Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Will: "I Am"

There is a line in the movie "Amelie" to the effect that the world is not always kind to dreamers. The worst unkindness the world can visit upon anyone, dreamer or not, is to assert that that someone is not who they say they are. William Shakespeare, a dreamer par excellence whose birth we celebrate today, has been the target of naysayers for centuries now. In tribute to his enduring masterpieces I wish to add my voice to those who assert unequivocally that William Shakespeare and only William Shakespeare wrote as William Shakespeare.

It is something of a cottage industry, this anti-Stratfordianism, and it is centered around several arguments I consider flimsy and pointless at best, arrogant and ignorant at worst.

Their arguments include the proposition that it is 'outrageous' to consider that a glover's son from the shire with no degree from Oxford or Cambridge could have written these plays and poetry. Some point
out as well Will Shakespeare's lack of expertise in fields such as law and music, fields he wrote about throughout his career. Others assert that he portrayed court life so thoroughly that he could not have written the plays because he was not a courtier. Thus, the work must have been written by a noble who chose 'William Shakespeare' as his pseudonym. Still others adhere to the theory that the work was written by several nobles. Some believe the work was written by a woman.

As for myself, while I do have questions about his work I have never questioned his authorship of that work. As regards the question of Will Shakespeare's education, no documents have yet been found to affirm formal education for the Bard. We do know there was a grammar school in operation in Stratford-upon-Avon during his childhood years and I suspect that the curriculum was much more rigorous than we could imagine. An adult with as lively a mind as his must have surely been a precocious child. His father was a town councilman of sorts and so I find it easier to imagine he sent his son to school to discipline his mind than that he did not.

To those who say a woman wrote the plays I say, 'No.' I am a woman. I champion women, but from my continuing study of the Renaissance and the quality of life for women then I do not feel that a woman had a chance in hell of either producing or presenting the body of work attributed to William Shakespeare. Yes, Elizabeth I was a titan, a trailblazer, but it would be hundreds of years before women gained any sort of power in the 'play-acting' business. After all, only this year did a woman receive the Academy Award for Best Director (Kathryn Bigelow, "The Hurt Locker"). Eighty-two years of Academy Awards preceded her award. We should not forget, also, that during Shakespeare's time the playhouses were considered dens of iniquity and were the constant target of attempted closures.

I consider the other anti-Stratfordian arguments from the point of view of a writer. From what I have read of court life at the time being a courtier sounds as though it was a full-time job in and of itself. Writing is a lot of work. It takes patience. It takes practice. It pops up in your life in a million different ways and almost always when you least expect it. It does not adhere to any sort of schedule whether one is a noble or not. Some nobles did indeed write; Sir Francis Bacon was famous for his essays, but discursive writing is much different than dramatic or poetic writing as most would agree.

While some nobles did indeed write and present some highly stylized dramatic productions I do not believe any one noble or any group of nobles working in concert could have produced the 36 plays attribute to William Shakespeare. That number indicates that he wrote more than one play per year over the course of his career. One of the aims of court life, it seems to me, was to keep the nobles separate, keep them focused on the monarch and their own best interests. How, then, could such a life foster the group dynamic necessary for a cadre of nobles to write thirty-six plays?
The case against the author(-s) being of the nobility becomes even stronger, in my opinion, when one remembers that William Shakespeare was a part owner of the acting company. In his capacity as partial owner and house playwright I feel it is reasonable to consider that William Shakespeare's career was very likely like that of a playwright and artistic director in today's theatre. The acting company was under the auspices of a noble, and as such it was in the company's best interest to make a profit for said noble. Significantly, William Shakespeare's theatre was profitable, and profitable at a time when players were considered vagrants. We must not forget that Shakespeare's theatre was not the only theatre in town, either. He had competition. The profile he would have had to maintain and the work he had to shoulder to ensure that success rules out any chance that some noble, in favor and dancing attendance at court, was the 'real' author. Any noble out of favor with the court would have been insane or suicidal to take such a risk.

The objections raised around the specialized knowledge depicted in the plays (e.g. music and law) are quite weak. We know little enough about his life to assert one way or the other about his knowledge, or lack thereof, regarding such topics. Further, any responsible writer with a modicum of talent and self-respect knows enough to seek out experts when necessary. For someone of Will Shakespeare's standing I suspect it would be quite easy to obtain expert input whenever necessary.

These arguments aside, I maintain that the sheer talent evidenced in this body of work argues plaintively for a sole author. The poetry and plays form an intricate and intimate web of story which tells me that the author lived story, lived his art. He chose the life and he lived it. The writing life was his answer to Juliet's question, "Wherefore art thou?" His art was his way of being himself. He knew the work inside out, upside down, every which way. Writing was not a sometime pastime for him. It was life.

Not all writers have the kind of talent it takes to write original stories, stories like "A Midsummer Night's Dream," "The Tempest," "King Lear," "Othello," "Much Ado About Nothing," " Hamlet," "The Merchant of Venice," "The Winter's Tale," and the list continues. Here I paraphrase the praise Lewis Mumford lavished upon 20th century painter Georgia O'Keeffe in 1936 when I say that in "conception and execution" not only is William Shakespeare's body of work evidence "of consummate craftsmanship, but it likewise possesses that mysterious force, that hold upon the hidden soul, which distinguishes important communication from the casual reports of the eye" and ear.

