Shakespeare scholars—yours truly among them—are frequently called upon to teach courses that don't explicitly call for Shakespeare. When that call comes, such scholars have a choice. The choice isn't whether to incorporate Shakespeare into the classes in question; the choice is how to do so.
In my composition classes, we cover the informal fallacies, and I thought that that lecture would be the ideal place to use examples drawn from arguments about Shakespeare (particularly from the authorship question) and from Shakespeare's characters or plots.
Here, then, is my handout on nineteen of the most common informal fallacies. Each one has an example drawn from the authorship question and one from a Shakespeare character or plot. If you, too, are a Shakespeare scholar called upon to teach composition, feel free to use it. You'll be right at home.
A Shakespearean Introduction to the Informal Fallacies
Ad Hominem. Literally translated “to the man,” this fallacy constitutes a personal attack on the opponent rather than on the opponent’s views. An example might be referring to “cold-hearted Shakespeare scholars only interested in preserving their employment” in an argument about the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays and poems. In Richard III, Queen Elizabeth calls Richard “That bottled spider, that foul bunch-back’d toad!” (IV.iv.81). This constitutes an attack on Richard’s person rather than his position. Committing this fallacy has the potential of alienating members of your audience.
Ad Misericordiam. The appeal to pity. There is nothing inherently wrong with an emotional appeal as a part of an argument, but an argument shouldn’t be solely based on an exploitation of the reader’s pity. Don’t forget the old joke about the man who murdered his parents and appealed to the court for leniency because he was an orphan. Similarly, an appeal for clemency based solely on a rough childhood or racial prejudice may touch the hearts of a jury, but it won’t necessarily exonerate the client. “The most tragic part of the authorship issue is that the Earl of Oxford does not have the recognition he deserves.” In As You Like It, Silvius uses the appeal to pity in an attempt to win the love of Phoebe:
Ad Populum. “To the people.” Appeals to supposed prejudices and emotions of the masses, to popular sentiments. “In this modern age, we enlightened members of society recognize the ability of contemporary scholarship to detect fraud, especially in claims about authorship.” It might function as a smoke screen to hide a certain lack of ideas—but it only fools the unwary. Very similar to the Bandwagon Appeal, which makes the claim that everyone is doing it, so we’d better get on the bandwagon: “Everyone knows that someone else wrote the works attributed to William Shakespeare.” When Mark Antony’s makes his speech at Caesar’s funeral in Julius Caesar, he uses both these fallacies to sway the crowd: “You all did love him once, not without cause: / What cause withholds you then, to mourn for him?” (III.ii.102-03). The first part of his sentence appeals to the love everyone in the crowd had for Caesar once (in fact, many in the crowd had just been convinced that his death was beneficial to Rome); the second part of his sentence implies that everyone will be mourning Caesar and that they should join in with the crowd.Pity me, Phoebe . . .
Wherever sorrow is, relief would be:
If you do sorrow at my grief in love,
By giving love your sorrow and my grief
Were both extermined. (III.v.84, 86-89)
Post Hoc, Ergo Propter Hoc. “After this, therefore because of this.” This fallacy establishes a questionable cause-effect relationship between events: because event X follows event Y, therefore event Y caused event X. “Every time I wash my car it rains.” “Prostitution and drugs came to the area because riverboat gambling came.” “Hamlet was written after the death of the Earl of Oxford’s father; the Earl’s father’s death inspired the terrible outpouring of grief over a lost father that the play so eloquently articulates.” Macbeth is trapped by a classic Post Hoc, Ergo Propter Hoc fallacy by the witches in Macbeth: they tell him that he is Thane of Cawdor (though he doesn’t, at that point, know that he is); when the word comes that he is Thane of Cawdor, he assumes that it is because the Wëird Sisters said he was.
Circular Reasoning. A diversionary tactic which seeks to prove a point with a reworded version of the same point. “The belief that William Shakespeare wrote the works attributed to him is untenable because such a position cannot reasonably be held.” That statement translates into “The belief is untenable because it’s untenable.” Hamlet plays with circular reasoning when he delivers this line: “There’s never a villain dwelling in all Denmark / But he’s an arrant knave” (I.v.23-24). Horatio’s response is the appropriate response to all circular reasoning: “There needs no ghost, my lord, come from the grave / To tell us this” (I.v.25-26).
Begging the Question. To assume that part of your argument is true without supporting it—to pass off as proof statements that must actually be supported themselves. Often announced with such diversionary tactics as “the fact is,” “obviously,” or “as we can see”—when in fact we can’t. “The accused is clearly innocent [or guilty] because the accused passed [or failed] a polygraph test” assumes that passing [or failing] a polygraph test is equivalent to being innocent [or guilty]. “Obviously, an important author like the man who wrote Shakespeare’s plays would have left a diary behind. William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon didn’t leave one; therefore, he cannot have written the plays.” One of Hamlet’s first responses to his encounter with his father’s ghost is this: “It is an honest ghost” (I.v.38). Later in the play, he realizes that such an assumption commits the fallacy of begging the question, and he resolves to test the proof of that statement: “The spirit that I have seen / May be a devil” (II.ii.598-99).
