By Alyssa Cocchiola, editor-in-chief

NOVEMBER 2022 — Conspiracy theories have been embedded in American society for hundreds of years. Today, conspiracy theories spread rapidly through social media and other platforms along with misinformation and false narratives. Sometimes, these myths are accepted by some as “truth,” regardless of a theory’s validity.

Dr. Don John Dugas, a professor of English at Kent State University, spoke to the junior class at Bio-Med Science Academy Oct. 20 and explained how conspiracy theories gain traction.

Picture above is Dugas discussing the Shakespeare authorship theory with Bio-Med’s junior class. Photo by Alyssa Cocchiola, editor-in-chief.

“Where there’s smoke, there’s fire,” Dugas explained. “This is a problem that we have today —  that is, you see an untruth repeated enough times, or you hear it enough times, on say a.m. radio, and you start believing it, even though it’s complete B.S. You start thinking to yourself, ‘If so many people are talking about it, there’s got to be something there.’ It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, in that the more people who do say, ‘Oh, there’s something there,’ the more you’re inclined to believe it. It’s a mass-mind negative event that’s connected to misdirected enthusiasm.”

“Misdirected enthusiasm” is a phrase that explains the process of humans being interested in an idea that is untrue.

According to a study conducted by Joseph Uscinski, among several other researchers, 73% of Americans believe that conspiracy theories are “out of control,” and 59% of people believe the current population is more susceptible to believing conspiracy theories compared to 25 years ago.

The Shakespeare Authorship Theory

Dugas specifically addressed a popular conspiracy theory in academia that William Shakespeare didn’t write the plays attributed to him. The theory notes that Shakespeare’s sophisticated pieces of literature could not have been written by him.

Individuals who believe this theory are known as anti-Stratfordians.

Pictured above are several of Shakespeare’s plays, along with a book by Dugas, titled “Shakespeare for Everyman.” At Bio-Med, students in the junior class and senior students who are taking ELA through Edgenuity are required to read Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.” Dugas talked to the junior class about the Shakespeare theory due to this literary connection to their core classes. Photo by Jenna Bates.

Anti-Stratfordians believe that Shakespeare was the “frontman” of these works, having high-class playwrights supply the story while Shakespeare’s name appears on it.

The theory first emerged almost two centuries after Shakespeare’s plays were written, though there is almost no evidence supporting it.

The first mention of this belief is as a joke in the 1894 book, “The Romance of Yachting,” by Joseph C. Hart. In this book, a poorly-educated character makes a comment that Shakespeare didn’t write his plays.

Dugas’ presentation quoted this character, adding, “Shakespeare, ‘who never saw Oxford,’ was a ‘vulgar and unlettered…factotum… whose brains were teeming with smut and overflowing with prurient obscenity.’”

Since then, the theory slowly evolved from being regarded as a joke to true in some individuals’ eyes.

Since anti-Stratfordians believe Shakespeare’s plays were written by an anonymous author, many have created their own theories on who they believe is the “real” Shakespeare.

The three most popular theories incorrectly attribute Shakespeare’s writing to Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe, or Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford.

Each of the claimed “real” writers of Shakespeare’s plays, however, have evidence that directly contradicts the conspiracy.

The person with a substantial amount of evidence conflicting this theory is Marlowe.

“Marlowe writes plays in a distinct style quite differently from how Shakespere writes plays. He’s a famously crap writer of comedy, whereas we’ve heard that Shakespeare is good at comedy. The real problem is that [Marlowe] is the principal playwright for the main rival company to Shakespare’s. But the one that really puzzled me is that he dies 18 years before Shakespeare stops writing plays. So did he have these in his desk drawer and someone is feeding them to Shakespeare?” Dugas added.

The idea that Marlowe wrote the plays first appeared in an 1895 novel by Wilbur G. Zeigler, titled, “It Was Marlowe: A Story of a Secret of Three Centuries.” Since then, several other titles have been released claiming Marlowe wrote the books, including a 1995 “true crime book” titled “The Reckoning” by Charles Nicoll.

“Nicoll’s argument is that the government faked the death of Marlowe, so he could become a spy in the Italian court, and he is writing these plays in his spare time and entirely changing his style and mailing them back to Shakespeare,” added Dugas.

As for the other “true authors,” he explained, “Oxford [is] profoundly arrogant, and he’s one of the most prominent aristocrats in England. How do you reconcile that with him never taking credit for any of this? Secondly, Shakespeare dedicated not one, but two works to the guy he hated the most, the Earl of Southampton. He is the patron of a lessor actor company that competed with Shakespeare, and he died in 1607, which is seven years after Shakespeare stopped writing plays. Again, a big problem.”

The first mention that the Earl of Oxford might have written Shakespeare’s play wasn’t until 1920, when Thomas Looney wrote “Shakespeare.”

Dugas added, “There isn’t any evidence … [no] contemporary document, testimony of any kind from around that time. The first time someone notices a problem is in the mid-19th century. There is no piece of paper that is saying, from some contemporary, saying, ‘Hey, I think Oxford did it.’”

The Shakespeare Authorship theory gained so much traction that Westminster Abbey, an England church, put a question mark next to Marlowe’s death date in a stained glass window that commemorates homosexual authors of history.

Dugas added, “They were literally making it okay to be gay in their church by putting up that stained glass window. They were making a statement that the church of England no longer considers this to be evil or a sin and all these things, but the moment they were doing it, was in the moment that Charles Nichols book was in ascendency, so they put that freaking question mark there — the most probably dead Elizabethan playwright, Christopher Marlowe died in 1593. Full stop.” Photo obtained from the Westminster Abbey website.

