Friday, December 05, 2008

Rip a Hole in the Sky

Here is an (x-ray) picture of the remnants of a star that exploded in November 1572 -- one that shone so brightly in the immediate wake of its supernova that it could even be seen in broad daylight. Astronomers have now studied the remnants of "Tycho's Supernova" (so named for its most celebrated observer, the Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe) and published their results in the journal Nature.

As some astronomers have been arguing for more than ten years, Tycho's Supernova also makes an appearance in Hamlet, when Bernardo stands on the Elsinore battlements and describes the brilliant blaze in the sky at the time Hamlet's father's ghost appeared to him:

BERNARDO Last night of all, When yond same star that's westward from the pole Had made his course to illume that part of heaven Where it now burns, Marcellus and myself, The bell then beating one, - [enter GHOST]...

Tycho's Supernova was a foundation-shaking event, ripping a gigantic hole in the static, geocentric view of the cosmos that then prevailed. Nothing could explain how a "new star" might emerge, or how it might even shine during the daytime. Scores of astronomical observations were recorded across the European continent in 1572, coordinated by Tycho at his royally subsidized observatory in Denmark.

Edward de Vere's brother-in-law Peregrine Bertie visited Elsinore in 1582 on a royal embassy to the King of Denmark, a visit that included a dinner that Bertie recorded with Danish courtiers, including two named Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern. The King brought Bertie out to Tycho's observatory to meet the fabled astrologer -- as practitioners of the nascent science were then known.

Conventional scholars have long wondered how the author of Hamlet could have known about peculiar details of Danish royal culture, including King Claudius's bizarre drinking ritual involving firing cannon blasts with every downed shot of liquor, a true-to-life drinking game of the convivial Danish king at the time, Frederick II.

Add to that list a supernova observed in great detail by the Danish courtly astrologer, a supernova that, like Hamlet's ghost, tore down the veils of polite society and upended the very order of the -- courtly and physical -- universe of its time.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Shylock, the Elizabethan Financial Crisis and the Invention of the Stock Market

The story of Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice comes from an Italian book (Il Pecorone, or The Simpleton) published in Milan in 1558. No English editions of the Milanese tale are known. Orthodox scholars are left to assume English translation(s) popped into Britain long enough for the Bard to get his hands on it -- then, having discharged their duty to posterity, the books completely disappeared from history. All in a day's work.

The first story of the fourth chapter ("day") of Il Pecorone recites the tale of a rich merchant of Venice who takes out a loan from a Jewish moneylender so the merchant can seek his fortune on the seas. If the merchant defaults on his loan, the Jew takes as collateral a pound of the merchant's flesh. Pecorone's story continues on from here involving the wooing of a "Lady of Belmont," who disguises herself as a lawyer to extract her new fiance from the bloody, contractual bonds of his ultimately defaulted loan.

Like any other text in the Shakespeare canon, Merchant of Venice is conventionally seen as a work-for-hire play. Through perhaps the same London bookseller who provided Shakspere with all his books (the same one who erased any trace of them from the historical record), the Stratford actor acquires Il Pecorone or some "lost English translation." He reads the book and thinks, 'Hey, I'll write a play.' Inspiration strikes. And like Joseph Fiennes in Shakespeare in Love, the Bard dashes off another masterpiece at the desk of his second-story walkup.

Meanwhile, in the alternate universe of the Oxfordian theory, the author, de Vere, writes plays based on his own life experiences, telling stories that personally mattered to him. (Scandal! Heresy!) In the case of the Merchant of Venice, the tie-in comes with de Vere's sometimes reckless financial investments in voyages to discover the fabled Northwest Passage to China. In 1578, for instance, de Vere laid out an exorbitant £3000 -- the lion's share of it bought from a merchant named Michael Lok -- to underwrite a shipping venture that ended up mining an inlet of a bay in what is now the Canadian province of Nunavut. The explorers returned to England with more than a thousand tons of ore that they claimed contained untold riches. Instead, after the adventurers had set up smelting works on the Lower Thames, the rock proved to be worthless. The investors were ruined.

In 1580, de Vere's private secretary Anthony Munday published his one and only novel, Zelauto, which tells a variation of the Merchant of Venice story. (A London pamphleteer Stephen Gosson wrote the year before about a play treading the London boards called The Jew that Gosson said "represent[s] the greediness of worldly choosers and the bloody minds of usurers." Some scholars argue that Zelauto was a re-working of The Jew.) Munday dedicated Zelauto to de Vere.

As seen from an Oxfordian vantage, The Jew, Zelauto, and Merchant of Venice all arguably draw elements of inspiration from the same source: Edward de Vere's experiences in the wake of his £3000 shipping venture loss at the hands of Mr. Lok. (Recall that shipping investor Antonio in The Merchant defaults on a 3000 ducat bond with the financier Shylock.)

Here is where very recent history comes in. Last month, Penguin published Harvard historian Niall Ferguson's omnibus book, The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World. C-SPAN Book-TV aired an hourlong interview with Ferguson (streaming video of which can be viewed here or here).

The interview is absolutely fascinating, in and of itself, as a primer on the origins of money, bonds, banks, stocks, stock markets and the financial industry. And even just on the level of pure storytelling, it's also quite a riveting tale.

As Ferguson says, the very first publicly-traded company in history was the Dutch East India Company in the early 17th century. This Amsterdam-based venture invented the notion of stocks as an easy way to finance their shipping voyages to far away lands. And the notion of limited liability -- shielding investors from assuming any losses above and beyond the amount of their own individual investments -- also appeared around the same time to protect its existing investors and further encourage others to speculate some of their own captial.

"Since capitalism is about taking risk in pursuit of profit and weighing the rewards against the risks, then limited liability and the joint stock companies are critical inventions," Ferguson said.

In other words, the very biographical wellspring of inspiration for The Merchant of Venice -- those financially risky maritime investments that sometimes decimated its investors -- just a few decades later inspired Dutch traders to invent two of the most important cornerstones of free market capitalism today.

De Vere's and his fellow investors' financial crises in the failed Elizabethan Northwest Passage ventures did not bring about any economic innovations that would alter the course of history, as the Dutch did.

But, in the end, fodder for immortal Shakespearean drama is probably reward enough.


UPDATE (Dec. 16): Just posted on the Internet today is a New Yorker Talk of the Town piece on a recent New York moot court re-trial of Antonio v. Shylock. A plurality of the justices found for Shylock. A propos of the above discussion, the following snippet is excerpted below:

“The trial was a travesty,” [First Amendment expert Floyd] Abrams said, of Shakespeare’s litigation scene. “Beautiful sometimes, funny sometimes, and ugly sometimes, but that judgment is not something that we sitting here today can enforce.” [Federal appeals court judge Richard] Posner said, “I’m particularly critical of Antonio’s conduct. His failure to insure his cargoes was completely irresponsible.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Edward de Vere - The Elevator Pitch

(Creative Commons image by Marco Wessel)

The case for Edward de Vere as "Shakespeare" is one without a smoking gun. It's a frustrating fact of researching, writing and speaking about the authorship question that our story lives or dies according to circumstantial evidence. You convince people by bombarding them with "awful funny coincidences" (as Orson Welles called them) between de Vere's life and the Shakespeare canon. And at some point you reach a threshold. Where that point is varies from person to person and audience to audience.

