Thursday, April 28, 2016

Bard- and other -olatries

Those others of you who spend long hours each day trapped alone in the car with National Public Radio will not have failed to have heard by now that last weekend marked the 400th death-iverssary of William Shakespeare,  i.e., the man from Stratford -- a fairly arbitrary date to celebrate, but one that has given reporters and pundits a much-relished chance to dust off old lines and controversies about the bard -- the "second-best bed," whether Hamlet and Hamnet had anything to do with one another, and, of course, the conspiracy theory that won't die, that great "birther" and "truther" phenomenon of the literary cranks -- the "Shakespearean authorship question."

But take heart, gentle reader. If you are feeling the need for some thin shred of hope to cling to this political season, to prove that facts and reason and documentary evidence do still matter to some people, some of the time-- that, as someone once said, the "truth will out" (wait a minute! ...will! It must be an encoded plea for help from the true Shakespeare, warning of the impending conspiracy to deny his authorship of the plays two centuries hence!) -- as I say, if you are looking for a life-vest of sanity -- you can do no better than look to the changing receptivity of American public media over the past few decades to the Shakespeare-deniers and their theories. Compare, for instance, the delightful "Our Shakespeare, Ourselves" that aired this past weekend on On the Media, which takes it for granted that the persistent rumors that someone else wrote Shakespeare's plays have nothing to do with Shakespeare and everything to do with the theories' promoters -- to the lamentable 1992 episode of Frontline, "The Shakespeare Mystery."

You read that correctly -- this stuff as on Frontline back in the '90s! Not the History Channel, as one would expect, but that estimable non-commercial oracle of truth Frontline! I confess I was baffled. I even thought at first, "Well, if they put this on Frontline, then maybe there's more to all this Shakespeare conspiracy guff than I realized." I went in, therefore, feeling fully receptive. But no. Even in that open-minded state I was confronted all over again by the persistent truth that defeats the Shakespeare-denier theories every time -- that they would be highly interesting if true, but there's just no good reason to think they are! 

Is this putting it too strongly? I admit that the Frontline episode manages briefly to stir one's curiosity toward the beginning, but by the time they descend into the details of the so-called "Oxfordian theory"-- which posits that the true author of the plays was the otherwise little-known Edward de Vere, Seventeenth Earl of Oxford -- one knows that some key editorial figure at PBS must have been dozing at the switch that week. Here the program gives full credence to the wild speculations of one Charlton Ogburn, heir to a family cottage industry of Oxfordianism, and to the current Earl of Oxford himself, a descendent of De Vere, who obviously believes he has a stake in the matter. Among the really cinching evidence such men present is the fact that a writer by the name of J. Thomas Looney -- the progenitor of the Oxfordian theory, whose name the Frontline announcer wisely pronounces "Loaney" (as in the equally apposite "Baloney") --  once found a book of verse in the British Library by De Vere that reminded him of the words of Shakespeare (thereby discrediting the long-held theory of the "Establishment" that no two Elizabethan poets sound alike); as well as the fact that the Earl of Oxford once lived in the house of a pompous nobleman who probably dispensed Polonius-like bromides (since, you know, William Shakespeare of Statford-upon-Avon could not possibly have encountered advice in his youth that urged him to be careful with his money.)

This is such stuff as Oxfordianism is made on. For the points in favor of the other side, I won't give you yet another resumé of all the good reasons to think that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare -- you can find them here and here and here, among other places, written by people who know and care far more about this than I do. I also will not give another familiar account of the history of the Shakespeare-denier theories.

