. In this example, no one’s life is at stake and yet there is still a LOT at stake in general if you think rationality matters. 

The breadth, power, and persistence of this final example make it, for me, a touchstone at the level of the space shuttle disaster. Even though no one will die from this particular nugget of irrationality, it is a reminder of echo chambers, closed minds, dogmatism, hubris, and the power of propaganda to prevent progress, stifle thought, crush creativity, and even kill. So let’s dig in. 

In the 1990’s, a doctoral student at UMass Amherst (Roger Stritmatter) told his professors he wanted to write his Ph.D. thesis on a forbidden topic: “Shakespeare,” according to this otherwise completely normal student, may have been a pseudonym used by an aristocratic playwright who didn’t want to put his name on the plays.  

They listened patiently. Stritmatter said the leading court playwright in Elizabethan times had left behind a bible — one of Shakespeare’s primary sources — with many underlined passages. It seemed obvious that this aristocrat was either a big fan of Shakespearean biblical allusions or was, in fact, Shakespeare. Wouldn’t it be interesting to study this bible and write up the results in a dissertation?

You would think the professors would say no to this crazy project. Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare. We know all about Shakespeare. The theories that the man named Shakespeare who was definitely in London at the right time wasn’t really Shakespeare are silly. If you ask about Shakespeare you might just as well join the Flat Earth Society.

But the professors said yes and this dangerous heretic 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. He even recently published a scholarly book examining the evidence for the date of composition of Shakespeare’s probable last play, The Tempest. If The Tempest was written within a few years of 1600 as Stritmatter and Canadian author Lynne Kositsky argue and if it really was Shakespeare’s last play, the date would seem to be too early for the businessman named Shakespeare to be wrapping up his career as he had just got to London. Thus, if the heretic’s analysis is correct, it is likely that Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare.

Oxford University Press is as mainstream as mainstream gets and they were actually willing to review the book of heresy. Not only that, the review had good things to say about the work, very good things. Stritmatter and Kositsky’s work is “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 and they all know the stakes. And yet they sanctioned a positive review of Stritmatter’s work. 

After UMass Amherst broke ranks but before the heretic’s Tempest blasphemy, professor James Shapiro wrote a book of his own (not a scholarly book — a popular one) to address what he saw as a disturbing lack of reason spreading through the public. He couldn’t understand how the UMass Amherst faculty could have handed out a Ph.D. He found it “vexing” that many “thoughtful and well-informed” people regarded “Shakespeare” as a possible pseudonym. 

Even one of his own colleagues at Columbia, Professor Kristin Linklater, questioned the usual premise. Samuel Clemens (aka Mark Twain), 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 many others (there’s a list at doubtaboutwill.org) have been duped by the conspiracy theorists. 

Fortunately, Shapiro tells us in Contested Will, the journals of his profession are “walled off” from any and all of his colleagues who would question the conventional wisdom. 

But that was before Oxford University Press weighed in.

I hold it to be self evident that If some number “X” of experts want to question a premise, there has to be a point where they will be allowed to do so using the core communication vehicles of their profession. Pick any reasonable number for “X” but once it is passed, journal editors must allow the debate to proceed. 

Shapiro’s wall is going to crumble eventually as well it should. 

A personal note: I’m the skeptical type and always assumed that the Shakespeare authorship question really was Flat Earth Society nonsense. Then I read an author I trusted (Michael Hart, a physicist like me) who had also believed that but who had changed his mind upon looking into it. I looked into it myself and now I find the blockade of people like Stritmatter and Linklater as hard to understand as the space shuttle launching when the engineers said “no fucking way.”

I hope you enjoy the rest of the essay and I hope it helps convince the Shapiros of the world to tear down the wall sooner rather than later.

Here’s hoping Shapiro’s wall doesn’t last as long as this one has.

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. Actually, mainstream Shakespeare-wrote-Shakespeare people have more to point to than did the ulcers-are-caused-by-stomach-acid people.

A half-dozen or so people named William Shakespeare were living in and around London as the 16th century came to a close. One of them was a successful businessman from nearby Stratford who traveled for a few days and showed up in London in the mid-1590’s. While in London, he became a shareholder in London’s leading acting company. So his name is William Shakespeare (it was spelled “Shakspere” in the Stratford records but spelling, even of names, was fluid in those days so this doesn’t stop him from being Shakespeare) and, crucially, he has more than just the name:he is heavily involved with the London theater as of the mid-1590’s. 

Over the next ten years and beyond, Shakespeare plays would line the shelves of London bookstores making all other authors put together look like so many fourth place finishers. The plays were loaded with insider quips and jibes and commentary that seemed to come straight from the Queen’s court. The popularity and dominance of Shakespeare has no modern parallel. If Meghan Markle and Prince Harry decided to leak photographs of the pair passionately kissing along with the occasional photo of one royal undressing the other and if magazine editors got their hands on the photos and published them, then we’d have something like the phenomenon of Elizabethan Shakespeare. Short of that, however, nothing like it is likely to ever happen again.

Needless to say, Elizabethan publishers were dying to get their hands on good, clean Shakespeare copy. However, they had to resort to bootlegging to get the works into print because, unlike every other Elizabethan playwright we know about, Shakespeare just wasn’t there when it came to publication of plays. No one disputes this: “he had no interest in when or even whether his plays were published” is how Shapiro puts it.

Normally, publishers were happy to work with authors since an accurate printed version was in their mutual interests. In the case of Shakespeare, publishers sometimes could get their hands on a decent script and turn it into a passable printed version but might also have to sit in theaters writing down lines to create what scholars call “performance texts.” Bootlegging happened occasionally to other playwrights but only the only plays that were 100% bootlegged were Shakespeare plays.

Jonson, the second-most-popular Elizabethan playwright, worked with publishers and even did some of his own publishing to make sure his work was preserved for the ages. Shakespeare didn’t care. However, the two epic poems by Shakespeare were published in 1593 and 1594 in what appear to be authorized editions complete with lavish dedications to the young Earl of Southampton to whom Shakespeare was simultaneously writing Sonnets in which the earl was told in no uncertain terms that he must marry and produce an heir.

This is frustrating for biographers of Shakespeare because while Jonson had known relationships with his patrons, the businessman from Stratford and shareholder in London’s leading acting company seems never to have met Southampton. And yet the Sonnets, circulated privately and written in the first person, were imposing themselves upon Southampton’s marriage negotiations: the young earl, a royal ward, had been ordered by Lord Burghley himself (the Queen’s right-hand man and the most powerful man in England) to marry Burghley’s grand-daughter.

One biographer (Levi) guesses that perhaps Southampton’s family, hoping the marriage would go through and created a powerful alliance, commissioned the Sonnets. It’s as good a theory as any but there’s no evidence either way. Another scholar (McCrea) guesses that Shakespeare got his inside information about the Queen’s court from plays, now lost, written by court insiders which Shakespeare used as sources for his work. 

The acting company shareholder died quietly in Stratford in 1616 leaving his lands, barns, stables, five houses, and a lot of cash to his two daughters. He left bequests and personal items to business contacts. A three-page will spends most of its time talking about the “issue” of his daughter’s bodies and who will get what money. The will doesn’t offer any further information. 

Seven years later, in 1623, a miracle was sponsored by two earls. The First Folio — a massive compilation of Shakespeare — was published. Twenty plays including masterpieces like Macbeth, Julius Caesar, Othello, Taming of the Shrew, The Comedy of Errors, Twelfth Night, All’s Well That Ends Well, The Tempest, and a dozen other plays unpublished in any form as of 1616 were preserved for the ages. In addition, sixteen previously bootlegged plays including Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, and Much Ado About Nothing were properly published for the first time.

The First Folio is Shakespeare as we know Shakespeare. 

Two letters in the First Folio preface bear the printed signatures of two of Shakespeare’s fellow acting company shareholders. The letters say London’s leading acting company had been holding the Shakespeare manuscripts for decades. The “stolen and surreptitious copies” of Shakespeare with which the public has previously been “abused” were now being replaced by the “true and original copies” that, the shareholders promised prospective readers, are “perfect of their limbs.”

The two shareholders — we assume they were acting on behalf of their fellow shareholders — say they are making a “present” of the complete set of plays to the two earls with no thought of “self profit or fame” but only to preserve the memory of their “friend and fellow,” William Shakespeare of Stratford.

