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London Debate: Does the Authorship Question Matter?

Special thanks to Kevin Gilvary and Heward Wilkinson of the DeVere Society for their reports on the panel debate, “Shakespeare Authorship Question — Does This Matter?”, organized by Alain English and presented in London at Ye Olde Cock Tavern on April 30, 2014:

Old Cock Tavern, London

Olde Cock debate 4.30.14

Alan Nelson causes furore with his personal insults

Central London Debating Society on the Shakespeare Authorship Question

Ye Olde Cock Tavern, Fleet Street, London 30 April 2014

After attending the Shakespearean Authorship Conference at the Globe in November 2013, Alain English of the Central London Debating Society decided to hold a debate on the Shakespeare Authorship Question. This took place at  Ye Olde Cock Tavern in Fleet Street, almost directly opposite the Royal Courts of Justice, renowned for its intellectual rigour, and close to the Middle Temple where Twelfth Night was performed in 1602. The motion of the debate (Why does it matter?) departed from the usual either/or proposition, admitting no vote at the end. The speakers, who were each allowed only five minutes to make their case, agreed that the Authorship of the Shakespeare Canon matters a lot. Over 50 people attended and the room was packed.

The first speaker, Professor William Leahy of Brunel University in London, outlined the main arguments for doubting the traditional attribution: the existing documents show William of Stratford to have lent money, hoarded malt, sued for small sums in court and was sued, bought property and avoided tax. Since nothing in these records suggest playwriting, there is an Authorship Question which deserves to be considered. He was a doubter, and proud of it. As ever, Bill was careful not to eliminate the Stratford man altogether as a candidate.

The second speaker, Professor Alan H. Nelson of the University of California, Berkeley, began with an astonishing attack on Derek Jacobi and Mark Rylance as Shakespearean actors who rejected their glorious theatrical tradition of English drama. Many in the audience gasped in disbelief that someone would begin an address to a debate with personal attacks on the famous rather than with a  consideration of the arguments. Nelson outlined what he called three types of mis-reading of the evidence: firstly that there was no problem with the variation in spelling between Shakspere of the historical records and Shakes-peare of the printed works; secondly that posthumous evidence should be accepted, against Diana Price who first took this stance in Shakespeare’s Unorthodox Biography (2001). [Er, excuse me, but didn’t Malone do exactly the same in 1790 and can we really say that Shakespeare and Jonson had a battle of wits-combat because of one isolated claim in 1662?] Thirdly, he said that there were many contemporary testimonies to Shakespeare as author.

The third speaker, Ros Barber (author of The Marlowe Papers and Shakespeare: The Evidence) highlighted the weakness of the recently published Shakespeare Beyond Doubt  which mainly confined itself to answering questions that were raised over 60 years ago. Ros also rejected the ‘straw man arguments’ where the non-Stratfordian position is misrepresented so as to make an apparently easy refutation. She did not mention her e-book project, Shakespeare the Evidence in which she lays out the evidence and the contrary interpretations arising. Ros made a passionate plea that those who doubt the traditional view of the authorship nonetheless love and appreciate the works. Doubters by no means can be considered anti-Shakespeareans.

The fourth speaker, Duncan Salkeld, Senior Lecturer in English at Chichester University, like Nelson, also began his discourse with a personal attack on non-Stratfordians saying that the debate should have been held at Barking, a district in east London, presumably a feeble joke on ‘barking mad’ – nobody laughed. Salkeld then outlined some of the evidence which he thinks is incontrovertible, e.g. that Shakspere’s name is listed in the court payments (with Burbage and Kempe) in 1595 and again in the Revels Accounts of 1605, that Shakspere’s Stratford friend, Richard Field printed Venus & Adonis in 1593 and Lucrece in 1594, that John Weever referred to him in a 1599 epigram as did Thomas Heywood in his 1612 Apology to Actors. [Er, excuse me again, but while Heywood is probably referencing the publication of The Passionate Pilgrim, he does not mention anyone by name and does not suggest that the hard-done previously named author must have been the Stratford man]. Salkeld ended up with yet another personal attack (this time on the Marlovians) by ironically suggesting that Philip Sidney might have survived his apparently fatal wound in 1586 and written the works incognito.

