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Becoming an Oxfordian: The Phenomenology of Shifting Research Paradigms in Shakespearean Biography 1
1.0 Experiencing a New Shakespeare
A year before she was to publish her 1922 book The Shakespeare Garden, American author, journalist and polymath Esther Singleton came across a book that was to change her life. It purported that the author of the plays and poems of Shakespeare was not the businessman from Stratford-Upon-Avon but instead a highly-placed Earl who secretly wrote under the pseudonym Shake- Speare. Overwhelmed by this revelation, she re-read the book multiple times before expressing her thoughts on the matter. She wrote,
I cannot explain the effect that this discovery has had upon me. All the plays that I know so well, that I have read and reread since childhood until they have become bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh, are now more wonderful. Some things that have been obscure have become as clear as glass; more true in their philosophy; more brilliant in their wit; more sincere in their scholarship; more charming in their tenderness; more subtle in their delicacy; more penetrating in their wisdom;and truer to life…2
The book that had affected her so was the recently-published Shakespeare Identified in Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford by J. Thomas Looney,3 a ground- breaking work of investigation that would create a movement of Shakespeare enthusiasts calling themselves Oxfordians following in Looney’s footsteps.
With the centenary of Shakespeare Identified approaching, it now seems appropriate to consider afresh the impact of Looney’s work – not so much on the production of Shakespeare biographies, for those proceed apace as always – rather, we should examine the lived experience of Oxfordians themselves, and consider the intellectual and emotional phenomenon so eloquently described by Singleton.
This essay seeks to gain a phenomenological understanding of the personal discovery of Oxford-as-Shakespeare by mapping the individual pathway from the conventional Stratfordian model to the Oxfordian one, and as a shift in authorship research paradigms. This shall be assessed by undertaking an analysis of recently-published personal essays by self-identified Oxfordians regarding their own journeys of discovery,4 according to an existing framework regarding the phenomenology of paradigm shifts5 adapted for this purpose.
The essays in question were published on the Shakespeare Oxford Fellowship (SOF) website, as part of its ongoing feature “How I Became an Oxfordian” in which members of the SOF are invited to submit 500-word personal essays recounting their own shifts in beliefs. As of this writing, the Fellowship has published more than 50 of these essays, and they provide a rich and remarkable window into the lived experience of those who question the Shakespeare of tradition and have embraced instead an Oxfordian Shakespeare.6
The analysis is located theoretically in the work of French philosopher Paul Ricoeur, which concerned not only the hermeneutic study of texts, but the expression of mutable self-identity over time (or ipse) through the use of narrative structures.7
2.0 Research Paradigms of Shakespearean Authorship and the Phenomenology of Belief
It must be stressed at the outset that Edward de Vere’s putative identity as Shakespeare does not constitute a paradigm per se any more than does that of William Shakspere of Stratford-Upon-Avon. However, as is the case with any body of knowledge, approaches to studying authorship do involve particular research paradigms: ontological, epistemological, axiological and methodological positioning that facilitate the posing and addressing of certain questions not otherwise feasible in their absence.8 A comparison between the two broad approaches to the respective candidates (Table 1) does reveal some stark differences in terms of research potentialities.
Table 1: Comparing Authorship Research Paradigms
Examining Shakespearean authorship claims in terms of research paradigms – as opposed to competing cases based on evidence – avoids to some extent the vitriol that so often characterizes mainstream response to anti-Stratfordian theories.9 It is also a much narrower scale of investigation than would be the case of claims for paradigm shifts in a more general Kuhnian sense. Even so, in this we face another epistemological challenge.
