I recently read a fascinating new book by a longtime and well-known Columbia University Shakespeare scholar named James Shapiro. The book is titled Contested Will and traces the history of the claim that Shakespeare’s plays were not written by Shakespeare.
Shakespeare was a glover’s son with a grammar-school education, who came to London from a little provincial town called Stratford and achieved modest fame as an actor. His three-page will makes no mention of any of his plays or their doubtless valuable manuscripts (and we have not a scrap of such manuscripts). He bequeathed to his wife Anne Hathaway nothing but his “second best” bed.
The claim that Shakespeare could not have written those plays is certainly understandable. As one early scholar put it: “There is nothing in the writings of Shakespeare that does not argue the long and early training of the schoolman, the traveler, and the associate of the great and learned. Yet there is nothing in the known life of Shakespeare that shows he had any of these qualities.” Shapiro sums up this argument: “[There is] an unbridgeable rift between the facts of Shakespeare’s life and what the plays and poems reveal about the author’s education and experience.”
Among those convinced by such arguments were Sherlock Holmes, Mark Twain, Helen Keller, Sigmund Freud, Henry James, as well as some highly regarded living Shakespeare scholars. Mark Twain wondered about anyone who was “ignorant enough and stupid enough to go on believing Shakespeare ever wrote a play or a poem in his life.”
The conclusion was evident—that Shakespeare never wrote these towering works of art. The claim that he did was a “fantastic hoax,” perpetrated by the true author.
Especially interesting to BAR readers devoted to the Biblical text: The widely accepted view of critical Bible scholars who see the Pentateuch as consisting of at least four different authorial strands (denominated J, E, P and D) was used to buttress the argument that Shakespeare’s, too, must have been the work of more than one author.
A leading, if not the leading, candidate for the author of Shakespeare’s plays is Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford. He was clever, well educated, well traveled and “the events of his life bear a fascinating resemblance to events in Shakespeare’s plays.” Like Hamlet, Oxford’s father died young and his mother remarried. Like Lear, he had three daughters. Moreover, he was “nobly-born, highly cultivated, passionately wayward” and an intimate of Queen Elizabeth, rumored to be her son or her lover. He had reason not to be known as the author of these plays. Yet his life and outlook perfectly corresponded with what was in the plays.
Freud saw Hamlet’s neurosis, Lear’s madness, Macbeth’s defiance and Othello’s jealousy all in the psyche of Oxford.
Oxford died in 1604—before many of Shakespeare’s greatest plays (like Hamlet) were produced. But this didn’t stop the Oxfordians. These plays, although written before Oxford’s death, were not produced until later, according to the Oxfordians.
Shapiro summarizes the current state of the debate: “It seems like endless trench warfare.” Shapiro himself is “confident,” however, that Shakespeare did indeed write Shakespeare’s plays.
Regular BAR readers can probably see where I’m going. In a four-part article in our November/December 2009 issue, we considered the authenticity of a letter of Clement of Alexandria that purports to quote from a different Gospel of Mark (therefore the reference to the document as “Secret Mark”).a It was found by a great Columbia University scholar named Morton Smith who is now charged with having forged the letter. It was a kind of hoax, Smith’s detractors charge. He did it, essentially for the fun of it, to silently fool the world’s greatest scholars, even though, if he were caught, he would be drummed out of the corps in humiliation and his career and reputation would be forever ruined. Moreover, he deliberately planted clues in the forged document that he, Morton Smith, was actually the author who had forged it.
I admit the parallels are inexact, but the evidence against Smith sounds a lot like the evidence that Shakespeare could not have written the plays and that Edward de Vere did.
We retained a Greek handwriting authority who compared Smith’s Greek handwriting with that of the Clement letter. Not the same, was the verdict.
Based on the views of a number of leading scholars, we concluded that the Clement letter was not forged, that it was not Morton Smith’s hoax. But a number of other leading scholars had concluded otherwise. If we thought that our arguments would change anyone’s mind or that we had demonstrated that Morton Smith was not a forger, that only shows how poorly we understood the academic mind: The “trench warfare” involved in the Secret Mark controversy continues.
No one’s mind has changed. On the contrary, two distinguished scholars have, since our treatment in BAR, published articles on Secret Mark purportedly demonstrating that Morton Smith indeed forged the document.
The more exhaustive (not to say exhausting) is a 42-page document with 120 footnotes by Francis Watson of the University of Durham and published in the Journal of Theological Studies.1 Watson finds that the case against Smith has been proved “beyond reasonable doubt.” That is the strict standard of proof in a criminal case.
