Sunday, February 22, 2009

Bad Quartos

This bit of Bard-inspired pop passed along by reader A.N.. I kind of like the song "Every Day" -- about Twelfth Night based around a cooled-out version of the riff from Led Zeppelin's "The Song Remains The Same." (Originals of songs here.)

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Dr. Horrible

Nothing to do with anything, really. Just one amazing piece of musical dramedy. Made possible, courtesy of Joss Wheadon and family and friends, by otherwise idle pens during last year's writer's strike. DVD here.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Zadie and Barack and Walt and Will (and Edward)

The British novelist Zadie Smith -- born in London to a black, Jamaican mother and white, British father -- does exquisite work in the latest New York Review of Books piecing together the multi-polar, multi-ethnic, many-voiced perspectives of our new American president. Smith's essay "thinks and speaks in harmony," Joe Klein of Time magazine writes, about "the transcendence of Barack Obama."

Smith's article, she says, examines "the many-colored voice, the multiple sensibility." The finest example of which, she says, is the Shakespeare canon.

Our Shakespeare sees always both sides of a thing, he is black and white, male and female -- he is everyman. The giant lacunae in his biography are merely a convenience; if any new facts of religious or political affiliation were ever to arise we would dismiss them in our hearts anyway. Was he, for example, a man of Rome or not? He has appeared, to generations of readers, not of one religion but of both, in truth, beyond both. Born into the middle of Britain's fierce Catholic–Protestant culture war, how could the bloody absurdity of those years not impress upon him a strong sense of cultural contingency?

Um... OK. That whole "Shakespeare sees always both sides of a thing" thing? Sure. You bet. But then the sidetracking begins.

Smith continues:

It was a war of ideas that began for Will -- as it began for Barack -- in the dreams of his father. For we know that John Shakespeare, a civic officer in Protestant times, oversaw the repainting of medieval frescoes and the destruction of the rood loft and altar in Stratford's own fine Guild Chapel, but we also know that in the rafters of the Shakespeare home John hid a secret Catholic "Spiritual Testament," a signed profession of allegiance to the old faith. A strange experience, to watch one's own father thus divided, professing one thing in public while practicing another in private. John Shakespeare was a kind of equivocator: it's what you do when you're in a corner, when you can't be a Catholic and a loyal Englishman at the same time. When you can't be both black and white. Sometimes in a country ripped apart by dogma, those who wish to keep their heads --in both senses -- must learn to split themselves in two.

The Protestant-Catholic divisions in the England of 400 years ago undoubtedly constitute a force unto itself. Made very real for a young noble named de Vere schooled by the loyalist Elizabethan Protestant patriots Sir Thomas Smith and Sir William Cecil (later Lord Burghley)... a young noble who then fell out with Protestantism so far that he actually, reputedly, conspired with Catholic agents planning to overthrow the Elizabethan government.

And then the same near-traitor went into service defending his Anglican queen from Puritan zealots under the guise of a rakish, pseudonymous religious pamphleteer, "Pasquill Caviliero."

De Vere's story embodies his era's tumultuous Protestant-Catholic split, but dirtied with the blood and soil of a life that cast this tension in sharp relief. (De Vere's life's epic religious journey is just one instance of how the pallid musings of Stratfordiana ultimately fall short of reaching the kind of multi-layered biographical tapestry that one might expect of the man who created such a multi-layered canon.)

But innate to the Bard is also, just as crucially, a political divide-spanning between medieval and modern, feudal and mercantile, royalist and republican. And Edward de Vere -- 17th successive lord in a storied family of lords that trace back to the Norman Conquest -- embodied that same self-defying creative ferment.

There has been no better an observer of this tendency -- and how feudalist the "Shakespearean" sympathies often strikingly lay -- than Walt Whitman. Living as he was generations before the Oxfordian movement began, Whitman didn't have de Vere to latch on to. But Whitman was such a careful and close reader of Shakespeare that he didn't need de Vere's story either.

Whitman left behind a trail of some very poignant remarks on Shakespeare and the authorship question. (Whitman was, by the end of his life, a firm doubter in, as Whitman said, "The Avon man, the actor" and a speculative believer in one of the "wolfish earls" that populate the history plays as the canon's more likely author.) Whitman's musings were recorded by the American Bard's confidant Horace Traubel in the eight-volume series With Walt Whitman in Camden. As Whitman said:

Shakespeare stood for the glory of feudalism: Shakespeare, whoever he was, whoever they were: He had his place. I have never doubted his vastness, [his] space. ... His gospel was of the medieval -- the gospel of the grand, the luxurious: great lords, ladies: plate, hangings, glitter, ostentation, hypocritical chivalry, dress, trimmings. ...

