Wikipedia's Shakespeare Problem

Wikipedia is a little too sure we know who authored Hamlet

Photos: Left: Universal History Archive/Getty Images; Right: Tom Reedy/Wikipedia

Bard imbroglio: Is Wikipedia slighting scholars who dispute Shakespeare's [left] identity? Earlier versions of the encyclopedia acknowledged the leading alternative candidate, Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford [right].

Wikipedia, today the seventh most popular site on the Web, is the go-to source for untold millions of users around the world. Yet, despite widely publicized worries that the self-edited and self-policed encyclopedia might subvert authority, the opposite concern has also emerged. Does Wikipedia, in other words, provide a viewpoint that's overly mainstream, giving short shrift to controversial, minority, or heretical ideas?

"All great truths," George Bernard Shaw famously wrote, "begin as blasphemies."

Consider the blasphemy that Shakespeare wasn't Shakespeare. According to this view, the Shakespeare veneer has been applied to plays and poems penned by one or more political insiders within the Elizabethan court. And William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon, they contend, was a mere collaborator or perhaps simply a front man.

This heresy has a century of scholarship behind it—its advocates include Walt Whitman, Sigmund Freud, Mark Twain, Henry James, Helen Keller, Derek Jacobi, and Malcolm X (as well as, in the interest of full disclosure, the present author). Yet a disproportionately large share of Wikipedia's "Shakespeare authorship question" entry, a page devoted to the controversy, has been written by proponents of the traditional Shakespeare-as-author thesis. This imbalance is the result of an 18-month battle that included mediation and arbitration hearings.

From 2006 through 2009, the SAQ—as its adherents abbreviate the entry—was largely coedited by one proponent of the mainstream—a.k.a. the "Stratfordian" point of view—and one proponent of the so-called Oxfordian theory, named for the leading alternative candidate, Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford.

"The page was relatively stable," says the top Oxfordian SAQ editor at the time, Stephen Moorer. "I had a good working relationship with the Stratfordian editor. The two of us kept the article going. We kept each other honest."

The balance shifted in December 2009. A regular disputant on related discussion boards—Tom Reedy, based in Denton, Texas—began editing the SAQ in earnest. "It was very promotional," Reedy says. "It was obvious that [the Earl of] Oxford was being pushed."

In the ensuing months, Reedy and a pseudonymous Stratfordian editor named Nishidani rewrote much of the SAQ page and launched mediation and arbitration hearings against Moorer and another Oxfordian editor, who eventually was banned from Wikipedia altogether. Moorer was given a one-year "topic ban," prohibiting him from contributing to the SAQ or related entries.

The SAQ mediation, in particular, played out all too familiarly, according to John Broughton, author of Wikipedia: The Missing Manual (O'Reilly Media, 2008). "Mediation requires everyone to talk, and if it's going to be successful, it requires a good mediator," Broughton says.

In September 2010, the entry's Montagues and Capulets met on a designated mediation page, where they began hurling accusations and countercharges. But as Reedy posted in October, "The issues are still very much alive; but for some reason the moderator has gone AWOL." The mediation petered out the following month.

In April of this year, Wikipedia editors selected SAQ to be a "featured article," the site's highest rating, currently held by some 3000 articles. Yet the page that won the blue ribbon arguably has as much claim to evenhandedness as does an entry on Libya's history written by Muammar Gaddafi.

Even as the number of Wikipedia articles and readers rise, says Broughton, the number of Wikipedia participants is on the decline. And maintaining controversial pages is a particularly high-maintenance business.

In March, Ting Chen, a board member of the Wikimedia Foundation, Wikipedia's parent organization, pegged the decline in participation as "the most significant challenge currently facing our movement."

"Because it's one of these imperceptible things—less than a 1 percent decline in any given month—it's this very slow trickling away," Broughton says. "A lot of the holes are just not going to get filled."

This article originally appeared in print as "Who Was Shakespeare?"

About the Author

Mark Anderson is a regular contributor to IEEE Spectrum and the author of Shakespeare by Another Name: The Life of Edward De Vere, Earl of Oxford, The Man Who Was Shakespeare (Gotham, 2005).

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