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.

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.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

The Scottish Play's The Thing

(Creative Commons image by JulianB)

A new Oxfordian edition of Macbeth has just been published, edited by Richard F. Whalen, author of the concise 1994 Oxfordian synopsis, Shakespeare: Who Was He?. In addition to the text and scholarly footnotes, Whalen's Macbeth contains both a biographical introduction by the editor, revealing how de Vere's life and times informed the Scots tragedy, as well as an essay by the Oxfordian actor Sir Derek Jacobi on "Acting Macbeth".

Future Oxfordian editions in the same series are now in the works for Hamlet, Othello, Anthony and Cleopatra, Much Ado About Nothing, and The Tempest, among others.

The book is a budget-friendly $15 and available for purchase online. A first-ever Oxfordian edition of this Shakespeare classic is a good investment, by any measure. In the words of another British classic, There's your book... Now, buy it!

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Look where my abridgment comes

This news item was passed along by reader A.Z. -- detailing a school district in Mesa, Arizona taking a field trip to see the farce The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged), only to be sent packing when an unnamed school official deemed the play "inappropriate."

The Complete Works... is a whimsical and irreverent trek through the Shakespeare canon, typically very improvisational, that was first performed by the Reduced Shakespeare Company in 1987 and has afforded actors, class clowns and perennial hams the opportunity to chew scenery whilst waxing pseudo-Bardolic for two decades running. The one production of The Complete Works that I saw, in New Haven about ten years ago, was certainly enjoyable and, at times, gut-bustingly funny. But its unabashed bawdiness could -- I suspect -- readily be deemed inappropriate for schoolkids as young as sixth grade.

Yeah, yeah, I know... they see this stuff every day on their TVs and play it on their Xbox'es. But, said the unnamed school official, "That's not what we believe in presenting to our students."

I'm inclined to chalk this whole incident up to an underpaid, overworked teacher somewhere seeing the name Shakespeare on a flyer and thinking, Edith Bunker-like, "Saay, here's some cultcha for the kids!"

I also suspect if those same censorious authorities actually knew how much "inappropriate" material is in even the greatest Shakespeare plays, they'd be burning as many copies of the real Complete Works of Shakespeare as they could get their little Jergens-moisturized palms on.

Case in point: Macbeth. Listen to this cool (unfortunately, incomplete) podcast series from 2005 and marvel at the Scots tragedy's dirty little secret: This play practically revels in torture porn.

Just goes to show how important it is to speak your most unpleasant truths in a language the hoi polloi cannot comprende. Why do you think Hamlet uses such fancy words?

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Take the green line to Shylock

February before last, a wily netizen going by the nom de net Barry Heck posted a parody of the iconic London Underground map (designed in 1933 by Harry Beck), replacing each tube stop with its anagram, transforming Old Street into Eldest Rot and Oxford Circus into Crux for Disco.

The new non-map circulated across the Interwebs in a New York minute, leading the tube's owner, Transport for London, to issue take-down notices to any websites hosting this, um, copyright infringing graphic.


"Barry Heck" squeezed the toothpaste out. Now the Royal Shakespeare Company has squeezed off more still from the same tube. As the Guardian blogged yesterday, the RSC has produced its own faux Underground map, with each line representing character types like "Mothers" or "Heroes" or "Fools," and each stop being Shakespearean characters of said type.

Best part are the icons attached to some of the stops. Titus Andronicus, hero of the cannibalistic play of the same name, gets a knife and fork symbol, while Richard III gets a wheelchair. Aaron (the moor from Titus) is on the same villains line as the original Tricky Dick but, gratefully, gets a baby changing station. (Aaron's often found, when not otherwise occupied in moustache-twirling, carting around his baby boy.)

Helena and Bertram (from All's Well That Ends Well) get their own baby changing table on this map too. All's Well's heroine ends the play all knocked up, and the title of the play certainly indicates a happy ending for this married couple. Would that the historical prototypes for Helena and Bertram enjoyed the same.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

The greatest mystery of recent times has at last been solved

So begins a great new review of "Shakespeare" By Another Name from a site billing itself as "The Internet's Longest Runing Entertainment Magazine." Long may she reign!

