Mark Twain

Mark Twain is the authorship debate's top poster boy. Famous, funny and universally well-regarded, possibly even the author of the semi-mythical Great American Novel.

Twain did indeed collect a list of authorship shibboleths, though none referring to De Vere, and wrote the piece quoted below in conclusion. Before reading that, however, you are invited to look at some of Twain's scientific work in his description of the geological development of the River Mississippi. I'm sure we should always take anything written under the name Samuel Langhorne Clemens at face value.

However, anyone taking the work of Mark Twain as gospel is going to come a-cropper. Big Time.

Twain on Mississippian geology:

In the space of one hundred and seventy-six years the Lower Mississippi has shortened itself two hundred and forty-two miles. That is an average of a trifle over one mile and a third per year. Therefore, any calm person, who is not blind or idiotic, can see that in the Old Oolitic Silurian Period, just a million years ago next November, the Lower Mississippi River was upwards of one million three hundred thousand miles long, and stuck out over the Gulf of Mexico like a fishing-rod. And by the same token any person can see that seven hundred and forty-two years from now the Lower Mississippi will be only a mile and three-quarters long, and Cairo and New Orleans will have joined their streets together, and be plodding comfortably along under a single mayor and a mutual board of aldermen. There is something fascinating about science. One gets such wholesale returns of conjecture out of such a trifling investment of fact.

Twain on the Shakespearean authorship question:


I have never let my schooling get in the way of my education.

Mark Twain

Am I trying to convince anybody that Shakespeare did not write Shakespeare’s Works? Ah, now, what do you take me for? Would I be so soft as that, after having known the human race familiarly for nearly seventy-four years? It would grieve me to know that any one could think so injuriously of me, so uncomplimentarily, so unadmiringly of me. No, no, I am aware that when even the brightest mind in our world has been trained up from childhood in a superstition of any kind, it will never be possible for that mind, in its maturity, to examine sincerely, dispassionately, and conscientiously any evidence or any circumstance which shall seem to cast a doubt upon the validity of that superstition. I doubt if I could do it myself. We always get second hand our notions about systems of government; and high tariff and low tariff; and prohibition and anti-prohibition; and the holiness of peace and the glories of war; and codes of honor and codes of morals; and approval of the duel and disapproval of it; and our beliefs concerning the nature of cats; and our ideas as to whether the murder of helpless wild animals is base or is heroic; and our preferences in the matter of religious and political parties; and our acceptance or rejection of the Shakespeares….

We are the reasoning race, and when we find a vague file of chipmunk-tracks stringing through the dust of Stratford village, we know by our reasoning powers that Hercules has been along there. I feel that our fetish is safe for three centuries yet. The bust, too – there in the Stratford Church. The precious bust, the priceless bust, the calm bust, the serene bust, the emotionless bust, with the dandy mustache, and the putty face, unseamed of care – that face which has looked passionlessly down upon the awed pilgrim for a hundred and fifty years and will still look down upon the awed pilgrim three hundred more, with the deep, deep, deep, subtle, subtle, subtle, expression of a bladder….

Shakespeare HASN’T ANY HISTORY TO RECORD. There is no way of getting around that deadly fact. And no sane way has yet been discovered to getting around its formidable significance. Its quite plain significance… is, that Shakespeare had no prominence while he lived, and none until he had been dead two or three generations. The Plays enjoyed high fame from the beginning; and if he wrote them it seems a pity the world did not find it out. He ought to have explained that he was the author, and not merely a nom de plume for another man to hide behind. If he had been less intemperately solicitous about his bones, and more solicitous about his Works, it would have been better for his good name, and a kindness to us. The bones were not important. They will moulder away, they will turn to dust, but the Works will endure until the last sun goes down.”

The last two sentences are what Twain really wants to say about Shakespeare.


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Comments (15)

  • anon

    Tom, I am enjoying your most recent comedy act i.e. taking my comments out of context. I hope you feel better after your excruiatingly painful extrusion. You've made my day! :)

    Feb 01, 2013
  • anon

    I don't understand, Tom pointed out that the Shapiro book was not the first which alerted the public at large to the authorship debate, correctly contradicting your own statement. How was anything taken out of context?