So it's good to have to really cut to the chase once in a while. In July, participating in a Shakespeare authorship debate (at Bally's Hotel in Vegas, no less), I had barely 20 minutes to make my whole case.

Tomorrow morning (Friday) at 9:30 eastern time, on the Bill Dwight Show on WHMP-AM in Northampton, Mass., another 20 minutes of airtime, at most, is what we have to tell the whole story of "Shakespeare" By Another Name -- and, with screenwriter John Plummer's help -- about the recent option of SBAN as the basis for a possible television series.

I'm a talker. I start off in one place and end up, who knows how many minutes later, way off in tangent-land. The kind of message discipline that the short-and-sweet format requires is really good practice. I need more of it.

It looks like Bill posts mp3s of his recent programs on the WHMP website, so although I cannot find a link for live-streaming from the station. I hope to be able to update this post with an mp3 link to hear the "Shakespeare" By Another Name chat as it played out.

Just need to remember three sentences: Keep. It. Simple.

UPDATE: Here's the link to the audio archive of the Nov. 21 Bill Dwight show. Click on the "Audio MP3" button and fast forward to the 23 minute, 30 second mark when the discussion about "Shakespeare" By Another Name begins.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

"The Other Shakespeare"

Contact: Karen Evans, Karen Evans Management (Plummer, Biederman)
(323) 933-9218
Jessica Regel, Jean V. Naggar Literary Agency (Anderson)
(212) 794-1082


NEW YORK, N.Y., Oct. 30, 2008 -- Imagine if an Elizabethan Hamlet had actually written Hamlet, or if a love-scarred veteran of Montague/Capulet street wars in London had in fact written Romeo and Juliet. A recent book, newly optioned for television, tells this very story.

Shakespeare's celebrated plays are, according to the 2005 book "Shakespeare" By Another Name (Gotham Books), remarkably autobiographical. And, say screenwriters John Christian Plummer and James Biederman, this astonishing (and controversial) new perspective also holds tremendous promise for some ground-breaking television.

Plummer (recent subject of a PBS documentary about his critically acclaimed production of Twelfth Night for the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival) and Biederman (veteran executive producer for television series such as The Kids in the Hall and The Whitest Kids U Know) are currently developing several projects for television and collaborating on an unrelated feature screenplay for Academy Award winning producer Wendy Finerman.

Their new television series option of "Shakespeare" By Another Name, says Plummer, "is the sort of thing Shakespeare -- de Vere -- would be proud of. We're using a mass medium to tell an incredibly elevated but at the same time tremendously entertaining story. And at the same time, we're taking on one of the world's biggest sacred cows."

"Shakespeare" By Another Name tells the epic life story of the courtly poet and playwright, Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, both in Queen Elizabeth I's inner circle in England as well as across Europe, visiting many of the Italian and French cities and locations that would later be immortalized under the byline "Shakespeare." A growing number of scholars have suspected de Vere was in fact the author of the Bard's plays and poems.

"Shakespeare" By Another Name author Mark Anderson says that in book-signings and lectures across the U.S. and around the world over the past three years, he has often heard audience members say they wish de Vere's adventurous life could be brought to the screen. "I keep hearing that the Shakespearean mini-dramas, comedies and tragedies found within Edward de Vere's biography seem practically ready-made for movies or television," he says. "Well, to that we can now reply, 'The game's afoot.'"

Praise for "Shakespeare" By Another Name:
"Deserves serious attention" (The New York Times)
"Makes a compelling case... Especially impressive" (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
"Quite a compelling argument" (The Chicago Sun-Times)
"One of the most fascinating theatre-related books I have ever read. An absolutely first-rate piece of sleuthing and an absolutely first-rate read." (Don Rubin, editor-in-chief of The World Encyclopedia of Contemporary Theatre)
"Makes a convincing argument that the brilliant, rather tormented Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford -- not Shakespeare -- was the dramatist ... draws powerful connections between Shakespeare's plays and the life of de Vere." (USA Today)

On the web:

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Why Coriolanus matters

Let's say, for argument's sake, that there's an American presidential candidate who appears to hold his country's electorate in such contempt that no stunt or lowly trick is beneath him or his advisors. Every new week only seems to bring new ways for him to display his unrivaled cynicism and to further debase the political process.

Well, in that case, do I have a play for you.

It's Shakespeare's Coriolanus, and it's not particularly well known or widely staged. That's unfortunate.

Here's an excerpt from a BBC production:

The snippet above comes from Act 3, Scene 1, in which the title character, a celebrated Roman war hero, scuttles a plan by the Roman Senate to provide some relief-- in the form of food handouts to a starving populace -- in a time of financial crisis. (Hmm.... no parallels here. Move on. Nothing to see.) Coriolanus calls the Roman populace "common fools" and "the mutable, rank-scented many." His derision for the public at large is matched by a vainglory and narcissism that can be almost uncomfortable to watch:

CORIOLANUS For the mutable, rank-scented many, let them
Regard me as I do not flatter, and
Therein behold themselves: I say again,
In soothing them, we nourish 'gainst our senate...
As for my country I have shed my blood,
Not fearing outward force, so shall my lungs
Coin words till their decay against those measles,
Which we disdain should tatter us

It is, in fact, Coriolanus's Machiavellian disdain for his countrymen that makes the play so difficult to stage as it's typically presented: A tragedy. A tragedy requires that we somehow sympathize with the hero whose rise and later fall is the lifeblood of the play.

But Coriolanus is such a contemptible figure, and not nearly as fascinatingly contemptible as Richard III, that productions of this "tragedy" often fall flat.

The key to the play, though, is found in a quip by George Bernard Shaw. Coriolanus, Shaw said, "is the greatest of Shakespeare's comedies."

The weapons of satire, not tragedy, belong in the director's arsenal. Coriolanus himself gets only one soliloquy in the whole play, and a none too revealing one at that: The text reveals that we are not meant to care about the title character or his plight. He's a foil, not some misunderstood tragic figure.

The insightful critic Oscar J. Campbell, dissenting from standard views of this "tragedy," writes in his 1943 book Shakespeare's Satire that "Coriolanus exhibits over and over again his one ruling passion--the choler which Renaissance philosophers regarded as the inevitable result of wounded pride."

The Bard, Campbell elsewhere writes, "fills the tragedy so full of the spirit of derision that the play can be understood only if it be recognized as perhaps the most successful of Shakespeare's satiric plays."

I would only add, from a biographical p.o.v., that the Elizbethan historical inspiration for Coriolanus only underscores Shaw's and Campbell's biography-agnostic readings of the play. A haughty general called the Earl of Essex -- tremendously popular with the Elizabethan public -- was in the author's crosshairs. Edward de Vere hated Essex. Coriolanus is Essex's comeuppance.

But, in 2008, highlighting the Elizabethan parallels wouldn't be nearly as fun or fascinating as it would be to bring out the modern-day parallels, and let the audience judge for themselves.

My director's kit for an ideal modern-day production of Coriolanus, then, would be this: Campbell's book... and a chronicle of John McCain's greatest hits from the 2008 presidential campaign.

As one of the play's nameless lords observes of Coriolanus's downfall, "His own impatience takes... a great part of blame. Let's make the best of it."

UPDATED to clarify that I'm not advocating some sort of matrix of one-to-one parallels between Coriolanus and present-day events. There's a difference between a nod to topical interpretations and an airhorn that blasts it to anyone within earshot. Maybe a DVD of Robert Altman's dark satire M*A*S*H would be part of my ideal director's kit, too...