And there you have it, the Stratford businessman identified as the author and the whole multi-decade bootlegging story explained. Apparently, the acting company owned the plays and did not want them published right away, but was unable to stop the bootlegging or “the frauds and stealths of injurious imposters” as the shareholders put it in the First Folio preface.

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

The mysteries here have led to lots of guesswork. 

Kristin Linklater, not publishing in a journal, said the plays — Love’s Labors Lost for example — are so loaded with inside baseball that a commoner would have had great difficulty writing them. Mainstreamer Scott McCrea at SUNY Purchase, also not publishing in a journal, says of this same play, “the Author seems to have an insider’s knowledge . . . one possible answer derives from a source play now lost . . .” McCrea doesn’t guess who wrote the lost source play but it would have to have been a court insider. 

So we’ve got a strange publication history, strong indications of a connection to the Queen’s court, hard evidence that the businessman from Stratford wrote the plays, and two groups of scholars who can’t talk to each other. 

Do certain scenes in plays like Love’s Labors Lost prove Shakespeare was a member of the nobility? Is the scenario laid out in the First Folio preface suspicious? According to the mainstream, a commoner could possibly have obtained inside information and could have had an unusual deal with an acting company and the First Folio preface is hard evidence that that is exactly what happened. 

According to the rebel forces carrying the banner of Amherst, a story that starts with a tickle of suspicion builds to a tidal wave of fraud and the First Folio preface ultimately takes its place as the greatest hoax in history. 

Let us continue with a somewhat more detailed history. 

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

The “Shake-speare” plays appear to have emerged in the late 1570’s as courtly diversions. They were absurdly erudite — according to Shapiro, whoever wrote them had read just about every book in the Queen’s library and then some. With plots reworked from old classics and an author with a facility with language never before seen, the plays kept getting better and better as their creator matured. The plays made a lot of courtiers squirm as they were lampooned with merciless accuracy. The plays even (gently) teased the Queen. The popularity of the plays, as you know, went beyond anything anyone had ever imagined. 

The Queen knew a good thing when she saw it. She had a thick skin, no problem with controversy, money to put where she needed it most, and the “street smarts” of one of the most successful monarchs in history. She, and the one person she regarded as indispensible, her right-hand man, William Cecil, Lord Burghley, were busy ruling England with astonishing efficiency. For them, the humor, the brutal honesty, the erudition, the beautiful language, and the sheer wisdom of the works were all well and good, but the patriotic uplift offered by the history plays was pure gold to a monarch facing multiple threats from abroad. 

The monarch is divine. The Tudor-Rose dynasty was the best thing that ever happened to England. Dying for your country is an honor. If you’re the Queen, these sentiments are priceless. She went all in. 

Sir Francis Walsingham, the top national security man in England, was directed to create the largest acting company ever seen. 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 to be part of the plan. 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, including Burghley.

The Queen’s gamble was called by one observer the “Policy of Plays” and it 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 necessarily invented the idea of state-sponsored media, but she certainly brought it to a new level).

Centuries later, with bombs falling on London from airplanes that the 16th century Queen Elizabeth could scarcely have imagined, less had changed than you might guess. Indeed, Shakespeare’s Henry V was still being played for Londoners under seige who hung on every word of the play’s stirring patriotic rhetoric. Half a century after that, a fictional Captain Picard, facing a Romulan threat, was still quoting Shakespeare. 

During the formative years for the greatest writer since Chaucer, the anonymous A History of Error (probably the 1570’s version of The Comedy of Errors), an apparent early anonymous version of Cymbeline (a classic wicked stepmother tale), a play that may have been Troilus and Cressida (anonymous with a related title), and another anonymous play with a title reminiscent of Two Gentlemen of Verona as well as Henry V, Richard III, King Lear, and King John, were played repeatedly before what one assumes were rapt audiences.

The early versions of Henry V, Richard III, King Lear, and King John were eventually published, like many other Shakespeare plays, as anonymous bootlegs although occasionally the name Shakespeare appeared on these plays. They aren’t nearly as good as later versions either bootlegged or published in the First Folio but one would not expect early Shakespeare and rewritten Shakespeare to be the same level of quality. 

Here’s an example: the line “A horse! A horse! A fresh horse!” is not so memorable. But the line “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!” was destined to become a classic. 

Differences in quality aside, these four early history plays have largely the same plots, many of the same lines, and almost exactly the same titles as the later versions. Both the early and later versions are full of Shakespeare’s trademark neologisms (made-up words).

Also in the 1580’s, much of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale appeared in the form of a novel called Pandosto written by the notorious hack writer Robert Greene, a well-known plagiarist.

Hamlet had also apparently been played by 1589: Thomas Nashe threw off a quip about walking down the street and being barraged by “whole Hamlets of tragical speeches.” Of course, no other Hamlet complete with “tragical speeches” is known from the period. 

Other Shakesepare plays published much later were apparently known to other writers in the 1580’s and early 1590’s. Much Ado About Nothing, As You Like It, Twelfth Night, Romeo and Juliet, Love’s Labors Lost, and Taming of the Shrew show up as a line here and a line there — early Shakespeare allusions before any official Shakespeare publications.

Finally, in 1594, a Shakespeare play appeared in print: it was Titus Andronicus as an anonymous bootleg which advertised that the play had been put on by one of London’s lesser acting companies.

All of the above is a problem that has to be reconciled with the First Folio preface.

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

It’s a big problem. In 1580, the Stratford Shakespeare was a teenager who had never been to London. He didn’t get there until well into the 1590’s as far as anyone can tell. Having him writing courtly comedies and histories in the 1580’s doesn’t sit well with most biographers.

The solution to the problem is simple enough: mainstream researchers explain that what looks like 1580’s Shakespeare isn’t.

The Hamlet that Nashe referred to must be a pre-Hamlet or ur-Hamlet as it is sometimes called. This Hamlet was not Shakespeare’s Hamlet but was a Hamlet written by an unknown author who also wrote tragical speeches and whose title Shakespeare appropriated.

The direction of the allusions to Romeo and Juliet and the other Shakespeare plays must be reversed: all of the apparent allusions TO Shakespeare by other authors in the 1580’s and early 1590’s were actually allusions BY Shakespeare who had read the works of these other authors.

Needless to say, the 1570’s is right out. That is, there’s no way the A History of Error could have become The Comedy of Errors — Shakespeare must have written a different play with a similar title. 

The five early Shakespeare plays for which we have text — Henry V, King Lear, Richard III, and King John and Pandosto (The Winter’s Tale) — pose a tougher challenge.

The Henry V, King Lear, Richard III, and King John performed in the 1580’s and early 1590’s must not have been Shakespeare’s Henry V, King Lear, Richard III, and King John no matter how similar they seem to the later Shakespeare works.

These four history plays were someone else’s Henry V, King Leir (with that spelling), Richard III, and King John that Shakespeare used as “sources” for his later, superior work with titles changed only just barely and plots and lines rewritten and improved but hardly changed. 

So, to stay true to the First Folio preface, many biographers assume Shakespeare didn’t write “A horse! A horse! A fresh horse!” Someone else did and Shakespeare later improved it. And Shakespeare took The Winter’s Tale from Robert Greene’s Pandosto “using it sometimes almost verbatim.”

Shakespeare hacked the hack. 

This is all according to authoritative mainstream sources such as The Arden Shakespeare. The great mainstream biographer Schoenbaum said it was “preposterous” to ascribe the early versions of the history plays to Shakespeare; any such theories “need scarcely be considered.” Thus, there is a pretty solid consensus and this consensus has come about because the businessman was, as far as we know, not in London at the right time and not the right age to be 1580’s Shakespeare. 

Mainstream scholars do occasionally buck the trend and suggest early dates for some of the plays but their illustrious colleagues, such as Honigmann, respond that these early dates “must be resisted at all costs.” It’s not impossible to assume the businessman from Stratford was 1580’s Shakespeare but it is rather uncomfortable so most scholars assume 1580’s Shakespeare was anonymous authors later used as sources by the great writer.

