A few years ago, the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) posted on its website an article by Professor Stanley Wells of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust (SBT) that called disbelief about the Stratford man as the author of the works of Shakespeare a “psychological aberration” attributable to “snobbery . . . ignorance; poor sense of logic; refusal . . . to accept evidence; folly; the desire for publicity; and even . . . certifiable madness.”
At the persistent urging of John Shahan, Chairman of the Shakespeare Authorship Coalition (SAC), a group of authorship skeptics, the RSC has at last removed the offensive article from its website! The Shakespeare Oxford Fellowship notes that Mark Rylance, the multi-award winning Shakespearean actor, authorship doubter, and an honorary trustee of the SOF, also helped to persuade the RSC to withdraw the article.
Following are excerpts from the SAC’s update, issued on June 1, 2015, in which Mr. Shahan details the efforts that brought about this triumph for the principles of free and open inquiry.
Good news! In response to letters from SAC, the RSC has removed false claims about authorship doubters from its website.
Professor Stanley Wells’ article on the “Authorship Debate” taken down!
The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Stratford-upon-Avon (SBT) has long promoted a false negative stereotype of authorship doubters, and nowhere more blatantly than in an article on its website by then-SBT chairman Stanley Wells on “Shakespeare’s Authorship,” which included the following statement:
“The phenomenon of disbelief in Shakespeare’s authorship is a psychological aberration of considerable interest. Endorsement of it in favour of aristocratic candidates may be ascribed to snobbery – reluctance to believe that works of genius could emanate from a man of relatively humble origin – an attitude that would not permit Marlowe to have written his own works, let alone Shakespeare’s. Other causes include ignorance; poor sense of logic; refusal, wilful or otherwise, to accept evidence; folly; the desire for publicity; and even (as in the sad case of Delia Bacon, who hoped to open Shakespeare’s grave in 1856) certifiable madness.”
The purpose of this and similar claims by Stratfordians is, of course, to smear and intimidate doubters and thus stigmatize and suppress a legitimate issue. If the case for Mr. Shakspere were as solid as they claim, there would be no need for such tactics. Since it is not solid, it is easier for them to keep people from looking into the evidence than having to confront and deal with it.
It is ironic that an English professor who is so jealous of his exclusive authority to rule on all things Shakespearean would think he could get away with usurping the authority to diagnose behavioral, character and psychiatric disorders and then generalize from a few specious, or even non-existent, examples to an entire group of people, virtually none of whom fits his stereotype. Here he was encroaching on one of my areas of expertise, and I knew that, if challenged, he would be unable to back it up.
In April of 2010, I sent him the following letter:
Dear Professor Wells,
I am writing on behalf of the Shakespeare Authorship Coalition to challenge your claim on the SBT website … that the phenomenon of widespread doubt about William Shakespeare’s identity is “a psychological aberration of considerable interest,” attributable to a variety of causes, including “snobbery” based on class prejudice, or “even certifiable madness (as in the sad case of Delia Bacon . . .).” If these allegations are true, it should be possible for qualified experts in the disciplines of psychiatry, psychology and sociology to validate your claims with empirical evidence. I hereby challenge you to either obtain such expert validation, or stop making the claims. Specifically, I challenge you to either back up your claims on the SBT website with data worthy of the high scholarly standards you claim to represent, or remove them forthwith.
Any theory should be evaluated based on the best arguments of its strongest proponents. There will, of course, be some level of aberrant thinking and behavior in any population; but to prove your claims, not only must you show that the prevalence of these conditions and behaviors is much greater among authorship doubters than in the general population, or in a control group, such as orthodox Shakespeare scholars, but that they are pervasive.
The enclosed “Declaration of Reasonable Doubt” names twenty prominent past doubters, including Mark Twain, William and Henry James, Tyrone Guthrie and Sir John Gielgud. On what basis do you claim that their doubts were due entirely to the defects you allege? Over 1,700 people have signed the Declaration. Of these, over 300 are current or former college/ university faculty members. Some of them are much better qualified to diagnose psychological disorders than you are. On what basis do you claim that they are aberrant?
You appear to label as “psychologically aberrant” anyone who disagrees with your view. You seem to be exploiting prejudices against the mentally ill to discredit your opponents. The use of such tactics is morally reprehensible, and those who would resort to them are unworthy of being regarded as legitimate stewards of the legacy of William Shakespeare. If you continue to make such allegations, on your website or elsewhere, with no credible evidence to back them up, you should assume that the SAC will pursue this issue further.
John M. Shahan, Chairman, SAC
I received no reply. Wells never provided a shred of evidence to back up his claim, and 14 months later the article was taken down from the SBT website. Later I learned that it had been posted on the RSC website under the title “Authorship Debate.” It must have been very effective there, sending a clear message to both current and aspiring RSC actors to toe the party line.
Unfortunately for Wells, it also made it possible to appeal to a higher authority, unlike at the SBT. In June of 2014, I wrote a similar letter to the Prince of Wales in his capacity as president of the RSC. His assistant forwarded it to officials at the RSC, and in January of this year I sent a follow-up letter to RSC chairman Nigel Hugill renewing the request and calling attention to several other falsehoods in Wells’ article. After that, it still took an assist from Mark Rylance before it was finally taken down.
The entire sequence, including the three letters and Wells’ article, can be read on the SAC website at this link.
We thank the Prince of Wales, Nigel Hugill and Mark Rylance for their kind assistance.
— John Shahan, Chairman, SAC