While the literature is replete with references to paradigms in general – almost to the point of cliché, especially in the business management field – as well as with hundreds of phenomenological studies regarding a wide range of lived experiences, it is curiously silent on the phenomenology of paradigm shifts.10 This is somewhat surprising given that Thomas Kuhn in his 1962 classic The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, recognized the fundamentally experiential and personal nature of the process of paradigm shifts, of “‘scales falling from the eyes’ or of the ‘lightning flash.’” experienced by scientists.11 According to Kuhn, the term paradigm refers to “the entire constellation of beliefs, values, techniques and so on shared by the members of a given community.”12 The current, standard paradigm in a given field he referred to as “normal science” which, while it may meet the needs of the scientific community quite well, will nonetheless limit its ability to understand or even see new phenomenon:
No part of the aim of normal science is to call forth new sorts of phenomenon; indeed those that will not fit the box are often not seen at all. Nor do scientists normally aim to invent new theories, and they are often intolerant of those invented by others. Instead, normal-scientific research is directed to the articulation of those phenomena
and theories that the paradigm already supplies.13
In the case of Shakespeare, the “normal science” is the Stratfordian model, which regards the author as an incomparable, essentially divinely-inspired genius. Still, the use of the term paradigm in the humanities should be undertaken advisedly, as Kuhn only intended it to apply to the sciences, yet it has been adopted across the disciplines. John Budd in his comparison of modalities of research between the sciences and the humanities, observes that disciplines in the humanities are essentially non-paradigmatic: being concerned with products of human creativity, there can be few if any “constellations of belief” or rules of observation about them.14
Shifting such beliefs in sets of facts involves more than an awareness on the part of the individual of their own beliefs: they bear upon one’s sense of self and identity, which changes over time. This is a major theme in the work of French philosopher Paul Ricœur, who distinguishes between the permanent structural qualities of an individual (the “what”) that makes one physically unique – or idem – and the dynamic internal ipse (the “who”).15 Ricoeur emphasized the particular role of narratives in ipseity, as they help us to “make sense out of self-identity in the context of time.”16 Such narratives, he proposed, are dependent on three layers of what Aristotle referred to as mimesis, or the imitation of action: the first, pre-configuration, concerns the individual’s past experiences and predispositions for integrating the events of the narrative; the second, configuration, is the manner in which the individual “emplots” the narrative and thus forms an internally logical and intelligible story; while the third level, refiguration demonstrates the integration of the substance of the narrative – containing as it does “fictive” plot devices (e.g., beginning, middle, and end) – with actual lived experience and the individual’s sense of self, or ipseity.17
For Ricoeur, the mimetic stories we tell about ourselves and the ways in which they are arranged utilizing traditional plot structures are integral to our sense-making about who we are because “the figure of identity that emerges [through storytelling] offers a new insight into the self” as well as “a transformative understanding of one’s self in the world.”18 More significantly for the purposes of this analysis is the role of narratives in identifying one’s place in a larger story which represents a “deviation from a canonical cultural pattern”19, or “‘voices that are excluded from or neglected within dominant political structures and processes”20 – a description which certainly applies to proponents of Oxford’s authorship.
3.0 Research Design
Given the novelty of the present analysis, it is important to model our study on an earlier phenomenological approach to making accessible life-altering shifts in belief systems; yet few such models exist. For her 1987 doctoral dissertation at the University of Victoria, Nancy Dudley21 examined the structure involved in broad cultural shifts in consciousness from one world view to another. Her participants had experienced shifts from the mechanistic, linear, dualistic, masculine, individualistic, rational and materialist beliefs born of the Western Enlightenment, towards a relational, gestalt, transcendent, supranatural, feminist belief system — “an awareness of a universe of pattern and meaning” blending understandings from quantum physics, Jungian notions of the collective unconscious and Native American worldviews.22 Through in- depth interviews with 10 anonymous participants, Dudley identified seven major structures and processes involved in this paradigm shift:
1. Evolutionary Pattern [of the shift]:
- Gradual [temporal dimension]: change to the new world view occurs gradually;
- Spiral form [mental/spatial dimension]: one’s awareness undergoes a process of “broadening, deepening and expanding.”23
- Directional: once set in motion, the individual recognizes the change is irreversible;
- Purpose: New awareness brings with it calls to action.
2. Separation: a disruption of one’s reality-structuring pattern, a “frame- break” born of a sense of yearning or dissatisfaction with conventionality.24
- Cultural estrangement: sense of one’s alienation from normal expectations or structures.
- Proximity to other cultures: Predisposition to new awareness based on previous exposure to other cultural norms.
- Questioning: responding to cognitive dissonance and psychological tension in response to conventional framework that one no longer finds acceptable;
- Crisis (personal/cultural): severance/separation, metaphorical death/rebirth experience.
3. Transcendence of ordinary patterns: In “crossing the bounds of convention”25 one “glimps[es] more possibilities of experiencing reality”26 and gains a “sense of expansiveness.”27
4. Mindful willing participation exploration and surrender: Active engagement in one’s evolution: Gaining “new information, or contents, creates new pathways which allow yet more new information to enter [one’s] consciousness, which again opens new structures.”28
5. Validation: finding support and communion with like-minded others or finding affirmation additional ideas or experiences.
