I disagree that our program was unfair

May 6, 1989

Audrey J. Monahan
376 South Ballas Road
St. Louis, MO 63122

Dear Ms. Monahan,

I was the reporter of the Frontline documentary The Shakespeare Mystery. Because your letter April 21 criticizing that program was so detailed, Frontline has asked me to respond.

You charge that we who produced the program failed to steep ourselves in the history of Shakespeare's time. Although we spent months doing that, it's true that we are not experts. That's why we relied on people who are experts on the subject to guide us and do most of the talking. I hope you're not suggesting that only experts, only scholars, should get involved in this controversy. One of the great things about Shakespeare, it seems to me, is that anybody can enjoy the works. And the same is true of the mystery surrounding the authorship.

You're right about our giving more time and emphasis to DeVere than to the Stratford man. DeVere's story is new to most people. It was bound to be the focal point of the program. Also, more information -- and more interesting information -- is available about him than the Stratford man. There is simply more story to tell. And the program was, after all, a story, not a debate. We tried to make it as factually accurate as we could, but it was, nonetheless, a story.

You're also right that we didn't offer any evidence that DeVere was involved with theaters or theater people. Ample evidence was available that he sponsored at least two acting companies and was involved with the Blackfriars and probably the Globe theaters. And his guardian, Lord Burghley, complained about his consorting with "lewd people," meaning actors. Regrettably, all this was left out of the program because we simply didn't have the time to get everything in. We tried to include the strongest arguments-- on both sides of the question-- but it takes much more than an hour to cover everything in this complex issue.

Your contention that "more than fifty men alluded to Shakespeare as author in his own time" is puzzling, because your short list of examples includes Hemminge, Condell, and Burbage. The only references to Shakespeare by Hemminge and Condell that I know of occurred seven years after his (the Stratford man's) death. And I haven't heard anything written about Shakespeare by Burbage. Perhaps you have new information. But, more to the point, everyone concedes that the name William Shakespeare was connected to the plays and poems almost from the beginning (although, for several years the plays were published anonymously). The only question is whether the author "Shakespeare/Shake-speare" was Shaksper/Shakspere of Stratford or a pseudonym for somebody else. And while you may be right that nobody questioned the authorship for two hundred years, it appears that nobody thought about it much one way or the other for about 150 years, when actor David Gerrick noticed the monument in Stratford and started promoting it.

You criticized our giving time to the various spellings of the name. Presumably you meant the signatures. We gave it only four words. About two seconds. By itself the spelling is not proof of anything. Merely a little piece of evidence. But surely worth two seconds. The absence of manuscripts is similarly not proof, only another piece of evidence. You suggest that our placing any importance at all on the manuscripts betrays our ignorance. But note that the editors of "The First Folio" also place importance on their having the "true manuscripts" to work from.

Your point that "the Grammar School at Stratford" was not the grammar school of today is an interesting one and a familiar theme of Shakespeare biographers. It seems to imply that that old school was better than today's -- one teacher in one room, very few books, teaching several different grades at once. You may be right. But it does stand the idea of educational progress on its head, doesn't it?

We plead total innocence to a couple of your charges -- that we shouldn't have criticized Shakespeare's will for not being "literary," and shouldn't have made wealth a prerequisite to being an author. Not only was the program free of such opinions, I've never heard anyone else make those points. On the contrary, on the subject of wealth, the Stratford man's obvious interest in it and some of his methods of accumulating it seem at odds with the works and the apparent philosophy of their author.

Nor did the program raise the claim that the author must have been a member of the aristocracy because those folks are naturally talented. The doubts over the Stratford man on this score are due to the fact that virtually all Shakespeare's central characters are royalty or members of the nobility; the plays have an aristocratic viewpoint, with commoners relegated to roles as clowns and boobs, with very few exceptions. It seems natural to assume from that that the author knows and cares more about the nobility than he does about commoners. Again, it isn't proof, only another piece of evidence.

You seem to be scolding us for not giving genius its due. I think we did. The point was given heavy emphasis in the program.

Most of all, I dispute your repeated assertions that we were wrong and unfair to use scenes of people weeping or otherwise giving way to emotion. Even if we had wanted to present this controversy as a dry, prosaic debate, it wouldn't have worked, because that isn't what it is. Those who are most deeply involved --on both sides-- are passionate about it. Like it or not, this is an issue which affects some people on a deep, human level. And -- keeping in mind that we're talking about Shakespeare here -- surely you wouldn't begrudge our showing some true, human emotion.

All of which is not to say that you don't make some potent arguments. One I agree with is that "DeVere's poetry [under his own name] betrays his lack of quality." Although the poetry is similar to some of the themes and rhythm of Shakespeare, to my untrained ear, it simply doesn't sound good enough to be Shakespeare, even in his learning years. But then, people who know a lot more about it than I say that some of the early comedies of Shakespeare are no better.

Your letter was very thoughtful and gave me a lot to think about. I appreciate getting it. It illustrates to me how stimulating this whole controversy is. Although I disagree that our program was unfair, I concede that it only covered a little bit of the subject. If it aroused people's curiosity enough to make them dig deeper, then, I hope you'll agree, it was worthwhile. I think the person who reads the best literature on this issue with an open mind --Schoenbaum, Honigman, Looney, Ogburn (not just the rebuttals to their books, but the books themselves) --will find that there are crucial unanswered questions on both sides, and that only a leap of faith can make anyone certain that either man is the true author.

Thanks for writing.


Al Austin

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