Neo-atheist thinker Richard Dawkins has an inordinate ability to shove his foot directly into his mouth — over and over again. He has offended Islam; he has defended pedophilia. Now, he says that William Shakespeare, the West's most exalted playwright, was not sufficiently educated.

This rather stunning assessment of Shakespeare comes in a "By the Book" interview with The New York Times Book Review, which appeared online this afternoon and will run in print this Sunday. When the interviewer asks Dawkins which writer he'd like to meet, Dawkins answers as follows:

Sorry to be boringly predictable, but Shakespeare. Who are you? And how did a humble country boy like you become the greatest genius, and part creator, of our beloved English language. Might you have been even better if you’d studied at Oxford or Cambridge?

The emphasis is ours; the inane words belong to Dawkins, who had a comfortable upbringing  —chronicled in his new autobiography, An Appetite for Wonder — that allowed him to attend Oxford, where is a fellow today, having become famous for books like The Selfish Gene and The God Delusion.

Shakespeare, on the other hand, was the son of a glove maker from Stratford-upon-Avon. He likely attended the King Edward IV Grammar School from the age of seven until he was fourteen. Since so little is known about his life, it is difficult to speculate about why he did not continue his education any further.

However, his 37 plays evince a thorough knowledge of the Greco-Roman classics. He is, moreover, the most cited individual in the Oxford English Dictionary; his Hamlet is the OED's single most cited work. 

And as Ron Rosenbaum, a literary critic and author of The Shakespeare Wars, tells The Atlantic Wire, "Considering what 'theory' has done to the contemporary study of literature, he was probably better educated in classical literature than most comp lit grad students, not that that's saying much." Rosenbaum adds that "His source plays were readily available in St. Paul's Churchyard, he didn't have to travel to Italy to read travelogues, and there was a rich store of historical and historical fantasy literature in addition to proliferating translations of the classics."

It remains unclear what Dawkins meant by his suggestion that Shakespeare could have been even "better." The Atlantic Wire reached out to Dawkins on Twitter, but he did not respond to the request for comment.

However, his attitude is not an original one. Writing in The Telegraph two years back, Allan Massie has blasted "snobs" who think the uneducated Shakespeare could not have written masterworks like King Lear and Macbeth without an Oxbridge education: "Shakespeare had no need to have travelled or to have studied law, or been active in politics, to write the plays. Works of literature are made from memory, experience (which includes what you have read), observation and imagination." 

Perhaps the only thing Shakespeare missed out on was punting on the Cam.

Shakespeare portrait: AP Photo; punting on the Cam: AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis.