Interview About William Fortyhands

Shaking the Spear with Samuel Crowell

(This interview is cross-posted in its entirety from The Hoover Hog, the website of the publisher of Nine Banded Books).


It’s been half a decade since Nine-Banded Books published Samuel Crowell’s The Gas Chamber of Sherlock Holmes and Other Writings on the Holocaust, Revisionism, and Historical Understanding. I remember mailing copies to a number of highly credentialed historians and scholars, thinking it might stir up some interesting discussion. Turns out I was naive. Save for a couple of disarmingly kind notes from professors who asked that I not disclose their identities (fair enough), I heard nothing back from the Registry of Important People. That’s the way it goes with these things, I now understand. It’s like pissing in a lake. Censorship has become quaint in a culture overseen by nabobs who know well how to tend the line that others toe. At the same time, I’m quite sure that Sherlock has been read (there are hundreds of copies are in circulation and the PDF has been downloaded over a thousand times), and there are yet occasions when, apophenia be damned, I suspect the book has made this or that ripple, always just below the current. You’re free to show me to the door, but I still have the key. This is a long game, freethinkers. Books matter.

The man who writes as “Samuel Crowell” is an unassuming intellectual peripatetic (or “loose cannon,” as he prefers) who thinks and writes carefully about questions that provoke epistemic discomfiture and jarring insight. I am very pleased to announce that he is back on the scene with another big Nine-Banded Book on another divisive (if far less forbidding) subject. Yes,William Fortyhands: Disintegration and Reinvention of the Shakespeare Canon is — ostensibly — another book about the so-called “authorship controversy,” but trust me when I tell you the lure flows deeper. As with Sherlock, I am convinced there is nothing like it in the relevant literature. I’m also resigned that it will be formally ignored, even as I set about the vainly hopeful task of mailing copies to a different coterie of highly credentialed historians and scholars. It’s still a lot of fun, watching for those faint ripples. And for half the price of a bottle of Laphroaig, you’re welcome to join me.

Anyway. What follows a new interview with my friend Samuel Crowell. I think it’ll give you an idea of what’s knocking around in Fortyhands, and why the book might keep you’re attention even if you haven’t thought about Shakespeare since high school. With no clean transition coming to mind, let me also take a moment to acknowledge the other folks helped to make the book happen. My absurdly talented pal Kevin I. Slaughter designed the cover, which features a wicked-clever illustration by the brilliant and hilarious cartoonist Josh Latta. Editorial assistance (or just plain proofreading) was provided by 9BB veterans Ann Sterzinger and James Nulick, as well as by the soon-to-be 9BB writer Anita Dalton. Thanks, everyone! I just want to smoke crack with my friends!

Read on, fuckers. You might learn something.


THE HOOVER HOG: This year marks the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death and I don’t think there’s any question that he remains the single best-known figure in the history of English literature. Middle school kids who will never learn another name from the Elizabethan era are sure to read Shakespeare (or at least the CliffsNotes) as a matter of course. Common expressions and narrative tropes trace to Shakespeare, and his name and visage have passed down to us as a kind of shorthand for high culture. As someone who expresses informed skepticism about Shakespeare’s authorial stature, what do you make of this singular, towering legacy? What does “Shakespeare” mean?

SAMUEL CROWELL: What “Shakespeare” essentially has come to represent is the greatest writer of all time in the English language, if not the greatest writer of all time in any language. This is a formulation made by Thomas Carlyle in the early 19th century but it is frequently repeated to this day. Why was Shakespeare selected for this honor? Probably because the First Folio, that is, the first printed edition of the plays, is a very large and impressive body of work, indeed one of the largest in the English language until the great novelists of the 19th century.

When we look at the history of Shakespeare studies, it’s difficult to avoid the “authorship controversy” — but it’s also hard to avoid the fact that many of the most outspoken Shakespeare skeptics have been “eccentric” characters, if not outright crackpots. Beyond this, I think it’s fair to say that the reigning academic consensus discourages doubt about Shakespeare’s primary authorship of the plays and poems attributed to him. Given this backdrop — a dubious intellectual heritage and a guarded consensus — how did you come to question what expert authorities insist to be true, or at least mostly true? Are you sure you’re not a crackpot?

Well, I happened upon the controversy in the mid-60s simply by coming across a copy of Donnelly’s Great Cryptogram that I bought for a quarter while I was on my way home from school. I must admit I didn’t really understand what the controversy was about, at first. I found some of his analysis valid, and other parts quite bizarre. But I did feel that he was on to something. Then a few years later I wrote a long paper on the subject for class, and my teacher hated it and loved it: hated it because I was questioning the Immortal Bard but loved it because I was making some arguments that were challenging for her to refute.

One of the reasons I stressed my long acquaintance with the subject is that most people who write on the authorship controversy begin by describing their “Road to Damascus” moment — the moment when they realized that there were questions about the authorship of Shakespeare. Even James Shapiro, who is generally (but not entirely) a defender of the “sole author” school, did not realize there was a controversy until rather far into his career as a Shakespearean. But I never had that moment, and I’ve just considered the authorship controversy valid for as long as I can remember.

