Shakespeare is Secure

Miss Judy Woodruff
Frontline
c/o WGBH
125 Western Avenue
Boston, Massachusetts 02134

Dear Miss Woodruff:

As a long time admirer of you and of Frontline I write in sorrow and regret to register my strong disapproval of the treatment accorded the question of Shakespearean authorship in your recent program, The Shakespeare Mystery. A matter easily susceptible of common-sense investigation and conclusion was treated instead with all the earnest irrationality of a medieval discussion of angels on the head of a pin. I am afraid that Frontline may have seriously damaged its reputation for sound and solid analytical reporting.

Let me explain my own claim to having some knowledge of the subject. I taught English Literature for almost fifty years before my retirement in 1983. More than forty years ago I undertook a thorough study of the anti-Stratfordians. I had no preconceived notions of where my investigation might lead and no emotional investment in the person called William Shakespeare (1564-1616) of Stratford-on-Avon. I did not then, and do not now, have the slightest interest on personal grounds in arguing the claims of one proposed author rather than another. Indeed, I thought at first that with all the smoke pouring from the chimneys of the doubters there must be a fire somewhere. I read a vast body of material on the subject (nobody could read it all) from William Henry Smith to Delia Bacon to Ignatius Donnelly to Nathaniel Holmes to the Ogburns (Charlton, Sr. and his wife Dorothy, and their son Charlton, Jr., the Charlton Ogburn who appeared on your program).

In determining authorship of any work, whether of a Greek classic, an Elizabethan play, a Romantic poem, or a modern novel, the techniques are pretty much the same. One looks for identifications on title pages of books or manuscripts, for comments by contemporaries, for what appears in the historical record (such as, for sixteenth and seventeenth century books, The Register of the Stationers Company). I don't want to expand on what can be a complex subject. Let me say only that, like every other disinterested investigator who has looked into the matter, I concluded that William Shakespeare was indeed the author of the works generally attributed to him. The evidence for his authorship is as complete and sound as the evidence that John Milton wrote Paradise Lost or that Mark Twain wrote Huckleberry Finn. If, on the evidence, we deny Shakespeare the authorship of his works then we must, to be fair and consistent, deny Milton's and Mark Twain's claims also. The conclusion that Shakespeare is The Author is not one that is made tentatively, as a mere likelihood or probability, as the best that one can do in the face of insufficient evidence. Rather it is one that is made with absolute certainty. All the evidence relating to authorship points to the Stratford Shakespeare and him alone. There is no evidence of any kind pointing to anyone else, as your program clearly demonstrated.

I respectfully suggest, Miss Woodruff, that if you take another look at a tape of your program you will discover that the Oxfordian stars of the show do not present any evidence of any kind for Oxford's authorship. When the smoke and mirrors are removed you will find that they have nothing but emotional rhetoric on their side. Oxford cannot be shown to be The Author merely because one wishes he were. If you will apply the simple conventional rules of proof by which to determine the authorship of literary works (anybody's, not just Shakespeare's) I think you will find that in your program not a single piece of evidence is adduced that connects Oxford in any way with Shakespeare's works. We are not faced with a question of choice, of how to decide between two equal but conflicting claims. No person trained in the evaluation of evidence could find any justification for the pretensions of the Oxfordians (or for that matter of the Baconians or the Dyerians or any other of the many claimants).

You may ask why, if this is so, the anti-Stratfordian movement has persisted for so long. I addressed the question twenty-five years ago in an essay I wrote for the Union College Symposium on the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's birth. I enclose a copy for your amusement and, I hope, edification. Mr. Charlton Ogburn, Jr. (he has since dropped the Jr.) was so infuriated by the article that he threatened to sue me and Union College but decided not to. The President of Union's Board of Trustees, a distinguished lawyer, was eager to have the case tried in court. In his most recent book, The Mysterious William Shakespeare: The Myth and the Reality (New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1984), Ogburn takes some pot shots at me and my article, but it is significant that he does not meet any of the objections I raised there, and that his book, a long one like This Star of England (written by his parents), is as free of evidence as theirs was. In the years since that article was published I have found no reason to change my view about the source of anti-Stratfordianism; indeed events since have strengthened it.

One of the qualities I found in the anti-Stratfordians (see my article) is their "preternatural persuasiveness." They can make people believe almost anything by the sheer power of their rhetoric and emotion. They would make wonderful second-hand car salesman, and indeed what they sold the producers of your show was little more than the intellectual equivalent of a second-hand car. The main speaker on your program slanted everything in favor of the Oxfordians. To cover his rear he suggested the evidence for Shakespearean authorship, but buried it in the middle of the program in about seventy seconds, then simply moved back to the Oxfordian rhetoric and never made the simple point that he failed to present any evidence of Oxford's connection with the plays, that in terms of evidence the Stratford Shakespeare holds all the cards and Oxford none. Even in the choice of advocates the program was slanted, perhaps unintentionally but effectively. Professor Rowse may be a distinguished Oxford Don, but he is also a petulant and abrasive man, not likable even when he speaks the truth. He spent most of his time calling his opponents names rather than demolishing their arguments. Professor Schoenbaum is the most distinguished of Shakespearean biographers whose own works demonstrate Stratfordian authorship quite convincingly, but I think even he will acknowledge that television is not his most effective medium. The average viewer, the "man in the street," probably came away from that show with the feeling that there really was a question about who wrote Hamlet when in fact there is none.

