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.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

The Stratford Man

This is the second post from the authorship series I wrote for my previous blog, about a year or so ago. Still getting my thoughts together on Othello--more anon.

William Wayne Shakespeare was born in 1564 to a glover—a glove-maker—named John Shakespeare and his wife, Mary.
Okay, kidding about the “Wayne.” Middle names didn’t really catch on among the commercial classes until a couple hundred years later. Did you ever notice how many violent criminals have the middle name “Wayne,” though? It’s interesting.

But not relevant to this post, unless you consider Will Shakespeare to be a criminal. And having read some of the anti-Stratfordian stuff out there, I have to say that the accusation is often implied, if not stated outright. Because if Bacon, or de Vere, or Marlowe is the “real Shakespeare,” then this guy from Stratford is at least complicit in fraud. Even if the fraud was unintentional, he’s definitely guilty of the following crimes:

--not leaving enough biographical evidence for personality-obsessed future generations
--not being an aristocrat
--not going to college
--not visiting Italy, or at least being sneaky about it if he did
--hoarding malt in a time of malt shortage
--being a litigious moneylender, a la Shylock
--not mentioning BOOKS in his will
--retiring to his home town after his theatrical/playwrighting career, and not doing anything else interesting until he died
--being snarky to his wife Anne in his will; (he left her “his second-best bed."

None of these facts—and they are among the few actual facts left to us about William Shakespeare—are that earthshaking in and of themselves, but they add up to a big question mark. This is a problem because Shakespeare is not only a household name, he’s also the closest thing we have to a literary deity in the English tradition. Surely he must have been more than just the sum of these mundane parts. Surely the guy who wrote Othello, Hamlet, and Romeo and Juliet must have traveled widely. Surely he wouldn’t stoop to denying his neighbors the means to make beer. (What a buzzkill, literally). Surely he must have read every book in printed existence in order to learn so many words, with so many allusions.  Surely he wouldn’t just leave the Big Town in his middle age and live the life of a country gentleman in some cultural backwater. Surely he wouldn’t just stop writing after he retired, either. That would mean that writing was just (shudder) a JOB to him! Not a divinely-inspired passion! And surely he wouldn’t have been a mean-spirited, litigious moneylender when he obviously hated people like that, as we can see from reading The Merchant of Venice. And most of all, surely he must have been intimately acquainted with Court Life, to have written so tellingly about its hypocrisies and dangers.

The facts just don’t give us a picture of the kind of guy we want Shakespeare to be. And the more important Shakespeare became to English—and later, American—national/cultural identity, the more people freaked out about the disconnect between our desiderata and these dissatisfying biographical hints.

So, it made (a kind of) sense to root around for an alternative candidate. Before I get to that—which I will in subsequent posts—I think it’s worth pointing out what any logician knows. You can’t prove a negative. You can’t prove that something isn’t—only that it is. That said, here’s how I would address, if not answer, some of these objections:

An Unwritten Life

The word “biography” didn’t even enter the language until several decades after Shakespeare (whoever he was) died. Early modern people just weren’t interested in the human psyche, the personal life, and the lurid details of celebrity culture, the way we are. They weren’t self-ish in a modern sense. Shakespeare, however acclaimed he was in his own time (and he was—more on that anon), probably thought his works would be his legacy. Why in the world would anyone care about his travel diary or his reading list?

Why indeed. Unlike our early modern forebears, we’re self-obsessed. I mean, just look at Facebook. Boring biographical minutiae as far as the eye can see and the finger can scroll. I can just imagine Shakespeare’s Status Updates:

Premiere of new play rocked! Check it out at Blackfriars! Tix available at the door or online!

Hamnet and Judith at Disney World! Are they cute or what?

Too much Rhenish wine at Kit Marlowe’s. Dude knows how to party!

Will Shakespeare likes Kick Spain’s Ass and Stratford Brown Ale

Enough said.

 An Incomplete Education

Did you know that the average middle-class boy in the Renaissance got the equivalent of an undergraduate education today? Yep, it’s true. Elizabethan grammar schools taught Latin, History, Music, Mathematics and yes, Rhetoric. While my third-grader struggled through his first Harry Potter book, it’s daunting to realize that nine-year-old Will was probably reading Virgil, Ovid, and Plutarch.  My kid whines about having to practice his cursive, but little Will probably could write a rudimentary sonnet before he hit the double digits.

People just didn’t have as much time to blow off back then. Childhood didn’t last till eighteen, and adolescence didn’t exist at all—much less until age 30, as it seems to today. No time to watch Phineas and Ferb, go to summer camps, and build Lego starcruisers. Nope, you had to get right down to the business of living and learning, before some disease or other fatal disaster cut you down in the full flower of your early modern youth.

If you read the plays carefully, you’ll see that the kind of knowledge they allude to is not unlike the sort of thing any curious person could find out through reading, conversation, religious sermons, and so on. I mean, how much law is there, really, in The Merchant of Venice? How much theology in Hamlet? I think the fact that it’s all in iambic pentameter makes people think it’s more erudite than it is.