The Good, The Bad, The Silly

The Shakespeare Authorship Coalition continues to generate ripples in the press. If Time posted the best response to the recent Derek Jacobi and Mark Rylance event, the blue ribbon for goofiness must surely go here. Ah-yup.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

"Maybe, one day, the truth will out."

Time magazine just published the best article yet on the Shakespeare Authorship Coalition.

I've already said my bit about the "snobbery" argument, below. But there's another old saw in the authorship wars that the author of the Time piece, Jumana Farouky, handily puts to rest:

As Shakespeare (or maybe Bacon or possibly De Vere) asked, "What's in a name?" The star-crossed lovers still die, there will always be something rotten in the state of Denmark, no matter who wrote the plays. So why all the fuss? Both sides argue that knowing the identity of the man behind Hamlet, King Lear and The Tempest is essential to understanding them. "Our interpretation of Shakespeare's works would be entirely different if we knew who wrote them," says Bill Rubinstein, history professor at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth, and an academic adviser for the Shakespeare Authorship Coalition. "If he was heavily involved in politics, for example, every line in every play would have a different motivation."

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

As They Liked It

There is no good contemporary film adaptation of Shakespeare's pastoral comedy set in the Forest of Arden... or, rather, there was no such beast. Apparently till now. Starting Monday, HBO will be broadcasting Kenneth Branagh's adaptation of As You Like It, set in 19th century Japan. Consensus of the reviews seems to be a solid thumbs up..

Monday, September 10, 2007

Playing the "Snobbery" Card

(Creative commons image by John Cohen)

There is a widespread allegation about Shakespeare heretics that has baffled me each of the 5,573,861 times I've heard it raised. The latest incarnation appears in a column in tomorrow's edition of the Times of London. Here's how the columnist phrases it:

"Fundamentally, anti-Stratfordianism comes down to one proposition: Shakespeare was too low-class to have been a literary genius."

Countless variations on this theme have been posed in countless forums and conversations about the Shakespeare authorship issue. As anyone who has spent any time in the Shakespeare authorship wars will tell you, there's scarcely a crowd that doesn't contain at least one person who tries to make this very point.

Here's what confounds me, though: This "snobbery" question completely and utterly misses the point. It may, in fact, actually reveal more about the questioner's own bias than it does about anything in the Shakespeare authorship debate.

Let's break down this little steam-engine, shall we? If there were, in fact, a rational objection contained within the "snobbery" question, then the questioner would be well advised to pick a different tack, one that could be truly devastating.

Consider what the "snobbery" question, posed above, is actually alleging: Our hypothetical, unnamed anti-Stratfordian heretic, we are told, has no appreciation for historical fact whatsoever, so much so that his own beliefs (i.e. "Yay, team blueblood! Go, aristocracy!!") act as a substitute for the real, historical evidence about Shakespeare.

The "snobbery" question, in other words, contains two objections, only one of which is ever stated. Objection (1) is that of narcissism, that the anti-Stratfordian has a blurry sense of where the beliefs inside his own head end and where the objective, outside world of historical fact begins. Objection (2) is that the anti-Stratfordian picked the wrong team to root for. He should have been rooting for the hardscrabble underdog from the streets, not the posh little toff from the castle on the hill.

But if you're making a rational argument in an actual debate, you always attack the weakest link. Objection (2) is silly and distracting. Objection (1), if it could be proved, is self-evidently the undefended citadel to hit with everything you've got. If you can reveal to the audience that your opponent's arguments are not based on historical facts but rather just nuggets of unbridled narcissism, then it's game, set and match. You're not only through with the question, you can probably stick a fork in the whole debate. It's done.

So why, in the countless times the "snobbery" question has been broached over the years, haven't the defenders of the Stratfordian faith raised Objection (1) instead?

The answer, of course, is that the "snobbery" question breaks down into a pile of rubble when you try to take it seriously as a real, objective question. It's not about objective anything. It's, at its most cynical, just a cheap and obvious ploy to push an audience's (or in this case readership's) buttons.

On the other hand, to raise that first Objection, you also have to be able to recognize it.

But why, then, would the blurring of historical fact with personal belief be such a blind spot for Stratfordians?

That one I leave for the psychoanalysts to ponder.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Rumblings from the Internets

A few new news clips worthy of note:

The Shakespeare Authorship Coalition that was blogged about here back in April is beginning to generate some public and media attention.