Another reason I stressed my long familiarity with the controversy is because I have rung all the changes of possible authorship, because, if you read this literature you will find one argument or candidate convincing, and then you will begin to see that your first flush of enthusiasm was illusory, and so forth. And, incidentally, I am not proposing to end the discussion; I am only trying to propose my general solution and to draw attention to someone other than Shakespeare, Bacon, and Oxford.

Still another reason I stressed the time element is because whenever I returned to this subject I found myself bouncing back and forth, and in saying that I want to stress that I haven’t studied this subject continuously. Rather, I would read a book, and then read a few more, then set it aside for five or ten years, then pick it up again, for a month or two, then put it back on the shelf, and so on. Meanwhile I was picking up books at yard sales, flea markets, used books stores, etc. because I knew some day I would return to all of it in detail. Yet each time I returned to the question I found my perspectives had changed, partly because of the accumulation of knowledge I had made, both in this field, and other fields, and partly because of my own life experiences. That is why it seemed natural to develop the concept of hermeneutics, but in particular, Dilthey’s idea of Erlebnis or “lived experience.”

So how do I know whether I am a crackpot or not? Well, I don’t. I can say that when I decided to study this problem seriously I assumed I would simply review the arguments for individual candidates and make some judgments. I did not expect to come to more or less the same answer I came to almost 50 years ago. That surprised me a little.

I think I have tried to be fair with the evidence, not putting too much weight on one thing, nor putting too much weight on something clearly spurious (e.g., there is no record of Shakespeare’s education so he was illiterate). That and the fact that I have been thinking about this for a long time, the fact that the alternative “bad” quartos are a real challenge for explanation, and finally the fact that neutral students have uncovered many cases of plagiarism, paraphrase, and false attribution with regard to Shakespeare, inclines me to think that I am not a crackpot, but in fact, on the right track.

In William Fortyhands, you note that most “anti-Stratfordian” theories rest on the promotion of a single alternative candidate. There have been many such contenders, some of the most popular being Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe, and Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford. I think one of the most interesting elements of your own work is that you reject this “unitarian” approach. Without going too far afield, can you explain why you think “Shakespeare was X” is a bad start? And if it is the wrong way to approach the authorship question, why do you think it is so common?

Well, the notion of sole authorship was advertised in the First Folio, and hence anyone looking for a satisfying global explanation will aim for an explanation of sole authorship by someone else other than Shakespeare. On the other hand, the attributions of almost every single individual play of the 36 in the First Folio have been questioned, or assigned to someone else, by serious authors who have not questioned Shakespeare’s “main authorship” (whatever that is supposed to mean), and such attribution issues have been argued for over 300 years. Today, there are many more scholars who are busy parceling out Shakespeare to other authors, including Thomas Middleton, and there are still others who are now assigning other plays, and parts of other plays, to Shakespeare, where such attributions had never been made before.

I think people prefer a single author explanation because they want to believe that such a person as a Shakespeare existed; again, a total genius who embraced the entire human condition, who could write voluminously on any subject in many different styles, and who was the greatest writer in history, etc. I think in general people are pleased to have such a totem, even though, in the late 20th century, it seems clear that the adulation accorded Shakespeare is somewhat on the wane, as we may note by the relative silence on the 400th anniversary of his death this past April.

The best way to approach the problem, I believe, is to read the plays and poems, and then to start reading his contemporaries and to find out as much as you can about them. Reading or watching or listening to all of Shakespeare, maybe even more than once, will eventually make you aware of the differences in style, verse, and characterization that tend to put any sole authorship attribution into question. Reading his contemporaries, on the other hand, is a great way to learn about their styles, their work in the theater, and their plausible influence on this or that “Shakespeare” play. Reading about the period also makes clear that collaboration on plays was a common method of writing plays in those days.

“Influence” and “collaboration” are gentle words. To play on a contemporary analogy that some will find inappropriate, we might imagine sketch comics or sitcom writers or Vince Gilligan’s story editors tossing off ideas and appropriating cultural themes in currency — probably on a storyboard. The lion’s share of credit goes to the head writer — or director — but the creative process is more complex. Is it something like this that you imagine having taken place among playwrights four centuries ago? If so, doesn’t this pose a severe problem for the notion that Shakespeare commanded a distinctive voice? Is it possible that scholars have been embarrassingly wrong to suppose that Shakespeare sounds like Shakespeare?

To take the second part of your question first, there is no shortage of experts who insist that everything in the First Folio “sounds like Shakespeare” and no one else. But others, notably J. M. Robertson and Frederick Fleay, have taken another tack, insisting that here Shakespeare sounds like Chapman, or Marlowe, or Peele, or Lodge, and so on and so on. The response to that kind of argument, advanced by the likes of E. K. Chambers, is that Shakespeare, when he was “experimenting” could sound like Chapman or Marlowe or Peele or Lodge, but he was still Shakespeare. The upshot to this kind of argument is that it cannot be proved either way, however much someone might like to. I recall when reading Robertson’s analysis of Henry V he went into a lot of detail not only suggesting which passages were by Marlowe, etc. but which passages have been overlain on top of Marlowe by other writers. It is an extremely boring form of analysis, and since it proves nothing, it has a problem justifying itself.

