Climate change and evolution: a Shakespearean drama

Climate change, evolution and Shakespeare have two things in common. First, the evidence for all three is settled. Second, there are an awful lot of people who don’t accept it.

The blog got to pondering this after a recent Humanities 21 meeting when Dr David McInnis, was talking about Lost Plays ( ) in the time of Shakespeare. He didn’t actually talk about the Shakespeare authorship debate but he did highlight how much theatre from the period has not survived and what we know about Shakespeare’s collaborations as a result of the study of many plays. Before the talk the blog accidentally overheard a conversation between two women, in which one was explaining why we should doubt whether temperatures were rising

The two combined to make the blog think about how attempts to undermine the settled evidence in the case of Shakespeare and climate change (and evolution) now focus less on negating the issue and more on encouraging doubt.

Climate change denialism is overt among many. Many elected US Republicans openly dismiss it and are confident enough to ridicule the science. In Australia conservative politicians, with a few exceptions, don’t believe but hide the disbelief behind doubt and commitment to alternative policies. Our Prime Minister’s chief business adviser, Maurice Newman, is more forthright saying climate change science is actually a religion and that it’s a pity it’s not more rigorous and scientific like, for instance, economics!

With evolution denialism is overt among the religiously fundamental and a majority of Republican voters apparently. On the other hand Democrat voters are likely to believe in conspiracies and astrology so we probably need to make some adjustments for US society as a whole rather than simply dividing opinion between conservative and less conservative.

The denial that Shakespeare was the author of Shakespeare is a bit more complex. For a start there aren’t that many people who believe this, and the few who do lack the religious certitude of creationists and the multi-million dollar PR campaigns against climate change science run around the world.

But all three do share one thing: a PR strategy. Rather than overt and simplistic denial the tendency is rather to encourage doubt and promote, what ostensibly sounds reasonable, further study and balance in education. In Australia and the US we see it in attempts to teach creationism alongside evolution in schools so that students can choose between the two ‘theories’. Climate change is similar (in public at least) – rather than outright denial the tendency is to cherry-pick data, raises doubts around the edges and focus on arguing that if there is a problem technology will fix it but that the problem is probably not as bad as suggested. It should be said that there is a fair element of conspiracy theory in this one as well, with business and political leaders telling us that the science is actually an outcome of club-like behaviour among an ‘elite’ ‘establishment’ group of scientists.

The strategy is effective because it is much harder to disprove something to the general public than it is to raise doubts through framing, language and data cherry-picking. The blog had a client, with a controversial line of business, who wanted to address public concerns about it. Our advice was not just to respond to specific claims but to try to open up the debate to as many differing opinions as possible. It was a PR version of letting a hundred flowers bloom and a tactic without the deadly outcome of the Maoist version. Broadly speaking it worked. The food industry has also been more successful countering sensationalist claims by  broadening the debate about diet rather than responding each time a celebrity or a journalist finds ‘chemicals’ in our food.

With the Shakespeare question the strategy was generally to ignore the nonsense and this was largely successful because those who claim Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare were neither as entrenched, as religiously committed nor as well-resourced financially as creationists and climate change denialists. But the anti-Shakespeareans are nothing if not persistent. From the mid-19th century, led by Delia Bacon, there were many attempts to suggest other people wrote it. Bacon claimed it was Francis Bacon but some 79 other candidates have been put forward including Christopher Marlowe (he didn’t die it was a conspiracy and he went overseas and sent the plays back) and more popularly latterly Edward de Vere Earl of Oxford. For a fuller discussion of all the claimants and the arguments there are two very good books: Shakespeare Beyond Doubt, a collection of essays edited by Paul Edmondson and Stanley Wells; and, Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? by James Shapiro. Shapiro is also the author who belled the cat about anti-Semitism in the Oberammergau Passion Play leading to a significant re-write.

Wells, Edmondson, Shapiro and others started to argue and campaign more vigorously because the anti-Shakespeare forces tried a new tactic – a ‘Declaration of Reasonable Doubt’ – an online petition calling for more study of the ‘doubt’ about the authorship. The declaration has been signed by actors (Jeremy Irons, Derek Jacobi, Mark Rylance and Michael York) and a couple of US Supreme Court Justices. In recent years the declaration seems to be picking up fewer signatures than after it was first launched. A key reason for this is probably the result of two PR campaigns – one from the studio which produced the film Anonymous which portrays Shakespeare as a drunken buffoon who simply fronts for the Earl of Oxford. This campaign started to distribute material to schools and recruit supporters to question the authorship. The second campaign, driven largely in reaction to the film nonsense and the persistence of the beliefs, was launched by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust and employed some very typical PR tactics as well as more formal academic responses. These are described in the Wells/Edmondson book in a chapter by Douglas M. Lanier. The campaign includes a very sophisticated online program (see and some publicity stunts such as covering up the Shakespeare memorial statue in Stratford-on-Avon and blacking out the name Shakespeare on signs throughout the UK including the 90 odd pubs called ‘The Shakespeare’. The stunts generated significant international media coverage, lots of social media and more and more people – academics and others – spoke out rather than just ignoring the doubters.

It should be said that the case against Shakespeare, where it has any coherence at all, rests on two grounds. First: the lack of evidence about his life although, as Shapiro points out, we know much more about him than we do about his contemporaries. Second, the fact that a humble actor from a modest background who didn’t go to university couldn’t possibly have written about what he did. The Edmondson/Wells collection points out that the typical grammar school education of the time looks remarkably similar to that of an honours classics degree today; and, that when you look at the plays in the context of theatrical practice of the day it was probably only an actor or someone actively in the professional theatre who could have written them.

Anyway, the upshot of it all was that Anonymous was a flop although the Declaration crowd are still at it: using a full page ad in the TLS recently to offer a large sum on the outcome of a proposed debate on Shakespeare’s authorship. The problem is that having a debate would be about as useful in convincing the doubters as the recent Creation Museum debate between creationist, Ken Ham, and scientist, Bill Nye. Incidentally, like the film Anonymous the Creation Museum is having a few problems, and it too might suffer the same flopful fate.