Thursday, November 3, 2011

He Who Loveth Not Tobacco And A Good Mystery...

ONE should not leap to conclusions, but James Ley’s dismissal of the new flick Anonymous, which opens in Melbourne tonight, prompts the suspicion that he is firmly of the left. That is the way it tends to go with speculations about unsolvable mysteries, in this case the film’s contention that William Shakespeare did not write the plays bearing his name. Those on the left tend to think he did, a glover’s son making such a mark on history and literature being seen as confirmation the proletariat is brimming with such talent that it needs only a fair and just social order to see it uncorked.

Conservative minds, more interested in substance than chimera, often take the opposite view, surmising the plays can only have been the product of extensive and formal learning, travel throughout Europe and, above all, of the absolute, unquestionable confidence often thought to be the birthright of the aristocracy. The late Marxist historian Gordon Kiernan is a good example of the first school of thought, and former National Review editor Joseph Sobran of the latter. Sobran's book on the subject also appears to be a large part of the film’s inspiration, as each posits Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, as the man who wielded the magic quill.

It is all a lot of harmless fun, much like the many efforts to identify Jack the Ripper, a fascination which also sees political leanings colour the many and various theories. If you happen to be a champion of the working class, the idea that a member of the royal family or household did all that midnight disemboweling can be one of many splendid cues for lots of windy words about class, gender, empowerment and assorted other concepts without which the modern academy would be left thoroughly and absolutely mute. Where Shakespeare is concerned, ideology has made a very poor editor.

To do serious damage to the leftard case for Shakespeare as his own author, consider just one word, “tranect” – clearly a printer’s error -- which appears in the First Folio’s Merchant of Venice (see note 53 and this even more interesting note on page 65). In Italian, “ferry” is traghetto, which the French rendered as traject before dropping it entirely and adopting the English "ferry". So how did the kid from Stratford know first the  Italian word and, beyond that, its even more obscure French variant? The most likely answer is knowledge gleaned on the road -- and Shakespeare is not known to have ever left his native England.

De Vere’s candidacy is refuted more easily. As Ley notes, the nobleman died in 1604, well before Tempest, Macbeth and Winter’s Tale were staged. The fact that Macbeth makes sly reference to the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 would appear to put the icing on the cake served at the wake for de Vere’s authorship.

But what of another candidate, one with the education, turn of phrase and exposure to Europe to solve all the shortcomings that undermine each of the main camps’ arguments?  That man would be Christopher Marlowe, the Cambridge graduate, operative in the shadowland of Elizabethan espionage and intrigue -- and, as naysayers will by now be screaming, a fellow who went to his grave in 1593, even before they screwed down the lid on de Vere.

Fair enough, that is the accepted version of Marlowe’s life and demise, but before dismissing out of hand a Bunyip’s pet theory it might be worth taking up Charles Nicholl’s fascinating book, The Reckoning. A wonderful detective story based largely on original records and documents, it painstakingly casts Marlowe’s life, and the lives of those accused of killing him in a tavern brawl, in an entirely new light. As Nicholl demonstrates, Marlowe was up to his neck in cloak-and-dagger doings, even going undercover in a Jesuit seminary to collect intelligence for Elizabeth’s spymasters. The trio accused of his murder, all very quickly exonerated and set free, were also agents, and the playwright’s death just happened to come at a moment when he was in quite a bit of trouble with court powerbrokers.

Just suppose Marlowe was not killed at all, that his death was faked and he was spirited out of the country for his own protection. (Nicholl rejects this, by the way.) Picture him in his Italian exile, enjoying tobacco and boys to his heart’s content, soaking up the language and scribbling away at plays and sonnets. Why wouldn’t he send those efforts back to England for production, where a theatre owner called William Shakespeare would have been only too happy to slap his name on them?

None of this theorising amounts to a hill of beans. The plays were written, and that is the important thing.

All the same, it is fun to speculate. 

UPDATE: If there is a worthwhile film to be made about Shakespeare and the authorship question it seems this one isn't it. On the other hand, this scathing review of Anonymous is a classic. Sample:

Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, was the first of many bastard children of Elizabeth I (who was 16 when she gave birth to him); he was also the father of Henry Wriothesley, the 3rd Earl of Southampton, another bastard son, in this case incestuously, of the Queen’s (and given that she was 40 years old at the time, probably also her last one). In between those two Earls, a 32-year-old Elizabeth also appears to have given birth to Robert Devereux, the 2nd Earl of Essex, who in the film is being promoted by Oxford as Elizabeth’s successor.

