A Response to Gasda’s Mischaracterization of Oxfordianism – Scott Litts

[Author’s note: I’ve been informed that there are a small handful of spelling errors, mostly inconsequential, some serendipitous. In the spirit of Shakespearean whimsy I lay bare my faults— our faults. A testament to the Human…]

The Shakespeare authorship question has been surprisingly provocative in recent months, thanks in no small part to founder of the Brooklyn-based Edward de Vere Truther Society, Phoebe Nir. Perhaps even more interesting than the authorship question itself (and Oxfordianism, which argues Shakespeare was the pseudonym of Edward de Vere, is legitimately quite interesting if one deigns to give it the time of day) are the myriad responses such seemingly harmless, even academic, questioning elicits.

In his recent piece for Compact, ‘strategically’ titled “The Right-Wing Crusade Against Shakespeare,” Matthew Gasda smears— or rather, tries to smear— Oxfordianism with a mischaracterization of its basic tenets followed by damning political associations based on this mischaracterization. Gasda doesn’t cite any historical facts— not even to dismiss them. Instead, he advances an emotional argument rooted in the romantic notion of the struggling artist (to which Shakespeare has long been foundational). Ultimately, Gasda confuses a historical argument with a moralistic one, and in doing so gets things exactly backwards.

First, Gasda poses a quintessential strawman of Oxfordianism, which I will quote here at length:

“The current right-inflected version of the Oxfordian theory of authorship states that in order to write about kings and queens, princes and princesses, the court, foreign places, the law, philosophy, you have to have been raised among kings and queens, and traveled the world, and studied the law, and studied political theory, and studied the classics, and studied archery, and whatever else. There is an almost one-to-one relationship between input and output, and shockingly little opportunity, in this model of how writing works, for imagination and iteration. If you haven’t been formally trained in a subject, you can’t represent it in fictional form. Genius is a matter of having learned everything there is to know, and being able to reproduce it in the form of poetry or drama or fiction. This theory entails that only those with the finest education can give the most elevated expression to the human spirit.

This is a gross— and frankly insulting— oversimplification and mischaracterization, for which I will not fault Gasda’s intelligence but rather, magnanimously, his romantic spirit. This is not what Oxfordians think, and to frame it this way is, again, to assert the same tired strawman which is ultimately just a repetition of the same platitudes on which the Shakespearean mythos is based. Moreover, characterizing Oxfordianism as right-wing is not just incorrect, but somewhat hysterical in the exact way that “left-right synthesis” magazines like Compact otherwise bemoan and ostensibly hope to do away with.

Worse, however, (and something for which I feel a greater inclination to fault, let’s say, intellectual rigor) is the damning association of Oxfordianism with the… heinous powers that be:

“Despite its association with the right, therefore, the revival of Oxfordian theory aligns, more than it realizes, with the elite liberal politics of the World Economic Forum, the Democratic National Committee, and every other gated political community that claims to know better, think better, and ultimately rule better than ordinary people.”

The only Oxfordianism that “aligns more than it realizes” with these elite liberal politics is Gasda’s caricature. In actuality, Oxfordianism stems from a recognition that sociopolitical structures, first of all, exist. Monarchies, above all, exist very intensely. And by existing very intensely, monarchies very much allow for and stifle certain possibilities— especially 16th century English monarchies in which the vestiges of feudalism still persist. Gasda takes the familiar, not-particularly-interesting Stratfordian stance of the mythic Shakespeare, which has become a longstanding and essential myth of modern humanism. This is the standard narrative that humble Will of Stratford transcended all economic, epistemic and sociocultural barriers of a profoundly inegalitarian society to realize his legendary potential, to become the Bard.

