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.]

1 comment:

Hunferth said...

This paragraph by Jenkins is utter nonsense, as you alluded to:

"The evidence of who Shakespeare was can be broken down into categories: what you can verify with records (his marriage was a shotgun affair), what you can be pretty certain of based on the contextual evidence (he was exposed to great theater as a boy) and what you can make an educated guess at based on the experiences of his contemporaries (dramatists were a jealous lot, but Shakespeare avoided duels, so he must have been sweet-tempered). The temptation is to fill in the gaps with overeager supposition."

It's amazing that newspapers of standing allow this type of reporting without giving any credence to the de Vere theory.

There is amazing work being done around de Vere being the author of the Shakespeare plays. But when writers dismiss that research from the outset, everything else they write following that dismissal just rings so hollow.

I wish the Folger would once and for all settle some of the questions regarding all the paintings that have the remotest possibility to be either Shakspar or de Vere. I wish the Folger would at least engage in dialog about these.

And Jenkins revisionist history is amusing. And the way she, like all Strattfordians, embellishes young Will's life, is to be commended because she can now consider herself a fiction writer!

And did you know the Avon River moved like syrup?

I am dizzy from the spinning the Jankins does.

I have a question that I'm not sure has been addressed. If the Cobbe is Shakespeare, and it was the original for the Janssen, then why did someone think it necessary to give the Janssen a balding pate to more resember Shakespeare?

To me the answer is obvious. Certain families knew the identify to be Shakespeare in the guise of Edward de Vere. De Vere, of course, draws no fame nor money, so these people needed to make this ( and other portraits) resemble the "known" Shakspar.

Chris Kaiser