Thursday, June 21, 2012

Rage, Revenge, Ressentiment

Near the end of  the movie Tombstone--which is still one of my all-time favorite Westerns--Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp are talking about the villain, Johnny Ringo:

Earp:  What makes a man like Ringo, doc? What makes him do the things he does?
Doc:   A man like Ringo has got a great big hole, right in the middle of him. He can never kill enough, or steal enough, or inflict enough pain to ever fill it. 
Earp: What does he need?
Doc: Revenge.
Earp: For what?
Doc: Bein' born.

Ringo is an old-school bad guy. He's one of those nihilistic villains that moralistic types (read: most of us, whether we admit it or not) like to dream up as a foil for heroism. The movie makes him a sort of Old West Antichrist who thunders through the landscape, leaving murder and mayhem in his wake. Westerns, in case you aren't a fan, have a lot of apocalyptic imagery. The Four Horsemen theme is almost a cliche--hence the Eastwood classic, Pale Rider. 

Westerns are quintessentially American in their insistence that good and evil are easily distinguishable. In Tombstone, the bad guys conveniently wear blood-red sashes, which gives them a sinister yet fashionable flair amid all the dust, dirt and moral ambiguity. Because, you know, guns don't kill people-- people kill people. People with black hats, or red sashes, or maybe hoodies.

We are a simple people, we Americans. Ever since John Winthrop declared our nation to be a City on a Hill, a shining beacon of virtue the rest of the world can only aspire to emulate, we've had a hard time with moral gray areas. The City on a Hill, like that high note in the Star Spangled Banner, is often just out of reach--if only we could get rid of the witches, the communists, the liberals, the right-wingers, the feminists, the tea-partiers...well, if we could just get rid of them, we would be awesome. And if we can't, we can at least imagine someone who might do it for us. A lone hero, armed with moral certainty and a six-shooter, will set things right.

But we don't even need this guy, really. What we need are villains. Really nasty, apocalyptically rotten bad guys. Facing off against these guys, anyone can be Clint Eastwood, or John Wayne. Because all heroes really need are unrepentant nemeses, people who deserve the nasty, violent ending the movie or story has planned for them. Otherwise our pleasure in movie violence would be kind of wrong, wouldn't it?  Twisted and voyeuristic. We can enjoy seeing someone get his head blown off if he's a really rotten person, because we get to feel morally righteous and enjoy the blood and gore. Let's face it, moral relativism and ambiguity put a real damper on our primitive notions of justice, not to mention our cinematic bloodlust. We need--morally, culturally, and aesthetically--our bad guys to be irredeemably evil. And the best kind of evil is the kind that has absolutely no motive, really, except the psychic and sometimes erotic pleasure of causing others pain.

According to Doc Holliday, Ringo wants "revenge for being born."  Hard to get your head around that--unless you're, like, a sociopathic killer. Or a charismatic, villainous leader a la Charles Manson, Hitler, or, in the fictional realm, Iago. As far as we know, neither Manson nor Hitler actually killed anyone with their own hands. They just inspired and goaded others to do it for them. These guys, of course, are more dangerous than your average run-of-the-mill Norman Bates, because they can influence others--often many others--to do their evil bidding. So why do they do it? Because it's a rush, I guess, having that much power over people. And because like Ringo and Iago, they had a big hole somewhere in the middle of them. About where we like to think The Soul resides. I know, that sounds like psychopop babble. But what else do we have? Moral philosophers haven't done much better than that, despite centuries of trying the explain the Nature of Evil.

This is what Iago means, I think, when he says "I am not what I am." There's a hole where my essence should be. Or maybe, "I am a theatrical construct, a creature of no substance." In a previous post, written way back when I was blogging Richard III, I called this kind of moral emptiness "ontological evil," by which I meant the kind of evil that recognizes itself as such, and revels in its awesome wickedness. You can check out that post here, if you are so inclined. Ontologically evil villains are usually in the comic book mode, like Lex Luthor or The Joker. At the time, I took the typically liberal/humanist position that ontological evil was itself an ideological fantasy, i.e., something invented to sway public opinion, often in evil or immoral directions. Thus, for Hitler, Jews were ontologically evil. He saw himself as the hero in a Manichean melodrama, sort of. He didn't realize that history would have quite another take on the business of genocide.

Now, however, I'm not so sure about what I wrote then. The opposition between "psychological" evil (e.g., Norman Bates) and "ontological" evil (e.g. Dr. No, the Joker, Lex Luthor) seems too simplistic to me. I think there's a third category, right in the middle, which is where most of us live. Somewhere between insanity and comic-book villainy. Nietzsche and Kierkegaard called this state "ressentiment," using the French word because it more accurately describes the self-justifying solipsism of evil in the modern age. Or, you know, because French words sound cooler. (Hannah Arendt would call this kind of evil "banal," but that word only makes sense in a world where one still values nobility and honor. Which, sadly, we don't.) The modern man of ressentiment feels his emptiness, his inferiority, his failure, and projects it outward onto an external scapegoat. This man sees himself as "good," but only in relation to the evildoers that are making his life a misery. He is, first and foremost, a victim. And as a victim who feels powerless to fill the lack of nobility in himself, the "great big hole," he schemes behind the scenes. He plots, and while he plots, he continually narrates to himself the list of wrongs that have been done to him and his kind.

You can see how the Internet has, among other things, fed the soul-sucking fires of ressentiment. There are lots of people out there seeking revenge for being born. People who, like Iago, "are not what they are"--i.e, people who are no more than the aggregate of the wrongs they imagine have been done to them. These people are very active on the Internet. Because the Internet is a place--or rather an ontological limbo--that rewards people for being "not what they are." It's pure theater, in all the ways the Puritans feared back in Will's day. It allows enraged victims to anonymously slam anyone and everyone deemed responsible for his/her victimization. It is the vehicle of passion and rage in what is essentially a passionless era.

Hmm. Topic for another time, perhaps. Now, back to our man Iago. Othello has been re-assigned to Cyprus, remember, before even consummating his marriage, and has given his wife into the "conveyance" of his good bud, "Honest Iago."  I'll have more to say about "conveyances" and "honesty" later.  For now, we're left with Iago and Roderigo, the latter contemplating suicide in the face of Desdemona's marriage. Iago gives him a pep talk:

Oh, villainous! I ha' looked upon the world for four times seven years, and since I could distinguish between a benefit and an injury I never found man that knew how to love himself. Ere I would say I would drown myself for love of a guinea-hen, I would change my humanity with a baboon.

