Why Stratfordians Are So Stubborn

by L. James Hammond
© L. James Hammond 2020
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1. Introduction

Every Oxfordian knows how difficult it can be to convert a Stratfordian. Most Stratfordians are unwilling even to listen to Oxfordian arguments; most Stratfordians resemble judges who pronounce their verdict before the trial has begun. Oxfordians can empathize with scientists who have struggled in vain to convert people to a new scientific theory. The physicist Max Planck, finding it impossible to convert people, said, “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”1

If the history of science has analogies to the Stratford-Oxford debate, so too does the history of religion. If we look at the early history of Christianity, we find that Christian sects were unable to convert each other to their viewpoint. One historian argued that particular sects prevailed over their opponents by having a higher birth-rate. Oxfordians canít expect to prevail over Stratfordians by having a higher birth-rate, nor can Oxfordians expect to prevail when all Stratfordians have died. Thereís no evidence that Oxfordians have a higher birth-rate, or a lower death-rate, than Stratfordians. How, then, will the Stratford-Oxford debate eventually be resolved? Can either side possibly convince the other?

2. The Power of Preconceptions

During their early years, people acquire from their parents and teachers certain religious views, certain political views, a certain way of viewing the world in general. People usually interpret their experiences in the light of their ideas; they fit their perceptions to their preconceptions. Preconceptions are unavoidable; no one can be an entirely passive recipient of sensation. Without preconceptions, without ideas, we would perceive only “a bloominí buzziní confusion,” as William James said. What we see depends on what we expect to see, on our ideas, on our frame of mind. Everything we see tends to confirm the ideas that we had before we saw anything. As Sterne said, “It is the nature of an hypothesis... that it assimilates everything to itself, as proper nourishment... it generally grows the stronger by everything you see, hear, read, or understand.”2

Someone once asked me, “what do Oxfordians have in common?” “Flexibility, open-mindedness,” I replied, half in jest. But is anyone really open-minded? Are Oxfordians any more open-minded than Stratfordians? Many Oxfordians can remember a time when they themselves were Stratfordians, and they themselves were unreceptive to the Oxford theory. If you try to convert an Oxfordian to some view — a religious view, for example, or a political view — that contradicts what he currently believes, youíll find that Oxfordians arenít always open-minded.

Oxfordians say that Stratfordians are stubborn, immune to persuasion, deaf to evidence. Meanwhile, Stratfordians say the same thing about Oxfordians. Isnít mankind in general stubborn and closed-minded? Doesnít the Stratford-Oxford debate teach us something about the human mind? Doesnít it teach us that data and evidence are powerless when matched against ideas and preconceptions? Someday, long after the Stratford-Oxford debate has been resolved, people will use this debate to illustrate the nature of the human mind; theyíll use it to show how people with fundamentally different views canít convince each other by argument, indeed, can scarcely even talk to each other.

3. Specialists and “Normal Science”

The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, by Thomas Kuhn, is a widely-respected book about the history of science; Kuhnís work is to the history of science what Hamlet is to English drama. Kuhn divides the history of any branch of science into three periods: normal science, crisis, and transition to a new paradigm. A period of normal science is a period in which the specialists in a given field subscribe to the same general theory, or paradigm. During such a period, scientific work consists of refining the paradigm, and solving the puzzles that exist within it. A period of crisis is a period in which there are so many puzzles, and the puzzles are so difficult to solve, that specialists in the field become dissatisfied with the paradigm. When someone suggests a new paradigm, the specialists compare it to the old one, and if they prefer the new paradigm, it gradually replaces the old paradigm as a foundation for normal science. Kuhnís theory of scientific revolutions doesnít fit any particular revolution perfectly, but it throws some light on every revolution. Likewise, Kuhnís theory doesnít fit the Oxford revolution perfectly, but it throws light on several aspects of it.

Kuhn says that specialists are usually committed to a particular paradigm, to the paradigm that guides research in their field. Since specialists spend their lives working within a certain paradigm, theyíre slow to reject that paradigm, and embrace a new paradigm. As Kuhn says, normal science “often suppresses fundamental novelties because they are necessarily subversive of its basic commitments.”3 Since specialists are committed to a certain paradigm, they donít question that paradigm, they donít discover new paradigms, and they arenít receptive to new paradigms discovered by others.

