Regular readers know I'm of the opinion that the works of Shakespeare were actually written by Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford. This position is, to put it mildly, controversial, and among the academic community it has not found many takers. Some of the arguments put forth by Shakespearean scholars are quite complicated and interesting; these arguments involve such things as the dating of the plays, factual errors in the plays that suggest the author was not too well-educated or worldly wise, and the testimony of the First Folio linking the plays to William Shakespeare of Stratford.
I think there are effective counter-arguments to all these positions. For instance, in my opinion, the dating of the plays, if done properly, argues very strongly in favor of dates of composition that would be too early for the Stratford man; the so-called errors of fact, particularly pertaining to geography, turn out not to be errors at all on closer inspection (see The Shakespeare Guide to Italy by the late Richard Paul Roe); and the the testimony of the First Folio is far more ambiguous and problematic than it might appear (see Shakespeare's Unorthodox Biography, by Diana Price). A very long–in fact, endless–argument can ensue in fleshing out any of these points.
But there are some other arguments made by the academics that aren't complex or interesting at all. They're just silly. Threw of the most common are examined below.
1. “The idea that Oxford wrote the plays of the works of Shakespeare originated with a fellow named J. Thomas Looney. His name was Looney; therefore his ideas are obviously loony.”
Actually, this position doesn't even rise to the level of an argument, not even a fallacious argument. It's just childish name-calling. Are we supposed to think that if the Oxfordian argument had originated with someone named J. Thomas Wise or J. Thomas Brilliant, the academics would regard the argument as wise or brilliant? It should be obvious that the man's name, even if it strikes us as funny, has absolutely nothing to do with the merits of his ideas.
For what it's worth, the name Looney is actually pronounced LOH-nee, and is a name of some distinction on the Isle of Man.
2. “Those who doubt that William Shakespeare of Stratford wrote the plays and poems that bear his name are simply snobs.”
Here, at least, we do have an argument that rises to the level of a formal fallacy. The fallacy in question is the ad hominem–which means disputing the value of someone's ideas by pointing to some personal defect he allegedly possesses. In this case, the defect is snobbishness; we are supposed to believe that the anti-Stratfordian position is rooted in elitism and high-handedness. But even if this were true, it would not say anything about the facts and arguments made by anti-Stratfordians. It speaks only to their personal motives, which are irrelevant.
The clue that we're dealing with a fallacy here is that the position is buttressed with emotional language–that is to say, rhetoric. (The appeal to emotion by means of rhetoric is itself a logical fallacy.) The academics typically go on to say that those who are interested in the authorship question don't believe in egalitarianism or understand the genius of democracy. They don't realize that greatness can crop up anywhere, in any social class, in any conditions, at any time, in any place. They are out of step with modern, democratic society; they represent a backward-looking, retrogressive, rearguard action. Etc.
All of this, as you can see, is just a lot of handwaving meant to inspire an emotional response. It's a collection of populist platitudes, akin to a campaign speech. And it's all irrelevant. As far as I know, nobody who questions the authorship of Shakespeare's works has ever said that genius is confined to the upper classes. It's obvious that a very large number of artistic, musical, and literary geniuses have originated in the middle-class, at least in relatively modern times. (If you go back far enough in history, there's not much of a middle class to speak of.) No one doubts that as the middle class has become proportionately larger, and has grown progressively more affluent and educated, the number of creative geniuses produced by that class has risen.
The question, however, is whether the works of Shakespeare are the sort of literary products one would expect from a member of the middle class. This is a very different issue from the strawman position that a middle-class writer cannot possibly be a genius.
Suppose that the works of Tolstoy had been published anonymously, and we were left to figure out who authored them. We would certainly look first at the Russian aristocracy of the period, because it is obvious that the author of War and Peace and Anna Karenina was intimately familiar with the lives of aristocrats, viewed social issues from the standpoint of a (reform-minded) aristocrat, and chose aristocrats as the leading characters in his major works. Conversely, if the works of Charles Dickens had been published anonymously, no one would think to look for the author among the British aristocracy, as it would be obvious that the author was intimately familiar with the conditions of the poor, that he had almost certainly suffered severe hardship himself, that he was sympathetic to the struggling underclass and the upwardly mobile middle class, and that he was unsympathetic to the very wealthy and the privileged elites.