UPDATED AGAIN: If McCain-as-Coriolanus is the feature attraction, here's the sideshow:

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

If music be the food of love, press "on"

Readers in the New York city area may want to tune their teevees and TiVos to Channel 13 (WNET) on Thursday night at 8 for a great little documentary on the acclaimed Hudson Valley Shakespeare production of Twelfth Night blogged about below.

As the show's director and one of its cast members told the SBAN blog, Edward de Vere's life story played no small role in inspiring the present production of Shakespeare's Illyrian comedy. Channel 13's cameras were on the scene recording the making-of this Twelfth Night -- a behind the scenes documentary that the New York Daily News said is "a lot of fun."

Here's a video clip.

Then, from 9 to 11, WNET airs the truly inspired production itself. While the director's proselytizing about de Vere (and "Shakespeare" By Another Name) didn't quite make the final cut in the "making-of" doc, the proof is ultimately in the show itself. The evening I was fortunate enough to be in the audience, last month, the end-result was as clear as could be: This director and these actors, quite simply, nailed it. I've not seen a funnier, more musical, more lyrical, more vivacious Twelfth Night.

Thankfully, the show, at least briefly, lives on.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

The big debate and why it matters

The debate over Edward de Vere's contribution to (or authorship of) the Shake-speare canon has been smoldering for generations, since a British schoolmaster with a funny name first suggested de Vere might indeed be da Bard. And the fallback position one often hears is "Really, though, why does any of this matter?"

The following comment from a recent BBC article on the authorship controversy aptly summarizes the point:

What does is matter who wrote the books? They are great reads regardless of the class or caste of the author. It's a silly argument and we should just appreciate the work.

There are, of course, many earnest attempts to straightforwardly answer this objection that are already online. I won't add to that volume here.

Instead, I recently put the "What does it matter" question to two members of a New York Times and Wall Street Journal-acclaimed production of Twelfth Night, staged by the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival in Garrison, N.Y.

The play's director, John Christian Plummer, had come across a copy of "Shakespeare" By Another Name two weeks into rehearsals. He says, from this first-hand experience, that knowing the historical context of de Vere's life and times helps both Shakespeare directors and actors tremendously.

The actor here, Eleanor Handley (pictured above, left), also drew from de Vere's life (and particularly that of de Vere's sister Mary) in her brilliant portrayal of Twelfth Night's trickster Maria.

In fact, the New York PBS affiliate WNET chronicled the rehearsals and behind-the-scenes perspectives on the Hudson Valley Shakespeare's production of Twelfth Night and will be airing a documentary about it on September 18 -- followed by an airing of this truly inspired adaptation of the Bard's Illyrian comedy.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Twenty-one score and ten years ago...

On this day in 1578, a Portuguese king did something really really stupid. And the aftershocks of said king's blunder reverberate throughout the play Twelfth Night.

Don Sebastian of Portugal was a 24-year-old warmonger who had taken it as his destiny to invade an Islamic nation -- a militaristic and foolhardy little crusade. (Thank god nothing like that ever happens anymore.) In the summer of 1578, Sebastian set sail for Morocco, confident that he would return with a new jewel in the Portuguese crown. On August 4, Sebastian led his outnumbered troops into, essentially, a Christian slaughterhouse, the Battle of Alcacer Quibir.

Sebastian disregarded the pleas of his commanders, who implored him to flee, once the Portuguese army's defeat was assured. But the bullheaded king soldiered on. He was last seen fighting furiously deep behind enemy lines.

King Sebastian was almost certainly killed 430 years ago today. But many in his country refused to give up hope. They insisted that their lost leader would one day wash ashore and spearhead the great Portuguese empire that never came to be. "Sebastianism" is, in fact, an undercurrent of Portuguese (and by extension, Brazilian) culture to this day. The polymorphous 20th century poet Fernando Pessoa -- a writer who assumed an astonishing number of pseudonyms -- chronicled Sebastianism in his poem "The Message." (An epic that was later translated into English and recorded by pioneering hip-hop group Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five.)

(OK, that last parenthetical remark isn't quite true.)

The reason the Bard cared about any of this was that with Sebastian's death -- or alleged death -- came a succession struggle that was ultimately settled, in 1580, by King Philip II of Spain incorporating Portugual, along with its massive navy, into his dominions. This meant Spain was now a naval power to rival any in Europe and could thus confidently embark on her own (Catholic) crusade to destroy the heretic Queen of England. Cue the Spanish Armada.

Circa 1580, however, there was a dwindling but still distant hope that a different successor to the Portuguese throne could be found. Inserting this alternative king onto the Portuguese throne would have cut off Spain's anti-Protestant invasion plans at the knees.

One of the leading pretenders to the Portuguese crown, one supported by both Queen Elizabeth and a number of her prominent courtiers at the time, was a distant relative of Sebastian named Don Antonio.

The story of Shake-speare's Twelfth Night is in part the story of two friends, ANTONIO and SEBASTIAN, who are reunited when the latter washes ashore and into the action of the drama. SEBASTIAN is widely believed to have perished at sea, and he and his chum ANTONIO spend much of the play attempting to disentangle themselves from a series of misapprehensions that are the stock-in-trade of Shake-spearean comedy.

Twelfth Night, in other words, paints a satirical portrait of European geopolitics from 1580 -- two decades before the play is thought to have been written.

As I discussed at the Concord Shakespeare Conference in May, this is just one of a series of topical references in Twelfth Night that would seem to date it to circa 1580, not circa 1600.

As blogged below, there is a chronology problem in the Shake-speare canon. But the problem is that a vast majority of the evidence points to initial composition dates for these plays years -- decades, in some cases -- earlier than is now accepted. And it all comes to a halt in 1604, the year Edward de Vere died.

That is a harangue for another time. (How about, say, October 10 in White Plains, N.Y.?)

For now, though, it's enough, I think, just to marvel at that vast Rube Goldberg device also known as history.

If a crazy Portuguese king hadn't launched an even crazier invasion of Morocco on this date 430 years ago, the king of Spain wouldn't have had the military might to launch the Spanish Armada, which would have left Protestantism in England unchallenged, which may have set other rivalries in motion (e.g. Holy Roman Empire and/or Italy v. England? Spain v. Portugal? France and Holland sit this dance out?), which would have left the history of New World exploration in a complete tizzy. Who knows what country or countries would have divvied up the American spoils? (And who's to suppose Amerigo Vespucci's name would have still been memorialized as the new continent's namesake?)

Bienvenue auf Nuovo Deutschland, señor!

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Shakespeare in Sin City

Welcome to the Las Vegas strip, where a roller coaster zips past the Statue of Liberty every five minutes, and -- a few long blocks north -- Venetian Gondolas swarm up and down an oversized swimming pool.

There's always room to belly up at the "1 cent" slot machines (these of course cost a dollar), but you may have to stand in line for the oxygen bar.

Yes, you read that last item correctly. Some extremely clever bastard, please note the level of jealousy rising in your correspondent's voice, has actually figured how to get people to pay good money for gourmet air.

By now it must be abundantly clear what a natural market a hotel-casino on the strip is for a debate on the Shakespeare authorship question.