There's a lot in this passage. First, we find out that Iago is only twenty-eight years old! That was older then than it is now, but really, he seems like a bitter old guy from our modern perspective. But maybe that's because of our inherent bias toward youth. It's certainly possible for people to be rotten at any age.  Iago claims that he, alone among men, knows how to "love himself." He doesn't mean "love thyself" in the new-agey sense of accepting yourself, faults and all. He means "look out for your own interests." Value yourself above all others. Make yourself--your needs and desires--the center of your moral universe.

We're all pretty good at this now--mostly because we've confused, or perhaps synthesized, these two ideas of self-love. Self-acceptance slides pretty easily into self-justification, unless you've got armed guards at the gates of your psyche. And if you do have those, you've probably got other problems. 

Like Richard III and, to a certain extent, Lear's Edmund, Iago is a modern guy. He believes in the Self, in getting ahead by your wits rather than your connections. He's socially on the borderlines, hobnobbing with the upper classes, but resenting them because he won't ever belong. He hates Cassio for being a foppish aristocrat, hates Othello for what he sees as pandering to the upper classes. He doesn't hold with old-fashioned notions of "virtue" or moral behavior. He is, at least on the surface, a rationalist, seeing love as a mere offshoot of lust. To Iago, power is the engine that drives the machine of the world, and will--not honor, or love, or virtue--is its fuel:

Virtue? A fig! 'Tis in ourselves that we are thus or thus. Our bodies are our gardens, to the which our wills are gardeners; so that if we plant nettles or sow lettuce, set hyssop and weed up thyme, supply it with one gender of herbs or distract it with many, either to have it sterile with idleness or manured with industry, why, the power and corrigible authority of this lies in our wills.

This little speech could have come straight out of a self-help book, couldn't it? No one today would disagree with any of this. It's all on us. We don't need no stinking moral guidance! We have the power to improve ourselves or let ourselves go to seed. This idea is the basis for our American notion of success, as something distinct from class or heritage. But for Will, it was also an insidiously baseless way of looking at the world. Because virtue is not a fig, it's the very stuff that makes our garden grow. Without it, weeds suck up all the psychic nutrients, leaving us with an ugly, chaotic mess.

And where does virtue come from? From breeding. From honoring the right order of things, i.e., the Old Ideas of nobility, honor, and social hierarchy. Iago himself proves this in the play--without a virtuous, noble foundation, will runs amok and destroys the world. In Hamlet's terms, life becomes an unweeded garden, full of poisonous undergrowth that chokes the life out of anything good, or nurturing, or beautiful.

Oh, and you gotta love the phrase "manured with industry." It echoes into the future with depressing, but obviously unintended, environmental implications....

Well, this post was several months in the writing. Time to be done with it, and move on. As Iago says, "there are many events in the womb of time, which will be delivered." Hopefully there are a few more blog posts, as well.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Courtship and Cannibalism

Romantic relationships have a lot in common with the Age of Exploration. (Who knew, right?) Everyone is looking for an easy route to emotional riches--a Fountain of Youth, a Lost Horizon of Desire. But instead of gold, silk and spices, we more often find a completely alien land, rife with unforeseen dangers. The natives don't speak our language, and some of them are armed. If we're not careful, we can end up consumed--eaten up by jealousy, or just the sheer force of some else's personality. Maps are often completely useless--we just have to hope the winds are with us, we land somewhere safe, and don't get cannibalized.

Okay, I think I've exhausted that metaphor--but it's something that I suspect Will had in mind when he wrote Othello. During the Renaissance, everyone was wild about travel narratives--despite the fact that many of them were more fiction than fact. If you enlarge the map above, you might notice a "cannibal tree." Yes, cannibals! According to some travel writers, the New World was full of them. Savages who eat "civilized" Europeans for breakfast. Or maybe dinner, with some maize and a nice Chianti.

Now, as I pointed out in an earlier post, Othello is stuffed to bursting with gastrointestinal imagery. When Brabantio finds out that his daughter has run off with the Moor, his grief "engluts and swallows other sorrows." Iago, resentful of Cassio's social rank and courtly manners, metaphorically transforms the latter's genteel hand gesture into a matter of "clyster-pipes," i.e., enema tubes. (Ick, I know). Elsewhere he speaks of laxatives ("coloquintida"), and promises Roderigo that eventually Desdemona will "gorge, disrelish, and abhor the Moor."  Similarly, Iago's practical wife Emilia describes men in digestive terms:

They are all but stomachs, and we all but food.
They eat us hungrily, and when they are full,
They belch us.

That's one of my favorite short passages in the play, not least because the final line actually ends on a sort of metric belch.

Of course the intestinal imagery is mostly Iago's. He's the one who sees human beings as gluttonous animals, driven by base desires. By contrast, Othello is the man from exotic--and therefore "savage" places, who's fixated on "civilized" virtues--honor, reputation, valor. He marries a high-born girl from a good Venetian family, because appearances are important to him. They aren't important to Desdemona, though--if they were, she wouldn't be with him. She loves all the things in him that he is trying to repress. And he loves all the things in her that she's trying to reject.

Where's when you need it? Any decent dating algorithm could tell you that these two are doomed.

Well, anyway. Othello and Desdemona are married. Offstage, before the play even begins. In fact, you have to read carefully to find confirmation of the rumored marriage--there's so much talk of enchantment and abduction and all that, that it's unclear whether or not the liaison has been formalized and sanctified in marriage. But Othello says it in Act 1--although in a syntactically odd way:

That I have ta'en away this old man's daughter,
It is true, most true, that I have married her. 

It's true that I have taken her, true that I have married her. He's being ironic, of course--because he's going to reveal that she was wooed and won, not simply "taken," as Brabantio assumes, via magic or some other insidious means. And how did he woo her? The way all the wooing/seducing/traducing happens in this play--with stories.