6. Integration vs. pull to familiar pattern: struggle to synthesize new consciousness in face of convention and potential disparagement or rejection by others, especially being called “crazy.” Ultimately integration is an ongoing dynamic subjective and intersubjective process.
7. Sensibility of a Universe of Pattern and Meaning: Full awareness of the new paradigm.
Some adjustments to this framework appear necessary at the outset owing to the very different nature of the paradigms to which the respective participants have shifted. In Dudley’s dissertation the phenomenon being investigated related to participants’ Heideggerrian sense of Dasein (being-in-the- world); the cognitive, affective and conative elements of the structure were not treated separately from the shift itself because the paradigm was fundamentally subjective and relational, and expressed almost entirely in internally-oriented terms such as awareness, intuition, attitude, attention, commitment, perception, sensibility, trust, vision, respect, etc.29 In regards the Oxfordian experience by contrast, the research paradigm comprises an approach to historical and literary interpretation external to the individual and which is seen to elicit cognitive, emotional and conative responses. As such, the analytical framework shall be adjusted to account for these: the elements of the shift in belief and the essence of the belief are treated as distinct elements. The categories and subcategories from Dudley’s 1987 study will also be adjusted slightly. The “purpose” subcategory is moved to join “cognition” and “affect” from the “pattern” category. The “separation” and “questioning” phases in the present study also sufficiently constitute the idea of “crisis” so this heading was seen as superfluous. “Questioning” being such a significant part of the transition to Oxfordian paradigm, it will comprise its own category, rather than a sub- heading under “separation.” In addition, the category of “proximity to other cultures” is being treated in terms of disciplines, i.e., the exposure to other academic domains or professions, while the “gradual shift” is broadened to “temporal dimension” to account for variation in experience. The final element is unique to the original study so is not included here. The analysis will be further augmented with Kolbe’s typology of cognitive, affective and conative dimensions:
Table 2: Cognitive, Affective, and Conative Domains 30
Overall, the analysis constitutes three distinct components: the pattern of the experience; the elements of the experience; and the essence of the experience. It is expected that the Oxfordian journey will involve new sources of knowledge of – and ways to think about – Shakespeare, which will inspire a range of emotions and lead to new commitments on the part of the essayists.
4.0 Analysis: The Phenomenology of Becoming an Oxfordian
4.1 Pattern of the Experience
4.1.1 Temporal Dimension
Essayists generally experience a gradual journey to Oxford-as-Shakespeare, having only known vaguely that there was a controversy. Often this involves weighing the other candidates (Francis Bacon or Christopher Marlowe). However, once they are exposed to a key text about Oxford, they either experience a rapid acceptance of the argument, or else consider it carefully over an extended period of time before committing to it.
Table 3: Temporal Pattern
4.1.2 Directional Pattern
Once Oxford-as-Shakespeare has been understood, accepted and integrated with their knowledge of Shakespeare, the essayists have “crossed a threshold” and are convinced. There is no returning to their previous assumptions.
Table 4: Directional Pattern
4.2 Elements of the Experience
4.2.1 Separation: Estrangement
Owing to a combination of previous life experiences or personality traits, essayists report being alienated from Shakespeare and other Shakespeareans. The texts fail to resonate or do not actually make sense to them.
Table 5: Separation: Estrangement
4.2.2 Separation: Proximity to Other Perspectives
Very few of the essayists are from careers traditionally associated with Shakespeare scholarship or biography, i.e., English literature departments. Instead, they represent many diverse backgrounds – often in creative enterprises such as writing or scholarly fields like psychology – which they believe afforded them novel perspectives on the authorship problem.31
Table 6: Separation: Proximity to Other Perspectives
4.2.3 Questioning: Dissonance
Before discovering Oxford-as-Shakespeare, essayists report being troubled by what they read or were taught about the poet-playwright. The biographies they read felt listless, and the statements made about Shakspere seemed to have no coherence with the words he was supposed to have written.
Table 7: Questioning: Dissonance
4.2.4 Questioning: Sense of Absence and longing
This sense of incoherence troubled the essayists because they loved the works so much, or had their own image of who the author must have been, that they longed for more – or more satisfying – information.
