Finding Shakespeare and Conservatism

When "William Shakespeare" (born William Shakspere of Stratford) died on April 23, 1616, there was virtually no notice taken in Britain, nor anywhere else, for that matter – a fact among many others that has led a small but not inconsiderable number of people to doubt whether this man was in fact the celebrated author.  While I am one of those doubters, my intent is not to convince you to join me (though that would be fine).  Rather, it is to explain how I became a Shakespeare skeptic, and in doing so also how and why I started on the road that led me to give up liberalism and became a conservative. 

The story begins on the couch in my parents' living room during a summertime break from law school.  Perhaps it was a lazy Saturday afternoon.  My father and I were shopping television channels (not too many back then) when we happened upon Firing Line, the late William Buckley's talk show, which was in the middle of its long run.  

Like most graduate students then and now, I was complacently liberal, having been so raised and reinforced at school and via the media.  Still, I liked Buckley – not so much for his views, but for his manner.  I was fascinated by his patrician nonchalance, the way he reclined easily in his chair as he spoke, and his East Coast blue-blood dress and demeanor – all characteristics that did not describe me in the least, nor anybody else that I knew.  And I liked the way he talked, too, with a vaguely semi-British accent and his deceptively confused "uh, uh, uhs" preceding some probing question or incisive assertion. 

The guest that day was someone I'd never heard of, Charlton Ogburn.  The topic of discussion was Ogburn's book, The Mysterious William Shakespeare, which claimed that the author of the plays and poems was not some litigious grain dealer from Stratford-on-Avon, but rather Edward de Vere, the 18th earl of Oxford. 

On first hearing the topic, I expected Ogburn to be a crackpot, not a serious historian.  Buckley's other guest was Maurice Charney, a professor of literature from Rutgers, who seemed quite unhappy except for the fact that he was on TV – which everybody seemed to crave both then and now. 

Buckley appeared to share my cynicism, sharply questioning the author on his claims, but Ogburn was game, and he parried every challenge.  In due course, Buckley turned to the literature prof for his take, to which Charney said something like, "Well, that claim is just ridiculous" with a dismissive smirk.

Now, Buckley famously said he'd rather be governed by the first 2,000 people in the phone book than by 2,000 Ivy League professors (or something like that), but he certainly seemed at home in the company of the Rutgers professor and went back to badgering Ogburn.  Again, Ogburn made his case, sometimes quite forcefully, sometimes emotionally, but always citing his evidence – and there was quite a lot of it

From time to time, Buckley returned to Charney for a comment, but it was always the same: some version of "Why, that's preposterous" or "That's absurd" until I thought the professor would run out of synonyms.  Buckley saw that, too, and he finally said so to Charney – something along the lines of "now, uh, uh, professor, we've been discussing this for 30 minutes, and all you've said is that, uh, uh, this claim is ridiculous or that's preposterous, but you haven't anything to support your man or weaken Mr. Ogburn's assertions.  Uh, uh, what do you have to say to that?"  To which Charney predictably responded, "Mr. Buckley, that's just ridiculous" or something like that. 

That's the point where I began to come around to the Oxfordian case, though it was not until after I'd bought and read Ogburn's book (and many others) that I became fairly convinced.  If you want to consider the case for the earl, I suggest you do the same.  My point here is not to write a brief on Oxford's behalf, though it is perhaps worth noting that a disproportionate number of lawyers appear to accept the Oxfordian case, including the late Antonin Scalia.  Probably something to do with evaluating evidence and all that.  But my real revelation was to see Buckley seemingly change his own mind about the matter as the discussion progressed, while the professor remained wedded to his dogmatic view, regardless of whether it was defensible or not.

In time, I saw that this was the conservative way – not dogmatism, but rather an open-minded consideration of evidence and a measured and rational approach to adjusting one's views.  The Shakespeare authorship controversy is a good example of that in many ways.  For example, much of the reluctance to even consider Oxford's case by orthodox and almost uniformly leftish professors is the aversion of accepting that an aristocrat was the author rather than a commoner.  In fact, it makes a lot more sense for an aristocrat to have written the plays, given their largely aristocratic subject matter and points of view.  But this would undermine conventional pieties that position Shakespeare as a hero of the underclass, a common man made great by an unexplained a priori genius, which might be conceivable in a mathematician but much less so in an author of Shakespeare's viewpoints, erudition, and scope. 

It was obvious to me, at least on that afternoon, that as Buckley warmed to Oxford's case, it was not because he favored the aristocrat, but because Ogburn made a much better case for his man than the supercilious and obtuse professor.

Likewise, I prefer the idea of Shakespeare as an honest, stolid, middle-class English burgher over that of an occasionally violent, bisexual, aristocratic spendthrift  – the latter accurately describing Oxford.  But the evidence strongly suggests that is the case, and so that's what I believe.  Not because I think a lower-class person was intellectually incapable of writing the works, but because I believe that there is little evidence that William Shakspere of Stratford, regardless of his native intellect, had the opportunities, resources, experiences, or contacts necessary to write the plays and poems as they are.

Anyone is entitled to disagree, but not on the grounds that I am an elitist bigot.  Though that is certainly where a leftist critic will probably start.