Looks like Contagion will be tomorrow night's entertainment.


  1. One wonders then who wrote the wrote the plays of all those other non-noble playwrights like Middleton, Webster, Marlowe, bBeaumont & Fletcher and Tourneur.

    I am as right wing as they come, and I have no sympathy for those twits who argue that Shakepeare didn't write his own plays.

  2. I second the above. There is no good reason to believe that WS didn't write the works that bear his name.

    And note that Shakespeare was so familiar with Italy that he thought Verona was a seaport.

    Finally, reflect that Joseph Conrad, one of the greatest writers in English literature didn't learn English until he was 29. Are we going to argue then, that he couldn't possible have written Nostromo?

  3. PhillipGeorge(c)2011November 3, 2011 at 6:29 PM

    respectable to speculate on the unknowable past but any intrigue about 9-11 is untouchable! - and seal all files on Kennedy for another 30? years, only to fan the flames of conspiracies' dabblers.
    Today's mysteries involve unpaid debts to the Piper - so best not to ask.

    ?? why not elaborate on Bacon, anonymous! Spare us a few more words. even brave a paragraph.

  4. I'm slightly to the right of Genghis Khan, myself. I'm also a Shakespearean scholar.

    There is not one single scrap of physical evidence - none at all - that the plays were written by any other person. On the contrary, we have much contemporary evidence, including testimony of his peers, that Shakespeare was, well, Shakespeare.

    As all good reasonable conservatives know, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. And in four centuries, nobody's been able to provide any.

    Isn't this the kind of thinking so prevalent among those loons who think George Bush blew up the twin towers and then ate baby Jesus while clubbing a seal cub? That we've all been fooled by some masterful conspiracy, and that the reason there's no evidence to support their lunatic theory is because evertbody's in on the hoax?

  5. James: No reason to believe he did not write them, apart from the breadth of a well-travelled mind. Such familiarity with history and general knowledge, it beggars the imagination -- mine, anyway -- to believe all was acquired by a jobbing actor-cum-impresario.

    I think it likely the plays were, as we say today, workshopped. This may explain inconsistencies of plot, characters that disappear and, quite possibly, a lot of the pit-pleasing humour.

    Would I bet on Marlowe? No. As i said, it is a harmless game.

    I take your point about the landlocked embarkation (and, in all fairness, should have mentioned it), but even that is apparently open to conjecture. On that matter, this is interesting:

  6. Dubyah didn't club baby seals? I'm disappointed in him.

  7. The best account of the authorship of the offending volumes that I have encountered is that they were not written by Shakespeare himself but by someone who lived at the same time and happened to have the same name.

  8. PhillipGeorge,
    "Truth can never be reached by just listening to the voice of an authority" - Francis Bacon.

    That's an apt one for a few of the posters on this thread, already.

    Bacon fits as the person most likely under the criteria set by the Prof. Bacon is also believed to be the person who translated/compiled the King James Bible in 1610; and deposited a clue. If you have a copy at the ready...........Go to Psalm 46. Count the 46th word in. Go to the end of the Psalm and count backwards to the 46th word. Also ShakeSpear was 46 in 1610. Cool eh?

  9. Bunyip, I have no doubt that the plays were workshopped, and that is likely where stuff that WS "couldn't have known" was introduced.

    That said, someone wrote them, and as they are attributed to WS, I would say he was a fair bet. Regardless of authorship, he was a clever guy, and left a substantial estate. I don't see aqny reason why he was less capable than Marlowe of writing, um, his stuff.

    Further, when we talk about "workshopping", how convincing would WS have been to his peers if he hadn't written the text himself?

    "Hey, Will, what's this bit about?"

    "Er, I dunno"

  10. PhillipGeorge(c)2011November 3, 2011 at 8:57 PM

    that's a straw man "anonymous version x" NOT reductio ad absurdum.
    Three or four topics typically expose people for something other than inquiring, open minded, teachable.

    Abiogensis Vs Pasteur
    Spontaneous Human Combustion
    Crop Circles

    perhaps one could ad "ball lightning" or NDE's.

    Love you to have a go at one them with something substantive; not glib, trivial.

    I wouldn't bother with 9-11, not here, just isn't the space.

    Perhaps these pages aren't "for me". Clever/ talented people can say some incredibly naive things - and maybe carry them to the grave.

    There are stranger things in Heaven and Earth .... than are dreamt of in your Philosophy.

    people don't typically realize the epistemological brick walls that were hit with Godel, Fitch, Planck, Heisenberg.

    and, bravo to creative "loons"
    repartee doesn't fit monologue - so perhaps I'm off to races.

