How bizarre to turn on the television last night and find respected Shakespearean academic Professor Stanley Wells defending the orthodox view (that William Shakespeare of Stratford wrote the works of Shakespeare) on a show called “It’s Only A Theory” (BBC4). For those who haven’t seen the programme (and I’ve only caught it a couple of times before), an expert (usually an academic of the highest credentials) puts forward a theory, the panel (two resident comedians and a guest) try to get jokes out of it (generally a fairly tall order) and then approve or reject it. Wells’ appearance on such a programme seems an ill-judged move, and one that smacks a little of desperation. In that respect it is not dissimilar to his declaration only six months ago that he had discovered a “new” portrait of Shakepeare (one that looks nothing like any other recognised portrait of Shakespeare and very strongly like Sir Thomas Overbury).
What has provoked such odd moves appear to be the perceived (and growing) “threat” from non-Stratfordians such as myself, whom Wells accused of “snobbery” and “ignorance”. Three years of doctoral study on the Early Modern literature and specifically the Authorship Question would acquit me, I hope, of the second charge, and my preferred candidate (a cobbler’s son) means the first simply doesn’t apply. Wells made a number of erroneous statements, of course, including “we have documentary evidence that this chap wrote lots of plays” when Diana Price has demonstrated that, uniquely amongst writers of his period, there is no primary source evidence at all that the Stratford incumbent was an author. Or - given the hotly debated signatures - that he could even write. But then Professor Wells is no historian. I presume the evidence he was referring to was the name “William Shakespeare” on the title pages of certain plays and poems – but as those of us in the business know, a name on a title page does not an author make. Especially in the repressive atmosphere of Early Modern England.
During the previous academic’s piece about chaos theory (“nothing is chaotic, we just don’t understand it yet”), I briefly toyed with the idea of putting Marlovian Theory on the stand, but dismissed it as a totally inappropriate medium for any argument of substance. Then moments later, to my astonishment, up pops Professor Wells. How strange to find a voice from the establishment conceding (quite correctly, for a change) that “William Shakeseare of Stratford wrote the works of Shakespeare” is a theory. In my view Professor Wells unwittingly gave ground to the opposition by his very appearance. Does he really need the orthodox view sanctioned by two comedians? Apparently, yes.
He got it, too – but just as many of his statements were fallacious and his arguments erroneous, the basis on which he won approval does not exactly validate the theory. Kirsty Wark (apparently a Groupist) gave it a thumbs down. Reginald D Hunter approved it on the basis that he didn’t want Professor Wells to have a stroke, and Andy Hamilton on the basis that “by approving this theory we immediately dispose of about 5000 other theories”. Yup, that’s the level of serious debate we can expect from Stratfordians. The subject is banned from academic journals, conferences and internet discussion groups, but they’ll debate it with three TV personalities not well-enough informed to be able to dispute it. And even then only get approved 2-1. Sad.
* The title for this post is a quote from Andy Hamilton.
[See the programme for yourself here for the next six days. Stanley Wells is about 20 minutes in. My piece for the Marlowe-Shakespeare blogspot on Stanley Wells' previous desperate move can be found here.]