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.