Friday, April 27, 2007

Playgoers and their Playthings

It was inevitable. The New York Times posted a brief story by William S. Niederkorn on the state of the Shakespeare authorship debate on Sunday, and the fact that the paper devoted column inches to this widely-dismissed topic is now fuel for a prominent theater blogger's ire.

Having seen Stratfordian ... er, excuse (the blogger in question finds the term objectionable)... orthodox ire in its more unhinged forums (who ever thought the Virginia Tech slayings could, however tortuously, be linked to "Shakespeare deniers"?), I can at least applaud "Playgoer" for not calling for Niederkorn's diesmbowelment. Huzzah.

In short, as "Playgoer" notes with heaving sigh over having to actually touch keys on his keyboard in response to complete lunatics:

"Who else but an amateur zealot would even ask such bullshit questions? ... The scandal is not really why this one individual thinks what he does --but why the New York Times continues to legitimize his unsubstantiated insinuations against, effectively, the entire community of professional literary scholars, critics, and historians."

"Playgoer" gives us links to his previous rants against Niederkorn and the Oxfordians, so I won't waste pixels recapitulating his arguments against the heretics. (Hint: That desperate, sweaty-palmed analogy to Holocaust deniers gets trotted out just like Godwin's Law mandates.)

But the ultimate gist of "Playgoer"'s argument is self-evidently absurd, especially given his own profession: As links on his blog reveal, he's a drama critic for the Village Voice. If the job of an arts section is to always and unfailingly toe the majority-rules party line, then "Playgoer" had better forget championing those brilliant off-off-Broadway productions that may be life-transforming but would never pack in one-tenth of the warm bodies that a Les Miz Sunday matinee brings in.

Niederkorn is not running with the pack on his occasional assignments outside the walls of traditional Shakespeare scholarship. No denying it: The authorship skeptics are not mainstream, nor could his laudable coverage be accused of portraying it as such. But unless one believes in the Pravda school of groupthink journalism, reporters should in fact be obligated from time to time to pursue stories that they suspect, despite their subject's less-than-mainstream profile, will ultimately be important investments for them and their publications to make.

It's always a balancing act. On one hand are the experts and the voices of mainstream and conventional wisdom. They're often where they are for very good reason. On the other hand, when a critical mass of skeptics raise at least some reasonable critiques of the experts, one needs also remember that these same experts are not infallible either. They rely on all the familiar foibles and tricks that people play when under fire. And in those cases, Upton Sinclair's sage words should be kept in mind, too:
"It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it."
Amen to that.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Will meets Queen! (Correction at 11)

If sunsets have seemed particularly red lately, this may be for good reason. Clouds of housedust, blown from countless old anthologies the world over, have recently been lofted into the atmosphere over the announcement of the latest (ahem) Shakespeare "discovery." It was certainly true in this office, where, upon learning of a new Shakespeare poem, I (quite literally) turned to a cobwebby stack of dusty books that I've long been meaning to sell—so I could look this "new" poem up.

The verse is a choppy old thing. It's an anonymous 18-line Elizabethan ditty that comes down to posterity as item 228 in an anthology of 400-year-old ditties and riddles and other miscellany, recorded by one Henry Stanford. It's titled "to ye Q. by ye players 1598." It's hardly lustrous—though it does have some spear-shaking overtones. Here: Read the old thing for yourself.

Point is that these 18 lines of anonymous verse, transcribed as part of their larger anthology in 1968, argued to (possibly) be by Shakespeare in 1972 and then published in book form in 1988, are just the latest dredgings that pass for bold new scholarship in the boneyard of conventional Shakespeare scholarship today.

Media reports of this "new" poem, however, have embellished the story almost beyond recognition.

Shakespeare, we are told, was "a resident playwright at Richmond Palace" at the time of this verse's royal recitation—which "may well have been spoken by Shakespeare himself." Plus Will was, says an editor of the new edition of the collected works that reprints the old thing, "probably in the habit of dashing some lines down on the back of an envelope and then chucking them away."

Yuh-huh. Did you know that there's just as much evidence that Shakespeare invented spaghetti? That he whistled while he worked? That he liked to wear red on Tuesdays?

Most intriguing observation about the old thing, though, must go to James Shapiro, who in his recent book 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare writes:

"Shakespeare imagines Elizabeth as a timeless and rejuvenating force, likening her to a clock hand perpetually circling, resistant to the ravages of time, outliving generations. There's a slight undertow to the conceit... the uncomfortable thought that Elizabeth will be around in a half century." [74-5]

Elizabeth was 65 years old at the time of this poem's known public reading. Wishing that this senior citizen stick around for another couple generations is more than just a "slight undertow." It's downright bizarre.

However, written to a much younger queen and then pulled out for old times' sake some two or three decades later is another story. One of the tenets of both "Shakespeare" By Another Name and the larger Oxfordian movement is that proto-"Shakespearean" works first written for a courtly audience in the 1560s, '70s and '80s were later revised or just re-performed for Elizabeth in the waning years of her reign.

It's an open question. Could this "new" poem, if indeed it is by the Bard, be like much of the rest of the Shakespeare canon: Bearing earmarks of a historical moment that was far too early to have been written by Will Shakspere of Stratford?

Monday, April 23, 2007

Signing Statement

Today is St. George's Day in England, celebrating the patron saint of the nation—the great dragon slayer. It's also traditionally celebrated as the birthday of Stratford-upon-Avon's famous son—although we actually don't have any records of Will Shakspere's birth, just his baptism.

Anyone who writes about Shakespeare also recognizes April 23 as that most sacred 24-hour period, The Feast of The Holy News Peg. It's the one day on the calendar that no editor, no matter how committed their soul may be to the alleged necessity of a "hook" or "peg," can refuse to consider Bard-related copy because it's not "news." Perhaps it's because we were never invited to enough cool parties as kids, but for those of us in the media biz, birthday celebrations are always good enough excuse for copy.

Some savvy Shakespeareans time their publication schedule around this day. (The editorial staff at Gotham was certainly pushing for an April 2005 release date for "Shakespeare" By Another Name—but lordy, lordy did those edits and re-edits and re-re-edits take a long time. It's a far better book for the extra four months we occupied, but the schedule change did mean All News Peg's Day of that year was spent sitting on our hands.)

To celebrate the Shakespearean All News Peg's Day of 2007, then, a coalition of the ... oh, I can't resist... Willing have released their Declaration of Reasonable Doubt About the Identity of William Shakespeare. (Forgive me father, for I have punned.)

It says, in so many words, that the Shakespeare authorship question is a legitimate issue deserving serious research and inquiry. If you agree with this statement, please consider signing it.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

The 17 percent solution

Today's New York Times's Education section has a nice, brief article relating the results of a survey they conducted on how the Shakespeare authorship question is treated in colleges and universities around the U.S. The Times's William S. Niederkorn begins by quoting the top result from the poll: 82. That's the percent of Shakespeare professors who say there's no good reason to question the tautology at the core of Shakespeare studies: Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare.

Well, perhaps I'm just a half-glass-full sorta guy. (Waiter, more vino, per favore!) But this scribbler does take some solace in the fact that 17 percent of the 265 surveyed said that there was anywhere from possibly to definitely good reason to question the conventional belief that Will Shakspere of Stratford-upon-Avon was a poet or a playwright. As it happens, 17 is also the percentage of professors who had read "Shakespeare" By Another Name.

17 is a start. But, as all good scientific papers conclude: More work, clearly, needs to be done.