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Shelly Maycock, Roger Stritmatter, and Hank Whittemore at the Folger Institute "Shakespeare and the Problem of Biography" conference April 3-5, 2014.

Shelly Maycock, Roger Stritmatter, and Hank Whittemore at the Folger Institute “Shakespeare and the Problem of Biography” conference April 3-5, 2014. Photo credit: Bill Boyle

The Folger Shakespeare Library held a three-day conference in collaboration with the National Endowment for the Humanities on the issue of “Shakespeare and the Problem of Biography”. The issue is topical because the world celebrates the 450 anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth this year and what could be more biographical than a birthday? The problem is that we really don’t have a biography of Shakespeare, and the Folger gathered over 150 Shakespeare scholars to discuss this problem last week, April 3-5, 2014. Several prominent anti-Stratfordians attended the event including: Hank Whittamore, Bill Boyle, Jim Warren, Roger Stritmatter, Shelley Maycock, Peter Dickson, and Richard Waugaman.

Waugaman said,  “A problem it is. Their efforts to evade its real implications were breath-taking.”

Hank Whittemore’s bemused summary gives a general sense of the conference experience:

 It’s been difficult trying to sum up this strange event – a great experience, which I would describe as demonstrating what life is like inside The Truman Show, if you know that movie with Jim Carey, where everyone is living inside a kind of bubble with no idea that there’s a big world outside. They are stuck within the paradigm of the traditional author, so that no matter how intelligent and brilliant anyone may be, there is no possible relief from disappointment until that person can step outside the paradigm, which seems to be impossible.

 There was an extraordinary, and complete recognition that the Stratford biography is woefully inadequate. A common theme is that the Stratford biography contains, or consists of, a black hole of insufficient facts. That is the bottom line. Seldom if ever did the conference stray outside of this framework. Actually never.

Roger Stritmatter, PhD, commented on the Folger’s annual Shakespeare Birthday Lecture that opened the conference. This lecture will be made available as a podcast on the Folger Shakespeare Library website. It is the only part of the conference that was recorded, according to Folger Institute Executive Director Kathleen Lynch.

Stritmatter said:

Brian Cummings opened the proceedings on April 3, 2014 in a keynote featuring many ideas that would become thematic by the close of the conference.  Among the intriguing remarks of his lecture, Cummings quipped, “Shakespeare was born in 1623.”  Indeed by the middle of the second day it was apparent to any astute listener that certain fascinating themes emerged —  all flowing from an attempt to redraw the map of the concept of biography, whether in its limited Shakespearean or in a larger sense was not clear. It did seem that the assembled scholars sometimes confused the difference between the Shakespearean biography problem and problems of biography in general. While biography in general no doubt has problems – prominent among them being its equivocal status as a distinctly middlebrow, and by implication therefore lucrative, pursuit, as more than one conference speaker acknowledged – Shakespeare has a whole lot of problems that other subjects of biography just don’t have.

Bill Boyle gave his astute assessment of the meaning of this historic event:

Thirty years ago this year Charlton Ogburn published The Mysterious William Shakespeare, and re-ignited the authorship debate for a new generation. Just a year later William F. Buckley featured Ogburn and his book on Firing Line, a couple of years after that came the Moot Court debate (in Washington DC, 1987). And two years after that came the Frontline documentary, The Shakespeare Mystery (1989). The debate has raged on since then. But through it all the mainstream scholars have stood firm on two things: they had the right guy, and biography doesn’t matter that much in literary criticism anyway. 

Well, at this “Shakespeare and the Problem of Biography” conference they continued to hold firm on having the right guy, but the whole notion that biography doesn’t matter came up in talk after talk, and, in my humble opinion, is definitely under seige and may be on its way out. And that’s a big deal, especially if your guy (Stratman) has no real, factually-based biography to speak of (and this “problem” of having few facts was spoken of and commented on throughout the conference). Several speakers did say quite openly and clearly that biography doesn’t matter (most notably Brian Cummings, University of York, in his opening talk, when he said, “Biography is not necessary for literary criticism” and “biography is not necessary to historicism”). The same line was echoed by Jack Lynch (Rutgers) the next day when he too said, “Biography is not necessary for literary criticism.” Yet Joseph Roach (Yale), in a short, powerful presentation that highlighted the power of Shakespeare’s words centuries after they were written, stated in his conclusion, “Shakespeare’s life is in his works.”

