Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Shakespeare: The Big Disconnect

[Creative Commons image by Juan23]

Best-selling author Bill Bryson recently wrote that Shakespeare is "a kind of literary equivalent of an electron -- forever there and not there." Resorting, as Bryson does, to metaphysical mumbo jumbo is one way of handling a very thorny problem.

Here's another way. Michael Pennington, a player who's logged some 20,000 hours of stage time performing or directing Shakespeare, brings his one-man-show about the Bard ("Sweet William") to the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis through Dec. 22.

Friday's Minneapolis Star Tribune quotes Pennington musing in his own way about the same problem Bryson describes:

"Despite his long association with Shakespeare's work and the obvious research that he's done, Pennington said he feels that he still doesn't know much about the man.

'We're thrown back on the plays, undistracted, as we always were,' he wrote."

Of course, "undistracted" is a loaded word -- suggesting investigation into anything other than the plays themselves is a waste of everyone's time.

Tyrone Guthrie, founder of the theater where Pennington will perform, thought otherwise. The Tony Award-winning impresario who also set up the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Canada penned these words in The New York Times in 1962:

"There is a theory, advanced by reputable scholars, seriously and, in my opinion, plausibly, that Shakespeare merely lent his name as a cover for the literary activities of another person."

The idea that Shakespeare was a mask behind which was concealed a political operative in Queen Elizabeth's court certainly adds a new layer of possible meaning to these plays and poems. It might just be what's needed in something called "Arden, The World of Shakespeare."

As this month's Technology Review reports, a $250,000 project (funded by the MacArthur Foundation) to adapt the Shakespeare canon into a multiplayer video game has ended in failure. "Arden"'s founder, Edward Castronova, told TR that the problem was simple. "It's no fun," he said.

I've never designed a video game before, so I'm sure there are complexities here that I'm missing out on. But if all that we have of "Shakespeare" is a practically random assortment of plays and poems, without a real, discernible human being that links them together, then it's no wonder "Arden" never took off.

Here's a counter-proposal: The life story of the author "Shakespeare" and the works he produced are intimately and intricately interwoven. The reason 20,000 hours and $250,000 can't put "Shakespeare" back together again is the same reason American and British publishers have pumped out some 20 traditional Shakespeare biographies in the past decade alone.

There's a nearly insatiable public desire to make a visceral, emotional connection with the greatest author in our language. And when history has stuck you with the wrong guy, the best one can hope for are fleeting and fragmentary glances at what should be vast, profound and meaningful biographical revelations.

This is no game either -- although I'd venture that some great interactive entertainment centered around the authorship question could readily be brought to market.

Rather, the enterprise at hand is the literary equivalent of (sorry Mr. Bryson) a grand unified theory -- forever interconnected, forever yielding new insights, forever there.