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David Kathman and the
“Historical Record”

A Reply to David Kathman’s
Selective Critique

by Joseph Sobran

David Kathman, editor of a website on the Shakespeare authorship question, offers many criticisms of those who deny that William of Stratford was the Bard, reserving special scorn for those of us who think the real Bard was Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford. He calls me a “non-scholar,” in contrast to the genuine “scholars” who hold the traditional view.

Some of Kathman’s specific criticisms of Oxfordians (including me) are warranted. He is an able and well-informed advocate for William and he is skillful at catching his opponents’ factual errors and overstatements.

Unfortunately, Kathman himself writes not like a scholar, but like a lawyer; his goal is not truth, but victory. Far from writing with impartial detachment, he spares his own “side” the scathing criticisms he inflicts on Oxfordians. He treats the Oxfordian Charlton Ogburn as a fool, but overlooks the egregious vulnerabilities of the eccentric Stratfordian Alan Nelson, since Nelson is on his “side.” Kathman seems to feel that the Stratfordian “side” can’t afford to make the slightest concession to the heretics. He won’t allow that any Oxfordian has ever raised a legitimate objection or found a real weakness in Stratfordian scholarship.

Though Oxfordians obviously reject the authority of academic Shakespeare scholars, Kathman constantly appeals to the shared opinions of those scholars as if this could decide the authorship controversy: he assures us that “the majority of Shakespeare scholars today doubt” one proposition, another is “not very widely accepted today among Shakespeare scholars,” a third is “shared by essentially all Shakespeare scholars you could ask,” “most scholars today believe” yet another, “the majority of Shakespeare scholars today doubt” a fifth, and so on.

Kathman is intelligent enough to realize that citing Stratfordian scholars to prove the Stratfordian position is circular reasoning, but he is eager to show that the traditional view is held by all the Best People. Being more partisan than scholar, he seeks a polemical victory in discrediting those he considers his opponents. Never does he give an Oxfordian credit for making a sound point; never does he criticize a fellow Stratfordian for fatuity. He maintains a loyal silence even when Nelson, trying to explain why the poet of the Sonnets seems much older than the youth, absurdly surmises that William “felt old” because he was “prematurely balding.”

But Kathman reveals an even more serious flaw. Consider his positive case for William’s authorship, in his own words:

How do we know that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare? We know because the historical record tells us so, strongly and unequivocally.... The most obvious evidence that William Shakespeare wrote the works attributed to him is that everyone at the time said he did.... All the historical evidence ties William Shakespeare of Stratford to the plays bearing his name.... [The] evidence for Shakespeare’s authorship is abundant and wide-ranging for the era in which he lived, much more abundant than the comparable evidence for most other contemporary playwrights.... It’s true that no one single document states categorically that William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon wrote Hamlet and King Lear, but then no such document exists for any other playwright of the time either.... [There] is no indication in the historical record that anybody ever suspected [“Shakespeare”] of being a pseudonym or said that anybody other than William Shakespeare was the author.... No Elizabethan ever suggested that Shakespeare’s plays and poems were written by someone else, or that Shakespeare the player was not Shakespeare the author, or that Shakespeare the Globe-sharer was not Shakespeare of Stratford.... [His] contemporaries knew who he was, and there was never any doubt in the minds of those who knew him.... [No] person of the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras ever doubted the attribution [of these works to William.]” (My emphases.)
This argument displays a hopelessly naive view of history and the “historical record.” Kathman is really telling us only what we already know and what no Oxfordian doubts: that William was identified as the Bard in his own time and that no record of anyone denying this has survived. But this means much less than he wants it to mean.

Anyone who has ever investigated any historical problem knows how fragmentary and ambiguous our records of the past are. Witnesses may lie, be deceived, exaggerate, fudge, repeat hearsay, shield their friends, or inflate their own certainty. They may even collude to conceal the truth.

Moreover, our records of the past are a minute fraction of the full, irretrievable reality of the past. As C.S. Lewis once put it, we may think of the past as a huge library that has burned down, and of recorded history as a single line in a single book that happened to survive the fire. That is roughly the proportion between the past and what we actually know of it.

It’s ingenuous to suppose that the “historical record” is complete, reliable, unambiguous, and transparent. “But what will history say?” asks Major Swindon in Bernard Shaw’s The Devil’s Disciple; to which General Burgoyne replies: “History, sir, will tell lies, as usual.” We needn’t be quite as cynical as Burgoyne; but Swindon’s question certainly represents a common assumption that “history” speaks with simple finality and utters verdicts beyond appeal, rather like a documentary narrated by Walter Cronkite.