As to the first part of the question, how was any given play composed, that’s also a hard question. For example, we already know that there was collaboration on a number of non-Shakespeare plays, but it is hard to determine who wrote what; as Samuel Schoenbaum was fond of saying, we know that William Faulkner collaborated on the screenplay for the epic Land of the Pharaohs (this is the film where Jack Hawkins wrestles a bull bare-chested, where the priests mumble because they’ve all had their tongues cut out, and where Joan Collins in buried alive in the pyramid’s tomb), but it would be very difficult to determine Faulkner’s contributions.

I can think of a few ways that plays could have been written. In the first place, someone would write a play, missing some parts, and then others would come in and fill in the gaps with some dialog and long speeches: this appears to be the case with Sir Thomas More. On the other hand, we can have someone preparing an outline, or treatment, and then different scenes or acts would be written by the various contributors: this method is suggested by an existing outline as well as by the pattern of Henslowe’s disbursements. Finally, we could imagine someone writing the skeleton of a play and then a partner coming in and overloading it with heavy speeches: this appears to have been the case with Hamlet, especially when you consider the quarto versions.

When dealing with the quarto versions, and in particular the “bad” quartos, it appears to me that someone — perhaps Shakespeare — took someone else’s play and and cut out the extravagant parts, simplified the action, and filled the gaps with quotes from still other plays. If that is the relationship between the “bad” quartos and the Folio versions, then we have to decide whether Shakespeare wrote the Folio version first, and then the abridgment, or whether he took a play put together by others and then cut it down.

Yet another aspect concerns revision. Many insist, for example, that Marlowe wrote Doctor Faustus, with no other hands involved. But we also know that someone was paid for additions before it was published, but what are the additions? The same argument is made for Spanish Tragedy, because we have documentation that Ben Jonson was hired to make additions. But today, there are people who are arguing, in spite of the documentation, that Shakespeare made those additions.

Storyboards would not be necessary, because in a play that would fall under blocking and it would be the director’s job (here, Shakespeare) to determine that and all the rest of the production elements. I know this is a frustrating explanation. But I don’t think a more complete one is possible.

What is the relevance of “nescience” to the study of Shakespearean authorship? Are there other scholarly domains where this concept is invoked?

“Nescience” was a word that Edmund K. Chambers used to describe the fact that there are a lot of things we don’t know about Shakespeare and about his writing career. As Mark Twain pointed out, all of the actual facts we have about Shakespeare’s life could be listed on a single page, and not one of those single facts directly pertains to the writing of the plays. (There is a separate category of evidence that supports Shakespeare writing the plays, namely, title page attributions, but this is actually not a totally secure category of evidence, as I discuss in the book.)

Because we don’t know that much about Shakespeare there is an irresistible tendency to make up facts about him, usually by working backwards from the plays. So, for example, we know Samuel Daniel wrote a long history, in verse, about the War of the Roses. And we can see connections between that and Richard II. So people argue that Daniel and Shakespeare were friends, and so forth.

Shakespeare defenders often make the argument that we don’t know very much about Shakespeare’s contemporaries. That is also true. But part of the problem is that the literary works of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, in verse, prose, or drama, is almost completely ignored by those who write about Shakespeare. As I remarked in one of the footnotes, new editions of Shakespeare are always being published. But most of his peers haven’t been published in any kind of comparable edition since the 1880s, and even then only in private editions of, say, 250 copies. That is preposterous, and only goes to show the extent to which Shakespeare’s “genius” has been allowed to completely blot out the memory of his peers.

As to other fields, there is a tremendous amount of “nescience” in most of the humanities and social sciences; this is because, particularly in something like history, the record is nowhere near as continuous as we would like to think. The offspring of nescience is constant change, as each generation is bound to fill the gaps in the record in its own way, and that’s part of the reason interpretations change over time.

I think this problem of historical understanding is neatly captured in your notion of “Milkmaid & Bucket” reasoning, which you use to describe the gap-filling process that seems to come up when we are faced with discontinuity or uncertainty.

The idea of “Milkmaid and Bucket” goes back to the old fable, and I used it to describe a certain kind of reasoning because, first, I noted that tales from the Indian folktale collection, the Panchatantra, were popping up in some of my sources, as well as in Elizabethan literature, and that is where this particular story originated. Second, I noted that a lot of Oxfordians, and even Shakespeareans, were using the same kind of reasoning in their attributions. I only listed a couple of examples, but I could have listed several more. Usually the reasoning goes in the form of, If A is X, and B is Y, and C is Z, then ABC = XYZ. It’s a very slim conditional kind of reasoning and usually has no corroboration; I noted that Harold Love described something similar as a “chain of reasoning” and I noted that Dennis McCarthy’s argument for Sir Thomas North hinged on North’s translation of an Italian translation of the Panchatantra so at that point I decided to emphasize the concept.

