Tuesday, August 30, 2005

"Like every good heretic, I believe that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare..."

(The above is a quote from the first issue of National Review, 1955. Great article by Morrie Ryskind.)

OK, it's time to drop all my petty concerns about politics, Israel, my personal life and feelings, and rush to a full-court defense of my main man Will Shakespeare, victim of a hatchet job in today's New York Times.

The piece starts reasonably enough, discussing recent books on Shakespeare and how they relate to the whole authorship issue. Now, this is fair game: I saw the new book on the Earl of Oxford in Barnes & Noble myself recently, and just groaned. And the whole Catholic question can be interesting: I once wrote a paper (or part of one) on it myself. But when I got done with this piece, I let out an audible "Disgusting!"

The article's main problem is that it deals with recently published books, and uses their admittedly wacky theories as a strawman: "See? The Oxford theories may be weird, but so are the Stratfordians!" There is a simple solution: Point out that there's more than the strawmen, as I will do shortly. But first, let's address some of the points made in the article.
To begin with, there is the question of Shakepeare's source materials.
Shakespeare had to have read a lot of books. Books were valuable. But in his
will, where he was very specific about a second-best bed for his wife and about
who should get plate, a sword and various rings, there is no mention of books.
Of course, that will has been much discussed. There's no mention of a best bed, for one. Most likely, Shakespeare simply didn't dictate the deposition of many items which would pass to his family (or which had already been given to his friends) anyway. To pretend this is the first time anyone thought about the books is disingenuous.
In an article in the current TLS about another new crop of Shakespeare
authorship books, Brian Vickers - the dean of Shakespeare scholars, who a year
and a half ago in TLS argued for the attribution of a Shakespeare poem, "A
Lover's Complaint," to John Davies of Hereford - gives a kind of
fire-and-brimstone academic sermon attacking the
Shakespeare-must-have-been-someone-else scholars.
I suppose the reference to the poem is a sort of "Gotcha!" point- see, even he has issues. Of course, as anyone who knows Shakespeare knows, that poem and others have long been problematic. So? It's like saying "Shakespeare didn't write the whole Passionate Pilgrim! So there!"
For instance, how could a writer of such stature leave no evidence of his ever
having made money for his work? In a folio edition that preceded Shakespeare's,
Ben Jonson published his plays, floridly dedicating them, each to a different
patron; Shakespeare did nothing of the kind.
Of course Ben Jonson did that. Ben Jonson was full of himself, and people laughed at him for doing that. It was a very uncommon practice. You just didn't publish plays: You acted them out. Shakespeare, of course, published and dedicated poems, but there's no mention of that.

Speaking of Ben Jonson, he was a person who loved to throw wrenches into the works. He knew Shakespeare well- and nowhere does he hint that he wasn't the author. Of all people, he'd be the one to let the cat out of the bag, and yet he wrote essays on how great Shakespeare was.
Many of the plays languished unpublished until seven years after his death,
finally to be assembled by others and published, but not for the profit of
Shakespeare's heirs. And none of the descendants of Shakespeare left a word
about his literary achievement.
Again, see above for how usual it would be for "others" (actually Shakespeare's company, which probably owned the copyright anyway) to publish the plays. Oh, and Jonson contributed introductions. The bits about "heirs" and "descendants" is one of the piece's most awful deceptions: For all intents and purposes, Shakespeare had none. Only daughters survived, and we know their status back then. And he had no descendants past one daughter's children. (One daughter had a son named Shaxper. Make of that what you will- I see in it an affirmation of his grandfather's fame.)
For example, the youngest of de Vere's three daughters, Susan, whom Mr. Anderson
finds to be associated in a contemporary epigram with King Lear's youngest
daughter, Cordelia, married Philip Herbert, the Earl of Montgomery, after an
effort to marry her older sister Bridget to William Herbert, the Earl of
Pembroke, failed. The compilers of the First Folio, the original source of many
Shakespeare plays, dedicated it to these two earls.
Oh, that's a powerful argument. Of course, the First Folio is full of dedications and poems stating that Shakespeare wrote the plays. But let's ignore text for subtext, eh?
For instance, he wholly accepts "Sir Thomas More" as de Vere's - not only the
parts of Scene 6 that traditional scholars claim for Shakespeare, but the entire
play. Most of the manuscript is in the handwriting of Anthony Munday, an author
of the period who for a time, Mr. Anderson says, was de Vere's secretary.
Of course most of the manuscript is in another hand. And yet part of it is in Shakespeare's. So? No one claims Shakespeare wrote the whole thing.
On both sides of the authorship controversy, the arguments are conjectural.
Each case rests on a story, and not on hard evidence.
Of course: There's no hard evidence if you only set up strawmen!

The "hard evidence" is so simple it almost seems absurd: There's no evidence anyone other than Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare. There's no evidence Shakespeare himself didn't. On the other hand, there's much evidence that the varied other candidates did not write the plays. (One absurdly simple point: De Vere died well before many of Shakespeare's plays were written. No mention of that here.) And there's much evidence that Shakespeare himself did. (Outside of the external stuff, there is, for example, the author of the Sonnets referring to himself as "Will." De Vere's first name was, um, Edward. Shakespeare's first name was, um, Will. The line is clear enough to be proof, and subtle enough to avoid conspiracy theories.)

So let's go back to the beginning of the piece:
The traditional theory that Shakespeare was Shakespeare has the passive to
active acceptance of the vast majority of English professors and scholars, but
it also has had its skeptics, including major authors, independent scholars,
lawyers, Supreme Court justices, academics and even prominent Shakespearean
actors. Those who see a likelihood that someone other than Shakespeare wrote the
plays and poems attributed to him have grown from a handful to a thriving
community with its own publications, organizations, lively online discussion
groups and annual conferences.
Leaving aside the fact that all sorts of kooks have online groups, and that actors are...actors, let's look at one "major author", Mark Twain. Twain believed- as have snobs since Shakespeare's own time- that he wasn't worthy of having written them, with his (relative) lack of education. (He didn't go to college! Horrors! Of course, grammar school back then was pretty impressive.) One wonders, of course, why Twain himself, with less education than Shakespeare, wasn't similarly hampered in writing the classics of his time. Or how Abraham Lincoln, with virtually no formal education at all, became our greatest president.

And so the article ends:
What if authorship studies were made part of the standard Shakespeare
curriculum?
Sure. Why not intelligent design, as long as we're at it? Or all the other things in Derb's piece today?

I hate irrationalism (and its sister, obscurantism) above all.

Then again, this is the same Times who joyously reviewed the new Central Park production (revival, actually- and loose adaptation) of "The Two Gentlemen of Verona" thusly yesterday:
They also scaled down Shakespeare's passages of poetic pain for an approach that
emphasized an easygoing, multicultural exuberance over wistful poetry and
nonsense over sensibility.
Poetic Pain? Sensibility? Sensibility is bad? If they don't kill Shakespeare by denying he existed altogether, they kill him by promoting "the lotus-eating youth of the post-Woodstock years" as being better than him.

Of course, it should surprise no one that a song perceived as being anti-Bush (although written over thirty years ago, as anti-Vietnam War) is "greeted with knowing laughter by the audience." Another article tells us that only one person walked out during the previews. Only a few miles from Ground Zero, the ingrates.

See? It all comes back to Times-bashing and politics. I'm back!

6 comments:

Dave said...

Fascinating. You actually managed to make an argument about Shakespeare sound like a halachic discourse and diatribe. Congratulations. Shakespeare would roll over in his grave if he knew.

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