Kathman likewise assumes that the “historical record” is exhaustive when he assures us that “everyone” in Elizabethan England thought one thing, or that “nobody” — “ever”! — doubted another. How can he, or anyone else, possibly know this?

Just for openers, most gossip that contradicts the official version of events is never recorded. We have no way of knowing what was really in the “minds” of “all” Elizabethans, or even “all” of William’s acquaintances; we can only guess at what they “ever suspected.” And it may be that we have better testimony of William’s authorship than of, say, Thomas Kyd’s; but that doesn’t mean that the testimony for either is sufficient, let alone incontrovertible. It’s even possible that the meager testimony for Kyd is sounder than the more abundant testimony for William; volume isn’t decisive.

Kathman writes as if the “historical record” were a neat set of notarized statements, scrupulously set down for posterity. In actual fact, it’s a bizarre miscellany of things, many of which were recorded less by design than by accident. It permits boundless variety of interpretation and fairly little in the way of certainty. And, of course, we never know how much is missing from the record.

Aristotle cautions us against demanding more certitude than the nature of the subject admits; there is no mathematical exactitude in history. The Anglican bishop Richard Whately summed it up in a profound aphorism: “He who is unaware of his ignorance will be only misled by his knowledge.” When a man presumes to say what “everyone” thought, in any period, he calls his own judgment into question. Such grandiose claims are anything but “scholarly.”

Notice that Kathman tacitly rules out the Bard’s works as part of the “historical record” — even for purposes of determining the Bard’s identity! He parenthetically admits that he thinks the Sonnets refer to real people and events, but he leaves it at that. He doesn’t treat the Sonnets as pertinent “evidence” for the question of authorship, though the poet writes in the first person and seems to make some intimate disclosures about himself. After all, it says “Shakespeare” wrote them, doesn’t it? What more proof do we need? For Kathman the title page of the Sonnets counts as the “historical record,” but the Sonnets themselves don’t! What the poet says about himself actually seems to count for less, in his mind, than what the Folio tributes say about him.

I, on the other hand, think the Sonnets give us some of the most crucial evidence we have, and I think they point to Oxford. Kathman calls my reading of the Sonnets “subjective”; in fact he is addicted to the word subjective, like a first-year philosophy student who has just added it to his vocabulary and snatches every opportunity to use it. (He also repeats the phrase notoriously subjective several times.)

It’s not clear what he means by this, except that to his way of thinking the “subjective” is the polar opposite of the “historical record.” Allow me to expose the inner workings of my subjectivity.

The poet of the Sonnets says that he is “old,” and he calls the youth a “youth,” to whom he is as a “decrepit father”; from such details I infer that the poet is a generation older than the youth, just as Oxford was a generation older than the Earl of Southampton. The poet says he is “lame,” the same word Oxford several times used to describe himself. The poet constantly laments his “disgrace,” “shames,” “blots,” “vulgar scandal,” et cetera; Oxford led a scandalous life and fell into disgrace. The poet uses fifty of the same legal terms we find in Oxford’s letters, as well as many of the specific words, images, and themes Oxford uses in his 1573 letter to Thomas Bedingfield. The poet hopes his “name” will be “buried” and “forgotten,” which accords perfectly with Oxford’s authorship but is baffling if we posit William’s. The poet, with his “two loves,” male and female, seems to be bisexual; Oxford not only had an amour resulting in a bastard son, but was accused of “buggering boys.”

These are only a few of the reasons the Sonnets provide for thinking Oxford was the poet. There is another one, of course. Kathman quibbles over whether the youth was really Southampton (“the majority of Shakespeare scholars today,” he says characteristically, “doubt very much that Southampton was the youth of the Sonnets”), but many Stratfordian scholars have accepted the identification, without reference to Oxford. And as it happens, the girl Southampton was being pressed, against his will, to marry at about the time the Sonnets were written (Kathman quibbles about their dates too) was none other than Oxford’s eldest daughter, Elizabeth de Vere. The poet urges the reluctant youth to marry and beget an heir “for love of me,” a plea which, coming from anyone but the prospective father-in-law, would be hard to explain.

Each of these details may be more or less debatable; but together they cohere and have explanatory power. I don’t claim to have proved my case beyond any doubt, as Kathman says the “historical record” proves William’s authorship; I say only that, given the indications we have, it seems more reasonable and probable than any other explanation of the same facts and resolves many persistent puzzles about the Sonnets.

