Sunday, October 23, 2011

Looking for Mysteries Where There Are None

There is plenty to wonder and dream and think about, where Shakespeare and his work are concerned, but whether or not the man called "Shakespeare" actually wrote the plays attributed to him seems to be the question of the hour, right now. Following in the glorious footsteps of Oliver Stone, who claimed to understand American History better than actual historians because he was...well, a famous guy in Hollywood, I guess, the eminent filmmaker, Roland Emmerich has decided to teach us all what generations of English and Theater professors have been too frightened or ignorant to reveal: that Shakespeare was a fraud, and that the Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere, wrote all of his plays.

In his defense, Emmerich isn't exactly the first person to believe in this theory. Not hardly. Even Mark Twain had trouble believing that some actor from Stratford, who left little written record of his actual life, and seemed not to have owned a single book of his own, could have produced the plays and poems we treasure. But even if we find it incredible to believe, that doesn't necessarily mean it didn't happen.

The New York Times Sunday Magazine has a nice piece about all of this, this week, as does the NPR/PRI show, "Studio 360" (it's the William Shatner episode, in case you're reading this at a later date).

On "Studio 360," an Oxfordian (that's what the de-Vere-ites call themselves) explains why his boy is a better candidate as author than Bill from Stratford. I'd heard some of the common arguments before: only an aristocrat could have had the breadth of knowledge demonstrated in the plays; only someone who had traveled extensively could have gotten the geographical details so right, etc. But one of the new arguments I heard really made me crazy. According to this guy, de Vere must have written the plays because there are countless correspondences between the characters and plots of the plays and de Vere's life, and none between the plays and the life of Mr. Shakespeare.

Well, that assumes we believe that authors in the Elizabethan era wrote their lives into their work, which is not something I've ever heard argued before, or seen evidence of. What I have seen, though, is writers throughout history making fun of other people's lives--especially the lives of public figures. So what's more likely: that de Vere, who already had a theater company of his own, wrote his best and most personally resonant work anonymously and handed it over to a rival company? Or that a smartass, upstart, middle class theater manager and writer would entertain his audience by poking fun at a snooty, aristocratic competitor, including well-known scandals and stories from the competitor's life as fodder for his plays? 

Writers can be venal, petty, and vindictive, and often have no real power in the world with which to lash out at the people they believe have done them wrong. So they get revenge in their work, with their words. It's been happening forever. It happens still. Hip-hop pretty much depends on it for survival.

I think one of the reasons people have trouble reconciling Shakespeare's life with his work (aside from a deep and unpleasant elitism) is that they assume "writing" and "authorship" meant the same thing back then that they do today. We know that playwrights of that era collaborated with each other--sometimes formally, sometimes messily. Instead of the Romantic idea of artist-suffering-alone-in-the-garret, imagine instead a loud and boisterous tavern where a bunch of writers get drunk together and help each other hash out ideas. I have always believed that the reality of Shakespeare's artistic life was probably more like the old SCTV skit, "The Adventures of Shake 'n' Bake" than the purists want to believe, which is to say, chaotic, random, and full of the arbitrary happenstance of life. As I remember the skit (and I haven't seen it in over 20 years), we saw Shakespeare working in partnership with Sir Francis Bacon on Act V of Hamlet backstage, while Act II was being performed, and making on-the-fly changes to the play and the fate of the characters based on how the audience was reacting and how obnoxiously demanding his actors were being. (I think there was also something where he and Bacon were writing a play together while battling pirates. As I said, it's been a while.)

Life is chaotic, and in form and structure, it's a lot more like a comedy skit than a classical tragedy. Did Shakespeare really own no books? Or did he lose them, or give them away, or sell them? We don't know. Did Shakespeare really not go to school, just because there's no written record of it? Or is there simply no written record...or none that has survived? Just because we don't have evidence of something, 500+ years later, doesn't mean the something never happened.

I believe in Shakespeare, even if he didn't write every single word of every single play all by himself. I believe that the vision is singular, and is his. I believe the mind can be larger than the world, and can hold vastly more than what personal experience can fill it with. And I think a life like Shakespeare's challenges us to do more with our lives than perhaps we are doing. When a seemingly ordinary man can become a Shakespeare, or a Picasso, or an Einstein, then it forces us to ask what we are doing with the gifts we have been given.

Of course, if you don't like facing that kind of challenge, or looking at your face in the mirror and saying, "is this really the best I can do?" (and honestly, who likes asking such questions?), you can always let yourself off the hook by saying, "Only a nobleman could have been Shakespeare."

But that still leaves us with his work, whoever wrote it, and the work of Shakespeare will not let us off the hook. Ever. Whoever wrote the lines, Hamlet is still there, at the graveside, holding the dirty skull of a clown who used to entertain him as a child, and wondering, "Where be your jibes now?"

He will always be there, and the question will always be there, hanging in the air. And that is the mystery of life worth pursuing.


Sandra said...

Beautifully written. I've never understood the desperate madness some people have to make a life - or a life's work - something other than it is.

Julie D. said...

I liked Skeptoid's take on it (you can listen or read it here).

Agathon said...

And here's the great Garry Wills on Shakespeare (and Verdi), doing his part to help us understand what the word "playwright" meant in Shakespare's time.