The poster has a genealogy, and it’s instructive. Two years ago, the same theatre’s production of Romeo and Juliet was advertised as Shakespeare’s. But last year, the playhouse hosted an interview with Germany’s foremost Oxfordian, the publisher and essayist Kurt Kreiler, and after that interview, things changed. Kreiler’s book, Der Mann, der Shakespeare erfand (The Man who Invented Shakespeare), which largely rehearses the same arguments as the major Oxfordian publications in English, appeared in Germany last year, was widely reviewed, and received a very warm critical welcome. With academic Shakespeareans leaving the field largely to journalists, the “mystery-like” appeal of Kreiler’s narrative seemed to matter more than its credibility. And in the virtual absence of a serious scholarly dismantling of Kreiler’s arguments and assertions, they have begun to attain the kind of cultural authority that makes it possible for theatres to present Shakespeare’s plays as someone else’s without so much as an asterisk alerting audiences to the controversial nature of the claim.
All of which makes me think that we can’t afford to ignore the anti-Stratfordians anymore. Worse, it makes me think that it’s not enough to deconstruct the intellectual basis of their projects, as Shapiro did so brilliantly in Contested Will. I fear we will actually have to engage with what they consider evidence; we will have to explain, in venues and formats as popular and widely available as those used by the anti-Stratfordians, why their claims don’t make sense; and we will have to be much more robust in our presentation of the facts. I don’t find this an intellectually stimulating (let alone rewarding) prospect, nor do I think there are many constructive conversations to be had. I also don’t relish the thought of having to spend any of my time in the company of Charles Beauclerk’s writings. But if we don’t take part in the public discussion, if we don’t carefully detail our own position and debunk the supposedly skeptical point of view in as accessible a language and manner as the other side, we risk losing by default. Silence will be interpreted as defeat or, worse yet, consent.