Professor Stanley Wells of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust has had enough. A highly regarded, well-published, not entirely uncontroversial scholar in the field of early modern studies, Wells is tired of putting up with the continuing propagation of the conspiracy nonsense that claims that Shakespeare wasn’t Shakespeare. Wells has been a vocal critic of the anti-Shakespeareans for some time, but given the recent release of the film Anonymous, which ignores the space-time continuum and rational logic to argue that the Earl of Oxford was really Shakespeare, Wells isn’t standing for it any longer. He and the Rev. Dr. Paul Edmondson have written a "polemical essay"—a manifesto, really—and made it available in electronic form. Shakespeare Bites Back: Not So Anonymous, available for free download on www.bloggingshakespeare.com, is a lucid and much-needed perspective on the question of why Shakespeare is Shakespeare.
This short e-book of forty well-designed pages (compliments of MisFit, Inc.) is split into sections including “The Evidence for Shakespeare,” “Infiltrating the Academy,” “The Language of the Doubters,” “Speaking Up for Shakespeare,” and the more substantial “A Pro-Shakesperian Manifesto” (a not-too-subtle rebuttal to the so-called “doubt about Will” camp). The authors keep the tone fairly down-to-earth, though some academese creeps in (“absence of historical evidence is never the same as evidence of absence”).
Shakespeare Bites Back is an opening salvo in a more robust, more aggressive campaign against the intellectual vacuum that is anti-Shakespeareanism. As the authors note, the academic establishment has been wary of engaging with the anti-Shakespeareans, not least because so many academics and academic-types (myself included) feel that engagement is a frustrating and seemingly fruitless endeavor: how do you have honest engagement with parties who deny even the basic tenets of the scholarly process? But Wells and Edmondson are very clear about the stakes involved. In “Sucking Shakespeare’s Blood” they call anti-Shakespeare theory an “entirely parasitic phenomenon” and make no pretensions that anti-Shakespeareanism is conspiracy theory bunk, pure and simple. Of particular concern is “the way in recent years [anti-Shakespeareanism] has insidiously infiltrated the academy with the founding of Shakespeare Authorship courses in America at Concordia University and in England at Brunel University.” There is a sense, too, that because “professional academics have refused to treat the topic as one worthy of intellectual consideration” the anti-Shakespeareans have been allowed to grow like weeds, undeterred.
The “Pro-Shakespearean Manifesto” begins with a statement about semantics. They prefer to label the conspiracy theorists as “anti-Shakespearean” instead of “anti-Stratfordian” since the latter term separates the man from his work. It’s a small point, but Wells and Edmondson recognize the value of a good label for their opponents. They also place the burden of proof on the anti-Shakespeareans to disprove the historical evidence linking Shakespeare to—Shakespeare. They lament the fact that a sole-governing interest in “proving” Shakespeare wasn’t Shakespeare leads to readings of Shakespeare’s works that are almost entirely biographical in nature. The Shakespeare authorship conspiracy reduces what are undoubtedly some of the greatest writings in the Western world to what they can tell the conspiracy theorists about the “real” or “true” author, at the expense of more compelling and intellectually engaging interpretations. Finally, they argue that a “neutral” view (“What does it matter who wrote Shakespeare? We have the words, don’t we?!”) is, in fact, harmful. Normal channels of scholarship have long ago concluded and re-concluded and re-re-concluded, from many kinds of evidence, that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare. “To claim otherwise,” Wells and Edmondson write, “is to deny history, the nature of historical evidence, and also to sever from the works any understanding of the humanity and personality behind them.” (Literary theorists take note: the author is decidedly not dead.)
Shakespeare Bites Back is a timely tract in what comes across as a new phase in the authorship conspiracy “debate” (even the word “debate” implies that there is a legitimate topic under discussion—but there is not): sides are more clearly defined; positions are taken, and the Shakespeare scholars, long aslumber to the growing threat, are called to arms. What is sad is that a mind such as Wells’s must spend its time combating such basic and insidious theories. But perhaps this is the price he, and the rest of us, must pay, for leaving Shakespeare’s garden so long untended.