And that is the authorship dilemma in a nutshell: Biography doesn’t matter vs. the author’s life is in his works.

Stay tuned.

Whittemore, Waugaman, and Peter Dickson generously agreed to share their initial impressions of the Folger conference. Their fascinating commentary is included in this posting below.

Bill Boyle has reported on the Folger conference in his EverReader blog post, “Authorship by Indirection”.

Roger Stritmatter’s essay on the Folger conference can be read in “Aloha Vere: Folger Library Confronts Problems of Shakespearean Biography” on his Shakespeare’s Bible weblog.

Hank Whittemore commented on the Folger conference in his post, “Shakespeare and the Black Hole of Stratfordian Biography” on his site, Hank Whittemore’s Shakespeare Blog.

Peter Dickson’s report will be published in the Shakespeare Oxford Fellowship newsletter.


Richard Waugaman, MD April 6, 2014
Folger Institute Conference on “Shakespeare and the Problem of Biography”
Folger Shakespeare Library, April 3-5, 2014

I went to the wonderful 2-day conference on “Shakespeare and the Problem of Biography” at the Folger Shakespeare Library (April 3-5, 2014).

A problem it is. Their efforts to evade its real implications were breath-taking. For example, how to explain the vast wealth Shakspere earned over his lifetime? We have no record of his ever being paid for writing a play. Ben Jonson estimated Jonson earned a total of £ 200 over his lifetime from writing. So how did Shakspere die with a net worth of more than £ 2,000? There are records of his being taken to task for repeated grain-hoarding at times of famine, not paying his taxes, etc. The records show he was a money-lender, as was his father (who was fined for usury).

Georgetown’s Lena Orlin presented a possible solution to this dilemma by suggesting it was Anne Shakespeare who earned the money, clever merchant that she was. Not realizing the potential damage Orlin was doing to her authorship candidate, she admitted that business success at the time required only numeracy, not literacy.

That about sums up the intellectual integrity of the conference.

Most presenters openly admitted that there is still no fit between the biographical facts we have and the literary works that are ostensibly written by Shakspere.

I thanked Graham Holderness for giving Delia Bacon credit in Shakespeare Beyond Doubt for being the first to correctly describe the darker aspects of the Elizabethan period.

And I made a modest proposal to the Editor of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography that their next edition replace Alan Nelson with an authorship skeptic for the article on de Vere, or at least allow an authorship doubter to rewrite the entry on Shakespeare.

Lois Potter, author of a Shakespeare biography and who is said to be the world’s expert in Shakespeare performance history, mentioned Sejanus in her talk, since Shakespeare is listed as an actor in it. Privately, I asked what she makes of his name being spelled “Shake-Speare” in the list of Sejanus actors in Ben Jonson’s 1616 First Folio of Collected Works. That was news to her— she apparently never looked at the first edition. Modern editions of Jonson don’t seem to mention that quirky original spelling— presumably because it not only “winks” once with a hyphen, but “winks” twice at the reader with the two capital Ss.

The National Portrait Gallery’s Curator of 16th Century Collections showed an excellent image of the “restored” Stratford bust of Shakspere. In the question period, I pointed out that Dugdale’s sketch provides our only information about what the bust originally looked like in 1620, when it lacked a quill and a piece of writing paper. (I didn’t add that it instead shows Shakspere clutching a sack of grain — a wonderful reminder to the townspeople who had gone hungry that he repeatedly hoarded grain.)

The only presenter who even mentioned the authorship question was William Sherman, who entertained the crowd by making fun of Baconian cipher enthusiasts. I’ve written to the organizers Kathleen Lynch and Owen Williams to complain of the unfairness of giving such a skewed sample of authorship skeptics. I sent them a copy of the article I wrote by request from the editors of the Italian Shakespeare journal Memoria di Shakespeare for next year’s special issue on Shakespeare’s biography.

It was an intellectually stimulating and friendly atmosphere.