People don't dare face the fact Shakespeare. They are all tied to a fiction that is called Shakespeare -- a Shakespearean illusion. ... It's very difficult to talk about Shakespeare in a frank vein: There's always somebody about with a terrific prejudice to howl you down. ...

And as Whitman wrote in his November Boughs

Think, not of growth as forests primeval, or Yellowstone geysers, or Colorado ravines, but of costly marble palaces and palace rooms and the noblest fixings and furniture, and noble owners and occupants to correspond -- think of carefully built gardens from the beautiful but sophisticated gardening art at its best, with walks and bowers and artificial lakes, and appropriate statue-grounds and the finest cultivated roses and lilies and japonicas in plenty -- and you have the tally of Shakespeare. ...

But to the deepest soul, it seems a shame to pick and choose from the riches Shakespeare has left to us -- to criticize his infinitely royal, multiform quality -- to gauge, with optic glasses, the dazzle of his sun-like beams.

Having now drawn out her Shakespearean analogy, Zadie Smith returns to Obama and notes, "It's my audacious hope that a man born and raised between opposing dogmas, between cultures, between voices, could not help but be aware of the extreme contingency of culture. ... He seems just the man to demonstrate that between those two voices there exists no contradiction and no equivocation but rather a proper and decent human harmony."

It is these modern-day forces in opposition -- ones that Smith begins to chart -- that could just as easily be taken as a departure point for the study of Edward de Vere's life... and the "Shakespeare" canon it subtends.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009


Everybody does it. Money quote:

As a young lad, de Vere lived with a guardian after his father died, received a world-class education, and had access to a phenomenal library. This library included, at the time, the only extant copy of Beowulf. Beowulf, though well-known today, was almost lost to the ages, but for that one copy. De Vere's tutor, an old English scholar, signed his name in the copy (a common thing, back then, kind of like a check-out slip.) Consider, if you will, the obvious plot and character parallels between Hamlet and Beowulf. The author of Hamlet clearly had read Beowulf and understood deeply. (Any other explanation is like denying the literary relationship between "Heart of Darkness" and Apocalypse Now.) De Vere was one of very few people in England or elsewhere with access to Beowulf, let alone that his tutor signed it at the time he tutored de Vere.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

The "mystery" of Lincoln, just down the street from Dickinson

On this American presidential holiday weekend, just after the bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln's birth, images of the 16th president flicker across cable news channels along with tales of economic stimulus plans, Oscar buzz and the usual lot of bipartisan bickering. Google News finds 3500 stories about Lincoln in just the past 24 hours, from his top ranking among all American presidents to his relevance to citizens today.

But amidst all the Lincoln-related pixels, ink and airtime, I just want to stop and reflect on a related something recently mentioned by one of the top podcasters around, Christopher Lydon.

In the latest episode of his "Radio Open Source" series, Lydon leaves behind a fragment of a thought that deserves a little more consideration. Lydon interviews Lincon's literary biographer Fred Kaplan:

Fred Kaplan’s literary life story of Lincoln is conceived as a mystery, not unlike the riddle of Shakespeare: how did the child of illiterates in a farm culture become an obsessive student and master of language in every form, from his tavern tales to the Second Inaugural?

Shakespeare and Lincoln, Lydon says, pose similar riddles. How can the brilliance of these men's careers be reconciled with their own humble origins? This is how the Shakespeare authorship issue is typically framed.

And, I say, it's the wrong question.

Not to diminish the mystery of Honest Abe, but there's nothing I'm aware of in President Lincoln's writings that suggests any biographical portrait other than the Abraham Lincoln bio we're all familiar with. Lincoln was a writer -- and a president -- of supreme intellect, possessing a deft literary mind and oratory gift. Nothing a student of any decent high school American history course doesn't already know. But Lincoln's personal biographical journey, from rural Kentucky and Illinois to Springfield to Washington, D.C., is reflected, throughout his life, in the products of his pen.

Lydon himself quotes two fine examples of this fact, in letters Lincoln wrote to friends Mary and Joshua Speed from 1841 and 1855, about the fundamental primacy of liberty and about Lincoln's visceral reaction to watching newly purchased Kentucky slaves being dispersed into the deep South.

