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Honoring Truth: An interview with Jonathan Bate
photo of bate Jonathan Bate is one of Britain's leading Shakespeare scholars and the most eloquent of the Stratfordians in Michael Rubbo's documentary "Much Ado About Something." Here, in a Web-exclusive FRONTLINE interview, Bate offers his perspective on what's at stake in the authorship question and why he believes it has persisted. This is serious business to Bate. Asked why the authorship question matters, he replies, "Partly it's to do with honoring truth, honoring fact. And, you know, without being melodramatic about it, you deny the reality of Shakespeare one moment, you can deny the reality of the Holocaust the next."

Bate is the King Alfred Professor of English Literature at the University of Liverpool, and a former Fellow of Trinity Hall, Cambridge. He is the author of Shakespeare and Ovid (1993), The Genius of Shakespeare (1997), and The Oxford Illustrated History of Shakespeare on Stage (2001), and is general editor of the new Oxford history of English literature. He has held visiting posts at Harvard, Yale, the University of California, and the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C. Bate spoke with FRONTLINE's Wen Stephenson on Nov. 27, 2002.

What do you make of the Shakespeare authorship controversy as a phenomenon itself?

As you know from having read the chapter in The Genius of Shakespeare, and also the more recent piece in the collection on the purported Shakespeare portrait [Shakespeare's Face, 2002], I am very interested in this as a cultural and historical phenomenon. And for me, it tells us a lot about the kind of cult status of Shakespeare. All religions have many different sects, and they usually have heresies and various extremities within them. And since the 18th century there has been a quasi-religious cult of Shakespeare, and also in modern times there's a way in which literature and the cultural icons of the past have almost become a substitute religion. So I think it's bound to be the case that where Shakespeare is like a religion, where there is a cult, there is bound to be some kind of heresy spinning off from that. So for me, the really interesting aspect of it is to ask the question: when did people start asking these questions about whether the man from Stratford wrote the plays?

Right. It's not a new or recent phenomenon.

It's not new or recent, but it wasn't a question that occurred to anybody in Shakespeare's own lifetime, or for nearly two hundred years after his death. What we find is that it begins to be a question in the 19th century, which is at the time that Shakespeare has become a cult figure, he's become widely regarded as the greatest author that has ever been, he's become a kind of god. It seems to me that's the key point to grasp about this whole issue -- that it's an off-shoot, or what a philosopher would call an epiphenomenon, of the cult of Shakespeare. And this is something -- the deification of Shakespeare, that transformation of him into a sort of god -- which you really see beginning in the 18th century, fully a hundred and fifty years after his death.

What do you think of pursuing the authorship question as a legitimate literary-historical inquiry?

Well, it's not a legitimate inquiry at all, because it's entirely dependent on evidence that isn't there, it's entirely dependent on a conspiracy theory. And frequently, it's dependent on beliefs about hidden codes or messages, or cryptograms, or coded references within literary works, when there is no evidence whatsoever from the period that people writing literary works used codes and hidden references of that sort.

One of the great arguments that the so-called anti-Stratfordians have is how could Shakespeare have known so much about, say, the life of the court, or what Italy was like, when he wasn't a courtier? But, in fact, none of the professional dramatists of that period were courtiers, and you see more about the life of the court or, say, the life of Italy, in various other dramatists, but nobody has ever found hidden references within their works.

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The key point to grasp about this whole issue [is] that it's an off-shoot, or an epiphenomenon, of the cult of Shakespeare.

So the whole debate really stems from a profound ignorance about the nature of the literary and dramatic culture of the time. I mean, anybody doing serious research in the period will very quickly see a huge pile of evidence that Shakespeare was very, very deeply involved with the life of the theater. Whereas the various aristocratic candidates that have been put forward -- Lord Bacon was the first one and the Earl of Oxford is currently the most popular one -- they came from a completely different world and had a completely different kind of preoccupation when they were writing.

Because Marlowe was a professional man of the theater, it's in that sense that Marlowe is the one sort of theoretically plausible candidate, at a kind of stylistic level. But the evidence that he was actually killed in that brawl is incontrovertible. You know, the coroner's inquest is there.