The Missing Library

Interestingly, many Elizabethan/Jacobean writers left no books to anyone in their wills. Why? Because books were considered household items, and were usually bequeathed in an inventory of smaller possessions, rather than mentioned specifically in a will. Early anti-Stratfordians used the absence of books in his will suggest that Shakespeare was illiterate. For real. You know, I doubt Julia Child mentioned measuring cups in her will. But that doesn't mean her cookbooks were written by someone else.

Conduct Unbefitting a Literary Icon

Shakespeare made a fair amount of money as a playwright. He was, after all, quite good at it. There’s evidence that he made loans with some of this filthy lucre, and sued for damages when payment was not forthcoming. Twice! This could not possibly be the same Shakespeare who called Shylock a “damned, inexorable dog” whose “currish spirit/Governed a wolf…hanged for human slaughter.”  At least that’s one of the arguments Will’s detractors have used.

Do we need any more evidence that these nay-sayers don’t know how to read the plays? Shakespeare had sympathy for Shylock, even as he condemned him. I just wrote, like, twenty-seven posts on this, so I’m not going to belabor the point.

And besides, we know only too well how the private lives of our heroes can disappoint us, don’t we? That’s why it’s better not to, as Hamlet put it, “think too precisely on the event.” I mean, Hamlet was pretty good at seeing what he wanted to see about his dad, wasn’t he? For all we know, old King Hamlet was mean to his wife and absolutely no fun to be around. The “bloat king” Claudius was clearly more of a party animal….

But I digress.

So, about that bed. Who knows what that was about? Maybe it was a joke between Will and Anne. Like, they did their best naughty stuff on the second-best bed, so they wouldn’t wreck the guest mattress. Or maybe he didn’t like her much, as some have assumed. Many of his detractors have suggested that because Anne was eight years older than her husband, and pregnant when they married, she was both unattractive and unwanted.

Speaking as someone who is nine and a half years older than her spouse, I can tell you right now that I don’t buy this idea, which was doubtless disseminated by creepy old men who want to hook up with twenty-somethings. And, while I will resist drawing parallels between Shakespeare’s life and his works in the remainder of these “authorship” posts, I’ll make an exception here, for personal reasons (far be it from me to eschew hypocrisy when I’m personally invested in something). Venus and Adonis is a very romantic and—if Elizabethan narrative poetry gets you off—pretty hot poem about an older woman and a younger man. Maybe he wrote it about Anne!

We’ll never know. It may be fun to speculate, but it’s kind of sad to make a career out of trying to prove something impossible. Nevertheless, a lot of people did—and continue to do—just that. I’ll be writing about them in the next few posts.

Next: When in doubt, make stuff up! Padding Shakespeare’s vita.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Wherefore This Blog? (Shakespeare Birthday Edition)

A few days ago, I was contacted by someone from the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. A lovely surprise! A very nice woman from the Trust asked if I could contribute a post to the Shakespeare Birthday blog-a-thon they're putting together over there in Stratford-upon-Avon, where, pace Oxfordians, the Bard took his first and last breaths, on or close to the very same day--April 23.

This post will be one of fifty or so written by bloggers and Twitterers (tweeters?) all over the world. It's a totally cool idea! If you want to see, hear, and read what other bloggers are thinking about on this Happy Shakespeare Day, check out the project site.  There are lots of blogs and Twitter feeds out there I never knew about, so I'm pretty excited to have found them. And really proud to be part of the festivities. I have a strong suspicion whence came the call, since this blog isn't really on the international radar. So thanks, Jonathan, for thinking of me.

When I started this blog in August of 2009, I began by trying to explain why I was embarking on such a weird, time-devouring, and yes, anachronistic project.  Why should anyone who isn't a tenured or soon-to-be-tenured Professional Shakespearean want to devote so many man- or woman-hours to reading and commenting on the plays, scene by scene? We live in an era where brevity, in addition to being the soul of wit, is the only sure way to make an impression. Attention spans are shrinking faster than the polar ice shelf, and no one (a well-meaning friend warned me) is going to want to read about Shakespeare's plays in detail, unless they have to for some class paper or exam. Indeed, the list of bloggers on the SBT site are mostly Twitter links. I don't tweet, myself, because I'm basically a long-winded sort who needs time and space to think things through. Besides, whenever I look at anyone's Twitter feed, I invariably feel like I'm listening in on a party I haven't been invited to. Everything looks like a non sequitur. And all those #'s and @'s are off-putting.

But Will, I think, would have loved Twitter. He'd have no trouble with the 140-character limit. In fact, he'd probably take it as a challenge, and make all kinds of clever puns about hash, hashtags, feeds, feeding, etc. 

But back to me. I'm not good at writing about myself. I hate confessional writing of any kind. That's why I write about literature. Writing about Shakespeare lets me explore the Big Questions without getting mired in my own contradictions. But I will say this much: this blog has helped me through some rough patches, both large and small. I mean, we've all endured

...the whips and scorns of time
Th'oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely,
The pangs of disprized love, the law's delay,
The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of th'unworthy takes.

