Some ideas on the current state of SAQ affairs
Oxfordians claim to have assembled their contentions into a theory built from first principles by using a mass of circumstantial evidence. But are their claims reasonable or do Oxfordians arrive at their conclusions having swallowed a few faith-based, whale-sized red herrings?
In our first post-100 reason, we reflect on how important are reason and logic to the Oxfordian conjecture.
We're going to look at a survey taken in Madison in 2014,1 testing the relative strength of what most Oxfordians believe but first, we'll look at what lies behind areas of weakness that must be obvious to any newcomer. The mechanism of belief is what we're interested in. After checking out the evidence quotient in what are keystone arguments, we can then use the survey to see where they rate in the Oxfordian standings of credibility.
This survey, until recently, is the closest Oxfordians have come to looking at themselves. Obviously we are fascinated to try and learn from what they see. Will it reveal a relationship between what we believe are their fatal weaknesses and what they believe are their most powerful convictions.
Let’s look at three of the most obvious holes under the Oxfordian waterline.
1. The profile mismatch
The foundation stone of Oxfordianism is the fatal mismatch they all, without exception, claim to detect between the life of Will Shakespeare and the life they imagine led by a successful 16c poet and playwright.
This approach cannot be described as evidence-based.
Oxfordians believe strongly that the profile of the humble commoner from Stratford cannot be fitted to the profile of the author of the canon.
When arguing with them, however, it quickly becomes apparent that Oxfordian profiles of aristocrats and Bankside playwrights are not constructed from any models which exist in reality. They are fuelled by the idea that there is knowledge in the plays from which Will was excluded, amplified by a process of tying plot details to incidents in the Earl’s life. As if Will wrote only biography. These conjectures are often based on anachronistic ideas of Elizabethan education, a limited knowledge of the plays themselves or, worse, drawn from very selective analysis in Oxfordian texts.
In reality, Will’s profile closely resembles that of all the professional playwrights of his day.
Oxford and Orazio Coquo bringing the Renaissance to England
Saintly accounts abound of Oxford’s role in bringing the Renaissance to England, as believers credit Oxford with cultural innovation, inventing the sonnet form and pioneering blank verse. None these achievements have the remotest connection to reality. They are mirages, intended to contrast with the idea that Will was illiterate and uneducated—a penny-pinching moneylender, a violent thug and even a murderer. Likewise, none of these ideas are supported by any clear evidence. Even if they were, none would bar Will from being a playwright. No one would want to meet Caravaggio in a dark alley.
The demeaning portrayal of Will is extrapolated from snippets in the historical record purely to create a distorted profile, one more easily distinguished from that of Oxford, the playwriting Earl. Meanwhile the flattering portrayal of Oxford, intended to improve his qualifications as the canon playwright, comprises a catalogue of imaginary achievements starkly at odds with what is left of his writing. Once polished into solid nostrums and toothy parables, the results are published in books and on websites, then used in public argument ad nauseam as if publication consecrated them as fact. Any Earl working as a Bankside author, had there been one, could have counted himself unique—an historical singularity. But there were no Earls. Lots of commoners, earning a living, some carving themselves a piece of the action, like Will and John Marston.
But no aristocrats on the factory floor. Ever.
The detailed mechanics behind the profile transfer are never explained. They call Oxford’s anonymous authorship pseudonymous, yet pseudonyms do not require another individual to take the credit. They claim Oxford wrote the plays and handed over the manuscripts, production responsibilities and all the revenue to some one else. Oxford's candidature therefore hides behind an allonym, much rarer.
Furthermore, it appears perfectly normal to Oxfordians that a famous, aristocratic playwright could hide behind his allonym throughout a career spanning 25 years–even though examples of such an arrangement cannot be found anywhere else in the history of professional theatre.
In fact, if we ignore the Oxfordian claim, we can make a rule which dismisses their entire case. “Successful playwrights never use allonyms”. This simple maxim can be tested on Oxfordians themselves by asking them for another example. Ancient attribution disputes may be cited. Terence or Gesualdo may be quoted in the flimsiest of comparisons. A second playwright using an allonym is a tough requirement.
Because there isn’t one. It's another historical singularity.
