Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Authorship and Critical Thinking

This morning, a number of my early modern tweeps were in a bit of a fuss over a post at Brain Pickings, a site I normally like. But the post in question made me roll my eyes excessively, sigh, and say "really, are we doing this again?"  The post in question was about a book -- and companion website -- that once again rehearses the Shakespeare authorship question.

(And I'm going to try to be fair-minded here and not begin with authorship and controversy in quotation marks.  Though it is only fair to tell you that this is a test of my own ability to be fair to not do so.)

What particularly bothered a number of people was the fact that this is a book that is posing the authorship question as an issue of critical thinking.  I don't think I have to point out to those few of you who read this blog that the insinuation, then, is that scholars of Shakespeare who dismiss out of hand the notion that Shakespeare did not write Shakespeare are not thinking critically.  Frankly, this is not a good way to begin a discussion: it begins by insulting the opponent.

A number of people have done what I consider amazing and extensive work discussing the problems raised by the authorship conspiracy -- Holger Syme has a number of posts about it, including critiques of the problems of Shakespeareans focusing on the wrong things in order to dismiss Anti-Stratfordians; and James Shapiro's book Contested Will does a remarkably thorough and fair job tracing the history of the conspiracy and refuting each alternate authorial identity.

So I really don't feel like I need to address that particular argument: much better early modernists have already done so.

But I want to talk about this in terms of critical thinking.

I do this (so you know my point of view) as both an early modern scholar and a critical thinking program coordinator.  I teach this.  I teach classes in it.  I train faculty in it.  It's important to me, and that fact that one of my friends was most distressed by the linking of the question (did Shakespeare write Shakespeare?) with the concept of critical thinking spurs me to consider the whole thing (especially this particular project) with critical thinking in mind.

And I will fully admit that I am doing this without reading the book.  I am rather interested in what the website's "About" suggestion puts forward as the purpose of the book.  So, please don't think me entirely unfair for doing this without reading the book, but I have read many of these arguments, so I'm familiar with the general tenor of them.

Anyway ... onward ...

I think first and foremost, Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne's essay, "One Side Can Be Wrong" might be instructive here.  In it, Dawkins and Coyne argue against the teaching of creationism (or intelligent design, as it is sometimes more euphemistically described) in science class.  Their argument is that, fundamentally, creationism is simply not science. It does not stand up to the standards of scientific rigor. The argument of creationists is not based in evidence -- it is based on refuting the entirety of evolutionary science based on some gaps in information in the fossil record.  It operates through negation, rather than affirmation.

And so, as Shapiro and many others have pointed out, do the Anti-Stratfordian theories.  They point to a lack of evidence about Shakespeare's life as proof that someone else wrote the plays (and, as all my early modernist friends know, Edward de Vere, Early of Oxford is only the latest contender in a lengthy string of contenders).

Then, there's a sense of simply insisting "But I'm just asking a question."  This suggests that we Shakespeareans are not being fair to people who raise a question about what we think is an obvious and settled question.  It's also the statement that a number of conspiracy theorists make, whether they're young earth creationists, 9-11 truthers, or Glenn Beck.

I want to begin here.  With the idea of questions.  I'm going to loosely use the ideas of critical thinking based on the Paul and Elder model of elements and standards as I talk about this.  While it's an imperfect system, it is a system of critical thinking, and I think that's something that's fundamental to our problem solving and to metacognition: it must be intentional and it must, ultimately, be systematic.  (And because I am also currently working on a textbook about critical thinking, I'm going to be putting the relevant terms in italics.  You've been warned.  I'm going all CT-program-sherpa on you.)

When we ask questions, according to Paul and Elder, we need for our questions to be clear and precise -- and certainly, the question "Did Shakespeare write Shakespeare?" is a clear question -- though we might quibble with how precise it is.  No matter, I want to keep moving on.  We also need to make sure that the question is significant.  Here's where we run into the first problem.  The fundamental question -- and the purpose of the project under present scrutiny -- claims that this is significant.  As thinkers and scholars, we have to begin to question that.  Is it really that significant?  Why?  And to what end?  It is certainly not the most interesting conversation to be having about the works of Shakespeare, from the perspective of an early modernist.

