Trench War over Shakespeare


The Shakespeare Authorship dispute reached stalement in 2013. The orthodox view that William Shakespeare of Stratford was the author received a substantial boost, with the publication of Shakespeare Beyond Doubt by the Cambridge University Press*. This was met in the summer by the Lumina Press Book Shakespeare Beyond Doubt?, putting the sceptic case against Shakespeare as author. In the latter book the leader of the Shakespeare Authorship Coalition (SAC), the sceptic John M Shahan, challenged the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust as the leading Orthodox organisation to a “mock trial before an impartial panel of judges and jurors”** on the issue of whether there is doubt or not.

The Trust having refused the initial approach, the Coalition then offered a sweetener, in the form of a £40,000 inducement to go ahead, to be paid if the Trust wins support for the orthodox position. However this is unlikely to make any real difference, since three previous mock trials have failed to solve the issues and the use of a mock trial on a single aspect of this dispute is unlikely to make any further progress. The offer of a sum of money as an inducement lacks credibility. If the Coalition were to offer to close down if the decision went against it, then that would be a different matter. The three previous mock trials went in favour of the Stratfordian position on the issues discussed, yet this made no difference to the strength of anti- Stratfordian belief. What the Coalition is currently proposing is a Heads We Win, Tails You Lose proposition which the Birthplace Trust has no interest in falling for. There is in any case no demand for a mock trial. In the Lumina Press Book, the Sceptics laid down a timetable for organising a mock trial with a first date of September 1st 2013 for expressions of interest, and a decision on how to proceed for November lst (page x). This later vanished from the SAC website suggesting that there was no demand from independent sources for a mock trial.

The SAC could raise funds to organise an event, but there is no reason to think it would achieve anything. Even if the Coalition offered to close down if it lost the decision, however, this would not stop others maintaining the anti-Stratfordian campaign. More specifically, any “quasi judicial proceeding” of the kind proposed by the Coalition not only raises questions about the codes under which evidence would be reviewed – and these vary across nations, even within the UK – but would be too limited to have any value. The Coalition’s own core beliefs need to be put into the frame to have any semblance of fairness. In the Lumina volume, Shahan argues that the use of the name Shakespeare printed on the published work during Shakespeare’s lifetime implies “the possibility of a pseudonm”, or false name to conceal a real Author.

This core belief needs to be put into the frame. The name being used was that of a real person, well known in the theatre of the time, notably to Richard Burbage, the leading actor of Shakespeare’s  theatre company, and John Hemynges and Henry Cordell, also co-workers, all of whom were left money for rings in Shakespeare’s will. If Shakespeare was not the Author, his name was being taken by A N Other in what had to be an extensive conspiracy including these three. While sceptics are uncomfortable about the idea of a conspiracy theory, there can be no doubt that if Shakespeare was not the Author they have to explain how his name was used when he was a well known figure at the time.

An objective examination of this controversy is certainly well overdue. However if it is to proceed, the Coalition have to allow their own core beliefs to be examined in a rigorous attempt to arrive at historical truth. As things stand, while the Orthodox camp are unable to show solid contemporary evidence that Shakespeare of Stratford was the author, the Sceptic cannot explain how a conspiracy to substitute Shakespeare for A N OTHER could have happened. It is trench warfare, neither side can move, and there is no reason to think that a further mock trial would make any  progress.

Trevor Fisher                                                                                                              

20th February 2014

* Shakespeare Beyond Doubt, Cambridge University Press, 2013, edited Stanley Wells and Paul Edmondson


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