Advice columns are full of this kind of thing. My boss is a bastard. I'm getting old and unattractive, and I fear I'll never be loved. My boyfriend dumped me. A patently inferior candidate got the position I wanted.  These mundane agonies lead to lawsuits, prayers, and Dark Nights of the Soul, and they're cumulative, too. After years of feeling angry about this kind of stuff, some people go off the deep end.  Life isn't fair.  The world can be vicious, or just indifferent. Justice is seldom, if ever, accessible to those who have been wronged. People in authority are pompous, callous asses much of the time. And let's face it, the web is Contumely Central. But reading or hearing Hamlet say those beautiful lines helps. Because beauty happens in spite of injustice, cruelty, and loneliness. Yes, it does. And there's nothing those insolent contumelious jerks can do to stop it. Is that enough to make up for all the wrong stuff? Of course not. But it's a good analgesic, for sure.

Now I have friends--actually most of my current friends--who find Shakespeare difficult and not worth the time. This is too bad, but I understand. The language is hard. Who says--or understands--words like "contumely," anyway?  But, at the risk of sounding old-school humanist (which is what I am, but never mind), we need Shakespeare. Because basically, he's an optimist. Without being a sentimentalist.  Hamlet wonders if life's an unweeded garden, and for a time, he believes it is. But in the end, he's at peace. He feels connected. He's not a misanthrope anymore. Lear's an old fool, a selfish aristocrat who can't see beyond his own vanity. But at the end, he cares about humanity. He sees the looped and windowed raggedness he'd ignored for most of his life, and knows he's no better, and no worse, than the rest of humanity. And knowing this, feeling it at the gut level, makes him (paradoxically) better. More human in the best sense.

Will's not naive, though. This kind of transcendence doesn't happen in every play. The Merchant of Venice ends on a sour note. As does Othello, the play I'm blogging now. Sometimes the badness does swallow up everything good. Sometimes, as in The Merchant, people never escape their smug cocoon, and realize how badly they've messed up. They go on congratulating themselves on their goodness and moral rectitude--and they can, because they've constructed a whole moral system that hides the truth behind some very attractive illusions. But in revealing hypocrisy, making us see the illusion for what it is, Will makes a leap of faith about humanity. He bargains that we'll get it, and learn from it. And that's a kind of optimism, too.

Will has had some bad ideas, as well. They're beautifully-written bad ideas, but bad nonetheless. Romeo and Juliet is, to my mind, a beautiful Bad Idea Play. I wrote a whole post about that, so I won't belabor it here. In all fairness, there were a lot of historical forces behind this bad idea--a desire to shake off the musty notions of the past, to embrace and valorize the Private Life, and so on. But it's still a dangerous play promoting dangerous ideas to Today's Youth.

Ah, my age is showing again.

This blog, I guess, is my own leap of faith. An extended exercise in optimism. I think there's still a place for Shakespeare in our culture. We still ask the same questions, we're still wounded by the same doubts, we're still mad about the same injustices. And the language--it's difficult, sure. I know that, and that's why I do some translating here. Once you understand the words, you can hear the poetry.

The ancient Anglo-Saxon word for "vocabulary" was "word-hoard." I like that, because a hoard can also be a treasure-trove. But Shakespeare's English isn't just a collection of forgotten words--it's a distant music that calls us out of our solipsistic reverie, reminding us that we are speaking creatures, and that language is more than just a tool for making demands. It's an opening to beauty, to empathy, to history, and yes, to possibility. Shakespeare isn't just a voice from the past, to me. His plays give me a sense of continuity, a moral foundation, and a fabulous soundtrack to the little dramas that make up my life.

That's why I'll keep reading and writing about them. Happy Shakespeare Birthday, everyone.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Witchcraft and Warcraft

I put a spell on you, because you're mine
You better stop the things that you're doin'
I said "watch out, I ain't lyin..."
I ain't gonna take none of your foolin' around
Ain't gonna take none of your puttin' me down...
I put a spell on you, because you're mine.

Well, that's Othello in a nutshell. Okay, just kidding. But that's the soundtrack to today's post. If you want to hear the cheesy 1960's version I grew up with--i.e., the Creedence Clearwater Revival one--you can laugh at a goofy Jurassic-era video here. I love the spinning heads, and the bowl-cut hairdos. Believe it or not, this was the essence of cool back when I was a tween.

Witchcraft, love spells, infatuation. We still think in these terms, don't we? Although it's usually gender-specific. Women put spells on men, rendering them stupid and malleable. Whipped, as my brothers used to say. It's a ancient idea--remember that the witch Circe turned Odysseus' men into pigs, just because she could. Women bewitch men sexually, strip them of their rational armor, and leave them grunting in the mud. Long before the invention of literature, women's witchery--sexual allure--was seen as a threat to civilization itself.

If you make the idea more gender-neutral, i.e., if you concede that women can be as bewitched by sexual desire as men, it makes some sense. How else to explain the fact that so many brilliant, gifted, and hyper-rational people have been known to behave like lunatics when in the throes of infatuation? Infatuation makes us fatuous. Seduction leads us away from the truth, into the land of fantasy. Etymologically, "love" derives from the same root as "belief." Love is an act of faith, a turn away from reason, a leap into the emotional abyss that Freud called the Unconscious. No wonder people thought of it as a kind of enchantment.