Re-imagining plots created by classical or foreign authors was clearly something Shakespeare did all the time and was NOT regarded as plagiarism by the Elizabethans. However, if Shakespeare used contemporary plays by London authors line for line and plot element for plot element and if these plays were his “sources,” this would have constituted plagiarism by Elizabethan standards and by our standards.

Mainstream biographers don’t use the p-word to describe Shakespeare but Park Honan called him “an accomplished parasite” which gets the point across perfectly well albeit with a different p-word.

Some people have a problem with the mainstream’s apparent need to re-attribute 1580’s Shakespeare to other authors. Ramon Jiménez argues in his book, Shakespeare’s Apprenticeship, that the great author plagiarizing lesser writers is not just unlikely on its face — at least for the four history plays, Jiménez argues, it is clearly not the case.

Jiménez argues that Shakespeare himself was 1580’s Shakespeare. His work is thorough and his arguments detailed. Jiménez studied all previous work done on this question for his book which obviously cannot even be adequately summarized here though I can provide a taste of his reasoning.

Shakespeare is the undisputed master of neologisms and coined more than 2000 words. Neologisms are like a Shakespeare fingerprint. This “fingerprint” and others are evident in the four early versions of the history plays clearly identifying them as Shakespeare’s own early work that he later revised, rewrote, and improved immeasurably. It is not as Schoenbaum said, “preposterous” to imagine a writer improving on his own early work and is in fact, according to Jiménez, fairly obvious. 

Shapiro’s wall prevents these issues from getting the attention they deserve but we’ve got more than a tickle of suspicion now. We have 1580’s Shakespeare and it really is a problem as in, “Houston, we have a problem.” 

Mabye the mainstream has wriggled out of its dilemma by assuming 1580’s Shakespeare were sources for the 1590’s playwright. But things get worse for those who are so sure 1580’s Shakespeare is “preposterous.” 

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

Mainstream scholars have done a marvelous job uncovering information about the Stratford businessman’s life; they found dozens of documents.   

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. His will mentions his cash and his land and his houses and includes a list of business associates (detailed below) who were to receive modest bequests at his death. 

Speaking of associates, the writer Shakespeare undoubtedly knew most of London’s writers. Two in particular stand out.

A John Lyly biographer (Bond) called Lyly Shakespeare’s chief exemplar and regarded Lyly and Shakespeare as co-creators of Elizabethan theater. Their styles are so similar and there was so much cross-fertilization that it is impossible to know who influenced who: probably the influence flowed in both directions.

Anthony Munday wrote a manuscript which has survived and which has a fully Shakespearean scene in it that appears to have been written or dictated by Shakespeare. The final manuscript is in Munday’s handwriting and is priceless just because all agree that it is the only handwritten Shakespeare from the period coming directly from the great author.

So the list of people Shakespeare remembers in his will is crucial. Daughter Judith, daughter Susanna, neice Elizabeth, sister Joan, nephews William and Michael, the poor of Stratford, business associates Combe, Russell, Nashe (not the writer), Heminges (shareholder), Condell (shareholder), Burbage (shareholder), Robinson, and Collins, 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.”

Here’s a problem. Lyly and Munday are not mentioned. In fact, no writer is mentioned. Also, needless to say, no manuscripts, books, inkwells, art, music, maps, or anything intellectual is mentioned in the longish three-page will. Shakespeare’s two illiterate daughters and the future “issue of their bodies” got his cash and real estate and that was that.

Shakespeare died quitely in Stratford in 1616. There were no eulogies that year or the following year. If you like, you can count the First Folio, published seven years later, as a eulogy. 

When Ben Jonson died, he left behind an extensive library. At least one contemporary commented on his library saying it was “well-furnisht” and scholars can now argue about whether Jonson owned 500 books or 1000 books. Two hundred plus books from Jonson’s library exist today. A fire destroyed much of Jonson’s work while he was alive but manuscripts in his handwriting survive as well as letters to and from his friends all of whom knew him as a writer. Jonson had a distinctive signature which is often found in his books or in books he gave as gifts. When Jonson went before a judge, it was usually over his writing. He did time in jail because of his writing. The year he died, Jonson was eulogized by his fellow writers. 

One page from Jonson manuscript with his signature.

Poem handwritten by Jonson celebrating an earl’s wedding.

The most boring bit of information about Ben Jonson found in any random place in a Jonson biography would be front-page news if found for Shakespeare.

Diana Price, aka the Elaine Morgan of the authorship question, wrote Shakespeare’s Unorthodox Biography. Price argues that what is known about the businessman’s life disqualifies him from consideration as the author of the great works. Jonson, as the second-most-famous Elizabethan author and the only one besides Shakespeare of Stratford for which scholars have unearthed dozens of documents, is just one comparator she points to. Price notes that ALL other Elizabethan authors, even the ones with just a handful of documents unearthed, were identified as writers in their lifetimes.

If you like, you can start with the assumption that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare. If so, then even though there are no letters or manuscripts or books, the title pages of the printed works that say either “Shakespeare” or “Shake-speare” on them can be used evidence that the Stratford businessman was a writer and so Price’s argument is thereby countered.

In fact, Shapiro says exactly this: to him, the title pages constitute “overwhelming evidence.” Also, for Shapiro, the First Folio can be thought of as “notice at death as a writer” that is, as a eulogy. 

Shapiro seems to find Diana Price and those he calls “her followers” (I guess I’m one) rather exasperating and I feel for him: despite his position as an ivy league professor, neither Price nor I have find his arguments very convincing. 

Shapiro, after countering Price with circular reasoning and stretching the idea of a eulogy way past the breaking point, says on page 244 of his paperback edition, “Readers are invited to make up their own minds.” 

And readers will, if Shapiro has anything to say about it, decide that Price’s demand that Shakespeare have the biography of a writer is all nonsense. Shapiro doesn’t mention 1580’s Shakespeare but would undoubtedly regard Jiménez’s demand that Shakespeare be present in the 1580’s to write his own works as more nonsense.

Even if you read Shapiro’s book and let him have the last word, I don’t think you will agree with him any more than someone sitting the cockpit of the space shuttle would agree with the Morton Thiokol managers. You know too much now to be fooled. 

Price asks why the mainstream is ignoring its own discovery.

Shapiro writes a 21st century celebration of circular reasoning.

You are sitting in the cockpit of a very special space shuttle: if the businessman wrote Shakespeare you take off safely; if not, you die. You can hear Stritmatter addressing the faculty at UMass Amherst.

Here is what he said (conjectural paraphrase):

“There’s no way a commoner who didn’t get to London until the 1590’s and who didn’t own books or write letters or leave behind manuscripts or even know any writers personally wrote a series of plays in the 1580’s that were basically exposés of the Queen’s court and no I don’t think Hamlet wasn’t Hamlet and I don’t care if there’s no direct evidence that the First Folio preface was falsified because, for God’s sake, the First Folio is claiming something that is basically impossible so I don’t have to prove it is nonsense any more than I have to prove the sun can’t fit into a breadbox. Oh, and by the way, I know who wrote the plays and it’s bloody obvious.” 

Shapiro is dismayed by his colleagues in Massachusetts:

“When independent scholars [he names three people] looked at the evidence, they pointed out a good deal that Stritmatter’s dissertation committee had apparently failed to notice.” 

Shapiro then uses the fact that the bible isn’t a perfect piece of irrefutable evidence to argue that it should be ignored because three “independent scholars” questioned it and presumably the UMass Amherst faculty who worked with Stritmatter for years are the types of people with a couple of centuries of combined experience amongst them that “fail to notice” obvious things such as the fact that the bible isn’t a smoking gun. 

Shapiro also brags about the blockade that keeps dozens of professionals like Stritmatter from publishing in mainstream journals: 

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

Do you launch or abort? 

One of the scholarly journals Shapiro mentions which only accepts scholarship that doesn’t question the premise.

We have aborted the launch and are now reduced to wondering if the Stratford businessman was even literate.

The great mainstream biographer 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.

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 is his job as a mainstream biographer. Schoenbaum makes two 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 stage left. 

Professor McCrea studied the signatures also and has graced us with a lengthy discussion. He works his way up to calling the signatures “troubling” but then bows to the First Folio and offers the following suggestion: (3) the changing signatures could be the result of Shakespeare’s “teeming imagination.” 