False Analogy. When two things that are being compared don’t match up feature for feature, or when ideas being compared do not logically connect or are pressed beyond legitimacy. Presents too few points of comparison or ignores a fundamental difference in the nature or purpose of the two things being compared. “This must be a great car, for, like the finest watches in the world, it was made in Switzerland.” “England has free health care for all of its citizens. The same program will work in the United States.” “Woody Allen’s films are widely recognized as autobiographical; the plays attributed to William Shakespeare are likewise autobiographical—and they don’t tell the biography of the man from Stratford.” In Hamlet, Hamlet employs a false analogy when he compares himself (and his lack of passionate resolve) to an actor (and the actor’s seemingly passionate resolve):
Hasty Generalization. Conclusion is based on too little evidence. “I’ve seen Kenneth Branagh’s Love’s Labour’s Lost, and I don’t need to see any other films he’s made. The man simply cannot direct.” A generalization can only be as sound as its supporting evidence. Is one corrupt Chicago official enough to form a judgment about all Chicago officials? Be careful about making unqualified claims; avoid using words such as always, all, none, nobody, never, only, and exclusively. “In printed work during the late 1500s and early 1600s, a hyphenated name always indicated a pseudonym. Since many of the plays have the hyphenated name ‘Shake-Speare’ on their title pages, they must have been written by someone else.” This claim can be undermined by finding only one example of a hyphenated name that does not indicate a pseudonym (and far more than one example exists). In Othello, Othello concludes that his wife has been unfaithful to him based on a lost handkerchief and the words of Iago. It proves to be one of the hastiest of generalizations.Is it not monstrous that this player here,
But in a fiction, in a dream of passion,
Could force his soul so to his own conceit
That from her working all his visage wann’d,
Tears in his eyes, distraction in’s aspect,
A broken voice, and his whole function suiting
With forms to his conceit? (II.ii.551-57)
Non Sequitur. “Does not follow.” Draws a conclusion that does not follow logically from the premise. “Coal-burning facilities produce noxious gasses; therefore, Nuclear Power Plants are safe.” “No books belonging to Shakespeare have ever surfaced; therefore, he could not have written the plays attributed to him.” When Hamlet refers to Polonius as Jephthah, Polonius says, “If you call me Jephthah, my lord, I have a daughter that I love passing well” (II.ii.411-12); Hamlet immediately recognizes this as a non sequitur: “Nay, that follows not” (II.ii.413). Polonius’ inference is that Hamlet wishes to point out that Polonius loves his daughter; Hamlet actually wishes to point out that Polonius is willing to sacrifice his daughter just as Jephthah was willing to sacrifice his daughter.
Stacking the Deck. In science, this fallacy goes under the name “data beautification.” This fallacy occurs when an author gives only the evidence that supports the premise while disregarding or withholding contrary evidence. Advertising is replete with examples: “The new Volkswagon Beetle is 700 percent quieter” sounds good until we know that it’s 700 percent quieter than Busch Stadium during the seventh game of the 2011 World Series! “The Earl of Oxford is mentioned in Francis Meres’ Palladis Tamia as among “the best for comedy.” That is true, but it neglects to mention that Meres also says that Shakespeare is “the most excellent in both [comedy and tragedy] for the stage,” which indicates not only that Shakespeare and the Earl are two separate individuals but that Shakespeare is the better author of the two. The Wëird Sisters in Macbeth tell Macbeth that “none of woman born / Shall harm Macbeth” (IV.i.80-81), but they withhold the important information that people born by Caesarian section are not included in their definition of born of a woman.
False Dilemma. Reducing a complex issue to an “either / or” situation when more than two choices are available. “The person who wrote Shakespeare’s plays had extensive knowledge of Elizabethan legal proceedings that he must have obtained either by having legal training or by possessing an aristocratic background.” In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Egeus says that his daughter Hermia must either marry the man he has chosen for her or be put to death. Duke Theseus recognizes this as the fallacy of False Dilemma and offers a third alternative—to become a nun for the rest of her life. It turns out that this, too, is merely an extension of the False Dilemma: even more choices than these three are available.
