What Shakespeare taught me about climate change - Macleans.ca

What Shakespeare taught me about climate change

“Let not men say / ‘These are their reasons; they are natural;’ / For, I believe, they are portentous things / Unto the climate that they point upon.”


Sometimes I think it doesn’t matter what you study, as long as you study something, for I have often noticed that many brilliant people have arrived at the same habits of thought through the studies of entirely different disciplines. This is why I rely on my knowledge of Shakespeare to understand climate change.

Now, before you scoff too loudly, understand that I am not about to suggest that Shakespeare knew very much about global climate (when he uses the word “climate,” it is in a more limited sense) or that he was prescient enough to predict our current situation. In fact, the part of Shakespeare studies that I’m thinking of here is the so-called authorship debate. You know, where a small number of observers keep making the case that William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon could not have been the author of the plays attributed to him.

Those wishing to make the case for someone other than Shakespeare being Shakespeare can trot out a number of seemingly convincing points, all of which are true, as far as they go:

1. Though Shakespeare is supposed to have gone to the Stratford grammar school, there is no record of his actually having attended there.

2. There are no surviving letters mentioning Shakespeare as a dramatist.

3. Shakespeare’s will does not make mention of any books.

From these facts, the anti-Stratfordians (whoever their preferred Shakespeare may be) go on to draw all sorts of conclusions. If Shakespeare didn’t attend school he couldn’t possibly have been able to write the plays people say he did. If Shakespeare was so famous, why doesn’t anyone mention ever having met him? How could a literary genius not have owned any books? It doesn’t add up!

At least it doesn’t add up unless you know the full slate of facts. To wit:

1. There are no records of Shakespeare attending the King’s New School in Stratford because the records from the period were lost in a fire. Shakespeare’s father was the Bailiff of the town, a position roughly equivalent to a mayor. On this evidence, it is nearly certain that Shakespeare would have attended the local grammar school.

2. Letters from the period do not survive in abundance, especially among the class of people that Shakespeare would have mostly moved in,  so it is not surprising that no extant letters mention Shakespeare as a dramatist. Moreover, many other documents from the period do mention him. So to focus on the absence of letters is misleading.

3. Shakespeare’s will, like most people’s, does  not identify every item that he owned. Much of his estate is left, en masse, to his daughter and her husband. So the fact that no books are mentioned does not imply that Shakespeare didn’t own any. I own over a thousand books, but they are not listed in my will. Further, Shakespeare’s will mentions three of his friends, by name, who were members of his London playing company — a detail that anti-Stratfordians have to ignore or explain away.

My point is that, as Pope said, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. With enough half-truths and misleading bits of data, one can make a case for just about anything, and very often an observer cannot see the holes in the argument unless one is an expert. And just about every real expert, every Shakespeare scholar that is, knows that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare.

Which brings me back to climate change. Every time I hear a news report about climate skeptics, or hear someone talking climate smack on the radio, or see a new book claiming that climate change is a left-wing myth, I return to one point. Nearly all of the actual climate experts do believe that rapid, human-made, global warming is happening and its happening because we are burning huge amounts of fossil fuels, increasing the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. If climate change isn’t happening, why are so many specialized scholars convinced that it is? There follow charges of stupidity, greed (people seem to think scholars are awash in grant money that they can spend on themselves which is just silly), and conformity. But these accusations sound implausible to me: every scientist that I’ve ever met would kill to be able to prove a well-established theory is wrong. But it doesn’t happen very often.

Now, of course, I could spend a great deal of time studying climate change on my own and learning the ins and outs of every aspect of the debate, but I have my own work to do. And even if I learned everything I needed to know to refute the climate deniers, then there would be the evolution deniers to worry about. And the aquatic ape people. And the Kennedy assassination people. And who knows what next.

So, in the absence of real evidence of a giant cover-up, most of the time you just have to trust the experts. The earth is warming. Humans evolved from other organisms through mutation and natural selection. Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare.

Trust me.


