Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this review are those of the author alone and do not reflect the official position of the San Diego Shakespeare Society.
Shakespeare Was a Woman and Other Heresies: How Doubting the Bard Became the Biggest Taboo in Literature | by Elizabeth Winkler | Simon & Schuster | 416 pp.
Intrigued by what she calls the “feminist intuition” in the Shakespearean canon, Elizabeth Winkler, journalist and literary critic, decided to write on the claim that Renaissance poet Emilia Bassano was the true author of the works, not William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon. Her essay Was Shakespeare a Woman? appeared in the Atlantic in June 2019. Cue the brickbats. Ms. Winkler was denounced in myriad ways, specifically called “deranged” and likened to a Holocaust denier. And the invective was not just from those crawling out from under rocks but from a range of generally esteemed scholars who remain adamant in their “Stratfordian” views.
Her recent book details all this resultant notoriety and provides an engaging survey of the Shakespeare authorship question. In particular, it is helpful in exploring an unyielding obscurantism on this one topic.
Early in the book, for instance, she discusses the efforts of Dr. Richard Waugaman, a psychiatrist, who applies his career experience to the gnosis prevailing in much of academia that “Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare, period” and concludes that the refusal to even consider the authorship question is a matter of groupthink. Dr. Waugaman sees the attacks on authorship doubters as “projection,” that is, orthodox scholars attack the doubters for what they cannot face in themselves. The doubters are therefore labeled “elitist snobs” as a projection of the snobbish insistence that only these orthodox scholars truly know Shakespeare. Dr. Waugaman is likewise critical of the argument that doubters fail to understand genius, for it creates a “false binary” between genius and education.
Ms. Winkler reviews the plethora of assumption-laded accounts of the life of the Stratford man. It was Professor Stephen Greenblatt with his 2004 book Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare who started the land-rush business in dubious biographies that even orthodox scholars find disconcerting. But why not write about the Stratford man as so little is in fact known of him? Ms. Winkler accordingly names this chapter “Biographical Fiction,” borrowing from one critique of Professor Greenblatt’s book.
At times, Shakespeare Was a Woman resembles a travelogue with visits to colorful characters, both pro and con. On these trips, in almost cinematic fashion, thoughts will occur to Ms. Winkler that lead to digressions on different facets of the authorship question and its implications.
In visiting the Folger Shakespeare Library, she notes that its co-founder, Henry Folger, at one time subscribed to the Francis Bacon theory of authorship (surely an awkward aspect for the library’s current management) and that Mr. Folger acquired the 1570 Geneva Bible that belonged to Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, a leading authorship candidate. (And that Bible remains a critical research source to this day.) Her visit to the Folger allows her to consider the many curious aspects of the First Folio’s iconic Droeshout portrait as well as to ask what Ben Jonson “had been up to” in composing its cryptic accompanying poem. She wonders whether orthodox scholars are like the misguided suitors of Portia in The Merchant of Venice, led astray by the artifice of the portrait and are left “kissing shadows.”
She makes the pilgrimage, as she must, to Stratford, a tourist site since David Garrick’s Shakespeare Jubilee of 1769, when the favorite son arguably achieved apotheosis. Ms. Winkler finds the town “tacky” and must soldier through a passive-aggressive interview with Sir Stanley Wells, a leading Shakespeare authority and previously Chairman of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. Ms. Winkler was criticized by another Shakespeare authority, Sir Jonathan Bate, for being “cruel” to Sir Stanley, but she writes movingly of the sincerity of his beliefs, imagining him as “the aging knight,” and disputes the position of some doubters that he is just being cynical in holding on to the Stratford man when he should know better.
In the chapter “Wolfish Earls,” she gives a handy primer on the Oxfordian argument, ending with a profile of Professor Roger Stritmatter who has done extensive study of the above-mentioned Geneva Bible and has suffered a form of McCarthyism for his troubles. Continuing with the Oxfordians in “Purple Robes Distained,” she crosses the ocean again to meet that delightful “English eccentric” Alexander Waugh (grandson of Evelyn). When she broaches, with some trepidation, the possibility he may be pitching Oxford because he is his descendant, Mr. Waugh counters he has familial connections to three other authorship candidates as well, Bacon, Mary Sidney, and Henry Neville. Small world.
Honoring the book’s title, she discusses the candidacies of Sidney and Bassano, which in turn brings her to meet actor Sir Mark Rylance, a proponent of female authorship but also someone who appreciates aspects of other candidates as well, seeming to embrace something like a pantheon of authorship that includes a role for the Stratford man. He even hopes for reconciliation with the Stratfordians. That appears a touch optimistic seeing as how Sir Mark, while he was Artistic Director of the Globe Theatre, caused a scandal by admitting he was a doubter or at least doubter-curious. (Even more hair-raising was the possibility that the present King had doubts; his father certainly did.)
Moving on, she addresses Christopher Marlowe, secret agent, and the idea that his death was staged, thus allowing him to go underground and write the plays. She meets with the poet Ros Barber, who advanced the Marlovian theory through her novel The Marlowe Papers, a noir thriller, but who still tries “to make a virtue of uncertainty.” She often finds adherents of other authorship candidates to be as blinkered as the Stratfordians in their “confirmation bias” and “belief perseverance.” Dr. Barber prefers to concentrate on first dethroning the Stratford man and quotes the physicist Max Plank “that science advances one funeral at a time” in the hope that one day the authorship question will be accepted as a valid academic subject.
Ms. Winkler does a public service by calling out Professor James Shapiro for disparaging the late Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens as having “comfortably embraced a conspiracy theory” when the good Justice was “barely cold in his grave.” (Where is Sir Jonathan and his cruelty standards when you need them?) Professor Shapiro had apparently developed a grudge when the two men were carrying on a regular correspondence in which Justice Stevens had the temerity to highlight an inconvenient truth disruptive of the Stratfordian narrative.
She finishes the book with probably the oddest aspect of the authorship question: the chronically (or cowardly) indifferent. Ms. Winkler has a long talk with Professor Marjorie Garber, a noted Shakespeare scholar, who only calls herself “a Shakespearean.” Despite having devoted her life to the canon and being probed repeatedly, she professes no interest whatsoever in who the actual author is. “I don’t think of [the plays] as coming from a person,” she bizarrely explains. Responding to such a peculiar sentiment cries out for the common sense of scholar Katherine Chiljan who once pleaded: “If the true biography of one of the greatest minds of Western civilization doesn’t matter, then whose does?”