When "William Shakespeare" (born William Shakspere of Stratford) died on April 23, 1616, there was virtually no notice taken in Britain, nor anywhere else, for that matter – a fact among many others that has led a small but not inconsiderable number of people to doubt whether this man was in fact the celebrated author.  While I am one of those doubters, my intent is not to convince you to join me (though that would be fine).  Rather, it is to explain how I became a Shakespeare skeptic, and in doing so also how and why I started on the road that led me to give up liberalism and became a conservative. 

The story begins on the couch in my parents' living room during a summertime break from law school.  Perhaps it was a lazy Saturday afternoon.  My father and I were shopping television channels (not too many back then) when we happened upon Firing Line, the late William Buckley's talk show, which was in the middle of its long run.  

Like most graduate students then and now, I was complacently liberal, having been so raised and reinforced at school and via the media.  Still, I liked Buckley – not so much for his views, but for his manner.  I was fascinated by his patrician nonchalance, the way he reclined easily in his chair as he spoke, and his East Coast blue-blood dress and demeanor – all characteristics that did not describe me in the least, nor anybody else that I knew.  And I liked the way he talked, too, with a vaguely semi-British accent and his deceptively confused "uh, uh, uhs" preceding some probing question or incisive assertion. 

The guest that day was someone I'd never heard of, Charlton Ogburn.  The topic of discussion was Ogburn's book, The Mysterious William Shakespeare, which claimed that the author of the plays and poems was not some litigious grain dealer from Stratford-on-Avon, but rather Edward de Vere, the 18th earl of Oxford. 

On first hearing the topic, I expected Ogburn to be a crackpot, not a serious historian.  Buckley's other guest was Maurice Charney, a professor of literature from Rutgers, who seemed quite unhappy except for the fact that he was on TV – which everybody seemed to crave both then and now. 

Buckley appeared to share my cynicism, sharply questioning the author on his claims, but Ogburn was game, and he parried every challenge.  In due course, Buckley turned to the literature prof for his take, to which Charney said something like, "Well, that claim is just ridiculous" with a dismissive smirk.

Now, Buckley famously said he'd rather be governed by the first 2,000 people in the phone book than by 2,000 Ivy League professors (or something like that), but he certainly seemed at home in the company of the Rutgers professor and went back to badgering Ogburn.  Again, Ogburn made his case, sometimes quite forcefully, sometimes emotionally, but always citing his evidence – and there was quite a lot of it

From time to time, Buckley returned to Charney for a comment, but it was always the same: some version of "Why, that's preposterous" or "That's absurd" until I thought the professor would run out of synonyms.  Buckley saw that, too, and he finally said so to Charney – something along the lines of "now, uh, uh, professor, we've been discussing this for 30 minutes, and all you've said is that, uh, uh, this claim is ridiculous or that's preposterous, but you haven't anything to support your man or weaken Mr. Ogburn's assertions.  Uh, uh, what do you have to say to that?"  To which Charney predictably responded, "Mr. Buckley, that's just ridiculous" or something like that. 

That's the point where I began to come around to the Oxfordian case, though it was not until after I'd bought and read Ogburn's book (and many others) that I became fairly convinced.  If you want to consider the case for the earl, I suggest you do the same.  My point here is not to write a brief on Oxford's behalf, though it is perhaps worth noting that a disproportionate number of lawyers appear to accept the Oxfordian case, including the late Antonin Scalia.  Probably something to do with evaluating evidence and all that.  But my real revelation was to see Buckley seemingly change his own mind about the matter as the discussion progressed, while the professor remained wedded to his dogmatic view, regardless of whether it was defensible or not.

In time, I saw that this was the conservative way – not dogmatism, but rather an open-minded consideration of evidence and a measured and rational approach to adjusting one's views.  The Shakespeare authorship controversy is a good example of that in many ways.  For example, much of the reluctance to even consider Oxford's case by orthodox and almost uniformly leftish professors is the aversion of accepting that an aristocrat was the author rather than a commoner.  In fact, it makes a lot more sense for an aristocrat to have written the plays, given their largely aristocratic subject matter and points of view.  But this would undermine conventional pieties that position Shakespeare as a hero of the underclass, a common man made great by an unexplained a priori genius, which might be conceivable in a mathematician but much less so in an author of Shakespeare's viewpoints, erudition, and scope. 

It was obvious to me, at least on that afternoon, that as Buckley warmed to Oxford's case, it was not because he favored the aristocrat, but because Ogburn made a much better case for his man than the supercilious and obtuse professor.

Likewise, I prefer the idea of Shakespeare as an honest, stolid, middle-class English burgher over that of an occasionally violent, bisexual, aristocratic spendthrift  – the latter accurately describing Oxford.  But the evidence strongly suggests that is the case, and so that's what I believe.  Not because I think a lower-class person was intellectually incapable of writing the works, but because I believe that there is little evidence that William Shakspere of Stratford, regardless of his native intellect, had the opportunities, resources, experiences, or contacts necessary to write the plays and poems as they are.

Anyone is entitled to disagree, but not on the grounds that I am an elitist bigot.  Though that is certainly where a leftist critic will probably start.