So, the core Oxfordian belief relies on a working practice that has no precedent. That’s why Oxfordians have never explained the detailed mechanics involved in getting plays from Oxford’s pen onto the boards at The Globe in front of a paying audience. The whole process of producing (not writing!) plays is inimical to the idea of hidden authors. Making it work over a 25 year career is surely an impossibility.
Like other faithful followers before them, they counter the lack of evidence with an Act of Faith. They agree to believe it happened just that way. Then they talk about pseudonyms and dodge questions about practicalities. How many dancing Earls will fit on the head of a pin?
Faith requires assumption, restatement, confirmation and lots of minutiae to distract attention from the cracks in the foundation and the void below.
Faith needs sacraments.
The second remarkable thing will surely occur to anyone as a direct consequence of the first. Oxfordian theory relies on a rather extraordinary definition of the word ‘evidence’.
Oxfordians have no evidence.
Mark Johnson, of this parish, has devised a test which illustrates the evidence vacuum perfectly. Rather than engage in small print minutiae, Mark sticks to the big print, probing for items of evidence.
He began by asking for any five items of direct and circumstantial evidence. Mark is a lawyer and knows what evidence looks like. The lack of any response has, over time, resulted in serial deflation of the target requirement, first to three items and latterly to one. One single item that qualifies as direct or circumstantial evidence is all that is asked.
|Like Micawber, J Thomas Looney expected something in the way of evidence to support his theory would ‘turn up'. 100 years later, nothing has.
Just a single item in support of Oxford’s candidature could end their embarrassment yet Oxfordians can’t supply it. A whole Oxfordian team of Micawbers has been looking for evidence for 100 years and still nothing has turned up. The ‘evidence’ that fills Oxfordian websites and publications consists entirely of guesswork, thought experiment, special pleading, soi-disant biographical connections, and assumptions.
Lots of assumptions.
To try and improve the relevance of doctrinal coincidence and guesswork, Oxfordians have their own special ideas about probability. Chaining their guesses together, they claim, has a cumulative effect. The effect of circumstantial evidence becomes probative as the number of items increases. Forgetting that one piece of direct evidence will outweigh 200 suggestive circumstances, they claim they can reduce improbability by sheer weight of numbers. Quantity rather than quality.
Any mathematician will tell you that the opposite is true. With a single die, the odds of throwing six are 6:1. Add a second and the odds of throwing six with both dice are 36:1. Oxfordians compute these odds with division rather than multiplication. Instead of increasing the improbability of a single proposition, when they link two long-shot guesses together, they claim an increase in certainty. Thus they can rapidly assemble ‘theory’ out of the wildest suppositions, miscalculating the effect of mathematics, all the while claiming to be building a cumulative 'mountain of evidence' from what is actually no more than a paltry collection of disconnected claptrap.
St Patrick was canonised for removing the snakes from Ireland. The probability that this was the result of Herculean efforts and a long sequence of miracles is greatly affected by the fact that there were no snakes in Ireland to expel.
Like the Irish, Oxfordians ignore the rules of probability, and make another series of Acts of Faith.
3. The elasticity of claimed connections
Once a few of these Acts of Faith are explored in depth, it becomes obvious that Oxfordians will accept almost anything that provides any possible enhancement of a connection to Oxford or provides any explanation of inconvenient evidence.
To explain Ben Jonson’s famous epithet ‘Swan of Avon’ they claimed that a house once owned by Oxford, just outside Rugby,2 is near enough to the Avon to qualify it as the association that Ben had in mind. For the connection to be regarded as a meaningful allusion to the canon author, it would also need to be sufficiently well-known to Ben’s audience although Oxfordians sneakily argue that Ben is speaking only to them in their guise of frontier literary detectives.
It's getting late, my fellow Oxfordians. It's time we started jumping to conclusions.
The belief that this house was the one in the epithet took root and flowered into canonical acceptance, untroubled by the fact that Oxford was never known to have crossed its threshold, that it was rented before he was born then sold by the estate 43 years before Ben wrote the line. The River Avon would have been invisible from even its top floor as Bilton, where it is located, is three miles distant from the Avon which is so narrow at the nearest point that today, it can’t be seen from a flyover less than 200 yards away. Laughably improbable—a miracle, even.