And that actually leads me to the next thing I want to think about.  The purpose.  What is the purpose of asking this question?  When we consider our purpose, according to the Paul and Elder model, we need to ask if we are being fair in our purposes.  We also need to actually -- and clearly -- articulate that purpose, which is never fully explained, as far as I can see in most Anti-Stratfordian arguments.  It seems to me that any attempt to ask this question is founded in a fundamental desire to out think the establishment (though that's not necessarily articulated).  And I am all in favor of avoiding conformity with the establishment when the establishment is wrong.  But -- and this is something that I suspect rankles a number of my fellow early modernists -- the use of Schopenhauer's quotation, "All truth passes through three stages. First it is ridiculed, second it is violently opposed, and third, it is accepted as self-evident," implies something important about the purpose here. Shakespeareans are not the ones who are ridiculed in this situation. The inclusion of this quotation implies that the ridiculed (the Anti-Stratfordians) are correct and need only keep plugging away at the argument: eventually they will come out on top. This creates a problem, and in fact brings me back to one of the problems of the question. The central assumption about "just asking the question" is that is assumes that the question needs to be asked at all. It's a valid question because it presupposes that the answer is "someone else wrote Shakespeare."

Now the author of this specific book in question suggests that the purpose of the book is to "so that any reader can examine the Authorship Question for himself or herself, and hopefully arrive at his or her own answer to the four-centuries-old mystery." This is a clearly articulated purpose. It is a precise purpose. But is it a fair purpose? Is there a vested interest? Again, we run into a problem. Because Shakespearean scholars generally dismiss the authorship question as an irrelevant and insignificant question, there is a desire to demonstrate that they are wrong -- and in the case of this project to crowd-source an answer. This assumes that popular wisdom is better than scholarly study. This also operates under the assumption that anything and everything should be put up for a popular vote. (I realize that the project is using a mathematical metric to do this, but I think the tenor of the project actually suggests that people will game the system to get the answer they want. I admit that I'm skeptical that mathematical analysis can solve all problems in literature -- and this is actually a historical question in many ways. Donald Foster's "Funeral Elegy" attribution, anyone?) I think that most of us would agree that these are not necessarily fair -- or perhaps even logical -- assumptions upon which this purpose is founded.

And so, even my simple question of "What's the purpose of all of this?" begins to engage and question the work behind this. Evaluating our ideas, our purposes, our questions are important in thinking critically.

We also need to ask questions about assumptions, about concepts, about information, about inferences, and about the implications of such a thought-exercise as asking the question "Did Shakespeare write Shakespeare?" We also need to think more clearly about the breadth of the point of view -- and particularly the point of view (points of view?) we need to use to understand certain concepts and interpret certain information.

For the sake of my reader (and my own brain), let me get more quickly to the point by posing these as questions.

Assumptions: What are the assumptions of the question "Did Shakespeare write Shakespeare?"? I've outlined some of them above, but we might also want to consider what sort of assumptions that anti-Stratfordians make about education, about authorship, and about the need for identifying records in the early modern period. We need to ask if the assumptions are fair and -- perhaps most importantly here -- if they are based in accurate information. (And the Shakespeareans I mentioned early in this post do an excellent job of covering those points). There's also, fundamentally, an assumption about the way that documents last over time (they don't. Paper gets lost and rots. This is a massive problem). I could go on.

There's also, in the AKA Shakespeare project, an assumption that everyone in the conversation is operating fairly and reasonably:
Because the identity of the author we know as "Shakespeare" remains an open question. Most scholars of English literature maintain that he was a gentleman of that or similar name who was born and who died in the small town of Stratford-upon-Avon in the County of Warwickshire in England. However, there are a growing number of independent scholars who dispute that assumption. The scholastic community has not persuaded the independent scholars to see the error of their ways. But neither have the independent scholars persuaded the orthodox scholars to see the error of their ways. The Authorship Problem therefore remains unresolved. (AKA Shakespeare)
One of the central values of critical thinking, according to Paul and Elder, is confidence in reason -- but that requires that everyone plays by the same rules, and as I've suggested above, I'm not convinced that that is the case.

Concepts: Fundamental to this -- and these are linked to assumptions -- are definitions of the words authorship, ownership, and identity in the early modern period. We have to ask if we're operating with the same definitions of these terms. And I don't simply mean Stratfordians and Anti-Stratfordians. I mean trained scholars and casual dabblers, like the person behind the AKA Shakespeare project.* We cannot even have a conversation until we know that we have the same definitions of the terms.