Both excerpts offer lyrical examples of Lincoln's supremacy as a craftsman of prose, grabbing a reader by the shirt collar -- while still somehow managing to wax philosophical about big political ideas. Both excerpts are also creative expressions based in known biographical facts about Lincoln's life -- his doings, his friendships, his whereabouts, etc.

So where's the mystery?

I write these words literally just a mile from the homestead of Emily Dickinson, a poet of practically unparalleled genius in her time who spent the vast majority of her life in the town of Amherst, Massachusetts, writing some 1800 poems but only publishing 18 during her lifetime.

The mystery of Dickinson's boundlessly fertile imagination, like that of Lincoln's prolific muse, is in a primal sense, the mystery of literary creativity itself: Where does this amazing stuff all come from? Dickinson barely saw much of the world beyond western Massachusetts, and yet her works touch lives all over the planet and will continue to do so as long as there are eyes to read. Immortal, worldly verse from a very mortal, unworldly source.

And, wow, can the noodle salad of these kinds of musings go on for ever and ever amen.

There's nothing wrong with pondering such imponderables. But recognize the Whence Springs Creativity question for what it is: An open invitation for speculations that can't satisfactorily be answered or proved or disproved.

The "riddle of Shakespeare," however, is something else altogether. It's not about the nebulous origins of an individual's creative imagination but rather about the character of its content. What's the story this person's writings tell? And is that story consistent with the life story we've been told about the person? Does the literary biography jibe with the literary output?

In the cases of Abraham Lincoln and Emily Dickinson, I submit, the bottom-line answer to this simple question is Yes. With Shakespeare it is No.

The primary objection in the authorship issue is not that Will Shakespeare of Stratford had humble origins that therefore disqualify him from writing any kind of immortal plays and poems. (Cf. the Snobbery red herring.) Rather, it is simply that, the life story being told in the Shakespeare canon belongs to somebody else.

That's where the focus belongs. And so long as the "riddle" of the Bard remains expressed as a negative (unsophisticated Will of Stratford could not have created the sublime Shakespeare canon) rather than a positive (boundless connections between de Vere's life and the Shakespeare plays and poems), I think, we lose.

Perhaps, by the time the Dickinson bicentennial rolls around in 2030, this little problem will be all sorted out. (Is 21 years too much to ask for a full resolution to the authorship question?)

Meantime, happy 200, Abe. May your mysteries continue to amaze and befuddle us for many generations to come.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Pounds Sterling and the Shakespeare Brand

(Creative Commons image by unknowndomain)

On the online magazine Suite101, writer Linda Sue Grimes has been posting some short summaries of scores of Shake-speare Sonnets, keeping a watchful eye on the peculiar parallels between Edward de Vere's life and times and the events and times chronicled in those immortal poems.

Grimes' latest piece, posted yesterday, is on a personal favorite of mine, Sonnet 111. Sonnet and clips after the jump.


O, for my sake do you with Fortune chide,
The guilty goddess of my harmful deeds,
That did not better for my life provide
Than public means which public manners breeds.
Thence comes it that my name receives a brand,
And almost thence my nature is subdued

To what it works in, like the dyer's hand:
Pity me then and wish I were renew'd;
Whilst, like a willing patient, I will drink
Potions of eisel 'gainst my strong infection
No bitterness that I will bitter think,
Nor double penance, to correct correction.
Pity me then, dear friend, and I assure ye
Even that your pity is enough to cure me.

Lines 2-6 (ital.) contain a key part of the entire Shake-speare story, neatly summarized in iambs: The author's "harmful deeds" leads to "public means" to "provide for [his] life." But going on the dole breeds "public manners" which brings about a "brand" that almost subdues the author's nature. (In his 30s, de Vere went on the public dole, receiving a royal grant of a thousand pounds per year for the rest of his life, a grant that King James renewed during de Vere's final year on this mortal coil.)

It's amazing, really, what an unadorned confession those five lines are.

Here's Grimes:

His name becomes “a brand,” quite possibly the reason he used the pseudonym, “William Shakespeare.” At least this way, he keeps a portion of his privacy and dignity.

He reveals to the Muse that his nature, while working the plays, takes on the tincture of theatre life, “like the dyer’s hand,” and he begs the Muse to take pity on him and “wish [he] were renew’d.”

More of her sonnet-by-sonnet discussions here.