Can you talk a bit about Shakespeare’s Will? The document is strange in a number of ways, but the absence of any literary bequest seems especially difficult to reconcile with our notion of Shakespeare’s literary talent and erudition. How do conventional Shakespeare scholars make sense of this?

Shakespeare’s Will is the source of three of the six signatures we have for Shakespeare, and this is its main importance. It also indicates, by way of an interlinear bequest, that the William Shakespeare of Stratford-on-Avon is the same as the Shakespeare involved with the London stage.

At the same time, the Will has an unbelievably formal and even pompous tone, not the sort of thing you would associate with someone of Shakespeare’s reputation, which makes it somewhat mystifying, and not particularly satisfying to Shakespeareans. The Will also makes no mention of any books or literary remains, which is a much more serious and counter-intuitive matter.

Those who question Shakespeare’s authorship usually point to the uninspired text, the lack of any reference to books or papers, and the crudity of the signatures as proof against Shakespeare. Shakespeareans on the other hand usually explain the Will away by insisting that the absence of evidence for books and papers is not evidence for the absence of books or papers (although no one has ever found them). So in effect Shakespeareans insist that Shakespeare’s library is somewhere out in orbit with Russell’s Teapot.

Once again, Shakespeareans will say that many of Shakespeare’s contemporaries left behind no remains. Actually, as Diana Price has shown, many of them did. And while most of Shakespeare’s contemporaries died poor and intestate — including, apparently, the Earl of Oxford — many of them left remains in the form of literary works that were completed by others or published posthumously, as well as other items, including various letters to others (which in turn would be among the remains of the person they wrote to, not among their own papers). But again in Shakespeare’s case, who died well off and with a Will, there is nothing, not even a note that he wrote to someone else.

You’ve already mentioned the First Folio, which figures prominently throughout your book. What is the significance of this text to the authorship controversy?

Normally (with a couple of exceptions) we attribute 36 plays to Shakespeare because that is the number of plays in the first collection of his writings, published seven years after his death, in 1623. It is universally called the First Folio, as opposed to the longer formal title. Of those 36 plays, 18 had existed in different versions, but 18 had never been published before, and that’s a crucial issue for attribution, because without the assignment to Shakespeare in the Folio, we would have little or no evidence to link these plays to Shakespeare. So that’s the fundamental attribution issue with the First Folio: Are these attributions, in whole, or part, truly valid?

The casual reader of Shakespeare probably takes it for granted that everyone, except for the “Shakespeare deniers.” believes that Shakespeare wrote all of the contents of the Folio, because that is what is implied by the introductory matter in the front of the book. Such readers would be surprised to find that Shakespeareans have been disputing several of these attributions for hundreds of years.

As for the 18 plays that were not published previously, the evidence that links the plays to Shakespeare — outside of the Folio’s title page — depends on evidence of play performance by Shakespeare’s acting company, The Lord Chamberlain’s Men (later known as The King’s Men.) However, that evidence, where it exists, isn’t actually very strong, because we know that Shakespeare also put on plays that no one attributes to him, including Dekker’s Satiro-mastix and Jonson’s Every Man His Own Humour.

If authorial attribution isn’t clear-cut with reference to the First Folio, things seem gnarlier when our attention is turned to the so-called “bad quartos” and the problem of title page attribution. There’s really a lot of noise in the background, yes?

Just as half of the plays in the First Folio can be questioned because they were never published anywhere else, the other 18 can also be questioned because there are twins or doubles to many of these plays.

For example, there are different versions of Henry VI, Parts 2 and 3, different versions of Henry V, different versions of Romeo & Juliet, different versions of King Lear, and no less than four different versions of Hamlet. So automatically we have questions of who wrote all of these different versions, in what order, and why. In general, I don’t believe that Shakespeare would be rewriting his own plays, but many people do. Others think that the quarto versions represent plays that were remembered by auditors or actors, or re-written for touring purposes. However, in the past 20 years or so such explanations seem to have lost their attraction, so we are back to where we began: Did Shakespeare write different versions of his plays, and if he did not, who wrote the other versions? And does this not point to collaboration in stage writing, something which we know from other sources to have been the case in the Elizabethan age?

There are other issues as well. Some of the quarto plays do not list Shakespeare as author, some do, and then don’t, others are described as “expanded” or “augmented” from the “original,” which naturally raises the question of whose original? Moreover, of the 18 plays that only appear in the First Folio, there are also several twins, that is, plays that are similar to the known Shakespeare play, but not attributed to anyone — for example, The Taming of A Shrew versus The Taming of The Shrew, or King John versus the Troublesome Raigne of King John.

Finally, there are plays that appear in the historical record but do not fit the Shakespearean timeline: thus we have a Hamlet that comes before Hamlet, a Tempest that comes before The Tempest, and a Troilus and Cressida that comes before Troilus and Cressida.

All in all the issue of secure attribution seems impossible to reconcile with sole authorship, either by Shakespeare or anyone else.

One of the unexpected pleasures of William Fortyhands — and I hope this will be true even for readers who disagree with your interpretation — comes through your illuminating use of contemporary references, novel analogies, and philosophical heuristics. We’ve already discussed the “Milkmaid/Bucket” sequence, but this is probably the only Shakespeare book that considers its subject through the lens of, among other things, Philip K. Dick novels and Beat literature. Was this approach by design, or is it something that came about more organically?

In the course of thinking about this for a long time, I would encounter various things that I thought would help elucidate the concepts involved, since I know from experience that we can understand an abstraction better if we put some clothes on it and put it into the physical world. Hence, things like Milkmaid & Bucket reasoning or Vedic Expansions or Beethoven’s Staircase were natural ways of physicalizing the concepts involved. Philip K Dick came up because I liked his concept of “Black Iron Prison”; I suppose I could have used Blake’s “mind-forg’d manacles” instead, but I thought Dick’s invention was more apt. I should also add the notion of a kind of false reality that is all encompassing is very common from Plato to our own day, and in particular in literary, critical, historical, and philosophical schools post-Marx. But I avoided more abstruse statements of the matter.

There’s another reason I used Dick’s concept, and that had to do with John Aubrey, who I chose to use as a frame to physicalize the concepts of hermeneutics and phenomenology that I would develop later. Remember that part of what was on my mind was that I had been following this debate for many years, and my thinking would change over the passage of time. I couldn’t very well recreate that in a book, but what I could do was try to approximate it by a kind of symphonic treatment in which I would return, and return again, to certain people, issues, and so on. In this sense Dick tied in very well with Aubrey so I used his concept in the book.

Other analogies had to do with things that were unsatisfactory to me in the original treatments; the description of the “University Wits” in most literature was, in my opinion, a complete misrepresentation of what these people were actually like, so I redefined them as beatniks to get a better flavor of their alienation and chaotic lifestyle. Having created the Beats, I then created “Generation J” to emphasize the difference between that first generation of playwrights and those that followed: I think there are distinct differences not only in terms of how they handle verse but also how they handle dramatic situations, humor, and above all, in their treatment of women. I did not explore all of these to the depth that I would have liked.

Some of the other concepts, e.g., Context of Discovery, Context of Justification, had been on my mind for decades and seeing some authors use this kind of reasoning in a reductive sense, and being aware that the so-called CDJ distinction was crucial for the notion of a paradigm shift, I included those also. However, I should say that I limited the concepts I could have used, or dressed, or told amusing stories about. For example, I chose to approach the issue of the “death of the author” via New Criticism and later hermeneutics, but I could have just as easily approached it through late phenomenology or Foucault, but I am by nature a common sense empiricist and try to avoid jargon as much as possible. There is only so much one can say about subjects and objects, although there are many many ways to get there.

I think there’s also a subtle cleverness in the way the book is structured, with important historical characters and events sort of popping up at the margins and then coming into clearer focus as the study gathers momentum. I’m not sure that’s the right way to put it, but the approach makes for a very engaging presentation. Was this approach part of your own literary strategy?

Yes, the presentation was deliberately plotted for a number of reasons. I knew I was going to introduce a lot of characters, so I used any opportunity to foreshadow an appearance. Certain leading themes — especially concerning Homer or the Bible — presented themselves naturally, as did various folkloristic tropes. The timeline facilitated bringing Aubrey and Marlowe back again and again. I also quote extensively from the literature, and that literature often makes obscure references to other things: I wanted to try to drop those “other things” into the narrative earlier. This is part of what I meant by a “symphonic” treatment, but I also hoped to recapture something of the turning and returning of my own long familiarity with the topic.

While William Fortyhands will be approached mainly as a study of the authorship controversy, it’s also a book that seeks to rescue the Elizabethan literary milieu from historical obscurity. What would you like for readers to understand about Shakespeare’s largely forgotten contemporaries?

As noted above, most of Shakespeare’s contemporaries have been completely forgotten; they may be mentioned by name here and there but they are simply identified as “minor contemporaries of Shakespeare” or worse, as “hacks.” But when you hunt down these other authors, you find not only that there were many whose prose and poetry was very similar to Shakespeare but you also find that virtually all of them were involved in writing plays for the theater, on an ad hoc, piece-work, paid-as-you-deliver basis — yet their contributions are largely unknown, since collaboration and anonymity were both common. Not only that — there is also extensive evidence that Shakespeare’s contemporaries were closely involved with the theaters and theater companies of the time, including Shakespeare’s own. It doesn’t require a lot of imagination to see their contributions in the Shakespeare plays, and, indeed many scholars have seen such contributions by these contemporaries in the plays since the 1680s.

