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.


  1. Hi Gayle

    Fantastic stuff, as usual. Just wondering whether you'll be reviewing 'Anonymous'?!



  2. Hi Jonathan, nice to hear from you. I've been AFB (Away From Blog) for some time, but still plan to get back to it soon (although my notion of "soon" seems to be a slippery thing). About Anonymous--well, maybe when it comes out in streaming digital form,I'll see it. The reviews are so bad, I can't see shelling out real money for the experience. It's just another "birther" fantasy, as one reviewer over here put it--and a poorly-realized one at that. Still, I probably should take a look--it might be fun to write about, in a snarky way.

    Thanks for (still) reading--I will be back here eventually. I want to do Richard 2 after I finally finish Othello...