Information: I won't go into great depth about the information that Syme and Shapiro and others have gone into about what's lacking in terms of evidence in the Anti-Stratfordians theories (and the better evidence that Syme argues we could be using to refute the claims). Instead, I want to point to a problem in the AKA Shakespeare book's information:
If there is any single argument that yields a conclusive answer to this mystery, the genius who has discovered that argument has not yet presented it to the world. Each side of the debate has many arguments to present—no one of which is conclusive. The procedure here presented for your consideration is designed to hopefully bring some order out of this chaos. (AKA Shakespeare)
See Shapiro's book. This has been done over and over again. But also, we can point to the assumption in this claim: that both sides are playing by the same rules. As in Dawkins and Coyne's discussion, this is a case where one side presents positive evidence (and can explain any gaps) and another sees only the negative evidence -- and that side posits any gap in positive evidence automatically means that the scholarly consensus is wrong.

Inferences: An inference might also be called the conclusion that we reach based on the information, as filtered through our assumptions about the concepts involved. In this case, we would have to go back and think about whether or not we're operating with the same assumptions about the information, about whether or not our inferences based on the information are logical, and whether or not we have dealt with the depth and breadth of those assumptions and concepts. Again, part of the Anti-Stratfordian argument relies on refusing the agree with the fundamental understanding of concepts and assumptions of scholarship -- and so the inference (especially that of negative information) is not the same. And that insistence on negative information, despite all the positive information in favor of Shakespeare, leads to an illogical and incomplete inference.

Implications: This is the logical end to any problem solving -- this is where we get if we follow the line of reasoning seriously. And so I simply want to ask: what's the logical end if the answer to the question "Did Shakespeare write Shakespeare?" is no? What is the consequence of this? Will it actually undo the existence of the work? Certainly, one of the implications would be that we cannot presume that anyone with anything less than an elite education can possibly create works of lasting importance. And, as an American, I find this idea distasteful. And illogical. And inaccurate.

Point of View: This can mean a number of things, but it is important. Who are the Anti-Stratfordians? And who are the people who insist that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare? Who has a vested interest in answering the question. Admittedly, both do. But we also have to consider our assumptions about expertise and scholarship. One of the fundamental things important in scholarship is that it requires rigorous peer review. Now some would argue that the Anti-Stratfordians get left out, because the system is rigged against them. But I want to suggest -- as Dawkins and Coyne do in regards to scientific inquiry -- that scholarship requires a specific type of rigor, and we all must meet those standards in order to be taken seriously. And it's not as if early modernists are in lock-step on a huge number of questions. We disagree on a lot of things. Vigorously and frequently. (Also, there's an assumption that scholars, actors, playwrights and a just generally huge number of people could keep a secret for this long. I mean, seriously: have you met English professors? We are massive gossips. We do not keep secrets very well. But that's another matter.)

But all of this brings me back to the concept of question. One of the major problems with the question is actually that it isn't looking at things broadly enough: Shakespearean scholars think about Shakespeare as but one of a cluster of playwrights in the period. Knowing this -- and thinking about the broader question of "Who were all of these men who wrote the plays?" -- means that Shakespearean scholars are looking for a different set of information and operating with different assumptions about the fundamental concepts in the issue.

*I admit that this might be an unfair characterization. But I am going to go ahead and again admit my own bias: I am tired of having this conversation over and over again.  It needs to be had, but I'm getting sick of it.  There are much more interesting things to be doing with Shakespeare.


Michael Handy said...

Great analysis of the (non)issue. One text you did not mention: about the same time the film Anonymous debuted, Stanley Wells and Paul Edmondson released an e-book called Shakespeare Bites Back. It is available free, along with a five minute podcast with talking points about the (non)issue, on the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust website.

Emily said...

Michael -- Thanks. That's not a book that I've read. I'll check that out when I've got time.

Bruce Leyland said...

