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?

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