These were highly educated, talented writers, and people like Robert Greene, Samuel Daniel, Thomas Nashe, Michael Drayton, Thomas Dekker, George Chapman, and Thomas Lodge — just to mention a few — deserve more attention than they have received in the past century. The only exception is Christopher Marlowe, but he too tends to get swamped in the either/or arguments of Shakespeareans and Oxfordians.

One of the things I would like to accomplish with this book is to move the argument away from “who wrote the plays?” to a question of “how were the plays written?” and I am convinced that that is better accomplished by aligning the writings of some of Shakespeare’s contemporaries with the body of Shakespeare. And then, instead of creating friendships and relationships for which we have no evidence, simply to stress the links between those other writers and the given Shakespeare plays. We might have to abandon a Shakespeare pageant or two, but we would be able to better situate Shakespeare among his peers, to understand the ideas and writing styles current at the time, and finally to read some excellent neglected literature.

I should add that late in my research I found that Stanley Wells had written a book that addressed Shakespeare’s contemporaries in some respects (Shakespeare & Co.), but Wells is an orthodox Shakespearean so I found his treatment a little disappointing.

Perhaps the most common objection to Shakespeare skepticism is that it is rooted in elitist or “classist” assumptions. This usually comes up over the promotion of “noble” alternative candidates, which is understandable, but I think it’s also carried along by a kind of Horatio Alger mythology — because we are drawn to the portrait of a humble, autodidactic Shakespeare, a self-made genius of meager beginnings. To observe that he was an unremarkable student, or possibly even illiterate, strikes many people as not merely wrong, but deeply offensive. What do you make of this?

I don’t think the tendency for people to insist on noble authorship is rooted in classist or elitist assumptions, because when you go back to the earliest advocates of alternative candidates there doesn’t seem to be any aristocratic, classist, or elitist agenda. I think the fundamental assumption is that all of the plays were written by one person. If you add to that the ostentatious learning in some of the plays, along with the presumption of anonymity, one then has a profile of someone who had enormous leisure to both learn and write, but who, at the same time, wanted to remain anonymous. Phrased that way, a nobleman or noblewoman who did not want to be outed as a writer seems a natural intuition.

That idea gains support when you find that there is evidence that there was speculation about hidden noble contributions to literature at the time. The notion existed, probably because Elizabethan England was something of a surveillance state, and that helps foster paranoia. But the existence of the notion doesn’t mean it had strong roots in reality.

I think the main reasons why people propose noble alternatives to Shakespeare is based on a number of false assumptions. First, that plays were written singly, whereas the only evidence we have suggests that collaboration was the norm, at least until Ben Jonson’s folio. Second, that only nobles were educated, whereas, in fact, there were many highly educated people around, even people of common background, such as Marlowe, and the England of that time did make allowance for bright youngsters from poor backgrounds (which naturally raises the question as to why Shakespeare never received such an opportunity). Third and finally, the idea that if the plays were written by someone else, that person would have needed to remain anonymous, otherwise why hire Shakespeare as a front? And so again we are led to the conclusion that the only reason why someone would want to remain anonymous was because of their noble rank.

The reaction to all of this is to dismiss those engaged in the authorship controversy as being “elitist” or “classist,” even though there is a sizable literature arguing that Christopher Marlowe, the son of a shoemaker, wrote the plays. The Marlowe candidacy makes some sense because we know that Marlowe was very bright, had a subsidized education, and spent seven years at Cambridge, while Shakespeare had no higher education and was married with three children by the time he was 21. However, high profile candidates like Bacon and Oxford were noble, and that serves as the lead to calling doubters “snobs,” even though the vast majority of authors on the subject have been Americans, who simply do not have the elitist and class issues that are common in Great Britain.

Those that argue that a poor glover’s son could have written all of the plays are arguing from a laudatory egalitarian and democratic perspective, but I don’t think they even believe what they are saying, if they actually think that poverty and a lack of education are not severe impediments to success, let alone literary success. It seems particularly strange that any academic would want to argue that a university education is superfluous.

I would be remiss not to mention your more notorious acquaintance with dissident history, by which I refer to your previous writings on Holocaust revisionism (See: The Gas Chamber of Sherlock Holmes). You and I both know that this will be seized upon by some critics to advance the notion that Shakespeare skepticism is just another brand of “denial” that can be dismissed and ridiculed without further inquiry. But as you discuss in Fortyhands, that idea is already a part of the authorship controversy. So let’s talk about it. What is the connective tissue, if any, between between Sherlock and Fortyhands? And what do you make of the contemporary intellectual habit of shaming unorthodox thinkers as “deniers”?

Well, “Denial” nowadays is largely an argument that someone isn’t accepting a particular judgment either out of bad faith or mental incompetence. Right away, then, “denial” involves a species of intolerance, in the sense that it does not allow one to question someone else’s firmly held belief. Actually Mark Twain recognized this over a century ago, when he wrote his own book on the authorship controversy, except that he phrased it in terms of “irreverence”: If we are bound to respect everyone’s sacred beliefs, then pretty soon we will have to solemnly respect, and refuse to question, everyone’s beliefs, and thus we will have not only the death of our personal freedom to say what we like, but the death of irreverence itself. It seems to me that this idea resonates with the way stand-up comedians describe performing on college campuses today.