If we look at the works attributed to Shakespeare, we find (I think) both the point of view and the constellation of interests typical of an aristocrat of his day -- and not a very forward-looking aristocrat, at that. Even by the standards of his time, Shakespeare was feudalistic in his thinking, placing immense emphasis on the importance of “blood” or pedigree, and insisting that everybody should know his place or his station in life (see Ulysses' famous speech about “degree” in Troilus and Cressida).
Shakespeare knew a great deal about the sport of hawking or falconry, which was practiced exclusively by nobles, and the music and dance in his plays were the types found at court, not in public taverns. The main characters in nearly all of his works are members of the aristocracy or royalty. His sympathy lies with courtiers and princes. His view of the common man varies between condescending amusement and dread; commoners, when viewed singly or in small groups, are a source of humor, with their malapropisms and uncultured ways, but if they gather together into a large crowd, they can threaten to become a mob and destabilize the social order. Shakespeare shows no sympathy for social uprisings such as Jack Cade's rebellion, which he mercilessly satirizes in Henry VI, Part Two, reducing the historical Cade's justifiable grievances to such idiocies as a making it a felony to drink small beer.
We also find that Shakespeare appears to have traveled extensively throughout Europe, particularly in Italy, at a time when foreign travel was largely limited to wealthy aristocrats (and some traveling merchants, but there is no indication that the man from Stratford ever engaged in foreign trade or travel). Shakespeare seems to been fluent in several languages, including Latin, Greek, Italian, French, and possibly Spanish, which would not be unusual for a leading nobleman of Queen Elizabeth's court but would be almost unheard of for a commoner, especially one with no university training. Shakespeare was clearly educated in the law, as aristocrats routinely were (they were expected to attend the Inns of Court so they could administer their states), while there is no indication the man from Stratford ever studied law. And so forth.
In other words, the belief that the Shakespearean works were written by a nobleman is not grounded in some obstinate snobbery but in a close and sensitive reading of the works themselves. Love's Labour's Lost alone should be enough to establish that the author was a courtier. The play, which is incomprehensible to modern readers without extensive annotations, consists of topical allusions and in-jokes about the goings-on in Queen Elizabeth's court circa the early 1580s. Not only is this date too early to plausibly ascribe the play to the Stratford man (born in 1564), but how could the son of a glove-maker who grew up in a provincial town three days' ride from London in an age without newspapers or other mass media possibly know any of these private jokes about the foreign ambassadors and their quirky personalities? It should be obvious that the play was written by a gifted courtier for the amusement of Queen Elizabeth and her entourage.
If snobbishness is the root of skepticism about the authorship of Shakespeare's works, it's hard to understand how such figures as Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, and Charles Chaplin have all entertained deep suspicions on this score. I don't think any of them is generally regarded as an anti-democratic elitist. Whitman, in particular, was distressed at the prospect that the great plays had been written by “one of the wolfish earls” of British history; as a vigorous champion of egalitarianism and democracy, he was dismayed to think that the world's greatest writer could have been his intellectual and social opposite, but his close study of the works led him to that strong suspicion.
3. Finally we have the oddest of these three silly arguments: “Those who suggest that the man from Stratford didn't write Shakespeare's works are simply jealous of Shakespeare and are trying to demean him, belittle him, and undermine his reputation.”
This again is a logical fallacy, though it may not be quite as obvious as the last one. The fallacy is begging the question–that is, beginning by assuming the point at issue. In this case, the open question is whether or not the author William Shakespeare is the man from Stratford. The academics who make this particular argument are saying, “We already know that the author William Shakespeare is the man from Stratford. Therefore any attempt to deprive the man from Stratford of credit for his works is an attack on the author.”
