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Commentary: In Memoriam - Lawrence Howard; Who Wrote Shakespeare's Plays?

In Memoriam

Lawrence Howard


I first met Lawrence Howard when he was a psychology post-doctoral intern with the county mental health department. I was a neuropsychologist teaching a course in testing to county employees and interns and he was a psychologist trained in cognitive science who had decided to become a clinician. Two things struck me about Dr.Howard at  that time: he was brilliant and knowledgeable and he was in a wheelchair, paraplegic from a childhood illness. Later, when I was forming a teaching service within the county mental health department, I hired Dr. Howard (I always called him “Howard” although others called him “Larry”) as a half-time teacher. The other half of his time was being spent as a professor of cognitive science at the University of California, Irvine.


Howard and I became both colleagues and friends. When he later moved into a clinical position for the county, working with children, I kept up sporadic contact with him, mostly through trading videos or having coffee together. He had a great love of film. Anyone who frequented the University Cinema across the street from UCI would have run into him often.


After he and I both retired from county service, I often ran into Howard at the coffee shop across from the university and he and I talked about many things, but mostly politics (he was a liberal who raved even more than I did and who had edited a book on terrorism) and films.  I convinced him to review films for Lost Coast Review and previous issues have been fortunate to include a few of his reviews. When I last had coffee with him, Howard promised me another review for this issue. Then he failed to show up at the coffee shop for a couple of weeks and didn’t answer his phone. I found out through an announcement from the UCI Disability Services Department, where he had taken part-time employment, that he had died.


Howard taught many university students, he mentored interns in our county internship program in psychology and he counseled many clients. He was a gentle, intelligent, interested, caring human being and he will be missed by many whose lives he touched.

Casey Dorman


Who wrote Shakespeare’s Plays?

Shakespeare and DeVere

 Some of us wonder about the fate of D.B. Cooper. Some of us continue to question whether Lee Harvey Oswald or Sirhan Sirhan were really lone assassins.  But perhaps the greatest mystery of our time is the question of who wrote the plays and poems attributed to William Shakespeare. Unless informed by films such as Anonymous, most of the public may not even be aware of the controversy concerning Shakespeare’s identity. In a nutshell, the William Shakespeare (most often spelled Shakspere) who was born and died in Stratford-upon-Avon, never attended a university, may not even have attended grammar school, never claimed to have written any poems or plays, wrote no known letters, scrawled his signature as though he was either illiterate or debilitated, and left no books or copies of his own works when he died. Seizing upon these oddities as well as upon the lacuna of information about the man, several scholars and amateur sleuths have proposed that Shakespeare’s great works were actually the creation of someone else. The prime candidates have been the philosopher, Francis Bacon and the poet and courtier, Edward deVere, the 17th Earl of Oxford. Both of these men lived lives which included the learning, the travel and the talent to produce great works of literature.


The purpose of this discussion is not to take sides in the Shakespeare controversy.  I cannot deny that the debate is an interesting one, and I, purely out of curiosity, I have immersed myself in the arguments from both sides. What  impresses me about these debates has been the exaggerations, the factual omissions, the obfuscations, and the blatant distortions promulgated by both sides as they have made their arguments. Furthermore, the degree to which such misstatements enter the polemic in which any particular author engages, is not at all mitigated by the writer’s scholarly credentials.


In one of the most entertaining and controversial books on the subject: Charlton Ogburn’s (1984) The Mysterious William Shakespeare: The Myth and the Reality, the author refers to both sides as constituted of “true believers,” a label he disparages but which patently applies to himself as much as to anyone else to whom he refers. Although I have been entertained, when I began looking for some evidence to resolve the question my own reaction turned to dismay, for I was hoping to find someone who exercised skepticism when evaluating both sides of the question, someone who used scholarly restraint when invoking  words such as “probably,” “no doubt,” “without question,” or “most certainly” in his or her arguments rather than treating such tentative assertions as fact. But alas, nary an evenhanded treatment of the subject appears to have been written. Both sides argue from tenuous foundations, claim absolute certainty, and revile the assertions of their opponents with disdain bordering on insult.


Why is this controversy, which, anyway occupies the attention of a minority of thinking people, important? Not because of the position of Shakespeare within the canon of English literature; for as several authors have suggested, the body of work itself is surely monumental enough to stand on its own without such additional biographical information, although to finally know more about the playwright, or to find that, for instance, he was a constant collaborator when he wrote or that the plays were actually written by several different authors, would change our view of the character of human literary genius.  But to me, what makes the issue important is its ability to demonstrate the fallibility of human reasoning, even by some of our race’s finest minds, when those minds feel they have a stake in the outcome of the question. Although mainstream academia mostly rejects the identity question, a few academicians have deigned to participate, mostly to denigrate both the motives and the qualifications of those who have raised the issue despite the fact that those who have weighed in on either side of the debate represent men and women who have often devoted years, occasionally even lifetimes, to scholarly study of the topic, as professors, as actors, as critics or writers, and almost all, as devotees of Shakespeare’s works. Yet, the influence of such lofty exercise of one’s mind, such earnest devotion to scholarship and, in some cases, to the values of academia, which, one would assume, would include truth above almost everything else, appears to carry little weight,  as it routinely falls victim to bias and personal preference to an extent that ought to shake everyone’s faith in the wisdom of human expertise.


The entire enterprise of challenging or defending Shakespeare’s identity is yet another example of human reason being trumped by that most pernicious of ways of thinking we refer to as “belief.” If some of the world’s most brilliant minds cannot maintain objectivity on as presumably dry a subject as Shakespeare, how can we put any faith in the ratiocinations of our so-called experts on such things as global warming, terror threats, Iran’s nuclear ambitions, economic policy, or any of the other issues that so quickly become the substance of our foreign and domestic debates? Is it any wonder that we misjudged Iraq’s threat to us, or that the CEO of J.P. Morgan Chase made such a drastic error with regard to fiscal risk management, or that Europeans can’t figure out how to solve their debt crises, or that it’s nearly impossible to find out the truth about the advantages or the risks involved in adopting Obama’s health care reforms?


Is it really as difficult to be cognizant of the truth when defending one’s  position as it appears to be?  I have not given examples from cognitive psychology, which generally provides little evidence that people use logic or reason to come to decisions (except perhaps in solving puzzles or doing mathematics), especially with regard to real-world problems. But I am struck by how clearly the debate about Shakespeare’s identity gives one more example of how easy it is for us to abandon our adherence to truth and logic when it comes to something in which we “believe.” It is no easy task to be objective, to examine both sides of an issue equally, to weigh evidence rather than opinion. It flies in the face of human nature. But without doing so, our debates become silly and our conclusions at best, weak, and at worst, dangerous.


The Editor


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