Now, I’m not an Early Modern scholar – though neither is Rubin, whose master’s thesis at the University of Bridgeport was on the emergence of the new Regional Theatre Movement. (He does not have a PhD.) But the arguments he presented to me are the discredited ones that have circulated for decades. His first point, for example, was the canard that Shakespeare’s name was printed as “Shake-Speare” on some early versions of his plays and that a hyphenated name at the time “always” meant it was a “made-up name.” (That’s simply false – plenty of other real names were printed with hyphens.)
In probing his exact views rather than the questions he wishes to raise, Rubin will only say that he’d “put his money” on Edward de Vere as the author of plays such as Romeo and Juliet and King Lear. But he does not deny that there was a man named William Shakespeare living at the same time who worked at the Globe Theatre. He simply calls that man “William of Stratford” or “Shakspere”, based on a variant spelling that turns up on some documents.
“Did [the real author] choose the name Shakespeare because there was somebody named Shakspere, or did he decide he was going to use a conduit because it was similar to a name he had chosen?” he asks. “That’s a question nobody can answer – on either side.”
Well, actually, Rubin’s colleagues at York in the English department could easily answer that if he spoke to them. And they’ve had to answer many such queries from undergraduates who have taken Rubin’s course.
“It can be confusing for students, I think,” says Pentland. “There is some controversy over [Rubin’s] course being offered, because from the perspective of the people who deal in the Early Modern period, the scholarship in support of these theories is pretty questionable.”
“There’s no scholarly justification for this argument,” adds Goldstein.
While there may be concerns in the rank and file, Teresa Przybylski, acting chair of the Theatre department at York, and Alan Filewod, chair of the department of English and Theatre Studies at Guelph, don’t believe Rubin and Gilbert’s involvement with the Oxfordian movement will harm their schools’ reputation – and they defend the tenured professors’ right to access funds for research and conferences. “The university is not allowed, unless there’s a breach of ethics, to tell a professor what to research and what not to research,” notes Filewod. “To withhold the funding that I would give to anyone would be a violation of academic freedom.”
For many years, academics kept a hands-off approach to the Oxfordian argument or other authorship conspiracy theories. But in recent years, certain professors have begun to engage in public debate on the subject as the Internet has spread the Oxfordian thesis wider than ever before and Roland Emmerich’s flop film on the subject, Anonymous, came out.
In 2010, Columbia professor James Shapiro published Contested Will, which traces the strange and fascinating history of those who have argued that a man of Shakespeare’s middle-class background couldn’t have written his plays, while the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust recently responded with a book called Shakespeare Beyond Doubt.
At the same time, however, in obscure outposts of academe, the “authorship question” has made inroads. Concordia University in Portland, Ore., has a Shakespeare Authorship Research Centre, while Brunel University in London has offered an MA in Shakespeare Authorship Studies.
Guelph and York are, comparatively, big fish. Sky Gilbert, a playwright who teaches at Guelph, is responsible for his department’s support. An open Oxfordian, he is forthright about the movement’s strategy to get as many people with credentials – no matter whether they are in medicine or computer science – on board. “They completely have an agenda to get as many academics as possible because they are dismissed as looney tunes,” says Gilbert, who is known for his contrarian opinions on a number of subjects, but does not teach about the authorship issue.
Wary of lending legitimacy to this issue, every local Shakespearean academic in Toronto who Rubin approached to debate at the conference this week declined.
Rubin, wounded, feels the refusal of English scholars to engage him runs contrary to the spirit of academic debate – and compares himself to Galileo, who was persecuted by the Catholic Church for defending Copernicus’s theory that the Earth revolves around the sun. He believes these Shakespeareans, like the church, will eventually come around. “I do believe that apologies will come [from] those who are hanging back with the apes, those who feel it’s okay to ridicule, those will feel it’s okay to say this is heresy,” he tells me.
I wouldn’t hold your breath, Don.