    Feb 01, 2013
  • anon

    Looney said that "Hamlet misses nothing"?  How about when he misses the fact that it's Polonius behind the arras, and so Hamlet kills the wrong man?  Surely Hamlet missed something there.  What about when he misses the fact that Claudius would NOT have gone to heaven if Hamlet had killed him when he had the opportunity, because Claudius was not truly penitent.   What about his complete lack of concern for Ophelia's feelings throughout the play?  He claims to have loved her more than forty thousand brothers could have loved her, so shouldn't he have figured out a way to be a bit more solicitous of her happiness, instead of driving her to madness?  And finally, shouldn't he have figured out that it might not be the best idea in the entire world to accept the dueling match proposed by Claudius and Laertes, two men who have made their hatred so apparent?  Yes, I understand the readiness is all, and there is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow - but that doesn't mean you should jump into such an obvious trap.  I think Hamlet missed a few things.  That's not to say it is not a great play.  It's a masterpiece.  But Hamlet is a human character, with abundant flaws

    May 04, 2013
  • anon

    Twain on the shrinking Mississippi was (I thought) taking the mikey out of people who argued to an absurd conclusion from over-simplified assumptions. At least thats how I've seen it quoted in books on sciences...

    There is anothed thread of Twain's thought which is perhaps relevant to his cntributions to the authorship debate. Take his warnings about the impact of official lying on society.  It come from his essay "My first lie and how I got out of it". I supect that it needs to be read with a sense of the mockery of his Missisippi piece. But with a serious core.

    He distinguishes three kinds of lie the "Spoken Lie", the "Unspoken Lie", and the 'Lie of Silent Assertion". It is where a country, a community, denies that there is anything going on that is troubling, or worthy of intelligent attention. 

    For instance. It would not be possible for a humane and intelligent 
    person to invent a rational excuse for slavery; yet you will remember 
    that in the early days of the emancipation agitation in the North the 
    agitators got but small help or countenance from any one. Argue and 
    plead and pray as they might, they could not break the universal 
    stillness that reigned, from pulpit and press all the way down to the 
    bottom of society--the clammy stillness created and maintained by the lie 
    of silent assertion--the silent assertion that there wasn't anything 
    going on in which humane and intelligent people were interested.

    Twain got into appaling political trouble late in his life pointing out that the consequences of the United States seizure of the Phillipines after the Spanish-American war was not a liberation for the islands but a bitterly-resisted colonial siezure.

    His essay concludes: "What I am arriving at is this: When whole races and peoples conspire to propagate gigantic mute lies in the interest of tyrannies and shams, why should we care anything about the trifling lies told by individuals?".

    I think Twain allowed his scepticism to detect a 'sham' in the commonly accepted views of the authorship of the works of Shakespeare and categorised the defence of the standard position as 'silent assertion', that avoids even admitting there could be a problem. And he turned on the full force of his skills against this perceived silent assertion.

    Those like myself who assert that there are in fact no real authorship problems to explain are his intended target. He insists that we take serious note of dissident opinions held by humane and intelligent people.

    A later great dissident from unthinking acceptance of authority was the great Physicist Richard Feynman. Famously as a high school student he refised just to accept Maxwells laws of eletrodynamics as defined in his textbooks, but set out to prove them for himself. And he was similarly rigorous at all levels right through his career. But he did have one big advantage, the check on his thoughts of the experience of Science. Famously he said:

    In general we look for a new law by the following process. First we guess it. Then we compute the consequences of the guess to see what would be implied if this law that we guessed is right. Then we compare the result of the computation to nature, with experiment or experience, compare it directly with observation, to see if it works. If it disagrees with experiment it is wrong. In that simple statement is the key to science. It does not make any difference how beautiful your guess is. It does not make any difference how smart you are, who made the guess, or what his name is – if it disagrees with experiment it is wrong. That is all there is to it.


    And on the making of those guesses he was even more succinct:

    Have no respect whatsoever for authority; forget who said it and instead look what he starts with, where he ends up, and ask yourself, "Is it reasonable?"

    And always remember:

    The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.

    For me Feynman gives a guide to approaching the authorship debate. We may all be making guesses, but we shoudl look to where we each start from and try not to fool ourselves from that start with seductive and beautiful theories which determine the results we get before we really test them.

    And testing those ideas may lead us to something like the conventional explenations, better understood. Our guesses after all have starting points based on huge amounts of experience. 

    May 09, 2013
  • anon

    Excellent comment.


    I love Feynman and especially love his 'Surely you are joking, Mr Feyman?' series, which could clear up all the authorship trouble we seem to be in overnight. Twain said he would not argue his Shakespeare theory in a university and I think that's because he didn't really believe it, not because he thought he'd lose the argument. I know he appeared to get seriously behind Baconianism at one time but I don't think his heart was ever in it. And he was a distinguished writing genius.


    If you'd shown Twain one of Oxford's verses and said 'how do you like that for a bit of early Shakespeare?' I think you'd have been in lots of trouble.

    May 09, 2013