Will invokes this idea a lot. In Antony and Cleopatra, Antony and Pompey both refer to Cleo as a seductive "witch." In Much Ado About Nothing, a comedy that's thematically analogous to Othello (in that both deal with irrational jealousy fueled by the poisonous rumors of a malevolent misanthrope), Claudio contends that is a witch
Against whose charms faith melteth into blood.

I like that quotation, because it perfectly captures both the magic of sexual attraction and the violence of jealousy. Faith melteth into blood, indeed. A lot of what we call "domestic violence" can be understood in just that way.

In Othello, Brabantio turns the tables, accusing Othello of bewitching his daughter into marriage. As the exotic outsider, Othello takes on the feminine role. He's mysterious, alluring, dangerous. And to a European audience, ugly by virtue of his color. Lacking beauty, he must have used necromancy. Desdemona's way out of his league, so how else could he have won her? Brabantio isn't subtle here--he's sure that Othello must have used some dark arts to make Desdemona overlook his dark skin:

O thou foul thief, where has thou stowed my daughter?
Damned as thou art, thou hast enchanted her,
For I'll refer me to all things of sense,
If she in chains of magic were not bound,
Whether a maid so tender, fair, and happy,
So opposite to marriage that she shunned
The wealthy curled darlings of our nation,
Would ever have, t'incur the general mock,
Run from her guardage to the sooty bosom
Of such a thing as thou--to fear, not to delight.
Judge me the world if 'tis not gross in sense
That thou hast practised on her with foul charms,
Abused her delicate youth with drugs or minerals
That weakens motion. I'll have't disputed on.
'Tis probable, and palpable to thinking.
I therefore apprehend and do attach thee
For an abuser of the world, a practiser
Of arts inhibited and out of warrant.

What did you do with my daughter? Because logically, she has absolutely no reason to want you. You're freakish, and so ugly that people would mock her for choosing you. She's not even interested in marriage--she rejected all the "wealthy curled darlings of our nation," after all.

I love "wealthy curled darlings." It conjures up (so to speak) images of obnoxious prep-school date-rapists in the William Kennedy Smith mold. Like Roderigo. I can definitely see him as captain of some lacrosse team on the East Coast. Date rape isn't a bad analogy here--Brabantio asserts that Othello may have "abused" Des with "drugs or minerals/That weakens motion." Slipped her some roofies, as they say these days. So he's either enchanted her, or he's drugged her. Because that's the only way a good girl of good family could possibly fall for a sooty-bosomed thing like him.

And how does our hero answer these wild accusations? Like a civilized man of reason. Othello's aware that he's too valuable to the Venetian state to be thrown in prison by an irate dad. Public achievement trumps private shenanigans every time--or at least when municipal security is at issue. Othello's services to the state shall, in his own words, "out-tongue" Brabantio's complaints. The Turks are threatening to invade Cyprus, and Venice--as well as Venetian trade--is in peril. Othello, a gifted general, is too valuable to imprison. Brabantio, for his part, is sure that the Duke will be on his side, because

...if such actions may have passage free,
Bondslaves and pagans shall our statesmen be.

If a sooty-bosomed foreigner can steal the daughters of good Venetian aristocrats, then all social hierarchies will surely topple, and mere anarchy will be loosed upon the world. So we have two threats--a military threat, from the outside, and a social threat, from the inside. Venice may fall to the Turks, or to the lower classes. Brabantio is pretty clear about which threat he takes more seriously.

In the midst of this squabble, the Duke and his cabinet--or whatever they called it--arrive in a flurry of anxiety over the impending Turkish invasion. The private world recedes before the threat of war. It's a bit disconcerting, this interruption--but not unlike the structure of Antony and Cleopatra, where the drama shifts continually between the public world of Rome and the erotic, dreamy realm of Egypt. Will plays with a similar opposition here--Venice is the rational, ordered world of public men, while Cyprus will prove to be a far more subversive place, where unconscious fears and desires overwhelm reason and law.

But that's for later. Now, Othello has to answer the charge of kidnapping and witchcraft. Brabantio states his case before the Duke, claiming that his daughter's been enchanted and/or drugged by the Moor:

She is abused, stol'n from me, and corrupted
By spells and medicines bought of mountebanks,
For nature so preposterously to err,
Being not deficient, blind, or lame of sense,
Sans witchcraft could not.

"For nature so preposterously to err..." What does it mean? It means that Desdemona has veered off course, emotionally and, by implication, morally. Maybe even metaphysically--that would be a racist's take on it, for sure. Will uses "err" here (and elsewhere) in the sense of "knight errant," but also in the sense we understand it now--making a mistake. To err was to wander morally, to take the sinister left-hand path. Desdemona has wandered away from her own nature. Since she's not intellectually disabled or mad, she must be bewitched.

So how is this standoff resolved? The way everything unfolds in this play--through storytelling. Othello, though he claims to be a rough, crude man of war, nonetheless promises to tell a story that will answer the charge of sorcery:

...Rude am I in my speech,
And little blessed with the soft phrase of peace,
For since these arms of mine had seven years' pith
Till now some nine moons wasted, they have used
Their dearest action in the tented field,
And little of this great world can I speak
More than pertains to feats and broils of battle.

