In the News – Critical Thinking Skills and Oxfordians

Just a quick post about The Guelph Mercury’s article on the whole Oxfordian debate. Naturally, I’m happy to be in the news, so huzzah for that!  Always nice to see one’s name in print.  For the article itself, just follow the link below.

One of the things I find interesting about the reply of the Oxfordians to those who are trying to put this whole silliness to rest is the reliance on logical fallacies.  In reply to the idea that there are those who decry the whole debate as shoddy scholarship, one of a few fallacies come up time and again.

1) Strawman

A strawman argument is one in which a speaker sets up an opposing viewpoint that is more easily attacked than the actual viewpoint that his/her opponent holds.  It reduces the complexity or subtleties or evidentiary basis of the other side of a debate, and by virtue of the reduction, it provides ample opportunity for criticism. For instance, one of the planks of the Oxfordian thesis is that Shakespeare was barely literate – he didn’t spell his own name the same way twice!  Of course, that reduces the terms of the argument in that it bypasses the fact that spelling wasn’t standardized in the early modern period. Indeed, last names were more mobile than you would think, as genealogists can tell you.  Of course, the problem with the strawman is that this is exactly what Oxfordians say scholars of Shakespeare are doing to them, so it may perhaps be a bit of a “you aren’t listening to what I am saying” argument.

2) Ad Hominem

When you attack an interlocutor’s position based on their person, not their argument, you are engaging in ad hominem attacks.  The simplest form of it is to say “Tom believes X, but Tom is an idiot and smells like rotten eggs, so who would believe him?”  The difference in the Oxfordian debate is that the attack is aimed not at the substance of the Shakespearean argument (the mountain of evidence), but on the “fact” that those who hold that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare are professors who have so much to lose if they are proven wrong. They are at the top of the scholarly world and are greasing the pole beneath them to keep the poor Oxfordians down.


The fact is that I am not a professor.  I’m a sessional instructor and jobbing scholar. I’ve been brought in on projects specifically to act as an evaluator of evidence, to ensure that no one gets too ahead of themselves in terms of the burden of proof.  I have no permanent institutional affiliation.  Indeed, given the nature of the academic job market these days, I know that the cards are stacked against me ever becoming a professor.  Every year the academy produces far more PhDs than it can possibly employ and thus, merely based on statistics, I will be lucky if I end up employed anywhere in the academy in 5 years, let alone as a professor.

What I am trying to say is, I have no position to keep.
I don’t have benefits.
I don’t have institutional support.
I make less than a Starbucks employee. (Seriously, look it up.)

I do however care passionately about scholarship that isn’t riddled with fallacious reasoning and rhetorical smokescreens. If we let it go by in one case, it becomes easier to let it slip by in others. The Oxfordian thesis is without any basis and is riddled with logical errors. So go ahead, if you will attack me for caring about argumentation, but don’t for an instant suggest that I am one of the privileged few of the scholarly world.

3) Shifting the Burden of Proof

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Bertrand Russell was right. He pointed out, “nobody can prove that there is not between the Earth and Mars a china teapot revolving in an elliptical orbit, but nobody thinks it sufficiently likely to be taken into account in practice.” The Oxfordians seem to want the rest of us to take into account the teapot of Oxford’s authorship. Without any positive evidence in favour of Oxford that at the same time works to disprove William Shakespeare (i.e. without extraordinary evidence), they are merely bowing to a teapot.

Finally, though not actually a logical fallacy, I really have to ask:

4) Cui Bono?

If there is actual scholarship that suggests that, for instance, Shakespeare did not write Measure for Measure, then scholars are perfectly willing to hear it.  Indeed, we have. The latest Complete Works of Middleton by Gary Taylor (somewhat confusingly published by Oxford) makes the argument that Middleton wrote portions of that play.  Shakespeare didn’t work alone.  Indeed, yesterday The Guardian mentioned how Johnathan Bate is arguing in favour of sections of Arden of Faversham, Musedorus, and The Spanish Tragedy as being written by Shakespeare, based on stylistic analysis.

What I’m trying to say is that Shakespeare scholars long ago got over the idea that the plays were written by a single individual. Theatre practice at the time simply doesn’t hold with the individual genius working in the attic model of cultural production.  So if we’ve already moved past it to incorporate other playwrights and other theories, why are the Oxfordians still harping about Shakespeare?  To what end?  Who benefits?


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