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.

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