From the age of seven until nine months ago, I've been a soldier. So I don't know how to talk to fancy, peacetime folks like yourselves. I totally hear an echo of Henry V  here, when King Harry is wooing Catherine, and says all that stuff about being a plain soldier who can't talk pretty to ladies. Which is an act, of course. Harry's an actor, and everything he does is contrived.

But Othello isn't. He really is a man's man, a soldier first and a lover second. He doesn't know much about women, or courtship, or any of it. He continues,

Yet, by your gracious patience,
I will a round unvarnished tale deliver
Of my whole course of love, what drugs, what charms,
What conjuration and what mighty magic--
For such proceeding I am charged withal--
I won his daughter.

A round unvarnished tale. That's the witchcraft, of course. Othello wins Desdemona by telling her stories about his adventures. Travel narratives, really. It's a long speech, this unvarnished tale about tale-telling, so I'll save it for next time.

Or rather the time after next. Next time--this Saturday, to be exact, I'll be blogging with about fifty other bloggers in honor of Shakespeare's birthday. Alleged birthday. It's a blog-a-thon sponsored by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. I'll have a link to the "birthday site," so you can (I think) read what other people are writing, too. It should be fun.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Treason of the Blood, Part 2

I haven't posted in almost a month, I know. I think the whole weird authorship thing--and some nastiness that hovered around it--sort of derailed me for awhile. Which is why I didn't post any of my remaining authorship stuff. I was the recipient of some mean-spirited, overly-personal diatribes, one of which was delivered by my Oxfordian old friend. Former friend, I guess. So that bummed me out, and I just decided to let the blog go a for a bit. And to (probably) let the authorship posts go forever. Or maybe just for a long while. There seems to be no room for respectful debate among a certain segment of the authorship folks. And frankly, I'm just not all that interested in the subject. I only wrote about it to satisfy my own curiosity, really.

Anyway, back to Othello.

When we last saw Brabantio, Desdemona's dad, he was standing outside in his nightgown, having been awakened by those two gossipy frat boys, Iago and Roderigo. Iago has taken off, the better to maintain his "honest" facade. Brabantio is left to lament his daughter's perfidy with her creepy ex-suitor, Roderigo. Although he rejected Roderigo's suit previously, the white guy now looks pretty good. Because not only has Desdemona run off, she's run off with the Moor.

Now Will's plays are chock-full of disobedient daughters. Desdemona, Hermia, Juliet, Cordelia, Jessica, Rosalind--all face the choice between father and lover, and all turn their backs on Daddy. It's also worth noting that Ophelia, who made the opposite choice, ended up sleeping with the fishes. Okay, floating in a brook...but the point is that Will's a good Protestant. He believes in marriage, believes that a woman's duty to her husband supersedes the loyalty she owes her father. Cordelia captures this idea in a nutshell, just before Lear disowns her:

Good my lord,
You have begot me, bred me, loved me; I
Return those duties back as are right fit,
Obey you, love you, and most honor you.
Why have my sisters husbands, if they say
They love you all? Haply, when I shall wed,
That lord whose hand must take my plight shall carry
Half my love with him, half my care and duty.
Sure, I shall never marry like my sisters,
To love my father all.

The wicked sisters, of course, don't love their father at all. Much less "all." But their pretense is yet another example of how wrong things are in Lear's kingdom, because the very idea of choosing the father over the husband was unnatural to Renaissance Christians. The moral center of Protestant society was the family. At the root of family, the chaste marriage. "Chaste" meaning faithful, not sexless.

Although I can't help remembering this scene from Monty Python's The Meaning of Life. Right after that great "Every Sperm is Sacred" song...

Sorry, silly digression. Anyway, when Brabantio accuses his daughter of betraying her "blood," he's not just talking about race. He's talking about the allegiance he feels a daughter owes to her father, above all others.

...O, treason of the blood!
Fathers, from hence trust not your daughters' minds
By what you see them act.

Fathers, don't trust your daughter's outward behavior, because she likely harbors perverted thoughts and desires underneath all those obedient smiles and nods. This notion of the "false front" is a leitmotif in the play, of course. Don't trust what you see on the surface, because the truth is somewhere else. Black can be white, and white can be black. Fair is foul, and foul is fair...oh, wait, that's Macbeth.

It's a concern of the theater, of course--false fronts, duplicity, masquerades. Because that's what the theater is all about. Pretense. But underneath the makeup, costumes, and crafted speeches, we're vouchsafed (love that word!) a glimpse of the truth, as well. The theater is fundamentally neo-platonic, isn't it? What you see isn't precisely what you get, but if you look below the surface, beneath the mask, you can see what's real, and true, and timeless. But of course there's a lot of anxiety about this, too--especially in Will's plays. That's why you have men playing women playing men in the comedies, for example. Because the "truth" is a slippery business. And masks are seductive.

A topic I'll deal with more when I blog another comedy. Which will probably be after Othello. If, you know, I ever finish this play.