Hank Whittemore, Folger Institute April 5, 2014
Folger Institute Conference on “Shakespeare and the Problem of Biography”
Folger Shakespeare Library, April 3-5, 2014

Well it’s Saturday night and we’re done with the Folger conference.  It’s been difficult trying to sum up this strange event: A great experience, which I would describe as demonstrating what life is like inside The Truman Show — if you know that movie with Jim Carey, where everyone is living inside a kind of bubble with no idea that there’s a big world outside. They are stuck within the paradigm of the traditional author, so that no matter how intelligent and brilliant anyone may be, there is no possible relief from disappointment until that person can step outside the paradigm, which seems to be impossible. 

There was an extraordinary — and complete — recognition that the Stratford biography is woefully inadequate. The Stratfordians must struggle with this in various ways — from one extreme, saying the biography is not important or necessary, to the other extreme, which might have been a talk on the wife of Richard Quiney, who wrote an undelivered letter to Shaksper in 1598 — a whole talk on some trivial documents about her life, which, in turn, might shed light on the life in Stratford of Anne Hathaway.

A common theme is that the Stratford biography contains, or consists of, a black hole of insufficient facts.  That is the bottom line.  Seldom if ever did the conference stray outside of this framework. Actually, never.

In a discussion of the recent rise of historical fiction and its relation to Shakespeare biography (a sense that they are the same), a commentor said: “[It’s] frustrating that we know so little … ”

One speaker actually said this:  “We don’t need to assume that Shakespeare read all the sources. Somebody else might have done this for him.”

I find that statement extraordinary, an extraordinary attempt to find a way to explain Shakespeare’s wide and deep reading of source materials unavailable to him and not even available in either English or Latin.

They wonder what biography has to do with the works.

Malone was a failure in that he could not fill in the biography in terms of the London years, so that Boswell inserted the chronology of the plays that Malone had gotten up. That would serve to plug the missing hole. Malone named some eighty persons who might have been expected to leave some clues about Shakespeare, but none did. None.

Missing — just outside the window of the Truman show, if there were a window — was all the stuff Shakespeare wrote about — power plays, succession, kingship, all sorts of stuff in the plays — all missing from the discussion for one night and two full days. Collaboration is a big theme, which will help the biography in relation to the works. But of course that is a desperate ploy, which may work for a time. They still wonder whether it’s possible to write about something without experiencing it.  Stephen Greenblatt used venereal disease as an example. Well, no, you don’t need to have that to write about it. But Graham Holderness cited Delia Bacon as first to suggest a group theory of authorship, and “that has huge implications for the biographer.”  Well, yes, if you are trying to find ways to flesh out the skimpy bio that you have. It is acknowledged that the works are great, while the life is banal. And this “provides jobs for the next generations, unless biographies will stop altogether.”

Stephen Greenblatt says: “Well, we know he saw those heads or skulls on poles on London Bridge, (or Tower Bridge, I think) and we know he made love for the first time, and we know he saw a play for the first time, and so on — so he did have a life, yes?”

Graham Holderness made a great criticism of Anonymous the movie, at the very end of the conference, bringing up the word “Oxfordians” for the first and only time — saying it did a disservice to Oxfordians by picturing Oxford writing plays and folding them up one by one in his study, then finally handing over the scripts to a play company without any involvement with the production or actors — without, that is, being any kind of man of involved in the theatre.  And I agree with him! 

On hand were: Bill Boyle, Jim Warren, Roger Stritmatter, Shelley Maycock, Hank Whittemore, Peter Dickson, and Richard Waugaman. I believe that covers the Oxfordian crowd.

Roger Stritmatter, Peter Dickson, Richard Waugaman, and Bill Boyle — all asked good questions.

I privately asked Brian Cummings whether the Sonnets, given the personal pronoun “I,” might be considered part of the documentary record, and he said, well, it could have been a fictive (fictional?) “I” — in other words, all things are turned into “We just don’t know.”

It’s an insulated world, up against an unsolvable problem of biography that exists precisely because of the traditional paradigm in which they live and work and discuss the matter with each other — we were like flies on the wall, stunned, mesmerized, baffled, and most of all, bemused.

