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Remembering Rollett and Debunking Shapiro (Again)

by Bryan H. Wildenthal [1]

Bryan H. Wildenthal is Professor of Law at Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego, CA

Bryan H. Wildenthal, Professor of Law, Thomas Jefferson School of Law (San Diego)

(A free printable and citable pdf version of this essay is available here.)

On June 29, 2016, the New York Times once again gave a platform to a Stratfordian academic to peddle nonsense on the Shakespeare authorship question (SAQ). Oddly enough (bear with me, there’s a connection), this made me think of the late John M. Rollett, a British scientist, amateur Shakespeare scholar, and much-loved friend of Oxfordians and other authorship skeptics on both sides of the Atlantic. Dr. Rollett died October 31, 2015, and is sorely missed. I deeply regret I never had the chance to meet him personally myself.

The Times paraphrased Professor James Shapiro of Columbia University, a thoroughly credentialed Shakespeare “expert,” as gleefully claiming that newly studied documents relating to the Stratford man’s coat-of-arms “come with a nice bonus” by “clearly refut[ing] skeptics who continue to argue—to the deep exasperation of most scholars—that William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon was not actually the author of the works attributed to him.” (Jennifer Schuessler, “Shakespeare: Actor. Playwright. Social Climber.” New York Times, June 29, 2016.)

Spoiler alert: They don’t.

Most authorship skeptics have long conceded the rather skimpy evidence (mainly posthumous) indicating that “Shakspere” of Stratford (that’s how his name was actually spelled in most vital personal records) was an actor (a “player” in Elizabethan lingo). The evidence hyped by Shapiro and the New York Times merely adds some interesting fragments that seem to confirm that. Shakspere also seems to have been an investor and manager in an acting company—and of course a “social climber” who sought a coat-of-arms. But these overly touted documents do not even hint that he was also a writer of any kind, as Shakespeare Oxford Fellowship (SOF) President Thomas Regnier pointed out in rebuttal. Several of us wrote letters to the Times to protest these misrepresentations, but the news cycle moved on and America’s newspaper of record has shown no interest in correcting this tendentious piece of Stratfordian propaganda.

As John Shahan, Chair of the Shakespeare Authorship Coalition (SAC), commented to associates in the SOF, the coat-of-arms documents actually deepen the profound and longstanding doubts about the Stratfordian theory. Actors had low social status. Surely Shakspere, if he was a playwright and poet, would have touted his fame and success as such. His contemporary and fellow Warwickshire native Michael Drayton was a playwright-poet who apparently obtained his own coat-of-arms with no problems. Why did Shakspere, supposedly the literary toast of London (far outshining Drayton), supposedly with a noble patron (as Stratfordians typically argue) in the Earl of Southampton, encounter the difficulty that he apparently did?

Shakspere probably knew Drayton, as many Stratfordians have argued. Shakspere’s son-in-law, Dr. John Hall, even left a note about treating Drayton for a fever, praising him as an excellent poet. Oddly, Dr. Hall left us no hint that he thought his own father-in-law was any kind of writer (neither did any other family member or descendant). As Ramon Jiménez has shown, Hall and Drayton are among ten leading associates who left significant writings but appear to have drawn no connection whatsoever between the Stratford man they knew and the author “Shakespeare.”[2]

The late John Rollett, Ph.D.

The late John Rollett, Ph.D.

But I digress. What does all this, you ask, have to do with remembering Dr. Rollett? Well, I’ve been working on a review of his fascinating final book, William Stanley as Shakespeare: Evidence of Authorship by the Sixth Earl of Derby (2015), which reminded me of his many contributions to scholarship on the authorship question. Perhaps most important is Rollett’s classic article on the “impossible doublet” in the First Folio’s Droeshout engraving purportedly depicting Shakespeare. (Brief Chronicles 2, 2010, p. 9, revised as ch. 10, pp. 113-25, in Shakespeare Beyond Doubt? Exposing an Industry in Denial, John M. Shahan & Alexander Waugh eds. 2013.) The SOF has posted a nice remembrance of Dr. Rollett, describing how his work led to an outstanding short video documentary produced by John Shahan of the SAC and Malcolm Blackmoor of the U.K.’s De Vere Society.