I am happy to have the three suggestions of Schoenbaum and McCrea. At least they are discussing the issue.

I like data so I looked at the signatures of every Elizabethan writer I could find. Chapman, Daniel, Dekker, Drayton, Drummond, Fletcher, Greene, Harvey, Heywood, Jonson, Kyd, Lyly, Munday, Marlowe, Massinger, Middleton, Nashe, Peele, Spenser, Watson, and Webster all had signatures. Each of these authors was demonstrably able to write his name.

Here, for your perusal, are Shakespeare’s five signatures followed by nine signatures from seven literate Elizabethans. I’ve got writers Ben Jonson, Christopher Marlowe, Francis Bacon, Edward de Vere, and Edmund Spenser. I also included two signatures each from Joseph Jackson and William Johnson who were business associates of Shakespeare’s and who signed the same two real estate documents as Shakespeare on the same day. 

Joseph Jackson and William Johnson of course provided ordinary, matching signatures for the real estate deal. 

Court document. Shakespeare had to testify in someone else’s domestic dispute.

Real estate deal in London involving three people (Shakespeare, Joseph Jackson, and William Johnson).

A second document from the same London real estate deal.

Second page of Shakespeare’s will.

Last page of Shakespeare’s will.

Ben Jonson.

Christopher Marlowe. Elizabethans didn’t care about spelling even of names.

Francis Bacon.

Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford.

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

William Johnson signed his own name twice on the real estate deal involving Shakespeare. The signatures of course match.

Joseph Jackson also signed his own name twice on the London real estate deal. Again, the signatures of course match.

No one has ever put forward an example of a literate Elizabethan whose signatures make them appear illiterate.

Mark Twain, at least two Nobel laureates, a number of U.S. Supreme Court Justices, theater and literature professors at colleges on multiple continents, and the living descendant of Lord Burghley all doubt the mainstream’s claim that a man who appears to have been demonstrably illiterate was actually the greatest writer in England because a document published seven years after his death says so.  

The fact that the businessman owned shares in the acting company is, I think, crucial to understanding what happened to the mainstream’s thought process. Here’s a longish quote from Shapiro about how we “know” the businessman with two illiterate daughters was Shakespeare [my comments are in brackets] because he was an acting company shareholder who had the right name:

“Shakespeare . . . wore the livery of the Lord Chamberlain [as a shareholder of the acting company], served King James both as a King’s Man and as a Groom of the Chamber [as a shareholder of the acting company], and directly addressed a patron, the Earl of Southampton, in the letters prefacing both Venus and Adonis and Lucrece [assuming the First Folio preface is correct].”

It’s not impossible for the shareholder to have also been a writer: Moliére was involved in the business of theater while also being a writer. But being a shareholder does not make you a writer.

If a letter from Southampton had been found amongst the businessman’s possessions, that would be evidence that he knew Southampton. For now, we don’t have any such evidence. All we know is that whoever wrote the epic poems probably knew the young earl. 

Diana Price notes that Elizabethan writers exchanged letters and gifts and were seen with their patrons. She suggests that the businessman and the earl didn’t know each other. To counter her argument, Shapiro says we know the businessman was Shakespeare and Shakespeare dedicated work to Southampton and therefore the businessman knew Southampton.

That’s the best the wall builder can do: circular reasoning. 

We can now draw two conclusions that are likely to be correct: (1) the Stratford businessman and acting company shareholder was at best semi-literate and (2) erudite courtly comedies, tragedies, and histories appearing in the the late 1570’s, bearing fruit in the 1580’s, and extensively bootlegged in the 1590’s, were sometimes graced with the pseudonym “William Shakespeare” after 1598. 

As corollaries we have (i) the First Folio preface was falsified to hide the author’s identity and (ii) the actual author was Edward de Vere, England’s leading court playwright in the pay of the Queen.  

The story of Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, as Shakespeare is coherent and sensible unlike biographies of the businessman as Shakespeare which require us to ignore the signatures and the rest of his biography, conjure lost source plays to explain insider knowledge, and assume plagiarism.

If de Vere wrote the plays we have to assume he didn’t want credit for them and we must also assume his family didn’t want him getting credit even though he was dead. That doesn’t seem like such a stretch. 

For me, the fact that de Vere was the top court playwright being paid handsomely by the Queen and the fact that he never published a play under his own name coupled with the fact that all plays that were published were bootlegged pretty well wraps it up: “Shakespeare” seems to have been a pseudonym for the court playwright.

I might think differently if the businessman had been able to write his name but he couldn’t and so I don’t.  

When one takes a good look at de Vere’s life, everything falls into place and no big assumptions are needed. 

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. Edward de Vere as a teenager 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, he became the highest paid person in Elizabeth’s government.

Here’s what (may have) transpired between Edward de Vere, Earl of 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 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! I need money. You know I need money. And you torment me. Please tell me how much it will be and in truth this time, I beg you. Dare I hope for a hundred pounds a year? 

WALSINGHAM: It’s a thousand. You don’t believe me?

OXFORD (smiling): I am that I am and though I live on a stage of fools I am yet no fool. 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 should I take it back?

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 feel I am in the presence of greatness and I am sure her majesty will not regret her choice. 

The Queen indeed had no regrets and Oxford received the unprecedented stipend throughout his life; it continued even after King James ascended the throne. 

Scholars afflicted with First Folio-itis must face Oxford’s four-figure stipend. They could say he was obviously being paid to write plays while noting that that doesn’t necessarily make him Shakespeare.

But they don’t say that. Shapiro doesn’t mention it at all. McCrea’s explanation is incoherent.

I read every mainstream scholar I can find hunting for and often finding reasonable theories to support the First Folio. But I have found no commentary from the mainstream regarding the Queen’s payments to her leading court playwright that are worth repeating and so I was forced to create my own reasonable theory above: just because he was paid a thousand pounds a year to write plays doesn’t make him Shakespeare.

I think the problem for the mainstream and the reason I can’t find a coherent theory is that actually the thousand pounds a year pretty much does make him Shakespeare. The First Folio preface is strong evidence but it isn’t strong enough to rewrite history. The leading court playwright was paid a gigantic sum. That’s just the way it is. 

Of course, we would like to see if there is any other connection between Oxford and the Shakespeare plays. That is, if we didn’t already think he was Shakespeare because he was the Queen’s playwright and because the businessman couldn’t write his name, is there anything about his life or the people he was involved with that would lead us to believe he was Shakesspeare independent of the other evidence?

Let’s have a look at Edward de Vere. 

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. It’s an interesting coincidence but Shakespeare may or may not have had Bryd in mind when he came up with the line. However, the nobleman who signed over the property to Bryd 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? What about Lyly and Munday, the two Shakespeare collaborators conspicuously absent (along with all other writers) from the businessman’s will?  

Edward de Vere hired two literary secretaries in the 1580’s. Guess who?

Wow, you must be some kind of genius. You’re right. He hired John Lyly and Anthony Munday. This is a stunning connection in my opinion even though de Vere hired plenty of people so it too could be a coincidence. Still, this one seems better than a goodly manor sold for a song and better than two households both alike in dignity actually going to battle though I have to say (maybe I’m biased) I really like the William Byrd thing.  

At this point, we are not surprised to learn that the “incomparable pair of brethren,” the Earl of Montgomery and his brother the Earl of Pembroke, the two men who made the First Folio happen, were members of Edward de Vere’s family. The Earl of Montgomery was de Vere’s son-in-law married to his youngest daughter Lady Susan Vere, now Countess of Montgomery. 

So that’s that. Either de Vere wrote the plays or historical facts have conspired to make it seem like he did.

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 mainstream scholars, the obvious subject of the Sonnets.

Two epic poems beautifully published in the early 1590’s were the only publisher-author collaborations in the canon. The epic poems were lovingly dedicated to Southampton and contain the first occurrence of “William Shakespeare” printed beneath the dedications. (Shapiro thinks this proves the businessman was the author.)

The Sonnets, meanwhile, were circulating privately.

The Sonnets are first-person poetry offering guidance, admonishment, love, and unconditional support to Southampton who was referred to by the author as “O thou my lovely boy” and is today often called the “fair youth” of the Sonnets. The first seventeen Sonnets are known as the “marriage sonnets” because they are eloquent exhortations to Southampton to marry and produce an heir. 