Recently Alexander Waugh tried and failed to supply something he believed to be less ridiculous. No one outside the Oxfordian tent agreed. Another attempt at a miracle.
There are still no satisfactory explanations of how Ben came to associate the Avon with Oxford. The faithful are still puzzled and troubled by something blindingly obvious to everyone outside their camp.
There are many, many similar issues of much larger import, similarly lacking a non-miraculous explanation, not least of which is how Oxford managed to raise himself from the dead and go on writing for ten years after his own funeral.
Time after time, the disciples gather in General Synod, make an Act of Faith and move on.
The New Testament
Except when they are reading surveys about themselves, most Oxfordians lack any kind of self awareness. They cannot discern where their thought processes become derailed as they attempt to steam at full speed along rails and sleepers that were never beneath the locomotive in the first place.
|St Augustine refuting a heretic, using a technique that many Oxfordians would like to try out for themselves.
Occasionally they try to rationalise and modify, shedding the most unpropitious items from the creed. In the role of forerunner of a new schism, Oxfordianism Lite, here is John D Lavendoski recognising the dangers implicit in the popular idea that by selecting Shakespeare, Oxford was relying on an illiterate country bumpkin for his catspaw.3
To his credit, he is trying to moderate some of the more outrageous items of Oxfordian catechism. History teaches us that heresy is dangerous in faith-based communities of course, and heretics, trying out new theories, can often trigger unintended effects. Like Luther, they can discover that one document can turn out the lights on a whole religion. Experimenting with new parables or attempting to supply new beatitudes will very often backfire.
This is exactly what happens here.
John casts doubt on the idea that Oxford’s allonymic front man could have been a bumpkin and gives an excellent reason for dismissing the contention:
“The plausibility of an illiterate Shakspere being able to pull off the role of frontman (without being tripped up) for up to 12 years is pretty close to “zero” IMO. Literary fronts abound….but illiterate ones ?? Not so much I would say. Once we have to start relying on historical singularities, I think its time to turn out the lights”.
'Blessed are they who do not rely on singularities'.
Sadly, twin bolts of lightning immediately strike John the Baptist. The first is that his more moderate version of events (a literate front man for Oxford) is still a singularity. His seemingly more reasonable idea fails his own credibility test. In exactly the same way as the original. The subsequent thunderbolt dramatically highlights the long list of other singularities upon which he himself relies to make his theory work. That's Divine Intervention for you. Without another Act of Faith here, the inescapable conclusion is that it is finally time for Oxfordians to turn out the lights.
Where logic demands a shutdown, however, faith can always be relied upon for a reboot.
And so it comes to pass that Oxfordians everywhere (there may as few as 75 left in captivity) are currently going back to the basics of their faith, rebuilding the catechism and forming new secret internet groups as they try to leave behind the mistakes of Looney, the excesses of Ogburn and a vast collection of utterly ludicrous ideas which cluster to the creed like barnacles to the hull of an Apostle’s fishing boat.
Out go ideas that include Elizabeth having six children, Oxford writing everything of note in the Elizabethan era, or that he did not die in 1604 but lived on in secret, hidden on the Isle of Mersea where he wrote the King James Version of the Bible.
So what do Oxfordians really believe now, And how strongly do they believe it?
Now, finally, let’s look at the results of the survey.
The Diet of Madison
Typically, gauging the strength of of the Oxfordian credo is not done by testing it in public against other ideas but by conducting a survey amongst themselves at a Convocation of the Cardinals. You can’t assess the strength of any faith by attempting to measure it amongst the pagans. Just such a survey took place in 2014 at the annual get-together of the Oxfordian glitterati in Madison Wisconsin.
Whenceforth it was discovered that Certitude of Faith is waning amongst the rapidly diminishing flock. McNeil reports that ‘the 2014 results show greater uncertainty on many aspects of the Authorship Question. In 2011, responses to eleven of the 43 statements fell within the “Areas of Greatest Consensus” (indicating median responses at one end or the other of the nine-point scale). In 2014 only seven statements fell into this category. Additionally, for eleven of the 43 statements, the median shifted by 1.0 or more; in eight of those cases the shift was away from consensus.’