So yesterday afternoon, Friday, July 11, Profs. Alan Nelson, William Rubinstein and I sat down for a one-on-one-on-one debate at Bally's Casino, part of the larger FreedomFest '08 conference, a primarily libertarian-oriented gathering. Not surprising, I suppose, that our 100-minute confab was programmed during the same time slot as debates on "Islam: radical or peaceful?" and "Should we regulate Wall Street more or less?" as well as talks about "rare coins and collectibles" and "the hottest commodity for 2009: copper!" [sic]. A live teleconference with former Republican presidential contender Rep. Ron Paul of Texas also competed for butts on seats.

Shakespeare, it seems, was not on the high priority list of most 'fest attendees. Still, a despite relatively low draw (the attendance fluctuated between c.15 and 40), the debate itself was actually quite good.

Prof. Alan Nelson, long known to Oxfordians for his often strident stance about both heretics and Edward de Vere himself, presented the case for Will Shakspere of Stratford. Bill Rubinstein, co-author of the recent book The Truth Will Out presented the arguments for the arriviste Bard contender Henry Neville. And yours truly made his case for an Elizabethan literary earl who, they both claimed, died too soon to have been Shakespeare.

This was the point I decided to go on the attack about, rather than taking a defensive posture. In my allotted eight minutes for presenting the pro-de Vere case (the first half provided another 11 minutes to make the case against the Stratfordian theory), I argued three points: The Shake-speare chose settings from de Vere's life, the author characterized people from de Vere's life and the Bard stopped creating new works in 1604, the year de Vere died.

The first two points are, in no small part, the story of "Shakespeare" By Another Name. I discussed the parallels between de Vere's life and Hamlet, King Lear, Othello, and Merry Wives of Windsor. (Rubinstein, I noticed, places emphasis on MWW and how Henry Neville was fat and... er... therefore Falstaffian? The death of Falstaff in Henry V, he says, comes at the receipt of an ambassadorial post in Paris for Neville. Rubinstein's "Shakespeare" needed to kill off his most popular character so the author could go serve Her Majesty's pleasure across the English channel.)

Nelson, on the other hand, centered his pro-Shakspere argument around the claim that during the author's lifetime, everyone who referred to him referred to him as "Master" or "Mister" -- meaning he was of lower class, not aristocratic or courtly class.

I didn't dispute his claim. For instance, I said, John Davies refers to "Mr. Will: Shake-speare" [sic] as "our English Terence," adding that many people at the time believed that Terence was a Roman actor who stood as a front-man for one or more Roman aristocratic authors.

Nelson also denigrated de Vere's skills as a poet, although admitted that de Vere was at least "in the same ballpark" with Shakespeare -- stating that no one recognized Henry Neville as a poet or playwright of any stature during his lifetime, and so the Nevillian case comes way out of left field. He also quoted a lengthy diatribe by David Kathman (proprietor of the Stratfordian Shakespeare Authorship website) against the Nevillians.

As a result, I didn't have to do much work against the Neville case.

The 1604 argument, however, is something I think Oxfordians need to claim as ours. The evidence is on our side, especially now that the new research on The Tempest is beginning to get published.

I'll blog about my 1604 argument another time. (Right now, hotel check-out time looms.)

In the end, those in the audience willing to venture a vote for one candidate over any other broke for Shakspere vs. de Vere vs. Neville by 11 to 8 to 1. Oxfordians were in the minority, but only just.

Now the trick is to get a crowd next time.

Friday, July 04, 2008

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Table Talk

Today NPR's Morning Edition aired the third and final installment of its Shakespeare-under-dispute series. Actor Mark Rylance (below) joined this Mark and two other Oxfordian advocates (Dan Wright of Concordia University in Portland and British author Charles Beauclerk) in making the case for Edward de Vere as the man behind the Shakespeare mask.

Like yesterday's segment, making the case against Will Shakspere of Stratford, today's piece skillfully packed a lot of material into a 7-minute, 45-second time slot.

By way of correction (or as a former editor of mine preferred to call it, "clarification"), I do want to offer up one note about host Renee Montagne's copy. She stated that Edward de Vere's brother-in-law served as a royal emissary to the Danish court at Elsinore, where he recorded his own personal experiences with Danish drinking rituals that are preserved in Hamlet and his bread-breaking with Danish courtiers named Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern.

All of that is true. But Montagne said this material came in the form of personal letters written to de Vere. That's where the clarification comes in. In fact, anyone reading this blog in London can walk into the British Library and see the documents for themselves. The shelf mark is Cotton MSS Titus C VII 224-229.

Recorded on those fascinating, little-studied pages, are the brother-in-law's (Peregrine Bertie's) personal notes of his Elsinorean exploits with the Danish king and his court. None of this material would have been available outside the queen's inner circle or the company of Bertie's immediate family and friends, a group that included de Vere.

De Vere never visited Elsinore himself. But the author of Hamlet did preserve some of the peculiar local lore and legend, courtesy of a roistering brother-in-law whose mission in no small measure was to party down with Danish royalty for a few months and then return to England to tell the tale.

So... party on, Rosenkrantz; party on, Guildenstern.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

The Shakespeare Riots -- and the Shakespeare Debate

[Creative Commons image source]

As this blogger prepares to debate the authorship issue next week in Las Vegas, NPR's "Morning Edition" program today began a three-day series on Shakespeare disputes, including the authorship question.

Today's eight-minute segment concerned a riot in 19th century New York over two rival Shakespearean actors and the class warfare that it fanned.

Tomorrow and Friday, host Renee Montagne said, they'll be tackling the authorship question. (Last summer Montagne interviewed yours truly and a number of other Shakespeare heretics as well as defenders of the orthodox standard.)

"Groundlings," she said in her provocative teaser for the upcoming authorship segments, "Grab your tomatoes."

UPDATE 1 (Thursday): Here's the second Morning Edition segment on the Shakespeare heresy.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Belated congratulations to Mark Rylance

Last Sunday was the Tony awards, the telecast of which this Shakespeare blogger confesses he's never actually watched before. But word has it -- word that admittedly has taken unusually long to filter its way up the system here at the SBAN bunker -- that not only did the superlative actor and noted Shakespeare heretic Mark Rylance win a Tony award for Best Performance in a Leading Role (in the farce Boeing Boeing), but he also gave an acceptance speech for the ages.

As comedy writer, sportscaster and blogger Ken Levine blogged on Friday, "Since it's a good bet only three of you at the most saw the Tonys last Sunday you probably missed this acceptance speech by Mark Rylance. It's one of the best ever. I will be voting for this guy for everything from now on."

This brilliant recital comes from the pen of the Duluth, Minn. based poet Louis Jenkins.

The Duluth News Tribune quotes Rylance as saying that he hopes to collaborate with the poet more. "I think they’re really genius," the actor said of Jenkins' prose poems -- which Rylance first read when he was in Minneapolis earlier this year, starring in the Guthrie Theater's production of Peer Gynt. "Learning them by heart has been like learning a great speech by Shakespeare: Every word matters, the rhythm. ... I’m hoping to work with Louis on a play that involves them.”

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

"Shakespeare's Meaning, Motivation and Message" in Concord, Mass.

Next weekend, May 30-June 1, a group of Boston-area Shakespeareans (and your correspondent, a western Mass. holdout) will host three days of Shakespearean presentations, conversations and performance in Concord, Mass., some of which will examine the plays and poems from Edward de Vere's perspective and some of which will hold to the orthodox William Shakspere/Shakespeare of Stratford school.