Which are, of course, a kind of magic--a conjuring of new possibilities, portals to another reality. Othello the adventurer, the world-traveler, steps into the small and circumscribed world of this upper-class Venetian girl, and, as we used to say in the olden days, blows her mind. I mean, think about it. Desdemona spends almost all her time indoors, with family. As an unmarried woman she's allowed no freedom, has no future beyond what her father plans for her. And then, along comes this amazing, exotic, and yes, sexy man. With stories! Action movies, starring himself:

...I spoke of most disastrous chances,
Of moving accidents, by flood and field,
Of hair-breadth scapes i'th' imminent deadly breach,
Of being taken by the insolent foe
And sold to slavery, of my redemption thence....

Indiana Jones, eat your heart out. Othello shows Desdemona the world beyond her walls, and it's a pretty exciting place. Is it any wonder she fell for him? I mean, many of us have had experiences like this in youth. Take a girl from a provincial Midwestern city, say, and introduce her to a guy who speaks six languages and has lived on nearly every continent. If she's got any imagination at all, she's going to look at the boring guys in her home town ("wealthy, curled darlings"), then back at the wild, untamed storyteller before her, and throw caution to the winds.

A couple of decades later, this guy will probably be filed under "bad boyfriends," but never mind. At the time, he was all her desires/rebellions/dreams wrapped up in a James Deanian package her parents were sure to hate. He was, in short, utterly irresistible.

Yeah, that was a bit of an autobiographical aside...anyway, back to the play.  Othello's stories tap into the current craze for wild, improbable travel narratives, and he makes sure to throw in a few cannibals, just to, um, spice things up:

...Such was my process,
And of the cannibals that each other eat, 
The Anthropophagi, and men whose heads
 Do grow beneath their shoulders. These things to hear
Would Desdemona seriously incline,
But still the house affairs would draw her thence,
Which ever as she could with haste dispatch
She'd come again, and with a greedy ear
Devour up my discourse....

This was my story, he says. Of far-away places and perilous encounters with "Anthropophagi," or cannibals that eat each other, and of men whose heads grow beneath their shoulders.

Hmm. I think I may have dated one of these guys.  I knew something was missing....

And of course Desdemona eats it up. Uh, literally. "With a greedy ear," she would "devour up" his tales. Yum, yum.

Now, considering how much of this play turns on stories that aren't true, perhaps we ought to think about this seductive travelogue a bit more. Really, Othello? Headless men? Cannibals? Really? I mean, how are we supposed to take this--as a fantastic but true tale that won the heart of the fair damsel, a somewhat fictionalized seduction tool? Perhaps the irony is only apparent from our own historical vantage point. After all, many people in Will's day--possibly including the playwright himself--read things like Mandeville's Travels and Hakluyt's Principal Navigations, and believed every word. But from our modern perspective, this soliloquy looks different. A courtship founded in fabrication, a marriage doomed by lies. Food for thought. I mean, um, something to think about.

So that's my first post in a long while. I hope to keep this going, and eventually finish the play! Now, though, I'm kinda hungry....

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Academics, Oxfordians, and Agnostics

This is my last completed authorship post--I left off here over a year ago. After this, I hope to go back to Othello, and finish up the authorship series at some later date. There's obviously a lot more to be said about de Vere and the Oxfordian phenomenon than I was able to do here...but this is it for now.

The last chapter of my authorship series deals with the most recent--and currently most popular--alternative candidate: Edward de Vere, the seventeenth Earl of Oxford. Sounds impressive, doesn't it? Lots better than Will Shakespeare, Country Bumpkin of Humble Origins and Dubious Educational Qualifications.

So right there you see what's up. The Greatest Playwright in English, the Father of English Literature (sorry, Geoffrey, but no one reads Middle English, so you're SOL) must have been, surely has to have been, a nobleman. Now you may wonder why, in this democratic era, we still have a romantic attachment to social hierarchies from which the vast majority of us would have been excluded.

Personally, I chalk it up to the cultural one-two punch of Hollywood and romance novels. We just can't accept the idea that Shakespeare, whose words populate our lamest political speeches and most boring high school English classes, was just some middle-class guy who read a lot of books and had a totally awesome imagination.

No, he must have been...a pirate! Or at least captured by pirates! He must have hobnobbed (or maybe been illegitimately born to!) royalty. He must have had father and inheritance issues. He must have traveled all over the world to get ideas for his plays, because everyone knows you can't tell a story unless it's about something that really happened to you.

I'll say it again: If that were the case, most of the stuff in the fiction section of the library wouldn't exist. Or, if it did, it would be really poorly written.

Okay, you've got me there. A lot of the stuff on library shelves is poorly-written.  But seriously, writing is damned hard work, even if you're talented. I myself am a capable writer. And to get even this good required a hell of a lot of toil. I labored in the dark dungeon of academic prose for decades, until I barely knew how to talk, much less write, like a normal person. Then, after barely escaping with my sanity, I frolicked in the forest of fiction for awhile; while I didn't produce any deathless works of imaginative genius, I did manage to remember how real people think and speak. After leaving academics, I did a fair amount of commercial writing--ads, web content, business letters for various folks/firms in need of persuasive verbiage. In short, I've been writing most of my adult life, and occasionally getting paid pretty well for it.

And I still only write this well! But my point is this. A person who lives a thrilling, intrigue-filled life involving pirate capture and dangerous liaisons with capricious people in power would hardly have the time--or probably the inclination--to spend hours, days, weeks and years staining his fingers with ink in order to entertain and educate the rest of the world.  With a few exceptions, the nobility have tended to lack the imagination and fortitude necessary to leave a lasting mark on literary culture. They just aren't brought up to work hard.

That's not an argument, by the way. Just an observation.

Well, anyway.  On to Oxford.  Now it's been my experience that the Oxfordian crowd is a passionate, sometimes angry, and virulently anti-academic bunch. There are tons of books and websites out there promoting the Earl as the real Shakes-peare. Don't get me started on this hyphenation business--it's as annoying as the cipher-hunting, and just as silly.  I shall not be discussing it. Not to-day, not to-morrow. Not any-time. Because as a scholar of Middle English, I can't be bothered with silly ideas based on modern notions of orthographic consistency, or a flawed understanding of Renaissance printing.  That sub-ject is closed.

In order to fore-stall (okay, I'll stop) any unnecessary unpleasantness, I've prepared a Disclaimer for Oxfordian Readers. I don't imagine I have many, since this blog is really about the plays, not their origins, but just in case, here it is:

Despite my admitted lack of enthusiasm for the whole authorship question, I am not "against" your candidate. It would be thrilling if he were proved to be the actual Bard. I love historical revisionism if it's based on new information rather than ideological fantasy or academic retaliation.

