Monday, September 10, 2007

A fusty nut with no kernel - Shakespeare authorship and political myths 

Oh Good Night! Another round of the so-called controversy (see this Observer report) about who wrote the plays of Shakespeare.

Looking at these weird argumenst may however help us to understand why some current controveries carry on the way they do.

It seems that just about anybody alive at the time and a few who were not are candidates for the authorship. Francis Bacon. The Earl of Derby. The Earl of Oxford. Queen Elizabeth the First. Christopher Marlow (from his grave). A secret committee organised by the Queen’s chief spymaster Burghley to spread pro-protestant propaganda. A secret committee organised by the Society of Jesus to spread pro-Catholic propaganda. Anyone at all it seems except the actor from Stratford. If I had a brother I would say ‘Zounds I have never been so bethumped with words since first I called my Brother’s Father Dad’.

One of the things that really annoys me about all this is the patronising assumption that an ordinary man from the sticks could never have written these works- it had to be someone with aristocratic connections and with a top-level University education.
Well, my past experience of tutoring Open University students has given me a huge respect for the knowledge, intelligence and creativity of people from all kinds of backgrounds.

Another, and politically very depressing thing is the way that fantasies, misunderstandings and straight-forwards fictions that have in the past been patiently examined and refuted re-appear as blinding new insights pedalled by uninformed enthusiasts. Something like Conservative policy groups then.

An example is in the Observer story – the throwaway line that Shakespeare came from an illiterate household.

Please! As is well documented, Shakespeare’s Father John was twice Bailiff (equivalent of Mayor) of Stratford . He served a second term after his successors made such a mess of the town’s accounts that a rescue operation had to be mounted, bringing John Shakespeare back to office to oversee this. Some illiterate. As someone remarked ‘ A false conclusion: I hate it as an unfilled can’.

Stratford had one of the famous Tudor Gramamar schools and this was operating when young William was a boy and John Shakespeare was a leading citizen. The schools were a revolutionary innovation. The schoolmasters were top scholars from the Universities, people quite capable of holding University lecturerships, who formed a national corresponding network between themselves for upholding learning. Bright boys from the Shires had unprecedented chances to learn about the world. And if they went on to London they had an equivalent of the Open University available to them – a huge publishing industry putting out self-help books on all kinds of subjects and a cosmopolitan population bringing news from around the world. The first printed books in Polish were produced in London for example. Shakespeare the actor lodged for years with a refugee Huguenot family – we do have records of this – which gave him access to the French-speaking community, and stories about events and places on the continent.

There being no TV the equivalent of ‘Big Brother’ as entertainment were the Law Courts – legal terminology was bandied about in common parlance, as any reading of other literary works of the time will confirm.

One of the silliest suggestions in the Observer article is that Shakespeare made no references in his works to Stratford, or events in his own life. So the Forest of Arden was in Kansas then? And how many references to their own circumstances did Shakespeare’s contemporary rival writes make? ‘Such a dish of skim milk’ as someone else probably didn’t say instead of the Bard.

Lets take a look at just one thing which, of connected to any of the so-called claimants would be screamed to the rooftops as proof of authorship.

When Shakespeare was an adolescent there was a huge scandal in Stratford, which got recorded in various diocesian court archives. A young woman fell desperately in love with some young man and being rebuffed fell into a deep depression. Her body was found floating in the river decked out with flowers. Her family pulled lots of strings to get her death declared an accident (falling from a tree) instead of suicide, so she could be buried in consecrated lands. It is a story eerily parallel to that of Ophelia in ‘Hamlet’.

The name of the Young Woman was Catherine Hamlet.

Does this prove that the ‘Stratford Actor’ Shakespeare wrote the plays? No. But it is much much better evidence than ANYTHING suggested in favour of any of the other so-called claimants.

As you may guess I rather do take the position that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare.

I wish I could say ‘this babble shall not henceforth trouble me’ but I rather expect it will be back along with other absurdities of the same intellectual strength, like the non-existence of the Holocaust, the alleged mystery of the collapse of the twin towers in 9/11 and the second marksman on the grassy knoll at Dallas.

And yes there are serious political implications in investigating this kind of misleading though, because such myths are of huge political power. So understanding what is going on in all this Shakespeare Claimants nonsense can perhaps help train us to survive current traps and absurdities.

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This is a fascinating area of scholarship, with most modern-day scholars agreeing that William Shakespeare was not Shakespeare. The problem for all other candidates however, is finding a connection to the undisputed home or 'base' of the Bard. This is not a problem for the strongest candidate; Fulke Greville, Lord Brooke who was the Recorder of Stratford and who had residence down the road in Warwick Castle. He was a 1st class genius, a poet, soneteer, statesman, soldier, sailor, Chancellor as well as many other profiles that the true 'Shakespeare' must possess. That is not to say that other fine men (or women) of the age did not play a part, but Greville is the only candidate to have claimed the title of 'the master of Shakespeare'. If this subject may be of interest, and for more information, see the website www.masterofshakespeare.com. The new book; 'The Master of Shakespeare' by A.W.L. Saunders is sure to be a hit!!
The start of our disagreement James is that I believe most modern scholars agree that the actor from Stratford wrote the plays.
As Edis points out, the key word is "scholars," and hardly any of them think that someone other than the Stratford Shakespeare wrote the plays. For an original approach to (the Stratford) Shakespeare's life, work, and times, there's the recently published "The Shakespeare Diaries."
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