It has long been a mystery what on earth a commoner businessman could have had to do with an earl’s marriage decision. 

Shakespeare’s “lovely boy” of the Sonnets and an earl of extreme controversy.

In the early 1590’s, Lord Burghley proposed a hugely consequential marriage alliance: he ordered Southampton to marry his grand-daughter.

Southampton wasn’t sure he wanted to throw in with the Burghley clan. He ultimately decided not to and, ten years later, made an attempt with the Earl of Essex to control the royal succession. Burghley’s son, who had inherited his father’s position, made short work of the conspiracy: Essex was executed and Southampton was sentenced to death.

Elizabethan politics makes ours look tame, obviously.

So Southampton’s marriage decision was a big deal at the time and a bigger deal later. And it’s all in the Sonnets including Southampton’s miraculous escape from the axe and his release from the Tower when the Queen died. The new King, James, gave Southampton back his earldom and even made him a Knight of the Garter, a singular honor to this day. 

We don’t know why James didn’t just leave Southampton in the Tower for the rest of his life and we don’t know why he didn’t lose his head along with his friend Essex.

We don’t know the precise nature of Southampton’s relationship with de Vere but the two were quite clearly connected. Both were orphaned earls brought up in the Burghley household as royal wards a generation apart. Burghley’s grand-daughter, the young woman Southampton was supposed to marry, was Edward de Vere’s eldest daughter, Elizabeth.

So Southampton joins Lyly and Munday completing for de Vere what many regard as a crucial triumvirate of Shakespeare connections and we don’t have to assume de Vere was Shakespeare in order to prove he knew Lyly, Munday, and Southampton — the connections are independent of the works themselves. (I don’t mean to insult my readers’ intelligence; I’m only pointing this out for Shapiro’s benefit.)

Whoever wrote the Sonnets thought the world of Southampton: “thy worth is wide as the ocean is” is just one of a long list of powerful expressions of support of, closeness to, and even identification with the Earl of Southampton that appear all through the Sonnets.  

The ebullient Sonnet 107 which experts agree is about the death of the Queen (the mortal moon), the peaceful transfer of power to King James, Southampton’s freedom, and Shakespere’s own triumph over death by virtue of his brilliant verse is worth quoting in its entirety:  

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.

One mainstream biographer (Levi) assumes Southampton’s family must have commissioned the businessman to write the Sonnets because the businessman could not have been writing in his own voice which is that of an older peer of Southampton. This is possible and saves the First Folio preface, but, at this point, is perhaps a bit of a reach. 

Most mainstream scholars are afraid to admit the Sonnets couldn’t be in the businessman’s voice. Shapiro, after using circular reasoning to declare that the shareholder “directly addressed” a patron, now switches to plain old nonsense: Shapiro says the Sonnets are “fictional creations.” 

Shapiro is careful to cover himself with the word “primarily” in front of his “fictional creations” claim but that changes nothing. What he is saying might save the First Folio preface, but it is at odds with reality.

Shapiro, in his book, cleverly turns a liability into an asset by focusing on people who over-interpret the Sonnets and read “triangular love plots” into them allowing Shapiro to deliver his zinger on page 53: “Who could resist such voyeuristic pleasures?” 

It’s good writing in the marketing sense (who doesn’t like a good zinger?) but meaningless as analysis. Shapiro has taken off his engineering hat and put on his management hat. Shakespeare, as usual, said it best: “the professor doth protest too much, methinks.” It’s not that there’s wrong with Shapiro’s opinion. He thinks the businessman was Shakespeare because he regards a successful First Folio hoax as unlikely and that’s perfectly fine agument.

For all I know, Shapiro is right. But I do object to circular reasoning and I object to nonsense and I object to walls. The real problem is the journal editors: if they were impartial, it wouldn’t matter if a Columbia professor overstated his case.

Professor Shapiro’s opinion is valid, but the majority has too much power.

With apologies to Professor “fictional creations” Shapiro, I am going to continue to assume the Sonnets are what they appear to be — first-person missives written by Shakespeare to Southampton and circulated privately for many years that speak directly to the young earl. 

If the Sonnets really are what they appear to be, the provide a lot of information. 

The author of the Sonnets is immodest. He often reminds the reader than he is the world’s greatest writer. His words will outlast “tombs of brass” and so forth. His subject (Southampton) will be remembered forever because he, the author, is so amazing. But, as amazing as the author is and even though the name “Shakespeare” is famous and even though the Sonnets are immortal, the author’s name will be lost to history. 

Here is Sonnet 81: 

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.

The Sonnets and the poems dedicated to Southampton were left out of the First Folio. Had they been included, they would have contradicted the First Folio preface. The Sonnets are telling us in no uncertain terms that the author was a nobleman close to Southampton writing under a pseudonym.

The Sonnets were published by Thomas Thorpe in 1609; the dedication signed T.T. seems to be saying that the author was dead. The Sonnets, as you know, promise Southampton immortality and T.T. wishes the “begetter of these insuing sonnets” — Southampton — “that eternitie promised by our ever-living poet.” T.T. alludes to a line in Shakespeare’s 1 Henry VI in which Henry V lies dead and is eulogized as “that ever-living man of memory.”

Even without knowing the Shakespearean reference, we can guess that “our ever-living poet” is a dead poet. 

Mr. W. H. could be a light disguise for Lord Henry Wriothesly, Earl of Southampton.

To begin wrapping up it’s interesting to see just a little of what Shakespeare’s contemporaries had to say. Basically, they knew he was no writer and said so pretty directly though not directly enough for the mainstream to let go of a broken theory.

In a cryptic epigram, John Davies calls Shakespeare a “Terence” referring to a man who had been enslaved by the Romans and who was known both as a writer and as someone who acted as a front-man for the Roman aristocrats Scipio and Laelius. Today, we know Terence only as a writer but Cicero and Montaigne as well as Elizabethans Ascham and Florio knew Terence as a front-man.

The two epigrams following the “our English Terence” epigram are addressed to “No-body”and “Some-body” and are even more cryptic than the epigram they follow. These epigrams stand out amongst hundreds of straightforward missives expressing Davies’s admiration for the dozens of un-hyphenated address-ees.

McCrea puts epigram 159 in his book, but of course doesn’t mention Cicero, Montaigne, Ascham, Florio, Scipio, or Laelius, and of course says nothing about Terence’s reputation as a front-man, and of course does not mention or reprint the two epigrams that follow epigram 159. McCrea says epigram 159 proves Shakespeare the shareholder was also Shakespeare the writer because Terence was a writer. Shapiro doesn’t say anything about these epigrams. 

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 Shakespeare’s fellow acting company shareholders, a man named Kempe, talking about their business associate Shakesepeare and also talking about writing and Ovid and one of Ovid’s plays called Metamorphosis. Ovid was probably the single biggest influence on Shakespeare’s works so he was known then and now as an Ovidian poet. 

In the skit, the Kempe character is portrayed as a bumbling fool who doesn’t think much of a university education. The Kempe character says university trained writers don’t sound too good to him because they are too much like “that writer Ovid” and “that writer Metamorphosis.” Then Kempe says his friend Shakespeare is better than “that writer Ovid” and “that writer Metamorphosis.” 

Here’s what “Kempe” says:

Few of the university men plays well, they smell too much of that writer Ovid and that writer Metamorphosis . . . Why here’s our fellow Shakespeare puts them all down . . . 

It takes a lot of work to read this as an endorsement of Kempe’s real-life business associate, Shakespeare of Stratford. In the play, Kempe not only doesn’t know what an Ovidian poet is, he doesn’t even know what a writer is. And he’s bragging about what a great writer his friend Shakespeare is.

Who regards the businessman as a writer? The skit’s answer is succinct: Fools.  

It sounds to me like Davies and the students knew there was a businessman who happened to be named Shakespeare who was associated with the acting company. And it sounds like they regarded the businessman as, respectively, a front-man and a joke. But I am, at this point, pretty biased because the First Folio evidence seems so heavily outweighed by 1580’s Shakespeare, the signatures of the businessman, and the money paid to de Vere. 

