Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Memo to an Internet Critic - huff and puff and tweak the wording

At the end of October when it debuts in cinemas worldwide, the movie Anonymous will undoubtedly bring many new eyes and ears to the Shakespeare authorship mystery.

In the meantime, movie fan sites like IMDB have been hosting ongoing online debates that are never short on definitive opinions stated definitively. (Film nerds are not known to be shrinking violets when it comes to expressing their point of view.)

In one recent conflagration, I was called out for being "completely wrong" and "completely clueless." Other adverb-laden barbs loudly and boisterously made their presence known too.  

So what was the critique? It concerned a sentence I wrote in a 2006 online discussion forum about my book. (The same sentence also appeared in Appendix C of "Shakespeare" By Another Name -- "The 1604 Question.")

As I'm now in the midst of making some minor edits to the next edition of SBAN that will be appearing in September -- more on that soon -- I wanted all the more to know exactly what I'd gotten wrong in Appendix C so I could make the correction

The critic's contention and my examination of his contention follows after the jump.

First, though, a quick primer on why any of this matters: Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford died in 1604. Ten or more of the "Shakespeare" plays are conventionally presumed (on very weak evidence) to have been written after 1604. Of course, if the post-1604 dates of composition are correct, the Oxfordian theory is either dead in the water or would require one or more collaborators who lived on after 1604. 

The essential Oxfordian contention is that the orthodox scholars are wrong. The plays all date to 1604 or before.**  

Below, then, is the claim posted on IMDB
As I suspected, Mark Anderson is completely wrong. Howard Schumann gave the following link to an article by Mark Anderson. In the link, Anderson says, "Alfred Harbage's Pelican/Viking editions of Shake-speare (1969; 1977) provide a range of dates for the likely composition of each of the plays: Only The Tempest and Henry VIII fall beyond 1604."
That's simply NOT TRUE. It's demonstrably false. 
I got a copy of the 1969 edition, edited by Alfred Harbage. On page 19 it gives a list of the works in the canon, along with dates. On page 20, it clearly states, "The date following the each title is, in all but a few cases, only tentative. It represents the view of the Pelican editor on the year in which the play is most likely to have been assumed in its present form." 
TEN PLAYS ARE LISTED AS BEING WRITTEN AFTER 1604 - not the two that Mark Alexander [sic] claims. 
The ten plays written after 1604 (according to this edition) are: Lear (1605), Macbeth (1605), Timon (1606), Pericles (1607), Antony & Cleopatra (1607), Coriolanus (1608), Cymbeline (1609), Winter's Tale (1610), Tempest (1611), Henry VIII (1613). 
Nothing says that the dates of likely composition for any of these plays is prior to 1604, although he does say Perlicles may have been a reworking of an earlier work. (Pericles is the ONLY one of these ten plays that the editor says might have had an earlier version.) 
In short, Mark Anderson is completely clueless. 
It was seven years ago when I last laid eyes on the 1969 Harbage edition of the Complete Works -- and I don't own a copy myself -- so on my most recent research library trip, yesterday, I checked it out again. Here is the table that has caused such a kerfuffle. (Click on it to see it at full resolution)

So, first off, a quick examination of this image will reveal that my essential claim is, in fact, correct: The reason I mentioned the 1969 Alfred Harbage-edited edition of Shakespeare is because he is one of the rare modern Stratfordian editors who (with laudable candor and honesty) puts "error bars" on his estimate of each play's date of composition. 

As Harbage writes in the accompanying introduction (quoted partially above), "The date following each [Shakespeare] title is, in all but a few cases, only tentative. It represents the view of the Pelican editor on the year in which the play is most likely to have assumed its present form. ... In parentheses beside each play is given the span of years in which we would place the play if we relied solely upon a strict interpretation of external evidence."

Only two plays' dates, by Harbage's reckoning, fall completely beyond 1604. Those are, as noted above, The Tempest and Henry VIII. And there is good cause to suspect Harbage is wrong on those points too. (This is discussed in SBAN's Appendix C.) 

That said, I'd still like to thank the IMDB critic for -- in his own way -- flagging my statement about Harbage. Seven years after writing that sentence, I think it could indeed be worded a little more clearly and accurately. Perhaps something more like (with edits in italics):

Alfred Harbage's Pelican/Viking editions of Shake-speare (1969; 1977) assign a "tentative" date of composition for each of the plays (which would put ten works in the post-1604 category) but then also provide error bars for each suppositional date. Harbage's range of possible dates of composition for each of the plays puts just The Tempest and Henry VIII completely beyond 1604.

I'll be happy to consider any suggested tweaks to this edit. Even if you happen to be, like your correspondent, "completely clueless." 

**There are complications, of course. It's practically universally agreed that "later" plays like Pericles or Two Noble Kinsmen represent collaborations with other playwrights from the early 17th century. This is possible under an Oxfordian scenario too, though, with incomplete posthumous plays trickling out circa 1605-1613 and play companies assigning other playwrights to finish them off for public performance.

A belated thank you goes to Roger Stritmatter for originally tipping me off to the Harbage edition of Shakespeare. The Creative Commons Image above (of that other thing known as Anonymous) comes from Anonymous9000


Wally/Maria said...

Good job, as always, Mark. It's truly amazing what folks with opinions will say if they are convinced that they are right. I am completely convinced that I don't know enough to have an infallible opinion: therefore, I'll keep digging and try and treat everyone as well or better than they treat me in a debate on the subject...

Mayrozez said...

I hope the new edition will be available in Kindle format!

Mark said...

Thank you, Wally/Maria. Well put. Yes indeed, Mayrozez, a Kindle edition will be available.