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An Hour With Wells and Edmondson

Note from the Editor

By Alex McNeil

I hope you’ll read with care the interview, conducted by Don Rubin and Patricia Keeney, with Stanley Wells and Paul Edmondson of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. After you’re finished, I don’t know if you’ll be laughing out loud or throwing your copy of the Newsletter across the room. But read it carefully, for if nothing else you’ll easily spot all the classic examples of faulty reasoning: argument from authority, straw men, denigrating opponents as “amateurs,” deliberately mischaracterizing the opposing arguments, and, of course, reasoning backwards from the desired conclusion. All of this may be found in a space of only about 2800 words.

Actually, the interview could have been encapsulated into about fourteen words, uttered early on by Edmondson: “We won’t separate the man from the plays. . . . So no more Shakespeare without Stratford.” As far as he and Wells are concerned, that’s the end of the story, and anyone who refuses to agree with their Manichean view isn’t worth hearing from.

But a couple of things caught my attention. First is Wells’s statement (made before the interview, and brought up in Rubin and Keeney’s first question) that he didn’t intend to read Mark Anderson’s Shakespeare By Another Name until it had been “categorically proven” that the Stratford man was not the author of the Shakespeare canon. That reminded me of something I’d read years ago in a biography of Galileo. Turning his telescope to the night skies, Galileo was the first to see the moons of Jupiter, objects which obviously revolved around something other than Earth. When he invited a professor of mathematics at the local university to look through the telescope, the professor declined the offer because he knew that there was nothing to see.

Second is Wells’s description of Diana Price as a “good scholar,” a rare compliment directed at someone who is not a Stratfordian. Price, of course, is the author of Shakespeare’s Unorthodox Biography: New Evidence of an Authorship Problem (first published in 2001). Among the most important findings in her book is the chart in which Price searches for corroborative evidence that Shakspere of Stratford was a literary man. She contrasts what is known about him with what is known about twenty-four of his literary contemporaries in ten specific areas: evidence of education; record of correspondence; evidence of having been paid to write; evidence of a direct relationship with a patron; extant manuscript; handwritten inscriptions touching on literary matters; commendatory verses or epistles sent or received; miscellaneous records referring to the subject as a writer; evidence of books owned, given, or borrowed; and notice at death as a writer. Among the twenty-four contemporaries, the median score was 6 out of 10, and only one writer scored as low as 3 (John Webster). Shakspere of Stratford trails all the rest with a score of zero, despite the fact that his literary career was longer than most of the others’ and despite the fact that more effort has been made to find any piece of evidence about Shakspere than has been made for any of the other men.

Rubin and Keeney bring up Price’s chart during the interview; Wells and Edmondson are obviously aware of it. Their response is that Price’s “position only makes sense if you refuse to accept posthumous references. You can’t simply ignore the Folio.” Okay, then, let’s consider the Folio and see how that affects Shakspere’s score. First, let’s make the big assumption that the 1623 Folio is indeed intended to suggest that Shakspere of Stratford is Shakespeare. By my count—and I think I’m being generous—from the introductory matter in the Folio you can infer that Shakspere was paid to write (the fact that his fellow actors, Heminges and Condell, refer to his manuscripts); and you can say that he received the commendatory verses that appear in the Folio. Let’s add up our scores. By golly! That brings Shakspere up from zero all the way to 2, still below all of his contemporaries, and pathetically below the median score of 6. There’s still nothing to connect him to the other eight criteria posited by Diana Price. What do you say to that, SBT Honorary President Wells and Head of Research and Knowledge Edmondson?

By the way, how did Paul Edmondson acquire his title “Head of Knowledge”? Was he formerly “Head of ‘I Think So’” or “Head of Superstition and Belief, ” and was promoted?  Or was he “Torso of Knowledge” or “Left Nostril of Knowledge,” and was similarly promoted?


An Hour With Wells and Edmondson

Stanley Wells and Paul Edmondson (photos by Shakespeare Birthplace Trust)

Stanley Wells and Paul Edmondson (photos by Shakespeare Birthplace Trust)

[Don Rubin and Patricia Keeney had the opportunity to interview Stanley Wells and Paul Edmondson in August 2014 in Stratford, Ontario. Wells is Honorary President, and Edmondson is Head of Research and Knowledge, of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. Wells had just given a lecture at the Stratford Festival and both he and Edmondson had participated in a book signing for their 2013 book, Shakespeare Beyond Doubt: Evidence, Argument, Controversy. The interview has been edited.]

