Monday, September 10, 2007

Shax?

Now that I'm just pissing blood & tiny pointy shards, as opposed to writhing prostrate in full-flank agony, I can get back to actual blogging. I'm pleased to see my colleague Emily over at Incertus getting exercised by the silliness of the anti-Stratfordians again – always a healthy workout for the cardio-vascular system, I think. Like 6-day Creationists & Holocaust deniers, those who deny Wm Shakespeare's (or as they style it, thinking they're saying something significant, "Shakespere's") authorship of "Shakespeare" will always be with us – indeed, I encourage Creationists & Holocaust deniers to look into the authorship "controversy," since they're liable to do a great deal less harm in that little wing of the grand crank factory than in the world at large.

The whole business is only irritating when celebrities get involved – as with this latest Derek Jacobi/Mark Rylance business, or earlier with John Gielgud & Kenneth Branagh, or Walt Whitman & Charlie Chaplin – because then public attention starts getting drawn to the whole non-question. The problem, of course, is that if there were any real controversy over who wrote Shakespeare, the people capable of solving it would be clear-sighted scholars with an encyclopedic knowledge of Renaissance literature & a firm grasp of early modern culture – the culture of the playhouse, of the literary marketplace, of the publishing industry, & so forth.

It's pretty hard to find such animals among actors & creative writers, I'm afraid. Indeed, a 1st-rate analytical mind, tho it never hurts, is far from necessary equipment for acting well or writing well: Do you want Johnny Depp to do your taxes? To edit your term paper? I adore Yeats & Whitman as poets, but I'm the 1st to admit that their intellects were serious effing muddles. So, frankly, who gives a rat's ass what Derek Jacobi or Mark Rylance think about the authorship question?

Culture Industry has visited the authorship "controversy" at least once before, in connection with an Oxfordian book; it sprang to my mind the other day, when I was googling Henry Peachum & anagrams (don't ask) & fell afoul of a whole nest of mind-bendingly obtuse websites on the subject. In my random moments, I keep coming up with lists of questions to ask the anti-Stratfordians:

1) Since you wonder at the fact that Shax of Straford didn't leave any books in his will, what's the data on books in the wills of other dramatists of the period: Middleton, Chapman, Heywood?

2) No letters in Shax's hand? How many letters do we have from Middleton, Chapman, Fletcher, Ford?

[The problem with demanding of Shakespeare the whole written trail that characterizes someone like Goethe or Wordsworth – autographs in people's notebooks, recounted table-talk, laundry-lists, etc. – is that Shax lived before the author became a celebrity. The William Shakespeare who wrote the plays was not the deified Shakespeare of the 19th & 20th centuries, or even the proto-deified Shakespeare of the 18th. He was simply WS, a player & playwright, a script doctor & collaborator, a guy who worked up old stories into playable scripts & rolfed antiquated plays for a contemporary audience.]

3) If there is really such a paucity of information about Shakespeare – a fairly prolific early modern playwright, though by no means among the most prolific – then name one other early modern playwright (other than Ben Jonson, an indefatigable self-promotional machine) about whom we know as much. Thomas Heywood, who claimed to have had a hand in over 200 plays, but whose birth date we don't know? George Chapman? Thomas Middleton?

4) If, as Derek Jacobi is so convinced, "an author writes about his own experience" – a simple-minded equation essential to the thought-processes (generously so-called) of at least the Oxfordians – please explain Sir Walter Scott's 27 novels, not one of which is based on events of his life. Then explain the personal roots of Robert Browning's dramatic monologues, Alfred Tennyson's Idylls of the King, & Edmund Spenser's Faerie Queene.

Unlike Amy & Emily, I'm not inclined to get worked up over the elitism inherent in claiming that a person of Shakespeare's social background couldn't have written the plays. The elitism's certainly there, & just as ugly as such elitism always is. But everyone who knows literature knows that social elitism simply has no force in the world of letters, that far too many great writers came from the working or middling classes (John Clare, Ben Jonson, Louis Zukofsky, James Joyce) for class origin to be an ultimate bar to the imagination.

