Sunday, August 30, 2009

Overbury Overdrive Part 749: Shakespeare in Canard-land

Today's Washington Post Sunday Magazine features a head-scratcher of a cover story (not unlike the cover fodder in the color supplement pictured here) that serves up, in this case, a fine selection of canards about Shakespeare and the "new Shakespeare portrait."

The author of the piece, sports columnist Sally Jenkins, has clearly done her research. Or at least research of the un-fact-checked, single-sourced, if-you-believe-that-I've-got-a-bridge-to-sell-you-too variety that big media outlets such as hers perfected in the run up to the Iraq invasion.

She writes:

Both [the First Folio Shakespeare engraving and Stratford funerary monument] are so unintelligent-looking that scholars blame them for instigating the Author Controversy, which is not really a controversy so much as a campaign by conspiracy-minded amateurs to prove that someone more visually appealing wrote the plays. The thinking goes that the "peculiar dough-faced man" in the Droeshout, as Stephen Greenblatt of Harvard University calls him, is too stolid to have written such soaring words. Someone else must have, preferably someone good-looking. As scholar Marjorie Garber writes, "We'd rather he not look like an egghead."

The Author Controversy persists despite considerable documentary evidence. We have the man from Stratford's pay stubs for performing at court, his certificate of occupancy for the Globe Theatre, and his will, in which he left memorial rings to some London actors. Funny he would do that if he was just a country burgher who didn't write the plays.

Oh, dear.

Proponents of "the Author Controversy," as Jenkins terms it, are often accused of a number of sins. (Are we not snobs anymore? Where are the familiar red herrings we ordered??) But disowning the Stratford myth simply because Stratford Will is not pretty enough is a new one to me.

And the fact that the basic anti-Stratfordian argument (cf. here, here or here) presumes William of Stratford to have been an actor but not an author has evidently escaped Jenkins' notice. (The documents she cites, indeed the whole of Stratford Will's documentary record, are consistent with him working in the theater, probably as an actor -- something that few Shakespeare heretics dispute.)

From there, the howlers just keep coming:

* "One thing scholars agree on is that Shakespeare probably sat for a portrait in his early to mid-40s" - I think I recognize this old deadline-plagued journalist's trick: Find something in a book (in this case, pure supposition); claim that all authorities agree with it; then hedge your bets with that handy weasel word "probably." Nice.

* "he was exposed to great theater as a boy" & "Shakespeare avoided duels, so he must have been sweet-tempered" - these as examples of things that don't represent ways that scholars "fill in the gaps with overeager supposition."

* "He arrived in London in 1586 or 1587" ... or 1588 or 1589 or 1590 or 1591 or 1592.

* "The first time the Earl of Southampton laid eyes on Shakespeare he was probably stalking around a stage, wearing sham jewels and a robe hung with tiny mirrors to make it glitter, shouting hoarse rhymes in the air..." No room for doubt there. Jenkins is clearly catching on to the just-make-stuff-up school of Stratfordian biography.

And with such solid credentials built up in telling Stratford Will's life, Jenkins goes on recite the case that the sitter in the new Cobbe portrait of Sir Thomas Overbury is indeed Will Shakspere of Stratford. Namely, the c. 1610 painting came from a family descended from the Earl of Southampton ("Shakespeare's patron") and it resembles another painting once thought to be of Shakespeare.

To her credit, Jenkins also quotes authorities that, in the grand tradition of strange bedfellows, I'd just like to end this post with. Because they're right. (And in Jonathan Bate's case, he's more right than he probably knows.)

The [Folger Shakespeare] library is in a funny position: For years, it viewed the Janssen portrait as discredited and displayed it in a far corner of the ornate, gothic reading room in a row with other impostors and curios, under a small brass plaque that read "Sir Thomas Overbury?" In 1964, an art historian had tentatively identified the portrait as Overbury, a minor poet poisoned in the Tower of London under James I.

While Folger curator Erin Blake has met with Cobbe and directed him to useful historical sources, she stands by the provisional Overbury identification until she sees more evidence.


"To me, a lot of the interesting discoveries about Shakespeare are discoveries of his absence," [Shakespeare scholar Jonathan] Bate says. "It comes back to this sense that what he was good at was withholding himself and leaving things open to the audience. ... It's that kind of disappearing act that he was so good at, that's what keeps him alive."