The Guardian calls it the harbinger of a "literary conspiracy theory that refuses to go away, and which has a growing army of supporters all over the globe." [ADDENDUM from the comments: The BBC does present a more sympathetic take on the situation. Thanks to jhm for pointing this out.]

The reason for the press attention was because of a recent public signing of the Declaration of Reasonable Doubt by the acclaimed Shakespearean actors Derek Jacobi and Mark Rylance at a performance of Rylance's new play... deep breath... The Big Secret Live - I Am Shakespeare - Webcam Daytime Chat-Room Show.

The London Telegraph gave this dramedy a begrudging thumbs up, unwilling though the reviewer was to sign on to the main premise, the same premise as the Declaration, that the Shakespeare authorship issue is a real and serious issue--poke fun at it though we may (and probably should).

One review that escaped my notice last month was this great little writeup of the Colorado Shakespeare Festival's production of All's Well That Ends Well in The Denver Post, in which the reviewer says All's Well will always be a difficult play to stage until de Vere's authorship of Shakespeare is recognized.

Author, author!

Let's be frank: In Shakespeare, there are no problem plays, only problematic interpretations.

The root of the issue is the refusal by entrenched academic and ancillary industries to acknowledge that many think Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, was the actual author of the plays, sonnets, etc. attributed to William Shakespeare.

Once de Vere's life is illuminated, we see that this play is filled with biographical details, beginning with Bertram's petulant refusal to consummate his forced marriage to Helena, continuing with "stepsister" Helena's budding confusion over her relationship with Bertram, moving forward with Bertram's profligate behavior throughout, climaxing in the famous "bed trick," and culminating with the resurrection of Helena.

Next time around, we suggest an adaptation in which Bertram is modeled on de Vere and Helena as Anne Cecil. Problem solved: The story is a clever metaphor for actual events with which the entire Elizabethan court was familiar and knowledge of which we owe ourselves and our posterity the pleasure.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

"Shakespeare" and Cervantes, paths crossed

(Creative Commons images by inicioutil and fdrca'n'dave)

As blogged about last month, the recently completed Spanish movie Miguel and William (IMDB reports no U.S.
release date yet) rewrites history in order for Shakespeare
and Cervantes to meet

The supposition is pretty outlandish, if the conventional story of Shakespeare holds. But here's yet another amazing curio of de Vere's life: There are threads of biographical evidence that do in fact put de Vere and Cervantes in approximately the same place at the same time.

In the summer of 1575, de Vere was 25 years old traveling through Italy, while the still obscure and unpublished Cervantes was a soldier garrisoned in Naples. Record exists of de Vere taking out a loan that summer in Naples. And when de Vere returned to England the following year, he allegedly bragged about the valor he demonstrated on the battlefield with Cervantes' commanding officer, Don John.

Cervantes's juvenile poetry is known to have impressed another commanding officer, in Palermo, the Duke of Sessa. De Vere is known to have passed through Palermo -- and as a visiting foreign dignitary, would likely have met Sessa.

So the route for Cervantes in the late summer of 1575 was Naples to Palermo to a ship bound for Spain. (Turks overtook that ship, and instead Cervantes spent the next five hellish years as a slave.) The most likely route for de Vere during that same period was Palermo to Naples and onward to Milan.

I certainly wouldn't claim this constitutes proof of the two figures meeting. But it does bring their worlds tantalizingly close to colliding at a formative moment in both of their lives. Miguel y William filmmaker Inés Paris appears to be closer to the historical truth than she may realize. She's just going to need to recast the role of the man who was the Bard.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Ophelia was pregnant, yes... but there's more

(Creative Commons image by Colodio)

Readers in the San Diego area may want to mosey down to the Old Globe, where a bold interpretation of Hamlet is evidently being staged through Sept. 30—at least according to this review posted today in the Redland Daily Facts.

As the review points out (click on the above to see the passage), some renegade works of Shakespeare scholarship propose that Ophelia was pregnant at the time she took her own life, and indeed that in her madness, Ophelia handed out herbs commonly used for abortions.

Slightly glossed over in this review (and we're always grateful for ink, of course) is the fact that this interpretation of the Danish tragedy didn't just come out of nowhere. It was wholly biographically motivated. Not to put too fine a point on it, but the reason the author of Hamlet inserted those references to Ophelia's pregnancy and flirtation with abortion is that is exactly what happened in his troubled first marriage.