So, when Brabantio finds out about his daughter's love for another man, he calls it betrayal. She chose her own desire over that of her dad. Bad girl. Her desires belong to him--for her to own them, and act on them, is the worst kind of disloyalty. Father knows best. And of course, being a good Protestant didn't mean being a feminist, or even a social liberal. Daughters were supposed to cleave unto their husbands, but Daddy was supposed to pick the guy out and hand her over. That's why we still have that weird "who gives this woman in marriage" thing in the wedding ceremony. Nowadays it seems quaint and old-fashioned, but for a long time, it was serious. The father literally did "give" his daughter--she was his property, and he disposed of her as he saw fit. As Old Capulet tells Juliet, "An you be mine, I'll give you to my friend." I own you, so I'll give you to whomever I please.
Now Will consistently shows us that this kind attitude leads to tragedy. Or, in plays like A Midsummer Night's Dream, improbable comedy. The point is, he's not ambivalent on the subject. Daughters should be allowed to marry for love, not duty. Individual desire trumps outmoded social custom. Needless to say, theater isn't life, however.  For several centuries, aristocratic dads doubtless enjoyed a night of Shakespearean theater, then went home and married their daughters off to the richest, oldest creep they could find, her wishes be damned. Will was pretty far ahead of his time on this issue.

Apropos of fathers and daughters, I recently came across this story about the so called "Christian Daughters Movement," which is an offshoot of--what else?--the so-called Christian Patriarchy Movement. Personally, I find the term "Christian Patriarchy" a tad redundant, but never mind. The groups promoting these ideas claim biblical authority--you know, because women in the Bible didn't go to college or marry whomever they wanted, today's religious women shouldn't, either. They should stay at home with Daddy until he says it's okay to get married. To the guy he picks out for them. Just like Juliet's dad, and Hermia's, and Desdemona's. Yep, the Christian Daughters Movement is fertile ground for Shakespearean tragedy. Not to mention creepy abuses of the non-literary sort.  I find it interesting that this "return" is romanticized as a "movement." If you read the subtitle of this "manifesto," you'll see that it claims to offer "a vision of victory for single women of the 21st century."  Victory over selfhood, I guess. And responsibility. And maturity. All of which goes to show that in some weird pockets of our postmodern, tech-saturated culture, the Old Ideas still live on. Or fester, depending on your perspective.

Next time, Love Spells! Sort of...

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Treason of the Blood, Part 1

Miscegenation. A fancy latinate word for something that our forebears usually thought about in cruder terms: the sexual and/or conjugal mixing of races. It signified the violation of a taboo, the transgression of boundaries. A sin against nature. Mixed-race liaisons in literature have pretty much always ended badly, with one or both parties paying the ultimate price for their transgression. Often in Othello-ish terms, whereby a white woman is murdered by her black lover. William Faulkner's Light in August and Richard Wright's Native Son are two modern works that owe their moral structure to Othello. In both, a demonized black or "racially impure" man kills a white woman in her bed. Both murdered women are "free-thinkers" who are trying to escape from the strictures of class and gender. Both men are socially marginal, oppressed by history, and burdened with the question of race. That's why they all have to die.

Happily, history seems to have overtaken literature on the subject of race-mixing. There are lots of interracial couples now. I can think of four, just among the parents in my son's fourth-grade class. It's no big deal, at least in my part of the world.

But for much of history, interracial marriage was a very big deal. It could get you killed, or at least exiled from your community. It wasn't just distasteful--it smacked of treason, at least from the dominant white perspective.  While it was considered acceptable for a powerful white man to have a black mistress (think Jefferson), a white woman who consorted with men of other races was worse than a whore. She was a traitor to her own kind. These liaisons were considered monstrous--in the iconography, the man was often portrayed as almost simian. So the mixing of races became, by implication, a mixing of species as well.

The fact that Shakespeare, our most deified and mythologized dramatist/poet, wrote a play about miscegenation has perplexed, disturbed, and intrigued readers for four centuries. People from all walks of life have weighed in on this most famous literary mesalliance.  Check out this quote from well-known Romantic poet and drug addict, Samuel Taylor Coleridge: would be something monstrous to conceive of this beautiful Venetian girl falling in love with a veritable negro. It would argue a disproportionateness, a want of balance, in Desdemona, which Shakespeare does not appear to have in the least contemplated.

Now here's a perfect example of the kind of thing I was talking about in one of my authorship posts. Namely, why I don't want to know anything about the personal lives and political opinions of the authors I admire. I love Coleridge's poems. Love the stately pleasure dome, and the undead romance between Christabel and Geraldine. Love the albatross and the creepy Mariner.  Not so enamored of this racist quote--although it is interesting in other ways. Let's have a look.

First, the phrase "veritable negro."  As opposed to what, a putative negro?  Coleridge implies that Othello's race must be at least ambiguous--otherwise Desdemona is guilty of "disproportionateness."  Now there's a word. A neologism, I suspect--why not simply "disproportion?"  The "ness," of course, works as an intensifier. Having fallen in love with an unambiguously African man, she must be really disproportionate. Exceedingly, excessively out of balance. Nowadays, we understand "unbalanced" in psychological terms. "After the death of his wife (dog, mother, career) Mr. Smith became unbalanced." He started acting crazy. I think Coleridge understands it differently. He's talking about an aesthetic problem here--Desdemona, despite her beauty, doesn't understand symmetry.  Her aesthetic sensibilities are flawed. She doesn't see the balance in nature. She's got a Cubist's perspective on the world.

