I believe that William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon wrote the plays attributed to him. At the beginning of the year, I wrote a blog post explaining why I feel it is worth understanding the arguments behind the authorship debate and why the debate is worth having. My intent is to go through the arguments and key texts to fully understand the thinking behind the doubters and contextualize any misconceptions I find. But, I want to start by establishing my belief in the importance of expertise, which is what I intend to do here. To establish that not all expertise is created equal, at least as it applies to this debate.
The purpose of this post is not to discuss the merits of the authorship argument (though it may creep in). Rather I want to establish the value of expertise and look at the credentials of those who have signed “The Declaration of Reasonable Doubt.” For those who don’t know, the declaration is a petition signed by those who don’t believe that William Shakespeare wrote the plays. There is no consensus on who did write the plays, but the goal is to prompt more serious consideration and investigation from the academic community. I am not trying to invalidate the intelligence of anyone who has signed this petition. Many of the signatories are highly intelligent people. They are lawyers, doctors, educators, theater professionals, journalists, artists, etc. Almost every occupation is represented. It would be unfair to claim that the people signing this document are unintelligent. It is fair to say that being highly intelligent in general or in one particular field does not make you an expert on everything. I intend to analyze the self-proclaimed credentials of the doubters and look at how their expertise may not easily translate to debating the authenticity of an early modern writer.
I started by going through the list of signatories page by page and breaking them into categories. There was a section for them to write in their credentials to be displayed for everyone to see. Not everyone filled in this section, but I imagine someone with an expertise in the early modern period would find it worthwhile to include that information. That’s just me though. At the time I read through the list, there were 4,406 people, 1,420 of which provided legitimate credentials. As I went through, I lumped signers into various categories. They were pretty broad so that there would be worthwhile data. Below are the largest categories and an explanation of each:
Education: this category is largely made up of elementary school and high school teachers, or anyone involved in the administrative department of schools. There are also a few professors. Specialties were confirmed when possible to make sure that they were not early modern history/literature or Shakespeare professors. Those professors would be included in possible exceptions.
Writers/Authors/Journalists: this category is very broad and includes writers of all genres, fiction and nonfiction. It includes journalists, editors, and publishers as well. It does not include playwrights or screenwriters.
Theater Professionals: this category includes anyone involved in the production of live theater: actors, playwrights, directors, producers, teachers, and some critics.
Medical Professionals: this category includes doctors, nurses, pharmacists, lab technicians, medical researchers, professors, etc. Anyone involved in the medical field.
Artists: this category primarily contains musicians, but it also includes visual artists of all types: photographers, sculptors, painters, etc.
Law/Judicial: lawyers, judges, and other legal professionals
Scientists: this is another broad category that includes scientists of all disciplines: physicists, biologists, chemists, etc.
Media: anyone involved in the production of film or television with the exception of actors. Actors were included as Theater Professionals.
Professional Doubters: this was the category for anyone who listed their primary credentials as being leaders or members of authorship groups, and/or writing books and articles about the Authorship Debate. Typically, I would look them up to make sure they did not have an early modern specialty.
Possible Exceptions: this is where I put those that I believe could be considered experts in the field of early modern history/literature or Shakespeare. I tried to be as generous as possible. However, life-long students or self-taught were not included in this category. I will explain why in more detail below.
You can look at the other categories as listed in the charts below. If someone listed multiple credentials, I went with the one that seemed most prominent, typically the first one. There were a few trends I noticed that weren’t captured in the data. I noticed a fair number of philosophers, but they were typically captured in another category, such as Education or Writer. Within the writers there were a fair number of poets. One of the most interesting credentials were the people who were credible by association. They either knew someone who was a prominent doubter or who had a high IQ, as if that somehow makes them more credible. There were a couple people who believed Shakespeare probably did write the plays, but want more investigation.
Before moving on to my greater point about expertise, I want to establish that I do not consider myself an expert. I have an undergraduate degree in video production with a focus on children’s media and a master’s in public media. I took a couple courses on Shakespeare in college and focused some of my master’s research on adapting Shakespeare for children. I have spent a lot of time reading Shakespeare, learning about Shakespeare, and learning about the Tudor period. I am a lifelong student of Shakespeare, but I am not an expert because I have not had much structured or focused learning about Shakespeare. This is the exact reason I did not include those with similar credentials as experts. Lifelong students should rely on experts to inform their opinions and conclusions.
The Meaning of Expertise
This may seem like an obvious statement, but I think it is worth saying: No one, not even geniuses, can know everything. There is not a single person who is capable of understanding the context and nuance of everything. It takes years of dedicated study to truly be an expert. It requires a dedication to understanding the full complexity of a specific subject. This does not necessarily require a PhD, but it does require time and focus.
Experts have an extraordinary amount of knowledge about a specific subject or skill. Generalists have information on a wide variety of subjects. Teachers, especially in elementary or high school, tend to be generalists. It doesn’t mean they aren’t highly intelligent. It just means that they have a different set of abilities and a wider well of knowledge.
Focus on a specific subject though does not mean they should ignore new information. On the contrary, experts must always be open to accepting new information. No field of study has all the answers, so continual learning is necessary. Experts must fit the new knowledge into the greater context of what was already known. This allows new information to either be considered invalid or folded into the previous scholarship. There must be evidence to back or contradict the new information. There are, of course, times when the academic community is wrong. However, the new evidence will typically surface again and again until it can no longer be denied.