When Edward de Vere was traveling on the Continent in 1575, we now know that his wife, in her second trimester, asked Queen Elizabeth's physician to terminate her pregnancy. There's a whole epic tale behind that action that space does not permit delving into here. But suffice it to say, Hamlet ain't just blowing off steam when he asks the woman in his life why she's become a "breeder of sinners."

My question, then, is how does this controversial rendition actually fare as a piece of drama? Does a visibly pregnant Ophelia work as a directorial decision? The Redlands reviewer certainly liked it. To anyone who gets the chance to see the Old Globe Hamlet, please drop a line.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

"Both daffy and dead"

(More will be posted in this space about Edward de Vere and Cervantes after I get past a big, ugly deadline later this week.)

One nice thing about deadlines is that they always seem to inspire newfound heights of procrastination. This usually means mucking about on the web. (And these days, it involves the best mucking-about-on-the-web book ever invented, Mark Frauenfelder's Rule The Web: How To Do Anything and Everything on the Internet—Better, Faster and Easier.)

So it was that I happened upon the quick and dirty way of finding out what Google thinks of someone. It's a site called Googlism. To churn out a list of all that Google can find about a person, just type in their name. Punching in the name "Edward de Vere," for instance, generates a list with anywhere from 13 to 18 variations on "Edward de Vere is better known to the world as 'William Shakespeare.'"

It also spurts out some comical non-sequitors such as "Edward de Vere is overwhelming" and "Edward de Vere is both daffy and dead."

Of course, the top alternate claimants to the Shakespeare laurels can also be checked out for their googlism scores:

Christopher Marlowe ("is an intensive orange")
Francis Bacon ("is now on")
William Stanley, Earl of Derby ("is still living"!!)

Alack, alack, though... Boosters of Mary Sidney, Henry Neville, Edward Dyer and even old Will Shakspere will have to do better. All Googlism can turn up for these names is "Sorry, Google doesn't know enough about this person yet."

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Miguel and William and lots-upon-LOTS of speculation

The Manchester Guardian/Observer ran an article today alerting their readers to a new movie due to be released (in English-language markets, at least) later this year. The movie, Miguel y William is based upon the (completely groundless) supposition that Will Shakspere slipped on his cloak of invisibility and hung out in Spain with Miguel de Cervantes sometime during the 1580s.

Wouldn't that be nice to hang one's hat on?

The article points out

'We did a lot of research during the screenwriting and there is very strong evidence that Shakespeare was well-versed in Cervantes' work,' said producer Antonio Sauro. ...

Competing theories that Shakespeare spent his time working in schools in Lancashire or Wales, or with a troupe of theatrical players, are based largely on a network of textual references. The truth of his missing years may never be known, and perhaps in this case hard proof does not matter. As the tag line of William and Miguel has it, 'In art and love everything is possible.'

Here's the thing: The Bard may indeed have known Cervantes work—and perhaps even Cervantes himself. But the likely solution to the puzzle comes, once again, when the lens is re-focused upon the life and times of Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford.

Stay tuned to this space later this month, when evidence will be discussed that points to Edward de Vere crossing Cervantes' path at least once in his life.

In real-life biography, of course, not everything is possible. But in de Vere's biography, the face of "Shakespeare" shines through more and more.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Double Dutch

Just returned from a two-day Shakespeare authorship conference in Utrecht, The Netherlands where researchers from the U.S., U.K., Netherlands, Germany, and Italy gathered to discuss some of the latest research on Shakespeare—and Edward de Vere— in Italy.

A few excerpts:

• Kevin Gilvary of the De Vere Society, UK, presented a summary of the best scholarship on The Tempest's Italian sources, which points to the conclusion that The Bard basically had to have been in Italy to have seen the plays that are clear precursors to characters and storylines of The Tempest. (In three Italian comedies in particular, unavailable in England, a magician on a lost island causes buffoons to be shipwrecked; a plot emerges among the shipwrecked to steal the magician's book and dress as gods of the island; the magus's servant is a wild savage; and a love subplot emerges involving a child of the shipwrecked crew.)

