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Folger presents conference on Shakespeare authorship

by Linda Theil

The Folger Institute has extended the deadline for National Endowment for the Humanities grants to support travel and lodging to their “Shakespeare and the Problem of Biography” conference to be held at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington DC on April 3-5, 2014.

The new deadline for aid applications is February 14, 2014. NEH grants are available to qualified graduate students and faculty from US institutions and may be applied for online at the Folger Shakespeare Library: info at “Scholarly Programs Application Guidelines” and “The Folger Institute Application forAdmission”.

Enrollment to the conference is open to all, and those who are not applying for grants must send a registration form that is available online and the $50 registration fee to arrive at the Folger no later than March 21, 2014.

I was delighted to hear that the great Folger plans to address the issue of the Shakespeare authorship and I read the conference précis with interest:
There is no more iconic figure with whom to push forward a fresh critical evaluation of the aims and methods of literary biography than Shakespeare. Within the academy, textual analysis often denies biography any explanatory force, while popular conceptions of Shakespeare look to biography precisely for insight into the works. In the standoff, the genre of literary biography is lost as a subject of serious inquiry. On the 450th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s birth, the Folger Institute Center for Shakespeare Studies will undertake a rigorous investigation of the multiple—and conflicted—roles biography plays in the reception of Shakespeare today. A cadre of influential scholars, many of whom have written biographies of Shakespeare, will focus discussion on such topics as the distinctions between authorship and agency, the interpretations of documentary evidence, the impact of methods of dating texts on an understanding of Shakespeare’s life, the broadened context for that life of a more robust understanding of theatrical activity, and the possibility that biography is itself a form of historical fiction.
Whoa! ". . . the possibility that biography is itself a form of historical fiction"! That doesn’t sound good. Maybe Shakespeare biographies are historical fiction, but that doesn’t mean all biography is fiction – does it? I mean, all those letters Mozart wrote to his dad – that’s data isn’t it? That’s real biography, isn’t it? That’s not fiction, is it? Just because we don’t have much data on Shakespeare doesn’t mean that all biographical data is suspect, does it?

The Folger website goes on to report that the conference will kick off with the Folger’s annual Shakespeare’s Birthday Lecture which will be audio recorded and available as a podcast at on the Folger website shortly after delivery, according to Folger Institute Executive Director Kathleen Lynch. The lecture will be given by one of the conference organizers, Dr. Brian Cummings, Anniversary Professor of English at the University of York, UK. The lecture is described on the Folger website:
The Birthday Lecture will be partly an essay in the problem of writing the life of Shakespeare. Professor Cummings will discuss this in terms of the documentary history and its haunting sense of missing links. He will describe the equally strange history of how the Shakespearean archive has come into being: a tale of human love and scholarship and fantasy and projection that has gone into furnishing Shakespeare with an appropriate life history (and even of depriving him of one, and giving the plays to someone else). But the lecture will also reach beyond the peculiarities of the Shakespearean case to ask questions about literary biography as an art form. Most great writers of the twentieth century wished that people would read their writings without reference to their lives. It is not clear, either to authors or to their biographers, that the works are better understood for the existence of biographies. Professor Cummings will therefore make a case for “anti” biography. But he will also ask whether such revisionism is sufficient. What is the life of writing, as opposed to the life of the writer? After all the searching, he will suggest that the reading of a writer creates a life of its own, somewhere between writer and reader, in the mystery that constitutes the act of literature.
Anti-biography, eh? The mystery that constitutes the act of literature? Worser and worser. What actually is the “mystery that constitutes the act of literature” and what does the mystery have to do with Shakespeare’s biography? Will this conference be just an extended apologia for the fact that the traditional Shakespeare has no biography?

Let’s see who else is talking at the conference.

