Reviewing Bate and Rasmussen’s William Shakespeare and Others: Collaborative Plays has got me thinking about the Authorship Question again, and the variety of forms it takes, all the way from attribution studies to conspiracy theories. I was struck over the weekend by the use of “orthodox” in a hostile review of the book, as a term applied to those, like Bate and Rasmussen, who ascribe Shakespeare’s plays to the historical figure William Shakespeare. (I appreciate that calling them “Shakespeare’s plays” sounds as if I’m stacking the deck, but I’m unclear how else to refer to the works in question, and “Shakespeare” almost always comes with quotation marks around this blog. Just wait til I get to suggesting that we should use gender-neutral pronouns when referring to Shakespeare…) “Orthodox” is an intriguing term because it once again involves borrowing religious language to describe the production, reception and discussion of Shakespeare. (See also “Bardolatry”, “lectio Shakespeareana”, my ongoing study of Shakespeare and Biblical Studies, etc.)
I think this is not only a reflection of the register in which the Shakespeare texts are discussed (when the book being fought over is claimed by some to reveal transhistorical and universal truths the vocabulary inevitably gets amped up) but an attempt to cast the debate in a particular mould. If the Shakespeare Institute and the Royal Shakespeare Company are “orthodox”, then those challenging them can be presented as iconoclastic, free-thinking and radical reformers. Maybe they’re Luther, or the Cathars or even Galileo. St. Galileo of the Paradigm Shift is often to be found hanging around discussions in which a small group of dissenters challenge a large and entrenched intellectual consensus. The literal meaning of orthodoxy (“right belief”) isn’t being invoked, but rather a heroic scenario in which institutional might is brought to bear on the lone figure speaking truth to power. This “heretical script”, as we might call it, is one of the central dramas in which various forms of modernism arrange their understanding of themselves and their relationship to the surrounding world, as the cultural historian Peter Gay has argued in Modernism: The Lure of Heresy.
Managing to put those scholars who believe that Shakespeare wrote the plays traditionally gathered under his name (though they might advise we rethink what “write”, “gathered” and “name” mean) under the label of “orthodoxy” goes quit some way to legitimating the arguments of those who suggest Bacon, Oxford or another candidate for the titlepage. Alongside the heretical drama it implies that institutional forces are more the cause of the academic consensus than independent personal opinions. It is hinted that scholars wishing to get on are forced to toe the line and quash their own doubts until they come to believe the orthodoxy they parrot.
At its most conspiracist this implies an organized suppression of dissident voices, at its most reasonable it points to a sociology of knowledge in which models of understanding and interpretative communities hinder the truth from emerging. Orthodoxy, this suggests, has its own logic, its own internal organization and its own momentum, which do not rely on individual acts of will or judgement, but keep the whole juggernaut rolling unless someone fearlessly challenges it. (In fact I happen to think their sociology of knowledge is totally mistaken, since academic life thrives on disagreement and controversy to fuel its conferences and publications.)
However, calling the academic and theatrical establishment “orthodoxy” calls attention to something rather puzzling in the arguments of those who present the Oxfordian or Baconian case. “Orthodoxy” (“right belief”) is opposed to “heresy” or “heterodoxy” (“self-chosen belief” and “different belief” respectively), but it is also frequently contrasted with “orthopraxy” (“right action). Disagreements over “doxa” have often arisen from differences in “praxis”, if only because beliefs are embedded in actions, practices, and relationships. (Indeed many theologians trace the origin of Christian doctrine to the attempts to articulate what early Christians thought they meant when they worshipped Christ.)
Galileo and Luther didn’t simply protest at particular propositional statements, but at the actions which those statements circumscribed. This is where the anti-Stratfordian position seems to lack depth: if the attribution of Shakespeare’s plays to Shakespeare is an orthodoxy, then they have their varieties of heterodoxy. They believe that Bacon, Oxford or someone else wrote the works. But what heteropraxy do they offer? How would a Royal Bacon Theatre Company perform the works differently? What would a show at Oxford’s Globe look like? How would a book like Sackville and Ovid differ from the equivalent with Shakespeare in the title, and how would that shift our recitation of the words?
It shouldn’t be difficult to demonstrate the difference: small Shakespeare theatre companies frequently spring up, and there is a wonderfully rich world of Shakespearean performance, reading, discussion and practice which takes place beyond the possible control of “orthodoxy”. A De Vere Stage Company ought not to be too hard to organise, especially in a theatrical culture which has been used to looking to fringe groups for its new ideas ever since the 1890s. A Bacon Reading Club would take no time at all to put together, and if radical new understandings emerged from a Baconian performance then “orthodoxy” would hurry to take notice. (If only because of the heroic narratives of struggling heroes like William Poel which still shape the historiography of Shakespeare Studies.)
But I have not come across proposals for this sort of institution, or for a radical reassessment of practice which would flow from the realignment of the field with another name at its head. The “heterodoxies” of the anti-Stratfordians, which are posed against the “orthodoxy” of academic and theatrical institutions, don’t seem substantial enough to undertake this kind of project. Far from being an iconoclastic force which would set everything on its head if their ideas were entertained, they seem not nearly radical enough. “Orthodoxy” may be a tempting term to use to define one’s opponents in debate, but it might also show up the thinness and the narrow scope of anti-Stratfordian “heresy”.