Lessons from a Seminar

by Charles Boyle

This Los Angeles World Congress is the fourth Shakespeare Association of America conference I have attended. As a member I have delivered seminar papers at the previous two. Last year’s was on the role of the courtier fool Touchstone in As You Like It. Later I learned that members of my seminar had met beforehand and agreed among themselves to ignore anything I said.

My seminar topics this year revolved around the 16th century theatre world. My paper described a production of Twelfth Night from an Elizabethan point of view, seeing it as a political satire of her Court, with the Queen as Olivia and Sir Christopher Hatton sketched in the character of Malvolio. I interpreted some of the more obscure jests along these lines, looking for the original laugh. In the process I suggested the Fool, like Hamlet, was the central character (though often dismissed as if peripheral, which only captures half his meaning). Perhaps he had been modeled on Oxford? That was as far as I went. I didn’t bring up authorship directly but I did emphasize the play’s political and personal reality. But with Stratfordians you generally find that not only won’t they talk about the author as real, they won’t talk about what he was writing about as real either.

The paper I was assigned for special review also concerned the Fool in Twelfth Night. It suggested that the Fool was not so much the creation of Shakespeare as it was the witty actor who must have played him, Robert Armin. In this gregarious and likeable paper I saw everything that infuriated me about Stratfordianism. Of course I understood his problem. Robert Armin is a more real and interesting person to him than the author. But still, the casual assassination permitted the “one opinion is as good as another” courtesy, which allows them to whittle away at this poor author, making him ever more insignificant and irrelevant to his own genius. And who can explain “genius” anyway? Why try? In seminar after seminar I’ve sat through endless, circling talk that never made a point that had the courage of conviction.
So when I was called upon to respond to this other paper I was angry. I didn’t act angry but anger was driving me. I knew I couldn’t discuss authorship directly. Experience has taught me that if you do everyone groans and throws up their collective hands. So I went on and on about reality without coming to my real point until an eminent Stratfordian professor in the audience started yelling that I was boring, boring! and talking to scholars like they were fools and that I should just shut up! I protested I had only one more thing to add anyway, which was true enough, but pointless. The chair of the seminar asked me to stop and, half out of spite, I never said another word.

Yet I went over and over the uproar for two days afterwards, trying to figure some tactful way to have made my major point -human identity matters- without giving offence. But each strategy I devised felt like defeat.

Later at one of the conference functions I was speaking with another eminent Stratfordian professor. We acknowledged a personal liking for each other and a mutual regard for our love of Shakespeare.

He mentioned the awful reports he had heard of my seminar. I told him I truly regretted what had happened. He shook his head sadly and told me I had burned a lot of bridges there. I was genuinely taken aback. Bridges? I was unaware I had any bridges. Except for him, mum’s been the word to me. I mentioned the plan last year to ignore me. He seemed to be aware of it and nodded with grave concern.

So what was to be done? We agreed the Authorship Question mattered and that indeed there was a tangible truth involved. Some real individual actually sat down and wrote these lines. In the simple question of who he was one of us was right and the other wrong. I remembered a question put to Norrie Epstein, author of The Friendly Shakespeare, at the 1993 Boston SOS Conference. She had expressed ambivalence about the traditional attribution but also a deep personal and professional respect for the orthodox professors who had been her friends and mentors. She would not attack their conclusions. Someone finally asked her what piece of evidence would ever convince the Stratfordian establishment they were wrong. She answered that she didn’t think there was any evidence that could convince them. That it wasn’t a matter of evidence but of faith. They Believed. Case closed. You were better off trying to talk the Pope out of the Virgin Birth.

I asked my friend if he thought what she said was true. He smiled and nodded in a serious but friendly manner. Yes, he said, probably it was. He particularly liked the religious metaphor. We were like two churches. His candor made a strong impact. Suddenly I realized I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life arguing with Stratfordians.

Most of what I know about Shakespeare I learned from Stratfordians. They’ve done some of the best work and still do. It’s just that lacking a real author in the flesh and blood sense – who ever gave a tinker’s damn about the Stratford man? – they have no unifying authorial voice to test their theories against. Authorship itself has become just another theory. Which isn’t right. I’m a reality, you’re a reality. Let Shakespeare be a reality too.

Stratfordians are intelligent and informed. But this case represents a kind of blindness they’ve been talked into by their priesthood. Why make yourself crazy banging your head against it? At this point I’d rather learn more about Shakespeare’s motives, about the life of Oxford and the true history of Tudor England, the age that set the stage for the world we live in now.

No, I don’t want to argue anymore (though I know I will). I would rather talk Shakespeare with the professors and Oxford with those who haven’t fallen in love with Shakespeare yet. It would even be fun to build a movement so prosperous and powerful it made the Oxford story famous throughout the world – and then let the world decide.