Moreover, despite my fancy-schmancy degree and ivory-tower background, I am not in the "academic camp," either. I've got my own quarrels with the mythology of intellectual freedom and the Great Conversation. It's pretty much all crap. And hypocrisy, too. Many acclaimed academics--Stephen Greenblatt, for example--have written things just as speculative, improbable, and absurd as any anti-Stratfordian out there. And frankly it's just unfair that he's enshrined (intellectually entombed?) at Harvard and you all have only the blogosphere for your kingdom. I am not being sarcastic here--I mean it.

No, my quarrel is only with your logic. Because really, as interesting as they are, there is no evidence to support these claims. There is some coincidence, some correlation of events, and so on. But taking a coincidence for a cause is how people came up with ideas like Spontaneous Generation, remember.  As it turns out, the sun doesn't "breed maggots in a dead dog," but for centuries it certainly looked that way.
I have to say, there's more evidence for the Stratford Man than any of these other contenders. Contemporary praise from people like Ben Jonson, Thomas Heywood, John Webster and others certainly argues for Will. As does the power of the signature itself. No one has ever presented a convincing argument for "Shakespeare" as a pseudonym. Or a convincing argument that the use of pseudonyms was common--in the earliest era of printing, there was, if anything, even more anxiety about the veracity of "signatures" than there is today. But none of this is completely unequivocal "proof." It's just strong circumstantial evidence.

So, rather than take sides, I'm going to proclaim myself an Authorship Agnostic. This is not the coward's way.  It's a philosophical exercise in something sorely lacking on both sides of this dust-up: humility. Unless one can go back in time, it's impossible to be certain about very much in the way of historical fact. It could all be a conspiracy! Or the work of some Cartesian Evil Demon. I'm willing to concede that evidence may someday make this whole business clearer, perhaps to the advantage of Oxford or someone else. But I haven't seen that evidence yet.

In the meantime, I'm comfortable with uncertainty. Always have been. I have no problem with ambiguity, ambivalence, indeterminacy, and all that. I am, in the face of Universal Unknowables, humble.  Because without uncertainty, irony would be impossible. And irony is, hands down, my very favorite trope.

Um, that was meant to be ironic.

Anyway, with this in mind, I'm going to continue my exploration of the authorship controversy as a cultural phenomenon. I'm more interested in what it says about modernity, about our romance with the past, than I am in uncovering some infinitely receding historical truth.  In other words, I'm not going to argue here--at least not much. There are lots of Oxfordian sites, and a few devoted to proving that Bacon or Marlowe was the real Bard. I've provided links to those here on the blog, so you can delve into the fray yourself, if you're so inclined. My interests lie elsewhere.

Next:  Freud and Looney (and no, I'm not going to make a joke out of it)

No, next is Othello, and the erotic allure of travelogues. Freud, Looney, and the rest of the Oxfordian melodrama will have to wait, at least until we're back from our tragic Cyprian vacation.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Suspicious Minds

Now that I am reading over these authorship posts, I can see where it all started to Go Wrong. The whole authorship controversy took me too far away from the real reason I started this blog, and it was downhill from there. Authorship people are, for the most part, anti-literary and anti-metaphor. Both of which I hold dear. I have a poet's heart, I guess, not a cryptographer's brain. (Sadly, I don't have a poet's talent). Well, anyway. There's only one more post after this--then we'll see if I still have the desire/will to get back to Othello, a play which, not surprisingly, is seldom if ever mentioned by the authorship folks. I will speculate on why that is...later.

Well, it’s been awhile. I find that more free time is actually having a deleterious effect on my  blogging schedule. I inevitably find other, more enticing things to do with my time. Plus, I have another, more personal blog I’m writing under a pseudonym (“Sophia”—get it?), which is more fun right now. I confess that some of the reluctance to sit down in front of this one probably has to do with the subject matter. I feel guilty admitting this, because the authorship question has obviously been very compelling for a great many people, among them minds far more impressive than my own—Mark Twain, Henry James, and Sigmund Freud being the most notable of these doubters.  Nevertheless, I just can’t get very excited about this whole thing. There’s no poetry in it at all. It’s an interesting psychodrama, but that’s about it.

Still, I promised to make this a complete narrative arc, and so I shall.

One of the things that does interest me in exploring this issue is the fact that many— perhaps most—of the more celebrated Shakespeare doubters came to this question quite late in life, at a time when they had begun to worry about their own legacies. This cannot have been a coincidence. Mark Twain, for example, became a convert to the Baconian argument partly in writing his own autobiography. Twain was a notorious spendthrift, and had squandered most of his wealth by the time he reached old age. He was forced to keep writing to pay the bills. Having pretty much run out of ideas, he turned to one of his favorite topics—himself.  He began publishing his autobiography in installments in The North American Review—interestingly, and perhaps ironically, his autobiography was (according to people who knew him well) as much an imaginative work of fiction as a factual narrative.

This is, I think, true of most autobiographies. Despite the fact that—or perhaps because—they pretend to be the Truth, they are more often the repositories of fantasies we have about ourselves. Our motives are purer, our enemies more malevolent, our courage more enduring in story form.  We’re much better as fictional characters than we are as real people.

While Twain had a somewhat liberal attitude toward the writing of his own autobiography, he was convinced that all great fiction derived from life, not imagination, and that, by implication, the facts of an author’s life could be discerned with accuracy from his works.  In taking on the Shakespeare question in his last book, he revealed perhaps more than he intended about his own motives. The book was entitled Is Shakespeare Dead? but the subtitle was more telling: From My Autobiography. The question that really worried him was, “Is Mark Twain Dead?”  Had he exhausted his creative drive? Was his historical moment over? How will he be remembered? It was, ultimately, all about him.

Greatness is often embarrassing in its old age. Great men have trouble letting go of their own myths, and often squander their last years trying in vain to top the triumphs of their youth. Maybe Shakespeare knew this, and had the good sense to retire before he turned fifty—a ripe old number in those days.

Uh-oh. My attention is wandering. Time for a digression.

