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An Interview with Robert Barrett

by Roger Stritmatter

This interview was published along with the article “Teaching the next generation Oxford was Shakespeare” in the Winter 1999 Shakespeare Oxford Newsletter.

What did you want to accomplish when you introduced the Oxfordian viewpoint to your kids?It’s easier to say what I didn’t want to accomplish: I didn’t want to convince my ninth-grade students that de Vere was Shakespeare. From a teacher’s standpoint, the nature of the authorship debate itself was more interesting than my own, personal conviction of who the true Shakespeare was. Most kids read Shakespeare for the first time in the ninth grade. It’s part of their transition from young-adult literature to adult literature. For some of them, it’s a daunting prospect, so teachers must prepare students for the transition, guide them through it, and instill in them a love–or at least a healthy acceptance–of the new literature. In pedagogic terms, teachers try to address the affective domain of their students. In the ninth grade, that can be even more important than addressing the cognitive domain. The goal, after all, is to develop lifelong, independent learners who can gather facts and experiences and think about them when no teacher is around to help–and are eager to do it .

The other side of the coin, of course, is the cognitive domain. It’s not really a choice for a teacher; that is, affective or cognitive. I want my kids to become enthusiastic, confident readers of challenging literature such as Shakespeare, but I also want them to think about it, and to think about it well. The buzz term in the jargon of educators is “critical thinking,” and what better topic than the authorship question for introducing and exercising critical thinking skills!

For example, there’s the cognitive dissonance of knowing securely and even unquestioningly to the core of one’s young, fifteen-year-old being that Shakespeare is Shakespeare, and then someone comes along and suggests there’s a problem with the question. There’s the accretion of facts that need to be weighed and assembled into a meaningful whole. There’s the appositive learning in history, culture and biography. There’s the interpretation of texts, academic integrity, research methods, tolerance, fairness. There’s the wonder of it all, the reflection on possibilities. The topic is so rich with learning opportunities! And it’s fueled by teacher enthusiasm and the natural, almost proprietary predispositions of teenagers: their iconoclasm and love of mystery.

So, when I stood in front of the class a few years ago, still excited with having read Ogburn’s The Mysterious William Shakespeare–twice, in the span of a couple of weeks–I was aware that I was doing what I had done many times before. I was sharing something with my kids, and the unfeigned and authentic enthusiasm of my interest in this new topic, a topic of some intellectual scope, which had the potential of being interesting to them, too. I really didn’t give much thought to it. I certainly didn’t have a lesson plan or something I consciously “wanted to accomplish.” I just wanted to talk to them spontaneously.

What was the response?

I underestimated the topic the response was explosive. They asked question after question, many of them of the “Yeah, but what about?” ilk. They weren’t just asking me about what I believed. They wanted to know about the topic itself, to satisfy their own aroused curiosity. They pushed me for clarification and more details. They asked me to repeat certain things I’d already said minutes before. They wanted to know why no one opened Shaksper’s tomb to check for clues, why people get angry about the topic, why de Vere couldn’t sign his name on the plays. Did Shaksper know de Vere? Where are the handwritten plays de Vere wrote? When the tempo of questions and answers slowed down, I’d throw out another tidbit, such as the Gad’s Hill parallel, and the race was on again. I’d never seen anything like it.

What obstacles did you run into?

The part about my being “right” was disconcerting. I didn’t want to be right. I wanted to make them curious, to question, to discuss, to argue, to disagree, to challenge, to think, to look forward to reading Romeo & Juliet, but I didn’t want to be right. I wasn’t even entirely sure myself, and the very idea of presenting myself as having the answer that brilliant scholars for two hundred years had been searching for was arrogant and presumptuous. I want my kids to think critically, but some of them were agreeing uncritically. Being right was ending a thinking process I wanted to begin. It was tossing them just one more “fact” they would receive in school that day to ignore, store, and forget.

I haven’t yet gotten a grip on how to handle that dilemma. Enthusiasm is a two- edged sword in this case. It helps instill an interest in Shakespeare and the reading of Romeo and Juliet, but it also sells the side of the authorship debate I strongly support and find difficult to hide. I saw during the past year that the more neutral I was in my presentation of authorship, the less interested the kids were and the less effectively I was addressing their affective domain where it touched on the reading of Shakespeare. It was a trade-off. I reduced the kids’ uncritical acceptance of my position on de Vere, but instead of more critical thinking, I seemed to gain less interest in the whole topic–and in the reading of Romeo and Juliet!

Why do you suppose some of your secondary school colleagues in Silverdale have reacted to the authorship question not, as you have, as an educational opportunity, but instead recoiled in fear, to the extent of questioning your professional integrity for raising the subject in your classroom?

Simple. The notion that Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare is preposterous, ludicrous! It defies simple logic and a four-hundred-year-old historical record. Shakespeare’s biography takes at least 300 pages of fully-documented text to do it justice. It’s a matter of record that Shakespeare was born at Stratford-on-Avon, and to this day one can find his school and monument there. Scholars at every college and university in the world study his life and work. If proof were to be found that Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare, it would be front-page news, but [since] there’s never been any front-page news, [therefore] there’s never been any proof. What can be found are countless conspiracists and lunatics who attack whatever is good and true and divert decent people from their proper pursuits to counter them. The very idea that an educator would poison young, defenseless minds and shift the burden to others to reconstitute them, namely teachers who are already over-worked teaching facts, not delusions, stains the profession and causes guilt by association. It’s shameful; it’s irresponsible. And it’s infuriating!

