Saturday, April 6, 2013

Theatre For Thought, April 6, 2013

joel fishbane

Though it may not feel like it in this great wintry country of ours, summer is just around the corner and it’s bringing Shakespeare with it – for reasons lost in time, Canadians have long decided that summer isn’t quite complete without a little iambic pentameter, usually spoken in a park. It’s rather timely, then, that across the pond a group of Shakespeare scholars are about to release a book designed to prove, once and for all, that William Shakespeare really did write all his plays. Set for release on April 18 – mere days before the Bard’s birthday – Beyond Doubt: Evidence, Argument, Controversy is a series of essays designed to put to rest the authorship question once and for all.

According to the Guardian, editor Paul Edmondson has become “alarmed” by the popularity of the authorship question. Apparently the University of Brunel offers an MA in Shakespeare authorship studies, which Edmondson considers to be  “absolutely crazy." The essays in Beyond Doubt will reportedly discuss computational stylistic tests and argue that the canon contains words from the local dialect of Stratford. 
And while I can only report that I’m yawning once again, others are feeling a lot more alert.

Last year, following the release of Anonymous (the Roland Emmerich film that attributed Shakespeare’s work to the Earl of Oxford), I wrote of my perpetual boredom with the authorship question. And while I can only report that I’m yawning once again, others are feeling a lot more alert. Montreal playwright / actor Keir Cutler, a staple of the Fringe circuit, has been vocal in the past about his anti-Stratfordian views. Now he has penned his own e-book, The Shakespeare Authorship Question: A Crackpot’s View. 

Cutler’s book is aimed at defending the six percent of people who believe the authorship question is worth discussing – the statistic is taken from a 2007 New York Times survey. 

Cutler’s argument involves listing the ten major pillars of the anti-Stratfordian viewpoint before going on to discuss the traditional viewpoint and critiquing the arguments presented by traditional scholars. 

It’s a thoughtful book that I’d applaud for its passion if I wasn’t still so bored with its subject: as I’ve said before, it sadly doesn’t matter who wrote Shakespeare’s work. As someone wrote, a rose by any other name still smells as sweet. No matter who wrote the canon, Hamlet is still a great play while Merchant of Venice deserves to be buried in the earth. (Sidenote: why aren’t there more people writing books about what a lousy play Merchant is? As a writer, it makes me cringe in embarrassment and I didn’t even write it. Who knows what the ghost of Shakespeare – or the Earl of Oxford or whoever – is thinking?)

The authorship question is little more then an academic thought problem, which is probably why it was inevitable that a book like Beyond Doubt would one day be published. Academics, after all, love a good thought problem, especially when answering it requires you to jump some impressive intellectual hula hoops. The authors of Beyond Doubt have a slew of letters after their names while Keir Cutler has a Ph.D. Cutler’s book is well-referenced and Beyond Doubt will probably be too: so if you’re interested in the question, either the traditional argument or the “crackpot’s view”, both books may be ones you’ll want to put on your summer reading list. 

While Cutler’s book may win his side more supporters, it’s doubtful Beyond Doubt will steal any fuel from the anti-Stratfordian fire. As Barack Obama learned after releasing his long-form birth certificate, attempts to kill conspiracy rumours only save it from certain death. There will always be people who will believe Obama wasn’t born in the US, just as there are those who think the moon landing was faked and aliens are being studied in Roswell, New Mexico. Beyond Doubt won’t stop the anti-Stratfordians in their tracks. To mangle a quote from Shakespeare himself, they’ll only see the book as a case of the lady protesting too much. 

The Shakespeare Authorship Question: A Crackpot’s View by Keir Cutler is available from Amazon. Beyond Doubt will be available at the end of the month from Cambridge Press.


  1. Hey Joel - nice article; witty and thoughtful, and pretty much on the button. I would just say a couple of things about Merchant, though. 1. It was my introduction to Shakespeare in 5th or 6th grade (wow, what an english teacher we had!), so I have a soft spot for it - we discussed the evils of prejudice using the text, which was cool. 2. There are some beautiful and stirring and powerful speeches in it, of course. 3. It has provided the opportunity for some magnificent performances from great actors over the years. I grant you, the plot(s) is/are awful; but chunks of it are Good Theatre. Regarding Shylock, I tend to agree with all that's been written (anti-semitic but then those were the bad old days, WS tried to humanize the whole thing, etc etc). So, I like much about it, but in the end, it pretty much sucks, and if I never see it again, that'll be just fine. - Ned (100% Stratfordian BTW)

  2. Hi Joel
    Thanks for your post. In relation to plays I agree that knowing who the author is, is not so important. In plays there are the dimensions of plot, character, ideas - that are wholly accessible. Most of the symbolism is illuminated from within this context. However, in works of personal symbolism - such as the Sonnets - this is not the case. This a really important distinction. We will never understand much about the Sonnets without knowing the author.
    I am a doubter because the documentary record of the life of William Shakespeare seems very much at odds with the unfaltering generosity of the works attributed to him. There is a life of a brilliant humanitarian who wrote the works attributed to Shakespeare that the world would benefit greatly from knowing.
    Best wishes - Bruce


Comments are moderated. Please read our guidelines for posting comments.