There are collateral benefits to these authorship posts.  I’ve been finding out interesting trivia about various historical figures and trends. For example, did you know that, late in life, Mark Twain was surrounded by handlers who called him “the King?” For real, he was the early twentieth century Elvis. Twain was a consummate self-promoter, and the first genuine celebrity of the modern era. He dressed in iconic white suits, made sure his hair and eyebrows were suitably cotton-candyish whenever he went out, and had a ready store of folksy sayings to hand out at every public appearance.

Also, Helen Keller first introduced the Japanese Akita dog to the US.  Yep, bet you didn’t know that, either.

Anyway, like many very successful, very famous people, Twain viewed the rest of the world through his own mirror. It was inconceivable to him that Shakespeare could have simply walked away from fame and fortune in his forties, and lived out his remaining years in obscurity. A man as desperate for immortality as Twain obviously was simply couldn’t fathom turning his back on the public life. Ergo, the Stratford retiree was not the real Bard.

Twain convinced others, most notably Helen Keller, to take up the Baconian banner. Keller, too, wanted to write a book about the Real Shakespeare, but was strongly dissuaded by her publisher from Tainting Her Brand with weird speculative research. Keller was a real cash cow for her promoters—she had published several inspirational best sellers about her struggles and triumphs.  No one was interested in any non-autobiographical books by a blind and deaf author. Ironically, although Keller felt creatively trapped by her own autobiography, and was herself a living testament to the fact that creativity does not depend on sensory experience, she, like Twain, refused to consider that literature is not, on some level, autobiography in code.

Yes, code!  The next phase of this story is about encryption. I love code stories, especially 1960’s espionage films. My favorite one is about a code-breaking team of hot girls run by a repressed but sexy guy played by Dirk Bogarde. This gem is called Sebastian, made in 1968. It even has the requisite corny LSD-trip scene in it! Check it out—it’s totally retro-cool-camp.

But I digress. Again.

The late nineteenth/early twentieth century was mad about encryption. Delia Bacon’s friend, Samuel Morse, invented the commercial telegraph machine and, of course, Morse Code. Suddenly, encrypted messages and acrostics were everywhere. In poems, plays, documents, songs. The world was just an encrypted version of a truer reality that lay beneath the surface. It was like that old Police Box in the Doctor Who series. Ordinary on the outside, but teeming with unlikely adventures and mysteries within. If only one could break the code…

Ignatius Donnelly, a popular writer of the late nineteenth century, thought he could unravel the encrypted messages buried in Shakespeare’s plays and thereby prove that Bacon had written them. He’d had a bestseller with his book on Atlantis in 1882, and another about his theories of prehistoric planetary cataclysm--grippingly entitled Ragnarok: The Age of Fire and Gravel--a few years later.

Yeah, he was a crackpot. But the late nineteenth century was a golden age for crackpots, and he totally cashed in.  It was just a short conceptual leap (for him) from Lost Civilizations to Lost Poets. In 1888, he published The Great Cryptogram: Francis Bacon’s Cipher in the So-Called Shakespeare Plays.

Now, to be fair, Francis Bacon did create some actual ciphers. But it’s a pretty big leap to then assume that he’d embedded a bunch of them in plays with someone else’s signature. Nevertheless, Donnelly insisted that Bacon had slipped into the plays “a cipher story, to be read when the tempest that was about to assail civilization had passed away.”  It wasn’t just a story about secret identities, it was about the Coming Apocalypse!

A great marketing scheme, but ultimately unprovable. Even Twain, who published the book, wasn’t convinced by Donnelly’s tortured argument, whereby Bacon was said to have written the code first, and the plays as window dressing! I know, it sounds ridiculous. But pretty much all these anti-Stratfordians see the literature as secondary to the mystery of its composition.


Anyway, this whole crazy cipher thing culminated in the invention of a machine that promised to sort it all out.  Orville Ward Owen, a Detroit physician, took Donnelly’s argument many steps further in his six-volume study, Francis Bacon’s Cipher Story. The book detailed the results of Owen’s cryptographic research using his famous cipher wheel, pictured on the left. This machine supposedly revealed not only that Bacon wrote Shakespeare’s plays, but that he was the son of Queen Bess herself, by means of an illicit liaison with the Earl of Leicester.  Oh, and Bacon also wrote all the works of Christopher Marlowe, Edmund Spenser, Robert Greene, and a few others.

Anyone who’s ever read both The Faerie Queene and anything by Shakespeare can see this is absurd. But none of these guys had even a hint as to how poetry works, or what it means.

The cryptography drama went on for a few more years, but ultimately proved nothing. It did, however, lead to some new inventions that proved quite useful in wartime espionage. Neither Twain, nor Keller, nor Henry James (another, more circumspect anti-Stratfordian), ever came up with a convincing argument. Eventually the Baconian moment fizzled out, yielding to a new, more exciting candidate: The Earl of Oxford.

Next:  The Manly Bard—or, old Prospero gets the boot.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

An Inconvenient Woman, Part 2

If you’re one of those readers who’s more interested in the plays than in this whole authorship discussion, rest assured I have only a couple more posts on the authorship controversy. Actually the series wasn't complete when I abandoned it a year or so ago--I never really got to do my De Vere Takedown.  I will do that, maybe in conjunction with a review of Anonymous, if I ever get around to seeing it. The film, from what I've read, is positively wild. Yummy Renaissance tabloid fare. I'm sure I'll enjoy it, in a junk-foodish sort of way. But I may try to finish Othello before incurring the wrath of the Oxfordians with that post. We'll see.

In the meantime, back to our Baconian saga.

The Public Intellectual

I realized, upon re-reading my last post, that I may have left readers with the impression that Delia Bacon was a reclusive, Emily Dickinsonian sort of creature—a nineteenth-century “bluestocking” who spent her life with her nose buried in books. That’s not at all the case. Although she retired from public life in 1845, after a particularly nasty—and utterly unjust—scandal ruined her reputation, prior to that she had been a nationally-known lecturer who kept company (I mean intellectual company, not the other kind) with the likes of Hawthorne, Emerson, Whitman, and Samuel Morse, the guy who invented Morse Code. At twenty she anonymously published a trilogy of novellas, Tales of the Puritans, and a year later won a prize for a short story about the Revolutionary War, a rather generic romantic piece entitled “Love’s Martyr,” about a colonial woman who is killed by Indians en route to meet her loyalist lover.

