Friday, October 26, 2007

Pericles and the "Cranks"

[Creative Commons images by De Shark and Kaptain Kobold]

Two items on the agenda today, both of which are red herrings used by orthodox Shakespeareans to dissuade people away from the Edward de Vere camp:

First was raised this week by British blogger Oliver Kamm, who ran through the standard-issue tirade against Oxfordians (snobbery blah blah conspiracy theory blah blah) that reveals the all-too-standard-issue problem that he doesn't begin to grasp the state of the debate he criticizes.

Shakespeare disbelievers, to him, are "outright cranks" who fail to appreciate that "the number of scholars of Elizabethan and Jacobean literature seriously entertaining [alternate theories about who wrote Shakespeare] is, to my knowledge, fewer than half a dozen."

As blogged about on these pages back in April, in fact, The New York Times conducted a survey of four-year colleges and universities across the U.S. this year and discovered that 17 percent of Shakespeare professors said there may in fact be "good reason" to doubt that Will Shakespeare of Stratford wrote those plays and poems.

Kindly count again, Mr. Kamm.

Second is a bigger issue raised by a bigger voice in a bigger venue.

In this weekend's edition of The Guardian, James Shapiro reviewed a new Shakespeare book by Charles Nicholl. In his review, Shapiro raises what looks to be an emerging anti-Oxfordian argument, that in 1605 "George Wilkins, a violent low-life with literary pretensions ... was soon collaborating with [Shakespeare] on Pericles."

De Vere died in 1604, and so this would be a devastating argument for de Vere partisans... if anyone had any proof for it.

As it is, the Wilkins-Shakespeare collaboration theory is like practically everything else in Stratford-ville: A whole lot of possibly-maybe-perhapses packaged neatly with a big red bow and presented to the reader as fact.

Here's what we know: A guy named Laurence Twyne wrote a book in 1576 that contains a story that was then appropriated (to put it politely) by another guy named George Wilkins in 1608. Wilkins's book says it's "The true history of the play Pericles as it was lately presented..." Shakespeare's play Pericles was published the following year, in 1609.

The conventional theory goes that Wilkins and Shakespeare worked together on this plagiarized story from Twyne, and that Wilkins and Shakespeare worked together on the play that was attributed solely to Shakespeare. But this is pure speculation.

Here are some other facts: Twyne registered his story with the state censors in July 1576. Three months before that, de Vere raced across the English Channel on a ship from France (intercepted by pirates, no less) convinced that in his absence, his wife had borne a daughter out of wedlock. Twyne's tale is of the tribulations of a daughter born under tumultuous circumstances involving both pirates and a disastrous journey at sea.

Furthermore, de Vere knew the Twynes -- having rented lodgings for Laurence Twyne's brother Thomas in 1573 so that Thomas could translate a book about the history and geography of England.

In other words: Whoever one thinks wrote Pericles, Laurence Twyne's book and the distressing events from de Vere's life in 1576 constitute the best source(s) for the play. George Wilkins -- and with it, yet another anti-Oxfordian silver bullet -- have essentially nothing to do with it.

1 comment:

Tom Goff said...

I find it curious that scholars should assume George Wilkins to have written part of Pericles: he must have written the 1608 “novelization” of it, by all accounts rather a hash. But to credit him as one of the Pericles playwrights? Except in places where “Shakespeare” clearly supplied beautiful writing in his genuine “late period” style (late revisions, almost surely), the blank verse is often undistinguished, and the prologues, delivered in the person of “Gower,” awkward in their clanking lines of iambic tetrameter. Neither fault seems incompatible with early Edward de Vere—note various poetic indiscretions in A Hundreth Sundrie Floweres.
But to take the scholars’ bait and suppose Wilkins wrote long stretches of the Shakespeare play, to assume further that the 1608 date for the novel indicates the play to have been fresh, and that Wilkins was therefore “collaborating” with Shakespeare, involves not one but several stretches of assumption. For one thing, what is Wilkins’ writing style like? A glance at his one uncontested solo dramatic effort, The Miseries of Enforced Marriage, indicates two qualities: a fitful command of blank verse, plus an equally fitful knack for rapid-fire dialogue, flashes of wit and self-revelation in the characters. Wilkins simulates that dramatic liveliness which Shakespeare-De Vere alone achieves superbly and consistently.
To these two qualities could be added a third, of which Sir Sidney Lee writes, in his entry on Wilkins in the Dictionary of National Biography: “His trick of promiscuously inserting rhyme in blank-verse speeches, which is characteristic of his ‘Miseries of Inforst Mariage,’ is not uncommon in the non-Shakespearean parts of ‘Pericles.’ The presence of a third hand in ‘Pericles’ has been suspected; it is probably that of William Rowley, one of Wilkins’s collaborators in ‘The Travaile of the Three English Brothers.’”
To this passage I would reply that Sir Sidney is a bit mistaken. Discounting for a moment his circular argument on how much of Pericles is “non-Shakespearean,” let’s consider his ear for verse. If we provided no identification of a particular dramatist, but instead asked Elizabethan scholars, “Which dramatist, more than any other, seems to have a ‘trick of promiscuously inserting rhyme in blank-verse speeches’”? the answer would almost surely come back, emphatically, “Why, Shakespeare of course.” That promiscuous trick can be observed, I’m sure, in Pericles.
Now, in Wilkins, as The Miseries of Enforced Marriage will demonstrate, the opposite vice occurs: at several points, he inserts bits of blank verse, literally without rhyme or reason, into rhymed speeches. A blank-verse line here or there will stick out like a sore iambic. The implication is that Wilkins lacks the rhyming talent to complete the speeches; his poverty in that department is obvious. His is not the “other hand,” if there is any, in Shakespeare’s Pericles.
Another fault in the Stratford camp is its rush to assume that, if Shakespeare and Wilkins “collaborated,” it must have been a willing (or even witting) collaboration. Since Wilkins was linked with the King’s Men, he could easily have known the Globe shareholders, including any who stood seized of authors’ manuscripts. With De Vere dead by 1604, assuming for the sake of argument that Wilkins took a hand, who’s to say Wilkins couldn’t have “collaborated” on a deceased playwright’s work—or even a filched manuscript? 1608 and 1609 saw several odd issuances of De Vere work as the Countess of Oxford vacated the Hackney household.
In essence, however, your case for Oxford and Twyne, closer to 1576, makes sense, while the Stratford case for the 1609 Shakspere-Wilkins collaboration falls flat.