Sunday, September 09, 2007

Where for art thou, Shakespeare?

Okay, I’m about to get off on a rant about the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’... You’d look at the topic here and think it otherwise, but essentially, I think a great deal of humanities disagreements boil down to economic bigotry, so why should this surprise me?

I ran across an article online about a set of scholars questioning the true identity of Shakespeare. Fun topic, thought I, let’s take a gander. I’m a huge Shakespeare fan, as uncommon as that is among most of my generation – I love seeing the plays performed live and I looked forward to covering them in class from my first introduction to Romeo and Juliet in Eighth grade. I still remember it, the teacher was bright enough to have us read both Romeo and Juliet and Westside Story to compare and contrast the two. We watched the latter to keep us interested, and I was hooked. I couldn’t even tell you how many I’ve read or adaptations I’ve seen, but I can recall being one of the only students not to groan at the thought of doing a paper on anything the great bard had wrought.

So there’s a little background for you – add to that the fact that I’m about to start reading Interred With Their Bones, which looks to be along the lines of The DaVinci Code for Shakespeare fans. I thought a post about the topic would lend to a nice little tie in to the book review that will appear on my blog later this month. Sounds nice and simple right?

Doubt about Will is the site where these scholars have put together a nifty little declaration on why they don’t believe the man credited with Shakespeare’s work could possibly be the true author. The point, I gather, is that the material and historical evidence should be openly discussed, rather than the current orthodox teaching that questioning his legitimacy is neither relevant nor called for...

I’m a fan of open thought. I’m a large fan of questioning. Tip my hat to anyone who uses their mind to reach further than what’s set out before them. Really, that’s not the problem. And they do offer a large selection of quotes by men they claim did not believe Shakespeare to be the true author. I’ll say the same thing here that I ventured to all of the claims that DaVinci really did believe the Magdalene theories – even the most brilliant men alive are not infallible. If they did believe this theory, it doesn’t necessitate that they were correct.

So how did I get started on the whole ‘have’ and ‘have nots’ bit? A large portion of the evidence that leads this society to believe the man from Stratford-Upon-Avon could not be our beloved Shakespeare depends on the fact that he was born of the lower class. Most of these assertions pertain to the fact that these scholars believe a man born where he was, who was not by any record University educated, could not possibly write these works. They point heavily to knowledge contained in the plays about life in the noble class and higher learning which would not be available to a man born into this writer’s circumstances.

They point to the fact that this man’s parents were not literate by any records they can find. Personally, I have a problem believing records of such a thing would still exist from this time period. They also point to the fact that both of his daughters were illiterate, as there are two documents found in which they signed their names with an ‘x’ – which begs me to question how the society knows who the signature belonged to, but I’ll digress. Note, for those of you keeping score, it was very uncommon in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries for women to be literate, possibly women of the elite, nobility, but Shakespeare was not of that class and neither were his daughters. I have to put in here, because it annoyed me that in their whole ‘logical, in search of truth and knowledge’ declaration they never thought to include the other side of the debate – which begs me to wonder whether this is more about overeducated cynicism than truth seeking. Is this, perhaps, a flexing of the intellectual biceps? Is this a show that they are more intelligent than the orthodox scholars who currently set curriculum and those who have come before? In the heat to show their educational superiority, perhaps they missed a few things common to humanity.

The biggest supposition here is that even if the man was a genius, he could not have written so accurately about a class of which he did not belong without leaving significant evidence of his life. That’s it in a nutshell, if Shakespeare didn’t leave breadcrumbs for the pseudo-intellectual elitists of the twenty first century to follow, he must not exist.

Snarf. I don’t actually mean to be this snippy but I find the whole premise to be terribly pompous. Could the Shakspere from Stratford really be the wrong Shakespeare? Certainly. Is it worth looking into? Yep. But if the only solid reasons for forming this formidable record of ‘proofs’ that it is logical to question is that these bunch of overeducated twits find it impossible to believe that an author might accurately capture lives that are foreign to their own, perhaps they should spend less time drafting declarations and more time in a fiction writing class.


Travis Erwin said...

I agree with you and on a much smaller scalew I have faced the same sort of bias as a man writing women's fiction.

No I have never been a woman, no I have never birthed a baby, or dealt with my emotions after having an abortion, but I cn do reserach, talkt o people read books, and I am a human.

Believe it or not men do have emotions even if we choose ot hide them most of the time.

Sorry got on a rant of my own. THe point is anyone can write anything if they put in the work and time necessary. Or so I think.

Duane said...

Yeah, I never bought into the whole "Shakespeare never went to Italy therefore how can he possibly have written Italy so well" argument, or even the "He had no education, he can't have done it" argument. What bothers me is the lack of documentation. Why, in his will, are there no mentions at all of any books, any playscripts, any ongoing rights to future productions...or quite literally anything to tie him back to a career as a playwright? I have no good answer for that.