The paradigm is shaking.  They are exploring how to fix it — by inventing collaborations, by allowing more historical fiction to take the place of biography, by making Shakespeare a Catholic, by whatever means! But in my view I have just spent my weekend inside The Truman Show, knowing that there is a big world just outside the walls of that auditorium in the Folger.  In my experience as an Oxfordian, it was certainly historic because they are dealing directly with the authorship question for the first time. The Stratfordians seem to have decided on a group theory of a division of labor — but we have a story that brings understanding of the works — they come from deep within the author.

Hank Whittemore compiled these unattributed quotes lamenting the problem of Shakespeare’s biography made by speakers at the Folger Institute “Shakespeare and the Problem of Biography” conference at the Folger Shakespeare Library, April 3-5, 2014:

– If we knew everything, what would we learn? The problem of biography is more interesting than the solution. We (i.e., historians) have forgotten most everything about him. In a real sense, the Folio represents the beginning of his Life, so William Shakespeare was born in 1623, and his life began only after he died. Shakespeare’s life has always been a construction after the fact — it is re-invented over and over. It is a mystery how he got to be a writer. Nicholas Rowe got him from Stratford to London and then jumped to him leaving London for Stratford, leaving the big gap in the middle. We long for a biography but nothing can live up to our expectations.

– A black hole. The very lack of identity is the perfect container. The life is not sufficient to explain the writings. The lost years is a myth; it is a myth that nothing happened then, we must don’t know what that was. We have details, minutiae, and in that sense we know too much. The Catholic issue was to give him a personal identity of any kind. But biography is not a necessary condition for literary criticism.

– We have a haunting sense of absence. We need imagination to bring him to life. If he wasn’t Shakespeare, we wouldn’t include him (on a list of important persons). We have historical records of the greatest banality. We have information of the wrong kind. We do have an afterlife of reputation. Modern biography of him needs speculation. We have our fantasies of him. We have a genuine need to understand his life in relation to his work (but can’t do it).

– We used to believe the text was sufficient unto itself. We have the knitting together of scraps of information. We would not care about his life if not for the works. We have a need to understand the poet against the background that shaped him, but a shortage of authentic material —  what we actually know about him as a person is no more than a few dozen facts, all somehow impersonal, and most assertions unsupported.

– Nicholas Rowe was all alone for a century. Few of his assertions have fared well. Most are ill-supported legends. The conjure has been turned into gospel truth. We have needed unsupported fancy and ingenuity to flesh out the skimpy record. A large universe is unknown to us — an absence of a person … nebulous images, ultimately carved in stone. He probably led a very dull life. We are not going to find something to make it all click.


Peter Dickson April 6, 2014
Folger Institute Conference on “Shakespeare and the Problem of Biography”
Folger Shakespeare Library, April 3-5, 2014

This [conference] was perhaps a once in a lifetime event; this was no ordinary Shakespeare conference no matter what faction of scholars you are talking about.

My sense is that 9-10 anti-Stratfordians, Oxfordians in quiet, low-profile attendance would have similar perceptions about this conference but each person still will have a different perspective. Taken collectively, the various ringside seat accounts or reports will give a pretty accurate assessment of the landscape and how and what this conference reveals about where the Stratfordians think they are now.

In any case, here is a short overview account without getting into substantive analysis, for those out there salivating for more information a day after the three day conference concluded.

For the record, there were 156 participants listed in each personal conference folder, but 33 (20 percent) were from the Folger staff, or Folger trustees/board members. At least 12 scholars came from Britain, including Katherine-Duncan Jones and Peter Holland who wrote the Shakespeare entry for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography in 2004 to replace the one Sir Sidney Lee did for the DNB in the 1890s.  There were three or four scholars from Germany, one or two from France, one from Cyprus, perhaps one from Italy and I think at least one from Scandinavia.

Lois Potter, emeritus professor from the University of Delaware and the author of the most recent (Stratfordian) Shakespeare biography for Blackwell-Wiley in 2012-2013 was there and spoke as did Duncan-Jones and Holland. Ian Dondalson, the author of the new Ben Jonson biography (a work decades in the works) failed to come due I gather to some illness.

