Saturday, December 17, 2011

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.

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