There is no question in my mind at all that William Shakespeare was a willing conduit for the creative force which accesses knowledge and tuition beyond that available to our senses. He was a willing, talented, and inspiring conduit. We have evidence that at least one contemporary playwright considered Will Shakespeare a professional threat and felt inspired to jealousy by his work. Jealousy does not spring from watching another fail.

My final argument for Will Shakespeare as the author of Will Shakespeare's plays and poetry is his eminent work, "Hamlet," the 'existential' play, the play about 'being.' This play's the thing wherein he addressed the attacks upon his authorship of the plays, "the slings and arrows" aimed at his "outrageous fortune," his unprecedented success. How better to assert his right to his own work than by couching it in the play wherein he lays bare his grief over the death of his only son, Hamnet?
What's Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba,
That he should weep for her? What would he do
Had he the motive and the cue for passion
That I have? He would drown the stage with tears
And cleave the general ear with horrid speech,
Make mad the guilty and appall the free,
Confound the ignorant and amaze indeed
The very faculties of eyes and ears.

"Hamlet," II.ii.586-593, Folger Shakespeare Library ed.

No other man anywhere, ever, can claim Hamnet as his son but William Shakespeare. Nor can any other person anywhere in time lay claim to the poetry and drama of William Shakespeare. This is his primal scream, "I Am!" Any number of men may have wanted to rule the Globe, but only William Shakespeare, the glover's son from Stratford has that distinction.

Good name in man and woman, dear my lord,
Is the immediate jewel of their souls.
Who steals my purse steals trash. 'Tis something, nothing;
'Twas mine, 'tis his, and has been slave to thousands.
But he that filches from me my good name
Robs me of that which not enriches him
And makes me poor indeed.

"Othello," III.iii.182-190, Folger Shakespeare Library ed.

[Photos (all Barbara Butler McCoy): Top: from the Martin Luther King museum, Atlanta, GA; 2009; Middle: a fool pictured on a toy store window, St. Simons Island, GA; 2009; Bottom: banner outside the Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington, D.C.; 2009]


paris parfait said...

I agree with you; Shakespeare was an original and everyone knows naysayers always try to undermine original thinkers. Have you been to Stratford-upon-Avon? A lovely place.

Howard Schumann said...

Nobody is denying that Shakespeare's plays and sonnets COULD HAVE been written by a man of humble background. In this case, however, there is simply very little evidence for it. The plays are filled with an aristocratic outlook that is almost feudal in nature.

Of the 37 plays, 36 are laid in royal courts and the world of the nobility. The principal characters are almost all aristocrats with the exception perhaps of Shylock and Falstaff. From all we can tell, Shakespeare fully shared the outlook of his characters, identifying fully with the courtesies, chivalries, and generosity of aristocratic life. Lower class characters in Shakespeare are almost all introduced for comic effect and given little development. Their names are indicative of their worth: Snug, Stout, Starveling, Dogberry, Simple, Mouldy, Wart, Feeble, etc.

The history plays are concerned mostly with the consolidation and maintenance of royal power and are concerned with righting the wrongs that fall on people of high blood. His comedies are far removed from the practicalities of everyday life or the realistic need to make a living. Shakespeare's vision is a deeply conservative, feudalistic and aristocratic one. When he does show sympathy for the commoners as in Henry V speech to the troops, however, Henry is also shown to be a moralist and a hypocrite. He pretends to be a commoner and mingles with the troops in a disguise and claims that those commoners who fought with the nobility would be treated as brothers.

But we know there was no chance of that ever happening in feudal England. What can scarcely be overlooked is a compassionate understanding of the burdens of kingship combined with envy of the carefree lot of the peasant, who free of the "peril" of the "envious court", "sweetly…enjoys his thin cold drink" and his "sleep under a fresh tree's shade" with "no enemy but winter and rough weather". This would come naturally to a privileged nobleman, such as the poet and playwright Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford.

Barbara said...

Tara, thank you for your kind comment. Shakespeare was an original, indeed, and I am most intrigued and inspired by the depth and breadth of his talent and the spark of inspiration he ignites. I hope it catches more people. Stratford-upon-Avon is on my 'wish list,' to be sure. Again, thanks.

Mr. Schumann, thank you for your comments as well. I do appreciate them. The argument that puts the authorship matter to rest, in my mind, is "Hamlet." As I said, that play is the thing. It gives us such an intimate view of grief, of court life, even a glimpse of theatre "politics" at the time, but the central issue is always the death of Hamlet/Hamnet. That belongs to none other than Will Shakespeare. Your statements about the aristocracy are well-made and provocative. Could it not be said, however, that both public and artistic imaginations are stirred by the inner workings of the power-brokers of their time? It is simply human nature to wonder, 'What were they thinking?' I tend to notice that the power-brokers of any time or place care not a fig to explain themselves to the 'hoi polloi,' which is another argument against an aristocrat as author.