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Was Shakespeare a Woman?

Summary:
‘Was Shakespeare a Woman?’ Elizabeth Winkler asks in the new issue of The Atlantic. Of course he was. If you believe that Shakespeare was not Shakespeare, but Francis Bacon, or Walter Raleigh, or the Earl of Oxford, or Christopher Marlowe, or even Emilia Bassano Lanier, then you have succumbed to a conspiracy theory. A pity that, given the public’s increasing willingness to believe anything, and some people’s increasing willingness to publish anything, that this conspiracy theory should be promulgated in The Atlantic, a magazine with a long, albeit lately abandoned, tradition of intelligent writing on literature. Since Shakespeare’s ascent to divinity in the 19th century, every generation has invented the Shakespeare it needs,

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‘Was Shakespeare a Woman?’ Elizabeth Winkler asks in the new issue of The Atlantic. Of course he was.

If you believe that Shakespeare was not Shakespeare, but Francis Bacon, or Walter Raleigh, or the Earl of Oxford, or Christopher Marlowe, or even Emilia Bassano Lanier, then you have succumbed to a conspiracy theory. A pity that, given the public’s increasing willingness to believe anything, and some people’s increasing willingness to publish anything, that this conspiracy theory should be promulgated in The Atlantic, a magazine with a long, albeit lately abandoned, tradition of intelligent writing on literature.

Since Shakespeare’s ascent to divinity in the 19th century, every generation has invented the Shakespeare it needs, even when the Shakespeare it needs is an anti-Shakespeare. Hence this fantasy of an anti-Shakespeare that inverts the pale, male ‘Stratfordian’ truth to invent a female, Jew-ish, black-ish proto-feminist daughter of immigrants.

There are always clicks to be made from trendiness and contrariness. But I was surprised to find that Elizabeth Winkler was making them. On April 22, she reviewed Shakespeare scholar Jonathan Bate’s How the Classics Made Shakespeare for The Wall St. Journal. She cited Bate’s use of the pronoun ‘he’ for Shakespeare without disagreement. She even described Shakespeare as a ‘country boy from Stratford-upon-Avon’, which is a traditional as it gets.

Now, less than a month later, Winkler doubts all of this — even though she admits that there is ‘no obvious resemblance’ between the style of the poems published in 1611 by her substitute Shakespeare, Emilia Bassano Lanier, and the style of the play that Shakespeare apparently didn’t write in that year, A Winter’s Tale. Has Winkler had a Bardic epiphany? Or has she misrepresented her beliefs in one of these two articles?

The ‘case’ for anyone but Shakespeare is always a fantasy in pursuit of facts. Winkler’s article, like every case for Shakespeare not having been Shakespeare, repeatedly commits the elementary error of historical writing. Absence of evidence does not mean evidence of absence. It is strange that Shakespeare doesn’t refer to books in his will. But it doesn’t mean that he didn’t read. Hitler, after all, did not attend the Wannsee Conference. But that doesn’t mean he didn’t order the Holocaust.

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