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Remembering Rollett and Debunking Shapiro (Again)

by Bryan H. Wildenthal

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

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

On June 29, the New York Times once again gave a platform to a Stratfordian academic to peddle nonsense on the Shakespeare authorship issue. 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 doubters on both sides of the Atlantic. Dr. Rollett died October 31, 2015, and is sorely missed. I deeply regret that I never had the chance to meet him personally.

The Times paraphrased Professor James Shapiro of Columbia University, a thoroughly credentialed Shakespeare “expert,” as gleefully claiming that newly discovered 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, in print June 30, 2016, p. C1, as “Shakespeare, Hungering For Status.”)

Spoiler alert: They don’t. Authorship doubters have long conceded the fragmentary evidence (some posthumous) suggesting that Shakspere of Stratford was an actor (a “player” in Elizabethan lingo), as well as possibly an investor in and manager of an acting company, and of course a “social climber” who sought a coat-of-arms. The new evidence merely adds some interesting fragments seeming to confirm he was a player. It does not even hint that he was also a writer of any kind, as Shakespeare Oxford Fellowship President Tom Regnier pointed out in a devastating rebuttal posted July 5. Several of us wrote letters to the Times in protest, but the news cycle has moved on and it appears that America’s newspaper of record has no interest in publishing any correction or response to this egregiously false and tendentious piece of Stratfordian propaganda.

As noted by John Shahan, Chair of the Shakespeare Authorship Coalition, the new discovery actually deepens the profound and longstanding doubts about the Stratfordian theory. Shahan reasons that if Shakspere of Stratford was a playwright and poet, why do the known coat-of-arms documents describe him only as a “player”? Actors had low social status. Surely Shakspere would have touted his fame and success as a writer. His contemporary and fellow Warwickshire native Michael Drayton was a playwright-poet who apparently obtained his own coat-of-arms with no difficulty. Why did Shakspere, supposedly the literary toast of London (far outshining Drayton), with a noble patron (so Stratfordians often argue) in the Earl of Southampton, encounter the difficulty that he 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). 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.” (Shakespeare Beyond Doubt?: Exposing an Industry in Denial (Shahan & Waugh eds. 2013), pp. 46-57 (ch. 4 by Ramon Jiménez); see also “Beyond Reasonable Doubt,” Part 1, points 3 and 9).

But I digress. What does all this, you ask, have to do with remembering Dr. Rollett?

The late John Rollett, Ph.D.

The late John Rollett, Ph.D.

Well, I’ve been working on a review of Rollett’s fascinating book, William Stanley as Shakespeare: Evidence of Authorship by the Sixth Earl of Derby (McFarland, 2015) (yes, Oxfordians, unlike most Stratfordians, pay careful and respectful attention to work challenging our views), which reminded me of Rollett’s many contributions to scholarship on the authorship question. Perhaps most important was his classic article on the “impossible doublet” in the First Folio’s Droeshout engraving purportedly depicting Shakespeare. (“Shakespeare’s Impossible Doublet: Droeshout’s Engraving Anatomized,” Brief Chronicles 2 (2010), pp. 9-24, revised as ch. 10, pp. 113-25, in Shakespeare Beyond Doubt?) The SOF has posted a nice remembrance of Dr. Rollett, describing how his work led to the outstanding YouTube video, “The Impossible Doublet”, Nov. 22, 2015), produced by John Shahan for the Shakespeare Authorship Coalition together with 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-doubt newsletter. 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 2010, in an extraordinarily graceless display of intellectual dishonesty, tried to hog credit for the debunking of the Wilmot fraud himself (robbing Rollett of his due).

The Wilmot story is fascinating, but almost more so is the story of its debunking. Professor 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, Vol. 2, No. 4 (Summer 2003), p. 1.