The Concord Shakespeare Conference and Festival is one of those rare gatherings that will bring both Montagues and Capulets--Oxforidans and Stratfordians-- to the same venue to discuss one thing both sides hold in common: a profound love of The Bard.

I will be giving a talk on Friday night at the Concord Free Library on how Twelfth Night reads like an Elizabethan courtly gossip sheet, circa 1580.

The Friday evening program (also featuring a performance by acclaimed pianist Roderick Phipps-Kettlewell and a discussion on the similarities between Mozart's and Shakespeare's genius) will be free of charge. The remainder of the weekend's full schedule will be held at the Concord Masonic Hall in Monument Square in downtown Concord. A weekend pass for Saturday and Sunday's events is $40.

As local press coverage of the event points out, Concord famous son Ralph Waldo Emerson said that tracing the identity of the Bard is "the first of all literary problems."

And as Orsino counsels his attendant Curio, "Play on."

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Counting (Upstart) Crows

[Creative Commons image by Marko K]

Last week on the Internets, two literary bloggers pondered the authorship-related question of contemporary references to Shakespeare. Peter Leithart reprints Bill Bryson's dismissal of the Shakespeare heretics:

In the Master of the Revels’ accounts for 1604-1605 - that is, the record of plays performed before the king, about as official a record as a record can be - Shakespeare is named seven times as the author of plays performed before James I. He is identified on the title pages of the sonnets and the dedications of the poems The Rape of Lucrece and Venus and Adonis. He is named as author on several quarto editions of his plays, by Francis Mere in Palladis Tamia, and (allusively but unmistakably) by Robert Greene in the Groat’s-Worth of Wit. John Webster identifies him as one of the great playwrights of the age in his preface to The White Devil. ... The only absence among contemporary records is not of documents connecting Shakespeare to his works but of documents connecting any other human being to them.

On the other hand, blogger Mundhaus gives a kind tip of the virtual pen to "Shakespeare" By Another Name's discussion of the Robert Greene 1592 reference to Shakespeare the actor as an "upstart crow... beautified in our feathers."

(Some heretics, by the by, make an interesting case that Greene's "upstart crow line has nothing to do with Shakespeare at all but instead was a reference to the Elizabethan actor Edward Alleyn.)

Whatever one's interpretation of Greene's "upstart crow" line, though, the larger point in this discussion is not that there are no 16th or early 17th century references to Shakespeare--but instead that those very references leave us with no sense that the man behind those works was the Stratford actor.

In fact, in Diana Price's 2001 book Shakespeare's Unorthodox Biography, she painstakingly goes through each of the fabled contemporary references to Shakespeare and demonstrates, to a word, that many in fact suggest the actual author of the Shakespeare works was concealed from public view.

Price examines the paper trail for eleven other writers from the same period (John Lyly, Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Kyd, etc.) and finds that each of them can claim at least a handful of documents linking them to their attributed canon of writings.

With Lyly, for instance, we have evidence of his education , record of his correspondence, evidence of a direct relationship with a patron, handwritten inscriptions/letters touching on literary matters, commendatory verses to other writers. With Marlowe, there's also evidence of education, evidence of direct relationship with a patron and contemporary notice of his death.

But with Will Shakspere there is zilch. Plenty of documents about the actor/entrepreneur and plenty of references to the plays and the name on the title page: But nothing that connects the two.

As Price writes (emphases in original),

Shakspere is the only alleged writer of any consequence from the period who left no personal contemporaneous records revealing that he wrote for a living. In contrast, the literary fragments left behind by Shakspere's lesser contemporaries yield more than a name on a title page, a disembodied name in a list or a play review. ...

Scholars have retrieved literary fragments for those lesser contemporaries [i.e. Lyly, Marlowe, Kyd, Greene, Dekker, etc.] with far fewer man-hours and fewer research grants behind them. Still, in every case, the personal documents reveal writing as a vocation for the individuals in question. If we had the sort of evidence for Shakspere that we have for his colleagues--that is, straightforward, contemporaneous, and personal literary records for the man who allegedly wrote Shakespeare's plays--there would be no authorship debate.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Wright/Obama: "A Christian version of Sir John Falstaff and Prince Hal"

[Creative Commons image by tsevis]

In this week's "Campaign Trail" podcast from The New Yorker, political correspondents/essayists Hendrik Hertzberg and Ryan Lizza liken the recent kerfuffle over Sen. Barack Obama's retired, contentious former pastor Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr. to that of a "Christian version" of Henry V.

Hertzberg says:"It's kind of a Christian version of Sir John Falstaff and Prince Hal. The pain that Prince Hal goes through is what Obama is going to have to go through to break this tie."

Elsewhere, the Terre Haute News in Indiana on Saturday weighed in on the analogies to Henry V found in today's headlines:

Shakespeare happens to be pertinent on the matter. The lovable, mischievous, quixotic, boastful, blustering, pretentious, cowardly, hypocritical, deceitful, gluttonous, devilish, joyous, pompous, witty, goodhearted, loquacious, hard-drinking buffoonish and obese sybarite, Falstaff (surely one of the greatest creations in all of literature!) is a fast friend, a bosom buddy of the young Prince Hal, heir to the throne of England and destined to be lionized as Henry V, a great warrior and king of a great nation. Faced with the awesome demands of duty to his country, he brazenly and abruptly breaks ALL ties and allegiances to the old tub of exuberant, joy-generating lard, the beloved and decadent companion of his carousing days of miscreant youth.

But, the writer says, "Obama is no Prince Hal" because at the time the piece was written, Obama hadn't yet cut his ties with the incendiary pastor.

Wherever one stands on the Wright-gate scandal for Obama, scenes from an old history play do seem to be enacted before our eyes on the public stage today.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Thursday, April 24, 2008

When in Romanesca...

[Creative Commons image by evillibby]

Edward de Vere was a lyricist before he turned his literary muse to bigger challenges. Johnny Mercer or Cole Porter may have turned in better pop songs over their whole careers, but de Vere -- whose lyrics date mostly from his teenage years and early 20s -- did spin some lyrical silver and gold in his day.

Yesterday, blogger and musician Anchor Mejans posted an adaptation of de Vere's poem "Reason and Affection" for vocals and harpsichord. It's a style of Elizabethan song called the Romanesca. (Alternate link here; lyrics here.)

Mejans writes, "My adaptation does away with many of the standard trills and presents the song as if sung by a local guy in the tavern and in a more relaxed and contemporary vocal style. Song-writing over the centuries still extols the virtues of Love, as does this oldie."

So if you like '60s-style music, give it a listen.

That's 1560s, of course.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Remembering Moses: "Only actors" know Shakespeare

Following actor Charlton Heston's recent death, The Weekly Standard reprints a letter to the editor that Heston wrote in 1997 about an Oxfordian book that had just been published (Joseph Sobran's Alias Shakespeare). Heston agreed with the Standard's reviewer that Sobran was so, so very wrong.

"Sobran misreads Shakespeare as academics do: He treats him as a writer," the rifleman-actor wrote. He goes on to say that Shakespeare had to have been a "poet-player" because "only actors really understand" how Shakespeare works. And, as luck would have it, Heston was an actor. So Shakespeare was Shakespeare. Now go away.