Thanks for the book tip, too. I hadn't heard anything about Interred With Their Bones, but I'll check it out....Rosalind? Katherine? Did the author really name every character from Shakespeare? Oy. :)


jjdebenedictis said...

I totally agree with your logic. I once read an interview with a scientist who said that when a person is excited about a new theory they've come up with, they're prone to not be as critical of it as they should be. He said the fastest way to bring back a sense of realism is to come up with an alternate explanation.

These authors should explore the alternate explanations.

The snobbery of their arguments grate on me too.

Merry Jelinek said...


I agree with you wholeheartedly!!! What I find is that people who don't write often assume that the author is in the fiction. Even literary scholars look for things from the authors' personal lives that they bring into fiction. I think this is largely due to the fact that non-writers don't understand the process of writing, or they limit it to autobiographical writing. Some fiction writers will tell you that there is a lot of themselves in their work, especially early work. That's not all - it's not necessary to experience something in order to get into the character's mindset - empathy is one of the strongest gifts in the writer's toolbox, without it the author would either produce a plethora of cardboard characters, identicle characters, or the author would need to have multiple personalities... actually, the last one would be a handy form of insanity for the writer ;-)

Hi Duane,

Nice to meet you. I'll be checking out your shakespeare geek site, it's nice to see there are a few more of us.

You know, I don't have a problem with questioning whether Shakespeare was the true author or even the theory that there may be multiple authors. It's the way this group seems to be arguing their assumptions. As I said to Travis, many non writers, especially those who enjoy literary analysis, can't differentiate the author's life with the work. I loved picking apart great literature in a classroom setting, but the truth is that there's more to be learned from the reader by this type of expounding than there ever will be to learn about the author.

Reader's responsibility is crucial because we bring our own lives and baggage into our view of a work. That's why so many classics may be seen today in a different light than when they first entered the market. You can't pull any new knowledge about a writer away from their work of fiction unless the author out and out says that they put their life in there... often it's the reader's perception placed into the work, not the other way round.

As far as the paper trail, I get the questions... at the same time, though, I can't help but wonder how much of this would be left to find today. Shakespeare wasn't as well known at the time of his death as he is today and plays were not revered or considered cultural at the time - certainly his work changed the perception but I'm not altogether certain that the change was complete during his lifetime. As far as copyrights - did they exist at the time? I'd have to research because I'm not certain of the answer...

Now, a theory that might be interesting to follow is that the author picked a name to distance his real life from his profession because actors and plays were not highly thought of at the start... in which case it makes sense that the Shakspere we think was our bard might not truly be the author... though that doesn't change the fact that all of the works were done by one man...

It's an interesting thing to ponder, but the theory that a man of lower means or lack of education might create these works is, as far as I'm concerned, spawned from snobbery with limited intellectual capabilities.

Hi JJ,

As I'm sure you read above, I hate the snobbery too...

That's a good point you made, when they sink their teeth in the prone to ignore rebutting evidence.

Mary Witzl said...

I have no idea whether the man we know as Shakespeare really wrote all the plays he has been credited with writing; I only know that someone wrote them and they are wonderful. Like you, I object to this sort of elitist crap on principle. Even during his day, Shakespeare was initially mocked for trying to rise above his station and write plays the likes of which only the university educated poets and playwrights should attempt.

For that reason alone, in my heart of hearts, I hope Shakespeare is the one who wrote all of those plays and poetry. I hope they find irrefutable proof of this in my lifetime.

Merry Jelinek said...

Here, here, Mary!

We should write up our own declaration on the stupidity of elitism. It never ceases to amaze me that people think this way and I'd lay you good odds that the scholars in charge of this thing don't ever realize that it is elitist...

I meant to comment back to duane earlier that Interred With Their Bones is by Jennifer Lee Carrell and I believe it was just released this summer... My review is scheduled to go up on Sept. 24th, if you guys want to wait and read about it... I'll link the author's website and amazon page in the review, or you can look it up now. I just finished February Flowers, which I'll review tomorrow, but I'm itching to get to this new one, it looks so fun.

Thanks for stopping by and adding so much. I'm glad I'm not the only one annoyed by the tone of this little society.

The Anti-Wife said...

I agree with Mary. I took a class on Shakespeare in college and have always loved the works. I don't care if they were written by him, but someone else, or by a collection of people. They are timeless and wonderful.

The Anti-Wife said...

I agree with Mary. I took a class on Shakespeare in college and have always loved the works. I don't care if they were written by him, but someone else, or by a collection of people. They are timeless and wonderful.

Merry Jelinek said...

Hi Anti-wife,

Sorry it took me so long to get back here. I see your point, finding out that the man who we think is Shakespeare was actually not the author doesn't change the work at all - timeless is definite, you'd be hardpressed to find a story that wasn't in some way already done by the bard.

I think I'd like it proven to be the Shakespeare we believe simply to prove to the masses that the class/station/economic and educational backgrounds a person is born into has no bearing on what they can acheive with talent, passion, and hard work.

