Saturday, April 28, 2007

The Shakespeare Authorship Question

Some time early in the semester I was randomly contacted by William Niederkorn to complete an online survey about the "Shakespeare Authorship Question" in my teaching. I duly completed the survey and have just received a follow-up e-mail with a link to the survey's results in The New York Times.

It's not particularly interesting. 82% of us (295 randomly selected Shakespeare professors at colleges and universities) think the authorship question (did Shakespeare write Shakespeare?) is irrelevant to the study of the works, and only 6% thought there was a good reason for discussing it at all. 11% said that possibly there was good reason.

What bothers me is not the fact that this poll tells us what we already knew, but that the New York Times didn't really do or say anything new or thought-provoking with the survey. The article ends with an anonymous Shakespearean wishing more people were as interested in the plays as they were in the authorship question, evidently a sentiment most of us echoed in our responses.

But why do a survey like this anyway, if you're just going to conclude that "Professors believe in him"? The tin echo of the language of religious faith aside, what's the point? It would've been far more interesting to interview professors about their pedagogy and methodology- how do they teach Shakespeare to undergraduates? To graduates? The authorship question has never been taken seriously by most of us, but the stability of the body of work known as 'Shakespeare' has already been toppled by scholars of material textual studies, and that some 14 years ago.

Do we all combine history and research in our teaching? Do we talk about "the genius" of Shakespeare in our 100-level courses, push students to discover textual contradictions (perhaps put there by Shakespeare himself) in our upper-level undergraduate seminars, and then ask our graduate students to accept the fundamental instability of the material text and the consequent loss of 'Shakespearean' identity? Has anyone been able to present a consistent picture of Shakespeare scholarship to their students of all levels? I think we are constantly lifting 'Shakespeare' up and breaking him (or it) down in our teaching, and also in our scholarship. I would have liked the New York Times survey to have done something more with its assessment: It's not simply that most of us don't think the authorship question is relevant; it's that we're asking our students to engage with the text in (frequently contradictory) ways that will seem new and exciting to most armchair Shakespeareans. Shame on this article for not articulating that.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I heard about this survey - how cool that you got to do it. And having read the article, I think you are absolutely right in what you say in this post.