Heston's resurrected missive has been much blogged about over the past few days. The general consensus being: Huzzah, Chuck! You tell 'em!


For those slightly more inclined toward, say, logic, there's this blog post from best-selling author Michael Prescott, who dissects the Heston letter and the book review Heston references:

We have, then, a playwright and poet who aligns himself with the aristocracy; who shows all the signs of learning and foreign travel to be expected of an aristocrat; who has the temerity to attack the most powerful men in England, and the ability to get away with it; and whose plays repeatedly feature characters and incidents strongly reminiscent of the life of Edward de Vere -- known in his day as a leading poet, though one who (like other nobleman) did not publish under his own name.

Lock 'n' load, baby.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Did Shakespeare visit Venice? ... Does the Pope wear Prada?

[Creative Commons image by Martino Pizzol]

The Times of London this week published an article that reconsiders the "cloak of invisibility" argument: Plays like Merchant of Venice are simply too replete with Venetian lore, geography, etc. that it forces the conclusion that the author must somehow have visited the city he so accurately immortalizes. So, given Will Shakspere as the author, he must have just slipped on his invisibility cloak for a year during those fabled Lost Years and snuck off across the Alps to make his way to La Serenissima -- all, of course, without leaving a single trace in the historical record. And these days, with his place of origin seeming more and more like Speculation-upon-Avon, why the hell not?

Shaul Bassi at the University of Venice recently co-wrote a book with the Italian writer Alberto Toso Fei titled Shakespeare in Venice (published in Italy, in Italian) that weighs in with what looks like not a small chunk of the same evidence "Shakespeare" By Another Name puts forward. Here's The Times:

It was striking that he had given the name “Gobbo” to Shylock's servant, a reference to the carved figure of a hunchback (Il Gobbo di Rialto) on the bridge, a feature well known in Venice but not beyond it. Shakespeare had also used local words such as gondola, as in Act 2, scene 8 of The Merchant, when Salarino remarks: “But there the duke was given to understand that in a gondola were seen together Lorenzo and his amorous Jessica.”

...Shakespeare knew about the Venetian custom of offering pigeons (“a dish of doves”) as a gift, and showed rare insight into cosmopolitan Venice's ethnic and social relations, and its tolerance of foreigners and minorities.

Bene bene! Eccezionale! Couldn't agree more. In fact, if you want to follow "Shakespeare" through Venice -- and the rest of Italy -- there's already a free Google Earth Atlas that let's you retrace his every step from the comfort of your own virtual desktop.

One hitch, though. A slight change of byline is needed.

But if the reader is willing to take that provisional step then, hey, the world is thine oyster.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Open letter to a vehement Stratfordian

[Editor's note: Book blogger Bill Peschel weighed in earlier this week with a review of Bill Bryson's recent biography Shakespeare: The Man Behind The Stage, half of which is spent taking on what Peschel calls "the anti-Shakespeare crowd." For instance, Peschel writes, "In fact, the... evidence on the anti-Shakespeare side [is] so weak, that it should be considered a measure of a person's intelligence and reasoning ability. If you believe that Shakespeare didn't exist, you're an idiot. It's comforting know there's some certainly in this world."]

Below is this blogger's response:

An open letter to Bill Peschel:

In April of last year,
The New York Times conducted a survey of all Shakespeare professors around the country and found that one out of six who responded said there appears to be ample cause for doubt about William Shakespeare of Stratford as the author of the plays and poems conventionally attributed to him. Polemics, such as yours, against such "non-believers" are of course nothing new. A century ago, incredibly nasty screeds were leveled at another group of heretics who only had a handful of arguments for their crazed ideas -- challenging the self-evident notion that the Earth's continents were fixed in place. In fact, it took generations of accumulated circumstantial evidence before the theory of continental drift became accepted. Continental drift (a.k.a. plate tectonics) is today as widely accepted a scientific theory as is Darwinian evolution or Newton's theory of gravity. A closer look at the history of practically any field of study, in fact, reveals this same story being told over and over again.

Don't rest so confidently in the majority opinion on your side today, Mr. Peschel. The Shakespeare skeptics and heretics undoubtedly stake out a minority position among Shakespeare experts today. One out of six is still just one out of six.

But the real debate, should you ever choose to engage it with any credibility, begins with actually bothering to understand the opposing side's point of view. (It is indeed blinkered nonsense to suggest that no one named Shakespeare ever existed. That's a classic straw-man. No one's suggesting that.)

Here are two good websites promoting the argument for Edward de Vere as "Shakespeare" (one ... two). And, to be fair, here are two websites advocating your point-of-view that actually engage the Oxfordians in evidence-based arguments, not just vapid name-calling. (One ... two)

Finally, here's a book. It argues for the heretical point of view based on historical and literary evidence. Plenty of it.

Next time, a brief survey of some actual facts of the Shakespeare authorship case would be advisable before simply labeling all doubters "idiots."

Glass houses, Mr. Peschel. Glass houses.

[This post edited April 26, 2008. See comment thread.]

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The Tempest was written before 1604

Those not familiar with the quirks of the Shakespeare authorship question may not know how offensive (to some) the above statement is. But thanks to new research published this year, it is verifiably true -- and it demolishes the main substantive objection to Edward de Vere as the man behind The Bard's mask.

The war over the Bard's identity is often waged in a proxy skirmish over the Shakespeare chronology -- because Edward de Vere died in 1604, while traditional scholarship dates the composition of a dozen or more Shakespeare plays between 1604 and 1613. If any Shakespeare play could definitively be dated after 1604, then de Vere is kicked to the curb as a "Shakespeare" candidate.

And while there's very little proof that any Shakespeare play was written after 1604, The Tempest has long been a sticking point.

The Tempest, the standard thinking goes, quotes directly from a book called The True Repertory written sometime after 1609 by an adventurer named William Strachey. We know Strachey wrote his True Repertory after 1609 because in it he describes a shipwreck in the Bermudas that happened during that year.

But the American researcher Roger Stritmatter (Coppin State Univ., Baltimore) and the Canadian author Lynne Kositsky have published six new scholarly articles that establish beyond a reasonable doubt that Strachey in fact plagiarized his shipwreck descriptions from books that were written decades before, in 1516, 1523 and 1555, specifically. The Tempest references those same books, Stritmatter and Kositsky argue, and suddenly Strachey is no longer a source for Shakespeare.

Suddenly, The Tempest falls back in line with the rest of the Shakespeare canon, comfortably situated in the pre-1604 world.

These new Tempest studies are as important as anything since the discovery of Edward de Vere's Geneva Bible in 1991. And while the paperback edition of "Shakespeare" By Another Name summarizes their findings (which arrived too late to make it into the hardback), even the paperback wasn't able to list where these groundbreaking papers can (or will soon) be found.

Now we can.

  • Roger Stritmatter & Lynne Kositsky, "The Spanish Maze and the Date of The Tempest" The Oxfordian 10 (2008) 9-19

  • Stritmatter & Kositsky, "Shakespeare and the Voyagers Revisited," Review of English Studies N.S. 58.236 (Sept. 2007) 447-472

  • Stritmatter & Kositsky, "A Moveable Feast: The Tempest as Shrovetide Revelry" The Shakespeare Yearbook. Forthcoming.

  • Stritmatter & Kositsky, "Eastward Ho! The Vogue of Virginia and the Date of The Tempest" Forthcoming.