Still, there’s no proof de Vere wrote the plays so you are free to regard Shakspere (the name on his birth record) as the legal author pending hard evidence. But “legal” isn’t the same as “actual.” And there was once a manuscript copy of a play written in Edward de Vere’s hand. The description of the play in a diary entry makes it sound an awful lot like Twelfth Night. If that manuscript is ever found and if it really is Twelfth Night, it would be a smoking gun. 

For the time being, I follow the famous Shakespearean actor Sir Derek Jacobi who notes that Shakespeare’s works are richer, clearer, more powerful, and more enjoyable when you read them while keeping the life of Edward de Vere in the back of your mind.

Once you have decided de Vere wrote the plays, Mark Anderson’s biography, which looks at the plays under the assumption that de Vere wrote them, is illuminating as no other Shakespeare book could hope to be. Much of the insider commentary contained in the plays can only be explained by de Vere’s authorship and some things become clearer once one takes it as given that de Vere is the author. Thus, Anderson’s book is partly a proof of de Vere’s authorship and partly an application of that knowledge. 

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.

Circa 1580, a series of amazingly erudite plays containing accurate quips, jibes, and pokes referencing the Queen, her courtiers, and the goings-on at court come out and are wildly popular. The Queen loves the anonymous plays and supports them lavishly including the first-ever four-figure stipend handed to the leading court playwright, Edward de Vere. This writer who never put his name on a play has hired as literary secretaries John Lyly and Anthony Munday. In 1593 and 1594, two epic poems appear in beautiful form complete with dedications to the Earl of Southampton from “William Shakespeare.”

In 1594, an anonymous bootleg of a play appears. By 1598, more anonymous bootlegs have appeared and now plays are sometimes published anonymously and sometimes with the “Shakespeare” byline. In all, sixteen of the thirty-six First Folio plays are published in editions of wildly varying quality, all clearly without participation of the author.

The Sonnets are written during the 1590’s and early 1600’s. They are private, first-person missives expressing the author’s love of and support for the Earl of Southampton. The Sonnets begin with a passionate argument for the young earl’s marriage — Southampton was supposed to marry Elizabeth Vere. Later, the Sonnets chronicle Southampton’s miraculous release from the Tower after his disastrous attempt to control the royal succession.

In 1623, Edward de Vere’s son-in-law publishes thirty-six plays in the First Folio including plays that had not even been bootlegged as of 1616. The First Folio gives authorship credit to an illiterate businessman named Shakespeare who owned shares in London’s leading acting company and who died in 1616. The preface says the acting company has been holding the play manuscripts for decades. Two letters supposedly written by two of the businessman’s associates (but that bear stylistic similarities to the writing of Ben Jonson according to some mainstream scholars) say the play manuscripts are a “present” for the earls to preserve the memory of Shakespeare of Stratford. The acting company shareholders apparently aren’t interested in profiting from the publication of thte plays.   

Four hundred years later, after having gradually uncovered all of the above information, mainstream scholars cannot get away from their initial belief that the First Folio preface was accurate. They turn Shakespeare into a plagiarist in order to explain 1580’s Shakespeare (anything is possible), say bizarre things about the gigantic sum paid to de Vere in order to keep him out of the picture (denial), and regard Shakespeare’s only private, first-person writing as “fictional creations” (more denial). Magical “source” plays are conjured (anything is possible) out of the aether to account for the author’s knowledge of the Queen’s court. 

The unmistakable identification of the acting company shareholder Shake-speare as “our English Terence,” cryptic references to “Some-body” and “No-body” and comments about “that writer Metamorphosis” are not regarded by the mainstream as evidence contradicting the First Folio preface (denial).

Not even the demonstrable illiteracy of the well-known businessman identified by the First Folio preface creates any doubt whatsoever in mainstream circles (denial).

Normally, I don’t like to repeat a “theory” when it is just babbling drivel spouted from that all-important tool of the propagandist: the firehose of falsehood. Professional propagandists like Rush Limbaugh know that they can make up a hundred nonsensical stories in the time it takes to debunk one of them and so they always lace their diatribes with nonsense.

Normally, you would expect professors to be above propaganda, and I don’t like to rub their noses in it when they stoop to it, but I will mention here a few of the comments about the money the Queen handed to the leading court playwright. It’s an enormous amount of money obviously for de Vere’s writing which was the only thing he was good at. This does not prove she was paying Shakespeare: for all we know Edward de Vere was being paid to edit the businessman’s work or write other plays or some other thing we haven’t guessed. 

But professors seem intent on explaining the payments to de Vere as “not for writing.”

McCrea’s book is actually quite wonderful because he usually faces issues (like the signatures) squarely and proposes plausible scenarios to keep the First Folio true. However, when it comes to the thousand-pounds-a-year, McCrea descends into nonsense:

“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.”

This is pretty well disguised and may sound perfectly reasonable, but it is actually drivel unworthy of McCrea or any other scholar. Elizabeth would NEVER lavish a huge stipend on an earl as a reward for being irresponsible. She wouldn’t have lasted five minutes as Queen with that attitude. If you displeased Queen Elizabeth I, you would end up in the Tower if you were lucky and without your head if you were unlucky and that was true regardless of your rank. 

Professor Alan Nelson of Berkeley (!) offered up the following whopper in a compilation of essays written by mainstream scholars wallowing in certainty. The collection is called Shakespeare Beyond Doubt. Here’s Nelson plying his wares:

“Then, beginning in 1586, in exchange for his good behavior [italics added], Oxford accepted an annuity of 1000 pounds carefully disbursed in quarterly increments.” 

McCrea and Nelson both claim to believe that Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford was paid a huge unprecedented sum because he was an irresponsible rascal who bankrupted his earldom. But they both know government bailouts for rich people are a modern invention. They both know no one with any instinct for self-preservation would have suggested such a thing to Queen Elizabeth even as a joke. 

Sometimes knowledge means nothing. Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz knew all about the Amanda Knox case and is a world class expert in the evaluation of evidence including forensic evidence. He said Knox was probably guilty. He’s a Harvard professor and he was engaging in mindless posturing. This level of drivel from a professor was particularly egregious because lives were at stake.

Harvard should pretend they never heard of the guy.

I’m sorry to be impolitic. But the philosopher Paul Valérey said, “Politeness is organized indifference,” and I find myself in agreement here, sometimes unable to stay polite even though ad hominem attacks are usually unproductive and should be avoided to the extent possible. 

But sometimes there’s no choice.

Those special people at institutions large and small, renowned and humble, scholars and thinkers, professors charged with holding the chalice of research, rational thought, deep study, and intelligent debate, the keepers of understanding itself, the sources of all progress and knowledge, for them and of them I have the highest respect and the highest expectations. So words cannot express the horror I feel when literature professors Shapiro, McCrea, and Nelson dash what to me is a sacred chalice upon the hard stone of a wall built to block their own colleagues from expressing their opinions.

I don’t mind the books they write pushing certainty when there is none to be had — that’s expected. But they can write their books without turning into mini-Dershowitz’s.

Professor Alan Dershowitz of Harvard, during a TV interview, opined that Amanda Knox might have received the “death penalty” if the tragedy in Italy had happened here. Knox was displayed for VIP’s for four years like a piece of artwork while she rotted in an Italian jail. One of the inventors of modern forensic genetics, Peter Gill, wrote a book in which the Knox case was a prime example of the misuse of the technology he and his colleagues developed. Professor Dershowitz is without parallel in the world of professors sinking to the level of slime.

I don’t think Shapiro, McCrea, and Nelson are in Dershowitz’s league, but even being in the same ballpark as the D-word would be a disaster. They just need to do a little editing of their work to stay on the straight and narrow and they also need to recommend that journals allow colleagues who disagree with them to publish so that a proper discussion can be had. 

The contributors are all brilliant and knowledgeable, but I had to hunt as for needles in haystacks in my effort to find coherent arguments.

The other place where mainstream scholars descend to scary-low levels is when they talk about Italy.

Again, there is nothing wrong with pointing out that Shakespeare had the right name, was involved with the theater, and was identified as the author by a reliable source that was not contradicted in any direct way by any known contemporary. It is also fine to say it is possible all of his books, manuscripts, and letters were simply lost and it is fine to remind us that just because his daughters were illiterate doesn’t mean he was. And, yes, it could be the case that he had clerks sign for him because he was very busy or he hurt his hand or any one of a hundred perfectly plausible scenarios.