Hi Emily - Thanks for your post. I will look for work by Holger Syme. Shapiro I find very biased. I hope you'll consider my notes below.
... the insinuation, then, is that scholars of Shakespeare who dismiss out of hand the notion that Shakespeare did not write Shakespeare are not thinking critically. If scholars are dismissing any notion “out of hand”, they’re not thinking at all – critically or otherwise.
The argument of creationists is not based in evidence -- it is ... based on some gaps in information in the fossil record. It operates through negation, rather than affirmation. The question of faith is an interesting one in relation to the authorship question (and can be applied to both sides). Isn’t your reduction of Shakespeare Doubters to “conspiracists” exactly this negation at work? The conspiracy would be the “gap” in the doubters’ evidence. I just find this a much easier gap to live with than the incongruities in the documentary record.
They point to a lack of evidence about Shakespeare's life as proof that someone else wrote the plays Yes, but more particularly that the limited evidence available being at odds with the body of work. We are asked to believe that a man whom the documentary record demonstrates: as mean spirited - wrote unfalteringly generous work; delighted in educated women - left his daughters illiterate; was one of the most cultured people of his age - bequeathed no cultural objects – books, paintings, writing paraphernalia/bookshelves/paper/desk, in his very detailed, but stingy will.
Is it really that significant? Of course it’s significant. How can you fully interpret his work without context for the signs/symbols if you don’t know his motivations? How would you understand Sylvia Plath, Frieda Kahlo without their biographies? Lamentably, at present we have very little understanding of the Sonnets. Moreover almost all commentators make reference to his biography, which is possibly very misleading (and I believe diminishes our appreciation of the work - but that's just my view.
.... "just asking the question" is that is assumes that the question needs to be asked at all.... Before I get to the question of “who wrote Shakespeare?” I’d like some straight answers to the incongruities that evoke that - sometime premature - conclusion . What does Green mean when he criticises Shakespeare in 1592? In Return to Parnassus, Shakespeare is the plagiarising buffoon Gullio’s pin-up boy (rather like Lady Catherine de Bergh for Mr Collins) – why would the writer/s make this choice?
Why is his “dust” epitaph so un-literary? Why are his other epitaphs (to John Comb and Elias James) so lame? Why did he write no eulogy for Elizabeth or Prince Henry? Here are 5 situations where Shakespeare fails to produce something of eternal quality. How did this happen? One very simple possibility is that you can’t write a funerary verse under a pen-name.
Why does Vicars refer to him as taking his name from “Shaking a spear” instead of just using his name? Here I make the point that Vicars was the son-in-law of my preferred candidate – this then becomes positive evidence. Similarly, Southampton was his best friend.

(...Paper gets lost and rots. This is a massive problem). I could go on. Yes paper rots. This is an explanation. It’s not evidence. Not one letter loved and souvenired by a literary friend? Southampton? Not one autographed book?
... that we cannot presume that anyone with anything less than an elite education can possibly create works of lasting importance. Agreed. But lack of an elite education elevates what is already a unequalled output to the status of miracle. ....And illogical... The logic is very clear - it's very hard to write literature steeped in cultural references, if you’re not steeped in it yourself.
... that scholarship requires a specific type of rigor, and we all must meet those standards in order to be taken seriously (but not to observe some truth I would hope).
Best wishes - Bruce

Emily said...

(response: part 1)
I want to address a few things in the previous comment, though I am not going to address all of them. In terms of refuting or explaining certain pieces of information – others have done it before me and have done a better job that I can do.

I will first concede a point. You are correct: dismissing something out of hand would indicate a lack of critical thinking. I should have phrased that more accurately. What I actually should have said – and this is in part why I brought Dawkins and Coyne into my discussion – is that Shakespeareans dismiss this conversation, because we’ve had it over and over again, and we do not find it to be a relevant or significant question any longer. I don’t want to speak for all Shakespeareans, but I do know that I have read all of the arguments, I have thought about them, I have determined that I disagree with the anti-Stratfordians claims, and I am tired of having to defend my conclusion over and over and over again. Dawkins and Coyne talk about having to start over again and again on discussing whether or not evolution happened, and they point out that from the point of view of the evolutionary biologist, it isn’t the most interesting controversy out there. I am extrapolating from that to suggest that this isn’t the best use of my time to rehash repeatedly the discussion, just because another person has asked the question. Shakespeareans will respond, but to a certain degree, this is for most of us having the same conversation over and over again. That’s neither all that interesting or all that good for continued intellectual development.

But then I want to discuss one of the fundamental concepts that we’re running up against. You question whether Kahlo’s work would be the same work if done by someone else. And the answer is yes. This gets to the concept not only of authorship that I mentioned in my post, but also the concept of author.

