29 December 2014

The Mysterious William Shakespeare


T
oday’s saint (among others) is Thomas Becket, the subject of T. S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral and Jean Anouilh’s Becket, the former of which is a personal favorite and the latter of which we had to read in high school. (There was this movie, you see….) He was also (sort of) the inspiration for one of my favorite episodes in the Blackadder series. But I’m not (sad to say) inspired by the subject myself, and therefore will have to cast about for something unrelated to say.
Fortunately just such a subject is close at hand. Amanda Marcotte replies (“The unsavory motivations of the Shakespeare truthers”) to a Newsweek article I haven’t read that (she says) is “a surprisingly sympathetic piece about Shakespeare truthers”—those raving loons that believe Francis Bacon or Edward de Vere or Queen Elizabeth wrote the plays and poems attributed to William Shakespeare, actor and theatre shareholder, of Stratford-on-Avon.
Raving loons is my characterization, by the way. Amanda Marcotte finds its origin in a “knee-jerk respect for wealth and authority” that is “fueled by an unsavory classism and hostility to bohemianism that manifests in an unwillingness to accept that someone could develop as a great poet without a formal education but merely by practicing through his work as a writer and actor.” This certainly characterizes some noted writers on the so-called authorship question—Thomas Looney, Charlton and Dorothy Ogburn and their son, and no doubt others. These guys are champions of the seventeenth earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere, a bad poet (mediocre is much too kind) who is said by Francis Meres to have written plays, and who was in fact a patron of writers of the age, including the famous and influential John Lyly.
Personally I think it is a mercy that his plays have not survived. Some of his poems, unluckily, have. Here’s a sample:
The drone more honey sucks, that laboureth not at all,
Than doth the bee, to whose most pain least pleasure doth befall:
The gard'ner sows the seeds, whereof the flowers do grow,
And others yet do gather them, that took less pain I trow.
So I the pleasant grape have pulled from the vine,
And yet I languish in great thirst, while others drink the wine.
And here’s another:
If women could be fair and yet not fond,
Or that their love were firm not fickle, still,
I would not marvel that they make men bond,
By service long to purchase their good will;
But when I see how frail those creatures are,
I muse that men forget themselves so far.
The guy that wrote these lines was no Shakespeare. He could have been the author of Sir Clyomon and Sir Clamydes, or one of the plays of the era when rhymed and awkward verse was all the rage, maybe, but not in the age of Kyd and Middleton and Webster.
I skip over the glaring fact that the guy died too soon to be Shakespeare. Sources for Lear and The Tempest hadn’t even been published when he died. The teacher Charlie Moore in Head of the Class dismissed one of his student’s objections on that ground by saying that it’s true only if you follow the conventional chronology—but that conventional chronology is solidly based on dates of publication, entries in the Stationers Register, datable allusions, source analysis, records of performances, and so on and so forth. One nutjob Oxfordian had the earl writing Sir Thomas More (a play to which Shakespeare appears to have contributed part of a scene during a rewrite) in 1580—well before the 1587 edition of Holinshed actually used by its authors. Another put The Winter’s Tale before Robert Greene’s Pandosto, the novel on which it was based.
There are plenty of legitimate literary mysteries out there—but who wrote Shakespeare’s plays isn’t one of them. Robert Greene, or somebody writing in his name, bitched about an actor (whom he referred to as Shake-scene) who had dared to write his own plays, thus robbing his betters of a job. An anonymous university writer (who obviously considered Shakespeare a lightweight) lampooned his fellow-actors Will Kempe and Richard Burbage, having Kempe say, “Few of the university men pen plays well. They smell too much of that writer Ovid, and that writer Metamorphosis, and talk too much of Proserpina and Jupiter. Why! here's our fellow Shakspeare puts them all down; aye, and Ben Jonson too.” The first folio of his plays refers to his Stratford monument. And so on and so forth.
“It’s true” as Ophelia Benson writes, “that it’s mysterious how Shakespeare got to be Shakespeare, but you know what? It would be no less mysterious if he were Edward Vere or Elizabeth Tudor or John Dee or anyone else.” There’s the fact of it. Occasionally a few people manage to write songs or poems or plays or books that appeal to their own time. Out of this small group only a handful produce anything that lasts beyond its moment, that continues to appeal to people out of its immediate time and place. Even fewer from this group manage to keep people entertained, interested, intrigued, or enthralled as the centuries go by. There’s your mystery. Solve that one, if you can.

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