The linking of “Holocaust Denial” with “Shakespeare Denial” has become fashionable in the past 20 years or so. Denial has also been extended to many other realms, including stem cell research, vaccines, autism, evolution, climate change (aka anthropogenic global warming), and many other things, so it has emerged as the go-to epithet for shutting down, or derogating, an opponent. It should be said that “denial” or “refusal to accept” a certain judgment is often due to a conflict with other beliefs (e.g., religion and evolution), or a contrary belief that is untrue (e.g., vaccines and autism), or it may stem from other reasons. And I think it would be wrong if we were to suggest that all public policy issues should defer to “reason,” when sometimes people clearly prefer tradition: the American English measuring system and the illogical nature of English spelling being two obvious examples. The remedy, in any case, is to respect your opponent. Try to reason with them in terms of what they accept, and see if you can progress. Nothing is achieved by name calling.

In my case, I have always thought that there was something to the authorship controversy, and I was happy to let it lie in suspense. On the other hand, when I discovered that there were questions about some aspects of the Holocaust I was quite surprised, but it wasn’t my field so I just assumed someone else would handle it. Later, when I found out that “questioning the reality of the Holocaust” (whatever that is supposed to mean) was going to be made a crime in Great Britain I decided to try to defend what I felt were the underlying historical issues involved and that resulted in The Gas Chamber of Sherlock Holmes. I suppose the upshot of that book is not that the “Holocaust did not happen” but rather that some of the revisionist arguments had merit and shouldn’t be criminalized.

In the process of studying that issue, however, I found myself confronting a number of widespread beliefs that, under close analysis, did not have the evidentiary basis I thought they had. So I had to try to explain to myself how that was possible. My overall conclusion is that there are a number of popular beliefs that are not in fact very solidly grounded and that questioning those beliefs shouldn’t be declared off limits. Furthermore, the question of how these beliefs grow and hold sway, to say nothing of how they are overturned (many examples in the history of science), is very hard to explain.

As a result of this I have found myself more and more interested in issues of “how we know something is true” (epistemology). I had been reading on this general problem since my teens, but perhaps paradoxically, as a result of my study I have found myself more and more sympathetic toward those who hold alternative beliefs. This resonates with the authorship controversy because there is also a weak evidentiary base for some strongly held beliefs about Shakespeare — this is the “nescience” referred to earlier — and as a result there are a wide variety of alternative explanations. Many of these alternative explanations, even if wrong, can be very illuminating in other ways.

My writings about the Holocaust concerned a vast human tragedy and I wrote under the threat of direct and consequential censorship. But the authorship controversy is nothing like that; it’s just a literary and historical argument, and therefore I was able to be a bit more relaxed in my handling of the subject. Following up on the various philosophical, literary, and epistemological issues is also an ongoing process of discovery, and self discovery. If I conclude by summarizing a number of psychological and rational traps that people fall into when attempting to explain the inexplicable, I do not mean to exclude myself.

If our epistemic premises are subject to change and historical evidence is bound by discontinuity and uncertainty, it seems fair to ask what sort of evidence would convince you that you are, in some general sense, wrong in your interpretation of the Shakespeare authorship problem? You don’t seem to be anchored by an idée fixe (perhaps the opposite), but it’s a question I like to ask myself whenever I feel may have cornered something true.

Well, rightness and wrongness, in any form of study, is a matter of degree. The growth of knowledge and our more comprehensive understanding of things is not actually brought about by “smoking guns” or documentary “gaffes.”

The basic form of historical evidence is documentary evidence (including written testimony), followed by forensic and archaeological evidence. Nowadays, with scientific analysis, you could add chemical and biological (genetic) evidence. However, for determining the authorship of the Shakespeare plays, only documentary evidence will do, and the only real documents we have about playwriting in the Elizabethan era — Philip Henslowe’s Diary, and the manuscript for Sir Thomas More — both point to collaboration for plays, rather than individual authorship.

One theme that has habitually popped up in this field is that, if we could only find the manuscripts in the hand of a favored candidate that would solve the problem forever. Or, if we could find a book or books inscribed with Shakespeare’s name. Or, if we could find an authentic piece of paper with some writing by Shakespeare. As a result, those kinds of things have been discussed, and proposed, rather frequently. However, none of those things would solve the problem of the quartos, or the chronology, or the plays that are referred to before they were supposedly written, or the notion that several of the plays were written in the 1580s, before Shakespeare became active.

I think I have settled on an explanation that gives Shakespeare due credit, but which, at the same time, allows ample room to acknowledge the handiwork of his many gifted peers. That thesis is capacious enough that it is hard to refute in general, it really is a matter of how much of Shakespeare’s grandeur one is willing to trade off to put the spotlight on his contemporaries. As to “finally” determining who wrote this or that, I doubt that will ever be settled; it’s a little late in the day to find a Henslowe’s Diary for Shakespeare’s company, or a full manuscript of a Shakespeare play in an identifiable hand. And that’s fine: the authorship controversy is really about widening the contexts to make it possible to understand the plays, and how they were written, and that attempt will likely never come to an end.