Stephen Greenblatt from Harvard — the biggest American Star scholar — was there and spoke in the final segment. I spoke with him but only about non-Shakespeare topics, about Kissinger in particular since he noted that I revealed in a Q & A segment that I had published a biography of Kissinger with Cambridge University Press in 1978 and because I suppose he is also of Jewish-origin as is Kissinger. He thought Kissinger had converted but I assured him that had not happened although his second wife is not Jewish.

Andrea Campana is the author of a book entitled Shakespeare and the Jesuits.  She was well aware that Greenblatt went fairly far in the direction of exploring all the Catholic connections.  But I spotted him as a fence-sitter during his book-signing at the Folger in 2005 and in his is most recent book about Shakespeare and the theme of freedom is still trying to figure out where he wants to be concerning the secret-Catholic theory. 

In any case, [Campana] got Greenblatt’s attention during a coffee break.  She is very knowledgeable about Thomas Thorpe, the publisher of the Sonnets in 1609 and his ultra hard core Catholic background.  She also spoke up at the conference and there was no doubt where she was coming from.

One should never underestimate these persons.

The Catholic Bard advocates are persistent, tenacious and are convinced that they have the upper hand in the entire controversy concerning Shakespeare — a point which I made twice during the conference but I did so diplomatically, politely in the eyes of some Oxfordians in audience so as not to anger the upset the orthodox Stratfordians too much. But the Catholic Question (I called it the 800-pound Gorilla in the room) kept coming up throughout the conference without me lifting a finger.  There is no way it could not come up because it is the central, pivotal and highly divisive issue among Stratfordians concerning their man, who their man really was.

For my part I did my best to ensure that it came coming up because this Gorilla is lethal for the Stratfordian authorship position as the Orthodox types like Wells, Duncan-Jones, Shapiro, Potter and also mostly likely Greenblatt know all too well.

More later on substantive issues.  But at least these are some preliminary observations which require more discussion to convey both the atmosphere or feel and substantive side of the presentations/discussions at this highly revealing conference on the most awkward dilemma at the heart of all traditional Shakespeare scholarship — why is the Stratfordian Bard still so elusive in the surviving record?

Why still after an unprecedented flood, a tsunami of more than 20 Shakespeare biographies since 1998-1999 in part stimulated by the movie, Shakespeare in Love?

When was the last time Strafordians gathered together to debate and agonize freely and openly about the serious difficulties in writing a credible, meaningful biography of the incumbent Bard, the clever, materialistic and wealthy grain merchant from Stratford-on-Avon?

The hand-wringing at the conference, the underlying sense of frustration came across an an implicit admission of a dead end (which some of course would be quick to deny) despite the tsunami, all these 20 some Shakespeare biographies.

I am still amazed that this conference topic was ever chosen.

I do not think that such a conference has ever happened before and may not happen again for a long time — which is why this conference seemed historic to me and others like Hank Whittemore who was also there as were Boyle, Roger Stritmatter and Jim Warren.  Professor Waugamann from Georgetown University was also there.

I feel very fortunate to have been able to attend this conference which cost me as a Washington resident only the $50 ticket and that Hank had told me about it two months ago.


UPDATE 05/04/14: A podcast of Brian Cummings 2014 Shakespeare Birthday Lecture titled “Biography and Anti-biography” given April 3, 2014 at the Folger Institute conference “Shakespeare and the Problem of Biography at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C. is now available on the Folger website at http://www.folger.edu/template.cfm?cid=4769.



A listing of the “Shakespeare and the Problem of Biography” conference proceedings appears on the Folger website at http://www.folger.edu/template.cfm?cid=4653&showpreview=1.

Hank Whittamore’s pre-conference discussion appears on his Shakespeare blog at http://hankwhittemore.wordpress.com/2014/03/31/shakespeare-and-the-problem-of-biography-historic-conference-at-the-folger-library-does-it-signal-that-the-current-paradigm-is-in-trouble/

A pre-conference announcement on the proceedings appears on the Oberon Shakespeare Study Group blog at http://oberonshakespearestudygroup.blogspot.com/2014/01/folger-presents-conference-on.html

About Linda Theil

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