There is one sub-genre of the Stratfordian literature, however, to which I find I cannot resist contributing. It seems that in nearly all the chief defenses of the man from Stratford, the authors eventually turn toward psychologizing their opponents (i.e. the Oxfordians, the Baconians, the Marlovians and others) and while this may seem like an unfair style of argumentation, I assure you it becomes inevitable once one is confronted by their theories. If you do not already believe me, then watch the Frontline episode straight through to the end, to the part where Charlton Ogburn begins to shed real tears as he contemplates the despoiled shade of Edward De Vere, Earl of Oxford -- robbed of the recognition that is his due, and forced to live for all time in the shadow of an ignorant, grasping boor who had not an ounce of literary merit to his name -- i.e., Shakespeare, of Stratford-upon-Avon. I believe you will concede, after doing so, that whatever all of this means to Charlton Ogburn-- and it evidently means a great deal -- it has nothing to do with the minor Elizabethan playboy and courtier who was the real Earl of Oxford, and it has nothing to do with William Shakespeare, who would surely be baffled to learn that he has become, 400 years after his death, the object of such vitriolic contempt on the part of people who claim to love his plays (indeed, because they claim to love his plays, and therefore think that an ordinary, mortal father and husband from an English village could not possibly have written them).

What can one do in the face of such extravagant silliness? One can seek out its root causes in the weeds of human nature. First, however, let's spend just a bit more time meeting the odd cast of characters who appear in "The Shakespeare Mystery" -- and I don't mean any of the Elizabethan figures, who are quite uninteresting and uninterested in the controversy, but rather the 20th century duelists waging combat on their behalf, much in the spirit of brawling parents at a soccer match whose kids have long since forgotten whose goal is which.

Who are some of the other expert witnesses called for the Oxfordian prosecution in the Frontline episode? There is roughly one other, and he is, incredibly enough, Enoch Powell. Yes, that's right, the Enoch Powell, the Tory M.P. whose chief claim to historical note lies not in the field of Elizabethan scholarship, but in spearheading the (thankfully unsuccessful) campaign to establish racial apartheid in Great Britain, on analogy to the caste systems of Rhodesia and South Africa -- in being, that is, the most outspokenly and unabashedly racist and xenophobic Member of Parliament since Sir Oswald Mosley. Granted, Powell proves in interviews to be about as likable and retiring a fellow as one could be while holding such views, and granted too that it is not impossible that someone could in theory be a proponent of apartheid while also happening to stumble upon the greatest literary secret of the age -- but on its own his political biography scarcely inspires confidence.

So that's who's up to bat for the Earl of Oxford: Ogburn and Powell, neither of whom is an authority on the subject in any generally accepted sense of the word (though that, of course, merely proves the extent of the conspiracy).

Pitching for Stratford, meanwhile -- it must be confessed-- is A.L. Rowse, who may know a lot about Shakespeare, but is on his absolute worst behavior in this documentary -- embodying to an unwelcome degree his snide authorial persona, which is a delight on the page but becomes strikingly ugly and pompous elsewhere. Rowse relates among other things an urban legend about a Shakespeare denier who insisted that the bard was actually a woman and Elizabeth I actually a man (a story treated as "apocryphal," if funny, by another Stratfordian writer), as if the incident were from Rowse's own experience ("I received a letter the other day..." he says). This does not quite set one's mind at ease that Rowse intends to verify his claims and sources. He then sums things up rather grandly by declaring that Shakespeare must have written his own works because he is so clearly heterosexual-- and so, I guess, are the works -- whereas Marlowe and some of the other contenders to the throne were all "roaring homos." Yes, this is how he puts it. For the more or less openly gay Rowse-- the author of the astonishingly good fun "Homosexuals in History," which I was lucky enough to find in a used book shop in Virginia, this is all a campy inside joke, not a display of homophobic prejudice; still though, it is hardly convincing one way or the other as historical evidence.

Perhaps the psychologizing needs to cut both ways then. What is at any rate clear across the board is that if this issue excites the kinds of outsized passions that are on display in the documentary, then you are likely guilty of "bardolatry" -- Shaw's famous coinage to refer to the excessive worship of Shakespeare. The Stratfordians see themselves as champions of the insulted memory of the true bard, the man from Stratford. The Oxfordians and Baconians, meanwhile -- though they have often presented themselves as the more contrarian and heterodox members of the debating circle -- in fact betray an even more slavish adoration of the author of the plays that the most devout Stratfordians do. The real kernel of their arguments, after all, is that Shakespeare's plays are surely too great, too ingenious, too learned, to be the creation of an indifferently-educated commoner who had never been to Oxbridge or the Inns of Court. What most rankles with the Shakespeare-deniers, what they truly cannot accept about the consensus view, is the notion that the plays were written by a human being who had the same opportunities they did -- or fewer-- and who somehow nonetheless made use of them to create works of genius.

