By Professor Stanley Wells, CBE
It’s not often, when one publishes a book, that a parody of it appears shortly afterwards – or, indeed, ever – but this has happened with Shakespeare Beyond Doubt, the collection of essays that I edited along with Paul Edmondson and that was published by Cambridge University Press in April of this year. Round about the time of publication an article appeared in the Evening Standard saying that Alexander Waugh, grandson and editor of the more famous Evelyn, intended to publish a riposte. It didn’t materialize quite as soon as was threatened but a few days ago there appeared on my desk and on Paul Edmondson’s a volume which clones ours. Entitled Shakespeare Beyond Doubt? – note the question mark – and published by an American press which describes itself as providing ‘self-publishing services’ (which one might think of as a vanity press), it is co-edited with John M. Shahan, described as ‘Chairman of the Shakespeare Authorship Coalition’. It has a jacket modelled on ours and uses a similar type face. And like ours it is made up of a number of contributions discussing various aspects of the topic. Over seventy pages print material which has been available on the internet for well over a year. Very soon after the copies arrived the editor of The Literary Review, formerly edited by Alexander Waugh’s father Auberon, got in touch with me to say – are you listening carefully? – that they were publishing a review of our book written by Alexander Waugh, and inviting me to review his book. And then a few days later my co-editor and I received copies of a letter addressed to Peter Kyle, Chairman of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, of which I am Honorary President, challenging us to take part in a public debate about the authorship of Shakespeare. The letter replicates a challenge also published in the book, where an extraordinarily elaborate format of debate involving a whole week of events and counter-events is proposed.
Intellectual disagreement is welcome but there are several aspects of the Waugh/Shahan volume that I find unpleasant and indeed offensive. Its editors falsely and repeatedly say that our book is published by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. And the back jacket is headed ‘The book the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust Doesn’t Want You to read’. It goes on to claim ‘Never has the case against the Stratford man been made so clear and compelling’, describing itself as a ‘withering reply’ to our book. Emphasis on the Trust is part and parcel of a slur campaign, repeating a technique common among the doubters, implying that those who defend Shakespeare’s authorship are influenced by mercenary considerations, fearful that if their case is accepted they will suffer financially. In fact our book is published by Cambridge University Press whose Syndics accepted our proposal after receiving reports from several independent and unidentified readers. Moreover almost all of our contributors, who include well over twenty distinguished English and American scholars, have no connection with the Trust.
The essays in the Waugh/Shahan volume rehearse arguments that will come as no surprise to anyone who is familiar with the ways in which the controversy has manifested itself, and it is endorsed by the usual supporters such as Sir Derek Jacobi, Mark Rylance, and other worthies including a ‘Clinical Professor of Psychiatry: Faculty Expert on Shakespeare for Media Contacts, Georgetown University, Washington D. C.’– how sad it is that great Shakespeare actors such as Rylance and Jacobi (who once supported Marlowe as the author but now roots for the Earl of Oxford) should be so ready to bite the hand that has fed them for so long!
The book repeats arguments made elsewhere such as that Shakespeare couldn’t have written the plays because on the evidence of the surviving signatures he had poor handwriting. If that is a valid argument, perhaps someone will soon dispute my authorship of the books I have written. Waugh in his essay repeats claims, which I dispute, that the plays show a detailed knowledge of Italian topography but doesn’t acknowledge that while there is no evidence that Shakespeare went to Italy, equally there is no evidence that he did not. Much, as so often, is made of the presence or absence of hyphens in printed forms of the author’s name. There is no systematic attempt to controvert the arguments for Shakespeare’s authorship which I advance in my essay in our book. As usual, there is an irrational refusal to accept posthumous evidence however strong it may be.
What a pity that the great comic novelist Evelyn Waugh is not in a position to comment on these two books! I should like to have been able to see what his satiric pen would have made of them.
Stanley Wells CBE is Emeritus Professor of Shakespeare Studies of the University of Birmingham, Honorary President of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, and the author of Shakespeare, Sex, and Love (OUP). He is also the co-editor (with Paul Edmondson) of Shakespeare Beyond Doubt (CUP) and contributes to the website Blogging Shakespeare.