 QUESTION (by Rubin and Keeney):  Professor Wells, when we first met at a Shakespeare Festival in Romania about three years ago, we asked you in passing if you had read Mark Anderson’s book, Shakespeare By Another Name, a book that posed the possibility that Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, could have written the plays attributed to Shakespeare. You said then that you hadn’t read the book and that you wouldn’t read any such book until it had been categorically proven that the plays of Shakespeare were not written by William of Stratford.

Now you and Reverend Edmondson have come out with a book—Shakespeare Beyond Doubt—that is all about the so-called authorship question. Why? What has changed in this time? Why would you now say that anyone who even wants to argue the authorship question is “anti-Shakespearean”? It seems right off the bat you are slapping people like us, academics and writers who have taught and written about Shakespeare with love and care all our lives. Why would you say that those of us who have trouble with the Stratford man’s story are anti-Shakespeareans?

STANLEY WELLS:  I think Paul should answer that.

PAUL EDMONDSON:  Our thinking from the beginning was that Shakespeare has traditionally been connected to the town of Stratford-upon-Avon. To say he was not, immediately means you are against the idea of Shakespeare as the author of the plays. We say Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare and to question that does make you anti-Shakespearean. We decided to take a stand. We won’t separate the man from the plays. We won’t do that. I don’t see that being done with any other artist. No one says “I want Michelangelo but I don’t want him to be connected to Florence.” You can’t talk about Shakespeare without including one of the key places that makes Shakespeare Shakespeare. Therefore it seemed much more honest and upfront to say “anti-Shakespearean.”  Refusing to accept that connection is to deny a basic part of Shakespearean studies. You can’t separate the background from the work. You can’t take that away. To do so is to create a totally different narrative. So no more Shakespeare without Stratford. The Warwickshire background is necessary. What he studied in the Stratford grammar school is significant.

Q: So simply separating the plays and poetry from the small amounts of information that exist about the Stratford man makes one “anti-Shakespearean”?  Isn’t that rather offensive?  Neither of us has any doubt that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare. The question is rather who exactly the person called “Shakespeare” was, and whether that name could have been a pseudonym?

SW: Well, if it were really the case that everyone agreed that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare we might have a place to start a discussion, but there are people out there who disagree. Yes, some say that the Earl of Oxford wrote Shakespeare and some say that Mary Sidney wrote Shakespeare. Many people out there refuse to accept the basic premise that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare.  Some of these people are actually good scholars like Diana Price. But those who are adamant that Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare are absolutely wrong. People like Alexander Waugh and John Shahan don’t want to have William Shakespeare involved at all. Then there are others—Marlovians and Baconians. People who would rather it be anybody in the world other than Shakespeare who wrote Shakespeare. This book is intended to make it clear once and for all that it really was Shakespeare who wrote Shakespeare. We are dealing with this head-on.

Q:  That comes across loud and clear. What also comes across is a huge amount of animosity toward anyone who questions that position. And sarcasm and personal attacks. Why can it not simply be an intellectual debate? Why does it have to be so divisive?  Why can’t we look at the question from various points of view?

SW:  Because there is no question. There is simply no proof that anyone other than Shakespeare wrote the plays. And by Shakespeare I mean William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon no matter how many different ways his name might have been spelled.

Q:  The fact that the medial e in his name never appears anywhere in the family history (as A.J. Pointon has noted) and that it is never spelled with a medial e in anything he ever signed, that doesn’t bother you?

PE: That proves nothing. We find spelling inconsistencies even today. Should the adjective be spelled Shakespearean (with an e) or Shakespearian (with an i)?  I don’t see that it matters very much. We know who we are speaking about. It’s simply a difference here of American spelling or British spelling. It means nothing. Of course British usage is losing out here to American usage because of the number of American scholars writing. But so what? If -ean is the generally adopted form today it changes nothing at the center of Shakespeare studies. Usage and spelling change. There’s no plot here.

Q:  Perhaps this idea is too contemporary, but it’s hard to imagine any author being casual with the spelling of his or her name.  If you spell it one way on a published edition, why would you spell it differently on a legal document?

