Monday, April 19, 2010

Denying Shakespeare

I've always thought that the Shakespeare authorship question was a load of hooey. For one thing, the advocates of another author having written the plays strike me as something not unlike the sort of folks who think they saw Elvis in a Burger King in Ypsilanti. What difference does it make, anyway? "The play's the thing," as the man said, and those plays are all we need to explore fascinating worlds and characters and confrontations. Sometimes it's nice to look at an author's works in light of his or her biography, but really, isn't it nicer to just savor what's on the page and treasure it (and analyze it) for that alone, and not for any armchair psychological analysis?

Terry Teachout reviews a new book about the Shakespeare authorship question, and with him I hope that just maybe we can finally lay this silly "controversy" to rest:

It doesn't surprise me that such lunacy has grown so popular in recent years. To deny that Shakespeare's plays could have been written by a man of relatively humble background is, after all, to deny the very possibility of genius itself—a sentiment increasingly attractive in a democratic culture where few harsh realities are so unpalatable as that of human inequality. The mere existence of a Shakespeare is a mortal blow to the pride of those who prefer to suppose that everybody is just as good as everybody else. But just as some people are prettier than others, so are some people smarter than others, and no matter who you are or how hard you try, I can absolutely guarantee that you're not as smart as Shakespeare.

Shakespeare was Shakespeare. That is all.



  1. 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.

  2. Hey Cody,

    Let's replay your words, shall we:

    the advocates of another author having written the plays strike me as something not unlike the sort of folks who think they saw Elvis in a Burger King in Ypsilanti. What difference does it make, anyway? "The play's the thing,

    No, you quote out of context -- and make Hamlet say something he never said.

    Let's try this:

    "The play's the thing....wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king."

    Can you understand the difference?

    Hamlet's statement is about the politics of theater; he is saying that theatre matters because it has an ethical force. Yours posits a claim that authors don't matter and that reading literature is a matter of being entertained, not enlightened or educated (it is of course, in reality, both). But that's not what Hamlet is saying, so you can't really use his "authority" to back up your own theory, can you?

    Doubtless your position that authors don't matter is a convenient fall back position for folks who like their Shakespeare on a pedestal and, like James Shapiro, don't want to deal with the realities of the authorship question.

    Some of us prefer getting to know an author by actually reading and understanding what he wrote, not what we wish he had written.

    It would be nice if we were given permission to do so without being called "lunatics" by people like yourself who are sublimely ignorant of what we think.

    You pass yourself off as some kind expert on the "advocates" of alternative authorship theory. My guess is that you've never read a book on the subject and don't know anything about it. That of course makes you perfectly qualified to opine in print that the entire topic is a load of "hooey."