Monday, July 07, 2008

NPR on the Shakespeare Authorship Question, Part One: Drama vs Realism

I was a little surprised on the 3rd to hear NPR's short story on the Shakespeare authorship question. But I was going out of town, and didn't really have time to listen. But now I do, and I'm disappointed in their coverage. First off, some links so you can read or listen yourself:

Story on July 3rd: "Who Wrote Shakespeare's Plays? Debate Goes On"

Story on July 4th: "The Real Shakespeare? Evidence Points to Earl"

In short, here's the issue: We have minimal evidence of the life of William Shakespeare, and especially minimal evidence connecting him to the plays we associate metonymically with his name (where "Shakespeare" stands for the body of work, for the plays, and for numerous classes on those works). We have some printed plays in the period attibuting their authorship to Shakespeare (but some we don't think are by Shakespeare now). We have Francis Mere's comments in Palladis Tamia, where he lists plays by Shakespeare along with other playwrights (including the elusive Love's Labors Won, fodder for much hopeful searching over the years). We have a fair number of references to legal issues about the Lord Chamberlain's Men and later the King's Men (the companies we most associate with Shakespeare and his plays). We have a few stories (Ben Jonson's story about Shakespeare beating Richard Burbage to a woman, for example).

So actually, the minimal evidence is actually pretty decent when we consider what we know about most early modern individuals.

Why the questions, then? Mostly, the questions start from the assumption that the man in the records had a modest education and couldn't have written plays representing such a wide variety of social situations, especially monarchal court settings, legal settings, and so forth. The "anti-Stratfordians" then "start" looking for someone with the "right background" to have written the plays, and lately, they end up with Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford. But over the years, different folks have suggested Elizabeth I, Christopher Marlowe, Francis Bacon, and more recently, Mary Sidney.

Here's a quote from the NPR article citing Diana Price to give you a sense of how the argument goes:
"If there were a signature related to Hamlet, we wouldn't be having this debate," says Diana Price, who wrote the book that's become a bible for doubters, the meticulously researched Shakespeare's Unorthodox Biography.

In it, she details all that Shakespeare would have had to know and be able to use effortlessly in metaphors and intricate puns: archery, astronomy, medicine, technical terms for falconry and royal tennis. The list is long.

To link any writer conclusively to the plays, Price argues, "we would certainly have to be able to support how he learned his languages, how he received his education, how he gained his exposure to the lifestyle of the rich and famous, how he had access to the court. And I don't mean as a servant in the court, but someone who actually was in there when the power-playing was going on. We cannot support any of that for Shakespeare." (Source)

Let's think about the assumptions about whether a Stratford native such as Shakespeare could have written plays representing monarchal courts, legal courts, and so forth. At the base of that assumption is that representing something on stage has something to do with how that something is "in real life." You know how when you watch ER or House (or any of those medical shows), they say all these things that sound really cool? But real doctors seem to think they don't do a good job representing medicine at all. (Here's a blog called Polite Dissent that has a series of reviews on House from a medical perspective.) Similarly, if you've ever sat on a jury, you know that Perry Mason or all the other dramatic legal shows aren't about how things work in a real legal court.

Of course not! Those shows are about being television shows, making things dramatic, interesting, engaging viewers enough to stay in front of the television while the commercials run, and getting them to tune in again next week to watch more commercials. And if they produce some good entertainment along the way, that's great, but secondary. Television, like early modern theater, is a business.

So what do we know about the courts Shakespeare represented? He represented courtly situations in classical Rome, proto-medieval England, medieval England, and early modern England, as well as some other European settings. Happily, we know lots about, for example, the early modern English court from the works of historians such as G.P.V. Akrigg (old, but an easy name for me to remember), contemporary letters, and so forth. And what we learn is that the early modern court is pretty much run by the Lord Chamberlain, the Secretary/Treasurer, and the Master of the Horse. The job of the Lord Chamberlain, for example, is to control access to the monarch, especially to the monarch's private chambers.

So if we were to want to write realistically about a court, we might want to represent those roles fully, demonstrating how much power those folks had, right? But that's not how Shakespeare's plays represent the court at all. Instead, Shakespeare's courts are rather freewheeling, with lots of people having access to the monarch's person. In a couple plays, someone is mentioned as the Lord Chamberlain, but I don't remember any treasurer or master of the horse. But then, a king doing the budget makes for less exciting drama than one who's killing off his cousin or fighting a civil war, right?