Another of Rollett’s enduring contributions was his uncovering of the “Wilmot fraud” as first reported in 2003 in an authorship newsletter article. The Wilmot fraud was the claim (first published in 1932) that a Reverend James Wilmot residing near Stratford-upon-Avon started investigating the authorship issue in 1785 and ended up doubting the traditional Stratfordian view and favoring the theory that Francis Bacon was the true author. The claim turned out to be based on a forged manuscript, possibly concocted by a Baconian advocate.

Professor James Shapiro, Columbia University

Professor James Shapiro, Columbia University

And now we come to the Shapiro connection, and why Shapiro’s latest blunder should remind us of Rollett and how a true gentleman and scholar operates—and sadly, how Shapiro operates. As authorship doubters (but too few others) are well aware, Shapiro, in an extraordinarily graceless manner, tried to misappropriate credit for himself for the debunking of the Wilmot fraud (robbing Rollett of his due). Shapiro tried to pull off this intellectual heist in his 2010 book, Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? (pp. 11-13).

The Wilmot story is fascinating, but almost more so is the story of its debunking. Daniel Wright, another scholarly authorship doubter, played an important role in pursuing and publicizing Rollett’s discovery. (Nathan Baca, “Wilmot Did Not: The ‘First’ Authorship Story Called Possible Baconian Hoax,” Shakespeare Matters 2:4, Summer 2003, p. 1.) What is most important about the episode is that it shows serious authorship scholars (and Rollett was one of our best) as very willing to debunk weak or invalid anti-Stratfordian claims, even when doing so might well give aid and comfort to Stratfordians seeking to depict the entire authorship inquiry as based on fraud and fantasy.

Shapiro was well aware of Rollett’s and Wright’s work and priority when it came to Wilmot, as revealed by his citation of the 2003 article—buried in the middle of a paragraph on the second of two pages of bibliographic notes on Shapiro’s prologue, nested within a 41-page overall haystack of notes at the end of his 2010 book. Even that stingy citation failed to provide proper credit, referring only to “Nathan Baca’s report of Daniel Wright’s unpublished research,” omitting any mention of Rollett, whose role was highlighted throughout the 2003 report. (Shapiro, Contested Will, p. 284.)

Shapiro also knows perfectly well that few readers ever peruse such dense endnotes. He dropped not a single hint in his unfootnoted three-page discussion 270 pages earlier, in the prologue to his book (pp. 11-13), that anyone other than himself played any role whatsoever in discovering the Wilmot fraud. On the contrary, he directly implied at the very outset that it was part of the “evidence I … uncover[ed] while researching this book.” (Shapiro, Contested Will, p. 11; see also, e.g., William S. Niederkorn, “Absolute Will,” Brooklyn Rail: Critical Perspectives on Arts, Politics, and Culture, April 2, 2010, reviewing Shapiro’s book, providing a further helpful overview of the uncovering of the Wilmot fraud, and calling Shapiro to account, though too mildly in my view.)

Shapiro’s self-serving treatment of the Wilmot episode was part of a broader agenda in his 2010 book. He framed his prologue around it to give the impression that fraudulent arguments and manufactured evidence are something especially associated with those who doubt the Stratfordian theory. His discussion of the Wilmot fraud started on the page after he introduced Delia Bacon (1811-1859) and John Thomas Looney (1870-1944) as pioneering proponents of the Baconian and Oxfordian theories, respectively—that the true author was possibly Francis Bacon (1561-1626; no relation to Delia Bacon), or (far more likely, as Looney first argued) Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford (1550-1604).

Shapiro followed that introduction with the dark comment that “[s]cholars on both sides of the debate have overlooked a great deal by taking these two polemicists at their word.” He continued: “More than any subject I’ve ever studied, the history of the authorship question is rife with forgeries and deception.” (Shapiro, Contested Will, p. 10.) Then came his breathless narrative of his own supposed discovery of the Wilmot fraud. (At least, thank goodness, Shapiro avoided the oft-heard Stratfordian cheap-shot, reminiscent of the kind of bullying sadly common on elementary-school playgrounds, of ridiculing Looney’s name.)

