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To Be Or Not To Be Falsely Equivalent: The Shakespeare Authorship Debate

A portrait of William Shakespeare is seen in central London in 2009.
Lefteris Pitarakis

I'll preface this column by disclosing a conflict: I would happily listen to Mark Rylance talk about pretty much anything for pretty much any length of time (did you see him on Broadway in Jerusalem?). So I thoroughly enjoyed Renee Montagne's interview with Rylance and his fellow thespian Derek Jacobi on Monday's Morning Edition.

But a number of listeners did not appreciate their take on the age-old question of whether Shakespeare — celebrated in the past week on the 400th anniversary of his death — actually wrote all the works attributed to him. And they really did not appreciate NPR giving the pair more than seven minutes to talk about their theories — theories that the critics assert were long ago disproved by serious academic scholarship.

"I am disappointed that Morning Edition failed to consult or interview an expert on this topic," wrote Scott A. Trudell, assistant professor of English, University of Maryland, College Park. "Mark Rylance and Derek Jacobi are actors, not scholars with the requisite knowledge base. At the very least, the story should have explained why scholars overwhelmingly agree that these conspiracy theories have no basis in fact. In a recent story on the same topic, by contrast, On the Media interviewed James Shapiro, the Columbia professor whose book 'Contested Will' explains the origins of the myth that William Shakespeare did not write the plays attributed to him."

Rachel Dunn,a listener from New York, was another who was "exceedingly disappointed" with the piece, which she called "the equivalent of interviewing two climate-change deniers without any comment from scientists — on Earth Day. As a Ph.D. candidate in early modern literature at Columbia University (who has also studied with Shakespearean scholars at Oxford and Princeton), I can attest that no scholar of any repute doubts the historicity of Shakespeare the man as the author of the Shakespearean canon."

Alan H. Nelson, professor of English emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley, invoked the climate issue as well in an email to my office, writing, "I cannot imagine that NPR would promote creationism to the discredit of academic biologists or climate-change deniers to the discredit of academic climatologists. How does NPR get away with promoting the breathtakingly ignorant opinions of two actors and one NPR host to the discredit of an entire academic profession?"

Thomas Tutt, a listener from Fort Worth, Texas, went further in his charges of the issue of false equivalency, writing, "Do you plan on celebrating Neil Armstrong's birth by interviewing moon-landing 'truthers?' Or honoring Copernicus' publication of De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium by interviewing contemporary geocentrists? All of these people have the right to express their views, however baseless and illogical they may be. But this does not mean that their views are deserving of a highly respected platform such as Morning Edition."

Nelson noted that he had complained about this to NPR before, and Montagne confirmed that she had heard from him in 2008, in the course of reporting a story on the same topic that delved into one specific theory of alternative authorship. That report drew similar complaints; a letter Montagne read on air at the time wondered, "What's next, a series in favor of the Flat Earth Society?" This week's complaints did not come as a surprise, she said.

The interview came about as many at NPR do, through a bit of persistence, setback and luck. Montagne, who has a deep familiarity with Shakespeare, wanted to do some kind of piece tied to the anniversary. The timing did not work for the story she had in mind. But then she got a callback: Rylance and Jacobi would, in a rarity, be in the same place one recent morning for a separate project and would Montagne be interested in a joint interview about the Declaration of Reasonable Doubt, the internet petition from the Shakespeare Authorship Coalition that was launched with fanfare by Jacobi and Rylance in 2007? So she said yes, and why not?

Rylance and Jacobi are hardly complete amateurs on the subject. Rylance, who was interviewed for but not the subject of the earlier NPR piece, was the founding creative director of London's Shakespeare's Globe Theatre. As he told Montagne in Monday's interview, "Both Derek and I have committed our lives, since we were teenagers, to this author."

No less than the late Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia and his retired former colleagues Sandra Day O'Connor and John Paul Stevens have signed the declaration, which continues to gather signatures. Nearly 3,500 people have signed the document, including more than 50 "notable" signatories (oddly, they do not include Scalia, whose name is on the general list) and nearly 600 people whom the petitioners group under the category of "academic."

In making the comparison to climate-change deniers, the letter writers are summoning up the specter of false equivalence— that is, the journalistic practice of giving equal time to points of view that have been discredited by facts, of not being willing to take a stand in an effort to avoid appearing partisan. But is this a case of that?

Here's Montagne:

"As I said in the interview, the dearth of evidence connecting the man William Shakespeare to the work, long ago gave rise to doubts as to whether he was the true author. Of course, Shakespearean scholars and most lovers of the Shakespeare plays and sonnets, quite reasonably, start from the premise — and stick to the premise — that he is the author. It is so universally accepted that Shakespeare is Shakespeare that it's quite a stretch to suggest any other line of thinking would be 'equivalent.' And that's especially true after a weekend overflowing with celebrations of William Shakespeare, on the 400th anniversary of his death.

But the mystery is intriguing, and far from a simple conspiracy theory, its champions have compiled some compelling evidence for ruling out Shakespeare and considering, at least, other possible authors.

All in all, it seemed as good a time as any to sit down with two of the world's most acclaimed Shakespearean actors to chat about who wrote the plays they have lived, breathed and, by the way, studied, for decades."

NPR should avoid false equivalence, of course. But, I don't see that at play here. And, as near as I can determine, the actors, at least, do not have a financial or political stake in the outcome of the debate, unlike some of those who argue against climate science. The most I can argue is perhaps the interview could have been set up with a more forceful reference to the extensive scholarship behind the counterarguments (which Montagne raised playfully at the end of the interview).

One final thought from me: This is one of the rare NPR stories where the online comments (at least, as of this writing) are both delightful and actually on point to the article.

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Elizabeth Jensen was appointed as NPR's Public Editor in January 2015. In this role, she serves as the public's representative to NPR, responsible for bringing transparency to matters of journalism and journalism ethics. The Public Editor receives tens of thousands of listener inquiries annually and responds to significant queries, comments and criticisms.