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  • Mystic Ciphers:Shakespeare and Intelligent Design: A Response to Nancy Glazener
  • Zachary Lesser (bio)

I am delighted to respond to Nancy Glazener's article, which I found fascinating both as a Shakespearean and as a historian of the book and print culture. Oddly, however, given the essay's Shakespearean focus, I feel doubly skeptical of my ability to respond to it precisely because I am a Shakespearean. My skepticism derives first from the fact that I am neither an Americanist nor a scholar of Shakespeare's nineteenth-century reception: One of the exciting things about the history of the book is that it tends to cross the boundaries of period and discipline by its very nature, but it does so somewhat modestly, since it depends so crucially on the specific material conditions of textuality in a given period. Second, and more important, I am skeptical because, like most Shakespeareans, particularly those trained after the rise of New Historicism, I have tended rather willfully to ignore the entire subject of the "authorship controversy," hoping it would just go away.

In the past few years, however, I've thought about this issue increasingly as, with their usual "even-handedness" that stages all conflict as a debate between opinions of equal standing, television news programs and popular press articles have taken up the supposed "authorship debate that rages 'round the Bard" (Walker 1).1 It is the coincidence of the recent resurgence of this "debate" and the dramatic re-emergence of the evolution "debate" that leads me to think about Shakespeare and intelligent design. In a very real (if no doubt less important) way, the "authorship debate" is for academic Shakespeareans what creationism or intelligent design is for [End Page 350] evolutionary scientists: frustrating and almost impossible to know how to engage, since the other side is not amenable to the usual disciplinary standards of evidence and argumentation, and since any attempt to make one's case is taken (both by the opposition and by the media) as evidence that there is, in fact, a real and ongoing "debate" over the matter. After all, the brilliance of the intelligent design movement has been to frame the argument precisely as one about the merits of scientific debate; as President Bush says, "both sides [evolution and intelligent design] ought to be properly taught [in public schools] . . . so people can understand what the debate is about" (Baker and Slevin A1). The "anti-Stratfordian" argument is framed in exactly the same way, and so it is hard to know how to enter into this field without always already undermining one's own position.

Yet it is increasingly apparent to me that we do need to engage this movement, and to recognize it as, in Glazener's terms, a dissenting position—that is, a "public disagreement with established orthodoxy," one defined dialectically by its very "stake in the institution [it] challenges" and by its being "marked as challenging or dangerous" by that institution. How can we respond to those who argue that Francis Bacon (1561–1626), or Edward de Vere, seventeenth earl of Oxford (1550–1604), or Christopher Marlowe (1564–93), or Queen Elizabeth I (1533–1603) wrote the plays of Shakespeare? On the one hand, I find myself, as do scientists in the evolution "debate," appealing to the empirical reality of facts and dates (most of the author-candidates were dead before many of Shakespeare's plays were written); to the institutional authority of expertise; to definitional questions about what constitutes real scholarship; and to what we might (perhaps quaintly these days) call "logic" or "reason."2 But, then I read the eminent evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins declaring that "it is absolutely safe to say that if you meet somebody who claims not to believe in evolution, that person is ignorant, stupid or insane (or wicked, but I'd rather not consider that)" (34)—sounding a lot like Richard Grant White, who wrote to Putnam's of Delia Bacon: "as the writer was plainly neither a fool nor an ignoramus, she must be insane; not a maniac, but what boys call 'loony'" (181). Obviously that tactic did not work; indeed the internal logic of intelligent design or...


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