Contested Will or a look into why people deny Shakespeare

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By heaven, methinks it were an easy leap to pluck bright honor from the pale-faced moon, or dive into the bottom of the deep, where fathom-line could never touch the ground, and pluck up drowned honour by the locks. Henry IV Pt. I

If anyone is wiling to doubt on their authority, the history and existence of Christ, he must, in order to be consistent, be wiling to doubt on the same grounds, the history and existence of Shakespeare.

So begins a semi-satirical argument made in 1848 by Mosheim Schmucker in his book, Historical Doubts Respecting Shakespeare: Illustrating Infidel Objections Against the Bible (his publisher rejecting the shorter title of Oh Come on, seriously? because all great late 1800 book titles were required to be long and pretentious). Unfortunately for Schmucker, and to Shakespeare scholarship in general, his book was taken far too seriously.

The book was written as a response to another titled, The Life of Jesus, and the burgeoning “Higher Criticism” movement that inspired it. The phrase “Higher Criticism” described the study of the origins, date, composition, and transmission of the books of the Bible in order to separate fact from fiction. David Fredrick Strauss, one of the scholars who employed this method to the New Testament, came to the conclusion that there was no “supernatural, divine Christ, no miracles and no resurrection of the dead”. This did not sit well with the clergy (as one can easily imagine) and so Schumuker took it upon himself to write a response. The results were not what he had expected and sadly, we’ve been subjected to the 2011 movie Anonymous because of it.

To be Shakespeare or not to be Shakespeare. Allow me to take everything out of historical context while asking this question.
To be Shakespeare or not to be Shakespeare. Allow me to take everything out of historical context while asking this question.

Schumuker, a historian and Lutheran pastor, decided to parody Strauss and his like by writing a book using the same arguments to determine if Shakespeare ever existed. Schumuker never doubted Shakespeare’s existence and assumed his readers would see the book for what it was intended to be; a satirical rebuttal to the argument that given the lack of historical data and contradictory stories surrounding Christ, we must conclude there was no Christ. He wanted his readers to see through Strauss’ argument using the “absence of evidence argument”. What ensued was not what he expected; it began the serious study of the authorship question that still rages today. Ironically, those seeking to question Shakespeare’s authorship used Schumuker’s book as their bible; using his arguments as talking points. Though the book is no longer regarded as the ultimate guide to the authorship questions, the arguments he presented are still in use today. Thanks to Schumuker and his obvious lack of satirical skills, the authorship question did not die a natural death. One could say he resurrected a question that was all but forgotten and gave it new life.

I found this story absolutely intriguing. It is one of several stories James Shapiro offer us in which we learn how and why the authorship question remains a topic of interest and debate. I learned that Mark Twain came to question Shakespeare as an author because in his later years he was convinced that all writing is consciously and subconsciously autobiographical. Twain was famous for his “truth” in fiction, but as he aged he began to believe that all writers expressed themselves in their works and that no one could write about things that they themselves had not experienced. I have to wonder if anyone pointed out to Twain that he was not a time traveler yet was able to write a lovely book on the subject.

A better-suited title for the book, Contested Will Who wrote Shakespeare? would’ve been Contested Will Why people deny Shakespeare, as this is what Shapiro offers us. It is the history of doubt and what led other wise intelligent scholars, writers, and armchair historians to question whether there ever was a playwright named William Shakespeare. I read it in one day as I could not put this book down. It is one of my favorite books regarding the study of Shakespeare.

I have to commend Shapiro for his even-handed style in which he presented these people and their stories. It could have been so easy for him to scoff and make fun of them, but instead he presents their cases in a respectful and very well researched manner. Yes, once in awhile he does ask a question or makes a remark but this on ensures that the book is lightheaded tone, rather than a dry academic read or catty argument against the Anti-Stratfordians.

Make no mistake, this book is about the authorship questions but it is much more; it is a fascinating look into historical scholarship and offers modern readers the chance to see the other side of literary debate. Who knew this all really started with one woman’s frustration with not being taken as a serious scholar and took off when a pastor overestimated his comedic writing skills? Thank you Mr. Shapiro for enlightening us as to why people deny Shakespeare.

Works Cited/ Referenced

American Psychology Association The psychologies of Mark Twain

William Shakespeare Henry IV part 1

James Shapiro Contested Will Who Wrote Shakespeare?

Jon Stewart, America’s Professor of Humanities

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Before Comedy Central became the juggernaut it is today, it was a low budget cable channel called “Ha!”. I don’t recall what I was watching the night I first saw him, but I do remember being taken in by the leather jacket, good looks, and sharp wit. Sometime in the fall of 1993, I fell in love with Jon Stewart.

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As the years went on, I followed Stewart’s career. When he became the host of “The Daily Show”, I was thrilled, and for 16 years I never missed an episode. But now he is retired, and already I am left feeling the void. Don’t get me wrong, my young crush on him is not why I’m feeling this way; crushes come and go. Rather it is what Stewart did and what he stood for that I will miss. He was the voice of reason when it seemed insanity reined supreme. For many of us, Stewart was the beacon of light in the shit storm created by the media and our government. Through wit and biting intellect, Stewart called out those who tried to sell us bullshit. Now that he is gone, we are left wondering what we will do without our beacon?

In the last few weeks critics have argued over Stewart’s enduring legacy. Some say it is the long list of comedic legends that got their start on the “Daily Show”. Others argue that he created the current face of the news media. That now, many news outlets try to capture the popularity of The Daily Show, while simultaneously keeping a serious news tone. Rachel Maddow admits her show is based on the foundation laid down by Stewart. As much as I enjoy her show, the truth is, the two are nothing alike.

I’d argue that his legacy lay not in what he created, be it the “new” news or new comedic faces, but in what he did. No other satirist successfully lifted back the curtain as far as he did in order to show the world just how human and flawed our politicians truly are. He proved there are no wizards running the State, just imperfect men whose desires are purely selfish. Stewart didn’t just make fun of them, he called them out, and held them accountable. Will Rogers was good for a short zing or two, but he never sat a politician down, looked him in the eye, and asked, “Really, you thought that was a good idea?”

That will be Jon Stewart’s legacy. He, like no other, had the courage to stand up to pundits, politicians, and hucksters. For 16 years we loyal viewers watched as Stewart said what many of us were thinking. No actually, he educated us on how we should think, and on the importance of such thought. Stewart was unintentionally America’s greatest professor of humanities. And like all students whose classroom is now empty, we ask, “What will we do without our beloved professor”?

Stewart answered this question beautifully on his last show. It was his last lesson and the one that we fans should take seriously. He gave us 16 years of unyielding rage against all that would, at worst, tear us apart, at best, try to keep the masses pacified. Stewart taught us that it was okay, nay, it was better for us to question those who would rather we didn’t.

We should honor his legacy by taking his final words to heart. We may not have Jon Stewart to guide us, but we can model ourselves after him. Those of us who watched him because we needed to know there was someone else out there who thought like us, who was our voice, must now raise our own. If we all become our own Jon Stewarts the world will be a better place. If we do this, Stewart’s legacy will become cemented in the American psyche. I can think of no better way of honoring the 16 years he has given us and all that he has taught us.

I give you Jon Stewart’s final lesson; Bullshit is everywhere.

Remember, if you smell something, say something.     You know I will!

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