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Will the Real Shakespeare Please Stand Up? Looking at Historical Fallacies

Readers of this blog have almost certainly heard a sermon illustration to this effect: Bankers learn how to discover counterfeit money not by studying fake currency but by spending so much time handling the real thing that they learn to feel the difference. (I’ve never independently verified this illustration, but it seems plausible. And as they say, it’ll preach!)

It’s also the case that studying fallacies and errors—the fake news, as it were—can be helpful as well. In the realm of biblical studies, seminary students and pastors have benefited from D. A. Carson’s Exegetical Fallacies (and he humbly includes examples from himself, earlier in his career). The classic in the field of historical studies is a book I read as an undergraduate: David Hackett Fischer’s Historians’ Fallacies.

Carl Trueman—a church history professor who wrote a book called Histories and Fallacies—recommends that his history students read Richard Evans’s Lying about Hitler: History, Holocaust, and the David Irving Trial in order to see historical fallacies refuted. (See my interview with Evans here.)

If you want to work through a contemporaneous real-world example of historical-fallacy–making at work, you could read an article in The Atlantic entitled “Was Shakespeare a Woman?” by Elizabeth Winkler, a reporter for The Wall Street Journal making the case that “William Shakespeare” was actually the English poet Emilia Bassano (1569–1645).

Then you could read a response written by Dominic Green, life & arts editor of Spectator USA (HT: Prufrock).

Green writes:

The ‘case’ for anyone but Shakespeare is always a fantasy in pursuit of facts.

Winkler’s article, like every case for Shakespeare not having been Shakespeare, repeatedly commits the elementary error of historical writing. Absence of evidence does not mean evidence of absence.

It is strange that Shakespeare doesn’t refer to books in his will. But it doesn’t mean that he didn’t read.

Hitler, after all, did not attend the Wannsee Conference. But that doesn’t mean he didn’t order the Holocaust.

Green goes on to identify five inaccuracies in Winkler’s piece, from false claims to irrelevant interpretations.

Again, reading this kind of critique can attune you to the sort of fallacies that authors can make.

By the way, if you are interested in the subject of Shakespeare’s identity, you may find the following two resources helpful as a starting point:

(1) Richard McCrum, “How ‘Sherlock of the Library’ Cracked the Case of Shakespeare’s Identity.” (“Wolfe’s research nails any lingering ambiguity in which the Shakespeare deniers can take refuge.”)

(2) A 15-minute interview with Oxford English professor Jonathan Bate on the question:

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