Sunday, May 10, 2009

Monstrous Adversary's Adversary

"Shakespeare" By Another Name first appeared in print, in 2005, soon after Liverpool University Press published an academic biography of Edward de Vere by Prof. Alan Nelson of the University of California, Berkeley. And I've been asked countless times what I think of this book.

Monstrous Adversary is, in short, an infuriating book. And the following set of capsule reviews provides a good sense why.

If Monstrous were just a hatchet job, then it'd be easily dismissed, full stop. But some great, groundbreaking, rock-solid scholarship awaits in there scattered amidst wild-eyed polemic (so viciously against de Vere you almost feel dirty reading the thing), scattered amidst some real howlers of sloppy scholarship too.

There's no simple answer -- at least if you're a curious person looking for as many leads as possible into de Vere's life. I couldn't honestly tell an interested scholar that I don't in some sense recommend the book. But caveat emptor, to be sure.

That said, the book appeared on my desk in time to be able to fit much of Nelson's new scholarship into the narrative of SBAN.

After the jump, I excerpt my favorite review from this latest bunch: From someone who's only interested in biographies about nobility of the period and has no personal ax to grind one way or another on the de Vere = "Shakespeare" question.

The reviewer notes...

I have for some years been interested in the nobility of 16th and 17th century England, and have read a number of pretty good biographies, so looked forward to MONSTROUS ADVERSARY with great anticipation. Unfortunately it was clear early on in the book that Nelson was anything but a disinterested biographer. The tone of the book breathes hostility toward its subject, and after having read it, as well as having looked over Nelson's web site, it's obvious why. This was not a biography per se, it was a polemic, in the guise of a biography, against the idea that de Vere was Shakespeare. Whether that idea is harebrained or not - and Nelson believes it is - is beside the point. Nelson misses no opportunity to defame de Vere, treating as valid every scrap of negative evidence, however dubious - for example, that given by his Catholic ex-friends after he had delivered them to the authorities. Nelson's interpretations are the mirror image of [Bernard M.] Ward's, as he describes the earlier writer's 1928 biography [of de Vere]; where [Ward] infers nothing but the best of his subject, Nelson infers nothing but the worst. I note that Nelson is not a historian, and quite frankly, it shows. That he relies on the likes of William F. Buckley - one of the lousiest writers of fiction I've come across - as an arbiter of de Vere's poetry implies that he must be pretty desperate to prove his case, whatever its merits. He dismisses Ward's book as "hagiography"; as I remember it, having read it years ago, it was pretty good. Nelson's, in any case, is a "hatchet job".

As to matters of style, I can do no better than quote the end of the very first sentence of the Introduction, which made my heart sink from the get-go: "[de Vere's life] ... just overlapped the reign of Elizabeth I at both ends". Ugh. And Nelson is ... oh, yes, Professor Emeritus in the Department of English at the University of California, Berkeley. Ye gods.

Having paid good money for what I assumed was going to be a biography, I ended up with a screed that was obviously produced to demolish the de Vere = Shakespeare movement. If that's what Nelson wanted to write, potential readers should have been made aware of this. As it stands, this anything but impartial view of de Vere disqualifies MONSTROUS ADVERSARY as legitimate biography, for all its invaluable documentation.

1 comment:

Ken said...

This comment is not substantive but just to satisfy my curiosity. Mark's favorite reviewer takes exception to the author's style by quoting the following: '"[de Vere's life] ... just overlapped the reign of Elizabeth I at both ends".' What's wrong with that style? Seems clear and to the point to me. Haven't read the book & likely will not considering the unfavorable reception (tho perhaps I should, in loyalty to both my school and my home town).