The blog "Shakespeare" By Another Name recently pointed me to an amusing online free-for-all in which a columnist for the London Times, Oliver Kamm, mixes it up with various anti-Stratfordians (i.e., people who doubt that the works of Shakespeare were written by the man from Stratford).
This issue is not as interesting to me as it once was. I'm still in the Oxfordian camp - I think the author was most likely Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, who used Will Shakespeare as a beard - but my world would not come crumbling down if definitive proof to the contrary were obtained. (For some of my thoughts on why Oxford is a good candidate to be the "true" author, click on the "categories" link at the bottom of this post.)
What I found most interesting about the long, heated online debate was how angry Kamm allows himself to become. In fact, he seems to be aboil with rage and indignation almost from the start. He repeatedly characterizes his opponents as cranks and worse, yet seems honestly perplexed that anyone could accuse him of using ad hominems. He also insists that his opponents have no proper academic credentials, though he himself is described in his Times bio as "having been an investment banker and co-founder of a hedge fund" who has an interest in "economic policy, foreign affairs and European literature." It seems odd that his main complaint about his opponents is that they are "amateurs," when he himself is clearly an amateur in Elizabethan studies, as well. Perhaps it is a case of psychological projection.
That's not to say Kamm makes no good points. He strikes a few "palpable hits," I think, though many of his arguments are question-begging and appeals to authority (the very errors he accuses his opponents of committing). He is obviously very intelligent, a fact that makes his vituperative style of expression that much more baffling. You would think that as a bright, sophisticated writer, he would see how he's coming across, but he seems oblivious. His increasingly agitated commentary is perhaps an object lesson in the ego run amok. It underlines a point I've been reflecting on lately - that of all human skills or virtues, self-possession may be the most important. Imagine a world in which everyone could remain self-possessed under even the most trying conditions. War, violence, and cruelty might not vanish altogether (there are self-possessed sociopaths), but would certainly be rarer than they are now.
After reading the debate, I found myself flipping through the book that inspired the Shakespeare blog - Mark Anderson's "Shakespeare" By Another Name, a biography of Edward de Vere written from the perspective that de Vere wrote the works of Shakespeare. Innumerable parallels between de Vere's life and elements of the Shakespearean corpus are explored. Some of these parallels are more convincing than others, but the cumulative effect is immensely persuasive, at least to me.
Here's a small but telling example from page 169 of Anderson's book. De Vere (Oxford) betrayed two friends who were plotting against the Queen; these friends were arrested and imprisoned. Understandably furious with Oxford, they launched a series of attacks on him, alleging a variety of vices and evils. One of the pair, Charles Arundell, testified:
First, I will detect him of the most impudent and senseless lies that ever passed the mouth of any man.... His third lie which hath some affinity with the other two is of certain excellent orations he made.... The second vice, wherewith I mean to touch him though in the first I have included perjury in something [sic] is that he is a most notorious drunkard and very seldom sober ... thirdly I will prove him a buggerer of a boy ... fifthly to show that the world never brought forth such a villainous monster, and for a parting blow to give him his full payment, I will prove against him his most horrible and detestable blasphemy in denial of the divinity of Christ our Savior and terming the Trinity a fable ... that Joseph was a wittold [cuckold] and the Blessed Virgin a whore.
To conclude, he is a beast in all respects and in him no virtue to be found and no vice wanting.
Note the confused syntax and the eccentric numbering, in which the third precedes the second. (It is the third lie, but apparently an example of the first vice.) Compare the above with the speech that Shakespeare puts in the mouth of the inept constable Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing:
Marry, sir, [the accused] have committed false report. Moreover, they have spoken untruths, secondarily they are slanders, sixth and lastly they have belied a lady, thirdly they have verified unjust things, and to conclude, they are lying knaves.
The similarities are obvious, right down to the words "to conclude." It would seem likely that Dogberry is a cruel burlesque of Arundell. If so, whoever wrote the play must have been familiar with Arundell's testimony and must have had reason to lampoon it. Oxford, of course, would meet both criteria.
To publicly lampoon a man whom one has betrayed and handed over to the jailers of the Tower is not the most admirable course of action, to be sure. But no one ever said de Vere was a likable or well-adjusted fellow. Indeed, some of the accusations made against him are probably accurate, though others seem like boilerplate Elizabethan slander. It is quite plausible, for instance, that de Vere was "very seldom sober." But some high-functioning alcoholics can be astonishingly productive; their overconsumption of alcohol can bring on periods of remarkable creativity; they are even capable of works of genius, as I discussed here. Such people are also capable of extraordinary malice -- the kind of malice that might prompt a man to ridicule a desperate enemy whose downfall he has brought about.
The only credible alternative to the Oxfordian theory, it seems to me, is that someone else wrote the plays but was guided by Oxford. This is not impossible, since Oxford was known to serve as a mentor and patron of young writers.
Clare Asquith's book Shadowplay (though it does not include Oxford in the mix) makes an argument along these lines, suggesting that Will Shakespeare of Stratford came under the aegis of Catholic noblemen and served as their mouthpiece. Trouble is, I see little in the Stratford man's background that would supply him with the erudition to write great poetry; and some of the plays, like Love's Labour's Lost, seem to have been written before young Will had even arrived in London. (But the dating of all the plays is endless debated, so this point cannot be conclusive.)