The conclusion does follow from the premise, but the problem is that the premise is question-begging. The anti-Stratfordian argument would go this way: “We believe that the author William Shakespeare is not the man from Stratford. Therefore our attempt to deprive the man from Stratford of credit for Shakespeare's works is an attempt to right a long-standing injustice by giving proper credit to the actual author.”
There's no doubt that many anti-Stratfordians do belittle and demean William Shakespeare of Stratford, and I would say this is one of the less attractive aspects of the movement. There's really no reason to put down the Stratford man, who appears to been a very successful moneylender, grain dealer, and theatrical impresario, and who was able to raise himself up to a position of some prominence in his hometown, eventually purchasing the second most expensive house in Stratford. He must have been a real go-getter, an aggressively upwardly mobile individual who pursued various avenues to wealth and eventually gained the title of a gentleman by purchasing a coat of arms for his family. I don't think he was the author of Hamlet, or any sort of author of all, but that's no reason to characterize him as a sneaking lowlife, as some anti-Stratfordians unfortunately do.
That said, from the anti-Stratfordian position, any discussion of the personality, character, or talents of the Stratford man is quite irrelevant to a discussion of the author William Shakespeare, because the author was someone entirely different.
Moreover, those who are skeptical of Shakespearean authorship often seem to hold the author William Shakespeare in higher regard than the academics do. The academics, because they have to fit Shakespeare's works into the timeline of the Stratford man's life, are led to believe that Shakespeare was an incorrigible plagiarist, borrowing turns of phrase, characters, and even whole plots and genres from authors who'd come before. The Oxfordians, by contrast, fit the works into the timeline of Oxford's life, which allows them to be dated much earlier and to be viewed as original–indeed, highly innovative–creations. The academics believe that Shakespeare was careless and sloppy when it came to details of foreign geography and customs, while the Oxfordians have gone to some lengths to show how accurate Shakespeare really was on such details. The academics say Shakespeare was writing only for money, grinding out potboilers as fast as he could with an eye to the box office returns, and trying to appeal to the unsophisticated tastes of the general public; Oxfordians, by contrast, believe the author wrote from the heart, dramatizing complex emotional and personal issues from his own life, and attempting to sway the Queen's position on a number of controversial topics, and that he was unconcerned with money or popularity.
Academics, of necessity, are inclined to say that Shakespeare, as a man, was a bit of a cipher, a nonentity, a Walter Mitty type who lived almost entirely within his own head and made so little impact on the people around him that no one recognized his genius or lamented his passing until years later. Oxfordians, on the other hand, see the author as a vibrant, larger-than-life figure who was closely involved in the major political and social upheavals of his day and lived a life of drama, color, action, and emotional intensity; moreover, they hold that his genius was certainly recognized by educated people of his day, but that few comments were made about it in print because he was writing politically sensitive material and was using a rather transparent pseudonym.
Now, which portrait of Shakespeare the artist is really more flattering to him? The conventional view sees him as a not-very-well educated hack writer who stole prolifically from inferior playwrights and poets, made up key details because he couldn't be bothered to get his facts straight, pandered to his audience for money, and made little or no impression on his colleagues or on educated readers and playgoers of his day. The Oxfordian view sees him as a highly educated and strikingly original writer who wrote from deeply felt personal experience, a world traveler who remembered and accurately reproduced even the smallest details of his wanderings, a political activist who tried to influence the great events of his day by speaking directly to his queen, and an influential genius who was heavily imitated by inferior writers but rarely acknowledged because of the cloak of secrecy that surrounded his persona.
I think the second view is the one that honors Shakespeare, while the first is the one that actually demeans and belittles him–that is, demeans and belittles the author of the Shakespearean canon by making him out to be much less than he was.
As I said at the beginning, there are other arguments made by Stratfordian academics that deserve to be taken seriously and considered in depth. By no means am I trying to suggest that all of their argumentation consists of fallacies, name-calling, or childish psychologizing.
These particular arguments, however, which show up over and over again in both popular and scholarly treatments of the controversy, really don't do credit to the academic community. They're not true arguments at all, but merely cheap debating tactics intended to cloud the issue and engender a knee-jerk emotional response. I hope to see less of them in the future.