Was Shakespeare a schoolteacher? How sloppy are some journalists?

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.

Shakespeare

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.

Titchfield park place

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.

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16 Comments

  1. Here’s another example of the BBC exaggerating credentials: “historian Dan Snow”. His Wikipedia page more accurately describes him as “television presenter”. He has an undergraduate degree in history, and has presented many history programmes on TV – extremely well, it must be said. I do understand why the BBC describes him as a historian, but it’s a touch misleading!

    Reply
  2. Anton

     /  May 16, 2013

    A similar example to Dan Snow is Tom Holland, author of “Rubicon”, “Persian Fire”, etc. However, he is usually described as “TV historian”, or “journalist and author” according to the Guardian.

    Reply
    • “TV historian” is great: it captures what they do perfectly. I would have no problem with the BBC referring to “TV historian Dan Snow”.
      I am aware that I am being an academic snob here, by the way!

      Reply
  3. Very interesting. I invite people to judge for themselves by visiting my website: ‘The Shakespeare Code’. Yes, I am an acupuncturist – but I am also a Cambridge English graduate and theatre director/writer. Best wishes, Stewart Trotter.

    Reply
    • Thanks for your response, Stewart. And I hope my comment about you being an acupuncturist didn’t sound nasty – but apologies if it did.

      Reply
  4. No worries, Adrian. But a couple of points. ‘The Place’ was one of the names for ‘Place House’ – the name the Wriothesley family gave to their stately home. So for Shakespeare to write ‘the place’ in ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost’ would have a resonance for the first audience in Titchfield. Also the reference to the dark skinned Rosaline as a ‘whitely wanton’ seems strange – and editors tustle with it. But all is explained if you know that one of the Wriothesley properties in Titchfield – notorious for its goings-on – was Whitely Lodge. In my theory I suggest that the dark skinned courtesan, Amelia Basanno, played the part in the original, private production – and the loose living Jaquenetta in the play is also sent to ‘the lodge’. I was not involved in the interviews with the media and my ideas were misrepresented by Ken Groves – who really does not understand them at all! So I DO understand your reaction – and would be happy to write more for you on the subject. Best wishes, Stewart.

    P.S. Titchfield also provides a solution for the puzzling line about Holofernes educating youth ‘in a charge house on the top of a mountain…..

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  5. P.S. I did teach English for a bit at a Cambridge college! But I better not bring it into disrepute….Stewart.

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  6. Reading your article again, I do agree with much of what you say. What you don’t seem to realise is that the BBC, Times and MailOnLine picked up their story about Shakespeare in Titchfield from an article in the local paper – ‘The Daily Echo’. I was no part of this interview, but many of my ideas were quoted without being attributed to me. The BBC became interested – and because I wasn’t named in the article, and Kevin Fraser was abroad, they phoned Ken Groves – who had read a copy of my 2002 book, ‘Love’s Labour’s Found’ in manuscript. Up to that point Groves had dismissed the idea of Shakespeare in Titchfield as a ‘completely uncorroborated but pleasant legend’. (15th February, 1999). He has now accepted my ‘Shakespeare was a schoolmaster in Titchfield’ theory – indeed, passes it off as his own. But he cannot bear the idea, put forward in the book and my blog, that Shakespeare was in a gay relationship with Henry Wriothesley, the Third Earl of Southampton. He has even gone so far as to tell me I am not welcome in Titchfield! And it’s not the fact that I suggest it’s Shakespeare was bisexula – it’s BECAUSE I IMPUGN ‘OUR EARL!’ (I’m not making this up.) To do him justice, Kevin Fraser did all he could to have me credited with my own ideas – but all the journalists were stuck. If they mentiuoned me it undermined their stories which were already in print or onlime.. I told them that they had all been ‘duped by an artful rustic’ – and I also told them that I was a WRITER – not an Historian or Academic. (For tax return purposes I am both an Acupuncturist and Writrer/Director!)
    Of course, all this has its funny side – though it didn’t seem funny at the time. I can understand why you have poured doubt on my theories as they have been misrepresented by other people. But isn’t this an ideal opportunity to put things right? If your read ‘How these articles came to be written’ on my blog, ‘The Shakespeare Code’……

    http://theshakespearecode.wordpress.com/

    ……or just google ‘Shakespeare’ and ‘Stewart Trotter’….

    …..you will see I was writing from an instinctive feeling when I directed ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost’ at the Northcott Theatre that Shakespeare writing about a real place. I went to Titchfield with my gteenage daughter – and found I was on the set of the play.
    Yes, I AM arguing a case – and there will NEVER be proof. But what is life if we don’t follow the passions of our instincts with the passion of our intellect? Best wishes, Stewart.