Table 8: Questioning: Sense of Absence and Longing
4.2.5 Transcendence of Ordinary Patterns
Once the essayists have read about Oxford-as-Shakespeare and come to accept him as the author, this completely changes their experience of the plays and poems, and has a deeply rewarding and transcendent effect upon them.
Table 9: Transcendence of Ordinary Patterns
4.2.6 Willing Participation and Exploration
The personal discovery of Oxford-as-Shakespeare is no one-off event: essayists are then compelled to read and learn as much as they possibly can.
Table 10: Willing Participation and Exploration
However, this desire for more knowledge is not satisfied by mere reading; Oxfordians seek out other Oxfordians in person and online, often personally contacting authors that have had so important an impact on them or joining an Oxfordian society.
Table 11: Validation
4.2.8 Integration vs. Pull to Familiar Pattern
At various points on their journey, the essayists report navigating the tensions between the force of tradition and the excitement of their new discoveries. Sometimes this was owed to rejecting what they felt was dubious evidence for candidates other than Oxford; others tried to maintain a balanced approach by reading conventional biographies. Some faced ridicule by others pressuring them to set the entire issue aside. The comfort of the Stratford myth itself sometimes proved difficult to leave behind.
Table 12: Integration vs. Pull to Familiar Pattern
4.3 Essence of the Experience
4.3.1 Cognition: Coherence
Where conventional biographers struggle to match the life of the Stratford merchant to the works, Oxfordians discover perfect coherence, in which everything we read in the plays and poems can be seen reflected in the life of Edward de Vere.
Table 13: Cognition: Coherence
4.3.2 Cognition: Sense-making
With firm knowledge of the life behind the work, the plays and poems become more comprehensible, more meaningful, less intimidating for the essayists.
Table 14: Cognition: Sense-making
4.3.3 Affective: Empathy
Instead of the remote, god-like Shakespeare of myth, the “national poet” and unapproachable secular saint, Oxfordians see a real flesh-and blood man, brilliant but flawed and even unlikable, but nevertheless a human being to whom they can relate, and whose experiences and emotions can be understood.
Table 15: Affective: Empathy
4.3.4 Affective: Emotions
This profound discovery brings with it a range of emotions: exhilaration at the excitement of new meaning, but at the same time anger and resentment that it should have been so difficult to learn, so actively withheld from students.
Table 16: Affective: Emotions
4.3.5 Affective: Identify
While their search may have initially been born from curiosity, for many it becomes life-altering and a major anchor for their identities (ipseity).
Table 17: Affective: Identity
4.3.6 Conative: Purpose
Becoming an Oxfordian is not merely to hold a belief about the origin of works of literature; it instills one with a renewed sense of purpose, a sense of mission and responsibility to rectify a terrible historical mistake and injustice.
Table 18: Conative: Purpose
While there are of course variations in the narratives of the Oxfordian experience, we can draw some generalizable characteristics. The Oxfordian essayists feel alienated from an intellectual and cultural environment characterized by what they feel to be inert knowledge which is maintained and reinforced by a dominant majority. Faced with such a significant discontinuity regarding something they otherwise treasure, they suffer cognitive and emotional dissonance. Eventually some catalyzing event, most often an encounter with a key Oxfordian text helps them gain a critical awareness that they can no longer tolerate the status quo, and so they begin to move away from this Stratfordian model towards the Oxfordian one. Eventually (and sometimes all at once) a threshold point is reached and the previous unsatisfying, dissonant state is irreversibly abandoned as the essayists find a rewarding, transcendent experience with their authentic selves and a community of similarly-motivated individuals. The Shakespeare canon takes on new significance and coherence, and in their renewed enthusiasm for the poet- playwright, the Oxfordian is inspired to discover all they can and to contribute to the cause of promoting De Vere as the author. Consistent with Ricoeurian narratology, the Oxfordian essays almost universally demonstrate evidence of preconfiguration, in establishing their own personal or professional predispositions that prepared them to the journeys they undertook. Their narratives are also almost exclusively configured, as the authors “emplot” their quests with a beginning, middle and end, including their sometimes circuitous pathways to discovery, moments of doubt, new relationships and invigorated sense of purpose, thereby presenting a compelling and intelligible story. Finally, the authors refigure their narratives to demonstrate the extent to which they have integrated Oxford-as-Shakespeare into their sense of self, redefining themselves in the process as Oxfordians. Thus have they gained new insight into the selves but also “transform[ed their] understanding of [themselves] in the world.”32 In other words, that Edward de Vere was Shakespeare is far more than “just a theory,” – and certainly not a “conspiracy theory” – but rather a radically transactional and transformative way of connecting the reader to the texts of Shakespeare.
