The Shakespeare authorship question – the idea that William Shakespeare didn’t write the plays or poems – is fuelled by one primary thing: the absence of evidence that he was a writer. Almost everywhere you would expect to find evidence of Shakespeare, it is absent.  Despite being the acknowledged author of at least 37 plays and 156 poems, Shakespeare left no manuscripts or partial manuscripts of his literary works, and no correspondence of any kind. We possess no certain samples of his hand-writing barring six shaky signatures on legal documents towards the end of his life, three of which are on his will. His will lists numerous items, but none which we associate with writers; no books or manuscripts, no bookcase, no desk. The detailed inventory that would have accompanied the will is missing.  Nobody who knew him personally, though some of them kept diaries or wrote voluminous correspondence, speaks of him as a writer. This frustrating pattern of evidence, noted by many scholars and biographers over the centuries, does not rule him out as an author. Naturally we expect gaps in the evidence after four hundred years. Nevertheless, the absence of personal evidence connecting Shakespeare to any kind of literary or theatrical circle is exceptional when compared to the historical records of his peers.[2] It is the absence of this kind of testimony that sows the seeds of doubt.

The standard response to Shakespeare’s absent evidence, repeated by scholars as eminent as Professor Stanley Wells, is that ‘absence of evidence is not evidence of absence’.  It sounds reasonable enough, but it is a logical fallacy. This fallacy, known as argument from ignorance, is most commonly used to defend the existence of God.  You might say it is fitting, given that critic Harold Bloom has declared that ‘Shakespeare is God’ and love for Shakespeare sometimes has the quality of worship.  But it is nevertheless an unscholarly defence of the traditional attribution, and is ripe to be challenged.  Even if we do accept it as a valid defence of an invisible entity’s existence, it is not a valid explanation for the uniquely deficient historical record of a real human being.

The people who can tell us what absence of evidence is most likely to mean are those who work in the field of evidence science. David Schum, an academic and lawyer who has worked for the CIA and specialises in the analysis of evidence, began a presentation to the British Academy conference ‘Enquiry, Evidence, and Facts’ (2007) with an extract from Conan Doyle’s Silver Blaze — a story about a racehorse theft — to demonstrate that the absence of something we would expect to be there qualifies in itself as an important piece of evidence for which any explanatory narrative must account:

‘Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?’

‘To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.’

‘The dog did nothing in the night time!’

‘That was the curious incident,’ remarked Sherlock Holmes.

In Silver Blaze, the mystery is solved because the absence of the dog’s bark points to the racehorse thief being someone familiar to the dog, rather than a stranger.  It is through this clue that the mystery is solved.  It is unlikely that the Shakespeare authorship question will be resolved so easily, and one ‘curious incident’ is not in itself significant.  Nevertheless the larger pattern of absent evidence where we would expect evidence deserves thoughtful consideration, not dismissal with a logical fallacy.

[2] Diana Price, in Shakespeare’s Unorthodox Biography, compared Shakespeare’s literary paper trail with 24 of his Elizabethan and Jacobean peers.  Her methods and data will be examined closely in a future post.

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