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The Case of the Vanishing Authorship Dispute Where did The Shakespeare Authorship Question go?

Today, there is no doubt that William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon wrote the work appearing under his name in the First Folio in 1623.

but people once claimed there was…

Doubt has disappeared. Debate has faded to almost complete insignificance. Selling the concept of alternative authors of Shakespeare's work has become impossible. Hardly anyone is still at it. On our main site, Oxfraud.com, there are hundreds of articles containing detailed rebuttal of once hotly-disputed doubter arguments, dealing with a full scrapyard of claims and conjecture. At the foot of each article there are sometimes extensive comment sections. Over the last five years, these have dwindled from a flood to a trickle.

And today, it's quiet. Too quiet.

Shakespeare doubters abuse data, facts and information to draw absurd pictures of an alternative reality fitting their ideas

In a recent podcast, Professor Roger Stritmatter, a leading proponent of The Earl of Oxford's claims, was enthusiastic about the drop in overall activity. As always, equipped with a compass that never points North, he attributed the silence to the success of the anti-Shakespearean case. Regular readers of Stritmatter's work will not be in the least surprised to learn that nothing could be further from the truth.

As recently as 2014, national newspapers could depend on articles generating thousands of comments if they mentioned the Shakespeare Authorship Question. Comment threads 3,000 posts long were not unusual. A Newsweek thread ran to over 5000 posts in hot-tempered discussion of the nature of evidence. The Authorship Question was prime clickbait. Yet in 2020, just six years later, with all that lockdown time on people's hands, the longest comment thread of the year featured less than 30 entries from a handful of regular posters—in a year where alternative theories and conspiracists have enjoyed the lion's share of social media. We have yet to see any sort of public engagement in 2021.

Where did it all go wrong?

The $30 million film Anonymous (2011) did not help. Weaving Oxfordian theories into a workable narrative thread made Oxfordian hypotheses look ridiculous. Increasingly desperate attempts at resuscitation have not worked. It’s now at least five years since journalists could guarantee a comment firestorm by mentioning the Authorship Question in an article in The Guardian or The New York Times. We’ve been keeping track.

Man cannot be reasoned out of what he has not been reasoned into” Jonathan Swift.

The people who object to Shakespeare’s authorship, who style themselves “Doubters” have not disappeared. Nor are they likely to, though their numbers are dwindling. Under the age of 50, they seem to be non-existent.

They have two fatally dwindling resources. Apostles and Articles of Faith. This has created insoluble problems for the faithful with recruitment.

Who to blame? Some doubters blame Anonymous—"a train wreck" according to one. Others blame the failure of a recent MOOC on the subject. Massive Open Online Courses are great places to interact with university educators without needing to qualify for a university place. This one was dominated by crushing opposition in its forums, and petulant flouncing by its author in chief, who delegated the teaching to Oxfordian amateurs—"a train wreck" said another Oxfordian. Still others blame the catastrophic attempt, in a recent book, to draw comparisons between Oxford's poetry and Shakespeare’s using frequency analysis, all of which was rendered inaccurate by misunderstandings of the base data“a train wreck” said a critic. Oxfordians, like their candidate, are not big on imagery.

And they're not big on evidence or credible argument. You cannot create doubt by discounting historical facts which contradict your views, inventing allusions, imagining canals in Italy, coastlines in Bohemia or pulling rabbits out of the hat then claiming they are genuine historical characters who were participants in a conspiracy which is apparent only to yourself. There is a Prima Facie Case for Shakespeare's Authorship and there is no counter evidence. Nor, since Oxfraud stated The Prima Facie Case, has any Oxfordian attempted to present the sort of counter-evidence needed to raise objections to it.

There is no such counter-evidence. There is no trace of any conspiracy. In the Newsweek thread, Shakespeareans asked first for five items of tangible evidence of Oxford's authorship, then three, then one. None was forthcoming. Yet there is more than adequate evidence of Shakespeare's authorship.

This 5-minute read explains why activity in the debate has dropped to zero; why former activists, especially those on Shakespeare’s side, now regard life in the Authorship Question as extinct. It is an ex-conspiracy theory, bereft of life, gone to join the choir invisible. Here's why.

Four reasons for the collapse

Along with hundreds of minor reasons, four prominent failings lie at the heart of the collapse of interest in The Shakespeare Authorship Question. Four vacuums which can never be filled with anything useful to the idea that there is a hidden author of Shakespeare's work. Four unbridgeable chasms.

1. Bad initial hypothesis and weak foundation work

The initial hypothesis, that the plays were written by an educated aristocrat, ignores the fact that all bankside playwrights, all of Shakespeare's partners and competitors, were professionals, writing for money. And Commoners.