She had many admirers among her contemporaries, and some of them left us pretty gushy assessments of her genius and charisma. She was “graceful and intellectual in appearance, eloquent in speech, marvelously wise, and full of inspiration, she looked and spoke the very muse of history.”  A woman, of course, has to be a “muse” of some sort, not a flesh-and-blood historian. But still, it was pretty high praise for an era when most respectable women were banished to parlors and sitting rooms, hunched over needlework while they struggled to breathe through their corsets.

She was, in her youth, interested in the theater and even developed her Revolutionary romance for the stage.  The famous actress Ellen Tree was set to play the heroine. While in the process of doing the final edits on her play, however, Delia suffered some kind of a breakdown. Her brother and another male friend had criticized the play harshly—doubtless motivated by horror that she would pursue unfeminine—and un-Puritan—occupation of writing for the stage.  The play itself had some brilliant moments, many have said (I honestly haven’t read it, so I can’t confirm or deny these assessments), and was clearly indebted to Shakespeare.

Anyway, it seems clear that Delia’s moralistic/Puritan side couldn’t be reconciled to this theatrical ambition. She decided that plays in general—not just hers—weren’t meant to be performed, only read…this became her take on Shakespeare, too, and helped bolster her case for the bookish Bacon over the Stratford man of the stage.

Like a lot of women frustrated in their career ambitions and banished to the fringes of the public world, Delia allowed her intellectual passion to morph into an obsession—she eventually traveled to England, haunting graveyards, and at one point was determined to dig up Francis Bacon’s remains to see if there were any manuscripts buried with him.  The authorities dismissed her as an American crackpot, which is pretty much how history has judged her, too.

I’m pretty sure that, if she were alive today, she’d be an avid blogger.

The Obsession

Delia, like Will Shakespeare, hasn’t left us much in the way of biographical materials, notes, or even a bibliography from which to follow her train of thought. Most of what we know about her comes from others—again, like Shakespeare. Ironic, really, since the dearth of biographical info on Shakespeare is what set her off on her strange quest to begin with.

We do know she was a teacher of young women, and that her classes on Shakespeare were renowned. In many ways, Delia’s approach to teaching Shakespeare was ahead of its time. Her young female charges were taught that every play was thick with hidden significance, that there was “nothing superfluous…every word [was] full of meaning.” This was New Criticism avant la lettre; at a time when most literary essays on Shakespeare were more celebratory than analytic, Delia brought real rigor to the business of interpretation.

At the same time, she was a product of her era in that she—like virtually all early Shakespeareans—envisioned a Renaissance in which the lower and middle classes were incapable of greatness. Her Shakespeare could not have been anything but an aristocrat—no one who belonged to the “unlettered masses” could possibly have written the deeply philosophical and political works he was said to have authored. Although she claimed to be a democrat rather than a monarchist at heart, her project evinced nothing so much as deep nostalgia for social hierarchy.

It made perfect sense to her that someone else, someone with a better pedigree and more education, must have been the “real” Shakespeare. So she went looking around for a suitable candidate—and found Francis Bacon. A man who was, at that time, thought to be fully Shakespeare’s equal as a thinker, rhetorician, and political visionary. Once she had decided on Bacon, she didn’t delve into the archives for proof of her theory. She went, instead, to Shakespeare’s plays themselves, poring over each line for authorial hints that Bacon may—or rather, must—have encrypted in “his” work.
This became the model for all future anti-Stratfordians—lacking any archival evidence for these alternative candidates, their advocates have always looked to the plays themselves. Since Delia’s time, finding the true Bard has been--either literally or figuratively--a matter of code-breaking.

The Crack-Up

Delia’s desire to find the true Shakespeare might have amounted to little more than a passionate intellectual avocation, had her life not taken a turn for the worse in the 1840’s.  Delia had become very close to a certain Alexander MacWhorter, a young theology graduate some eleven years her junior.  They met in New Haven, at a hotel where both were lodgers.  MacWhorter was working on biblical code-breaking himself—something having to do with the letters in Yahveh—so he and Delia had a lot to talk about.

It’s difficult to ascertain what happened between them emotionally. What we do know is that Delia’s brother (a stuffy old Puritan more worried about his own reputation than hers, to my mind) demanded that MacWhorter reveal “his intentions” toward Delia. Mac panicked, I think, and started telling everyone Delia had misread their relationship. He showed her somewhat imprudent, effusive letters around town, mocking her shamefully.

Personal aside: I hate this guy. These days, everyone likes to think that the Internet has made people more cruel and less empathic. But long before Facebook, there were plenty of bullies and soulless, self-serving bastards in all walks of life. Alex MacWhorter was one of these.

Well, it eventually came down to a court case! Leonard Bacon tried to get MacWhorter kicked out of the clergy. Delia had to testify at a trial that went on for weeks and shamed her far beyond New England. People were talking about it all across the country.

I totally know how she must have felt.

Eventually this show trial was decided by a bunch of ministers who ruled…wait for it…for The Man! Delia lost her case—or rather Leonard lost his—and her reputation was in ruins. A vote against her effectively meant she had pursued this little twit and tried to seduce him into marrying her against his will.

After this she seemed to go off the deep end. She took the Shakespeare controversy personally, and seemed to think that Will Shakespeare had actually sinned against her.  If she had misinterpreted MacWhorter, she was determined to prove she hadn’t made the same mistake here.  She called Shakespeare a “booby,” “the Stratford poacher,” and a “stupid, illiterate, third-rate play-actor.”   It was “too gross to be endured” that a man like this could have written all those beautiful, philosophical works.  She effectively put Shakespeare on trial; as she herself had been subjected to questions she could not satisfactorily answer, so too was the long-dead playwright.

She grew paranoid, convinced that others were trying to steal her ideas. She went to England and behaved badly. Eventually she was brought back to America, where she ended her life in an insane asylum.  We’re talking shackles and straitjackets, people—this was the nineteenth century.

In many was, Delia Bacon was the madwoman who refused to stay in the attic. Once a brilliant teacher and literary scholar, she became a laughingstock—and a living example of the old misogynist assumption that too much thinking and not enough childbearing will drive the weaker sex around the bend.

Next: Further Baconian excesses, and some ways that Mark Twain was like Elvis.