The Slippery Slope. Presumes that one event will inevitably lead to a whole chain of other events and ultimately to catastrophe. Commonly used in highly-charged political issues, e.g., censorship or gun control: “If we allow the government to register handguns, next it will register hunting rifles; then it will prohibit all citizen ownership of guns, thereby creating a world in which only outlaws have guns.” “If scholars continue to ignore the weight of evidence that supports the Earl of Oxford’s authorship, they will fall into disrepute, bringing their respective colleges into disrepute, and, eventually, ending the true scholarly study of literature forever.” In Henry V, King Henry outlines a Slippery Slope of what will happen to the town of Harfleur if it does not surrender:
Red Herring. Introducing a side issue, some point that is not at all relevant to the debate. “The senator is an honest man; he loves sports and plays with his children on weekends.” “William Shakespeare of Stratford cannot have written the plays; his burial register describes him as ‘gent.’ and not as ‘poet.’” In Julius Caesar, Mark Antony is speaking at Caesar’s funeral, pondering why the conspirators assassinated Julius Caesar. In his speech to the people, he turns from that disscusion with these words: “But here's a parchment with the seal of Caesar; / I found it in his closet, ’tis his will” (III.ii.128-29). Caesar’s will isn’t relevant to the debate over the reasons for Caesar’s assassination: it’s a Red Herring.Therefore, you men of Harfleur,
Take pity of your town and of your people,
Whiles yet my soldiers are in my command;
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
If not, why, in a moment look to see
The blind and bloody soldier with foul hand
Defile the locks of your shrill-shrieking daughters;
Your fathers taken by the silver beards,
And their most reverend heads dash’d to the walls,
Your naked infants spitted upon pikes,
Whiles the mad mothers with their howls confused
Do break the clouds, as did the wives of Jewry
At Herod’s bloody-hunting slaughtermen.
What say you? will you yield, and this avoid,
Or, guilty in defence, be thus destroy’d? (III.iii.27-29, 33-43)
Appeal to Unqualified Authority. The kind of product endorsement common to advertising is usually guilty of this fallacy. “Wheaties must be healthy. Many successful athletes recommend it.” I wouldn’t take Michael Jordan’s advice on foreign policy issues; neither would I cite Henry Kissinger as an authority on zone defense. “Malcolm X questioned Shakespeare’s authorship of the plays; therefore, Shakespeare can’t have written them.” In Much Ado About Nothing, Claudio and Don Pedro believe that Claudio’s fiancée Hero has been unfaithful to him on the word of the evil Don John and his henchman Borachio. Don John and Borachio do not have the authority to make claims about Hero’s fidelity or infidelity. As a side note, the well-qualified authorities of Hero and Beatrice, who do have specialized knowledge about Hero’s fidelity or infidelity, are ignored.
Straw Man. A diversionary tactic. Attributing to your opponent erroneous and usually ridiculous views which can be easily attacked. Don’t mistake genuine counter-arguments for straw men. “Those who think William Shakespeare of Stratford wrote the plays are completely uninterested in the biographical details of anyone else living in that time period.” Hamlet attributes the quality of silliness to Polonius in an effort to get the better of him in front of the travelling players: “He’s for a jig or a tale of bawdry, or he sleeps” (II.ii.500-01).
Is / Ought. States that because a thing is so it ought to be so. Used by advocates for the status quo: “You think we need a stop sign at that corner? What do you mean? We’ve never had a stop sign there.” “Hamlet is interpreted with details from the Elizabethan Court; it ought always and only to be interpreted with those details.” The Montagues and the Capulets are locked in a feud at the beginning of Romeo and Juliet. They are feuding, but that doesn’t mean that they ought to be feuding.
Guilt by Association. States that two things are the same thing because they share an attribute. “The Earl of Oxford had knowledge of the aristocracy. The author of the plays attributed to William Shakespeare had knowledge of the aristocracy. Therefore, the author of the plays attributed to William Shakespeare was the Earl of Oxford.” In Romeo and Juliet, Tybalt commits this fallacy when he thinks about Romeo. His argument is essentially this: “I hate all Montagues. Romeo is a Montague. Therefore, I hate Romeo.”
Special Pleading. Disregarding contrary evidence on insufficient grounds. “The best writers of the English Renaissance had a university education. Yes, Ben Johnson, who lacked a university education, was a prolific and popular author during the time and is still exceedingly well-regarded as one of the greatest of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, but he doesn’t really count. No one without a university education could have written the plays attributed to Shakespeare.” In Much Ado About Nothing, Leonato’s daughter Hero is accused of being unfaithful. When Beatrice says that she has been Hero’s roommate for a year (with the exception of the night before the accusation) and would have noticed if she had been unfaithful, Leonato discounts this information on the insufficient grounds that Hero’s accusers would not lie.
Personal Incredulity. Arguing that something is too complex or too incredible to be believed. “The Shakespeare Establishment continues to disregard all the evidence that proves that the Earl of Oxford wrote the plays. I cannot understand how they can be so willfully ignorant.” In The Tempest, Gonzalo can’t quite credit the fact that Prospero—whom he saw banished many years ago—stands before him. He says, “Whether this be, / Or be not, I’ll not swear” (V.i.122-23). Prospero calls attention to the implicit fallacy of personal incredulity with these lines:
You yet do taste
Some subtleties o’ th’ isle, that will not let you
Believe things certain. (V.i.124-26).