Instead, I sympathize and pity the anti-Stratfordians. They love their "Shakespeare" – or some plaster Jesus of a Shakespeare: I've yet to read an anti-Stratfordian book (& I've read way too many of them) that goes beyond a kind of muzzy high-school-level affectionate appreciation of the dramas – so much that they want to know everything about his life. But there is just so little to know about him. So they spend their time constructing Dumas-like conspiracy theories that give the man who wrote the plays an existence as exciting as Lawrence of Arabia's. If they need a new thrill, maybe they should try reading The Seven Pillars of Wisdom.
***
The real scandal in the BBC story, by the way, comes in the last section, where we learn that a copy of the Jacobi/Rylance declaration has been "presented to Dr William Leahy, head of English at London's Brunel University and convenor of the first MA in Shakespeare authorship studies, to be launched later this month." This is, mind you, the equivalent of Georgia Tech announcing that they will be offering an MA in Intelligent Design studies; or MIT announcing a chair in Phlogiston Theory. Isambard Kingdom Brunel – great architect of suspension bridges, chief engineer of the Great Western Railway, builder of the Thames Tunnel – is spinning in his railway-gauge grave.

8 comments:

Bradley said...

Glad to hear that you're feeling better and merely... pissing blood and shards. That's got to be a... uh... relief?

Excellent insights re: the anti-Stratfordians. I'm of the mind that Derek Jacobi doesn't exist, myself.

Archambeau said...

Happy to hear you're up and about. Also happy to see, mere minutes ago, your book reviewed in the TLS. Bravo!

Brian said...

The thought of that degree is indeed disturbing, nay, infuriating, and I'm not even remotely a Shakespeare scholar.

Edmund Hardy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Amy said...

"an author writes his own experience" -- what more do you need to hear? Almost every story is ripped off from an identifiable source, and he's looking for the Shax who's BEEN two Richards, three Henries, Pyramus, Prospero, Brutus, Iago, Falstaff... I'm sure there was someone like that resting uncomfortably in Bedlam around that time, but I doubt he had much of a career in the show-biz.

Jennifer Low said...

Sweetie,

Did you ever hear that funny story about Charlton Heston? Long after playing the role of Michelangelo in _The Agony and the Ecstasy_, Heston began to hear rumors that Michelangelo had been gay. His response, made publicly enough that it's gone into apocryphal history: "Michelangelo couldn't possibly have been gay. I would have known!" I think of him as Mark Rylance joins the anti-Stratfordian crowd.

James said...

This is a fascinating area of scholarship, with most modern-day scholars agreeing that William Shakespeare was not Shakespeare. The problem for all other candidates however, is finding a connection to the undisputed home or 'base' of the Bard. This is not a problem for the strongest candidate; Fulke Greville, Lord Brooke who was the Recorder of Stratford and who had residence down the road in Warwick Castle. He was a 1st class genius, a poet, sonneteer, statesman, soldier, sailor, Chancellor as well as many other profiles that the true 'Shakespeare' must possess. That is not to say that other fine men (or women) of the age did not play a part, but Greville is the only candidate to have claimed the title of 'the master of Shakespeare'. If this subject may be of interest, and for more information, see the website www.masterofshakespeare.com. The new book; 'The Master of Shakespeare' by A.W.L. Saunders is sure to be a hit!!

Craig said...

In re "an author writes about his own experience," it always strikes me that no one ever really believes this. How could Shakespeare have written the Falstaff scenes of Henry IV without having been a highwayman? What do we know of Edward de Vere's drinking habits? Similarly, Shakespeare must have been a sorceror, an ancient Roman, and consorted extensively with fairies. And don't let's get started about what _Marlowe's_ life must have been like.