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Teaching the next generation Oxford was Shakespeare

by Roger Stritmatter

This article was first published in the Winter 1999 Shakespeare Oxford Newsletter.

Robert Barrett Jr.’s essay, “Shakespeare Meets Robert Frost” seems destined to remain an underground classic. The essay recounts Barrett’s experience teaching the de Vere story to eager students at Central Kitsap Junior High in Silverdale, Washington. “Something there is,” writes Barrett–quoting Frost–in that essay, “that doesn’t love a wall. When I finished reading The Mysterious William Shakespeare, by Charlton Ogburn Jr., something there was within me that didn’t love the wall that hid the true Shakespeare.”

After reading Ogburn in 1990, Barrett brought his iconoclasm into the classroom and soon found that his students were as inspired by the Shakespeare inquiry as he had been when first reading Ogburn.

“As a layman, newly introduced to a difficult subject, I responded to my reading in a way that was undoubtedly visceral–just in part, though, a small part. The larger part–I submit–was intellectual. I looked for reason, plausibility, evidence, and conviction in Ogburn’s words, and I found those qualities much more often present in the book than absent.”

In Spring 1997, after several years of testing the water and guiding students through their questions about authorship, Barrett floated a proposal to teach an after-hours Shakespeare course. A huge overflow of students rushed to sign up for Barrett’s course. On only twenty-four hour notice, twenty-five of one-hundred and twenty-five eligible Central Kitsap ninth-graders signed up for fifteen slots of a course devoted to two hours of after-school study of the Bard twice a week. “What is the world coming to?” wondered Barrett in a letter to parents explaining his own–and by extension his students’–enthusiasm for the after-school Shakespeare project. “How do we explain the excitement of the kids?”

Easy. Barrett’s seminar was not just another dreary exercise in memorizing the words of an incomprehensible genius. It was billed as a course in historical literary detection. Like Al Pacino “looking for Richard” in the film of the same name, Barrett’s students were searching for the truth about Shakespeare. The text came alive with potential clues to the author’s identity — they read with a motive for comprehension.

“The authorship question is highly controversial,” admitted Barrett in his letter to parents of the enthused students, “but it has persisted for two hundred years. We’re not going to solve it in our seminar, but it provides a wonderful entrance into the Elizabethan world and an incentive to study the text and, perhaps, identify a personality behind the text.

“As I type this letter, I hear in the background a PBS telecast of Rebecca, a story by Daphne Du Maurier, who purportedly believed that Shakespeare’s works were written by Edward de Vere, the Seventeenth Earl of Oxford. Your child will be hearing that name often in the seminar, and there have been indications during the past ten years or so that it could soon become a household name.”

Since reading Ogburn’s The Mysterious William Shakespeare, Barrett has not made any secret that he agrees with Supreme Court Justices Blackmun and Stevens that the Oxfordians have got the best argument. His enthusiasm for the authorship question, in his regular English classes and now in the after-school Venture Program, has inspired several successive cohorts of Central Kitsap Junior High students to investigate the authorship question and carry forward their enthusiasm into the local high schools in Central Kitsap County, Washington.

In 1997, Barrett took his Shakespeare experience to the Shakespeare Oxford Society Conference (in Seattle, Washington), at which he joined Cleveland State University Professor David Richardson (a renowned expert on the Elizabethan poet Edmund Spenser) to co-chair a seminar on teaching the authorship question in the classroom.

Barrett’s letter to his Washington State Secondary school teaching colleagues, inviting them to attend the Seattle Conference, spells out the potential for authorship studies in the classroom more eloquently than any other document we have read:

Do you, as an educator, yearn to fire your students with the same love for Shakespeare that you have, to thrill to his name the same way you do? When I began to discuss the Shakespeare authorship question with my students, I found I was tapping [into] something almost reflexive in its immediacy. Their natural iconoclasm and vague curiosity about the world around them quickly grew to focused interest in how it was possible that the Stratford man was credited with great works. I was pleased to see students’ eagerness to engage figurative language as they looked for clues to confirm or reject the ideas that were arising in our discussions. Critical thinking skills sharpened. Frequently, we stumbled into teachable moments involving such issues as academic integrity, ad hominem arguments, skepticism, professional tolerance, research methodology, and the concept of the university. And they learned to care strongly about the person who was Shakespeare and, by extension, the wondrous texts themselves. There was connection!