Shapiro is well aware that by far the most important and extensive frauds in the field of Shakespeare studies have been perpetrated by Stratfordians eager to bolster their cherished myth. Later in his book, he discussed two such forgers active in the late 18th and 19th centuries, William Henry Ireland and John Payne Collier, though he left it to the reader to connect the dots. (Shapiro, Contested Will, pp. 21-27 and 62-66.) As Niederkorn and Shahan have noted, Shapiro seemed to strain to link Ireland with later controversies over authorship doubt. (Shapiro, Contested Will, p. 27; see also Niederkorn.) And that’s all quite aside from an assortment of embarrassing factual mistakes in Shapiro’s 2010 book.[3]

Like Professor Shapiro, I am a tenured academic. (See endnote 1.) While there are good arguments in favor of academic job security, one problem with tenure is the sense of arrogance and impunity it apparently gives some academics who feel they can just get away with the kind of conduct of which Shapiro stands repeatedly exposed. It is sadly ironic, in this light, that so many credentialed and tenured “professional” Shakespeare scholars at our most prestigious academic institutions (to be fair, not necessarily Shapiro himself), so often loftily disparage and ridicule as “amateurs” the many thoughtful scholars, like the late Dr. Rollett, who have pursued the authorship question.

I have certainly made mistakes in my own academic career, as have plenty of people (both Stratfordians and skeptics) while pursuing the SAQ, which is a complex and difficult subject. But serious authorship doubters have generally tried to own up to our mistakes. Our organizations, conferences, and publications have provided a free, open, and vigorous forum for the all-important criticism, debate, and error-correction that scholarly inquiry thrives upon. We have welcomed Stratfordians to attend and speak at our conferences and publish in our journals, while they snobbishly spurn and exclude us from their conferences, publications, and online discussion groups. How ironic that they often attribute the Oxfordian theory itself to aristocratic “snobbery”!

When you have lifetime job security and the public credibility of the “professor” title, easily able to place your work with major publishers and get quoted in leading newspapers, you deserve to be held to a very high standard. Shapiro fell spectacularly short in his 2010 book, and again in his recent comments in the New York Times.

Shapiro also missed the mark with his 2015 book, The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606, littered with errors that should deeply embarrass any supposed “expert,” and built on an extremely dubious and overconfident argument that the Bard wrote certain plays well into the reign of King James—with the nice bonus for Shapiro that (if true) this would eliminate Oxford as the author given his death in 1604. For the systematic refutation by some of our best authorship scholars, see Contested Year: Errors, Omissions and Unsupported Statements in James Shapiro’s “The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606” (Mark Anderson, Alexander Waugh & Alex McNeil eds. 2016) (ebook).

The prologue of Shapiro’s 2010 book, near the very outset, dismissed the entire authorship debate as “futile” (then why write a book about it?), given the “fixed” positions of the debaters. On the same page he piously disclaimed any intention of “draw[ing] a naive comparison between the Shakespeare controversy and … other issues [he mentioned creationist denial of evolution, claims that the Apollo moon landings were faked, and of course that ugliest ‘conspiracy theory’ card of all, Holocaust denial] … except insofar as it too turns on underlying assumptions and notions of evidence that cannot be reconciled.” (Shapiro, Contested Will, p. 8, my emphases.)

So you actually were drawing a Holocaust denial comparison, weren’t you, Professor Shapiro? Just not a “naive” one. No, yours was much more subtle and calculated, more cleverly cloaked in plausible deniability. And you perhaps think our criticisms sting? We are past tired of Stratfordian pooh-bahs—most blatantly, Professor Stephen Greenblatt of Harvard University and Professor Gary Taylor of Florida State University—playing the Holocaust denial card in this debate. (See Stephen Greenblatt, letter to the editor, New York Times, Sept. 4, 2005; Matthew Reisz, “Controversy Over an Article’s Publication Renews Shakespearean Authorship Controversy,” Inside Higher Ed (Sept. 11, 2014), discussing Taylor’s invocation of Holocaust denial.)