Coleridge, of course, was a Romantic in the most pathological sense of the term. He liked his women pale and frail, wasting away in some florid Lake Country bower. Not outspoken and rebellious. And definitely not in charge of their own sexual desire. Disproportionateness, indeed. One has to wonder, however, if Coleridge was aware of the irony of his word choice. Because he clearly echoes Iago, who, in Act 3, says similar things about Othello's wife and her odd predilections:

Not to affect many proposed matches 
Of her own clime, complexion, and degree,
Whereto we see in all things nature tends--
Foh, one may smell in a such a will most rank,
Foul disproportions, thoughts unnatural!

Iago here plays on Othello's self-hatred, his bone-deep certainty that a woman like Desdemona couldn't possibly love a man of his color and condition, unless there was something really wrong with her. What's that corny old expression? I wouldn't join a club that would have me as a member?  Othello secretly feels inferior to his wife, and finds it easy to believe that her affection stems from something pathological. Some excessive, extravagant, and corrupt aspect of her own nature. An unnatural, foul disproportionateness. Notice Iago's crude reference to smell--Desdemona's desires are not only perverted, they're malodorous, too. Iago's comment, insulting as it is, doesn't make Othello angry, because it's what he suspects himself. No one of Desdemona's complexion and degree--skin color and rank--could ever love a guy like him. She must be unbalanced.

Bestial Imaginings

In the last Othello post, we left Iago and Roderigo crouching in the bushes in the dead of night, hoping to scare Brabantio into annulling Othello's marriage.  Brabantio, awakened from a sound sleep, comes to the window. "What is the reason of this terrible summons?" he asks. Of course this reminds us of Hamlet--after King Hamlet's ghost does its disappearing act, Horatio remarks that "it started like a guilty thing upon a fearful summons."  The fearful summons being, presumably, marching orders from Hell.  Brabantio responds to his own summons fearfully--he knows that whatever has awakened him, it's likely nothing good. Sure enough, Iago hisses out the hellish news:

Even now, now, very now, an old black ram
Is tupping your white ewe. Arise, arise!
Awake the snorting citizens with the bell,
Or else the devil will make a grandsire of you.
Arise, I say. 

I've always found it jarring that Iago frames this obscene accusation in quasi-biblical language. "Arise, arise!" reminds me of Paul's letter to the Ephesians: "Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give you light," or this one from Isaiah: "Arise, shine, for your light has come...." And even Deborah's song from Judges: "Awake, awake, Deborah...Arise Barak, and lead away your captives...."

Yep, I've got the whole Bible memorized, cover to cover. 

Just kidding. But this little speech really is a wolf in sheep's clothing, isn't it? We have this sublime biblical echo, with its prophecies, promises, and divine commands, as well as the disturbing picture of copulating sheep and demonic offspring. Dark doings wrapped in the language of light. Iago claims to be "enlightening" Barbantio, but really he's just making the truth--Desdemona and Othello are married--seem darker and dirtier than it is.

To Iago, everyone's a beast, a smelly, fearful creature driven by foul appetites. Although he often speaks in racist terms, I don't think he's a racist himself. He hates everyone, pretty much equally. He uses racist images and language to his advantage, because that's what gets a rise out of people. Really he doesn't care about race--he's a universalizing nihilist, a moral anarchist, a Machiavel. He's Richard III's more nuanced descendant--racism is just one more tool in his box of dirty tricks.

I guess I'll stop here for today--this post is obviously getting too long. More on sheep, horses, and treasonous blood next time...

Friday, March 11, 2011

A Wounded Name

 I promised to post some of my "authorship" stuff from last summer--from the old blog--when I'm too busy to put up any new Othello material. This has been a busy week, and I've got a cold, so here's the first of my series on authorship. Back to Othello in a day or two.

Oh God, Horatio, what a wounded name,
Things standing thus unknown, shall live behind me!
A prophetic soul, indeed. When Hamlet speaks these lines in Act 5, he’s dying and worried about his reputation. “Report me and my cause aright,” he tells Horatio. Tell them I was a good guy, don’t let them jump to conclusions based on scanty evidence. The proponents of “alternative Shakespeares” have traditionally seized upon this dramatic plea as “proof” that their guy (Bacon, Marlowe, De Vere, or some lesser-known contender) was the real Bard, putting his own worried words in his character’s mouth.

At their worst, these theories reduce Shakespeare’s most famous characters to ventriloquist’s dummies, mere mouthpieces through which the “real” Shakespeare reveals his (hitherto encrypted) identity.  As if all literature is really just autobiography in disguise. They kind of have to make that argument, though, since the historical record is absolutely silent on the validity of any of these claims.