Despite this emphasis on treating the authorship question as a means to the higher goal of teaching the values of tolerance, free inquiry, and informed debate, Barrett’s success soon boomeranged when one of his students got into a contretemps with a local high school teacher offended by inquiring minds. Soon Kitsap County administrators were subjected to complaints about Barrett’s subversive pedagogy. Rumors originating in local high school English departments charged that Barrett’s students were notorious “trouble makers.” They refused to silently endorse the official myth of Shakespeare and sometimes openly expressed their own frustration at what they perceived as stonewalling responses on the part of other teachers. One such teacher, apparently not a student of history, told students that “there is no such person as Edward de Vere.”

One week of sometimes heated email exchanges took place between Barrett and one local high school teacher. Barrett, frazzled and frustrated, was being tarred with the old ad hominem of being a teacher whose students subverted the dominant paradigm by asking difficult questions for which other teachers did not have canned answers.

Although the email exchanges ended amicably, the rumors were less easily silenced, and Barrett felt the damage was done. To clear the air, he wrote to the English Department chairs of Central Kitsap High:

During the past week, I engaged in a letter exchange [via] e-mail with a member of your faculty. It partially touched on the Shakespeare authorship question. You possibly are aware of the argument, which has ended amicably and is no longer an issue. However, in the exchange I was informed of “horror stories” told by your teachers involving my former students who have come to the high school with a “looking for a fight’ attitude.” This revelation is the converse of what I’ve been told by other former students who have come back to me complaining that they have been curtly cut off when they tried to discuss the authorship issue in their classes. Apparently, I have come in for castigation, one of your faculty members informing me that another faculty member said I should be fired. I don’t know how accurate any of this is, since it is mostly hearsay. Obviously, though, something is going on, and I am in the middle of it. I’m tempted to believe that since not a single member of your faculty has been disturbed enough to contact me to find out exactly what it is I’m saying to my ninth graders, there is no real problem. My intuition, however, tells me that that is naive.

Please allow me to make this point crystal clear: I don’t care if someone, student or teacher, is an Oxfordian or a Stratfordian or an Agnostic or a Baconian or an Anything Else in the authorship question. I just want to continue firing up the imagination of kids with the fun and beauty and worth of Shakespeare, and I have chosen Shakespeare authorship as my approach to that goal, which is still my perogative–and which has been remarkably successful. Surely your faculty can respect that and find a way to come to terms with it. For example, why not become familiar with the topic and argue the orthodox view. What better debate topic can there be?”

As we go to press in winter 1999, Barrett informs the Shakespeare Oxford Newsletter that the situation has stabilized and that de Vere’s flag flies high in the region. His web site (formerly at www.hurricane.net/~rbarrett/index.html) features pedagogical materials on authorship and discusses his enthusiasm for the potential for authorship courses at the junior high school level. His students, having learned a hard lesson about the dangers of thinking for yourself in high school, continue to pursue their interest in the authorship question after leaving Barrett’s popular classes.

Some of Barrett’s local colleagues have even–slowly–started to come around to the validity of the authorship question and incorporate the issue into their Shakespeare pedagogy.

One of Barrett’s former students, Samantha Harvell, summarized the lessons learned by students who had been shocked at the amount of heat generated by their investigation of the authorship question:

I guess if you have spent your entire life believing something, and possibly based your career on it, then I can see how you would resist the fact that it may be a lie. You’d be surprised, Bob, how many minds you have changed regarding the subject. Pretty much everyone who has had your class believes that de Vere was the true talent behind the writings.

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