Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Thoughts on Shakespeare

I recently finished reading “Shakespeare: The World as Stage” by Bill Bryson. I enjoyed the brief but comprehensive biography of the Bard, brief (as Bryson explains) because there is little concrete information about Shakespeare’s life. So he fills in the gaps with historical and contemporaneous facts, including English life under Elizabeth I and James I.
Because there is so little known about Shakespeare, some critics have insisted that he, the son of a glove-maker in rural Stratford, couldn’t have written plays and poems that have endured as masterpieces for more than three centuries.
Bryson touches upon the “authorship” controversy, and examines some of the people most often touted as the “real” author,  including  Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe and Edward de Vere.
Back in early autumn 2004, in my capacity as a staff writer for The Macomb Daily, I wrote a feature story examining the question in detail, pro and con.  I reprint it here, in case you’re interested:

 Good Will hunting: In search of the "real" William Shakespeare

    At first glance, the question “Who wrote Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets?” seems obvious, but many people, from actors to scholars, think otherwise.
    The problem is that relatively little is known of the life of “William Shakespeare” (even the spelling is disputed). To many observers, what little there is seems at odds with the work he’s supposed to have written.
    Those who believe “Shakespeare ” is the actual author call themselves “Stratfordians,” from Stratford-on-Avon, where he is said to have lived.
    What is known is that a William Shakespeare was a glove-makers’ son, and of no particularly great education. He seems to have been a businessman, a landowner, and maybe an actor. He left no provisions in his will for the disposition of any books or manuscripts. That this man could have written plays that quote from many different languages, and demonstrate a familiarity or even mastery of the law, Italy and life at court, strikes some critics as laughable. On the other hand, when his collected plays were published after his death, author Ben Jonson proclaimed himself to be a friend of the “sweet swan of Avon.” So if Shakespeare didn’t write the plays or poems, there must have been a conspiracy of Oliver Stone proportions to make it appear that he wrote them.
    Many alternative candidates have been proposed, almost all noblemen. This leads some Stratfordians to accuse non-Stratfordians of being snobs who don’t believe a commoner could write so well of such things. Anti-Stratfordians feel Stratfordians have a vested interest in the status quo.
    The most popular candidate remains Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, a nobleman who we know did write poems, because some still exist, and who was described by contemporaries as a great playwright as well, though no plays under his name survive. His proponents call themselves Oxfordians. Other candidates have included “Doctor Faustus” author, Christopher Marlowe (“Marlovians”), and cryptographer Sir Francis Bacon (“Baconians”).
    The Bible of the Oxford school is J. Thomas Looney’s “ ‘Shakespeare Identified in Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford,” (1920, www.shakespearefellowship.org under “Virtual Classroom”). A recent Stratfordian counter-text is Stephen Greenblatt’s “Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became  Shakespeare.”
    Oxfordian Barbara Burris, co-founder of the Oberon chapter of the Shakespeare Fellowship, speaks deliberately of “the man from Stratford” to distinguish between the alleged author and the man she believes is the “real” author. “The evidence is just overwhelming.” She has read the major books on the subject by Looney and others, plus “I’ve done a lot of my own original research.”
    Burris, who’s currently writing an Oxfordian mystery novel, said, “I believed the nonsense” promulgated by the Stratfordians until “my husband bought me a book, ‘Alias Shakespeare’ ” by Oxfordian Joseph Sobran. She went on to read other books, including Looney’s, and then “spent a whole year reading and investigating.” In the end, she concluded that Oxford was the real author.
    Now Burris divides Stratfordians into two categories: those who haven’t done the research, and those who “have a definite program of suppression,” such as the academics and the Folger Library, which she said benefit from the status quo.
    “If they had an honest difference of opinion, they would allow open debate. I couldn’t get an article published in the Shakespeare Quarterly if it was about Oxford.” And indeed, a search on the Folger Library’s Web site (www.folger.edu/sq/ menu.asp) produced no results for “Edward de Vere,” “Oxfordian” or “Authorship.”
    Irvin Leigh Matus, author of “Shakespeare In Fact,” and a dedicated Stratfordian, acknowledges this failing by his fellow orthodox scholars on his Shakespeare Web site (willyshakes.com/reflections.htm). “The silence of Shakespeareans leaves a void that Oxfordians are only too eager to fill. It is a major reason for their success.” He’s also for open debate.
    For her part, Burris said, “I’ve found many sources” ignored or buried by academics with a vested interest.
    Among Oxfordians, “the biggest area of contention,” Burris said, is why Oxford didn’t write, produce or publish the plays under his own name. Burris believes that it was because of politics in Elizabethan England (which she likens to “Stalinist Russia” in its treatment of its citizens), in particular, one Robert Cecil, who Burris believes would have liked to destroy the plays altogether. The plays “told a lot about the Cecils,” Burris said.
    Still, Burris believes it was an open secret that Oxford was the real author. “I think it was well-known by the literati, and is still known by the nobility.”
    As to Jonson’s famous preface to the First Folio, Burris finds it significant that his own collected works were published the same year. She sees it as a simple quid pro quo: publication in return for maintaining the charade.
    If this sounds a little crazy, Burris acknowledges as much. “It sounds like a wild conspiracy,” Burris said, “but it’s not (wild).” She acknowledges though that “It’s not a simple thing.”
    Burris is passionate on the subject of Oxford because “I enjoy it,” but also because “it made me angry” to think that the real author of Shakespeare’s plays, plays that “meant a lot to me,” was unknown. She sees so much in Oxford’s life that dovetails with details in the plays and poems, which adds to her enjoyment and appreciation of them. “The plays open up to something more extraordinary.”
    But Ed Nahhat, producer and founder of the Water Works Theatre Company’s summertime Shakespeare-in-the-Park productions in Royal Oak, said, “I don’t know or care who he was, except that he was a genius.”
    Nahhat, who’s also an attorney who practices in Macomb County, added, “I don’t think there’s enough evidence” to prove who Shakespeare really was, and it’s not important. “It’s important that people are aware of  Shakespeare,” Nahhat said.
    Maybe Shakespeare was just a front for Oxford, Nahhat conceded, but he can see alternative explanations. Maybe Oxford was Shakespeare’s literary sponsor, and he wrote about events in Oxford’s life for that reason.
    Still, Nahhat doesn’t object to authorship debates. “Maybe, unintentionally, it keeps (Shakespeare) in the public eye.” But “as a producer of Shakespeare, I find it of secondary importance.”

From The Macomb Daily, October 3, 2004


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