A conference with the world’s angriest academic.
Academia has certain time-honoured rites of passage: defending your PhD, speaking at your first conference and going on strike.
But for Shakespeareans, there’s a special baptism of ire: being shouted at online by a middle-aged software developer from Washington, D.C. In the field, the joke goes that you’re not a true Shakespearean unless you’ve received dog’s abuse from Alan Tarica, a staunch ‘anti-Stratfordian’ convinced William Shakespeare didn’t write any Shakespeare.
Tarica claims his Eternity Promised, a massive, line-by-line ‘exegesis’ of Shakespeare’s sonnets, is ‘a poetic WikiLeaks’ exposing a centuries-long conspiracy to conceal the love-child of Elizabeth I and Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford’ – the most popular of the ‘alternative’ candidates for authorship.
In reality, there is no ‘authorship question’. Bemused English lit scholars, tired of pointing at evidence documenting Shakespeare’s career, largely ignore the pet theories of passionate amateurs.
But Tarica is more compelling than most bores because he’s a terminally online troll. He combs Twitter and university faculty pages, launching obscene diatribes at students, scholars, journalists – anyone who mentions Shakespeare online – raving about his own brilliance and writing articles with titles like ‘Has Everyone Turned Off His or Her Brain?’
I spoke with dozens of writers, all baffled at being targeted. Rhodri Lewis, a professor at Princeton, remembers reading a series of emails from Tarica ‘ranting about small mindedness’ in the mid- to late-2000s; Tarica reached out again after Lewis published work on Hamlet in 2016 and 2017, but Lewis hit delete.
When Jonn Elledge, author of Conspiracy: A History of Boll*cks Theories, and How Not to Fall for Them (2022), ignored his emails, Tarica informed him: ‘[It] probably never occurred to you that you are actually an imbecile.’ ‘Because obviously,’ Tarica went on, ‘I’m “crazed” and I thought it would be thoughtful to let you know privately that one day I’m going to publicly excoriate useless, naive, semi-literate dipshits like you.’ ‘Dear Dipshit,’ another email to Elledge began, ‘you just have no concept of what a clueless dumb fuck you are. Which makes you an insanely clueless dumb fuck.’ You have to laugh at his commitment to profanity, finished up with an anodyne: ‘Best, Alan’.
Dennis McCarthy was targeted by Tarica when he tweeted about his book Thomas North: The Original Author of Shakespeare’s Plays, a study of Shakespeare’s source materials (not an anti-Stratfordian thesis). ‘It is astonishing how emotional the authorship issue is,’ McCarthy said. ‘People become absolutely unhinged over it.’
Tarica’s campaign is oddly scattergun. I contacted Professor Emma Smith of Oxford University, author of Shakespeare’s First Folio: Four Centuries of an Iconic Book and one of Britain’s most prominent Shakespeareans. ‘It’s one of the disappointments of my career that I have been entirely ignored by [Tarica],’ she said sarcastically. Stephen Greenblatt, easily the most famous American Shakespearean of the last 40 years, told me: ‘I’m happy to say I have not had the pleasure of this particular pursuer of the Great Mystery.’
I messaged Tarica, curious not so much about his theory, but fascinated as to his zeal. Every anti-Stratfordian has a kind of reverse Road to Damascus moment when they stopped being a ‘believer’ in the ‘orthodoxy’. For Sir Derek Jacobi, for instance, it was the American Charlton Ogburn Jr’s The Mysterious William Shakespeare (1985), a 900-page work of feverish ‘Oxfordian’ fantasy.
Tarica had his epiphany in the 1990s, realising that, unlike the sciences, the ‘humanities so rarely corrects itself’. Comparing himself to Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn, Tarica fancies himself on a mission to re-align the epistemological paradigm of humanities research.
I suggested that peer-reviewed research ensures scholarship corrects itself. ‘It’s amazing how unbelievably clueless you are,’ he replied. ‘That really sums up the kind of ignorant dipshit you are.’
Steeling myself for the full Tarica treatment, I pointed to the evidence documenting Shakespeare’s career. ‘You have no concept of how completely full of shit you and the rest of your brethren are in regard to Shakespeare and sadly the only way you are going to learn this is by tearing your system down from the outside the way I’ve been,’ was Tarica’s reply.
He thinks de Vere, not satisfied with a nom-de-plume, turned his pseudonym ‘into an embodied and incarnate reality’ by employing an imposter from Stratford to pretend to be an actor and playwright, passing Oxford’s plays off as his own. When I suggested this stretched the limits of credibility, Tarica said: ‘As if we never had a Manhattan Project or other secret programs like our own surveillance systems… The short of it is that you are a complete fucking putz and have no awareness of that.’
Starting to enjoy myself, I asked why no academics had supported his theory. He claimed that certain (unnamed) academics ‘have been placed in something akin to a witness protection program’ for questioning the consensus. ‘I hope you look back on this one day, however, and reflect on what a schmuck you are.’
I asked what was more likely: a 450-year-old state-led conspiracy still hoodwinking scholars who’ve spent their lives studying Shakespeare, or that the man called Shakespeare, acknowledged by his friends, colleagues, audiences and publishers as Shakespeare, was in fact… Shakespeare?
‘Your stupidity continues to amaze me,’ Tarica said. ‘But what you don’t get is that in [an] authoritarian regime, you either believe what you are told or you pretend to… Every Russian and North Korean understands this. But you are one the few remaining complete FUCKING MORONS who don’t get it’s already game over.’
He warned me to ‘get to serious work on realising that. Else you will soon find yourself more than the object of my ridicule.’ I ended our correspondence, half-afraid he might track me down and bludgeon me to death with a copy of Shakespeare Identified (the 1920 book that launched the modern Oxfordian movement, written by the aptly named schoolteacher John Thomas Looney).
The authorship question today draws its energy from a 21st-century climate of conspiratorial thinking, on a spectrum from fashionable scepticism to paranoid delusion. Like flat-earthers and 9/11 ‘truthers’, Shakespeare sceptics like Tarica are fuelled by subcultural groupthink (the Shakespeare Oxford Society is the main cult/culprit) and abetted by a culture of ‘impartiality’ intent on giving airtime to terrible ideas. The only hope for Shakespeareans is that, like Tarica, they at least give us a few laughs for the trouble.