The thing is, the plays are dramatically wonderful rather than realistic. And that's a darned good thing. They work as drama. One doesn't need to know a lot about tennis, for example, to toss off a term like "let" or "lob." Nor does one need to have actually changed the oil in one's car to create a metaphor about what happens when the oil runs out. Those things don't demonstrate depth of knowledge so much as an ability to make connections that the groundlings in the theater would follow and understand, just as I can follow, nodding along, the dramatic effect of Perry Mason revealing a nefarious criminal on the stand without any legal knowledge at all (and with my experience completely at odds with such a dramatic revelation).

Next up: Class Issues and Conspiracy Theories


  1. Bardiac,
    Thank you. I was so furious with these stories, I actually wrote in. (I began by saying that the existence of a flat earth society did not mean there was a real debate that deserved to be covered about whether or not the earth was round.)

    The Shakespeare authorship stuff makes me nuts in general, mostly because of what I think you will get to next on class issues and conspiracy theories. And also because (rationally) if it's improbable that Shakespeare wrote the plays, why is it more probable that someone who died before the plays were all written wrote them? My favorite is the Marlowe theory -- Marlowe did not actually die, but went off to northern Italy, wrote plays and sent them back for Shakespeare to put on, and to add the comic bits. Oh: this is more believable? There is nothing in Romeo & Juliet or Taming of the Shrew that makes me think that the author had ever been to Italy. As a historian of the period I have no trouble imagining the lad from Stratford writing the plays -- it makes lots of sense to me.

    Of course the problem with conspiracy theories is that a conspiracy always explains away rational argument.

  2. The problem with Susan's comment -- and with Bardiac's for that matter -- is the key word in her post -- "imagining." The traditional case for the Stratford theory is long on creative imagining but woefully short on actual evidence. Yes there are bits of posthumous evidence that seem to point to the Stratford man as author, but it's really pretty underwhelming and ambiguous and even somewhat contradictory. There is something appealing about the notion of the "lad from Stratford writing the plays" -- but should we allow ourselves to be swayed by what we find appealing? I noticed that Susan mentioned the plays specifically. What about the poems and especially the Sonnets, the latter published in 1609 (without a dedication from the author) with a dedication from Thomas Thorpe to "our ever-living poet" -- a phrase that strongly implies the poet is already dead? (William of Stratford died in 1616, of course, the Earl of Oxford in 1604.) This bit of evidence is often overlooked or downplayed by Stratfordian scholars. The apparent absence of the poet in the publication of this volume of his highly personal, embarrassing and perhaps even scandalous Sonnets seems very signficant to me. Shakespeare wrote dedications to his first two narrative poems -- V&A and Lucrece. Why not the Sonnets?

    Also significant in my view -- why should we believe that William Shakespeare, the great playwright and poet, would raise two daughters who by all accounts were illiterate? That alone should raise some questions in the minds of those who insist there is no doubt that the Stratford man was the author. I find it very difficult to believe the Shakespeare who, as Ben Jonson wrote, supposedly shook "a lance at ignorance" would not bother to make sure his two daughters could read his immortal works. Does that "make a lot of sense" to you, Susan? It makes no sense to me.

    We're all lovers of Shakespeare -- even those who doubt the Stratford theory. Let's address the evidence squarely, with reason, and not stoop to infantile name-calling and cheap debating points. That's inevitably where irrelevant and insulting arguments about class, conspiracy theories, and Holocaust deniers will lead. Are all skeptics snobs, conspiracy theorists, deniers of the Holocaust? Of course not. So why bother with such arguments. Even if true, ad hominem attacks are fallacious. Why go there folks? We should be above such silly games. Skeptics like Mark Twain and many others have raised legitimate questions over many years. Advocates of other candidates -- like the Earl of Oxford -- have presented some compelling evidence. We should examine the evidence and not resort to childish attacks.



  3. Susan, Good on you for writing in!

    Stan, I don't think I insulted anti-Stratfordians. Perhaps, in rereading my post, I missed seeing it?

    We can go back and forth on "what ifs" and "why nots" all day. I don't know why someone would raise daughters to be illiterate, but I can come up with all sorts of ideas. The problem is, none of them has any bearing on the individuality of historical people. We can say, statistically, X% of women were illiterate, but that doesn't tell us about the illiteracy of a specific woman.

