Several people have been claiming that Shakespeare spent a few years working as a schoolteacher in Titchfield, a village in Hampshire. The claims have some plausibility and may be right. But I’m interested in how sloppily the BBC reported the story. The BBC makes it sound like a definite finding. Surprisingly, the Daily Mail newspaper is more even-handed, as we’ll see. And the claims about Shakespeare make some interesting intellectual errors in their own right.
One problem is that the BBC story exaggerates the credentials of the people making the claim. ‘Local historian’ Ken Groves turns out to be ‘retired physicist’ Ken Groves. He would sound less credible, and the BBC’s story would have less weight, if he were first introduced as ‘retired physicist and amateur historian’ Ken Groves.
A worse example involves the description of Stewart Trotter, who presented the schoolteacher theory in his 2002 book Love’s Labour’s Found. The BBC story describes him as ‘academic and author Stewart Trotter’. He is actually an acupuncturist, and his own extensive biography appears to reduce his academic career to teaching English at the University of Isfahan after he graduated from university. ‘Acupuncturist and author Stewart Trotter’ would not give the BBC story enough weight, though.
Of course, ex-physicists and acupuncturists can do good history. But while I’m not a Shakespeare scholar, I do have some experience in handling historical evidence. And Stewart Trotter, in particular, looks like he mostly looks at only one side of the evidence. As I show in my critique of Leo Strauss, and more briefly on this blog, it’s easy to get carried away if you don’t test your theories – if, say, you just look for evidence that fits your case without considering alternatives.
And some of Trotter’s claims strike me as thinner than a wafer-thin mint. For example, Shakespeare’s play Love’s Labour’s Lost refers to ‘The Parke’ and ‘The Place’, and Trotter points out that Titchfield had a park and a place in Shakespeare’s day (see map below, highlighted in pink). OK, but other villages and towns had parks. To convince, Trotter needs to show that ‘The Place’ was peculiar to Titchfield.
Instead, Trotter continues without pause. ‘This indicates that the play was performed in the grounds of Place House at the time of the famous Whitsun (originally ‘Corpus Christi’) Fair. The word “fair” is mentioned 48 times in the play.’
I think Trotter has committed a foul here. Almost all of these references are to ‘fair lady’, ‘fair self’, and such like. Only three references are to fairs of the carnival/festival kind. And such fairs were hardly unique to Titchfield. Shakespeare mentions them twice in Winter’s Tale. Is that play also about Titchfield? Curiously, Winter’s Tale also uses the word ‘place’ a lot. More hidden messages about Titchfield?! The evidence about Love’s Labour’s Lost looks less convincing when we look at the other side of the story.
Now, some of the claims on Trotter’s blog certainly look plausible, especially the material about William Beeston, who claimed in the 17th century that Shakespeare had been a schoolteacher. But I am less convinced by Trotter’s evidence about Shakespeare himself. We need more rigour to get a case that is ‘beyond reasonable doubt’, a view the BBC attributes to historian (and retired physicist) Ken Groves.
Astonishingly, the BBC story barely mentions any objections to the Titchfield view. Only at the very end, and very briefly, does the BBC address the views of sceptic Professor Michael Dobson, who has a chair at Warwick.
By contrast, the whole story is handled much more sensitively in the Daily Mail, a newspaper not always renowned for impartiality! Ken Groves is there introduced as a retired physicist, and unlike the BBC story, we are told that he actually lives in the building where Shakespeare is said to have taught. Aha! Perhaps he has a vested interest in claiming that Shakespeare was a schoolteacher. Much of the Daily Mail’s story is about a tourism tussle: Titchfield wants more tourism from Shakespeare fans, Stratford resists such a change. Aha! More vested interests. Professor Dobson’s counter-argument, which is again very late in the article, is nonetheless followed up by reference to other theories about what Shakespeare did at the time. Aha! There are competing explanations. One gets little sense of these alternative theories from the BBC article.
Similarly, when the BBC story discusses Kevin Fraser, chair of the Titchfield Festival Theatre, he sounds quite confident about the Titchfield theory (‘quite a bit of heavyweight evidence’). The Daily Mail makes him sound more nuanced (‘Here we have Shakespeare potentially working and living in Titchfield. We’re not saying this is the only idea but we have a lot of evidence’).
Maybe he said different things to different journalists. But the whole tone of the BBC’s story is ‘historians have provided strong evidence’, whereas the Daily Mail’s tone is ‘people with vested interest have offered contested evidence’. That strikes me as more realistic. Might Shakespeare have been a schoolteacher in Titchfield? Yes. But no impartial reader could accept this on the evidence I have seen.
In Troilus and Cressida, Shakespeare writes that we can feel secure in our certainty, but ‘modest doubt’ is the ‘beacon of the wise’. Modest doubt is an invaluable tool for historians – and journalists.