But beyond this standard narrative, we have the mischaracterization and attribution of all sorts of reprehensible politics to contemporary Oxfordianism. Thus in Gasda’s argument we recognize a familiar position: don’t inquire— rather, accept this palatable narrative, this glittering generality which expediently aligns you with the good and the righteous. And actually, if you do inquire, we’re going to demonize you with contemptible political associations. In fact, one might argue that Gassda’s piece exemplifies this position insofar as his “defense” engages with none of the actual minutiae of a debate which is, in actuality, entirely concerned with historical, political and literary minutiae— instead, it simply falls back on the strawman which facilitates this portrait of Oxfordians as anti-democratics with aristocratic pretensions. In fact, that’s exactly what I’m arguing.

Oxfordianism does not outright deny this great and romantic humanist potential, but— perhaps more soberly— recognizes that sociopolitical structures can be legitimate barriers to human flourishing. Oxfordianism is less concerned with the individual potential of William of Stratford than it is with the societal and cultural structures that may or may not have made “Shakespeare” a possible phenomenon. It claims the latter: that 16th century England was indeed too stifling for this unbridled transcendence of Will of Stratford— and thus Oxfordianism is, in this sense, aligned with critiques of oppressive sociopolitical structures.1 And if there is a contemporary sociopolitical structure deserving of critique— one which Compact seemingly opposes— it’s the aforementioned liberal elite and capital-D Democratic structure which uses the mythos of liberalism, within which Shakespeare is a foundational brick, to perpetuate structural inequalities and bludgeon its way across the globe.

Oxfordianism is not oppositional to humanism. I consider myself a humanist (with a moderate interest in Oxfordianism). And humanism should compel one to analyze conditions and contexts in which humans might thrive or perish. Will of Stratford, the man of ‘low-birth’ in 16th century England, was thrust into— or rather, condemned to— a lower rung of a highly stratified society which stifled access to both knowledge and institutions and thus greatly impeded social mobility for huge segments of its population. To claim that Will of Stratford was able to flourish legendarily regardless of such conditions is to apologize for the very stratification that makes Shakespeare’s alleged ascendance so legendary. Again, bear in mind that this is an entirely contextual argument— conditions now, in which there is significant social mobility and knowledge is the most accessible it’s ever been, are very much conducive to a “Shakespeare” figure. And this has increasingly been the case for centuries since Elizabethan England— so if one desires a mythic everyman representative of the indomitable human spirit, there are innumerable alternatives to Shakespeare, many of whom are very well-documented (I suggest Frederick Douglass).

Essentially, I’m suggesting that unquestionably accepting the overly-romantic myth of Humanism that Shakespeare represents is dangerous because it implicitly suggests obstacles— even those as overtly anti-democratic as Elizabethan England’s— are always surmountable so long as one has sufficient spirit, which in turn diverts critique away from the actual obstacles themselves. This is individualist to a fault— it is analogous to “neoliberal” ideology. Recognition that a society as profoundly unequal and stratified as 16th century England— almost comically inegalitarian—is in fact oppressive is spiritually aligned with contemporary critiques of socioculturally oppressive ideologies, institutions, and the myths that justify their existence and perpetuation. And it’s increasingly apparent (again, something which Compact ostensibly urges) that a certain strain of politics, its concomitant ideology and the innumerable corporate powers which vocally espouse its values, together form an insidious consolidation of power— but most importantly here, a consolidation of power which leverages romantic platitudes and facades of morality to evade, even preclude criticism.

I don’t necessarily like to fault romanticism, and I rarely do (rather, I regularly, publicly despise rationalism). But I do feel it’s necessary to point out when romanticism is used to obscure bad-faith arguments and mischaracterizations— especially when such arguments seek to implicate the opposition with damning political convictions that align it with the worst of both liberal and reactionary politics.

[1]  And this is not to mention the body of Oxfordian scholarship— which is the vast majority— that does not appeal to these structural arguments but rather textual, historical and political evidence which point to De Vere as author. Many of these arguments, which Gasda leaves conveniently unaddressed, are summarized in Phoebe Nir’s remarks at the 2023 De Vere Ball and appear at greater length in the 2022/23 De Vere magazine (I have extra copies, which, in the spirit of scholastic integrity, I will disseminate free of charge).