    Here's another version of "what if" about your sonnet comment. Sonnets were, we know, highly valued in the Elizabethan court, along with other lyric writing. We have sonnets by Elizabeth I, by folks like Sidney, and in the previous generation, Wyatt and Surrey. Why wouldn't de Vere, were he a great sonnet writer, have circulated those in ms with his name attached? Meres suggests that Shakespeares sonnets were circulated amongst his friends with his name attached.

    And if de Vere were dead, and people knew (as you suggest from the dedicatory stuff by Thorpe), why not openly attribute them to de Vere? And how, if Thorpe (and others?) knew, did they not mention it in letters or whatever?

    But those questions, really, don't disprove de Vere's authorship. And we can play with them all day, and never get anywhere near convincing someone who thinks de Vere wrote the Shakespeare texts.

    What would it take to convince you or another anti-Stratfordian?

  4. Hi Bardiac,

    Congratulations on entering the fray, and thank you also for opening your blog to comments and for engaging those who have responded in constructive dialogue.

    That's the good news.

    I have to say, on the other hand, that your analysis of the anti-Stratfordian methodology strikes me as a caricature and not the real thing. You might improve your track record for understanding intellectual trends -- which are clearly in the direction of more open and informed debate on the authorship question -- by actually dipping into some of the many books that have been written on the subject, rather than basing your analysis on 14 minutes of NPR and your own prejudices and fantasies, as it seems from your comments you are -- at least in substantial measure -- doing.

    Of course, in this you are no different than 95% of professional "Shakespeareans" -- whose self identity from a perspective of intellectual history and psychology are a bit too bound up in *assumptions* about the bard for them to readily form a truly objective analysis of the merits and weaknesses of their own case.

    Why do you think that Sigmund Freud, Sir John Gielgud, Sir Derek Jacobi, Jeremy Irons, and several supreme court justices, to name only the most obvious suspects, have all concluded that Oxford was the most likely author? I don't think its because they don't know that Francis Meres and others refer to "Shakespeare."

    I suspect its because, in fact, they know more than you do about the actual case to made for Oxford's authorship. Also, as for the actors on this list, they have an intimate understanding of the Shakespearean text, well beyond that of the average academician, so they are able to assess the psychological plausibility of the Oxford case based on minute particulars of the Shakespearean experience.

    Regarding your question about why the need for secresy would be maintained after de Vere's death, there are as many possible answers to this as to why he would "put on an antic disposition" of disguise in the first place. While the question is interesting, it is not reasonable, in my view, to make use of it to avoid examining all the equally obvious questions for which the Oxfordians have direct and wholly satisfying answers -- which includes, by the way, many outstanding "problems" in traditional Shakespearean scholarship.

    If you look into the circumstances of the publication of the first folio, for instance -- patronized by de Vere's in-laws and appearing at the height of public tension over the Spanish marriage crisis, you will start to see the folio in a new light and begin to understand what the Oxfordians are talking about.

    Give it a shot. What can you lose but the respect of your more close-minded colleagues?

  5. Wow, this is like reading the Velikovskians. Appeals to authority (but a whole 'nother hierarchy of authority), personal putdowns, appeals to expertise not manifest quite here but somewhere else nearby.

    Though since this is Ben Jonson talking, I suppose I should listen.

  6. Oops -- from Meg's link I thought this was a live post, not something years old. Never mind.

  7. Hey Vance,

    How's it going? I'm not quite sure what you mean by comparing the Oxfordians to Velikovskians; it seems to just be another confirmation of the bard's insight that "a stick is easily found to beat a dog." But I will address your point about the appeal to authority in my comment. What you don't seem to be acknowledging is that the orthodox view of Shakespearean authorship, to which you are apparently a loyal adherent, is very substantially maintained through the use of appeals to authority of one kind or another. We are told ad nauseum that "all of the experts" are agreed that its legitimate to abuse dissenters with one or another form of ad hominem. they aren't experts, by definition, and therefore can't possibly have anything relevant to say. The point of my listing some of the prominent intellectuals and Shakespearean actors who no longer buy the orthodox faith was to provide a counterpoint to this kind of "argument by expert." If you'd like to discuss or debate the actual merits of the case I'd be more than happy to do so.

    Best wishes,