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.

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