It seems you're saying that there's a sort of "presentism" in the authorship question. In The Genius of Shakespeare you refer to a backward projection of this Romantic idea of authorship and of genius.

Yes, because actually all the theories do that. I mean, the Marlowe theory has him somewhere in exile in Italy sitting alone in a room, writing these brilliant works, and then some messenger would have passed them to the acting company and fubbed them off as being by Shakespeare.

But what all that stems from is this idea that emerged in the Romantic period of the 19th century, the image of the writer as the solitary genius, the idea of the work of art springing fully formed from the pure imaginative invention of the writer. And there's an idea of the writer with his blank bit of paper, and that's the sacred scene of origin of the literary work. But if you actually start looking at the historical records we have of the theater in Shakespeare's lifetime, in fact it wasn't like that at all. It was a profoundly collaborative activity. For instance, Shakespeare wrote particular parts for particular actors, because sometimes instead of putting the name of the character he puts the name of the actor. And you can actually see in his plays, there's always a role for the clown, and he knows who the clown is, there's a role for the actor who specialized in playing the older man -- the councilor, the Polonius figure.

It was a repertory theater.

Exactly. It is a repertory theater. Shakespeare is actually, you know, he's a shareholder, he's working with the twelve fellow shareholders and actors.

And then there's also lots of evidence that the norm for dramatic writing at that time involved various forms of collaboration and teamwork. This is why, in its way, Shakespeare in Love was quite a good film, because it played on the analogy between the Elizabethan theater and modern Hollywood, where you've got the money men, the actors up against deadlines, and all that. And just as in Hollywood, always the script would have several people working it over, so the norm for the production of plays at that time was a collaboration between a number of dramatists.

And we know that some of Shakespeare's plays, particularly his early plays and his late ones, were indeed written as collaboration. So, for instance, towards the end of his career, he's deciding he's going to retire, his last three plays, two of which survive, one of which doesn't, were very closely co-written with a dramatist named John Fletcher, who subsequently took over from Shakespeare as the company dramatist for the King's Men.

But obviously, if you have the sort of fantasy of Marlowe away in Italy, or the Earl of Oxford off at his estate, writing the play and just giving it to the company, that completely fails to take into account this collaborative nature of creativity at the time.

You're not saying, though, that there isn't a strong individual, authorial genius in the plays.

Right, I'm certainly not saying that. And what's striking about Shakespeare is that he was really -- although except particularly early in his career and then toward the end of his career he writes a number of collaborative plays -- for the great bulk of his career he is actually the person who breaks that mold.

So what you're talking about is actually more the perception of authorship at the time, how the audience thought of authorship?

That's right, and you know, the dramatists -- in terms of the audience perception at the time -- the dramatist was very much secondary to the play and the playing company.

Where do you see the postmodernists in the authorship debate? If one accepts that there is some uncertainty, some indeterminacy, in the authorship, one would think that that would appeal to the postmodern types, wouldn't you?

Yeah, except that I think actually, in a way, it's almost the reverse that's happened. The postmodern idea that, in a sense, the author has no control over the text, that the text sort of floats free, and the meaning of the text is its consumption rather than its production, as it were -- you know, that the text is constantly being remade, first through a process of multiple agencies of production, and then multiple agencies of consumption and reinterpretation down the ages -- all that goes back to this kind of Parisian 1960s idea of the "death of the author." But of course the effect of that among postmodernist scholars is that they cease to be interested in the author as an individual agent. They say either the text is written by the social forces of the age, which is sort of the ideological version of postmodern theory, or they say the text is written by its successive interpretations, which is the deconstructionist view. Each way, there ceases to be an interest in the author as an individual persona.

And this means that a lot of academic criticism has vacated the whole area of biography, individual genius, and so on. And it seems to me it's left this gap, which has allowed the amateur sleuths, the eccentrics, the obsessives, to seize the ground, in terms of public perception. And so it is that very, very few academics that I know are remotely interested in the "Shakespeare authorship question." Whereas everybody I ever meet, like a taxi driver, who asks me what I do, and I say I'm a Shakespeare scholar, sooner or later they say, "Well, did he write the plays, then?"

