The Tragedy of Interpretation

silhouette photo of man throw paper plane
Photo by Rakicevic Nenad on Pexels.com

The “Post-Truth” Era

There is insight worth revisiting within a 2016 New York Times article that claims “Lies masquerading the news are as old as news itself. It’s a history we should keep in mind amid the current panic about ‘fake news.'” In light of the 2016 presidential election, contributing author Kenan Malik wrote this article, and made some timely points regarding the nature of fake news and its evolution in the age of social media:

In the past, governments, mainstream institutions and newspapers manipulated news and information. Today, anyone with a Facebook account can do it. Instead of the carefully organized fake news of old, there is now an anarchic outflow of lies. What has changed is not that news is faked, but that the old gatekeepers of news have lost their power.

And, while he partly credits social media for this change in gatekeepers and the frequency of fake news, Malik doesn’t necessarily fault social media. Claiming instead that social media “merely reflect and amplify” an already fragmented world. He goes on to say that one’s political framework is heavily influenced by ideology and identity; and that, in turn, this problematic framework influences how one chooses to interpret facts. Hence, our fragmented world.

…one’s political framework is heavily influenced by ideology and identity; and that, in turn, this problematic framework influences how one chooses to interpret facts. Hence, our fragmented world.

Malik suggests that the post-truth era is “more complex than many allow.” And, while he does a solid with his opening examples of fake news from 1920 and onward, one could argue that there is an even stronger example that demonstrates the full complexities of truth as we know it today.

The Shakespeare Authorship Debate

In 2010, James Shapiro, an English professor at Columbia University, published Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?. The book explores the nature of the debate regarding whether or not William Shakespeare is the true author of his works. In his prologue, Shapiro specifies his intention: “My interest, again, is not in what people think–which has been stated again and again in unambiguous terms–so much as why they think it” (p. 8). It is in Shapiro’s focus on why (as opposed to what) that makes the Shakespeare controversy so intriguing and relevant today.

It is in Shapiro’s focus on why (as opposed to what) that makes the Shakespeare controversy so intriguing and relevant today.

Shapiro moves through most of his book in sections exploring popular anti-Stratfordian arguments, slowly sifting through and quickly diffusing loaded theories surrounding the potential of Sir Francis Bacon and Sir Edward de Vere as the true authors. But before doing so, Shapiro lays the foundation for his pending takedowns by demonstrating to the reader how pervasive forgery is in the history of the debate and by calling out the earliest scholars who (even with the best Stratfordian intentions) set into motion flawed methods of analysis that “would prove crucial to those who would subsequently deny Shakespeare’s authorship” (p. 39).

Shapiro’s study is complex. To get into all of its facets in detail would surpass the expected length of this read. It’s worth noting, however, that the primary streams of thought filling up the deeper channels of his study include political bias, fake or skewed documentation, questionable methods and beliefs, and deification issues. They all feed into one another with raging channels of certainty and frustration. We’re going to take a dip (if you will) into one of these channels.

They all feed into one another with raging channels of certainty and frustration.

Let’s consider Shakespeare’s play Macbeth. This is the one where a loyal-subject-turned-traitor takes control over Scotland by killing the good King Duncan. The tyrant Macbeth all but destroys the best of Scotland before being taken down by the noble Macduff and Malcolm–Duncan’s eldest son and rightful heir to the throne. How should one interpret this play?

If one were a Baconian (believing that Sir Francis Bacon were the true author of the tragedy), one would be tempted to interpret Macbeth in a way that claims anti-monarchy views. Why? Because Francis Bacon was politically progressive, supporting ideas of a republic in place of the English monarchy. One such Baconian, Shapiro writes, believed Francis Bacon turned to playwriting because, “having failed in the political realm,” Francis Bacon and other progressives of his time, “turned to drama to effect change, if not in the present, then at least in the future… There could be no mistaking their radical political agenda: these men were committed republicans whose plays were vindications against tyranny by another name…” (p. 95-96). So, of course he would write a play that would reveal how vulnerable a monarchy is to tyranny. It aligns with his political views and, therefore, aligns with the interest of the Baconians to interpret the play as such.

So, of course he would write a play that would reveal how vulnerable a monarchy is to tyranny. It aligns with his political views and, therefore, aligns with the interest of the Baconians to interpret the play as such.