Thanks for stopping by. A pleasure to see you, as always.

hifidel said...

Great discussion here, Merry. I don't have a lot to add, other than to say that I do think the plays we attribute to Shakespeare were all written by one man (whether the one we think it was or not is hard to say, but I subscribe to the "not necessary to know" way of thinking -- nice, but not necessary).

It is funny because just last week, perhaps even as you posted this article, a friend told me that she was sure it was not possible that one person had written all those plays. Her only argument was the sheer volume -- the number of words -- that the plays represent. To me, that is not a strong argument at all. Are we, then, willing to insist that Dickens was not an individual but a group of people writing? I believe, when it comes to a word count, that there are many novelists who have "outwritten" the Bard. If one wants to argue that it all needed to have been a collaboration, I think that the strongest argument would be just the nature of the theatre -- that it is somehow "natural" for a play to develop through group effort more than it is other forms of writing. I don't think that in any way diminishes Shakespeare's genius, though. It is harder than we might think to actually take all the threads that could come up through this sort of "collaboration" and put them neatly together. (Just think of how this was represented in Shakespeare in Love, or perhaps even by Bottom and crew in A Midsummer Night's Dream).

As for the elitism -- bah! That's just not an argument that holds much water for me. It's crazy, just based on the evidence of many great writers, to think that creative genius (if I may be permitted the use of that term) only comes through the establishment. Surely there is overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

Merry Jelinek said...

Hi Shelly!!!

There are a number of people who subscribe to the group theory, though I can't say it rings true for me... first off, Shakespeare has a distinctive voice and in all my reading of his works I haven't found any passages that were 'tells' of another author's hands in it... we do know that he listed collaborators on certain works and that another author took over at his departure of the King's Men, but there's debate as to how far this type of collaboration went... was it the scuttling of ideas back and forth, or actual mutual writing? I tend to think Shakespeare did all of his own writing, because I do think there would be a difference in the pace and wording of the work. It's not only in the language - I think a lot of people get confused here thinking it the use of English common to the time, Shakespeare's use of syllable count and timing was unique and, while it might be possible to mimic, I don't think it would be easily sustained, especially when you add in his genius at twisting plots and subtle foreshadowing. I tend to believe there was a collaborative effort in some of his works, but that Shakespeare himself did the writing, or at least a full edit of portions that written collaboratively.

As far as the elitist leanings that argue this type of genius might only come from the establishment (as you say), I tend to think a good deal of this falls into the category of 'those who can, do'... What I mean to say here is that the scholars who seem to be most emphatic at finding historical proofs of this are coming from a mindset of scholar, not writer. Literary analysis is wonderful, I think you know how much I enjoy it myself... But literary ponderings strictly from the intellectual standpoint, without understanding of the creative processes and how they differ, cannot, I emphasize, CANNOT bring about a good understanding of the author. They often do not take into account the fundamental necessities of the writing process and tend to be riddled with projection. What I mean to say is that Literary scholars tend to be highly educated and upper class; is it really surprising that they find it hard to believe a genius like Shakespeare would have less than their level of education?

I'm all for questioning, but if scholars are that interested in understanding the lives of an author or artist, their first step should be in understanding how that work is created. I wasn't kidding when I said that they should spend less time drafting declarations and more time in a fiction writing class - literary analysis can only expose the work, and possibly the readers' mindset. Whatever of the author is present in the work can be nothing but speculation unless it's named by the author. So, if you want to understand how a man of modest means could capture the elite in prose, take a class on researching fiction. Write a little in a character who completely differs from you economically or geographically. Obviously it can be done, you'll see volumes of proof in any bookstore.

Thanks for stopping in, Shelly. I couldn't wait to see your take here.

hifidel said...

Merry, I think you are right on the mark with the collaboration thing -- I think that, if the works are in fact the result of collaboration, it is clear that one person is ultimately responsible for the form in which they have been preserved. I think it is actually harder to see more than one person at work in the plays than to demonstrate that it is one person's work. As you say, the language and style that permeate the work, without (much) break, is distinctive and would be harder to imitate than to believe that one person just did it. Like most conspiracy theories, the problem that prevents me from buying this is that the simplest explanation should be given preference. The simplest explanation in this case is that a single individual wrote these plays.

For the idea of literary critics spending more time in writing classes, or otherwise finding ways to come to understand the writing process better, I couldn't agree more. It is easy to get caught with a specific set of lenses, and forget that other possibilities exist, even thought literary criticism supposedly hopes to minimize this problem. For me, it is a real problem I have with the whole endeavour, and a large part of why I have not pursued an academic career more avidly. I am satisfied with lesser pay and recognition, provided I don't have to pretend to buy wholeheartedly into the whole system. But that's just me.

Merry Jelinek said...

You know, I don't think it's every literary scholar, but maybe some are more susceptible to this than others. I think a lot of your better professors have a skill at both the intellectual level of literary discussion and the creative understanding of what goes into the writing process.