I mean, I don't want to get on a high horse about this, but I think there is an abnegation of scholarly responsibility on the part of many of my colleagues in the profession, because, you know, history does exist, and the fact is that the man from Stratford was a flesh and blood man who did write the plays.

The anti-Stratfordians point to the large Shakespeare "industry" that revolves around Stratford and the figure of William Shakespeare. And yet it seems that the authorship question has spawned a kind of cottage industry of its own -- and it may be outgrowing the cottage. Do you think that the authorship controversy can be seen, or read, as a kind of symptom or metaphor of something larger going on within our culture? Is it representative of our moment, in a way?

I think that's a very good question. Maybe it's popular for the same reason that The X-Files is popular.

In a way there is a little bit of a relationship to postmodernism here. The thing with postmodernism is it's to do with chaos and anything-goes, isn't it? I remember once seeing a TV documentary about Madonna which said, "She partakes of that great phenomenon known as postmodernism, which we might otherwise call 'shopping.'" And there is, in all of culture -- because of the Internet and the mass media and everything -- you know, the whole of culture is now like a supermarket where you just go along and pick what you want off the shelf. And a sense of the values and hierarchies in culture, the distinction between high culture and low, for instance, between what endures and what is ephemeral, in many ways has gone. So there is this kind of free-for-all. And there's a constant bombardment -- through the 150 television channels, through the media, through print, through everything -- there's this huge bombardment of information and choice, and a lack of certainty.

And I think one of the ways people respond to that -- respond to simply the chaos of modernity, or postmodernity -- is to say, well, somebody behind the scenes is pulling the strings, there is a mystery behind things. Whether it's a secret group of Jews controlling the world economy, or whether it's secret information about UFO sightings held by the U.S. military. And so I think the idea of this great conspiracy surrounding the Shakespeare industry is -- looking back to the past, to cultural history -- it is sort of the equivalent of that. Does that make sense?

The other thing about it is that people who actually do historical scholarship -- or textual scholarship, literary theory, whatever -- we always note that we will never find the answer from the past. That we're always having to piece together bits and pieces of evidence, we will develop new arguments, and to some extent our arguments will be determined by our own cultural moment, and the debate will roll on.

What's behind the Shakespeare authorship controversy is this kind of dream that one day it might be possible decisively to prove that there has been this huge mistake, this huge conspiracy. And some magical new piece of evidence will come forward -- you know, the smoking gun, as it were -- which will prove and give us firm incontrovertible evidence. But of course it will never happen, because historical documentation just doesn't work like that.

There also seems to be, within mainstream culture, a tremendous surge of interest in biography. There's the whole memoir phenomenon, autobiography, but also some of the most popular books on the bestseller lists are biographies. And I wonder if, again, this shows the divide between the academy and the larger culture? Is the authorship controversy, in a way, also about a preference for biography over art, in this case the plays and poems?

Yes, I think it's very striking that in the last 20 years, the more professional, academic study of literature has more and more concentrated on the social contexts for literary creation, the sort of formal properties of literary works, and has really had remarkably little to say about the idea of the individual artist and the individual genius. Terms like "genius" are treated with great suspicion by most professional critics. I mean, when I wrote that book called The Genius of Shakespeare, it was a deliberately provocative title. And most serious postmodernist critics immediately dismissed the book without even opening it -- although what I was trying to do, in fact, in that book, was partly tell a history of the word "genius" and the way that Shakespeare has a central role in that history.

But in culture more generally, I suppose mainly because we are such a celebrity-driven culture, and because we do like stories of heroic individuals, there is, as you say, a great vogue for biography. And tremendously good biographies get written.

Yet there's a problem there, I think, and again this goes back to the Romantic idea of authorship. I think there's a particular problem applying biography to Shakespeare, because the surviving evidence from the period is pretty scant. I mean, the only people from Shakespeare's time of whom it's possible to write exciting biographies are kings and queens, like Elizabeth I, or very senior aristocrats, like, say, Sir Walter Ralegh, for whom plenty of evidence survives. For anybody of the middle classes, let alone the lower classes, the evidence for writing exciting biography simply doesn't survive from that period. Things like letters and journals -- which is why we have brilliant biographies of later writers, like Samuel Taylor Coleridge or Dickens, or Dr. Johnson, because of the letters, conversations, and journals that survive -- until the 18th century, people weren't really interested in preserving the letters and journals and conversations of authors. And so people want there to be an exciting biography of Shakespeare, but --

If only he had had a Boswell.

