The Future of History

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Oxford Mania

Any psychologists out there care to help me?

I'm wondering whether there's already a name for it - Something-or-other Syndrome - or whether we might actually be in a position to identify a previously uncategorised condition and give it a name ourselves.

Let me explain.

My wife, the Adorable Kim, sent me a link yesterday to the Spectator blog.  She drew my attention, in particular, to the comments beneath the post.

First, the post itself, which was titled - with breath-taking insouciance - Shakespeare was a nom de plume - get over it.  The author claimed to have found the smoking gun, that one clinching piece of evidence that people knew, even as far back as 1595, that Shakespeare wasn't really Shakespeare.  He provides a photo (above) of a detail from a page of William Covell's Polimanteia where, in the margin, we see a note:

All praise worthy. Lucrecia. Sweet Shakspeare.

But no.  That's not relevant.  Because, to the side of that, in the main text, Covell writes about Samuel Daniel's Delia sonnets and his Cleopatra, remarking that -

"Oxford thou maist extoll thy courte-deare-verse happie Daniell"

Now, to the casual eye, this is a harmless enough piece.  Covell, a clergyman from Cambridge, notes that Samuel Daniel, who was educated at Oxford, could be admired and extolled by his old university.  Daniel was, in Covell's words, "court-dear-verse happy", which appears to suggest that his poetry pleased the royal court of Queen Elizabeth.  Meanwhile, in the margin, Covell adds "All praiseworthy" (probably in regard to Samuel Daniel) and then "Lucrecia Sweet Shakspeare", on the grounds that Daniel's Delia sonnets and his Cleopatra were published roundabout the same time as Shakespeare's Rape of Lucrece.

But maybe our eyes are too casual.  Because to the conspiracy nuts, that small snippet is PROOF that "Shakespeare" was really Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford.

See - beside the margin note (Sweet Shakspeare) we have the word "Oxford".  See?  And after Oxford we get the words "courte-deare-verse", which is OBVIOUSLY a clue, isn't it?  Can't you see it?  It says "Our De Vere"!

Or rather, it doesn't.

Now, if you click on the link to the Spectator blog, you'll see that this spectacularly irrelevant sample of conspiracy-fail is bigged up to the nth degree.  All us Stratfordians (i.e., those of us who pay attention to what people actually said about Shakespeare back in his day) are illiterate morons in the pay of dark forces determined to maintain a 400-year old fraud.

It gets worse when you look at the comments, and the unseemly slanging match of insult and aspersion.  My particular favourite - our whatever the opposite of "favourite" is - is this comment:

"Hopeless? Trying to fit a commoner - a petty thief from Stratford - into some supremely advantaged individual possessing rights of equality with a peer as published in quarto dedications. - The temerity of this commoner might be unique?
That he could influence English arts and culture and history by some kind of osmosis witht native fauna? - Are you for real?
First tell us the kind of excellence you seek in the defense of this Dumbness. Perhaps during those hard times you see Stratford men as a case for socioeconomic blindness? You see your literary comparatives defend - what? The poetry from the Stratford man's childhood?
Give us some merit to follow in at least a few of your arguments."

Setting aside the fact that the argument here is difficult to follow ("word salad", anyone?) let's be honest: the comment comes from someone who just hates William Shakespeare.  He was a "commoner" (ooh, steady on, old chap) and a "petty thief from Stratford" (evidence?  Oh yes, he supposedly poached a deer - see my book, where I deal with that).  So how could he possibly have possessed "rights of equality with a peer"? (that's an old argument, and shows a blind ignorance of what life was like in Shakespeare's day.  Ever heard of Ben Jonson?)

An astonishing outburst, which is a good 200-odd years out of date.  But then, something tells me that the individual who left this comment happens to believe that titled lords are the biz!  Please, bring back the aristocracy - they're the only people who can string a sentence together, and who deserve to be immortal and to "influence English arts and culture and history".  The rest of us are just trash living in our own middens.  Please, won't some grand Earl come along and show us the way, for we are mere scum?!

Nonsense.  Absolute nonsense.

There is no smoking gun.  There is NO evidence that Shakespeare didn't write his own plays,. and PLENTY of evidence that he did.  There is NO evidence that somebody else wrote them for him.  It is a silly story.

And yet, a certain kind of person clings to it with a kind of religious devotion ("Dear Lord [Oxford], give me the strength to serve you here in the midst of idolatry and evil ...").  That's what it's like.  A kind of religious mania ("Protect us, Lord Oxford; we who are persecuted for thy sake by the blind and the ignorant who have erected a commoner in thy place ...").

Look around, though, and you'll find many examples of such wayward extremism these days.  Climate Change Denial?  Check.  UKIP supporters?  Check.  People who don't like wind farms?  Check.  The Tea Party?  Check.  Etcetera, etcetera ...

They all use the same methods.  Weird claims, based on a fundamental refusal to read the evidence and a crazy belief in "smoking guns", coupled with outright abuse directed at anybody who challenges them.

Standards of debate are slipping.  Why?  Because these people never give in (it's a form of religious mania, remember).  You can beat them 100 times in a fair and open debate, and they'll just keep coming back with insults and wild, abusive, hysterical claims.  They are the only ones who know "The Truth", so be damned with you, and your evidence, and your facts.

So - any psychologists out there care to help me define this strange syndrome?  There seems to be something millenarian about it, as if the End of the World were nigh and we must all repent our sinful ways (admiring a commoner - you fools, you'll all burn in Hell!)  Can anyone in the know help me to put a name to this outrageous behaviour, this determination to shout down anyone with the facts at their disposal, this refusal to see things as they are?

What makes somebody leap to such an extreme?  What is their major malfunction?

And how do we stop them infecting the ether with their insanity?

Get in touch if you think you can help.

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