Address to launch Peter McIntosh's 'Who Wrote Shakespeare's Sonnets?'

Hobart Bookshop, Thursday 26th May, 2011.


On doubt and science

Shakespeare is a god.

He is praised not only as the greatest writer in English but as “the greatest man who ever lived” by Lytton Strachey and as “the most influential man in history” by one of his contemporary biographers. For Thomas Carlyle Shakespeare was a “Saint of poetry”, for Henry Melville “a kind of deity”.

And like all gods, there is very little direct evidence that Shakespeare created the glittering works attributed to him. What we know of him is scant and inauspicious. His contemporaries hardly mention him. His acclaim was almost entirely posthumous.

This dearth of information about Shakespeare the man and author has opened the door to doubters and infidels of every stripe. Among Shakespeare’s defenders, nagging doubts about the Bard’s authorship have also generated a kind of fundamentalism, as doubt often does, that admits no inquiry into the issue and damns the inquirer.

Among the former group, the doubters of Shakespeare and believers in other gods like Bacon, Marlow or Oxford, we can count Henry James, Mark Twain , Sigmund Freud , Orson Welles , Derek Jacobi and many others.

Among the latter group, the fundamentalists, we can count many of experts who feel the issue is resolved and who wouldn’t be seen dead at an event like this.

I probably fall in between these two groups. Like other Shakespeare agnostics, weary of the debate, I have been known to ask “what does it matter who wrote Shakespeare?”.

Into this ever-bitter war of faith against doubt, heresy and know-nothingness strides Peter McIntosh.

In his new book on the authorship of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, Peter makes the point that his approach is about looking directly at the evidence without preconceptions, in line with his training and temperament as a scientist.

He writes,

if we selectively read or quote from the Sonnets to ‘prove’ a particular predetermined point of view, we run the risk of closing our minds to new information. For this reason we should not start with a theory, and then select and publish only the observations that support it, while ignoring those less favourable to the argument. Such an approach would be akin to a biblical creationist searching for evidence of Noah’s flood in the geological record, while ignoring the worldwide evidence of repeated marine inundations over many hundred million years. We should, as far as we are able, distance ourselves from the baggage of prior theories and, without being biased or selective, let all the events and personal comments recorded in the Sonnets speak for themselves.

He adds later,

Once all the sonnets have been examined for internal references to personal and historical events, a match can be attempted between this internal evidence and external evidence (the documented historical record) in order to construct a working hypothesis concerning who wrote the Sonnets and to whom they were addressed.

To the heretics Peter is effectively saying don’t automatically follow another god just because you’ve stopped believing in the conventional one.

To the fundamentalists I hear him saying, if its okay for scholars to question the authorship of Homer or Moses or the very existence of Jesus on the basis of scientific textual criticism – as they have been for over 200 years, why not Shakespeare?

To agnostics like me he says, yes, it does matter who wrote Shakespeare’s Sonnets, just like it matters whether the earth goes around the sun – it’s knowledge.

This will seem naïve to some.

For several decades it has been fashionable to maintain that there is no truth beyond the text.

But post-modernism is on the wane and the increasing number of critically-minded people who believe in objective truths should welcome the remarriage of science and literature Peter attempts.

There will also be scepticism from those Shakespeareans who maintain that authorship cannot be determined by Peter’s method of matching text to life because late Tudor authors never wrote autobiographically.

This anti-biographical position is an unrealistic one for Shakespeare’s Sonnets. They are so unusually intimate and personal. Wordsworth, Coleridge, Emerson and Wilde all read the Sonnet’s biographically. So do contemporary Shakespeare experts like Stephen Greenblatt . Why shouldn’t we?

Finally, there will be those who quietly dismiss Peter’s enterprise for no other reason than it is Tasmanian. To those people I say simply, where else do new and unconventional ideas take shape than at the periphery of humanity’s gaze.

Like all good attempts to solve mysteries, Peter’s book opens up yet more questions.

One is what we are to do with the widely-held belief, based on the gender of the Sonnets’ author’s lover, that Shakespeare was sexually attracted to men.

If Shakespeare didn’t write the Sonnets his name will have to be edited out of all those lists of “great gays in history”.

It’s not a little ironic that if this happens the man responsible is the accepting father of a gay son, and supportive husband of Els who has been a Tasmanian spokesperson for parents of gays.

But would the demise of gay Shakespeare be such a loss? Do we still need him to help us feel valuable and to highlight the hypocrisy of bigots?

If and when this champion of ours goes, it may not be such a bad thing that we are forced to rely more on ourselves.

Another question Peter raised for me is about collaboration.

The view that Shakespeare collaborated with other writers is popular today. The solitary artist-as-hero is out of fashion in this workshopped age.

Evidence for these collaboration has been gleaned from the subtle fault-lines between scenes allegedly penned by different authors in the same Shakespeare plays.

In light of Peter’s conclusions, and in light of the strange disjunctions between the Sonnets, a similar analysis of these poems might be productive.

Whatever we take from Peter’s work, whether we share his conclusions or not, his book demands to be taken seriously.

Although our so-called cultural leaders are not here to mark this launch and will probably not take notice of what Peter has said, he should have no doubt that far greater figures, from Wordsworth to Welles, are standing here now silently applauding his effort and audacity.

Also have no doubt that many others, whose fame and distinction lie far from here and now, will applaud once they have read what Peter has written.

I am of the firm belief this book, its method and its ideas will endure.

I commend it to you all.

Thank you.


RODNEY CROOME has advocated and written on a large range of LGBT and other issues. His comments on LGBT issues are frequently sought by the media. His columns appear regularly in the LGBT and mainstream publications, as do his essays on cultural and historical themes.