I'm back. Took a hiatus from blogging, not out of choice, but because a) a hurricane devastated my hometown, and b) I was without power for almost ten days, requiring me to c) hopscotch from one motel to another across New Jersey, during which time I d) acquired a respiratory infection. Oh, and e) I was also bummed out by the results of the election.
One thing I learned during my enforced absence is that lately I've been spending too much time in front of my computer. So while I do intend to continue to blog, I hope to cut back a bit. More quality, less quantity. Nah, who am I kidding? Just less quantity. In terms of quality, it will be the same old crap you've come to count on.
Having just read a very good book of Shakespearean criticism by John Vyvyan, titled The Shakespearean Ethic (which, by the way, I found out about through a Facebook post by the Oxfordian scholar Roger Stritmatter), I've had my mind on the Bard. As regular readers know, I think that the works attributed to Shakespeare were actually written by Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford. This position is rejected by nearly all mainstream academic scholars. Some of their arguments are certainly worth considering. Others, however, are surprisingly weak. One in particular that strikes me as not only weak but just plain silly goes as follows.
The whole authorship question, they say, is a waste of time, because it simply doesn't matter who wrote the plays. All that matters is the works themselves. We don't need to know anything about the author, because the texts give us everything we need. In fact, knowing more about the author would only serve as a distraction and an impediment to analysis. It would reduce the works to mere romans a clef, literary games in which the sole purpose is to divine the real identities of thinly fictionalized characters. People like those obnoxious and amateurish Oxfordians have no interest in literature per se; they are interested only in solving the supposed riddle of the author's identity, reducing the greatness of his art to a mere parlor game, a hunt for clues. If they were genuinely interested in Shakespeare's literary accomplishment, they would realize that the details of his biography are irrelevant. Who cares who wrote Shakespeare? As the old joke has it, "The works of Shakespeare were not actually written by William Shakespeare, but by another man of the same name." Smirk.
Now I say this is nonsense. Admittedly, it can claim some kind of intellectual justification from deconstructionism, a trendy aesthetic theory that allows the critic carte blanche in interpreting artistic works, with little or no concern for the intentions of the creator. But like many ivory tower abstractions, deconstructionism enjoys little traffic with the real world. In fact, in the world of common sense and hands-on research, the idea that the details of an author's life are unimportant or irrelevant to the analysis of his output has no support at all. No one would claim to be a serious scholar of, say, Tolstoy without first learning the story of his life. The same is true of any analysis of Dostoevsky, Jane Austen, Melville, Mark Twain, Hemingway, Fitzgerald … you name it.
We don't have to go far to prove this claim with respect to Shakespeare. Ever since the middle of the 19th century, assiduous efforts have been made to track down every scrap of information about the life of William Shakespeare of Stratford and/or the life of the author publicly identified as William Shakespeare. Scholars have combed archives in search of any letters written by or to Shakespeare, any documents he may have signed, any records that may have survived from a hypothetical stint as a law clerk, any records of his hypothetical job as a schoolmaster, and of course any manuscripts of his plays and poems. Not very much as been found, as Diana Price documents in her book Shakespeare's Unorthodox Biography. Some juicy finds turned out to be frauds; Shakespearean aficionados were so desperate for any paperwork pertaining to their idol that unscrupulous characters stooped to forgeries. Other finds were genuine but not very illuminating. There are no letters written by Shakespeare, and only one that was ever written to him – a letter asking for a loan, which apparently was never sent. There are no documents of any work as a clerk or schoolmaster. There are scattered records of financial and legal transactions; Shakespeare was litigious, pursuing people through the courts for small sums. Needless to say, no manuscripts have turned up. For other writers of the period, there are – at least in some cases – considerably more ample records. Ben Jonson, for instance, has an exceptionally well-documented life, which includes letters, manuscripts, and journals.
The relative paucity of Shakespearean materials seems to have led scholars to the peculiar position summarized above, much as the fox's inability to seize the grapes led him to conclude that the grapes were probably sour anyway. In this case, the scholars, having exhausted all their efforts in a fruitless quest for Shakespearean arcana, have now decided that such arcana would be useless, even if they had found any.
But how serious are they, really?
Let's perform a little thought experiment. Suppose that tomorrow some workmen restoring one of the oldest houses in Stratford-on-Avon accidentally punch through a wall, exposing a hidden compartment. Inside, a remarkable treasure – the diary of William Shakespeare!
The discovery is at first greeted with skepticism, an understandable reaction given the history of forgery in this field. But before long, extensive tests prove beyond any doubt that the diary is genuine. It establishes that William Shakespeare of Stratford really is the author of the plays and poems that bear his name. But it does much more than that. It gives the context for each of his works. It indicates what he was thinking and feeling and going through as he devised and later revised each of his immortal works. It indicates who were the targets of his satirical thrusts – the real people lambasted as Malvolio in Twelfth Night and Polonius in Hamlet, among many others. It explains his intentions, his understanding of the aesthetics of literature, and the philosophical and religious ideas underpinning his worldview. It sketches out his main literary and intellectual influences, and the major themes that obsessed him – themes rooted in the events of his personal life.
If we take the sour grapes argument seriously, none of this would matter to the literary world. Nobody would be excited about it, or even particularly interested. All this first-hand information would be an irrelevance and a distraction. It would not clarify our understanding of Shakespeare, but instead would muddle it. The diary would be, at best, a minor footnote in the history of Shakespearean criticism.
But this, of course, is absurd. The exact opposite would be true. The discovery of such a diary, besides putting the authorship debate to rest once and for all, would be a revolutionary event in Shakespearean studies. Ph.D. theses by the hundreds would be minted exploring the journal's every syllable. First dozens, then hundreds of books would be published, presenting new and much more satisfactory biographies of Shakespeare and new critical evaluations of his works. Annotated editions of the plays and poems would be produced, pointing readers to specific passages in the diary that illuminate particular verses.
Everything would be upended. Nothing would ever be the same. Shakespearean scholarship would be divided into two periods – before the discovery of the diary, and after. Whole shelves of books would be rendered obsolete. There would be movie documentaries and TV specials, theatrical readings of diary excerpts performed by Shakespearean actors, and probably a big-budget feature film depicting Shakespeare's life with an accuracy never before possible.
This is how things would work in the real world, not in the Cloud Cuckoo Land of the sour grapes scenario. And that's why I find this particular argument made by the Stratfordian establishment not merely weak but inane. Again, I'm not saying that all their arguments are equally bad. I'm focusing on this one because it's such an easy target and so ripe for demolition.
For better or worse, no such diary is ever likely to be found, either in Stratford or anywhere else, either written by the glover's son or by the 17th earl. But we do have a mass of material relating to Oxford's life – a raft of documents dwarfing the meager evidence pertaining to the Stratford man. (We even have Oxford's heavily underlined Geneva Bible, with marginal notes, which the above-mentioned Roger Stritmatter has been studying.) And I would argue that this copious evidence sheds significant light on the plays and poems attributed to William Shakespeare, enhancing our understanding and appreciation of them almost as much as the hypothetical diary might do.
For those who are interested in exactly how the Oxfordian thesis can illuminate Shakespeare, I recommend Mark Anderson's excellent 'Shakespeare' By Another Name, which relates Oxford's story to the Shakespearean corpus in detail. The book was recently reissued and is available in both print and e-book editions.