Watson relies primarily on two documents. The first is a “hostile” book review that Smith wrote in 1955, three years before he allegedly discovered Secret Mark at the Mar Saba monastery in the Judean desert south of Jerusalem. Smith’s review of this book suggests a scholarly analysis of Mark that would be quite precisely confirmed by Smith’s later discovery of Secret Mark. Smith’s discovery, in Watson’s words, “confirms Smith’s surmise” in the book review.
This book review has long been noted by Smith’s critics, including principal accuser Stephen Carlson in The Gospel Hoax,2 but they apparently did not see all of its detailed significance.
The second document on which Watson relies is a novel that seems to presage in extraordinary detail Smith’s experience at Mar Saba. Titled The Mystery of Mar Saba by James H. Hunter,3 it involves a forgery planted at Mar Saba that undermines Christianity; it is discovered by an archaeologist who comes from Jerusalem.
The coup de grâce is a comparison of two passages, one from the novel and the other from Morton Smith’s book. In the novel, the professor observes that “most of [the manuscripts] were removed [from Mar Saba], but I have always had the feeling that some might have been overlooked and hidden away. My supposition proved correct.”
In his book Morton Smith wrote: “I had not expected much from the Mar Saba manuscripts, since I knew that almost all of them had been carried off to Jerusalem … But there was always the chance that something had been missed.”
The novel had been noted earlier by Smith’s critics, including Stephen Carlson, but, says Watson, “It has not been adequately investigated [before].”
One of the pillars of Watson’s argument is the contention that Morton Smith buried in the document a reference to Morton salt, and thus his own name. (This argument was demolished in a BAR 066article,b but Watson does not mention it.) As Watson puts it, “The real author may secretly have signed his own work.” Actually, Watson goes further: Not only did he pun on Morton, he also secretly revealed his last name, Smith. Here’s how: The forged letter contains a Greek verb meaning “to forge.” The English “forge,” deriving from the Latin fabricare, can refer to metal objects that are forged by heating the metal, then hammering and stamping them. One who forges in this way is a smithy or smith—as in Morton Smith. This is just another confession by Smith that he is a forger.
I am sure I have not done justice to this formidable piece of detective scholarship. And some of its arcane scholarship is simply beyond my capacity to comprehend or appreciate. I must also report that my friends Craig Evans of Acadia Divinity College and Ben Witherington of Asbury Theological Seminary are highly impressed with Watson’s article. Indeed, Evans has written his own article on the subject following BAR’s four-part treatment of Secret Mark.4 He continues to view Secret Mark with “grave suspicions,” although he recognizes that “the evidence falls short of what is necessary for a conviction in a court of law.” Evans makes some of the same arguments as Watson, as well as others, concluding that “themes of interest to Professor Smith, as seen in his publications before the finding of the Clementine letter, are found in the [supposedly later discovered] Clementine letter.” Moreover, many of these “themes of interest” are peculiar to Morton Smith.
From Evans’s conclusion: “Before making his find at Mar Saba … [Smith] spoke of the mystery of the kingdom of God, secrecy, prohibited sexual relationships, and Clement of Alexandria. That this unusual combination of elements just happens to appear in a document that Smith himself found should serve as a warning that … we may well be dealing with a hoax.”
I guess the point is that people who think Morton Smith is a forger will still think that Morton Smith is a forger. And, pari passu, those who find Secret Mark to be authentic will never be convinced that it is a forgery—unless the original surfaces and the ink turns out to be modern.
The kind of evidence each relies on is different. The pro-forgery crowd looks to the telltale signs in the document that expose it: This could not be Clement, they say. Morton Smith was simply substantiating beliefs he held before he “discovered” the document at Mar Saba.
Smith’s defenders, myself included, cannot believe he would spend 15 years wrestling with the text in consultations with his scholarly mentors if he had forged it. They cannot believe he would forge a document that would, if discovered, ruin him for life. Or, worse still, that he would plant clues in the document identifying himself as the forger. Or that he had the ability to produce the 18th-century Greek handwriting in which the letter is written—and on and on.
Like the Shakespeare controversy, “Positions are fixed and debate has proven to be futile or self-serving.” In the end, Shapiro finds the Shakespeare debate “both impressive and demoralizing.” The same may be said of the Secret Mark debate.
I recently read a fascinating new book by a longtime and well-known Columbia University Shakespeare scholar named James Shapiro. The book is titled Contested Will and traces the history of the claim that Shakespeare’s plays were not written by Shakespeare. Shakespeare was a glover’s son with a grammar-school education, who came to London from a little provincial town called Stratford and achieved modest fame as an actor. His three-page will makes no mention of any of his plays or their doubtless valuable manuscripts (and we have not a scrap of such manuscripts). He bequeathed to his wife Anne Hathaway […]