Exactly, but since he didn't, then you get the authorship controversy people coming along, and sort of inventing a biographical thriller, involving the hidden identity of the so-called other author.

Does it really matter to you "who wrote Shakespeare"?

Yeah, it does. Whereas, I think, a lot of the more postmodern critics, someone like Marjorie Garber, will probably say no, it doesn't.

So how do you answer the question, Why does it matter?

Partly it's to do with honoring truth, honoring fact, which it seems to me we have a historical duty to do. And, you know, without being melodramatic about it, you deny the reality of Shakespeare one moment, you can deny the reality of the Holocaust the next. I mean, that's the melodramatic answer. A conspiracy theory about the "Shakespeare industry," a conspiracy theory about the "Holocaust industry." It's the responsibility of scholarship to examine evidence -- and, okay, fact is always interpreted, the way we select fact is always value-laden, but history did happen, facts do exist, and we forget that at our peril. So that's a kind of moral argument.

And then I also think, at another level, it matters because the truth about Shakespeare, which is that he was someone from the provinces, from a sort of lower-middle-class background, with no university education -- though a decent grammar school education -- who still managed to achieve an extraordinary amount, that does seem to me, in its quiet way, to be a heroic story, a story that is worth admiring. It's like a story of an ordinary person making it into the White House. And the problem -- less with the Marlowe theory, but with the other ones, particularly the Earl of Oxford and the various other aristocratic theories that have really had a lot of currency, and really have more currency than the Marlowe theory -- is that they are so condescending and snobbish. The suggestion that you have to be a mighty aristocrat in order to write mighty works, I find that politically very offensive. So, you know, without meaning to be pompous, I have got a moral and a political argument there.

I guess I consider myself agnostic on the whole question. I'm willing to say that it's possible the man from Stratford didn't write the plays. But I feel that I have a sort of professional duty to remain agnostic.

Absolutely. For you, as a journalist, agnosticism is precisely the position that you should begin from.

But I have to say, as someone who has studied literature, part of it is simply that I'm unwilling to concede that who wrote the plays really does matter. To me, what matters is that there's a play called Hamlet. And it's the pleasure of reading the text, and seeing it performed, and the rewards of going back to the well again and again. So -- and I do have a question in all of this -- do you find the authorship controversy to be a distraction from the plays and poems?

Yeah, I do think that. And having said that it matters, I then would want to go on and say that what really matters is the text of Hamlet. And as I've suggested in the book, and in our discussion, there is a way in which I want to say Shakespeare is not the sole author of Hamlet. Going back to that idea of multiple agency and collaborative authorship, I'm convinced that his very close friend Richard Burbage, who was the first Hamlet on stage, contributed a very, very great deal to what Hamlet was. And there's another sense in which Shakespeare was only the partial author of Hamlet, in that he was rewriting an old play, unfortunately now lost, on the same theme. And we don't actually know for a fact which bits were Shakespeare's and which were in the old play. Whereas in King Lear we do, because we have the old play. And so what we see when we begin to look at the complexity of the text, and its production, and its history, its revisions, we precisely see that the individual author -- the guy from Stratford, the guy with the balding head -- is the most important agent, but he's by no means the only agent.

And indeed I would then want to go on to say that what makes the text important is its extraordinary capacity to go on speaking in new ways to new generations, in ways that Shakespeare the man would never have dreamed of. That's what the second half of my Genius of Shakespeare book is about. In the end, what we mean by the "genius of Shakespeare" is the "Shakespeare effect." It's not the guy who lived from 1564 to 1616, but the extraordinary effect that the works have had on millions and millions of readers and playgoers and other creative artists down the ages. But of course, in a way, that's quite a complicated idea. And I think part of the problem with this division between academic approaches and popular, is that that more complicated idea is quite difficult to put across in a world of soundbites.

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