Thursday, May 16, 2013

A Marlovian Review of Shakespeare Beyond Doubt by Ros Barber and Peter Farey

Three weeks ago, the second book on the authorship question to be published by an academic press was published to considerable media attention.  The title of Shakespeare Beyond Doubt succinctly states the book’s aims: to settle the authorship question once and for all.  That it cannot do so is clear from the fact that the book – entirely in contravention of accepted scholarly practice – fails to address (or even mention, except buried in an "additional reading" list on page 247) the first academically published book on the subject, Diana Price's Shakespeare's Unorthodox Biography (2001). 

Though readable and more mannerly than other writings on the subject by the editors Paul Edmondson and Stanley Wells, Shakespeare Beyond Doubt is a work of polemic.  The ad hominems invariably employed by those without substance to their arguments are now encoded in their altered terms: anti-Stratfordians, they decree, are now to be called anti-Shakespearians, and the Shakespeare Authorship Question will henceforth be known as the Shakespeare Authorship Conspiracy Theory.  This book rehashes the methods employed by James Shapiro in Contested Will (2010): analyse the psychology (or pathology) of early doubters, offer "evidence" that no-one disputes and claim it supports Shakespeare-of-Stratford's authorship, ignore scholarship from the last fifty years, and avoid Price's research.  Non-Stratfordians conversant with the evidence and arguments supporting Shakespeare scepticism will have no problem dismantling Shakespeare Beyond Doubt.

Unlike Shapiro's Contested Will, however, the book does make space for Marlowe as a major candidate: an indication, perhaps, of Marlovian progress in the last three years.  Chapter 3, "The Case For Marlowe," was written by Charles Nicholl, whose well-researched book The Reckoning (1992, 2002) is required reading for anyone wishing to consider the complex events surrounding Marlowe's apparent death in May 1593.  It is a shame that Nicholl's contribution to Shakespeare Beyond Doubt does not demonstrate the same quality of scholarship as The Reckoning.  His chapter contains numerous factual errors (A.D.Wraight's full name, for example), as well as evidence of some significant misunderstandings of the Marlovian case.

He states, for example, that Marlowe's "measurable quota of intellectual sophistication is stressed by Marlovians on the debatable assumption that the writing of great literature requires a university degree."  This is a misrepresentation.  It's not the university degree that we stress, but the opportunities Marlowe's life apparently provided both then and later for him to mix with the intellectual elite of the country – its statesmen, scientists, explorers, mathematicians, thinkers, and writers – and to be given access to magnificent libraries such as those of the "wizard" Earl of Northumberland to whom he claimed to be well known.  And that was all, of course, before he would have started off on the travels envisaged in the Marlovian theory.

In discussing the first exploration of this theory, Wilbur Gleason Zeigler's It Was Marlowe, Nicholl focuses on Zeigler's interest in the faulty account of John Aubrey, who claimed that Ben Jonson "killed Mr Marlow the poet on Bunhill, coming from the Green Curtain play-house."  Nicholl claims "This is an early paradigm of authorship controversialism, where invented evidence plays a determining role in what is presented as a genuine historical argument."  A "determining role"? Zeigler quoted Aubrey as just one example of the conflicting accounts of Marlowe's death that were to be found at the time, and considers the possibility that at least the date was correct. Although the novel does in fact end at the Curtain in 1598, with both Marlowe and Jonson present (watching Hamlet), nothing is suggested in any way about what happens after that.

Considering the support for the Marlovian claim provided by the (authorship-neutral) scientist Dr Thomas Corwin Mendenhall in 1901, Nicholl criticises Mendenhall's method on the basis of "the fluidity of spelling in [the early modern] period and the extent to which printed copy has been prey to the vicissitudes of transmission."  This criticism might be levelled at all stylometric studies, including those that orthodox scholars claim to support their position.  But in any case, it isn't a problem.  Although Mendenhall didn't tell us which texts he made use of, it is fairly clear from the method employed that they would have been printed editions with modernized spelling.

Further, Nicholl states, "It has also been shown that word-length distributions vary according to genre; an analysis of the works of Sir Philip Sidney by C. B. Williams (1975) gives very different readings for his prose and his poetry." Williams's analysis used only 1,552 of Sidney's verse (i.e. poems) and 1,553 words of his prose.  Yet such minimal data from one author is used to deduce a conclusion applicable to all English renaissance writers!  Nicholl claims Williams's conclusions would "affect a comparison of Shakespeare's plays with those of Marlowe, which feature much less prose."  Yet in our comparison of Marlowe's later works (9,452 words) with Shakespeare excluding the comedies (66,402), the former has about 86% verse (blank verse, not poems) and the latter about 81%.  Hardly enough of a difference to cause concern, even if Williams had been right.