One of the other devices involved in the smoke and mirrors was the use of the professional actor solemnly intoning Hamlet's dying plea to Horatio, given at the beginning of the program, and repeated ad nauseam. By its propinquity to emotional utterances by Ogburn, the viewer is led to believe that the passage refers to Oxford's desire to have his authorship known. But --if we want to assign secret meanings to ordinary passages in drama-- it could just as easily be Sir Francis Bacon or Queen Elizabeth who is asking for recognition. Nothing connects Oxford with the passage, nor does the program demonstrate that it does; it merely suggests darkly. Actually, of course, Hamlet spoke the lines in a play to another dramatic character, lines necessary to the drama, as they explain how the inside story of Hamlet's family life came to be known so it could be written about. It makes sense just as it is; it requires no extraneous interpretation --and no interpretation can be shown to have any connection with Oxford.

What the Oxfordians lack and desperately seek is something, anything, that can give respectability and credibility to their cause. If on the title page of some Shakespearean work, a play or a poem or the Sonnets, there appeared the words "By Oxford," or "By the Seventeeenth Earl"; if in the Stationers Register Oxford's name was connected, however indirectly, to any of Shakespeare's works; if in a manuscript in the Library of the British Museum, which has scores of thousands of Elizabethan and Jacobean manuscripts, there was even one that named Oxford in connection with a Shakespearean work, we would all have to sit up and take notice. No such book or manuscript or record has ever been found, not one. The respectability which the Oxfordians could not win on the merits of their argument they have now been handed free by the producers of Frontline.

The absence of logical consistency on this program is another of its defects, though again not easily noticed by the Man in the Street. The Oxfordians, who detest the country bumpkin from the shabby little town of Stratford, make much of the fact that this mean little money-grubber didn't even mention the manuscripts of the plays in his will. (He didn't own the manuscripts, but that's another subject and is neither here nor there). But if Oxford was the Author, why didn't he, with his vast wealth and influence, preserve the manuscripts among his possessions and mention them in his will? Why find fault with a poor little country boy for not doing what a powerful earl failed to do?

One could go on and on, which is precisely what the anti-Stratfordians want one to do, throwing dust in people's eyes and blinding them to the fact that they have not been able to dispose of Shakespeare's formidable and convincing claims of authorship of his own works. If you reexamine the program you will discover that their only argument against Stratfordian authorship is that a simple boy from a country town couldn't have written such magnificent works -- just as Mark Twain (in his upbringing the American equivalent of Shakespeare), with little education (he didn't go to Harvard as Mr. Ogburn did) could not possibly have written so sophisticated a work as The Mysterious Stranger and as John Keats, who never went to Oxford or any other respectable school and who never lived in medieval times, could not possibly have written The Eve of St. Agnes.

And, finally, I deeply regret your own closing remarks, which I am sure were provided for you by the fellow who wrote the show. After an hour of a program demonstrating that the anti-Stratfordians have nothing on their side, you then appear on camera to make the remarkable statement that we still don't know who really wrote the plays and the poems, that no "smoking gun" has yet appeared. Yet the clear and documented evidence for the Stratford Shakespeare is the equivalent of a 16-inch cannon; the Oxfordians have not even a cork popgun. I think you will discover on reflection that there is no justification for the unfortunate words with which you ended the program. And the words you were given to speak at the beginning were equally misleading. You said that "since Shakespeare's death in 1616 more than 4,000 books" had been written questioning his authorship; you neglected to say (and perhaps you didn't know) that the first of these was not written until a hundred and fifty years after his death. During his lifetime and for a century and a half afterward no one questioned that Shakespeare was the author.

My worry is that Frontline may have done itself irreparable damage. Shakespeare is secure. He has never been in real danger and is in none now, but Frontline has always been regarded as a program that discusses matters of broad intellectual interest from a scientific, rational, and common-sense point of view. The subject of anti-Stratfordianism is certainly an important one since it interests so many people, but Frontline treated it as if it were a serious intellectual position rather than what it is. One might expect such treatment on 20/20 or the Geraldo Rivera Show, but not on Frontline. There are many Flat Earthers too, but would Frontline devote an hour to discussing their arguments so seriously and leave the reader with dark suspicions that there really is something to their claims, that there is no "smoking gun" to prove the earth round?

With admiration for your work, and with regret for having felt compelled to write this letter, I am,

Sincerely yours,

William M. Murphy

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