Monday, September 10, 2007

Playing the "Snobbery" Card

(Creative commons image by John Cohen)

There is a widespread allegation about Shakespeare heretics that has baffled me each of the 5,573,861 times I've heard it raised. The latest incarnation appears in a column in tomorrow's edition of the Times of London. Here's how the columnist phrases it:

"Fundamentally, anti-Stratfordianism comes down to one proposition: Shakespeare was too low-class to have been a literary genius."

Countless variations on this theme have been posed in countless forums and conversations about the Shakespeare authorship issue. As anyone who has spent any time in the Shakespeare authorship wars will tell you, there's scarcely a crowd that doesn't contain at least one person who tries to make this very point.

Here's what confounds me, though: This "snobbery" question completely and utterly misses the point. It may, in fact, actually reveal more about the questioner's own bias than it does about anything in the Shakespeare authorship debate.

Let's break down this little steam-engine, shall we? If there were, in fact, a rational objection contained within the "snobbery" question, then the questioner would be well advised to pick a different tack, one that could be truly devastating.

Consider what the "snobbery" question, posed above, is actually alleging: Our hypothetical, unnamed anti-Stratfordian heretic, we are told, has no appreciation for historical fact whatsoever, so much so that his own beliefs (i.e. "Yay, team blueblood! Go, aristocracy!!") act as a substitute for the real, historical evidence about Shakespeare.

The "snobbery" question, in other words, contains two objections, only one of which is ever stated. Objection (1) is that of narcissism, that the anti-Stratfordian has a blurry sense of where the beliefs inside his own head end and where the objective, outside world of historical fact begins. Objection (2) is that the anti-Stratfordian picked the wrong team to root for. He should have been rooting for the hardscrabble underdog from the streets, not the posh little toff from the castle on the hill.

But if you're making a rational argument in an actual debate, you always attack the weakest link. Objection (2) is silly and distracting. Objection (1), if it could be proved, is self-evidently the undefended citadel to hit with everything you've got. If you can reveal to the audience that your opponent's arguments are not based on historical facts but rather just nuggets of unbridled narcissism, then it's game, set and match. You're not only through with the question, you can probably stick a fork in the whole debate. It's done.

So why, in the countless times the "snobbery" question has been broached over the years, haven't the defenders of the Stratfordian faith raised Objection (1) instead?

The answer, of course, is that the "snobbery" question breaks down into a pile of rubble when you try to take it seriously as a real, objective question. It's not about objective anything. It's, at its most cynical, just a cheap and obvious ploy to push an audience's (or in this case readership's) buttons.

On the other hand, to raise that first Objection, you also have to be able to recognize it.

But why, then, would the blurring of historical fact with personal belief be such a blind spot for Stratfordians?

That one I leave for the psychoanalysts to ponder.

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