On the basis that he considers Mendenhall's stylometry flawed, Nicholl then dismisses the extensions of that work by Daryl Pinksen and Peter Farey, which (contrary to Nicholl's assessment) took full account of these caveats, and used statistical and technological methods unknown to Mendenhall.  Recognising that authors may vary over time and between genres, Farey demonstrated that the pattern for Marlowe's later plays correlates (at r = .9998, where r = 1 is perfect correlation) more closely with Shakespeare's histories, tragedies and "Roman" plays than Shakespeare's own comedies do with them (.9986), or than Marlowe's earlier plays do with his later ones (.9943).

When assessing the evidence surrounding Marlowe's apparent death in 1593 – a death that would clearly preclude Marlowe's writing the Shakespeare canon – Nicholl falls victim to either a profound logical inconsistency or a personal blindspot.  "The desire of anti-Stratfordians," he says, "is always to create alternative narratives, with or without the backing of evidence, and despite this extensive scene-of-crime documentation Marlovians continue to claim that Marlowe's death was faked." But Charles Nicholl himself (in both editions of his book, The Reckoning) rejects the "extensive scene-of-crime documentation" as being based on lies, and in Mike Rubbo's documentary Much Ado About Something accepts the possibility, if not the probability, of there having been a faked death. The proper approach for an historian would therefore have been to show why the lies told by those present wouldn't have extended as far as the identity of the body, rather than simply appealing to the authority of other biographers, and making offensive (and false) remarks about his opponents' motives and reasoning.

Nicholl says Marlovians have "sought to prove" that the Deptford killing was not within the verge (a twelve mile radius around the queen) and that "the involvement of the Royal Coroner in the case was a suspicious intervention rather than a routine requirement." Follow up the references he gives for this allegation, however, and one will find they say exactly the opposite.  Despite the Queen actually being at Nonsuch Palace in Surrey (rather than at Greenwich, where Nicholl places her), Deptford was still within the verge, and it was certainly a requirement for him to have been involved.  However, the law required the inquest to be presided over jointly with a coroner from the county, in this case Kent, and according to the report of the inquest it wasn't.  This information, discovered by Marlovians, was gratefully picked up by Park Honan in his biography of Marlowe, but for some reason Charles Nicholl blatantly misrepresents it.

Having dealt at some length with the version of Marlovian theory espoused by Calvin Hoffman's [The Murder Of] The Man Who Was Shakespeare (1955), Nicholl claims that "There have been various further explorations and refinements of his theory, but no great changes or new directions." This is simply untrue, and as an attempt to dismiss nearly sixty years of more recent research, disingenuous.  Other than agreeing with the theory that Marlowe's death was faked and that he survived to write much of what is attributed to Shakespeare, modern Marlovian arguments contain very little of Hoffman's material. 

There are numerous other errors of both fact and reasoning in Nicholl's chapter, and also some evidence notable by its absence.  When writing that, "in The Merry Wives of Windsor, Hugh Evans soothes his 'melancholies' by crooning a couple of stanzas from Marlowe's famous lyric, 'Come Live With Me'," Nicholl fails to mention that Evans mixes Marlowe's song up with one based upon Psalm 137 ("By the rivers of Babylon") which, as everyone would have known, is a lament for being in exile. Presumably, he has no explanation for why the author would do such a thing.

As with all convinced Stratfordians, where there is no good explanation for a piece of evidence, Charles Nicholl either ignores the evidence completely, or insults those who raise questions about it, insisting that questioning the received view is simply not legitimate.  He calls Marlovians "disingenuous" (definition: lacking in candour or frankness, insincere, morally fraudulent) for asking how and why Touchstone, making a clear reference to Marlowe's death in As You Like It, could have knowledge of the word "reckoning" (given in the inquest document as the reason for the knife-fight) when it was apparently not in the public domain until 1925.

Thus it is clear that despite the generally improved tone of Shakespeare Beyond Doubt, the defenders of the orthodoxy continue to hold the line that authorship questioners are morally or logically deficient, and the question itself invalid.  Charles Nicholl demonstrates a clear distaste for "the interrogative syntax much favoured in authorship literature."  We, on the other hand, insist that questioning is a legitimate human activity, central to all research in both the humanities and the sciences.  And though it is possible that the Shakespeare authorship question will never be settled, we refer Charles Nicholl and the contributors and editors of Shakespeare Beyond Doubt to this quote from French philosopher and humanist Joseph Joubert:

"It is better to debate a question without settling it,
than to settle a question without debating it."

© Ros Barber and Peter Farey, May 2013
Click here for the blog's home page and recent content.