An Inconvenient Woman, Part 1

Yes, the Bard Blog is back! For how long, I can't be sure...but suffice it to say I am determined to finish posting my authorship series, written all those months ago, and yes--I dare hope--complete Othello as well. Christmas vacation is nearly here, and with it comes lots of leisure time. Sufficient, perhaps, to realize these modest but hitherto unreachable goals. We shall see. Anyway, back to where I left off--Delia Bacon and her seminal role in the (modern) authorship controversy.

Delia Bacon wasn’t the first person to raise the question of Shakespearean authorship, but she was the first to propose an alternative candidate based on qualities which the “true” Bard must have had.  Essentially, she conjured up a pair of empty shoes, then went hunting around for someone to fill them. Her Shakespeare had to be a nobleman, a moralist, a contemplative sort who wasn’t sullied by the taint of the theater.  Someone, in short, more like herself and less like the “Stratford Man,” who, the evidence suggested, wrote to make money.

Delia had been raised by American Puritans—the same sect, you may remember, to which many of the Pilgrims (I like the grade-school term “pilgrims,” so I’m keeping it) belonged.  Puritans hated spectacles, hated celebrations, and really, really hated the theater. In England, Puritans took ideological aim at the stage, and succeeded in closing the theaters in 1642.  Puritans weren’t the only folks who were suspicious of the theater and its excesses—anti-theatrical literature existed in ancient Greece, too, as in most societies that produced amazing drama.  Transhistorically and cross-culturally, all these responses have been characterized by a few basic assumptions:

--That the theater led to a morally dangerous mixing up of classes and genders—i.e., that it violated boundaries thought to be vital to social order

--That theatrical spectacles encouraged lascivious behavior by igniting sexual urges

--That the theater, like all fictions, was A Lie, and thus Against Truth, be it philosophical or religious

It seems to me that the authorship controversy is still haunted by this anti-fictional prejudice, despite the fact that the anti-Stratfordians must necessarily rely exclusively on the plays for proof of their claims.  But it makes sense, really, since they want to see the plays as historical evidence, not (merely) literary fiction.  The tension between fiction and history, or literature and fact, underwrites the whole controversy. Which is why many of the advocates of Bacon and de Vere often couch their arguments in terms that disparage literary criticism and literariness altogether.

There is, in other words, still a strong Puritanical strain in all these arguments, a prejudice against literature, and (especially) against the foundation of literariness, i.e., metaphor. If language is excessive in relation to truth—if it’s generated by imagination, and not fact, then the whole authorship question is finally unanswerable.

But back to Delia Bacon.

She decided that the most logical candidate was a man who was revered in the nineteenth century as a thinker, a scientist, and a rhetorician. A man who had never written one syllable of dramatic or poetic literature: Francis Bacon.  Most people think that the shared surname is coincidental.  Delia and Francis bore no familial relationship, it’s true.  But like most of the Shakespeare Doubters who followed her, Delia was looking for someone who reflected her own values and her own ideas about art and its purpose.  So the fact that her candidate shared her last name was, perhaps, unconsciously significant to her.

What the hell. I’m going to throw caution to the winds and Go Freudian here. It may have been that she was really looking for an Intellectual Daddy, someone who would return her admiration and see her as his true Heir.

If you think about Delia’s position as a female intellectual in the early to mid-nineteenth century, it’s easy to see how this whole question came to mean so much to her. It was about valorization, about a settling of accounts. Delia Bacon was a woman respected by Emerson and revered by Hawthorne, a woman who competed with Edgar Allan Poe for a literary prize and won.  In taking up the cause of that other Bacon--a serene, deeply learned man who (so she thought) had been denied the credit he was due as the true author of Shakespeare’s deathless works--Delia was fighting her own battles as well.

Like most brilliant women of the day, she must have felt completely stifled by the limited opportunities available to her sex, and twisted with jealousy as she watched her brother Leonard, who hadn’t half her abilities, go on to Yale.  Delia’s formal education ended when she was fourteen. Fourteen. Imagine how she must have felt—hungry for intellectual dialogue, her mind just beginning to come alive, forced to become a teacher of little girls to help support her family.

Yeah, I identify with her. Is it obvious? I’ve got plenty of formal education (too much to be useful to anyone, I now realize), but it could certainly be said –and, um, was said—that my thoughts and ideas, like Delia’s, proved too weird for the mainstream.

Although in my case, the mainstream consisted of academic medievalists, who are about as intellectually adventurous as lapdogs. But never mind. This is Delia’s story.

In 1855, she published an essay whose modest title belies the decades of thought and imaginative energy that she expended in her quest for the “real” Shakespeare.  The essay was entitled “William Shakespeare and His Plays: An Enquiry Concerning Them.” It’s important to remember that she was writing at a time when many literary/historical assumptions were being called into question, if not overturned outright. The so-called Higher Criticism had brought historical inquiry to the study of Scripture and Homer. Higher Critics were true historicists—they used rigorous philological methods to determine, as closely as possible, the historical and authorial origins of works that had previously been seen as the product of individual genius or divine inspiration.

Delia was not a philologist—here, her educational deficit came into play, I think—but she was influenced by the skeptical atmosphere of the day. She was also a brilliant, compelling speaker, by all accounts, and a charismatic personality. Had she been born a hundred and fifty years later, she would have been an intellectual--and perhaps political--force to be reckoned with.

It’s hard, as an intellectual woman, to read her story and not feel a sense of loss. Despite—and also because of—its sad, ignoble ending.

More than anything else, Delia wanted recognition and respect. She was passionate about her theory, which in some respects was ahead of its time. She was the first to propose that some of Shakespeare’s plays were written collaboratively, for example. Philological and historical studies now assume that this was very likely—collaboration was the norm among dramatists of Shakespeare’s day.  In Delia’s scenario, Francis Bacon was one among several men who worked together on what was fundamentally a political and moralist project, rather than a theatrical endeavor. Delia saw Bacon as the ringleader of a reformist movement that planted the seeds of the social and political upheavals England experienced in the later seventeenth century.

It was wonderful speculative scholarship, really. But it was also very subversive. Delia paid a high price for her unconventional life and ideas, both personally and professionally. Ultimately, she lost her reason along with her reputation.  She was, I think, a tragic figure in the true sense of the word.