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  7. P.S. I did write to The Daily Echo to ask them to change my description from ‘historian’ to ‘writer’ but they ignored me. (They put the bit about me in after the paper had been printed!) But what’s a journalist to do when he is told blatant lies? See ‘Titchfield Ken has been at it again!’ http://theshakespearecode.wordpress.com/titchfield-kens-been-at-it-again/

    Reply
  8. Thanks for these comments, Stewart. You are of course quite right to follow your instincts and passions. What you’ve found about William Beeston looks especially plausible, and I’m not denying the Shakespeare/Titchfield claims either.

    Rather, the point I was trying to make, and which I also make in my post on Leo Strauss (https://adrianblau.wordpress.com/2013/05/10/what-is-it-like-to-be-leo-strauss), is that it is scarily easy to think that the evidence is compelling if one only concentrates on the positives. Your case requires you to look at both sides. Are there other ways of explaining ‘the place’? Does the phrase crop up in other plays? Do other towns have a ‘place’ and a ‘park’? And so on.

    Lots of academics, especially Leo Strauss, only look at the evidence which fits their theory. If we only look at the evidence that fits our theories, we’ll be too confident. If we can also show that competing theories should be rejected, we’ll make our readers more confident.

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  9. The situation is this. When I published ‘Love’s Labour’s Found’ eleven years ago, ‘The Observer’ refused to review the book on the grounds that my theory, and myself, were ‘cuckoo’ (Their exact word).
    But now people have started to listen – only because I have ADVOCATED the idea. The world itself will provide the counterblast!
    I admit we acupuncturists can seem a touch comical – a bit like alchemists used to be. However, I became an acupuncturist because I was profoundly influenced by classical Chinese thought. In Acupuncture Diagnosis, there is NEVER one killer sign. There are DOZENS of small signs. Perhaps, Adrian, that’s where you might have been a little sloppy yourself in extracting a couple of ‘wafer-thin’ ;pieces of evidence and ignoring the DOZENS of others. My belief is that there are so many of these they build up to a case.
    But let the world be the judge, not me.
    Best wishes, Stewart.

    Reply
  10. Thanks, Stewart.

    The basic point I’m making is that your case would be stronger if you could show not only that there are dozens of small signs which support your claim but also that one can’t reasonably explain away these signs. One needs to look at the other side – show that other explanations don’t work – rather than just looking at the positives.

    That is a basic feature of how to handle evidence, for historical detectives and for real detectives! People get wrongly convicted because detectives only look for evidence which fits their theory. It’s a dangerous way to do this kind of research. See also my post on Leo Strauss (https://adrianblau.wordpress.com/2013/05/10/what-is-it-like-to-be-leo-strauss).

    Your point about acupuncture (lots of small signs) is very interesting and I will give it more thought – thank you.

    Reply
  11. Louise

     /  October 5, 2013

    When you look at edward de vere being the writer of the shakespeare body of work the association with Titchfield becomes crystal clear. Almost all the stuff written about William of stratford is supposition passed off as knowledge. Every supposedly known fact is preceded by – could have, might have, it’s believed that, it’s accepted that, most agree that, it’s possible that, it’s quite likely that, etc etc etc. Strip all that away and what’s left is pitifully sparse. Myth becomes knowledge.

    Reply
  12. Reading this again – someone brought it to my notice – I think you seriously mis-represent me. You neglect to mention I studied English at Cambridge – and indeed taught there as a Supervisor in English for a year at Corpus Christi. Of course I’m NOT an academic – and never claim to have been one – but I have worked extensively in the theatre – and was Sir Peter Hall’s assistant at the National Theatre and Glyndebourne for two years. I then started and ran an opera company (‘Opera 8o’ ) for five years and this became ‘English Touring Opera’. I was also the Artistic Director of the Northcott Theatre in Exeter for five years – and directed a number of Shakespeare plays there. I only became an acupuncturist in mid-life – following a mystical experience – but I continued to work in the theatre for many tears – and wrote ‘Carmen Latina’ – a rock version of ‘Carmen’ that has played in six different countries. So I have had extensive practical experience of theatre which I have applied to Shakespeare studies. You really do me a rough injustice to leave out that side of my experience – proud as I am of the work I have done with acupuncture for those suffering from HIV/Aids and Alcoholism. Also, have you REALLY looked at my blog? It’s approaching 200,000 Views and is read in 200 Countries.

    Reply
    • Thanks Stewart. (1) We covered your academic credentials in comments on this post two years ago. (2) My post was primarily about journalists, not you. (3) The part that discussed you was primarily about a methodological error made by many people (including Leo Strauss), which leads one to overstate the strength of one’s findings because one accentuates the evidence that fits one’s hypothesis. (4) I hope I gave some credit to your blog, especially the findings about William Beeston. I don’t agree with everything on your blog, just as you don’t agree with everything on mine; I’m sure we can both live with this! And we’ll have to, as it doesn’t sound as if either of us stands much chance of convincing the other! Best wishes, Adrian.

      Reply
      • Sorry! I was just shocked to see how you had misrepresented me in your original piece. I didn’t re-read the follow up discussion. Negative comment is always so much more powerful than positive comment. But time will tell who is right! Best wishes, Stewart.

        Reply

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