  • Stritmatter & Kositsky, "O Brave New World: The Tempest and De Orbe Novo" Questioning Shakespeare, ed. William Leahy. Forthcoming.

  • Stritmatter & Kositsky, "Pale as Death: The Fictionalizing Influence of Erasmus's Naufragium on the Renaissance Travel Narrative" Verite 1:1. Forthcoming

**APRIL 2014 ADDENDUM: The comments to this blog post contain some interesting claims about William Strachey as a person -- and testimonial that he was, perhaps, not a plagiarist. 

Subsequent to the original blog post above, Stritmatter & Kositsky written an excellent book about the Strachey's True Repertory and The Tempest. They have also kindly responded to these comments about Strachey, below:

We show conclusively in the book, without a shadow of a rational doubt, that Strachey was *not* an eyewitness to key passages recounted in the narrative which , and therefore *was* one way or another plagiarizing earlier narratives when he produced it.  The internal evidence of True Repertory's extensive process of revision through the incorporation of other narratives and texts is overwhelming. So all this circumstantial stuff about what a great guy he was and how much responsibility he had been given is totally beside the point. He was a plagiarist. Now, that doesn't in itself prove anything else, but it is one of the most obvious and undeniable conclusions that can be drawn from the book, because we 1) demonstrate that many other scholars attribute plagiarism to him; 2) we proved from internal signs the plagiaristic properties of True Reportory.
Strachey's plagiaristic habits are so well documented as to be beyond doubt. The only problem is that when discussing True Reportory Strachey the plagiarist suddenly becomes Strachey the "eyewitness" in the critical literature.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The mother of all "conspiracy theories"... was indeed a conspiracy

Anyone who seriously doubts the conventional story of Shakespeare is often tarred with the "conspiracy theory" brush. As in: Wouldn't Edward de Vere as "Shakespeare" involve some elaborate and practically impossible conspiracy?

I won't add to the libraries of musings over the general conspiracy question but will only pause to note that that thing that's practically synonymous with conspiracy theories today -- JFK's assassination -- turns out in fact to have been a conspiracy.

This is the conclusion reached by Naval War College historian David Kaiser in his new book The Road to Dallas: The Assassination of John F. Kennedy (published by that bastion of reckless conspiratorial speculation, Harvard University Press).

As Kaiser tells veteran radio journalist Christopher Lydon in the latest edition of Lydon's program "Open Source," Kaiser combed through the reams of new documents made available by the JFK Assassination Record Collection Act of 1992 and after years of the boring but necessary grunt work that all good historical scholarship entails, all but definitively determined that the Oswald-Acted-Alone crowd are the lone nuts in this story.

In the 1989 PBS Frontline program "The Shakespeare Mystery" the late Shakespeare scholar Samuel Schoenbaum confidently stated, "There are no grassy knolls in Shakespeare."

Ah, professor doctor Schoenbaum. You wrote and edited some pretty good books in your time. But the time is now officially passed when a finger-wag in the direction of Dealey Plaza is sufficient to shut up sober-headed, serious people.

Even in our comparatively free and liberated age, it's a documented fact that big, elaborate and seemingly impossible conspiracies do happen.

So, then... can someone in Parliament please pass the Shakespeare Authorship Record Collection Act now?

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Houston, New York, Boston, Vegas!

[Creative Commons images by Snowriderguy and 2757]

Just posted a new itinerary of upcoming speaking engagements:

Houston (March 13-15), New York (March 27), Boston/Concord (May 30-June 1) and Las Vegas (July 11)

The final stop on this spring-summer tour is a debate (at Bally's Casino!) on the Shakespeare authorship question that I'll be participating in with Alan Nelson of U.C. Berkeley (arguing for the Stratfordian theory) and William Rubenstein of the University College of Wales (arguing that Elizabethan courtier Henry Neville was the Bard). The verbal tussle will be part of the "great debates" series at the weekend-long Freedom Fest conference.

C-SPAN's Book TV will be filming events and debates at the conference. We're not guaranteed that Book-TV will cover the Shakespeare debate, but if you'd like to see the Shakespeare fireworks on your television sometime later this year, please contact Book TV and let 'em know. (Here's the webpage with all the information about the Freedom Fest debate series.)

Thank you.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Robin Williams and the heretics

Thanks to GQ (reader, not magazine) for passing along this video from c. 2000 when the A&E network did their "Biography of the Millennium" series. Shakespeare not surprisingly merits a segment of his own. What is somewhat surprising is comedian Robin Williams discussing the case for Edward de Vere as Shakespeare.

Williams says, in the bit that begins at the 4 minute, 5 second mark, "[Anti-Stratfordians] also think of not only Francis Bacon but also the Earl of Oxford. There's a huge debate about that. Here's the deal. ... Look in the plays. There's incredible references in Latin, Greek, travel. The scope is global."

If you skip ahead to 4:05 into the segment, though, you'll miss (at 3:10) Williams riffing on The Two Gentleman of Malibu and Richard IV (i.e. Tricky Dick). Brilliant stuff.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

[Corrected] New York Public Library Shakespeare class: You WILL Believe

[Creative Commons image here]

A class held this week at the New York Public Library, according to the class listing on the library's website, requires its students to hold the "conviction" that the Shakespeare canon was written by Will Shakspere of Stratford. Heretics who profess to other "convictions," evidently, need not apply.

The course is called "Shakespeare: From Stratford-upon-Avon to the New York Public Library" and was held on Feb. 21. An earlier version of this blog posting attributed the course to NYU prof. Alycia Smith-Howard, whose blog also listed the New York Public Library class. (A reader of the "Shakespeare" By Another Name blog contacted Dr. Smith-Howard, who says she was as intrigued by the NYPL's course requirements as he was.)

A student taking the hourlong NYPL class, according to the course description, would be examining "various beautiful and unusual illustrated editions of Shakespeare's plays and poems" and use the library's computer resources to "experience Shakespearean research for the 21st century."

It also posts two rather bizarre requirements for the course. One is something that shouldn't require a profession of belief at all. It's just fact: "[We require] a belief that the works of Shakespeare constitute one of the cornerstones of world literature."

The other "requirement" for the course is slightly more odious: "A conviction that the plays of Shakespeare were written by Shakespeare."

Amazing. A taxpayer-financed institution hosts a Shakespeare class that prohibits Oxfordians and other Shakespeare dissidents from enrolling. Of course, many Shakespeare courses today are taught with the implicit understanding that venturing into the authorship question is verboten. But putting such restrictions in writing as a course requirement brings on a whole new game.

Well, then, as Major League umpires around Florida and Arizona will soon enough be saying, let's play ball!

(This post was corrected on Feb. 23, thanks to new information provided by reader R.N.G.; original tip from M.H.)

New York Public Library class listing
Archived class listing on website of NYU professor Alycia Smith-Howard

Saturday, February 16, 2008

WSJ: It's all "skimble-skamble stuff"

[Creative Commons photo here. ("Skimble" is, a quick google reports, evidently the name of one of the felines from the musical Cats)]

Today's Wall Street Journal reviews two recent Shakespeare biographies: Charles Nicholl's The Lodger Shakespeare and Bill Bryson's Shakespeare: The World as Stage. Nicholl and Bryson, the reviewer says,

are both "Stratfordians" -- that is, they assume that "Shakespeare" was the man from Stratford and not Francis Bacon or the Earl of Oxford or the queen herself. For most of us ordinary folk, the authorship wars are irrelevant, "skimble-skamble stuff" (in Hotspur's phrase), and "Shakespeare" means interchangeably the man and his works. ... Shakespeare was an actor, writing for actors; the plays are, above all, scripts.

