Why I Became an Oxfordian

I was a graduate student in my early 30s when I came upon Charlton Ogburn’s The Mysterious William Shakespeare. Hardly an impressionable age. In fact, given the events that followed, it is remarkable how unimpressed I was by my peers.

Let me explain. (It seems to jump around like hot water on a skillet, but it all comes together, so be patient.) First, my parents never finished high school. I put myself through college over a 10-year period by managing a 7-11 store. Hardly a background that would make me a snob, in Stratfordian parlance. Actually, I should be quite sympathetic to the “by-his-own-bootstraps” model of Shakspere.

When I came upon Ogburn, I had already been tested by fire by my favorite professor. He was a classic 18th-century literature dinosaur who still believed in the old standards of reading literature first, criticism second and rarely, and of grading papers in terms of mastery, not mere competence.

In his lower division Brit Lit survey course, I received my first “C” ever on a paper. I was stunned. At that time I had yet to understand the impact of public education, especially so-called “honors” courses that allowed us to be “creative” rather than to study such old-fashioned things as grammar.

In any event, that C grade set me on a journey of discovery. I respected him, admired him, and recognized by his written comments that I was still a writing and thinking fool. I set out to do whatever was necessary to get an A from this man on one of my papers. By the time I took his upper division John Milton course, I had at least begun to develop the ability to argue a thesis fairly well, but it was in his graduate seminars that the real testing ground awaited me. Each seminar was graded based on one paper and one final exam, a three-hour monster, often with only a single question that opened up a chasm that seemed impossible to bridge. (Occasionally, a student got up at the beginning of his final exam saying “I can’t do this” and walked out.) I grew to love those finals, because of the incredible original creative compression that I was forced to confront. They were exhilarating.

In his “Austen and Bronte” seminar I found the appalling flabby areas in my reading comprehension. (Paper B+, Course B+) In his “Classical Rhetoric” seminar I was properly introduced to Plato and Aristotle. (Paper B+, Course A-) In “Richardson and Fielding” I was confronted with the novel and the moral dimensions of the novel. (Paper A-, Course A-).

And finally there was “The Age of Johnson”: The reading list alone was awesome. Boswell’s complete Biography and the London Journal (recommended completion date: the summer before the course). Most of Johnson’s Rambler and Idler essays, Rasselas, poems, prefaces. Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, Pope’s Essay on Criticism, Essay on Man, and The Dunciad. Hume’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France…All in a single course…

I’m sure I left out some. People refused to sign up just based on the reading alone. It was a fabulous course. My paper was on Burke’s Imagery and was due the last day of class before the Final. I began writing that morning at 6 am and finished by 3 pm, one hour before the deadline. (Paper A, Course A)

After three years, four undergraduate courses and four graduate seminars, I got that A, and I knew I had earned it.

My best friend Scott, a brilliant man who now teaches in a Catholic college in Texas, was also in those courses. We were Teaching Assistants. We spoke a common language, drawing on Richard Weaver’s and Edward Corbett’s texts for teaching real rhetoric, not the fancy usurped watered-down version then promulgated by the Composition Director and the rather sheepish TAs who followed blindly the multi-cultural, let-the-students-evaluate-each-other approach that merely perpetuated the damage initiated by the public schools.

So…

I read Ogburn, I’m interested in its argument, I approach my professor with a copy I bought for him because I wanted someone I respected to examine the argument and to discuss its merits with me. He dismissed it without examination, a response contrary to all that was implied in his teaching. I left the book with him anyway, somewhat baffled. I approached my best friend. He would not look at the argument either. I was astonished. Two brilliant, thinking minds who would not even examine the argument, who simply dismissed it out of hand. Later, I discovered my professor had given the book to another graduate student, a protégé. When I finally asked her about what she thought of the argument, she would only say that the Stratfordian professors cited were obvious idiots, but Ogburn’s rhetorical stance was faulty in places, and besides he disses Sidney and she loved Sidney, her Master’s Thesis was on Sidney, so Ogburn’s argument had to be untenable.

Yes, once again I was baffled.

What was it about this topic that so provoked such bizarre responses? If I had been a “good” graduate student, a properly “impressionable” graduate student, then I would have dropped Ogburn and gone along with the prevailing view.

But I knew enough that, whatever it’s faults, Ogburn’s argument merited a hearing and that what I saw among my peers was something putrid, sleazy, and absolutely anathema to true scholarship.

Thus began my two-year in-the-library checking sources approach to sorting out Ogburn’s argument, and my slow and steady conversion from Stratfordianism to Oxfordianism.

Ogburn did not persuade me right away because I had to research the other side more thoroughly, but with new eyes. I would sit in the library with his book and grab books and volumes and check sources, compare arguments, find out what Ogburn had not addressed, how he was refuted, how orthodox scholars handled dissent.

What first got to me was the extent of scholarly fraud…How much students believe and take for granted, how much professors spread conjecture as truth, theories as fact, fabrications as dogma. It took me six months just to fully grasp how scholars, documentary evidence, arguments, and the tradition of commentary and interpretation symbiotically interact in the arena of Shakespeare.

It made me ill.