We may note in passing that all three of the dedicatees of the Bard’s works — the earls of Southampton, Pembroke, and Montgomery — had been Oxford’s prospective sons-in-law. This remarkable coincidence is lost on the Stratfordian scholars, including Kathman.

Are the Sonnets “fictions,” as some Stratfordians (though not Kathman) suggest? Then why do they revolve around two characters who happen to resemble the nonfictional earls of Oxford and Southampton so closely? Alan Nelson argues fancifully that if only we knew more about William, we might see that he too matches the poet of the Sonnets; but he doesn’t explain how this could possibly be, and anyway this argument concedes that Oxford does seem to match the poet. Despite such attempts to obscure it, the fact remains that the poet’s self-portrait squares very well with what we know of Oxford, but not with what we do, or could, know of William. And none of my critics, including Kathman, have denied this. All of them avoid addressing the specifics of the Sonnets that I have tried to call their attention to.

Kathman calls my argument that Oxford and Southampton were lovers “sheer fantasy.” It isn’t a fantasy at all, but an inference from three propositions, each of which many people find plausible: Oxford was the poet, Southampton was the youth, and the poet and the youth were lovers. Kathman notes triumphantly that Oxford and Southampton make no mention of each other in their letters; but this is one more case of his wrong-headed assumption that the “historical record” is a comprehensive record of the past. Only a few of the two earls’ letters have survived, and most of Oxford’s are addressed to his father-in-law, Lord Burghley, the last man on earth he would risk exposing such an amour to, especially considering that Southampton was Burghley’s ward.

If the Sonnets helped William’s case, I suspect Kathman and “the majority of Shakespeare scholars” would insist on counting them as primary documents in the “historical record.” But they are no help to William at all. On the contrary, if we accept them as part of the “historical record,” they create fatal difficulties for William’s authorship. And of course the Stratfordian scholars don’t try to prove his authorship from them. It can’t be done.

If the Sonnets do tell us about their author, one can make a better case even for Francis Bacon’s authorship than for William’s! After all, Bacon was a writer and occasional poet, a nobleman, a public figure who fell into disgrace (though long after the Sonnets were written), and a homosexual with a taste for boys. No, the Sonnets are definitely not an asset to the Stratfordian cause.

On the one occasion when I met Kathman, I posed the following question:

“Let’s assume that William was the Bard. But let’s suppose Oxford had been falsely identified as the author, and everyone (including scholars) had accepted this deceit for four centuries. What is it about these works that would have convinced you that the real author was not Oxford, but was a forgotten actor from Stratford?”

An interesting thought-experiment, I think. I hoped Kathman would at least find it stimulating. But he had no answer to it; how could he? His entire case for William boils down to testimony; and aside from that testimony, there is no evidence for William at all.

Every word the Bard wrote belongs to the historical record; because each of those words is a tiny record of his experience, whether it be the general experience of speaking English, the literary experience of certain specific books, or the idiosyncratic experiences of visiting specific sites in Italy or of being Lord Burghley’s son-in-law. It would be surprising if such a distinctive and exuberant literary personality should leave no traces of itself outside the Bard’s works, as I think Oxford did and William did not. We may, and should, examine this rich deposit of language for things that individualize the author and set him apart from his contemporaries. But this requires a subtler and more inclusive understanding of the historical record than Kathman’s.

Whatever we make of the Sonnets, they are certainly a legitimate, vital, and indispensable part of the historical record. Even if we were to decide that the Bard was trying to deceive the public (which I can’t believe) that very attempt would tell us something about him. But Stratfordian scholars who want to exclude the Sonnets from consideration are like lawyers who, realizing that a certain document is damaging to their client, seek to have it ruled inadmissible in court. They are seeking the suppression of evidence which may be highly relevant, if not conclusive.

My own view is that the poet who speaks in the Sonnets is the best of all witnesses for purposes of the authorship question. And none of the Stratfordian scholars has given us any reason to believe otherwise.

When Kathman says that “everyone” said the Bard was “William Shakespeare,” does he include the Bard himself in “everyone”? Certainly the Bard signed that name to some of his works. But he seems to tell a different story in his Sonnets, particularly when he is addressing his young male love. And, again, he says he wants his “name” to be “buried” and “forgotten,” despite the fact that he expects his poetry to be immortal. And if Oxford was the poet — “in disgrace,” stained by “vulgar scandal,” and “vile esteemed” — this is just what happened.

In that case, by passing off his poetry as the work of “William Shakespeare,” and by inducing his friends to sustain this pseudonym even after his death, it was Oxford himself who forged what Kathman thinks of as the undubitable “historical record”!

July 2000

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