Dugas attributed the traction of this theory to elitism, ignorance, America’s predilection for conspiracy theories, prudishness, and misdirected enthusiasm.

Many Anti-Stratfordians believe Shakespeare did not have a “proper” education to write his plays, but Dugas excoriated that idea

“I could not graduate from Sakespeare’s high school,” Dugas began. “His mastery of Latin and Greek had to achieve a certain standard, and there was no such thing as, ‘Oh, we’ll just give this gentlemen a C and see you through.’ It didn’t work like that.”

In the 16th and 17th centuries, grammar school consisted of Latin grammar.

“In the 19th century, people start confusing the notion of ‘What is a grammar school education?’ by their standards, not Shakespeare’s standards. They think, ‘Oh, everyone can get one. Lots of people are getting one now, and he’s a great literature genius. Therefore, is it possible that he didn’t go to a university? So they look around for more qualified people, because of course, going to a university means you can write like Shakespeare — not,” Dugas added.

Shakespeare was still a grammar school teacher after he graduated in a world where the graduation rate was around 3%.

Pictured above is Dugas presenting a slide titled “No ‘Ghost’ of Shakespeare is Found in Opened Tomb.” In 1955, a true crime novel titled “Grand Conspiracy involving Elizabethan Secret Service” was published, which notes that important documents regarding the Shakespeare authorship theory are contained in Marlowe’s tomb. The theory circulated so much that the grave was eventually opened. No such documents were found. Photo by Alyssa Cocchiola, editor-in-chief.

“Have you heard of the Beatles?” Dugas asked the juniors. “How many of them went to music school? Zero. It is possible to be a talented artist and have limited training. It’s just fact.”

Another reason for the traction of the theory was prudishness, as explained by Dugas. In Shakespeare’s plays, there are many innuendos and references that are and were deemed “inappropriate” by certain readers. There have even been several guides and “dictionaries” that aim to explain these.

“Another problem that both we and the Brits have is prudishness. Shakespeare’s plays are dirty. If you don’t know that, you’re not reading closely enough. When you’re talking about people being the greatest author of all time and they write dirty things, if you’re prudish, you want to resist that notion,” he said.

As a result, the conspiracy theory separates the dirty and sophisticated parts of his works, alleging that Shakespeare added inappropriate jokes while an upper class writer worked with Shakespeare, and sometimes the government, to provide the rest of the play.

According to Dugas, there are more than 80 books and other pieces of media that claim Shakespeare did not write his plays — and many were written for the purpose of entertainment.

“The people who write books on this stuff are fanboys of Shakespeare. They really love Shakespeare, but they’re so devoted that they want to prove that they are the best reader of Shakespeare ever, so they prove that by saying, ‘I figured out who really wrote Shakespeare. The stuff I love.’ I’ve been to academic conferences where usually they’re professional actors who say this. It’s like, ‘So you love this person, but you deny their existence?’”

With this theory, and others, Dugas noted that the American people were partly to blame for its circulation.

“Americans are very fond of conspiracy theories. We are predisposed to be positively inclined towards them. [We] always have been. Just to name a few, some of these are comically ridiculous. Some of these are horrific,” he added.

Perpetuation of Conspiracy Theories

In his presentation, Dugas displayed a list of conspiracy theories that have circulated during his lifetime. The list included the following: Holocaust denial, UFOS/Area 51, the JFK assassination, the moon landing, global warming, 9/11, Sandy Hook, pizzagate, and the 2020 Election.

Referring to this list, Dugas explained, “These are all things in my lifetime — I’m 55 years old. Recently, Sandy Hook for example, Alex Jones just got a billion dollar fine. It was a false operation, and he said those kids weren’t killed. He said this to their parents. When people spout B.S., we are sometimes inclined to believe it to scary points.”

Alex Jones is a radio show host and conspiracy theorist who used his platform to spread the untruth that the 2012 Sandy Hook school shooting — the deadliest school shooting in U.S. history — did not happen on numerous occasions.

Connecticut jurors fined Jones $965 million for spreading the myth after families of the individuals who were killed in the shooting and some first responders filed a lawsuit.

In total, Jones has had three defamation lawsuits filed against him for this reason.

Fact Versus Opinion

In his presentation, Dugas addressed  the difference between a fact and an opinion, comparing this to conspiracy theories.

“A fact has evidence attached to it. Opinions are everything else, and they’re the thing that everyone else has, but a fact is a fact. That is, you can point to it, and say it exists. Evidence is something that we, whether we’re scientists or humanity scholars, take very seriously. How do we know something is true? The answer is evidence,” said Dugas.

When it comes to conspiracy theories, Dugas encouraged students to look at what portions of the “evidence” are facts versus opinions. For theories like the Shakespeare authorship theory and Jones’ comments on Sandy Hook, there are very few — if any — facts that can be found to support those claims, and therefore, one can conclude that the “evidence” surrounding them isn’t very substantial.

“This is the gold standard that we talk about when we talk about, ‘How do we know if someone wrote something 400 years ago?’” said Dugas. “We know from title pages of books, documents — legal and otherwise — or other forms such as diary entries, for example.”

Dugas concluded that, in order for someone to spread a theory, there must be truth and evidence to back it up.

“That’s how science works. I assert something, and then it is subject to investigation and inquiry and doubt,” he concluded. “They have to positively assert someone. They can’t just say, ‘No, he didn’t, because I believe.’”

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