Does it not occur to these tenured “experts” just how reckless and harmful such comparisons are? (Leave aside how nasty, rude, offensive, and uncalled-for.) The Holocaust denial comparison is repeated ad nauseum online by internet trolls in the context of the SAQ. Leading academics do set a tone. Does it not occur to them how much it disrespects the victims of the worst (and best-documented) atrocity in human history? That such comparisons give aid and comfort to those who actually do deny (or frivolously claim to question) the reality of the Holocaust, by linking them to people with incomparably more reasonable and well-founded doubts relating to the SAQ, including many distinguished judges, scholars, and professionals in various fields? (See, e.g., Wildenthal, “End of an Oxfordian Era on the Supreme Court? Remembering Justice Antonin Scalia (1936-2016),” 2016; pdf available here.)

Is it even minimally responsible or reasonable (let alone “naive”) to compare extensively documented historical events (especially those within living memory), that left uncountable thousands of contemporaneous written and oral testimonials by those who survived (or tragically did not, like Anne Frank),[4] with far more obscure and murky aspects of 16th and 17th century literary history—about which all witnesses died hundreds of years ago, surviving documentation is scarce, and what there is, difficult to interpret? Why is it that only authorship doubters seem capable of making an obvious, common-sense point like that? Basta! Let’s have an end, once and for all, to Holocaust denial comparisons in the Shakespeare debate!

Professor Emeritus Sir Stanley Wells of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, as orthodox a Stratfordian as they come, has contented himself with the milder defamation that authorship skeptics are merely mentally unstable “anti-Shakespearian” snobs. (See, e.g., Paul Edmondson & Stanley Wells, Shakespeare Bites Back: Not So Anonymous, 2011 (ebook); SAC Letters to [Shakespeare] Birthplace Trust [SBT] and RSC [Royal Shakespeare Company] re: Removal of Stanley Wells’ False and Libelous Claims About Authorship Doubters.)

Yet Professor Wells effectively conceded, in what appears to be the most definitive book-form manifesto Stratfordians have mustered to date, that there is no documentary evidence—none—from during the alleged Stratford author’s lifetime, linking him to the works of Shakespeare. (Shakespeare Beyond Doubt: Evidence, Argument, Controversy, Paul Edmondson & Stanley Wells eds. 2013, p. 81.)

That reality did not stop Shapiro from claiming in a New York Times op-ed that the “testimony of contemporary writers, court records and much else … confirms that Shakespeare [of Stratford] wrote the works attributed to him.” (“Hollywood Dishonors the Bard,” New York Times, Oct. 16, 2011.) It is not clear what Shapiro meant by “court records” (the royal “court” or a “court” of law?), but this was deeply misleading regardless, even if we stretch “contemporary” to include ambiguous posthumous evidence like the First Folio published in 1623, more than seven years after Shakspere of Stratford died.

There are no legal court records (at any time) linking Shakspere with any literary career whatsoever. Perhaps Shapiro meant to refer to the cursory 1595 record of payment by the royal court to “William Kempe, William Shakespeare, and Richard Burbage,” for the performance of unspecified plays. (See, e.g., Diana Price, Shakespeare’s Unorthodox Biography: New Evidence of an Authorship Problem, 2001, rev. 2012, pp. 15, 31-32.) But even if we knew what plays that payment was for (we don’t), it would not prove that Shakespeare (any more than Kempe or Burbage) wrote them. They all may have been paid simply as actors. It does not even do much to corroborate the extent to which the Stratford man worked as an actor, because all three may have been paid primarily in their capacities as producers or acting company shareholders.

The 1595 fragment of evidence is perfectly consistent with the theory that Shakspere of Stratford was merely a frontman or middleman for a hidden author. (If he was the frontman for an author whose published name was almost always spelled “Shakespeare,” it would hardly be surprising that a London record relating to his role in the theatre business would spell his name the same way. All agree that Elizabethan spelling was quite loose.) The 1595 fragment does not in any way “confirm,” nor does any “testimony of contemporary writers” before 1623 “confirm,” that Shakspere of Stratford “wrote the works attributed to” the author “Shakespeare.” Shapiro’s claim was spun from little more than thin air.

