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.)]