All doubter theory is based on the idea that the believer can spot someone with a better claim than a Stratford Grammar schoolboy. They can't. They haven't. They're wrong. Shakespeare is a perfect fit for the standard profile of the Bankside playwright. Ambitious, smart, industrious, gifted, artistic, entrepreneurial. All qualities absent in contemporary accounts of The Earl of Oxford. Bad profiling from the off.

J T Looney, the father of Oxfordianism, was an English Primary School teacher with little to qualify him as a Shakespeare scholar. Very few doubters profess to be expert interpreters of the work itself. It's quite hard to find them talking interestingly about Macbeth. Yet in his book Shakespeare Identified (1920), without spotting the irony implicit in his shortcomings, in Oxford's “Ciceronian prose” Looney finds a "wealth of figurative language" in a passage with no figures of speech.

Unencumbered by any inconvenient knowledge at first hand of what he is writing about, Mr. Looney proceeds to build up his case very easily.” TLS review, Pollard 1920.

Still, Oxfordians believe him smart enough to rewrite Shakespeare scholarship ab initio, accommodating all his most basic misconceptions in their stride. Looney “discovered” fourteen “points” claimed to “connect” the canon with Oxford. None of these points actually offer any connection at all. Almost all of the logic he employs is quite obviously misconstrued under the light of even mild scrutiny. Yet 100 years later, his mistakes still provide the foundation stones of Oxfordian theory.

17 is a number with magical properties for fans of the 17th Earl of Oxford so they'll no doubt enjoy the significance of 17 instances of missing the point in his attempts to profile his alternative author.

2. Failure to construct a coherent and scholarly argument

Not a single item of tangible evidence has emerged in 100 years of sometimes frantic search

In a weakness cruelly exposed by the difficulty of making Anonymous sound coherent, Oxfordians have been unable to build on Looney's boggy foundations.

Oxfordians have never succeeded in constructing a full working hypothesis. Having been forced to start without one, they cannot explain why their candidate died with a third of the work unwritten. There is still no agreement on who wrote what, or when or how Oxford worked with the actors. They cannot explain how two plays a year continued to reach the stage for ten years after Oxford's death in 1604.

They cannot agree on the significance of Oxford's undisputed poetical work. Nor can they imagine why, when he sponsored his own theatre troupe, he wrote all his plays for another, making Shakespeare's troupe the most famous group of actors in history. Indeed, the movement is still split over whether Oxford was one of six illegitimate children of Queen Elizabeth before siring the Earl of Southampton with his mother. An Oxfordian called Paul Streitz (no relevant qualifications, of course) felt no qualms about "rewriting the whole of 16c history" and boasting about it. Merely to make his ideas a better fit for the record. Oxfordians are wont to claim that the sheer volume of their contentions amounts to evidence. Never mind the quality, feel the width. Weightless arguments, however many you add together, are still weightless.

There is no Oxfordian manifesto despite hundreds of books claiming to disprove Shakespeare's claim. Some try to find similarities between the Earl's life and incidents in the plays, some try to prove unique knowledge of the geography of Italy—both false grails. Even the notorious attempt by Professor Stritmatter to prove a non-random relationship between the canon and Oxford's bible, an abject failure, would have proved no more than Oxford was familiar with the work of Shakespeare had the relationship proved to be closer. There are hundreds of attempts to stack up suggestive coincidences then claim the sum as proof, as if adding improbabilities together increased certainty rather than the opposite.

But they can produce no holistic theory into which all the facts fit. Goldberg's Conjecture posits that every even number is the sum of two primes. It hasn't been proved despite being tested to work to the very limits of current technology. So it remains a conjecture. Oxfordianism can't get off the starting blocks. It remains a Looking Glass World in which words mean what Oxfordians say they mean. On the bright side, it's always time for tea.

Whilst they cannot admit their case evaporates at room temperature, concern at manifest weaknesses expressed itself in a survey of their arguments in 2014 at a get-together in Ashland. It turned out to unexpectedly revealing. As their numbers shrink, these disagreements and broken arguments have become more and more damaging to the cause. Get-togethers now focus more on attacking their detractors than advancing the creed.

3. Failure to explain the mechanics

No self-respecting authorship sceptic could be fooled into accepting the too-obvious idea that the car is stuck because it no longer has the right number of wheels or axles.

With Shakespeare's name on the title pages, on the First Folio, on the monument, in the eulogies, in the cast lists of Ben Jonson's plays, in the Stationer's Register, and in contemporary writing, there has to be a good account of why all these records of Shakespeare as a playwright, a man of the theatre, can be doubted. Or at least doubted sufficiently to start hypothesising alternative authors—but there isn't.

One of many unanswered challenges addresses Oxford's death in 1604 before a thrid of the work was complete. "So De Vere has just dried the ink on the last page of Cymbeline, now what?" Oxfordianism has nothing better to offer than "he puts it in the play drawer till the time is right and starts The Winter's Tale". If you don't accept that answer, however it may be embroidered, the whole house of cards collapses. Is that how English theatre was born? Taking scripts out of drawers when the time was right? Once you start exploring the mechanics of conspiracy, you are through The Looking Glass, a captive in Oxfordian Wonderland.