• The Italian scholar Noemi Magri presented her new research on the knowledge that Twelfth Night reveals about the Illyrian setting of the play—concluding, as did Gilvary, above, that the author of this play knew details of the eastern Adriatic coast that all but assures us he had visited there. Chapter 4 of "Shakespeare" By Another Name opens this door—but I look forward to incorporating and referencing Dr. Magri's great new work into a future edition of the book.

• Chuck Berney arguing that the character Polixenes in The Winter's Tale is based in part on Sir Walter Raleigh—which led me, in turn, to wonder if, as in The Winter's Tale's plot, de Vere had suspected Raleigh of being the one who had cheated on his wife while he was in Italy. A quick look at the DNB data reveals that Raleigh did first appear on the literary scene in 1576 (the year of de Vere's Italian travels) with a poetic contribution to a book by George Gascoigne. It's only a stab in the dark... but no one yet knows whom de Vere did accuse of sleeping with his wife while he was having his adventures on the Continent. Could be a new plot twist.

• I gave two talks, one a variation on talks presented last month in Taipei; the other, detailing connections to a dukedom near Venice that I suspect that de Vere visited during his Italian travels: Urbino. It is the poisoning of an early 16th century Duke of Urbino that Hamlet portrays in his play The Mousetrap, and it is also Titian's portrait of same that Horatio describes when recounting the warlike appearance of the ghost of King Hamlet. As with all matters Italian, the orthodox scholars simply cannot begin to explain how their supposed author saw or read or heard about any of this. In the case of Urbino, we cannot prove de Vere visited there. All we have is means, motive and opportunity.

Photo captions: (1) A view of a street scene in Utrecht with the town's Dom Tower in the background, a tower that seemingly every 15 minutes played on its bells a song resembling a slowed-down rendition of "Bicycle Built for Two"—thus yielding up images of a demented HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey four times an hour.

(2) The "Shakespeare in Italie" poster on display at a local bookstore, revealing that around the same time of the conference was an actual appearance by a famous Russian czar and successor to Ivan the Terrible. Talk about yer tough competition. (OK, slightly below the level of resolution of the image is the detail that Mr. Godunov himself would not be appearing at the show but rather an opera singer portraying him in a Mussorgsky opera of the same name.)

(3) Actors Juan Tajes and Grainne Delaney performed famous scenes from Shakespeare in the style (and masks!) native to the Italian commedia dell'arte traditions. Despite the vibrant performances, including a recitation in Italian of Brutus's "I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him" speech, jet lag was unfortunately getting the better of yours truly, embarassingly calling to mind a different character from the Bard... Quoth Hamlet re Polonius: "He's for a jig or a tale of bawdry, or he sleeps."

(4) An American de Vere biographer meets Pieter Helsloot, author of Edward de Vere, onvermijdelijk Shakespeare, the first Oxfordian biography of de Vere written in Dutch.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Total TV and the Top 5

Tip o' the hat to fellow heretic Alex McNeil, former president of the Shakespeare
, who in yesterday's online edition of the Boston Globe did an interview/live chat about his two favorite subjects: Television and Edward de Vere. McNeil is the author of one of the best encyclopedic guides to the 60-year history of American TV shows, Total Television.

He covers some of the essential arguments for de Vere capably and succinctly. (And he gives good ink... er... pixel... to a book we're particularly fond of here.)

asibtroy__Guest_: What are the top 5 reasons you can give that Oxford wrote the plays?

Alex_McNeil: Interesting question.
Alex_McNeil: 1. He was recognized during his lifetime as a poet and playwright (even an "excellent" one), yet no plays, and few poems, exist under his name.
Alex_McNeil: 2. His life fits the plays in uncountable ways. I would refer you to Mark Anderson's "Shakespeare by Another Name" for a detailed examination. But take Hamlet. Hamlet's mother remarried quickly after Claudius's death; Oxford's mother remarried quickly after the 16th earl's death. Polonius is generally agreed to be caricature of William Cecil, Lord Burghley, Elizabeth's chief adviser. Oxford grew up in Burghley's household. Ophelia is Polonius's daughter, and Hamlet's love interest. Oxford was married to Cecil's daughter, Anne. (Ophelia = O + philia, or "Oxford's love").
Alex_McNeil: 3. The First Folio (1623) is dedicated to two lords, Montgomery and Pembroke, who no doubt financed the project. One was Oxford's son-in-law, the other had been engaged to another of Oxford's daughters.
Alex_McNeil: 4. Shakespeare "thinks like a lawyer," i.e., he has legal training and uses legal terms with ease, when referring to legal matters and in other ways as well. Oxford was trained in law, having spent at least a year at Gray's Inn.
Alex_McNeil: 5. Back to Hamlet -- Rosenkrantz & Guildenstern are two minor characters. Oxford's brother-in-law went on a dioplomatic mission to Denmark, and wrote of it upon his return. Among the guests at the state dinner were Messrs. Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern. Yes, those names do appear elsewhere, but the frequency of such coincidences cannot be explained by chance.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Bard without Baggage