Would King Lear still be a powerful play if suddenly something demonstrated that it was written by someone else? Absolutely. When I sit in the theater to watch it, I am moved by it because of the powerful language and the profound nihilism demonstrated in the end. I do not sit through the play thinking about who actually wrote the work. This is because the work is ultimately separate from the author. The understanding of author in literary studies is complex – and our work is informed not only by the concept that there was a man who wrote this work, but also by a variety of theories about the relationship between the author, the art, and the world (here I learn on the work of M. H. Abrams); we also have our notion of author filtered – to varying degrees – through Foucault’s concept of the author function and Barthes’ death of the author. Certainly, we’re interested in details of people’s biographies – but it doesn’t change the work on the page to know what, for example, Shakespeare was doing in those lost years. It doesn’t change the ending of Lear or the hilarity of the conversation between Beatrice and Benedick.

(Continued ...)

Emily said...

(response: part 2)
To explain this a bit more, let me use an example from art, just to balance with your example of Kahlo. In college, I went to Madrid and I visited the Museo Reina Sofia, which houses Picasso’s Guernica. It’s a painting that I’d seen in pictures dozens of times before. It’s a good painting, in reproduction. It’s also a painting, that in person, knocked the wind out of me. It was one of the most profound experiences that I’ve ever had in a museum. And it has nothing to do with knowing that Picasso painted it. The work of art does the emotional work. It is separate from the artist, ultimately.

And that’s where we’re having trouble in conversation: the profound disagreement over the concept “author.”

But, you might ask, why do Shakespeareans care so much? For me – and I don’t want to speak for all early modernists – it’s not so much that I think suddenly the entire oeuvre of work will change or the 400 years of scholarship will suddenly be null and void (they won’t be), it’s dealing with the purpose behind the question at all. I’m sorry that you found Shapiro biased, but he’s right – and he’s not the only one to make the point: the earliest forms of Anti-Stratfordianism was founded in British elitism. Once Shakespeare’s works were determined to be this profoundly important body of work, the question of his origins is raised: how can a man with the kind of education know these things? (And this is an information question, but my short answer is that we’ve assumed that he’s a lot more accurate about things than he actually was). It’s an elitist question. And the implication of all of this – especially now trying to associate the author of the works with the Earl of Oxford – is that someone from the middle class, with modest means, and middling education could not have possibly done something this profound. And we all know that this is not the case.

If we get huffy or dismissive, it’s because we’re tired of having to persuade people who will not be persuaded by the evidence. We’re also tired of having to take seriously people who think we’re either dupes or conspirators – and again, people who will not be persuaded by anything less than Shakespeare’s ghost coming forward to announce that he did write these works.

After all, Obama showed us his long form birth certificate. That hasn’t stopped Orly Taitz from continuing to sue over his eligibility.

Bruce Leyland said...

Thanks for your response.
My comment on the importance of knowing who the author is concerned personal signs and symbols. While this may be an important dimension in Lear, there are other dimensions - plot, character, ideas - that are wholly accessible in this work. In works of personal symbolism this is not the case. This a really important artistic distinction. We will never understand much about the sonnets - works of personal meaning - without knowing the author.
To his credit, Shapiro declares that he is setting out to make a case. This is not the same as a balanced argument. Also - he doesn't examine the evidence for Sir Henry Neville - best friend of Southampton - and friend of Jonson's - who wrote him an epigram 109). Shapiro's conclusion that doubters are psychologically troubled is simply an ad hominem flourish.
I suppose if I were Dawkins I'd be tired of creationists - because logic is not part of their credo. To make this same judgement of doubters is not valid- and can just as easily be applied in reverse. But, you know, while hear this "I'm tired" line from Stratfordians all the time. I don't hear it from doubters. I think this tiredness is worth investigating. Why is it such hard work?
Thanks again for engaging with me on this. Best wishes - Bruce
(by the way, I can't imagine Cordelia signing off with a pig-tail signature).

Carl Isaacson said...

An interesting post. The Anti-Stratfordians, like the climate change deniers, the Biblical literalists, the Kennedy assassination conspiracy theorists and the birthers will not be convinced by logic. When you start out your thesis with "I'm just sayin'" you're prepared to fudge the evidence and ignore logic.

I have students who insist that New Mexico's drivers licenses are about to be rejected as id's for purpose of boarding a plane - because N.M. allows people without immigration papers to get a D.L. They can't see that there is no logical connection - the the 9/11 hijackers all had valid D.L.s - that non-Americans board airplanes daily using forms of I.D. that aren't N.M. D.L.'s. Logic and facts never get in the way of passion. And this is passion.

Some passions can be dismissed out of hand. Michael Polanyi's Personal Knowledge spends a good deal of time discussing what that is neither bad nor a problem. The scholars can and should dismiss ideas that have long been settled. This is one of them.