…to many Stratfordians, particularly at the public school level, any anti-Stratfordian thesis is so patently absurd, it’s reflexively rejected with nary a second of reflection. There’s no real possibility to activate an initial curiosity, because the reflex instantaneously blocks it. The comfort and security of collegial support, the acute discomfort of belonging to a diminished profession, the resentment of an increased workload–such things just serve to justify the unthinking, hostile Stratfordian response. Again, I emphasize that what I am interpreting here is the psychology at the public school level, where teachers are normally much more occupied in the classroom than in the research library, much more involved in presenting what they already know than what they are discovering.

What can other Oxfordians, readers of this newsletter who may not be involved in secondary education, do to support efforts such as your own to introduce an informed discussion of authorship into the schools?

The target of “secondary schools” is much too broad for what we might want to consider doing through the good offices of Shakespeare Oxford Society. In junior high school, it’s normally quite all we can do just to introduce the controversy!

In the broadest terms, that means– first–creating a little cognitive dissonance with the suggestions that Shaksper might not be Shakespeare, but de Vere most likely is. The specific objectives here are to spark interest and intellectual involvement in the authorship controversy, to raise doubt about the traditional attribution of the works to the Stratford man, and to introduce Edward de Vere.

Once in high school, students can probe much more independently and use much more effective intellectual tools. My point here is that there is a distinct and considerable difference between the abilities of junior high school and high school students, so the Shakespeare Oxford Society does not have one, but two targets, two age levels to support with materials, services, or whatever its involvement might become.

My teaching of authorship is largely unplanned, much like an extemporaneous speech. I have an idea of what I want to cover, so from the very beginning of the school year, I look for ‘teachable moments.’ With wall posters of Castle Hedingham, and the Droeshout engraving, and a plaque reading ‘De Vere Lives!’ over the front chalk board, I carefully lead my kids over time to ask me about authorship, and in answering their questions, I allow class discussions to develop. In a way, they gradually and unsuspectingly take ownership of the topic. By the time we arrive at the fourth-quarter Shakespeare block, we’re ready to draw in the loose ties of all our talks and address the topic of authorship a little more coherently, and we begin looking for de Vere clues in our reading of Romeo and Juliet.

A possible Shakespeare Oxford Society role in my teaching? Again, I’m not sure, but I wonder what I could do with the following:

1) A video documentary biography of Edward de Vere, along the lines of the one for William Shakespeare that’s widely available from cable television’s A&E Biography series. Like it or not, video is an important teaching tool for this generation of kids.

2) A separate web site for research by students (and curious faculty). It would contain such pages as topics-cum-recommended research sources; links to important internet authorship sources, such as Mark Alexander’s wonderful The Shakespeare Authorship SOURCEBOOK; practical advice for writing reports; current authorship news; essay contests with publication of winning entries; school spotlights, etc.

3) A separate web site for teachers. This one would contain curriculum blocks, lesson plans, teaching strategies, issues involving faculty and administration relations, professional development announcements (annual conventions), lending library, roster of available speakers, etc.

4) Oxfordian texts and reading guides for the plays most often read at the secondary schools (for example, Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, Hamlet, Julius Caesar, The Merchant of Venice and Midsummer Night’s Dream).

Who would create these things? Who would pay for them? Who would administer them? If not the Shakespeare Oxford Society, no one–but efforts such as these could possibly build the foundation for future Oxfordian growth. Costly conventions and current publications and planned libraries largely cater to present members. There needs to be a sea change from the insular applications of scarce present resources, which seem to do little more than maintain status quo, to applications that work through public schools into the institutions of higher learning.

Wouldn’t the SOS recover some of the costs in increased membership? Wouldn’t Stratfordian bastions at the University eventually be forced to respond to the increasing pressure of the Oxfordian influx? I think perhaps so.

How is your current situation at Central Kitsap Junior High?

The situation today seems better than it was two years ago, although I can’t say why, exactly. Sometimes–rarely–inter-necine battles simply exhaust themselves when cooler heads prevail, and perhaps that explains, in part, what’s happened here.

I’ve tried to tone down my authorship rhetoric in the classroom, although there’s a perverse streak in me that surfaces sporadically, such as when I casually substitute the name Edward de Vere for Shakespeare when reading out loud, talking to the class, or writing notes in the margins of student compositions! I’ve also cautioned the kids and instructed them how to handle authorship situations with their “gaining” teachers at the high school.

I still hear from my former students that discussion of authorship is not welcome in many of the English classrooms, but apparently that is very gradually changing. At two of the three high schools, there is at least one teacher who treats students who raise the subject with restraint and circumspection bordering on passive interest. One of them, in fact, was an advisor to one of my past students who was selected as a Distinguished Graduate, based partially on her research paper that argued the Oxfordian case. An indicator of at least a tacit truce on the part of the more militant Stratfordians is their continuing silence and avoidance of contact with me. There can be little doubt, I think, that there is a softening of Stratfordian resistance, and it came not directly and exclusively from any bestselling books (Ogburn, Whalen, Sobran) or research finding, but from the constant pressure Oxfordians have exerted over the past nearly-50 years.

A whole series of events, from the American Bar Association’s series of journal articles in the 1950s, to the SOS Home Page and the Supreme Court’s involvement in the current debates, have helped to bring about this change. Each of these things was scorned at the time–and continues to be scorned– but the total relentless pressure and variegated nature of these iconoclastic attacks on the Stratfordian religion have brought a shift from Stratfordian hostility and unthinking lemming mentality to, if not acceptance of the Oxford theory, then an uneasy respectability for the theory, or at the very least a numb, passive acceptance of the existence of an honest controversy. Time is on our side.

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