For example, art historians rejected for years that the marble statues of Ancient Greece and Rome had been painted crazy colors. Over time, it became undeniable that there were paint fragments on the statues.
I agree with the doubters in one aspect: there must be room for questioning. BUT, not all doubts are created equally. If there is strong evidence contradicting a new claim, that must be taken into consideration. Experts can provide the entire picture. They can look at the wide variety of factors which influence any subject. When new theories emerge, it is up to the community of experts to explain how that new theory does or does not fit into the larger picture.
Being an expert in one area does not make you an expert in ANY OTHER AREA. I think some expertises are valued more highly than others. If I said that historians are not qualified to be doctors, everyone would say “well, obviously.” However, if I said a doctor is not qualified to be a historian, many people would disagree. As if reading a lot of history books is what makes you a historian (spoiler: it doesn’t). Being a doctor, a lawyer,or an author does not provide you with the knowledge necessary to contextualize 16th century records or writing.
Since we have established the knowledge base required to be called an expert, we must go further to say that the opinions of experts should be weighed more heavily than novices. Again, I am not saying that there is not room for challenging current ways of thinking. That is how we advance our knowledge base. However, as stated above, experts are in the best position to properly contextualize any new facts or theories. This is a crucial step in evaluating new knowledge. Because of this, we must listen to the information provided by experts and take it more seriously when formulating our own conclusions.
Evaluating the Credentials of Specific Groups
The largest group is by far Educators. Again, this group is mostly elementary and high school teachers. These educators tend to be generalists. This makes sense because they are required to educate young people and give them the tools to continue on in the adult world. This requires a broad base of applicable knowledge. The educational goals for children are broad, so the teacher’s knowledge base has to be broad. They are intelligent people highly skilled in education. There is no doubt they are intelligent and crucial to our society. However, a broad base of knowledge does not necessarily mean they have the knowledge base of an expert. It is worth noting that this group also contains Professors who are experts or specialists, but if they are included in this group their specialty is not early modern history/literature or Shakespeare.
Theater professionals are an interesting group because they are highly specialized generalists. I know it sounds contradictory, but hear me out. They have a specific set of skills – acting, lighting, set design, costume design, etc. However, they are typically versed in a wide variety of production styles. Even actors that are particularly well versed in Shakespeare, take part in different productions. Actors and other theater professionals certainly have a unique perspective on Shakespeare because they tend to spend a significant amount of time with the text. These close readings can lead to some amazing insights. In some ways, actors are more familiar with Shakespeare’s works than most, but this still does not give them the information necessary to determine if William Shakespeare wrote his plays.
One of the most unique things about Shakespeare is that his works will speak to different people in different ways. Each person who encounters the text will identify with something completely different than anyone else. This can cause people to assume that the author must be similar to them. It can be hard to accept the fact that there is no way for any of us to know what parts of the plays or poems are biographical. Many of us feel a deeply personal emotional connection to Shakespeare, which can be difficult to detach ourselves from. We must remember though that feeling this connection does not make us an expert on Shakespeare the man. This is crucial to remember when having this debate. Being intimately familiar with the emotion of the plays, does not make us intimately familiar with the emotions of the man.
Now we move on to the burden of proof expected from different professions. Journalists and Lawyers for example have an expectation of corroborating evidence. They want hard proof, or as close as they can get. That is not always possible when we are dealing with records that are hundreds of years old. There have been fires and just plain old record purging. We cannot hold the records of the past to the expectations of the present. We expect that the records and letters of famous people will be preserved because that is what we do today. We value the life of the author. We want to know who they were, so we expect that everyone did. However, people in Shakespeare’s time didn’t have much interest in preserving the biographical information of the playwright. Today, we are suspicious of missing evidence, but that quite simply does not apply to the past.
For a similar reason, the scientific method does not necessarily apply well to history. In science, a hypothesis is tested against a standard again and again and again. The results are in black and white to be scrutinized by their peers. Results can be repeated by many different people. Science definitely has a place in the study of history. We need to properly date documents. We need to identify remains. Science, however, cannot make records appear that have been lost. We must accept a certain amount of ambiguity when investigating history.
That fact is that no one person can answer this questions. No one has all the facts we need. There is not one Shakespeare professor or early modern specialist that will have all the answers. What we must do is rely on the input of many experts. An early modern historian can contextualize the records or lack thereof. They can fill in the blanks from what we know of the time period. A theater historian can explain where an intimate knowledge of the theater creeps into the works. An expert on the collecting and preservation of books can help explain what happened to Shakespeare’s books. Classicists can help identify what sources he used, often down to the translation. The list could go on and on, but the point is we need their collective expertise to form a logical conclusion.
Through this blog post and analysis of the petition signers, I hope I have established the foundation from which we can build. We must keep in mind as we work through the authorship arguments that:
Intelligence is not the same as expertise.
Expertise in one area does not make one an expert in any other area.
The majority of people who signed the petition do not have the necessary expertise. I also do not have the expertise.
We must weigh the facts and opinions of experts more heavily than that of novices.
An intimate knowledge of the plays is not the same as an intimate knowledge of the man.
It takes a variety of experts to provide the information necessary for us to make a conclusion.
As I move forward on this project, I will work from these principles to reach specific conclusions. I will take on one argument at a time and use the scholarship that has come before to clear up any misconceptions. I will do my best to be open-minded and unbiased, but I will not take the word of a novice over the word of many experts.