Kamm and others like to point out that Ben Jonson and Christopher Marlowe were of middle-class origins, yet wrote great plays, and this is true; but both Jonson and Marlowe were recognized early for their talent and given special treatment. Marlowe went to Corpus Christi College; Jonson went to the acclaimed Westminster School and later received an honorary degree from Oxford University. By contrast, the Stratford man appears to have had no education beyond a few years in the Stratford grammar school. Still, we cannot rule out the possibility that Will showed early promise and was shipped off to the household of wealthy relatives who supplied him with tutors and books. This is the theory advanced by E. A. J. Honigmann (discussed somewhat sympathetically by Eric Sams here), and it might be profitably combined with Asquith's musings.
In these matters (as in most matters) it's best not to be too dogmatic. Otherwise we may find ourselves, like Dogberry, declaring that those who disagree with us are, firstly, amateurs and cranks; thirdly, mere dilettantes; secondarily, lacking in all academic respectability; sixth and last, dishonest villains; fifthly, unfit for public debate; and to conclude, they are lying knaves.
Postscript. For those who can't be bothered to read the whole comments thread on the Times site, here are some excerpts from Oliver Kamm's posts.
He characterizes those who disagree with him as: "delusional," "conspiracy nutters," and "unscholarly cranks" who make "bogus and ahistorical assertions" and whose arguments are "buffoonery," "absurd," "snobbish, hapless idiocy," a "mound of dross," "pure snobbery and conspiracy theory, and ... an offence against historical scholarship."
"Your entire method of reasoning is ignorant of history and of literary criticism."
"The entire Oxfordian edifice is built on ignorance, snobbery and nothing else."
"[Anti-Stratfordian] arguments bear as much relation to literary scholarship as do creationism to science and Holocaust denial to history. It's a sociological and pathological phenomenon rather than a literary one."
"Mr Malim [an anti-Stratfordian] himself is a retired solicitor, with all the competence that that implies for the field of Elizabethan and Jacobean literature." (Kamm's own background is that of a hedge fund manager.)
"I said you were unscholarly cranks. And yes, of course the Supreme Court Justices you mention [who agree with the anti-Stratfordian position] come into that category. Their expertise in the law is extensive and entirely irrelevant to the field of literature."
"I do not treat my opponents with contempt. I treat them in this case and on this subject with derision."
"Mr Wilkinson, let's get one thing straight. At no time have I engaged in abuse. I've called you a crank and I've described your contributions as fatuous. I've further described the comments on this thread from your comrades as hapless idiocy. If you consider this to be abuse, then you're not cut out for public debate. I invariably address correspondents with courtesy but also directness, and I'm not going to flatter you by pretending that your opinions are worthy of respect or have any value whatever." ("Courtesy"?!)
"I have carefully explained that I do not engage in abuse, but my restraint doesn't mean that I'm going to have a dialogue with you. Your theories are are no more interesting than they are educated, and while you have every right to be heard, you have no right whatever to be listened to."
"I never engage in personal abuse, but nor do I engage in flattery of cranks, whether creationists, 9/11 truthers, Holocaust deniers or Oxfordians, all of whom use similar methods of reasoning."
"That puts [the anti-Stratfordian position] outside the bounds of legitimate debate: it's at best irrationalism and unabashed amateurism ... More generally, it's pathological and in some cases (e.g. Delia Bacon, who first propounded Francis Bacon as author) literally insane."
"You're yet another who complains about name-calling while failing to identify a single example. I've referred to you (collectively) as cranks and I've commented on the fatuous, pitiful, amateurish and fraudulent contributions that you have made uninvited on this site. What on earth is wrong with that? How does that qualify as name-calling?" (How, indeed?)
"Either you're incompetent or you're a fantasist."
"I decline to treat you with a respect that you haven't earned. Yet again, you complain about abuse yet fail to identify any instance of it. The terms crank, conspiracy theorist, amateur and snob are plainly all descriptive." (Nope, no abuse there. I'm sure Kamm wouldn't take it as an insult if someone used such "descriptive" terms against him. Would he?)
"What possible value is the opinion of a Supreme Court judge on Elizabethan literature? He may be intelligent and professionally accomplished, but his opinion on Shakespeare is intrinsically worth nothing." (But the opinion of a hedge fund manager is of great value.)
"I didn't seek your opinions and have no interest in them."
"I can only suppose you thought you'd be treated at worst as a legitimate contributor to honest debate, and at least you now know better."
"Once you intruded into this space, I didn't ignore you but told you the brutal truth: you're a crank, an ignoramus and an amateur. How that can be termed 'vilification' is beyond me: it's a frank and objective assessment of your views and behaviour." (Why, it's not vilification at all. It's just frank talk - and "objective," no less!)
Although Kamm does make a few substantive points, his overall tone is so hostile that the term "crank" or "nutter" would seem to apply more aptly to him than to most of his correspondents.
I don't know to what extent Oliver Kamm may be typical of hedge fund managers in general, but if the qualities he displays in these comments - overbearing self-righteousness, disdain for any contrary viewpoint, and an unwillingness to even consider the possibility that he is mistaken - are found in equal measure in his colleagues, then the derivatives crisis, which nearly brought down the financial systems of the world, becomes a good deal easier to understand.