Next:  Delia cracks up.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Reports Fabulous and False

Human beings have a long tradition of making stuff up. When these fabrications are straightforward about their fictional status, they’re called literature. When they pretend to be history or fact, they’re called forgeries or hoaxes. Among its other interesting aspects, the Shakespeare authorship controversy forces us to think about this whole problem of fictionality as it relates to history—which, as we all know, is full of fictions.

Since the late eighteenth century, people have been hell-bent on filling in the gaps in Shakespeare’s sketchy biography. This new interest in the Man from Stratford coincided with a new Romantic obsession with The Self. I’m not going to go into a whole mini-history of Romanticism here—instead, I’ll just be super-reductive, as is my wont.

The industrial revolution, which by the late 1700’s was in full swing in England (see William Blake’s poem “London” for early Romantic disgust at dehumanizing effects thereof) sent sensitive, poetic, and sometimes drug-addicted people running to the countryside, where they picked up their quill pens and scratched out self-indulgent lyric poems that metaphorically linked their own neuroses to the workings of Nature. Sort of like the 1960’s in the US, only with better lyrics and no music. Some of these poems were really good, and some were pretty overrated—but in a sense this was the beginning of the Modern, Narcissistic Self—an idea that would culminate in Freud’s theory of the psyche.

That’s probably not the version you heard in your college literature class, but it will do.
While these solipsistic types were beginning to write and think about The Inner Life, the Wonders of Nature, and the Beauty of Childhood, Shakespeare was slowly but inexorably undergoing a metamorphosis—from mere man to Literary God.

Having given a voice to their inner child, the Romantics now needed a literary Daddy, I guess.

Anyway, people flocked to Stratford to worship at the Bard’s shrine. The mulberry tree that once graced the front garden of his humble abode was cut down and made into relics—of dubious authenticity—not unlike pieces of the True Cross. The famous Shakespearean actor, David Garrick, put on a Shakespeare festival in Stratford that effectively turned the Bard into a brand. Although Garrick’s 1769 Jubilee was an abysmal failure as an event—it rained so much that most of the festivities had to be cancelled—it marked Shakespeare’s entry into mass culture. The Bard was a marketing sensation—think commemorative dinnerware, mulberry wood figurines, t-shirts…or the eighteenth-century equivalent, which was probably something like cravats. No longer the property of snooty intellectuals, he now belonged to The People.

So, what does all this have to do with the forgery problem? Well, since Shakespeare was now a brand, it became even more imperative that he have a Life That People Can Relate To. The masses wanted to know the Real Shakespeare. Shakespeare fetishism was rampant, and wealthy collectors began scouring attics and archives for any snippet, any offhand reference to the life of the Great Man.
Now if you think about the history of literary forgery, you can see that this situation practically begged for it. The famous forgeries of the (more recent) past reflect a similar paradigm—a person whose personal life was/is a mystery, a public hungry for details, a writer eager for fame and fortune. Remember the famous “Hitler Diaries?” How about Clifford Irving’s “Autobiography” of Howard Hughes? Irving’s hoax was particularly daring, since Hughes was still alive at the time.

The earliest Shakespeare forgery, however, had a more romantic origin. It was probably motivated by filial devotion. Samuel Ireland was a particularly keen collector, and in 1794 he was touring Stratford-upon-Avon with his adolescent son. He got a hot tip about some possible Shakespeare papers at a certain Clopton House, a few miles outside of town. Of course he rushed over, only to be told by the owner that he was a few weeks too late. “I wish you had arrived sooner,” the man said. “It isn’t a fortnight since I destroyed several baskets-full of letters and papers…there were many bundles with [Shakespeare’s] name wrote upon them…I made a roaring bonfire of them.”

It’s pretty clear that these locals, having been subjected to several decades of Shakespeare tourism, were messing with the poor guy. Anyway, Samuel Ireland was crushed. His son, William Henry, hated to see his dad so bitterly disappointed. A few months after the Stratford tour, young Ireland miraculously came upon a whole cache of stuff in the home of a mysterious country squire.

Or so he said.

Among these priceless finds were the following items:

--A mortgage deed, dated 1610, with Shakespeare’s signature on it
--Shakespeare’s “profession of faith” as a Protestant, which effectively put to rest disturbing suspicions that the Bard, like his parents, was in fact a Papist
--a personal letter to his wife, Anne
--a poorly-executed drawing of an actor, presumably Our Man
--some legal papers concerning publication of his works
--letters to and from the Earl of Southampton, to whom he had (really) dedicated two of his narrative poems

and best of all:

--a letter from Queen Bess herself, thanking him for his “pretty verses.”

All fakes.

But the world took notice, and soon Ireland turned up a long-lost MS of King Lear and, wonder of wonders, an entirely new play called Vortigern, based on the life of a fifth-century king of the Britons (why do I always hear Monty Python when I write those words?) who fell in love with a Saxon Princess.  The Lear manuscript seemed to prove that actors and editors had seriously butchered Shakespeare’s text. Note the differences:

Our (real) Lear:

What is’t thou sayst? Her voice was ever soft,
And low, an excellent thing in woman.
I killed the slave that was a-hanging thee.

Ireland’s additions:

What is’t thou sayst? Her voice was ever soft
And low, sweet music o’er the rippling stream,
Quality rare and excellent in woman.
O yes, by Heavens, ‘twas I killed the slave
That did round thy soft neck the murderous
And damned cord entwine. Did I not, sirrah?

Well, this all caused a sensation. No one seemed to notice or care that the additions to Lear made it less of a tragedy and more of a melodrama. But they did care that Vortigern was a piece of crap, if you’ll pardon the vernacular. When the play was put on at Drury Lane in 1795, it was laughed off the stage. This debacle, and the pointed, detailed assessments of Edmond Malone, one of the first great Shakespeare “experts,” ended William Henry Ireland’s brush with fame. He soon retracted the whole thing, admitting that he had forged every single document.

This episode didn’t explicitly call Shakespeare’s authorship into question, but it did open the door to future conspiracy theories. Although Ireland was eventually found out, he proved that people—even scholars like James Boswell (famous for the incredibly tedious Life of Johnson) could be duped. Some forty years later, an eccentric American woman named Delia Bacon would begin her life’s work: trying to prove that the whole world had, indeed, been taken in by the Stratford Myth.

Next: Delia and Me.