No, I’m not going to make a “Stratfordian” argument here.  At least not today.  I’m going to talk about why this whole controversy confuses me, and makes me sad. Because I don’t think any of these conspiracy theorists really appreciates the plays. In fact, I doubt they’ve really read them as literature—they’re too busy looking for “clues.”

And that’s, well, tragic. Hyperbolically speaking.

The “Truth” is Out There

In some cases, way out there.  We’re talking cryptography machines, government cover-ups, incestuously-conceived offspring of putatively virgin queens, and so on.  It’s a wild ride, reading through this stuff.  Part X-Files, part Jerry Springer. I came unwillingly to the “authorship controversy,” I’ll admit. And even now, when I’ve decided to devote several posts (there’s just too much to write about in just one) to the topic, it still grates a little.  Partly because it was never ever discussed in any of my college English classes, so part of me—the snooty academic who still lurks behind my populist facade—really doesn’t think it’s a valid subject for argument.

There, I’ve said it. I always thought it was kind of a fringy topic, like Area 51 or the Chariots of the Gods. Or, more insidiously, the idea that the government caused AIDS, or the moon landing was a fake, or the Bush Administration staged 9/11.  And I’ll tell you right now, I don’t believe in any of those things. Not even a little.

Okay, maybe Area 51, a teensy bit. But only because I’m a sci-fi nerd.

But then, a few months ago, an old friend whom I hadn’t heard from in about a decade—a friend who graduated from the same swanky Ph.D. program that ate up my youth—came out of the closet. No, not that one. I mean the Oxfordian closet.  At that time I barely knew what “Oxfordian'” meant. My first inclination was to think that he’d become some kind of rabid Anglophile.  But then I remembered an article I’d read in the Atlantic, or some similarly prissy scandal sheet, about how some people think a dissolute 16th century aristo really “wrote Shakespeare.” Those people, I should point out, include Sigmund Freud, several Supreme Court justices (past and present) and a handful of pretty famous Shakespearean actors.

So I decided anyone who writes a “Shakespeare blog,” even with as modest a readership as this one boasts, is intellectually—not to say morally—obliged to address the topic.

But where to start? I knew next to nothing about any of this. I decided to start where the whole dispute starts. With biography.  And why I just don’t care about it.

Ironically, in order to properly address this topic, I have to write a little bit about my past.

The Abridged Bio of an Anti-Biographist

First, I am born.  Later, I went to fourteen, count ‘em, 14 grade schools. That means that sometimes, I changed cities and houses and schools two or three times in one year! It wreaked havoc on my math skills. And, more devastatingly, my interpersonal ones. But I’m a (relatively) sane person who pretty much came out of it okay.

Because of books.  I never had many friends, and my four brothers were living in Guyville (a place to which I never gained admission), so I read books. All the time.  Everything I learned about life came from books.  Of course, this led to some pretty disappointing moments as an adult. You see, in books, justice always triumphs, if only by showing how unjust things are. Love conquers all. Bad people are punished—with scorn and ignominy, if nothing else—and good people are noble, brave, and loyal. There are moral victories in the face of defeats.

I guess you probably know that life is seldom, if ever, like that.

As great as books are, however, they are written by flawed people.  Sometimes seriously flawed (Eliot, Pound, Rousseau, Hemingway, etc. etc.). Do I really want to know that Tolstoy treated his wife as a servant? That Coleridge was a drug addict? That Yeats was a fascist?

Not especially.  It’s not that I think these guys should remain “innocent,” that they should be revered and protected from history. I’m just not really interested in their personal lives. The wonderful thing about homo sapiens is that we can imagine other, better worlds than the one we currently inhabit.  If we’re lucky, our imaginations exceed the more sordid/shameful/unhappy facts of our lives.  When I think about Chaucer, scratching out narrative poems by candlelight amid all that nasty, brutish, short-livedness that was medieval England, I think about that. Imagination.

Yep, I’m a card-carrying humanist.

So I have to say, I don’t have a big investment in who the “real” Shakespeare was, except as it touches on this one subject. Because it seems to me that a lot of these conspiracy theorists base their whole argument on the premise that a person can’t write about things he’s never experienced. To me, this disparages the very best thing about literature, and art in general. Imagination. Will Shakespeare wasn’t an aristocrat, so he couldn’t know anything about court life. He wasn’t captured by pirates. He hadn’t been to Italy. He’d never practiced law.

Please. If real-life experience were a prerequisite for story-telling, the vast majority of genres wouldn’t exist. No romance written by the love-starved. No science fiction written by anyone. No vampire stories! No Thousand and One Nights! No crime fiction, unless it was written by criminals.

So that’s a big problem for me.  That and, um, the absolute lack of any historical evidence to support these claims. Because I’m not only a humanist, I’m an empiricist, too.

That said, there is a lot that’s interesting about this whole controversy. It really says more about who we are, we modern people, than who “Shakespeare” was.  So I’m going to jump right in and take a look at the whole thing, starting from the evidence for “the Stratford man,” next time.

Who knows? Maybe, along the way, I’ll change my mind about everything.

So that was my first authorship post. Expect the next one sometime in the near future--whenever I'm too busy or sniffly to write something new. Next time, back to the play.