I think “due credit” will strike some readers as disingenuous. For the sake of discussion, let’s assume that your general interpretation is vindicated and the Shakespeare canon can no longer be traced to this singular fountainhead, to the genius of William Shakespeare himself. What then becomes of Shakespeare’s legacy? How are we to regard him as a human and historical figure?

My basic interpretation is not all that far removed from traditional scholarship. For example, while the ordinary layperson may regard it as axiomatic that “Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare,” the point of view is actually rather naive. For example, any serious student is aware that the plays are largely derived from other works, either literary or historical. On top of that, students who study the literature are also aware that the plays have numerous instances of paraphrase, copying, and plagiarizing from other works. Moreover, there is a growing school that argues, as was argued a hundred years ago, that significant parts, or even almost entire plays, in the canon were written by others. So my argument, that Shakespeare’s indebtedness to other authors, or the intervention of other authors in Shakespeare’s plays, is very extensive, is actually a rather modest step forward in terms of the arguments that are once again finding currency.

The difference in my approach is that while I see the First Folio as something of a compilation, I don’t think there was some kind of super-intelligence that put it together, and this is the main point that distinguishes my interpretation from those of other “groupists.”

I don’t think anything will affect the First Folio if it comes to be regarded as more a compilation than the sole product of one gigantic mind. There might be some diminution of Shakespeare’s status as the “greatest writer of all time,” but there should be, anyway, since there were a number of playwrights whose dramatic work was as good as almost any in the First Folio — for example Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, or Dekker’s Shoemaker’s Holiday.

Nor do I think Shakespeare’s posthumous career will suffer much, because there is no question that he was a very successful man of the theater, and very instrumental in the development of the dramatic arts not only in England, but by extension, the rest of the world. To say that he might not have written the words — or, at any rate, not all the words — does not dispute that he took the scripts and created the productions which were so popular in his time. This might be an overly sanguine forecast, but I seriously don’t think that Shakespeare’s accomplishments should be undermined because of the ethos of anonymous collaboration common in his time.

The same could be said for most of the alternative candidates. Marlowe needs no pardon. Neither does Lord Bacon. Indeed I have to question how anyone could claim Shakespeare even approaches Bacon’s intellect. The other noble candidates, including the Earl of Oxford, should be credited, where sufficient evidence exists, for their contributions to the English Renaissance. In the case of Oxford, I believe his contributions were probably very extensive, even if they did not involve a lot of writing.

I think I would be satisfied if the reader of my book came to the conclusion that the authorship controversy is a legitimate aspect of Shakespeare criticism, that addressing the controversy requires something more than a unitarian quick fix (“it wasn’t Shakespeare, it was X!”), that collaboration and anonymity were normal for the time, and that Shakespeare was surrounded by a number of highly talented and gifted writers, who also made numerous contributions to drama, and whose known works should receive a revival of interest.

In closing, I want to bank off of your motivating question: “how we know something is true?” It’s a toughy, isn’t it? I frankly suspect that most people, most of the time, don’t have the predilection to wade far beyond the first page of Google results. Yet there really are so many enduring problems and mysteries — in science, in history, in literature, and in countless other domains. And inquiring minds must choose where to cast a line. What’s next for Samuel Crowell?

Well, one of these days I am going to have to go back and look at the issues in philosophy and literature that I originally meant to focus on, that involves a number of German and Russian authors and philosophers over the past two centuries. I would also like to someday have something to say about Hungarian literature, since I have spent a fair amount of time on it.

However, my next project concerns an exploration of what I might call the “process monism” of Heraclitus and Lao Tse. I want to situate it in the 1970s, because a lot of what has been felicitously described by Sarah Perry as “insight porn” was published in that decade and the books I mean to discuss all rely heavily on very particular readings of Heraclitus or Lao Tse. But I am going to take my time on that project.

In the meantime, I think I will also touch on some other literature pertaining to psychology, epistemology, and some minor historical issues that pop up in my readings. But I don’t want to go into too much detail right now.

With regards to “truth”: There is a scientific method for determining “truth” and it is based on replication. However, that method is useless for the human sciences. I should say upfront therefore that I don’t believe that unquestionable truth is really possible, and I don’t mean to come off as a nihilist in saying so. One can reach a fairly decent approximation of what must be the truth, but to argue for absolute finality in truth-seeking is, if you stop to think about it, not something that anyone really wants — because if that were the case we’d run out of questions to study in short order. What we can do in the meantime is attempt to correct or redirect each other’s arguments, and their underlying assumptions. And that’s the sort of thing I am interested in doing.


Samuel Crowell’s William Fortyhands: Disintegration and Reinvention of the Shakespeare Canon may be ordered directly through the following sources:

Nine-Banded Books


Amazon UK

Amazon Canada

Review and examination copies are available. Send serious inquiries to