Dateline: Taipei. Four out of five stops into the "Shakespeare" By Another Name mini-tour of Taiwan, it is safe to report a vast potential audience here for an alternative theory of Shakespeare—such as, oh, say, the Oxfordian one. The English/Foreign Language and Literature departments at three Taiwanese universities (listed below) have all graciously hosted talk(s) by yours truly, unfolding the case for Edward de Vere as "Shakespeare" as might a prosecuting attorney in the courtroom. (Although at the risk of sounding grandiose, this prosecutor has cooler-looking graphics than most.)

Each of the four lectures—and one-on-one discussions throughout this visit—have been particularly noteworthy for the rationality with which the faculty, undergraduate and graduate students approached this topic. Of course of course of course there are many (though not enough) English profs and college/grad students today in the States and the U.K. who keep an open mind toward Edward de Vere and the authorship issue. But I have yet to find a college or university English department in an English-language-native country where there aren't also card-carrying members of the Unhinge Me Here contingent.*

"Unhinge Me Here"-ers can be any class, creed, political persuasion, sex or age. Their chief distinguishing characteristic is to transform, wolfman-like, from a sane and reasonable person into a snarling and/or awkwardly grinning bearer of impatient discomfort. Mention any two or more of the following words in the same sentence, and an Unhinger will suddenly see you as little more than an annoying pebble in their shoe: Authorship question, Oxfordian, Earl of Oxford, [insert name of other alternative Shakespeare candidate here], anti-Stratfordian, Shaksper, the Stratford man.

This irrational, hackles-up response to the Oxfordians and other "Shakespeare wasn't Shakespeare" types stems, no doubt, from the exalted place that Shakespeare today sits in English-speaking cultures. His words are the closest our language will probably ever get to (apologies to Peggy Noonan) slipping those surly bonds of Earth to touch the face of God. And the Horatio Alger myth that traditionally accompanies the story of the man who allegedly wrote these words is really hard for some people to even consider letting go of.

But it's not so—or at least not nearly so much—in a culture that appreciates and studies English but doesn't worship at any of our secular altars. Shakespeare is, to some in Taiwan, a status symbol. (Akin to a Mercedes Benz, one prof here wryly noted.) But, even then, that status is conferred no matter who he was.

I have long suspected that some of the greatest contributions to the Shakespeare authorship debate will be coming from countries that have no traditions of Bardolatry to overcome. Expect more from this island nation in the coming years.

(*P.S. Ooop. Just thought of one. Concordia University in Portland, Oregon: The exception that proves the rule!)

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Taiwan On

As the Taiwan-based blogger Nostalgiphile recently wrote, "Taiwanese literature departments seem to be hell bent on carving a niche for themselves in the fascinating field of Renaissance studies." Shakespeare, specifically.

Although Nostalgiphile has his own take on the relevance and appropriateness of the Bard-centric English departments in Taiwan, which seems to open up a whole different discussion/can o' worms, I can only say this much: This blogger will next week be able to report first-hand on how the Bard is taught and received on the island the Portuguese christened Formosa (i.e. "Beautiful"). The "Shakespeare" By Another Name mini-tour of Taiwan will be occupying this page for the next fortnight or so.

With a genuflecting bow to my hosts at Tamkang University and a grateful tip of the hat to the two other universities where I will also be speaking (Soochow University and National Ilan University), I sign off from one side of the International Date Line and look forward to approaching Shakespeare, Edward de Vere, and the authorship question from an entirely new vantage.

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.