[POSTSCRIPT: Although I'll be in deadline-land tomorrow, please note that as the Post article points out, Sally Jenkins will be taking questions about this story Monday at 12 noon ET.]

Saturday, August 29, 2009

William Golding's biographer on the unfortunate nature of many eminent creators

This past week on the BBC Radio 4 arts and entertainment program(me) "Front Row," host Mark Lawson interviewed biographer John Carey who has just completed the first ever biography of Nobel Prize winning novelist William Golding, using hundreds of pages of personal journals, letters and unpublished works -- that haven't before seen the light of day.

Lawson's interview is a fascinating listen for anyone who enjoys literary biography. But it's also relevant to the Shakespeare issue because Carey is a critic who has reviewed many literary biographies himself. As Lawson points out, Carey once famously observed that Anton Chekhov seems to be "perhaps the only great writer who had also been a wholly commendable human being."

Carey's portrait of Golding reveals an author who -- if Stratfordian standards of moralistic judgment about Edward de Vere's character applied here -- should clearly be deemed unfit to have written great literature.

Carey's biography of Golding reveals the Nobel laureate to have been, in his own words, a "monster" who admitted in his own journals that "I understand the Nazis because that's basically what I am." In those same journals, Golding owns up, for instance, to an attempted sexual assault on an underaged girl.

Golding's journals, Carey says, contain a kind of self-loathing and deep-seated shame -- the full origins of which are not entirely clear. Carey qualifies Golding's sensational "Nazi" remark to note that, unlike the poet Ezra Pound, Golding was never a supporter of the Third Reich. Rather, Golding's strange confession might seem to stem from a more generalized understanding he felt, in some primal way, for organized acts of depravity or inhumanity.

These horrific qualities of one of the great British novelists of the 20th century of course provide only one small insight into a man who also gave the world one of the most stunning and poignant portraits of the savagery inherent in all human societies.

But it would also appear that, in this case at least, Golding knew all too well the monstrous extremes to which human behavior can sometimes descend. Clearly a redeeming grace was his extraordinary talent for rendering it into words.

My general response to those who try to pull the moral argument against Edward de Vere as "Shakespeare" is to ask if they've ever actually read, say, Titus Andronicus. Or Pericles. Or how about Macbeth?

To that list I might now add Lord of the Flies -- and then point them toward Carey's new bio.

[Creative Commons image by Sun_Dazed]

Friday, August 07, 2009

Order in the Courthouse: The Wrath of Kahn

The legal newswire syndicate Courthouse News Service today ran a column taking on the Oxfordians and "Shakespeare" By Another Name in particular. And while I try to resist the temptation of answering critics at every turn, this particular columnist -- Robert Kahn -- cranked out some factually dubious and just-plain-untrue statements that deserved some kind of recognition.

Kahn leads off his opening argument with the remark that "[Oxfordian] U.S. Supreme Court Justice... John Paul Stevens doesn't know Shakespeare from a goose."

Attempting to correct the record, Kahn goes on to goose up some of his own Shakespearean claims. "We know that Shakespeare acted in Macbeth before King James II [sic]," Kahn says. (There actually are no records of any performance of Macbeth for the first King James. A restoration version of the Scots play may have been performed for James II, but unless Kahn's Bard was also a vampire, it's unlikely that the 123-year-old Stratford actor would have been doing much when the restoration Macbeth treaded the boards c. 1687.)

We also know, Kahn says, "that someone knocked out 'the Scottish play' in a few weeks especially for the new king, who liked ghost stories."

Um... nice try. James I may have liked ghost stories, but the other bit about the Scots play isn't true either.

A few potshots ensue about SBAN and the "dreck" of de Vere's early song lyrics. (I'd be curious to know if the columnist has read any great authors' juvenilia, such as the Bronte sisters' none-too-soaring early works.)

But then come Kahn's two real howlers. First that Mark Twain only believed that "someone else wrote Shakespeare -- who also happened to be named William Shakespeare." (Yours truly, Kahn says, "cheats" by supposedly falsely stating that Twain was an anti-Stratfordian.)

Again: Wow. Kahn is just plain wrong. He seems to be a witty guy who might enjoy a good read. Mark Twain's 1909 anti-Stratfordian opus Is Shakespeare Dead? comes highly recommended.