What is most important about the episode is that it shows modern scholarly authorship doubters (and Rollett was one of our very best) to be 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 his prologue, nested within a 41-page overall haystack of notes at the end of his book. (Shapiro, Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? (Simon & Schuster, 2010), p. 284.) 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 was also, of course, well aware 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” (p. 11). (See generally 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 slippery and self-serving treatment of the Wilmot episode was part of a broader agenda in his 2010 book. He appears to have 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 and John Thomas Looney as pioneering proponents of the Baconian and Oxfordian theories, respectively. He 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” (p. 10). He continued: “More than any subject I’ve ever studied, the history of the authorship question is rife with forgeries and deception.” Then came his breathless narrative of his own supposed discovery of the Wilmot fraud.

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 (pp. 21-27 and 62-66), though he left it to the reader to connect the dots. As Niederkorn and Shahan have noted, Shapiro seemed to strain to link Ireland with later controversies over authorship doubt (p. 27).

Like Professor Shapiro, I myself am a tenured professor at an accredited academic institution, and one reason I have come to believe that tenure is a dysfunctional and outdated relic 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, so often loftily disparage and ridicule as “amateurs” the many thoughtful scholars, like the late Dr. Rollett, who have pursued the authorship question.

Look, I’ve certainly made mistakes in my academic career, as have plenty of authorship doubters (like Stratfordians) on various occasions in various ways while pursuing this deeply complex and difficult subject. But we 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 and publications (how ironic that they often attribute the Oxfordian theory itself to “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. He also missed the mark with his latest book, The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606 (Simon & Schuster, 2015), 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 of course the nice bonus for Shapiro that, if true, this would eliminate Oxford as the author given his death in 1604). For the systematic refutation of Shapiro’s book 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), available on Amazon Kindle.

Shapiro’s 2010 prologue, 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” (p. 8; my emphases added). So I guess you actually were drawing a comparison, Professor Shapiro? Just not a “naive” one. No, yours was more calculated. If our criticisms sting, just remember that you, like your fellow Stratfordian pooh-bah, Harvard Professor Stephen Greenblatt, chose to play the Holocaust denial card against us.

Does it not occur to these tenured “experts” just how reckless such comparisons are? They are repeated ad nauseum online by internet trolls; I just responded last week to yet another playing of the Holocaust card in the context of the Shakespeare authorship debate, in an Amazon.com review. Leading academics do set a tone. Does it not occur to them that such comparisons really disrespect and dishonor the victims of the worst (but best-documented) atrocity in human history? That such comparisons give aid and comfort to those who actually do deny (or frivolously claim merely to question) the Holocaust, by linking them to incomparably more reasonable and well-founded doubts about Shakespeare’s authorship?

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), with incomparably weaker claims (on any side) about obscure 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 left to authorship doubters to make an obvious common-sense point like that?

Even so orthodox a Stratfordian as Professor Emeritus Stanley Wells of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust (who has contented himself with the milder defamation that authorship doubters are mentally unstable “anti-Shakespearian” snobs) conceded, in what appears to be the most definitive book-form manifesto Stratfordians have mustered to date, that there is no documentary evidence from their alleged 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 2011 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.” Even if we stretch “contemporary” to include ambiguous posthumous evidence like the First Folio, this was not just misleading but a flat-out lie. Shapiro knows perfectly well that there are no “court records” (at any time) linking Shakspere of Stratford with any literary career at all.

Please look in the mirror, Professor Shapiro. The vast majority of authorship doubters (however mistaken we might 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 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 falsehoods you peddled in 2011 and again just last month—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 done. He is a gifted writer. I have four of his books in my library; even the worst contain a wealth of fascinating information. You just have to read them with extreme caution and awareness of his relentless, tendentious agenda as an untrustworthy 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-doubt organizations work even harder, Shapiro, Greenblatt, Wells, and other entrenched academics may have the last laugh. For years to come readers may encounter their books, typically widely stocked by libraries, distributed and advertised by mainstream publishers, possibly without ever reading websites like this one, or authorship-doubt newsletters like the one that actually broke the Wilmot story, or reviews in alternative newspapers like The Brooklyn Rail. They will read articles in leading newspapers presenting these biased partisans as experts. They may gain the impression that authorship doubters are not to be trusted (look at that Wilmot fraud!), while people like Shapiro can be trusted to debunk them. We know they can’t. 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.”

[posted July 13, 2016]
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