Once I came to terms with my own regard for the role of art and the nature of the great artist, I realized more clearly where the real line was truly drawn, and how impossible it would be to really “prove” which side of the line was the “truth.” Stratfordians tend (not universally) to accept what I call the “material/academic” Shakespeare. The reductionist “scientific” view. In effect, “Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare until you can prove with actual documentary evidence that Shakespeare did not write Shakespeare.” Anti-Stratfordians tend (not universally) to accept the “spiritual/artist” Shakespeare. “The great artist forges in the smithy of his soul his consciousness and cannot help leave a mark of his life and experience on that.” That is not exactly the “biographical” approach that Stratfordians want to lay on us. But there is probably no use arguing that.

The differences boil down to a fundamental perception on the nature of the artist, and all disconnects among Stratfordians and Anti-Stratfordians ultimately, I believe, arise from that distinction.

When I read the poems and plays through the lens of Stratford, I get much insight and greatness … but only from the plays themselves. Shakspere the man leaves no mark on the plays as far as I can access. This violates my experience of almost every other great artist I know of.

When I read the poems and plays through the lens of Oxford, the experience is powerful and transformative and true to the experience I have had with other artists.

That is not proof for anyone else but me.

My wife is an executive producer with her own event and video production company. She helps launch software start-up companies, product launches (Apple, Oracle, and others), and even produces commercials for broadcast. She works with Directors of Photography (DPs) all the time. Most DPs love film cameras and merely like video cameras. The main difference is in the “aspect” capabilities of a film camera: A film camera can focus one aspect of a “shot” and allow others aspects to blur. This feature opens the door to certain creative uses of film. Video cameras, particularly, the new digital cameras, resolve everything in a shot. (This fact accounts for the very real difference you notice on TV between that which is filmed and that which is videoed.)

So, a DP with a film camera can focus on the foreground “elements” and allow the background elements to blur; or the DP can focus on the background elements and allow the foreground elements to blur.

Both “models” of a scene are neutral. Where one becomes more “appropriate” than the other depends upon the particular application. Of course, the appropriateness of the application is up to the DP or some other creative controlling authority.

My approach to the Stratfordian and Oxfordian models are very much like a DP’s approach to film and the foreground and background elements.

I liken the Stratfordian model to a focus on the foreground elements that leave the background elements blurred. The Oxfordian model is similar to a focus on the background elements that leave the foreground blurred. (I could extend this analogy with more detail, but I leave it to the reader. There are many remarkable correspondences.)

This modeling very much touches on the fundamental anchor points that we hold regarding human nature, the nature of the artist, and political and cultural assumptions. For these reasons, this clash of models resembles a clash of religious interpretive models and provokes similar heat.

I am not one who favors squashing the Stratfordian model and replacing it with the Oxfordian one. I do not think either model capable of being the only one. I do object to Stratfordian attempts to squash the Oxfordian model, to keep it forever barred from academic investigation and support, just as a DP who favors a background focus would object to the DP Committee establishing foreground-only rules and dissing background-focused looks in film.

My view of “models”, then, recognizes that the “elements” (the evidence, the people involved, the society, the poetics, etc.) can be focused in more than one manner. In this view of models, then, one CAN (at least initially) objectively look through both “lenses” (the Stratfordian and the Oxfordian) and see how the elements come into focus.

During those two years in the library, I had to give up the “distorted” Statfordian lens that I had (the Folger Library/Chute edition) and discover a *clearer* Stratfordian lens to view the elements before I could even properly compare it with the Oxfordian lens. For a time I did not know what to think…I was more or less in a “decomposed” anchorless objective state, which is the proper place to be when looking through competing lenses.

I had to come to terms “consciously” with my own fundamental values and beliefs regarding the nature of art and the artist (poetics), human nature, political and social history, and even certain spiritual matters.

What I saw through the Stratfordian lens defied my arrangement of these values and beliefs. I knew enough of argument even then to be disgusted with the “Satan Manuever” argument of Shakspere’s supposed *genius-that-explains-everything* that seemed to be the cornerstone of every Stratfordian argument in response to “real” difficulties in explaining the evidence or lack of evidence.

The Satan Manuever is what I call the introduction of any “argument” that immediately destroys a forum based upon arguing from evidence and reason. The name arises from an occasion where an evangelical Christian, when asked how he accounted for the fossils that scientists use to demonstrate that the earth is far older than 6000 years, responded, “Satan put them there.” Such an argument when introduced clearly destroys the possibility for any opposing argument based on evidence and reason. The Satan Manuever has many manifestations in every discipline. In Shakespeariana, it arrives with the introduction of the mystical, inexplicable “genius” of Shakespeare. Consequently, I regard every scholar who introduces this form of the Satan Manuever with disdain, for poisoning the atmosphere of discussion based on evidence and reason. Responsible scholars, it seems to me, must develop an interpretive model that does not rely on such poisonous introductions.

However, despite its obvious and sometimes even severe problems, I found that the way the elements “focused” when I looked through the Oxfordian lens (the “organizing pattern”) made much more sense, held much more consistency and connection with my fundamental values and beliefs, and actually “generated” a host of new and interesting information patterns.

I should note that anyone can “discover” patterns when one goes looking for them. Such is the fate of the Baconians who put so much reliance on coding and cryptograms (take those away and how compelling is the Baconian lens?).

So how do you know when you have discovered a genuine, innate pattern? When the pattern organizes the elements in such a way that new information is effortlessly generated that actually enhances the “focus” in completely unexpected yet integrated ways, AND naturally begins explaining other mysteries and problems in the focus of the elements when viewed through other lenses.

The Oxfordian lens does that for me, in revelatory and delightful ways that in no way subtract from the works themselves.