Last but not least, Kahn states that SBAN is itself fundamentally flawed, because, "The notion that the man who may have been the greatest creative genius the world has ever known would spend his old age rewriting his old plays over and over, after they already had been acted, is psychologically ridiculous."

"A creative genius," he says, "does not spend his old age polishing up stuff he wrote as a pup."

By way of counter-example, one might point the wayward jurist in the direction of a man who in fact did just that. Many consider the man to be a "creative genius." Some, in fact, consider the man to be the closest America has ever come to our own Shakespeare.

Whatever the case, this "creative genius" did spend his latter years, into old age, revising and re-revising his own masterwork.

His name was Walt Whitman.

And bonus round, Mr. Kahn: Whitman was an anti-Stratfordian too.

[Creative Commons image by Thomas Roche]

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Getting Skeptical

The August issue of Scientific American contains an article providing "A Skeptic's Take on the Life and Argued Works of Shakespeare."

The piece represents the latest column from Michael Shermer, founding publisher of Skeptic magazine and a man whose work I certainly respect -- and typically agree with.

But like anything else, "skepticism" sometimes needs a healthy dose of skepticism.

Shermer devotes his column to refuting the arguments from the April 18 Wall Street Journal article on U.S. Supreme Court justices who have concluded that Edward de Vere wrote the "Shakespeare" canon. (The WSJ piece was previously blogged about here.)

After calling Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens a snob, in so many words, Shermer points out that "it's not enough merely to plant doubts about Will."

"We should grant that Shakespeare wrote the plays unless and until the anti-Stratfordians can make their case for a challenger who fits more of the literary and historical data," he writes.

Fair enough.

The case he's looking for is in a book called "Shakespeare" Identified in Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, published in 1920. It's a classic that should be on the bookshelf of anyone who professes any interest in the Bard and his life.

Of course, it's only fair that if I get to cite a book, so does he: Shermer ultimately rests his skepticism about de Vere on a 2005 book called The Case for Shakespeare: The End of the Authorship Question by Purchase College theater professor Scott McCrea. McCrea, he says, "demonstrates beyond a reasonable doubt" that Will Shakspere of Stratford was the author.

I don't want to get into a full-on book review here, but suffice it to say that McCrea's tome is the latest in the lot of "anti-Oxfordian" books. (Not for long, though. Next year, bestselling author James Shapiro -- author of 1599: A Year in the Life of Shakespeare -- will reportedly be taking on the Oxfordians himself in his next book, Contested Will.)

McCrea's book scores a few points that demonstrate why the Shakespeare authorship question remains a contested topic on both sides of the orthodox-heretic divide. For instance, McCrea rightly points out that Oxfordians have over-stretched their arguments that the Shakespeare canon's references to hunting and hawking necessarily point to an aristocratic author. (This would be because lower classes were prohibited by law from enjoying these sports.) In fact, these sports appear to have been more widely practiced than most Oxfordians have claimed. Point taken.

But McCrea also goes for the jugular on a number of arguments that are either poorly researched or poorly plotted out. Or both. Case in point: He occupies eight pages making some ill-informed claims that the Shakespeare canon contains numerous "errors" in its references to Italy and France. As pointed out at length in both "Shakespeare" By Another Name (chapters 4 and 5) and the book's Audio Series, Episodes 3 and 4, the Bard's references to Italy are so specific and accurate that they instead suggest that the author had some kind first-hand knowledge of Italy himself. Some Italian allusions in the Shakespeare canon, moreover, date specifically to the mid-1570s, when Edward de Vere was traveling there. (Listen to Episode 3 for a sampling of this latter variety.)

Finally, McCrea's polemics could certainly use to be less hysterical in places. Comparing Oxfordians to Holocaust deniers (“though obviously it lacks the same moral dimension,” he notes) is the kind of tawdry ploy that serves only to cheapen his rhetoric and anger anyone seeking a rational exploration of the Shakespeare mystery.

These are times when well-researched and sharply-written skeptical critiques of truly nutty ideas -- Obama "birthers" come to mind -- are clearly needed.

But Michael Shermer's impulse simply to defer to academic authority has done him no favors this time around. The kind of "skeptical" reasoning Shermer practices in his latest column should make any careful reader skeptical about his brand of "skeptical."

[Creative commons images by wburris and Senor Codo]