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Questioning Shakespeare’s authorship continues to intrigue

Courtesy photo Earl Showerman, left, enjoys lunch with Shakespearean actor Sir Derek Jacobi.

I became possessed of Shakespeare’s magic by direct experience when I moved to Ashland in 1974 and became a dedicated patron of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

A decade later, I happened upon Charlton Ogburn’s masterpiece “The Mysterious William Shakespeare” and the popular Frontline program of the same name, which pointed out the gaping deficiencies of the documentary record of the traditional attribution. It provided myriad reasons the Earl of Oxford, writing under a pseudonym, was a more credible candidate for the canon.

Eighteen years ago, I retired from a 30-year career in emergency medicine. After my skepticism about the authorship question was ignited by a series of Shakespeare classes at Southern Oregon University, I published several peer-reviewed articles that provided arguments to established explanations of Shakespeare’s remarkable medical knowledge and his familiarity with Greek drama.

Four years later, I enrolled in my first classes at Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at SOU, where I have enjoyed studying Shakespeare with the self-identified three Mavens — Susan Stitham, Susanne Witucki, and Kathy Rosengren.

But one of the best ways to deepen knowledge of a subject is to teach it, and OLLI gives community members the opportunity to do this. For the past decade I have taught an annual Shakespeare authorship course. This past spring, I had the good fortune of co-teaching “Shakespeare’s Sonnets” with Susan Stitham, a retired high school English teacher, past president of OLLI, and volunteer instructor in the OLLI program serving over 1,300 older adults in Southern Oregon. We agreed to divide the interpretive opportunities, with Susan addressing the structural elements and allusions, and me providing historical and authorship-related context.

W.H. Auden’s cautionary opinion that “more nonsense has been talked and written, more intellectual and emotional energy expended in vain, on the sonnets of Shakespeare than on any other literary work in the world” did not inhibit us from labeling our online course, “Shakespeare’s Sonnets: Windows to the Soul.”

The OLLI catalog described the course: “From the publication of Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets in 1609, readers have eagerly searched the texts for clues to the life of the poet and the identities of his ‘fair youth,’ ‘dark lady’ and ‘rival poet.’ In this course, we look at several sonnets both as free-standing intricate poems and as elements in a complex and ambiguous personal story.”

Each class included readings and interpretations of a group of sonnets, supplemented with PowerPoint presentations that highlighted the history of the English sonnet, publication anomalies, mysterious dedication, contemporary commentaries, dating and parallels to Shakespeare’s lyric poetry. More than 45 students signed up for the class, and participation and responses were outstanding.

Those who are intrigued by the Shakespeare authorship debate would find of particular interest the materials that were included in the OLLI courses I have taught on this topic:

• Nothing is Truer than Truth (online video)

• Last Will & Testament (online video)

• The Centennial edition of J. Thomas Looney’s “Shakespeare” Identified

• Katherine Chiljian’s Shakespeare Suppressed

• Richard Paul Roe’s The Shakespeare Guide to Italy

• Shakespeare Beyond Doubt? Exposing an Industry in Denial

• 100 Reasons Shakespeare was the Earl of Oxford

• Various materials from the Shakespeare Oxford Fellowship website

We have seen the polarization in the national debate over the pandemic, racial justice, election integrity, voting rights and climate change. The politics of the Shakespeare authorship challenge is no less intense in academia.

One OLLI class session explored the response to skepticism, an interesting psychological phenomenon, with several parallels to current controversies. Why the true identity of this playwright and poet matters beyond the academic sphere is that this individual, whoever he was, has been hugely influential in our language and culture.

Beyond the classes I offered to OLLI members, OLLI sponsored public screenings of “Last Will & Testament” in 2012 and “Nothing is Truer than Truth” in 2019. OLLI also sponsored a community forum in 2015 that was attended by 150 people. The two-hour program featured four Shakespeare authorship scholars from the UK.

While I have presented on the Shakespeare authorship question at regional Rotary Clubs, high schools, libraries and universities, none of these groups has been hungrier to know the author Shakespeare than the students at OLLI, who already love Shakespeare, and who have the curiosity and liberty to return year after year for state-of-the-debate courses on current developments.

Teaching the Oxfordian theory to secondary- and university-age students may guarantee a future where skepticism of the traditional narrative gains a degree of respect, but writers and teachers will find their most appreciative and enthusiastic fans are those who had a lifetime to learn to love Shakespeare and to discern truth from fiction in modern culture.

Dr. Earl Showerman practiced emergency medicine in Oregon for more than 30 years. Over the past 15 years he has presented a series of papers at conferences and published on the topic of Shakespeare’s Greek dramatic sources and his remarkable medical knowledge. He is an associate of the Shakespearean Authorship Trust and past president of the Shakespeare Fellowship.