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.
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
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.