Roughly translated, this presages, as we say in’t North of England, ‘Trouble at t’Mill’.
Let’s see what’s left. The strongest measure of consensus surrounds the following four statements.
Edward de Vere is the principal author of the Shakespeare canon
Shakspere (sic) of Stratford wrote no literary works
disagreeing that the Sonnets aren’t “about” anything
disagreeing that someone other than de Vere or Shakspere wrote the canon
In the next category came strong consensus on the following:
the First Folio publication was organised by de Vere’s children, by Pembroke and Montgomery, with help from Ben Jonson
that the Fair Youth of the Sonnets is Henry Wriothesley
disagreeing with the statement that de Vere did not die in 1604
Edward de Vere was the natural son of the 16th Earl of Oxford and Margery Golding
disagreeing with the statement that Edward de Vere was the son of Princess Elizabeth
the title page illustration in Minerva Brittana alludes to the authorship issue
The First 10 Articles of Faith
The level of strong consensus on the first 10 statements hasn’t changed all that much over the years, reports Surveyor in Chief Alex McNeil, and they therefore constitute the most important Articles of Faith.
The first four, the strongest, are extremely interesting since there isn’t so much as a microgram of evidentiary support for any of them. They are the true core beliefs bestowed by Oxfordianism’s baptismal sacrament, reaffirmed by the sacrament of confirmation which involves the acceptance of the next six Articles.
There is no way to reason anyone into these four propositions by using evidence. They have to be accepted on their stone entablatures just as the prophet Looney passed them down. They are, of course, supported by a lot of suggestive nonsense and labyrinthine circumvention of facts in the historical record. But not a shred of evidence.
The presence of Article 3 may perplex newcomers to the debate but it relates to the Oxfordian tactic of accepting any explanation, however implausible, for the discovery of any connection between the canon and events in Oxford’s life. Portraying the sonnets as autobiography opens up a rich seam of biographical coincidence. Oxfordians are, therefore, vehemently against any idea that the sonnets might be impromptu thoughts, peerlessly expressed in a simple poetical framework.
The six Articles which follow are also interesting. The entirely faith-based beliefs in the first four are now bolstered with some new items which can be supported with logical argument. Evidence is still thin on the ground, however, and by the time we get to Item 10, some indefensible conclusion-leaping has found its way up the Temple steps and into the tabernacle.
Articles 7, 8 and 9 are defensive. No one seriously believes that Oxford didn’t die in 1604 apart from an Oxfordian set called PT’ers, who believe in something called the Prince Tudor Theory. The sect didn’t dream this up themselves but have adapted it from their Baconian predecessors and believe fervently that it explains the whole reason for the use of an allonym. Being a secret playwright goes hand in hand with being a secret heir to the throne. PT Theory goes beyond infinitely improbable. Not only is Oxford claimed to be Elizabeth’s son but he then impregnated his mother who gave birth to the Earl of Southampton. Southampton, the dedicatee of Venus & Adonis and the Rape of Lucrece, then turns out to be the Fair Youth—126 sonnets are now, after this head-spinning swivel, dedicated to their son. And their son, also Oxford’s brother, is second in line to the throne (twice!) After his dad. Yikes! The inclusion of these three negative items in The First 10 Articles is an indication of how strongly most Oxfordians feel about freeing themselves from this daft idea.
Likewise, Article 6 is unexceptionable. Not everyone believes that Henry Wriothesley was ‘The Fair Youth’ of the sonnets but there are people on all sides of the debate willing to argue that he was. Wriothesley suits the whole spectrum of Oxfordian autobiographical ideas about the sonnets and therefore the idea supports Article 3 and merits inclusion in the Articles of Faith.
The real significance in this group lies in Article 5, which not only lacks any evidentiary support but which has very strong counter evidence which Oxfordians ignore. The colophon to the First Folio explains who did what as far as the book goes, just as plainly as Jonson explains in his Preface who was responsible for the work it contains.
Summarising, the first four Articles of Faith have no evidence to support them, the fifth is a total bust, the sixth meaningless, 7, 8, and 9 are there purely to defend the faith from nitwit heresy and the 10th is flat-out bonkers.
