Thursday, March 22, 2007

Shakespeare?

My favorite local used & rare book dealer is working his way thru at least 3 vast collections he’s recently acquired, & I’ve been getting brief peeks into the riches that will eventually be up for sale. One collection, that of of all things a hotelier with a penchant for literature and history, is pretty astonishing: hundreds of Loeb Classical Library volumes, scores of volumes and sets of early modern dramatists, 65 volumes of Jules Verne in translation… Thus far, I’ve confined myself to a rather battered set of ET Cook’s 1911 biography of John Ruskin, but I’m waiting for word on whether I’ll need to sell a kidney to set myself up with Bullen’s 1885 8-volume edition of Thomas Middleton.

I’ve been marginally obsessed with Middleton for some years now, spurred on by the Shakespeare scholar Gary Taylor’s frequent assertions that Middleton is, if not actually better than Shakespeare, a dramatist who conforms more closely to modern habits of mind. (I remember Taylor, with dramatic curtains of belated-hippie hair and a rather outlandish set of couture decisions, addressing a Shakespeare Association of America audience in Miami some years back, & wondering how relevant to contemporary morals Shax’s obsessive interest in female virginity might be: “Are there any virgins here today?” he asked. And nobody spoke up.)

Middleton, from the 8 or 10 of his plays I’ve read, is very good indeed: his comedies are funnier than anyone but Ben Jonson’s, and his tragedies – Women Beware Women, The Changeling – are better than anyone but Shakespeare at his best (and maybe one or two of Marlowe’s). If Gary has his way, the 21st century will be the Middleton century in early modern studies.

Taylor’s been promising a huge complete Middleton, to be published by Oxford UP in a format similar to Taylor’s own Oxford Shakespeare, for maybe a decade and a half now. Rumor has it that the big book is at least in proofs now. Me, I’m hedging my bets – unless I see an ad from OUP with a projected date of publication, I’m inclined to take out a mortgage or sell a couple of guitars to get my hands on the Bullen edition, which, even as it hovers around the 120-years-old mark, is still the text that Middleton scholars turn to. Maybe I’ll even retool myself into a early modern drama person.
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The spectacle of scholars leaping from one field to another has always fascinated and rather scared me. One’s graduate training, I’d like to believe, gives one the linguistic, textual, and theoretical chops to take on pretty much any text whose language one understands, but when one shifts period and genre, there’s an immense amount of catching up to do: early modern history, social history, linguistic and literary traditions, philosophical and ideological backgrounds, etc. Not to mention, in the case of Shakespeare at least, the vast library of critical works that have sedimented around the man’s works (at least some of which is worth reading).

So I’m vastly enjoying Gary Wills’s Witches and Jesuits: Shakespeare’s Macbeth (OUP, 1995), a book which I understand took quite a drubbing in Shakespearean circles. Whatever Wills is – the only other book of his I know is the delicious Reagan’s America – he isn’t a professional Shakespeare scholar. But he writes beautiful, crisp sentences, and lays out what strike me as very fresh insights as discusses Macbeth as a play written in the aftermath of the 1605 Gunpowder Plot: “Words like ‘train’ and ‘blow’ could no more be used ‘innocently’ in the aftermath of the Powder Plot than could ‘sneak attack’ or ‘grassy knoll’ in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor or John Kennedy’s assassination.” (What words, I wonder, will a hundred years hence mark the texts written after September 11?)
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Ron Silliman, in his RSS-enabled weekly trawl thru the media, has fished out one of the latest manifestations of the intellectual pathology that calls itself “Shakespeare Authorship Studies” – or in plain parlance, people with too much time on their hands who want to argue that William Shakespeare didn’t write “Shakespeare.” This particular writer, Roger Stritmatter, is an Oxfordian: that is, he believes that Roger de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, was the chap who wrote the plays and then had them disseminated under the name of some nobody from Stratford. The “evidence” for this doesn’t even deserve the name evidence (and the evidence against is rather telling – Oxford died in 1604, & several of the late Shakespeare plays have clear topical references to events after then – such as, in Wills’s and many others’ account, the Gunpowder Plot material in Macbeth).

I seem to end up reading an anti-Stratfordian book every year or so (which may say something about the time on my own hands), but I’m struck by a statement of Stritmatter’s which echoes most of the other anti-Stratfordians:
The beguiling notion that our author could write "King Lear" without ever suffering the ostracism of Kent, the madness of a hunted Edgar, the dilemma of Cordelia or the alienation of Lear allows us to reduce the play to mere entertainment, without ever contemplating its ring of terrible authenticity. A papier-mache author who accomplishes everything through sheer genius fortifies the American myth that anything is possible if you just click your heels three times and wish hard enough.
The Oxfordians’ main strategy, then, is to show how events in the Shakespeare plays find parallels in Oxford’s life and career. I don’t think one needs to comment on what an impoverished notion of imagination, or what a simplistic conception of the literary process – among other things, the way Shakespeare as veteran “content-producer” and script-doctor is forever overhauling old plots and old plays – this bespeaks. No, like Hemingway the playwright has to be forever “writing what he knows.” You can’t write a bullfight unless you’ve been to one or a boxing match unless you’ve fought one, or write about Lear unless you have youself suffered ostracism. Oxford’s “life, in myriad ways, illumines the Shakespearean oeuvre,” Stritmatter writes fatuously, “and becomes the touchstone for grasping the meaning of many obscure passages in the plays.” Well, I guess looking for parallels with the life of a colorful nobleman beats the hell out of interpretation when you’re confronted with an “obscure passage.”

The roots of the anti-Stratfordian pathology are only partly based in sheer snobbishness (how could these works have been written by a middle-class nobody, they must have come from an Oxbridge man with a title!). What I find more sympathetic in these folks is a very human desire to know more about the life of the writer whose works they so admire. (Though they ignore the fact that we know as much about Shakespeare as we do of any early modern dramatist except Jonson, and far more about him than most of the others.) It’s the same desire that keeps literary biographies flying off the shelves, even when the readers have read no more of Pound or Eliot or Plath than the half-dozen poems they encountered back in college. In sheerly literary terms, it’s a misguided impulse – biographical knowledge won’t in the end help you come to terms with Joyce or Proust or Kafka – but in human terms, it’s deeply understandable. A damned shame, then, that Aubrey never got around to interviewing Shakespeare’s daughter, or that Drummond of Hawthornden didn’t pump Jonson a little more assiduously for details about the Swan of Avon.

3 comments:

Ron said...

What I always read into these fantasies is a class bias not unlike the one that Shakespeare encountered in his own day, the premise that someone with his background couldn't possibly compete with the so-called university wits.

I've always thought that the sonnets (not my favorite of his works) was designed specifically to show Jonson et al that he could best them at their own form as well as in his "base" popular entertainments like Lear.

Ron

Edmund Hardy said...

I had quite a Middleton year last year. I saw Women Beward Women at the RSC in Stratford, and also saw a strange summer production of A Game At Chess on a very large chessboard (already existing in the garden) in Durham. Then I also saw The Changeling and the Revenger's Tragedy in London. It opened out his plays for me, as I don't really like to read a play before actually seeing it - A Game at Chess in particular I expected to be funny in an 1620s sort of way, but a lot of the jokes - about the law for example - slid sideways.

Brian said...

(What words, I wonder, will a hundred years hence mark the texts written after September 11?)

"Miserable failure" leaps immediately to mind.