This hermeneutic analysis of 50 personal essays by confirmed believers in the Shakespearean authorship of Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, reveals a powerful, shared phenomenological narrative of past dissonance and disappointment giving rise to discovery, conviction, passion, invigorated scholarship and a new sense of self, purpose and community. This contrasts sharply with the response most uninitiated readers offer when faced with the Shakespeare Authorship Question: “what does it matter who wrote the plays? We have the plays and poems and that’s all that matters.” This essay demonstrates that it matters a great deal to many people, so much so that it transforms their experience of Shakespeare, and their sense of self.
What is most significant in this analysis is that the coherence and sense- making afforded by the Oxfordian model unleashes a level of empathy unavailable to the reader wedded to the Stratfordian mythology. In the place of the remote, god-like paragon of “natural genius”, the national poet against whom all must be compared and whom none can approach, the Oxfordian reader comes to know, understand and profoundly empathize with the author. As Oxfordian essayist Lanny Cotler puts it:
Before, I knew little of the Stratford man who had somehow written the Canon. Now, I saw how the tortured soul of a man ripped from his mother, and [whom] along the way, authored the Canon…I tried to imagine it, feel it, weigh it against other parts of myself, as a writer. The rush of completing a fabulous speech…or a whole play
or long poem…and knowing that someone else was to enjoy the laurels. Of knowing it was you. Your experiences. Who saw it, felt it, and copied it to parchment. The frustration. The anger. The quintessential sadness…
Against this flesh-and-blood individual whose soul becomes acutely accessible in the plays and poems of Shakespeare, the moribund biography of the Man from Stratford can only offer more conjecture – and, inevitably, more unmovable scepticism.
- The author would like to acknowledge Amita Mukerjee for her thoughtful comments on earlier drafts of the paper, as well as the cooperation of Shakespeare Oxford Fellowship President Tom Regnier and website editor Robert Meyer in making available as Word documents the essays analysed herein. Thanks as well to the always helpful staff at the InterLibrary Loan office at the University of Winnipeg Library. A longer version of this paper at be found at http://winnspace.uwinnipeg.ca/handle/10680/1506
- Singleton 1922.
- Looney 1920.
- The author’s own essay has been excluded from this analysis. It is available at https://shakespeareoxfordfellowship.org/michael-dudley-how-i-became-an-oxfordian/
- Dudley 1987.
- These essays may be accessed and searched for by authors’ names at
- Ricoeur 1991.
- Creswell 2013, 19-21.
- For example, the late Richmond Crinkly, once director of programs at the Folger Shakespeare Library, once observed that the “viciousness expressed towards anti- Stratfordian[s]…was like some bizarre mutant racism.” Crinkley 1985, 518.
- The Web of Science database includes 9,656 articles related to some aspect of phenomenology, and over 38,000 concerning paradigms; however, only 14 articles contain both terms and in none of these instances do the articles concern the personal experience of paradigm shifts.
- Kuhn and Hacking 2012, 122.
- Kuhn and Hacking 2012, 175.
- Kuhn and Hacking 2012, 24.
- Budd 1989.
- Rasmussen 1995, 165.
- Ricoeur, McLaughlin and Pellauer 2012.
- Crowley 2003, 2-3.
- Bruner 1990, 49-50.
- Squre 2005, 93.
- The author’s mother.
- Dudley 1987, 286.
- Dudley 1987, 226.
- Dudley 1987, 234.
- Dudley 1987, 251.
- Dudley 1987, 246.
- Dudley 1987, 249.
- Dudley 1987, 259.
- Dudley 1987, 3-4, 286-289.
- Kolbe 1990.
- Most essayists mention their professions or backgrounds: twenty-one identify with some form of creative profession (writing, acting, art, filmmaking) while ten others are academics. Only one individual is a professor of English literature, being the most common profession Among Shakespeare biographers. Twenty-three persons describe themselves as being retired or semi- retired.
- Crowley 2003, 2-3.
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Shapiro, J. 2010. Contested Will Who Wrote Shakespeare? New York: Simon & Schuster.
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Squire, C. 2005. “Reading narratives.” Group Analysis, 38, no. 1: 91-107.
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