PE:  In some editions he is called “W. Shakespeare” and in some he is called “William Shakespeare.” In some it is hyphenated and others not. I don’t think the consistency argument proves anything. We are dealing with 500-year-old spelling and printing conventions and the like. It’s a cul-de-sac, one of many followed by anti-Shakespeareans.

SW:  You are the ones saying an author should care about how his name is spelled. In the 16th century some authors obviously didn’t care that much. The greatest writer of the period didn’t care that much. Surely that should tell you something.

Q:  Or perhaps it tells us that one William of Stratford—rather than the author—didn’t care that much about how the author’s name appeared in print.

PE:  The fact is the anti-Shakespeareans—or anti-Stratfordians, if you prefer—are saying that you can have Shakespeare without Stratford. We are saying that is not possible. You can’t have one without the other. That’s the crux of it.

Q:  In the Waugh-Shahan book, Shakespeare Beyond Doubt? An Industry in Denial, they ask you to debate this position and they offer money to the Birthplace Trust if you can prove your position “without doubt.” Why won’t you accept that debate?

SW:  The position has been debated many times before. I have participated in such debates. There was even one that also sought to raise money for charity. It has been decided. One more debate will prove nothing. I certainly won’t be involved in any more debates on the subject. Even when the people are good, the debates go nowhere.

Q: Can we speak about Diana Price’s chart [in her book, Shakespeare’s Unorthodox Biography] comparing Shakespeare with a dozen other writers of the period? For every one of the others there is some proof that they were writers. There is nothing connecting the man from Stratford with the works of Shakespeare.

SW: Her position only makes sense if you refuse to accept posthumous references. You can’t simply ignore the Folio. If we ignore posthumous evidence we could ignore many historical figures of note.

PE:  The real question here is how does one approach history of any sort. How does one establish any historical fact? Where is the starting point for our knowledge of Shakespeare? Anyone wishing to show that Shakespeare of Stratford didn’t write the plays has to ignore huge amounts of evidence to show he did. There is evidence that he lived, he worked and he had a real life. Add into that the posthumous evidence of his work as a writer. You have to deal with it all.

The posthumous evidence is enormously valuable. It can’t be ignored. Are we denying the wife and family and the church in Stratford? You can’t ignore it. I find it frustrating and worrying that some are willing to ignore all that. As for the Folio, It took seven years to get into print. That’s not an unreasonable amount of time when you think of how long any public tribute takes today. I can’t understand why anyone would think those involved in it were trying to hide the identity of an author who died seven years earlier. It’s a curiously skewed way of reading history.

Q:  No one is denying that William of Stratford existed. The question is simply whether or not he wrote the plays. It’s hard to connect him to the plays based on contemporaneous evidence. It seems there is a debate and we’re wondering why we can’t get that debate into our schools and universities? Why can’t the varying positions be put up for discussion? Why are academic careers put into jeopardy if someone wants to even open up this question? It seems that could be a way to clear it up once and for all.

PE:  I have my doubts. Five hundred years of expertise has spoken.

Q:  Five hundred years ago the perceived wisdom was that the sun revolved about the earth. The church was the ultimate authority then and that was their official position.  It turned out to be wrong. Galileo tried to challenge that error but was denied the opportunity to do so. In fact, it took the church five hundred years to admit that it was wrong. How much good science did we lose in the interim? How many good scientists? Isn’t there a similar issue here? If yours is a correct position, doesn’t it too need to be tested and validated?

SW:  It has been tested and validated. And if others want to continue to argue against all logic, they are free to do that. Human folly goes on. I’m sorry, the position is not similar.

Q:  But there are arguments that won’t go away. Shouldn’t you as an academic be involved in the public conversation?

SW:  That’s why we wrote this book. We are in those conversations.

Q:  But the two Beyond Doubt books are like two monologues.  They are not answering the same questions.  That’s why the debate format makes some sense. Your book and the Shahan-Waugh book pretty much ignore one another’s points.

SW:  I just don’t see any value in going back over the established positions. It’s a huge waste of time. I have written quite specifically on the issue and I don’t think spending more time on it is warranted. Things like hyphens have no bearing on anything whatsoever.

