Saturday, August 01, 2009

Getting Skeptical

The August issue of Scientific American contains an article providing "A Skeptic's Take on the Life and Argued Works of Shakespeare."

The piece represents the latest column from Michael Shermer, founding publisher of Skeptic magazine and a man whose work I certainly respect -- and typically agree with.

But like anything else, "skepticism" sometimes needs a healthy dose of skepticism.

Shermer devotes his column to refuting the arguments from the April 18 Wall Street Journal article on U.S. Supreme Court justices who have concluded that Edward de Vere wrote the "Shakespeare" canon. (The WSJ piece was previously blogged about here.)

After calling Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens a snob, in so many words, Shermer points out that "it's not enough merely to plant doubts about Will."

"We should grant that Shakespeare wrote the plays unless and until the anti-Stratfordians can make their case for a challenger who fits more of the literary and historical data," he writes.

Fair enough.

The case he's looking for is in a book called "Shakespeare" Identified in Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, published in 1920. It's a classic that should be on the bookshelf of anyone who professes any interest in the Bard and his life.

Of course, it's only fair that if I get to cite a book, so does he: Shermer ultimately rests his skepticism about de Vere on a 2005 book called The Case for Shakespeare: The End of the Authorship Question by Purchase College theater professor Scott McCrea. McCrea, he says, "demonstrates beyond a reasonable doubt" that Will Shakspere of Stratford was the author.

I don't want to get into a full-on book review here, but suffice it to say that McCrea's tome is the latest in the lot of "anti-Oxfordian" books. (Not for long, though. Next year, bestselling author James Shapiro -- author of 1599: A Year in the Life of Shakespeare -- will reportedly be taking on the Oxfordians himself in his next book, Contested Will.)

McCrea's book scores a few points that demonstrate why the Shakespeare authorship question remains a contested topic on both sides of the orthodox-heretic divide. For instance, McCrea rightly points out that Oxfordians have over-stretched their arguments that the Shakespeare canon's references to hunting and hawking necessarily point to an aristocratic author. (This would be because lower classes were prohibited by law from enjoying these sports.) In fact, these sports appear to have been more widely practiced than most Oxfordians have claimed. Point taken.

But McCrea also goes for the jugular on a number of arguments that are either poorly researched or poorly plotted out. Or both. Case in point: He occupies eight pages making some ill-informed claims that the Shakespeare canon contains numerous "errors" in its references to Italy and France. As pointed out at length in both "Shakespeare" By Another Name (chapters 4 and 5) and the book's Audio Series, Episodes 3 and 4, the Bard's references to Italy are so specific and accurate that they instead suggest that the author had some kind first-hand knowledge of Italy himself. Some Italian allusions in the Shakespeare canon, moreover, date specifically to the mid-1570s, when Edward de Vere was traveling there. (Listen to Episode 3 for a sampling of this latter variety.)

Finally, McCrea's polemics could certainly use to be less hysterical in places. Comparing Oxfordians to Holocaust deniers (“though obviously it lacks the same moral dimension,” he notes) is the kind of tawdry ploy that serves only to cheapen his rhetoric and anger anyone seeking a rational exploration of the Shakespeare mystery.

These are times when well-researched and sharply-written skeptical critiques of truly nutty ideas -- Obama "birthers" come to mind -- are clearly needed.

But Michael Shermer's impulse simply to defer to academic authority has done him no favors this time around. The kind of "skeptical" reasoning Shermer practices in his latest column should make any careful reader skeptical about his brand of "skeptical."

[Creative commons images by wburris and Senor Codo]


Malvolio said...

Hi Mark,
This is important, I think. I've found a doppelganger portrait to the Nicholas Hilliard miniature of Shakespeare that Leslie Hotson wrote a book about claiming the sitter was Shakespeare. And get this: the sitter in the portrait I discovered is wearing the exact same eccentric hat (a bonnet)! Also, and it gets curiouser, the portrait comes identified as Peregrine Bertie, though it appears the inscription might have been added at a later date. AND the sitter is flanked by two spears (one overpainted but visible) and i holding a third spear while leaning on a book emblazoned with the letter S. The artist is unknown but I believe, due to the patters in the background, it is Custodis, a dubiously named painted that Meres refers to. If you have any ideas or suggestions, I'd appreciate hearing from you. I'm fairly excited about this and have already notified the curators at the Victoria and Albert and am waiting to hear back from them. The portrait is posted on my site.

Malvolio said...

Oh, and the castle the sitter is posing in front of in the new portrait? Elsinore (Kronberg). And guess who the new sitter most resembles? Our boy de Vere.