Ian Donaldson, Emeritus Professor of Culture and Communication at the
University of Melbourne, will speak on the subject of “Interfiliations: Shakespeare and the Lives of Others”. Here is what the Folger website says about his talk:
Professor Donaldson will describe the often unwitting dependence of many of the written lives of William Shakespeare on the Romantic notion of literary exceptionalism. He will argue for a need to recover the more particular social elements from which that life draws its principal energies, including the constant interactions that life will have had with the lives of others. He will note in particular the need to attend closely to the habits of collaboration widespread in the theater—a topic that will be further explored in the course of the conference.
Uh, oh! The cee-word, that’s not good. "Collaboration" is the latest straw in the establishment’s crumbling bulwark against anti-Stratfordian encroachment upon the Shakespeare orthodoxy. Stanley Wells in his online diatribe, Shakespeare Bites Back, said: “Any case against Shakespeare falls down as soon as Shakespeare is understood as an honest and open collaborator.”

Why Wells and other Stratfordians believe that creating a multi-Shakespeare somehow makes the Stratfordian more convincing as an author, I have no idea, but the flood of recent material by orthodox scholars on Shakespeare collaborators make the rush-to-collaboration trend undeniable.

The fact that the Folger conference will explore Shakespeare's “habits of collaboration” does not bode well for an unbiased investigation of the Shakespeare authorship problem.

So what else do we have? A discussion of Baconian codes, a little post-modern literary theory, topped off with Katherine Duncan-Jones and Stephen Greenblatt -- a lineup that demolishes any notion that this conference will be much more than a fascinating defense of the standard Stratfordian biography.  

In an effort to discover the conference organizers' intentions, I asked about the conference, and Folger Institute Executive Director Kathleen Lynch very courteously responded to my query. Here are my questions:
  • How did you make the decision to discuss the topic of biography? Were you influenced by the growing public awareness and interest in alternative candidates for writers of the Shakespeare canon? Do you as organizer of the conference hold a position on alternate theories of authorship, either individual or as a collaboration?
  • Can you explain some of the terms you use to describe the proceedings? For example, what do you mean when you say, “ . . . the genre of literary biography is lost as a subject of serious inquiry.”? And, what are “. . . the distinctions between authorship and agency,”?
  • When you say that the conference will entertain the possibility that biography is a form of historical fiction, does that mean that the conference organizers consider biography to be fictional?
  • Are any of your presenters advocates of disrupting the Shakespeare biography status quo, such as David Ellis or Ros Barber?

Kathleen Lynch replied:
. . . You ask about the genesis of the idea. It really is as simple as the fact of the 450thanniversary of William Shakespeare’s birth this spring. As you will also know, the 400th anniversary of his death follows in 2016, and the co-incidence of the two has our Center for Shakespeare Studies turning to some major areas of scholarly work for re-evaluation. With the birth, we look to biography. The nub of the “problem”—as we put it in the conference title—has as much to do with the uncertain status of biography as a scholarly subject of inquiry as anything else—and the fact that we are again in a phase of heightened production of Shakespeare biographies. For some, that will undoubtedly open up to questions of authorship. But for us, there is a more basic question about the writing of literary biography that touches on the lack of firm distinctions among the areas of documentary fact, interpretation, and imaginative recreation. By gesturing in the direction of historical fiction, we aim to provoke discussion. The Center's foundational premise was that no single critical approach, historical perspective, scholarly method, or pedagogical strategy can do justice to early modern texts and contexts. We are gathering some of the foremost practitioners of the art of Shakespearean biography, and we expect lively discussion. But there is no particular “take” that we intend to advance.
I am very grateful for Lynch’s response, but I cannot agree with her that the conference has no “take” on the topic of Shakespeare authorship. The conference sounds fascinating, and I encourage our readers to check out all the material available on Shakespeare and the Problem of Biography: ConferenceSchedule, but don’t expect Ros Barber at the podium.


For a report on the Folger Institute "Shakespeare and the Problem of Biography" conference see "Visit Seahaven on the Potomac" by Linda Theil published April 7, 2014 on the Shakespeare Oxford Fellowship website at


UPDATE 05/04/14: A podcast of Brian Cummings 2014 Shakespeare Birthday Lecture titled "Biography and Anti-biography" given April 3, 2014 at the Folger Institute conference "Shakespeare and the Problem of Biography at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C. is now available on the Folger website at

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