The plays are scripts. And novels are books. And many great films are now available on DVD. So bleedin' what?!

The assumption that authorship doesn't matter, in my experience, is usually made by those who are in no position to judge. While entire books have been written about how the authorship question does indeed matter (mine included), my first response to the above quote is to say, here. Listen to this. [MP3]

This space will also be announcing a conference in Concord, Mass. on May 30-June 1 devoted to the proposition that the Shakespeare authorship question does indeed matter. More on that shortly. For now, though, as John Hodgman says, that is all.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Rushdie: "You will find no trace of me"; Quaid: "I am Falstaff!"

In a speech on Sunday at Emory University, Salman Rushdie said he has erased himself from most of his writing. "Too much of my life story has found itself in the public domain already," the Booker Prize-winning novelist said. "In my later works, you will find no trace of me."

The aversion to autobiographical and topical portrayals in his fiction, of course, springs from well-known sources, and one can certainly understand such reticence, given his own harrowing experiences in drawing too closely from life for too controversial a topic.

Rushdie also told the crowd, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports, "Shakespeare had it right... when he left behind no diaries or letters that might lend a window into his inspirations" (the reporter's paraphrase, not Rushdie's exact words).

But Rushdie, whom I personally admire and revere as one of the great literary figures of our time, is nevertheless taking a leap of convenience when he says that the source for his inspirations are now opaque ... and, as luck would have it, so were Shakespeare's.

As regular readers of this space know, it is this writer's contention that much of the Bard's inspirations spring from a single life. (*cough* Edward de Vere, Edward de Vere, Edward de Vere *ahem*) And while no one disputes Rushdie's masterful craftsmanship -- and his right to creatively annihilate all that he wants -- with Shakespeare, the situation is actually much closer to what the author says in Sonnet 76: "Why write I still all one, ever the same/ And keep invention in a noted weed [disguise]? / That every word doth almost tell my name..."

Pace the great contemporary Indian-British novelist and essayist, Shakespeare keeps telling variations on the same life story over and over again. Falstaff, King Lear, Romeo, Hamlet, Othello, Leontes, Bertram, the list goes on... They all convey one man's epic tale. But it's not going to be found in any records or (should they ever turn up) diaries in Stratford-upon-Avon.

The creative vacuum that orthodox Shakespeare interpretations leave behind allows for all kinds of leeway, granted. Great novelists can imagine that, in eliminating themselves from their works, they are following in the footsteps of the greatest writer in the English language. And... not-so-great figures of the page or stage can just thrust themselves into the emptiness.

Near the end of The Merry Wives of Windsor, a humbled Falstaff laments, "I do begin to perceive that I am made an ass." In a $6.5 million contemporary musical adaptation of Merry Wives that just closed in Seattle, entitled Lone Star Love, the girthy braggart evidently didn't need any assistance from the text to do just that. The actor portraying him took care of the asinine bit himself.

Sunday's Seattle Post-Intelligencer reports that Lone Star Love was not only a farcical mess dramatically, but backstage the man in the title role (Randy Quaid) earned such scorn from his colleagues as to cause Actors Equity to fine him $81,572 and ban him for life from any future Equity production.

Quaid reportedly engaged in such winning behavior as smacking fellow performers on the head onstage, threatening colleagues who made eye contact with him, and making lewd remarks about an actress's "gynecological instruments." In his own defense, Quaid said he was just staying in character.

"I am guilty of only one thing," Quaid said. "Giving a performance that elicited a response so deeply felt by the actors and producers with little experience of my creative process that they actually think I am Falstaff."

So there you have it. Rushdie is glad we'll never know the source of Shakespeare's inspirations. And Quaid is Falstaff.

Of course, ham-hock thespians will always be able to claim squatter's rights over a Shakespearean character, no matter who the author is seen to be.

But, getting back to Rushdie's point, the true tragedy of Shakespeare today is the fact that a void is perceived where in fact something very different actually is. The Bard's artistic legacy is not of nihilism and authorial self-obliteration -- but rather a compelling and all too tragic biographical odyssey found in the self-revelations of a playwright who ultimately knew his own name would be lost.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Hamlet, in the Garden, with a Vial

[Creative Commons image by Gonzales2010]

Yesterday, fellow Oxfordian blogger Dr. Neil posted an unusual analysis of the Danish tragedy: Hamlet killed his father!

The analysis rests on a line from Hamlet's most famous soliloquy ("[death], the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns"). With these words, the interpretation goes, Hamlet admits that nothing ever comes back from the dead. And yet the Great Dane has been conversing with the ghost of his father throughout the play. So what gives?

Hamlet is mad, according to this reading. And he's desperately trying to foist the soul-crushing guilt of this regicide on his already hated uncle.

It's unclear, though, what the point would have been to so markedly deviate from Hamlet's ancient source text(s) -- in which Hamlet's (Amleth's) uncle is unambiguously guilty. The primary expose in Hamlet, in my view, is the duplicitous actions of various murderous Machiavels at court, including the Earl of Leicester (inspiration for Claudius) and William Cecil (de Vere's father-in-law and inspiration for Polonius). Adding a regicidal component to Hamlet's own story muddies the waters and is hardly the sort of thing that might "catch the conscience" of a court or monarch.

I'm not convinced, in other words.

Remember too that in later on in the play (3.3) Claudius prays and meditates on the murder that he essentially admits he committed. Would this now be some kind of confession under duress? A tall order to fill.

The good doctor promises a second posting that will allegedly demolish Claudius's altar-side testimony. Defense attorneys take heed. Can our Elizabethan Dershowitz rescue his royal client from the noose of the open-and-shut guilty verdict? Stay tuned, he says.

[Feb. 6 Update: Nothing like being reminded that one has already written about this subject. Hamlet's "undiscovered country" -- the line upon which the whole strange Hamlet-murderer theory turns -- is a reference to a book that Edward de Vere had translated into English in 1573, Cardanus Comforte, a book of philosophical consolations for the melancholic soul. Discussion about Hamlet's reference to Cardanus is, ahem, in a certain book about which this blog is concerned, page number 64. (Thanks to R.B., B.F., C.W. and other correspondents for edifying discussion about the "undiscovered" excerpt from Hamlet's immortal soliloquy.)]

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

The Bard via iPod, iPhone and iDon't Know What Else

This from a posting today on The English Teacher Blog -- which refers back to the "Shakespeare" By Another Name podcast series:

"Podcasts are perfect for students who have a hard time reading Shakespeare -- HEARING Shakespeare is undoubtedly better for them … maybe for all of us."

Back when Shakespeare-upon-iPod was first posted online, in the spring of 2005, just one other Shakespeare-related podcast graced the Interwebs. My sole competition was a rather fascinating punk rock-fueled exploration of Macbeth that argued that the Scots tragedy was a far, far bloodier and darker play than the critics (elbows bepatched and all) generally appreciate. I was with him on that.

These days, though, the American Shakespeare Center, the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Folger Shakespeare Library all post podcasts, too. The competition is definitely going upscale. So, please... Keep on downloading!