Who, then, discovers new paradigms? Outsiders, people who arenít firmly attached to the existing paradigm. “Almost always,” says Kuhn, “the men who achieve these fundamental inventions of a new paradigm have been either very young or very new to the field whose paradigm they change.”4 As an example, Kuhn mentions Dalton, who wasnít a chemist, yet discovered a new paradigm in chemistry. Wegener wasnít a geology specialist, yet discovered a new paradigm in geology. Schliemann wasnít an archaeology specialist, yet discovered a new paradigm in archaeology. The Oxford paradigm was discovered not by a specialist, not by an English professor, but by a non-specialist, an outsider, J. T. Looney. The leading champion of the Oxford paradigm in our time, Charlton Ogburn, is also a non-specialist, an outsider. The last people to see the truth about Shakespeare will be the insiders, the Shakespeare specialists, since theyíre most firmly attached to the old paradigm, the Stratford paradigm.

4. Crisis: Breakdown of the Existing Paradigm

According to Kuhn, a period of normal science is usually followed by a period of crisis. During a period of crisis, the existing paradigm appears incapable of solving the puzzles that confront it. As an example of a scientific crisis, Kuhn points to astronomy in the early sixteenth century. The paradigm that governed astronomy at this time was Ptolemyís geocentric paradigm. But Ptolemyís paradigm couldnít answer the questions that astronomers were asking. The failure of Ptolemyís paradigm prompted Copernicus to search for a new paradigm.

Likewise, the failure of the Stratford paradigm prompted many people, in the late nineteenth century, to propose alternate paradigms; some said that Bacon was the true author, others said Marlowe, etc. The proliferation of theories, or versions of one theory, is a common symptom of crisis; it was found in astronomy before Copernicus, and in chemistry before Lavoisier.5 Stratfordians point to the proliferation of alternate theories as a sign that all of them are false. Actually, this proliferation is a sign that the Stratford theory itself is false.

Specialists are reluctant to admit that a paradigm has failed, and that the time has come to look for a new paradigm. In the time of Copernicus, many astronomers continued struggling to match their observations to Ptolemyís paradigm. They regarded discrepancies between observation and theory as puzzles to be solved, not as evidence that Ptolemyís paradigm was false.6 Likewise, many Shakespeare specialists still donít admit the weakness of the Stratford paradigm.

5. Transition To A New Paradigm

Kuhn argues that new scientific theories donít gain acceptance through logic and evidence. Paradigms prevail by persuasion, not proof. Kuhn describes the history of science with terms like “conversion” and “faith,” terms which, before Kuhnís work appeared, had been considered more appropriate to the history of religion than the history of science. Kuhn says that a new scientific theory is a whole new way of looking at a particular field. He compares a new theory to “a switch in visual gestalt.... What were ducks in the scientistís world before the revolution are rabbits afterwards. The man who first saw the exterior of the box from above later sees its interior from below.”7

People who subscribe to different paradigms live in different worlds and speak different languages, hence they have difficulty communicating with each other. As Kuhn says, “Schools guided by different paradigms are always slightly at cross-purposes.” Their arguments make sense within their own paradigm, but make no sense to those have a different paradigm.8 Arguments for paradigms often use circular reasoning. Stratfordians, for example, say that the Stratford man was the true author, and therefore he must have had some education, must have associated with the nobility, must have been a genius, etc. And because he had some education, associated with the nobility, and was a genius, he obviously was the true author. According to Kuhn, circular reasoning is common in paradigm arguments: “Each group uses its own paradigm to argue in that paradigmís defense.”9

In a debate over paradigms, each side is so involved with its own paradigm that it scarcely hears the arguments of the other side. Each side is sure that it can prove its case, and each side accuses the other side of not answering its arguments, its “proofs.” In a debate over paradigms, argument and evidence is often of no avail. As Kuhn says, the argument for a paradigm “cannot be made logically or even probabilistically compelling for those who refuse to step into the circle.”10 Transition to a new paradigm usually comes not through a chain of reasoning, not through an accumulation of evidence, but through a flash of intuition.