PE:  Do we really need a debate on whether Oxford wrote a series of juvenilia before he supposedly wrote the plays of Shakespeare? We would have to get rid of a whole lot of hurdles like that before a new debate could be properly targeted. “Oxford visited Venice and therefore he wrote The Merchant of Venice?” There is too much to scrap before any debate would make sense. I just think that too many of these anti-Shakespeareans close down before a word is said. They are not open to simply hearing facts. That’s not helpful.

Q:  And yet many on the other side would say the same thing about your position, that Stratfordians are closed to anything that might endanger their officially held position. That seems like something of a draw there.

Let’s move on to a different topic if we can.  There have been numerous suggestions of late that Shakespeare—whoever he was—did not work alone, that many of the plays show multiple hands. Is that a position you can accept?

SW:  Yes, of course.  We have long been aware of different voices in the different plays,  even different hands. The research in this area is important and ongoing.

PE:  These are serious academic issues.  Too many of the anti-Shakespearean debates are put forward by people who are not academics or are working outside their fields of expertise. Lawyers and scientists rather than specialists in Elizabethan literature or theatre of the period. If the arguments were coming from people in those fields, from people working within the academy, they might make more sense. But the arguments are coming from amateurs.

Q: Some of those so-called amateurs are extraordinarily knowledgeable in the field. They are bringing fresh eyes. And they are open to exploring new ideas in ways that many so-called specialists in academe are not. To be a doubter within an English or a humanities department, or even in a theatre department, is to run the risk of being held back from advancement or not getting support to do one’s research. We are suggesting as academics that academe is not welcoming to authorship doubters. It’s an area of inquiry that universities seem to be afraid to get into. Shouldn’t you both be trying to stop that?

PE:  If the majority in academe are in agreement, perhaps there is no question.

Q:  Ibsen once said, “the majority is always wrong.”

PE: These people should be pleased that we are publishing on this topic. We have oxygenated the discussion. We’ve given all of these people an opportunity to parade all of their ideas and their candidates out in public again—Delia Bacon to the 17th Earl of Oxford. Personally, I find the whole thing a bit scary, the idea that there are so many people out there trying to hide the identity of someone who lived five centuries ago. It makes no rational sense to me.

Q:  Perhaps the real problem here that there is no smoking gun on either side. We don’t have anything from William of Stratford saying “I wrote the plays” and so doubters keep looking around to see if there could be an alternative author.

SW:  What it ultimately suggests is that there is a longing for a fuller biography of Shakespeare. Obviously, none of us have all the information we would like. Until that  changes—and I don’t think it will—I believe we need to accept the traditional position and stop wasting all this energy on plots and nonsense.

Q:  Will a smoking gun ever be found for either side?

SW:  I have my doubts.  So many of us have looked for so long in so many possible places. I don’t think anything new will be turned up. If anything new is to be found, it will probably happen accidentally. A letter in a music book or something. The obvious places have been examined. But will a music scholar understand what he or she has found? Will it be ignored? That’s a question, too. Or something tucked behind a painting of the period. Who knows? The fact is there are still thousands and thousands of manuscripts all across England that have never really been examined by scholars in the field.

Q:  Perhaps we have to go deeper into letters and papers connected to the Cecil line or Ben Jonson.

SW:  I can’t say what might be found in the future. But I repeat, I don’t think things will be found as a result of setting out to find them. It will be an accident. Something will be found by someone doing other work. I did research when I was a graduate student and turned up things totally unconnected to what I set out to find—letters and the like.

PE:  My position is that if any evidence is ever found to prove that Shakespeare of Stratford didn’t write the plays it will be a Shakespeare scholar who finds it. And that is very, very unlikely. I don’t think an amateur from another field will be the one to change history.

Q:  Will the animosity between the positions ever ease up?

SW:  One must allow people to express their opinions even when those opinions are wrong. If others get angry at what they feel are untruths or gross exaggerations then they get angry. That is human nature.


[Don Rubin and Patricia Keeney are professors and writers based at Toronto’s York University, he in Theatre Studies, she in English and Creative Writing. He was the founding editor, and editor for eight years, of the quarterly journal Canadian Theatre Review and was the series editor of Routledge’s six-volume World Encyclopedia of Contemporary Theatre. He is also a trustee of the Shakespeare Oxford Fellowship. Patricia Keeney is the author of nine volumes of poetry and one novel and the winner of the Nathan Cohen Award for Criticism in 2012. Don and Patricia are also husband and wife.]

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