But, what about the Oxfordians? (Anyone who believes Sir Edward de Vere–the Earl of Oxford– is the author of Shakespeare’s work is deemed an Oxfordian.) Oxfordians would look at the same play and say, “Oh, quite the contrary! This isn’t anti-monarchy. This is pro-monarchy. Yes, the good king is killed and a tyrant takes over; but, in the end the throne is restored to its rightful heir. The monarchy prevails!” Why would they say this? Because Oxfordians know that Sir Edward de Vere was very loyal to Queen Elizabeth and took great pride in the English monarchy. After all, he was a member of the Queen’s Royal Court. It makes sense then that this would be the way in which an Oxfordian would choose to interpret Macbeth; it aligns favorably with their authorship agenda.

Two special interest groups looking at the same information only to come up with two completely different (and very flawed) interpretations. Sound familiar? While political bias is the basis of each interpretation of the play, the mindsets of the Baconians and Oxfordians themselves reflect that of modern day political groups. Consider liberal and conservative views on immigration, economic policies, abortion rights, climate change. Both sides hold in their hands their own sets of facts, numbers, reports, and interpretations that cater to different conclusions. How can this be?

Consider liberal and conservative views on immigration, economic policies, abortion rights, climate change.

In his prologue, Shapiro writes, “Positions are fixed and debate has proven to be futile or self-serving. The only thing that has changed over time is how best to get one’s message across” (p. 8). While he’s explicitly referring to positions within the Shakespeare authorship debate, Shapiro’s statement perfectly mirrors today’s politics as well as today’s use of social media. “All this has led to anguished discussions about people living in echo chambers,” Malik writes in his 2016 article, “sealed-off social worlds in which the only views they hear are one’s echoing their own…”

If you’re wondering which side of the Shakespeare controversy Shapiro falls on, he stands firmly on the Stratfordian side. Along with his impressive counters to Shakespeare’s lack of education and travel, Shapiro also stands behind the theory of collaboration–which is to say he believes that Shakespeare was not the sole author of all the plays once attributed to him. Shapiro confesses, “it hasn’t been easy abandoning old habits of mind. I know that I am not alone in struggling to come to terms with how profoundly it alters one’s sense of how Shakespeare wrote, especially toward the end of his career when he coauthored half of his last ten plays” (p. 255). The honesty in this statement should not feel as profound as it does; however, living in a world consumed by echo chambers, this type of honesty is profound.

The honesty in this statement should not feel as profound as it does; however, living in a world consumed by echo chambers, this type of honesty is profound.

The modern Stratfordian view–supporting (or yielding to) the evidence that other playwrights did collaborate with The Bard–is an example of what we have yet to achieve in our political world of fake news, skewed news, gridlock and worship. The Stratfordians achieved a valid compromise.

Imagine that.


faberClub Discussion

  • In our post, we mention that one of the major “streams” within Shapiro’s study is deification issues. To deify is to give someone or something godlike status. The issue with this is that once you give someone or something godlike status, it becomes incredibly difficult to question that “god” no matter how substantial such questioning may be. Where do we see deification taking place today? Consider the way people “worship” celebrities. If a celebrity makes a political statement on social media, what’s to be said about all the “likes” and shares that post gets? Why might this be problematic? Or, consider the way some people “worship” certain news networks. How might this be problematic?
  • Regarding questionable methods and beliefs, Shapiro stressed the problems in basing one’s authorship stance on literary analysis and not incorporating any historical context. Also, to interpret the past through a modern lens, Shapiro argues, is incredibly flawed as modern values, norms, and language are dramatically differently from that of the past. To make this “stream” more relevant to today’s handling of information, we look at questionable methods and beliefs in relation to journalism. What are some questionable methods of journalism? Think about reporting, fact checking, polling, etc. If you really want to dig deeper into this question, we suggest listening to these two podcast episodes produced by The Daily: “Fake News, Real Consequences” and “The Business of Internet Outrage”.
  • Think of an issue you feel strongly about. Is it hard for you to hear the opposing view to that issue? Why or why not? Are there other perspectives to that issue you are refusing to acknowledge? What would a valid compromise look like to you?

References

Malik, K. (4 December, 2016). “All the Fake News That Was Fit to Print.” The New York Times.

Shapiro, J. (2010). Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s