6. A Psychological Experiment

Our perceptions arenít passive and neutral, but rather are shaped by our preconceptions; we simply donít perceive that which conflicts with our preconceptions. Kuhn describes a psychological experiment in which people were shown cards (playing cards). Most of the cards were normal, some were anomalous (for example, a black four of hearts). At first people didnít perceive the anomaly, and said, for example, that the black four of hearts was a black four of spades or a red four of hearts. As they were shown more anomalous cards, they began to hesitate and to perceive the anomaly. Most people eventually “saw the light” and began identifying the cards correctly. Some people, however, never managed to identify the cards correctly; their preconceptions overpowered their perceptions.11

Once one sees the truth about Shakespeare, everything becomes clear, as clear as a black four of hearts. Once one makes the leap to Oxford, one realizes that the case for Oxford is rock solid, and the case for the Stratford man is an “airy nothing.” But itís difficult to make that leap, difficult to make that initial adjustment, difficult to take that first step from the familiar into the unknown, difficult to look at the issue from an entirely different perspective, difficult to realize that Shakespeareís works could have been attributed to the wrong person, difficult to realize that there could be a black four of hearts.

7. Conclusion

How can Stratfordians be brought to see the light? First, one must make them familiar with the Oxford theory, expose them to its broad outlines. Television is well suited to exposing people to new ideas. Television reaches uncommitted laymen, not just specialists. It reaches people who donít even think theyíre interested in “The Shakespeare Mystery,” people who wouldnít spend five minutes reading Looneyís book or Ogburnís book. The Frontline documentary has converted many people to the Oxford theory. (In fact, if someone asks, “what do Oxfordians have in common?” the best answer might be, “Oxfordians are people who have seen the Frontline documentary.”12)

Just as the Oxford theory can benefit from television exposure, so too can it benefit from the reputation of its supporters. Kuhn says that reputation plays a role in scientific debate.13 If a new theory is set forth by someone with a high reputation, people will be less likely to ridicule its strange, new features. The Oxford theory wasnít set forth by a writer with a high reputation. During the nineteenth century, many writers with high reputations rejected the Stratford theory, but didnít embrace the Oxford theory, since the Oxford theory hadnít yet been set forth. Once the Oxford theory was set forth, Freud embraced it, but by then Freud was near the end of his career. Most of Freudís writings on Shakespeare are from his Stratfordian period. Freud discussed the Oxford theory almost exclusively in his letters; one can read Freudís complete works and never hear the Oxford theory mentioned, let alone defended. The Oxford theory will receive a boost when itís championed by a writer with a high reputation, a writer like Freud or James Joyce or T. S. Eliot. That will influence young intellectuals, and eventually influence the academic establishment. And then the Stratford theory will fade into history.

No one would deny the importance of research and evidence. Itís important, however, to understand the limits of evidence. Itís important to understand that people who subscribe to different paradigms live in different worlds; what one side calls “evidence” and “facts” and “proof” is meaningless to the other side. Kuhnís work shows that even in the world of science, where facts are supposed to reign supreme, facts alone canít convert people to new theories. A new theory means a revolutionary change, an entirely different viewpoint, a brand new world. Thatís why Stratfordians are so stubborn.

1. Quoted in Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (second edition, 1970, Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press), ch. 12, p. 151 back
2. Laurence Sterne, Tristram Shandy, II, 19. The James quotation is from Kuhn, ch. 10, p. 113 back
3. Kuhn, ch. 1, p. 5 back
4. Kuhn, ch. 8, p. 90 back
5. Kuhn, ch. 7, pp. 70, 71 back
6. Kuhn, ch. 8, p. 79 back
7. Kuhn, ch. 10, p. 111 back
8. Kuhn, ch. 10, p. 112 back
9. Kuhn, ch. 9, p. 94 back
10. Kuhn, ch. 9, p. 94 back
11. Kuhn, ch. 6, p. 63 back
12. “The Shakespeare Mystery,” Frontline, PBS, WGBH, Boston, 1989 back
13. Kuhn, ch. 12, p. 153 back