In his second tribute, family friend Leonard Digges said, ironically, "that he was a poet, none would doubt". Oxfordians offer no explanation. None that withstands a moment's scrutiny. Doubters “feel” that Shakespeare was not a grammar schoolboy from Stratford but can't explain how, uniquely in the history of performance art, a playwright, who has to undertake a serious amount of on-site work in the theatre, can remain hidden while enjoying a career in the public eye spanning 25 years. After all, Shakespeare's theatre group were inventing the modern industry. Doubters' homespun YouTube videos on this subject are entertaining, self-hoisting petards, full of abstruse and rococo reasoning, newly discovered ciphers, which usually contain no cipher text, and feats of logic-bending that have to be admired. However, while happy to list people who they imagine were in on the secret they are quite incapable of explaining how the secret submerged during Shakespeare's lifetime and how it survived until an Oxfordian was clever enough to expose it.

4. Failure to keep up with modern scholarship

Big data stylometry, algorithmically driven on whole-oeuvre dataframes, has produced remarkable results in attributing anonymous fragments to their bankside authors. None of which include Oxford. Or Bacon, Stanley, Neville or Sheikh al Speir.

Most seriously of all, Oxfordianism and alternative authorship theories have dropped out of sight completely in modern Shakespeare scholarship, in which a revolution has now entirely occupied their turf.

Their plea that scholars don't take authorship studies seriously has exploded in their faces. Authorship is being studied everywhere. It once took time and effort to draw fire from real scholars. Today, the collaborative nature of Bankside theatre is being explored in detail. Taken for granted. A top priority at last. Obvious impostors, such as Oxford, Lanier, and even Sheikh al Speir are impossibilities, eliminated at the first pass by improving comparative tools. Even Marlowe's claims have been speared as scholars separate out his contributions to Shakespeare's early work. Two distinctly different playwrights. Not one.

The evidence that Oxfordians tried to use to connect Oxford to Shakespeare's work was never substantial. In the last decade, their work does not merit so much as a mention in university faculties, where authorship deniers and doubters are regarded in the same light as creationists. It was easier the early days of the conspiracy. Although treated no more seriously by scholars in its heyday, authorship theories were at least sensationalist when they were new. And, argued the doubters, subjective. All opinions deserve respect, they claimed, even ours. Some academics could be dragged out, every now and again, to attempt a public refutation but only in the cause of removing a barnacle from the hulk of the great ship of learning.

We've seen the last of these contests however. In 2010, James Shapiro published Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? and the feeble responses now make it look definitive. The only truly academic work on the history of authorship doubts.

James Shapiro burying the authorship question

Bad Correlation—a bad Oxfordian habit

Looney and his followers make no distinction between correlation and corroboration or causation. They think because a large number of plays are set in Court, the author must have been a courtier. They assert that Shakespeare must have owned an extensive library because of the number of books he appears to have read (though the ones published after Oxford's death NEVER get a mention). They claim correlation between incidents in the plays and incidents in Oxford's life.

These charts demonstrate why simple correlation does not always form a sound basis for deducing causation.

Simple reasons why Oxford could not EVER be Shakespeare

  1. Not a single piece of tangible evidence connects Oxford to the work.
  2. Oxford published his own mediocre poetry, wholly incompatible with Shakespeare's.
  3. Oxford died before a third of the work was written.
  4. The Hand D additions to Sir Thomas More are written by the man who signed himself Shakespeare.
  5. The Hand D additions are most definitely NOT in Oxford's hand.
  6. Oxford's writing reveals a fenland accent, the canon author was from Warwickshire.
  7. No one refers to Oxford as a Bankside playwright.
  8. No one in Shakespeare's troupe ever mentions Oxford.
  9. Oxford had no connections to Bankside theatre.
  10. Oxford never turns up at other theatrical venues, innyards and places where Shakespeare's Company worked.
  11. Oxford spent the 1590s, the most turbulent and profitable decade of theatre development in history, trying to secure himself a tin monopoly—failing largely because of a weak head for business.

Cognitive Bias—a trap Oxfordians cannot escape

The Cognitive Bias Codex provides a perfect index to the misplaced confidence of every illogical argument in the Doubter's Codex. They could have been made for each other.

For a Guide to the Shakespeare Authorship Question, start here on Oxfraud.com. You've probably formed an impression of what to expect there. If you'd like a cooler, more scholarly overview then check out The Shakespeare Authorship Site.

For a look at what you're in for, should you find yourself on the edge of doubt and in search of discussion, this is a salutary lesson on what the post-Authorship Question world looks like now to people outside the Looking Glass World of alternative candidates. It's become a pastime for the very thick-skinned.

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Created by Oxfraud.com