I am not making this up. These are conclusions based on their own assessment of their own beliefs.
Ten More Articles
The next 10 Articles start to give the game away to outsiders who can’t be bothered to dig out Mark Anderson’s wild thoughts on the significance of code references and incomplete anagrams on Henry Peacham’s title pages.
By the time we reach Article 20, we are all the way down the rabbit hole, have eaten the cake, drunk the contents of the bottle and are ready for The Looking Glass World of hard core Oxfordian fundamentalism. There is only ‘significant’ consensus on these articles. That Oxfordian nemesis—uncertainty—is starting to cast its ugly shadow by the time we reach the end of the list.
de Vere’s thousand-pound annuity was made in connection with his literary activities
de Vere played a key role in sparing Southampton’s life after his 1601 treason conviction
de Vere’s authorship role was well known in Elizabeth’s court
disagreeing with the statement that Elizabeth Trentham is the Dark Lady of the Sonnets
that many academics privately harbour doubt about Shakspere
disagreeing with the statement that several authors wrote the canon under de Vere’s general supervision
that de Vere wrote many other works not attributed to him
that the Sonnets are published in correct order
that de Vere’s authorship role was widely known in the literary community
that de Vere’s posthumous literary anonymity was arranged by his children and Pembroke and Montgomery, assisted by Ben Jonson
The most important Article in the series is Article 15. Once again the proposition is entirely bereft of supporting evidence. Indeed the data barely provides enough statistical headroom to disagree with the diametrically opposite statement that “no academics have any doubts whatsoever about Shakespeare’s authorship”.
This introduces a new and important doctrinal engine of the Oxfordian faith. It doesn’t matter if something is true or not, it is perfectly permissible to assert its truth as long as it is difficult to falsify. Shakespeareans cannot say that doubt about the authorship does not exist because the plays are currently being looked at in great detail with new computerised analysis techniques. Why would anyone do this if there were no doubt? Whole mountain ranges of nonsense are built out of such baseless assertions when they are threaded into Oxfordian argument. Yet whilst they know better than to offer them to Mark Johnson as examples, they are not ashamed to describe these contentions as 'evidence' in general debate.
For example, Oxfordians (and creationists) seize on questioning research like stylometry. Often, without looking at the results, they then try to claim all doubts are equal, add the claim that doubt and disbelief are equal entities and finish by declaring that their own doubts are equal in nature to the doubts of the academics who oppose them. 'Reasoning' thus, they dismiss the contribution of computers to attribution, ostensibly because academics using the technique disagree over 'results' but in reality, they hate stylometry because it has eliminated their candidate beyond any possible refutation.
Articles 11, 12, 13, 14, 15 and 19 are all constructed using this engine of misconception.
They are Articles of Faith. All of them.
The conclusion then, must be that J Thomas Looney, Oxfordianism’s founding father and himself a religious cultist,4 has sired a new sect rather than given rise to a new theory. However many books his followers write, however many non-contentious snippets they publish in Notes & Queries, however many biographical coincidences they claim indicate the Earl's authorship, there are 100 reasons on this site (and plenty more besides) that refute any such involvement with Shakespeare's work, exposing a belief system based on faith, not evidence.
Luther using a cathedral door as a bulletin board. It was before the Internet, as you can tell from his hat.
I feel like printing this out and marching up to the The Globe in Southwark and nailing it to the door but, to tell the unvarnished truth, the storm has largely abated. Since the film Anonymous appeared, making their ideas comprehensively ridiculous by attempting to thread them into a coherent narrative, there have been no fireworks of note. Just a succession of damp squibs and not many of those.
Academics, real ones, have completely disengaged. Academics have better things to do with their time than to argue with Looney's modern, still evidence-free disciples.
The time is rapidly approaching when they can safely be left alone in their caves.
- Survey details on Shakespeare Oxford Fellowship site↩
- Oxford's house has the town of Rugby obscuring its view of the Avon. Amongst other things.
- This daft idea made it into the film Anonymous (2011) where the filmmakers were obliged to turn Oxfordian theory into coherent narrative↩
- Looney was an early Comtean, a cultish religious sect which worshipped human excellence. Shakespeare was one of their totems.↩