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.

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