The final speaker, Alexander Waugh of the De Vere Society and of the Shakespeare Authorship Coalition, fully entered into the debate saying that a cross-examination of the evidence such as Salkeld had offered was necessary. He noted that the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust had refused to enter into such a debate. Picking up on some of the points made by Nelson and Salkeld, Waugh said: that the name ‘Shakspere’ is consistently spelt in the Stratford records while the name ‘Shake-speare’ with  a medial –e- and often hyphenated, is consistently used for the printed works. He pointed out that there was no evidence that Field and Shakespeare were friends: Field’s father had sued John Shakspere in Stratford while Richard signed the petition to the Privy Council against the use of Blackfriars as an indoor theatre. If time allowed, he might have added that Field’s printing of Venus and of Lucrece were business decisions intended to make money, which they clearly did. Waugh pointed out that only two of Weever’s 150 epigrams are directed at Shakespeare. [He might have added that the epigram entitled Ad Gulielum Shakespeare references Venus, Lucrece, and King Richard which show that he was aware of the works in print, not that he was personally known to the author.] Furthermore, Waugh mentioned a second epigram by Weever addressed  to Shakspere as Ad Spuriam quendam scriptorem ‘To Spurius, a certain writer’ (IV, 11; 1599) in which he highlighted Shakspere’s spurious claim to have written intimately about Venus.

Various questions were posed from the floor which were answered in a variety of ways. At the end, the bloke in front of me said that this debate was an important step towards a full cross-examination of all the evidence. Roll on that day!

Kevin Gilvary

Chairman, De Vere Society, UK, 1 May 2014

Heward Wilkinson adds:

Last night’s debate was a mildly rumbustious and merry affair – Bill Leahy, Ros Barber and Alexander Waugh were on good form as was Alan Nelson, who will debate with anyone bless him, even us (though he was very rude about Rylance and Jacobi), and Duncan Salkeld uttered a thin reedy note (no pun intended) of quasi-sanity and no originality. No bodies were removed from the room afterwards and it will be available in video probably within a fortnight. Alain English chaired it tactically preventing cross talk (though not ‘parliamentary questions’!) and I can understand why he did that – overall I think it made for a good debate though it was frustrating at times. Discussion continued with some vigour in the bar afterwards. Team Post-Stratfordian more than held their own; whilst I doubt anyone present changed their position, it was actually a realisation of being in the same room together in a passionate but good natured manner which I think may be a little indicator of progress out from the fringe towards ‘minority’.

I cannot remember the question or issue which gave rise to this – perhaps it was the question on philosophy and Shakespeare – but Alan [Nelson] suddenly reminisced about an event at which he was speaking, organised at Carmel College Southern California, and he remarked that he had been probably the only Stratfordian amongst a conference of Oxfordians and he had seen a performance of Richard II performed by Oxfordian actors – and in his experience it was no different, so he mused out loud, ‘perhaps I am changing my position, perhaps it does not make any difference at all!’

Of course he does not actually change his position or treat it as a matter of indifference, but it is all of a piece with that maverick freedom and willingness to ‘rove wild’ which is so rare amongst Stratfordians. Perhaps the author of Monstrous Adversary has been a bit more influenced by the wild man than he realises!!

There was another delicious moment involving Alan when he remarked that he could not see that there would be the slightest problem about Oxford publishing Hamlet under his own name. Alexander leant across towards him and asked him, very pointedly, ‘Have you read Hamlet?’ There was a gasp from the audience – and an initial silence!


Ed. Note: The debate was also reported in the Spectator, which concluded, “Wit and fleet reasoning won the day as almost everyone at the packed tavern was willing, by the end, to concede that the Shakespeare Authorship Question deserves to be studied in schools and universities. If the man from Stratford did not write the plays, who did?”

posted May 2, 2014


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