Please look in the mirror, Professor Shapiro. Serious authorship skeptics (however mistaken we may be) do not have “notions of evidence” inferior to yours. It is more often Stratfordians who dismiss out of hand (sometimes with heated emotion) any argument or evidence put forth to question their quasi-religious beliefs, even as we earnestly and patiently try to engage (again and again and again) with Stratfordian arguments and evidence. There is a contrast between our efforts to remain fact-focused in this debate and the erroneous and misleading claims you peddled in 2010, 2011, 2015, and 2016—and the ad hominem approach of Professor Wells and too many others. Whose fault is it, then, that the debate often does seem “futile”?

I respect Professor Shapiro for the good scholarship he has produced. He is a gifted writer. I have four of his books in my library. Even the less impressive ones contain a wealth of fascinating information. You just have to read them with caution and awareness of his relentless agenda as a Stratfordian partisan. Trust us, Professor Shapiro, your “exasperation” is nothing compared to ours.

My deeper worry is that unless we in the SOF (and other authorship organizations) work harder, Shapiro, Greenblatt, Taylor, Wells, and other entrenched academics may have the last laugh. For years to come, readers may encounter their books, widely stocked by libraries and distributed and advertised by mainstream publishers, without ever reading websites like the SOF’s, or authorship newsletters like the one that actually broke the Wilmot story, or reviews (like Niederkorn’s) in The Brooklyn Rail. They will read articles in major newspapers presenting these biased partisans as experts. They may gain the impression that authorship skeptics are not to be trusted (look at that Wilmot fraud!), and may be misled into thinking that “experts” like Shapiro can be trusted to debunk them. We know it’s really academics like Shapiro who cannot be trusted. But how do we convey that message better?

I wish we still had Dr. Rollett with us to help work on the problem. May he continue to inspire us, and may we follow his example by seeking the truth without fear or favor. As well stated in the motto of Edward de Vere himself: “Nothing is truer than truth.”


[1] Professor Wildenthal is a Member of the Board of Trustees and Secretary of the SOF. Most of my scholarly articles dealing with law and Shakespeare (some deal with both), including this essay, are available for free download in PDF form here. I thank my beloved husband (and fellow Oxfordian), Ashish Agrawal, for his constant support.

[2] Shakespeare Beyond Doubt? Exposing an Industry in Denial (John M. Shahan & Alexander Waugh eds. 2013), pp. 46-57 (ch. 4 by Ramon Jiménez); see also SAC, “Beyond Reasonable Doubt: New Evidence and Arguments Since the Declaration of Reasonable Doubt, Part 1: Additional Reasons to Doubt Shakspere Wrote the Works” (2016) (points 3 and 9).

[3] Professor Roger Stritmatter has pointed out various errors and other problematical aspects of Shapiro’s book, e.g., here, here, and here. See also the reviews by Niederkorn, by Richard F. Whalen and by Thomas Hunter, Shakespeare Oxford Newsletter 46:1 (May 2010), pp. 7, 12, and by Warren Hope, Brief Chronicles 2 (2010), p. 211, as well as the essays by Bonner Miller Cutting, “A Contest of Wills: Reviewing Shapiro’s Reviewers,” Shakespeare Matters 9:3 (Fall 2010), p. 12, and by William Ray, “Two Years After Contested Will or, How Are the Stratfordians Doing?” Shakespeare Matters 10:4 (Fall 2011), p. 24.

[4] See Anne Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl (Otto H. Frank & Mirjam Pressler eds., Folio Society, 2005; Susan Massotty, trans.; Eva Hoffman, intro.; Elie Wiesel, pref., trans. Euan Cameron; earlier pub. by Doubleday, 1995 & Penguin, 2001); see also Anne Frank House: A Museum With a Story (Menno Metselaar, Ruud van der Rol, Dineke Stam & Hansje Galesloot eds., Anne Frank House [Amsterdam], rev. ed. 2013).

[Posted July 13, 2016; revised December 26, 2017.]
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