The Reactionary Utopian
                     January 3, 2006

by Joe Sobran

     Anyone can make a silly mistake, but not all of us 
find our blunders rewarded with lucrative Harvard and 
Oxford professorships. Listen, then, to the shocking 
story of Shakespeare scholarship.

     Shakespeare biography is in what might be described 
as a persistent vegetative state. This is a rather 
natural result of trying to write a man's life without 
taking the preliminary step of making sure you've got the 
right guy. I own more than two dozen biographies of the 
Stratford man, most of them fairly recent, who has been 
mistaken for the real author for nearly four centuries.

     Fortunately, some excellent literary criticism of 
the works is still being written, because it doesn't 
depend on biography. Whoever wrote KING LEAR, it remains 
a wonderful play. New and interesting things can still be 
said about it; Stephen Booth's brilliant study of its 
"indefinition" shows how its seeming loose ends and 
contradictions actually display the subtlest artistry.

     But the biographical department of Shakespeare 
scholarship is another matter entirely, marked by amazing 
obtuseness. Highly intelligent people can be obtuse when 
they refuse to use their heads; and this is often the 
case with certified experts in any field who claim 
slam-dunk certainty when simple common sense might have 
saved them from embarrassing errors.

     In the prestigious Oxford edition of Shakespeare's 
COMPLETE WORKS, the editors Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor 
commit some incredible howlers. In a section of 
miscellaneous items headed "Various Poems," they include 
such crude rhymes as this, "Upon a pair of glove that 
master sent to his mistress," linked to the Bard only by 
dubious legend:

      The gift is small,
      The will is all:
      Alexander Aspinall.

Then there is "An extemporary epitaph on John Combe, a 
noted usurer":

      Ten in the hundred lies here engraved;
      A hundred to ten his soul is not saved.
      If anyone ask who lies in this tomb,
      "O ho!" quoth the devil, "'tis my John-a-Combe."

     There's plenty more where this came from, including 
the Stratford man's gravestone inscription, with its 
mighty climax: "And curst be he that moves my bones." 
Such trifles are dated to his later years, after he'd 
left the London theater.

     How do we know Shakespeare wrote this goofy stuff? 
Because someone or other said he did, and as Professor 
Wells solemnly notes, "none of [these] poems was ever 
attributed to anyone else." What more proof do we need?

     To say that the author of THE RAPE OF LUCRECE 
descended to this level in his later years (when he'd 
supposedly retired to Stratford) is like contending that 
Bach finally gave up writing fugues for hip-hop. These 
things hardly rise to the level of tavern-wit. The idea 
that they are the fruits of the great poet's maturity is 
absurd beyond words.

     LUCRECE is written in rhyme royal, an extremely 
difficult seven-line stanza form few English poets have 
ever attempted, let alone mastered. Read two pages of it, 
and ask yourself if it's even conceivable that its author 
spent his final years composing bits of crude doggerel.

     So what happened? Have Professors Wells and Taylor 
been hooted out of academe? On the contrary, they stand 
at the pinnacle of their profession. Nobody cracks a 
smile when they offer such obvious nonsense.

     In fact, Harvard's Stephen Greenblatt, author of a 
bestselling Shakespeare biography a year or two ago, also 
includes the same items in his own edition of the 
"complete" works. Not surprisingly, the biography got a 
rave review from Stanley Wells.

     It would be scandalous if it weren't so funny. These 
gents are not only professional scholars, but 
acknowledged leaders in their field. Mr. Ripley, call 
your office. This episode belongs in "Believe It or Not"!

     Nothing in the Stratford man's will, written shortly 
before his death at age 52, suggests that he had ever 
made a living by his pen, let alone that he'd been the 
most lavishly praised poet of his day. Did that just slip 
his mind? Had a preoccupation with real estate totally 
displaced the literary interests which, the experts tell 
us, had consumed nearly his whole adult life?

     Or if, as we're also told, he'd retired from the 
London theater and returned to Stratford before he was 
50, why didn't he resume writing gentlemanly poetry like 
LUCRECE in his leisure time? Was writing doggerel in 
Stratford more profitable than writing tragedies in 
London? I'm sure no explanation would be too far-fetched 
for the experts -- except, of course, for the obvious 


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