What Shakespeare taught me about climate change

  1. Of course, the scholarly consensus attributes the authorship to William Shakespeare of Stratford, and for most people, there simply is no authorship controversy. If they read something about it, it is filed in the drawer marked “Grassy Knoll”.

    The list of doubters, however, includes some prominent individuals including Henry James who wrote, ” I am…haunted by the conviction that the divine William is the biggest and most successful fraud ever practiced on a patient world”, Sigmund Freud who wrote, “The man of Stratford seems to have nothing at all to justify his claim”, and Orson Welles who said, “I think Oxford wrote Shakespeare. If you don’t, there are some awfully funny coincidences to explain away.” Other well-known doubters include Charlie Chaplin, Daphne DuMaurier, Sir John Gielgud, Sir Derek Jacobi, Mark Twain, and Walt Whitman.

    Following are the main reasons I question the Stratfordian orthodoxy (includes a few you mentioned but expands on it):

    1. Shakespeare (referring to the actor from Stratford) left no letters or other writing in his own name, except for six crude signatures that are barely legible. There is only one known letter addressed to him — it was about 30 pounds and it was never delivered.

    2. There is no record of Shakespeare attending school. Even assuming he attended the local school until age 13, his plays reveal a knowledge of languages, the law, Latin and Greek classics, medicine, falconry, the sea, music, and nature that is so deep it could have only been learned through personal experience.

    3. He left no books or manuscripts in his will, though, at the time of his death, 20 of his famous plays remained unpublished. Indeed, his will gives no indication that the deceased was engaged in literary activities of any sort.

    4. His parents, siblings, and daughters were all illiterate except that one daughter could sign her own name. Would the greatest writer in English history have allowed this?

    5. At the height of Shakespeare’s alleged fame, tax collectors could not discover where he lived.

    6. At his death, there were no eulogies, no testimonials, or tributes, not even from fellow actors, playwrights, or his esteemed friend, Ben Jonson. His only alleged connection to the plays came seven years after his death in the tribute by Ben Jonson in the First Folio.

    7. Scholars agree that his later plays were collaborations with other authors. Why would the great playwright at the height of his powers turn over his incomplete works to be finished by lesser authors?

    8. Shakespeare is not known to have traveled outside of England, yet the plays reveal an extensive knowledge of Italy and France.

    9. The plays reveal an intimate familiarity with court life and manners that Shakespeare, as a commoner, could not have obtained simply by conversations at the Mermaid Tavern.

    10. Shakespeare’s point of view in the plays and poems is always that of an aristocrat. He has created commoners, but they are mostly buffoons who mangle the language. He portrays the nobility as individuals, but the lower classes as types, even stereotypes.

  2. Since Howard Schumann has been kind enough to help me make the point at greater length, I will address his points, but, in the interest of keeping this blog on its comment section on topic, I would ask the gentle readers to pursue this issue in greater detail elsewhere. See, for instance http://shakespeareauthorship.com/ .

    As for those who have had their doubts, notice that none of them was a serious Shakespeare scholar.

    1. As I said above, the absence of letters to or from Shakespeare is typical of men of his class of the time. Where are the letters from Christopher Marlowe?

    2. That Shakespeare has knowledge of many things does not imply personal experience of those things. I myself know a fair bit about astronomy, but I am not an astronaut or astronomer. I know a great deal about professional baseball, but I am not an athlete. If we took seriously all the claims that “Shakespeare knew about x, therefore he must have been y” we would find the Bard had lived ten lifetimes: as a teacher, a lawyer, a sailor, a doctor, and so on.

    3. The question of the will is also dealt with above. As for his literary manuscripts, they would have belonged to The King’s Men, his company and so would not have been included in the will.

    4. Dave Kathman’s essay on Shakespeare’s friends
    ( http://shakespeareauthorship.com/friends.html )deals with this in some detail. But this argument, like many others, also makes the false assumption that literacy in the period was understood as it is today. Today, to be illiterate is a shameful thing, but in a world where adult literacy was only about fifty percent, it would have been less so. The argument also misunderstands Shakespeare’s fame. In his day, Shakespeare was a well-known public entertainer, but only later did he come to be understood as a pillar of English history and culture.