I don’t buy it, but if you want to create a million different plausible scenarios each of which saves the First Folio preface for posterity with no thought of self-profit or fame, that’s all well and good with me. Feel free to create scenarios until the universe ends. 

Just don’t tell me Shakespeare never saw Italy. Whenever any of you try the Italy thing, the conversation goes straight into Dershowitzland. Whoever wrote the plays went to Italy and your guy might have been to Italy at some point for all we know so you can still save the precious preface. I realize assuming a businessman who probably never left England was in Italy isn’t a pretty picture for you, but it’s better than the firehose of falsehood spewed all over perfectly clean pages that never did anything to you for the sole purpose of keeping Shakespeare out of Italy. 

For Shapiro, Shakespeare never went to Italy. Instead he learned about Italy by engaging in “a few choice conversations” with travelers. This is like saying Einstein could have learned physics by “listening to a few lectures” but I note that Shapiro is savvy enought to utter his whopper and quickly move on. 

McCrea, however, goes into detail about Italy and of course digs himself into an embarrassingly deep hole. But we are indebted to him because he gives us a chance to see how ridiculous ridiculous gets.   

McCrea says Shakespeare referred to “absurd canals” in Italy. McCrea is sure canals did not connect Italian city-states to rivers in the 16th century. So Verona, for example, wasn’t connected to the River Adige via canals. Therefore, McCrea informs us, Shakespeare did not travel between Verona and other city-states on 16th century waterways and did not use this experience when he wrote Romeo and Juliet and had characters making such travels. The canals, McCrea says are absurd. Shakespeare just made them up. And that proves he wasn’t in Italy.

Except for one thing: whoever wrote the plays had been to Italy and had detailed knowledge about travel on the waterways that served as crucial trade conduits for Italian city-states in the 16th century. There are a few ways to begin to check this out. One way is to use this amazing technology called “Google Earth” where you can, in a minute or two with a decent internet connection, see the canals, some of which have been in use for centuries, in their modern incarnation.

Slightly more time must be expended to verify that whoever wrote Shakespeare was not the only person to have detailed knowledge of the “absurd canals.” Montaigne traveled on them and wrote about the experience just as Shakespeare did. And no, Professor McCrea, Montaigne’s descriptions are not sufficiently detailed to have allowed Shakespeare to write his plays. 

Finally, we note that there are things called papers that exist in places called archives that people paid to be scholars can visit. And on those papers and in those archives is this amazing thing called “information.” You can find out, as Richard Roe did when he went to Italy to write Shakespeare’s Guide to Italy, that the absurd canals were built by small armies of men hired by rulers of the city-states. And you can, thereby, avoid embarrassment. 

Edward de Vere, needless to say, traveled extensively in Italy. In fact, he literally “sold his lands to see other men’s” just as the line in Shakespeare says. He visited Verona, Venice, Padua, and many other Italian cities during a months-long sojourn south of England. He didn’t use Google Earth in 1580 and he didn’t have “a few choice conversations.”

The man who would become the Queen’s playwright spent the better part of year in Italy as a young man acquiring the minute geographical details found in the Italian plays that were not available in any book then in England and sometimes even today can only be verified by a researcher who takes the trouble to actually go to Italy. 

Google Earth is a recent invention so it’s understandable if some modern scholars haven’t heard of it.

In Shakespeare Beyond Doubt? with a question mark, Alexander Waugh writes what I think is the definitive essay on the mainstream’s painful attempt to keep Italy out of the discussion. One mainstream scholar (Doherty) Waugh takes to task claimed there is no Saint Peter’s Church in Verona (!) and concluded in fine McCrea style that the author of Romeo and Juliet (set in Verona) was therefore never in the city.

Doherty thinks the businessman who had a helluva time just getting from Stratford to London must have simply made up the name of the church complete with the fine detail given in the play. If Doherty’s “scholarship” sounds silly and unworthy of any professor, that’s because it is. 

Waugh, rather annoyed, says the problem for a researcher that wants to actually work is not that there is no Saint Peter’s church in Verona but that of the four (yes, four) Saint Peter’s churches in 16th century Verona (all of which exist today) only one matches the fine detail in the play. It is helpful to physically be in Italy, as Roe was, to determine which of the four (yes, four) churches the author had in mind when he wrote the play. In that case, it is easy to identify San Pietro Incarnario as the church so carefully described by the English author who had a love affair with Italy and with all things Italian.

Doherty, McCrea, and Shapiro embarrass the whole idea of a college professor not so much because they make mistakes but because a TON of research has been done regarding Shakespeare’s Italy and they can’t even bother with minor fact-checking because they feel they have no choice but too keep that author in England in order to save their precious First Folio preface whose interests they serve without question. But the First Folio preface is an inanimate object, with no interests at all and no need to be defended like a beloved monarch.

It’s just a preface. And besides, some mainstream professors have simply said the businessman must have gone to Italy at some point (which is plausible if not exactly likely) and have thereby avoided embarrassment. 

I have decried, I hope without too much of the shrill in my voice, circular reasoning. I have inveighed, I hope not too violently, against scholarship so sloppy it verges on the dishonest. One last transgression I wish to complain about, if you will indulge me, is petty meanness.

I have a Ph.D. in physics. My dissertation committee followed my work for years, read my thesis, read the journal articles I published, looked over my raw data, demanded corrections and additional studies, and granted my doctorate when they were satisfied with the work. With centuries of combined experience to guide them, they did their jobs. So it was excruciating for me to read Shapiro quoting “independent scholars” who found what they regard as flaws in Stritmatter’s dissertation that the UMass Amherst committee according to Shapiro “apparently failed to notice.” 

Shapiro followed these low blows with an attempt to show that Stritmatter’s thesis is invalid on the basis of a statistical argument whose speciousness set an Olympic record. Shapiro used technique ii, demand perfection to attack the thesis as not proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that de Vere wrote the plays.

Of course, no such claim was made. Stritmatter’s thesis identifies Shakespeare’s favorite biblical allusions from those repeated in multiple plays. Stritmatter also identifies similar numbers of favorite biblical allusions of other authors repeated in their plays. Stritmatter then checks how many favorite allusions from various authors are underlined in de Vere’s bible and also what percentage of an author’s favorite allusions are underlined. 

Dozens of Shakespeare allusions are underlined in de Vere’s bible. No other author Stritmatter used in his comparison gets past single digits. When this is done with percentages, the result is the same. This is not fancy statistics and there is nothing to argue about. If you want, you can say de Vere may simply have liked to underline Shakespearean biblical allusions in his bible more so than he liked to underline biblical allusions by other authors.

Of course Stritmatter didn’t prove de Vere wrote the plays. What he did in addition to some very basic and inarguable statistics was to carefully analyze underlinings that were not known to be Shakespearean. Working from the de Vere bible to the plays, he found many Shakespearean biblical allusions not previously recognized as such. Of course this work is interesting and of course Stritmatter deserved his Ph.D.

Shapiro’s whining about the percentages in Stritmatter’s thesis using “analysis” of the independent scholars is not just a low blow — it’s grotesque.

Let’s wrap this part up. Euclid’s demonstration of the power of deductive reasoning as applied to geometry and its subsequent absorption into the mindset of the entire world is millenia old. But we’re still facing circular reasoning used by college professors. Yes, it is possible the businessman was a great writer just as the First Folio preface says. No, the printed title pages are not “overwhelming evidence” the businessman was literate. 

Greta Thunberg, living somewhat more recently than Euclid, has been a beacon of honest assessment and we should all try to live up to her. In so doing we will of course not pretend the author of Shakespeare’s works “made up” hundreds of accurate details about Italy or got them from books or from “a few choice conversations.” I assume Greta frowns on that sort of thing. Anyway, researchers should do research if that is not too much to ask. 

I nominate Fred Rogers (aka Mr. Rogers) as the beacon of kindness. There is no need to claim someone’s Ph.D. isn’t valid. There is no need to claim it in a book. There is no need to claim it in a conversation. There is no need to claim it anywhere. The precious preface might yet survive one person writing a dissertation about how it may be exaggerating the businessman’s abilities by a tiny amount. And a little kindness goes a long way.