But is it in fact so unfathomable that an uneducated but inordinately clever person could have written the plays? The argument is frequently made that Shakespeare could not possibly have understood politics and court life as well as he seems to, if he had not moved in such circles himself. Our friend Enoch Powell, who no doubt conceives his own political career in something of a Shakespearean mold, states in the Frontline documentary that his time in Westminster has proven to him beyond any doubt that only a fellow politician could have written about power and intrigue as Shakespeare does. (Ergo, Oxfordianism is valid -- a leap worthy of a Thomistic proof). With all respect to the bard, however, whose works I'm sure are quite good, (though I've never been able to force myself to read them at any length -- they have been ruined for me by the terrible sense of "obligation" that hangs over them in our thoroughly bardolatrous society) let it be said that the critical judgment on which Powell's historical claim is based is not universally shared. Tolstoy, for one, thought it was precisely the inauthenticity of Shakespeare's portrayals that was the most striking feature of his plays -- in other words, that his political and historical and courtly settings serve as indifferent backdrops for his monologues, as thin pretexts for his discourses on more universal human themes. Tolstoy couldn't stand this aspect of the bard (or any of the other aspects), but one doesn't have to share his judgment so far as that in order to recognize some truth in the underlying observation. At the very least, the human element -- with all its imperfections-- seems as evident in the composition of Shakespeare's plays as it is in the Bible, the Qur'an, the Book of Mormon, and any other human and historical document for which a spurious claim of inimitability has been made.

But why do we experience such a need to grovel before our literary heroes? Why is it so hard for us to believe that Shakespeare was a highly gifted poet and playwright-- and nothing more? In answering this, I take my cue from Max Havelaar again (which, for no other reason than that I recently finished it, seems to be getting a lot of play on this blog at the moment). As Multatuli wisely notes (Nahüys trans.):
"It is a peculiar phenomenon [...] how easily one gives his confidence to persons who know how to give themselves the appearance of more knowledge, when this knowledge has been drawn from a foreign source. The reason perhaps is that self-love is less hurt by the acknowledgment of such an ascendency, than would be the case if one could have recourse to the same expedients when anything like [the possibility] of emulation should arise. It is easy for the representative of the people to give up his opinion, as soon as it is combated by a person who may be deemed to pass a more accurate judgment than he and this accuracy need not be ascribed to personal superiority, confession of which would be more difficult, but only to the particular circumstances wherein such an opponent has been." 
Thus in politics, so in literature. Most of us, myself included, have not written anything that particularly bears comparison with the works of Shakespeare. Enoch Powell's "Rivers of Blood" speech is no "Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow." This blog's rants about Donald Trump are no Richard III. For those of us who are remotely honest with ourselves, such conclusions are inescapable, albeit wounding to the pride. But suppose I could prove to myself that Shakespeare wasn't just another fellow like me, with the same opportunities, who didn't attend Oxford or Cambridge any more than I did. Suppose I could prove that he did his work upon a basis of unattainable luxuries and advantages, earldoms and princedoms that I could never call my own. Could I not then safely worship him from afar, content in the knowledge that he is made of entirely different stuff than the likes of me, rather than be confronted with the upsetting conclusion that the only difference between Shakespeare and myself is that he was quite a bit smarter?

This is my great contribution to the Shakespeare debate, and it points the way to only one possible conclusion, though it damns Powell and me and Ogburn and Rowse alike: that Shakespeare was at least somewhat more clever than us, and that's all there is to it.

... Unless, of course, we can prove that his work is actually rot, and the real conspiracy has been to puff him up over all these centuries. Let me pull out that Tolstoy again...

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