    5. I don’t know what this is in reference to, but seems to make the same “fame” error as above.

    6. As above. Men of Shakespeare’s stature would not have been the sort to have lavish public tributes at their death. They might get some nice commendatory prefaces in their published works and that’s exactly what happened with Shakespeare. Notice, too, that Ben Jonson specifically mentions Shakespeare’s relative lack of formal education.

    7. Collaboration was very common in the drama of the period, so it is not at all surprising that Shakespeare, like others of the time, collaborated. As for the late collaborations, they were done with John Fletcher, who may have been a lesser writer (who wasn’t?) but was no hack, either. Fletcher would go on to be the greatest dramatist of his generation and among the most prolific major dramatists in English history. Why did Shakespeare collaborate with him? Perhaps he admired the younger man’s work. Perhaps he wanted to help out a younger writer who would be central to the future success of his company. Perhaps he wanted to continue to write but not at the pace he had maintained for the previous twenty years. Perhaps it was a favour to a friend. Each of these is plausible and there might be dozens of other reasons, too. In any case, Shakespeare may well have collaborated earlier in his career, too.

    8. That Shakespeare cannot be said to certainly have travelled to the continent does not mean that he did not do so. In any case, his knowledge of Italy, for instance, may have come from his reading, or from friends better travelled than he. Further,his “extensive knowledge” is hardly obvious. Take Venice, for instance. Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice shows that he knows some basics about the city (it was a major trading port; Jews lived there), but it does not show the kind of specific knowledge we might expect of one who had been there. For instance, Shakespeare mentions only one specific real place in Venice, the Rialto, and even then does not make it clear that he knows that the Rialto is a bridge. He does not mention St Mark’s square, a centre of Venetian life, or even the Grand Canal. He does not mention that Jews in Venice lived in a restricted part of the city, the Venetian Ghetto — a detail we might expect in a play with three Jewish characters.

    9. Here again, the notion that Shakespeare had deep knowledge of particular subjects that he could only have gained in certain ways is fallacious. In fact, most of Shakespeare’s plays are based on just a few sources: Holinshed’s Chronicles and North’s translation of Plutarch’s Lives in particular. Moreover, though he was a commoner, his theatrical life put him in contact with noble patrons, and who knows what he learned from them? Or from others who had been in close contact with aristocrats?

    10. This last one is just plain false, and exactly the kind of statement that I’ve been talking about: it sounds informed unless you have actually read and studied Shakespeare’s plays in detail. Numerous common people are fully-drawn characters in Shakespeare. Take, for example, Helen (in All’s Well,where the whole plot turns on her low social status), Friar Laurence (in Romeo and Juliet), and Antonio (in the Merchant of Venice). As for mangling the language, one of Shakespeare’s most eloquent characters, Iago (in Othello) is a common man, too. And this is not to mention the freed slave Othello himself who is hardly a buffoon with no individuality. Conversely, many of Shakespeare’s comic buffoons are aristocrats such as the dimwitted Sebastian (brother of the King of Naples)in The Tempest or the parade of idiotic noblemen who come to woo Portia in Merchant. In fact, Shakespeare’s two greatest buffoons, Sir John Falstaff (several plays) and Sir Toby Belch (Twelfth Night) are both aristocrats.

    Once again, half-truth, fallacies, and outright errors, carefully phrased and listed in abundance, can give an outward sense of educated argument. And it often takes an expert to see that there is nothing solid behind the veneer. I mean no disrespect to Mr Schumann in particular, and I appreciate his interest in the subject, and I am sure he is sincere, but like those who think evolution is just a theory, he has been taken in.

    I’m not saying you should believe something because an expert says it’s so. But when all or nearly all the experts agree, there is usually a reason for it.