I fear that I myself may not have not lived up to the examples of Euclid, Greta, and Mr. Rogers. If so, I humbly apologize and I wish you to know I am always trying to improve. If we all make such an effort, I think we can reach understanding and create consensus and make progress.

Let us hope tomorrow is just slightly better than today. 

San Pietro Incarnario, the real church and the setting for Romeo and Juliet that one scholar says Shakespeare made up.

Waugh’s contribution is not exactly soft spoken but I think appropriate condemnation 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.

We mustn’t forget that despite all the nonsense that has been perpetrated, Shapiro and McCrea and Nelson and the rest of the mainstream might be right anyway: maybe the businessman was not really illiterate.

Maybe we’ll find a manuscript or a receipt for delivery of a play or a book Shakespeare of Stratford gifted to a friend or a diary entry by one of his friends about the businessman’s intense dual life as both full-time writer and full-time businessman 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 maybe someday we’ll have something other than the nothing we have at the moment.

It’s unlikely but possible.

If I someday have to admit to being wrong, that is perfectly fine with me and — and this is the most important part of this essay — it doesn’t matter at all if I’m wrong. 

Understanding why (the unlikely event of) my being wrong about de Vere would mean nothing at all is a matter of philosophy and, as I learned from a brilliant young woman while we were climbing a New Hampshire mountain, “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 is actually the most erudite man in all England, does that mean we should drop rational thought and embrace political calculation over honest inquiry?

No.

If we find out de Vere was paid a thousand pounds a year because he had pretty eyes, should we then regard status as our gold, silver, and bronze medals and relegate to reality to tenth place, an afterthought hardly noticed?

No.

If the businessman really is Shakespeare should we then give up on all progress and allow hallowed tradition to Trump hard evidence just because it’s easier that way?

No. 

If you had to bet a thousand pounds, who would you bet on? Would you put it on a businessman who couldn’t write his name or would you put it on the Queen’s playwright who literally sold his lands to see other men’s? 

What if you were offered thousand-to-one odds if you bet on the businessman? Would you do it then?

Is there any chance at all Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare or is the whole idea utter nonsense?

You know as much as you need to know (well, read the post-script) so you tell me. What are the odds?

— Thor Klamet 

Post Script

The gravesite, unmentioned so far, is literally rock-solid evidence and you may, after reading about it, regard me as a fraud for leaving it to a post-script. I am not trying to deceive you. I just think the gravesite doesn’t have any more information in it than a Rorshack inkblot. It’s worth looking at, but you can literally see anything in it that you like and what you see can change every time you look.

In 1623, the First Folio preface mentions “thy Stratford moniment” which seems to refer to stonework with inscriptions in the Stratford church. Shakespeare is presumably buried somewhere on the church grounds or maybe under the stones in the church itself. 

Epitaphs were common enough in Elizabethan times just as they are today. Here are some examples of epitaphs for writers. 

With thee our English verse was raised on high. (Spenser)

He that can write so well. (Beaumont)

A memorable poet of the age. (Drayton)

A christian philosopher and homerical poet. (Chapman)

These were typical. There’s an epitaph for Shakespeare. It isn’t typical. 

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

There’s no name on the stone but it sits next to Shakespeare family members in the church and is presumably his gravestone. No one knows why there is doggerel on it. One could guess or one could start with a premise and shoe-horn. But there is no point. It is what it is and it is doggerel.  

Mark Twain suggested the following epitaph for Shakespeare:

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.

Obviously, Mark Twain’s suggestion is Shakespeare (from The Tempest) while the doggerel is not. 

So far we haven’t found a great writer buried in the church. However, there is also a bust on the wall of the church complete with an indecipherable but still interesting inscription.

Here are two drawings of the bust, one from 1630 and one from a hundred years later. 

Engraving of Shakespeare bust circa 1630.

Engraving of Shakespeare bust circa 1730.

The first likeness doesn’t have pen and paper. But a century later the pen and paper appear. No one knows why there is a discrepancy. All sources agree on the text of the inscription.

Judicio Pylium, genio Socratem, arte Maronem
Terra tegit, populus moeret, Olympus habet.

Stay Passenger, why goest thou by so fast?
Read if thou canst, whom envious Death hath placed 
Within this monument Shakespeare: with whom
Quick nature died: whose name doth deck this tomb   
Far more than cost: since all that he hath writ
Leaves living art, but page to serve his wit.

The Latin in the first line says that Shakespeare was a Pylian in judgment, a Socrates in genius, and a Maro in art. The second line says the earth covers, the people mourn, Olympus holds.

The comparisons to King Nestor of Pylos, to Socrates, and to Virgil make no sense at all for the poet and playwright Shakespeare unless you know nothing and are just picking random people from antiquity as comparators. The English that follows is also mostly meaningless though it does say “all that he hath writ . . .” which makes no sense for an illiterate businessman but might fit a writer if you could figure out what it was saying which no one can do, not even experts.  

Much has been written by people trying to interpret the gravesite in their favor but none of it is definitive or even all that useful in my view. The doggerel either implies he wasn’t Shakespeare as Mark Twain argued or it does not imply any such thing. The original bust either had pen and paper or the pen and paper were added later. The phrase “all that he hath writ” either means he was Shakespeare, the greatest writer in England, or it doesn’t.

No analysis I’ve ever read is really acceptable because everyone starts with a premise and then interprets the monument based on their premise. There’s nothing wrong with this since there’s probably no other way to interpret the monument, but the monument, once interpreted, can’t serve to strengthen the premise used to do the interpretation. That would be circular reasoning. I claim we can’t interpret the monument until we decide by other means who wrote the plays.

All we know is that the doggerel and the phrase “all that he hath writ” appear to have been extant when the First Folio preface was written. The doggerel contradicts the First Folio preface while the mention of writing lends support to the First Folio preface. This is why I left the monument to a post-script.

Some people say the monument AND the First Folio preface were all falsified but this becomes problematic because if you are guessing that there was a hoax, you can always just say any evidence you don’t like is part of the hoax and there are limits to how far that can go before it becomes ridiculous. 

We’re stuck with all the evidence as it stands — the First Folio preface with its clear identification, the odd gravesite, the inconsistent signatures, 1580’s Shakespeare, inside information in the plays, money paid to de Vere, and everything else. We don’t have video from the time or living eyewitnesses to question and so we have to accept some uncertainty and some inevitable conflict in the evidence.

Conflicting evidence can be “resolved” and wrinkles smoothed out with clever scenarios, conjecture, guesswork, and so forth but, as a first examination, one has to look at all of the evidence without the bias introduced by a clever story that magically makes all of the evidence fit together. After one carefully weighs the evidence, only then can one risk making up some story or other from it and even then one has to always keep in the front of one’s mind how easily we fool ourselves.

We don’t know who wrote the plays: probably it was either the Queen’s playwright or the businessman identified in the First Folio preface, but for all we know it could have been someone else. Pay your money and take your choice. There are more details of course but I don’t think we’ll get much further until the mainstream pulls its head out of . . . um . . . the sand. 

The bust of Shakespeare as it appears today.

Post Post-Script

Whenever I read the work of the top mainsteam Shakespeare-wrote-Shakespeare scholars, I keep expecting to turn the page and read, “And this is why we aren’t sure we have the right guy.” But it never happens; they always seem to convince themselves that in spite of everything, the businessman from Stratford was somehow Shakespeare. And yet sometimes it almost seems like they know he probably wasn’t. 

Schoenbaum on the fact that people in Stratford knew him only as a businessman:

“What did fellow townsmen think of the [man who we think was the] distinguished playwright of the Chamberlain’s company and the [man who we think was 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 [but not as the greatest writer in England] and approachable (if need be) for a substantial loan on good security.”

Schoenbaum on the missing biography:  

“Perhaps we should despair of ever bridging the vertiginous expanse between the sublimity of the subject [beautiful poetry] and the mundane inconsequence of the documentary record [a pile of business documents]. What would we not give for a single personal letter, one page of diary [which would at least prove him literate]!”

Honigmann wondering how non-stop business activity could fit in with a writing career:

“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 channeling Lewis Carroll (real name Charles Dodgson):

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

The real name of the Cheshire Cat’s creator was not Lewis Carroll.

 

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