  11. Hang on, Bunyip.
    It's leftists who say we are products of our environment, aggregations of historical forces and such, unable to rise above station and class.

  12. I thought the left are only interested in proving Shakespeare was gay?

    Many years ago I had a lady friend who was widely-traveled. "I've been there," she would chirrup at any mention of a country she had visited. Nevertheless, I could always tell her more about the country she had been to from what I had read or seen on the boob tube.

    Hell, maybe I'm Shakespeare... Nurse! The pills.

  13. >One wonders then who wrote the wrote the plays of all those other non-noble playwrights like Middleton, Webster, Marlowe, bBeaumont & Fletcher and Tourneur.

    Baldrick did 'em all. And Shakespeare's.

  14. The best examination I have read of all the claimants, including Shakespeare himself, is Contested Will by James S. Shapiro (Simon and Schuster, 2010). It is worth remembering that no one doubted that the man himself wrote the plays until 200 years after his death. In the cut-throat theatre world there would have been more than whispers at the time - there is no such thing as a secret.
    Then again, perhaps the numpty in my daughter's VCE class may have had some insight : Sir, was Shakespeare gifted, or did they all talk funny then?

  15. ‘Tis fascinating stuff alright, the authorship conundrum, and important not to take too seriously….but consider his newest play, written yesterday, about the “occupiers” (he’s called it Cariolanus and set it in ancient Rome so as not to offend too much but it’s an obvious allegory) where in the first scene the occupier rabble march to protest their insufficient share of the state’s grain, gobbled all as it is by the belly (the 1%) while the rest of the body (99% at a guess) goes without.

    Menenius Agrippa scolds the occupiers spokesman and explains that nutrition, though received by the belly first, flows through the veins to all of the body. He then describes the occupier spokesman as the big toe of the citizen body, “Why so?” asks the occupier:

    For that, being one o' the lowest, basest, poorest,
    Of this most wise rebellion, thou go'st foremost:
    Thou rascal, that art worst in blood to run,
    Lead'st first to win some vantage

    But the thing that’s really interesting from this exchange is that Shakespeare is promulgating the modern theory of blood circulation, until now attributed to William Harvey who published his ideas in 1617 (to much derision) a year after Bill died. William Harvey stole the bard’s idea. Bastard.

  16. You are a bit of a mischief-maker, Professor, but this is a fun post and it's a good conspiracy theory. I shall remain firmly in the Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare crowd, though, as to me the snobbery that says a lower-class sort couldn't have written Hamlet, Macbeth, A Midsummer Nights (etc) is merely an older form of the snobbery that says the lower-class sorts can't survive, can't even breathe, without constant intervention and management from designated bureaucrats and social workers - ie, the professions beloved of the left.

  17. I agree that the plays were probably 'workshopped', to use your term. That's another problem with the veracity (or lack thereof) of anti-Shakespearean conspiracy theories - they detract from an otherwise interesting study of collaboration in the Bard's plays.

  18. Then there are the theories about Homer not really being the author of the Odyssey or the Iliad. I think they're a bit silly too, as the works are obviously masterpieces, with all the plots and characters well developed and consistent. They were clearly intended to be read more or less in the way that they have been handed down to posterity. Even if we know bugger all about Homer's life, we might as well attribute the authorship to him - the Greek's must have respected him enough to decide he was the author, after all. And, well, if not Homer, who? We might as well rely on tradition.

  19. See Kipling’s take, a Stalky and Co. story, in “The Propagation of Knowledge”.

  20. The parsimonious view would be that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare. I'm not of the left but Shakespeare's accomplishments are trivial compared to Newton. The accomplishment of the latter are clearly attributable as were his equally humble antecedents, not to mention geographic location, race (now I bet that sticks in the craw!) and to some extent period. That what geniuses do. As Wordsworth put it --
    The marble index of a mind for ever
    Voyaging through strange seas of Thought, alone

  21. All the more reason to have a 'benign' govermint limit free speech.

    Go Communist Bob....go

  22. You surprise me, Professor. I assumed the skeptics were on the elitist left. After centuries of lit-crit and an a planet-warming tonnage of essays on Donne's compass and Yeats's chestnut tree, it would all seem worthwhile if Shakespeare had been to Cambridge.

    No way. The guy who wrote Shakespeare was an aspirational who read some popular histories to scrounge ideas; a chaotic toiler; a handler of people; a greedy soaker-up of life and characters and language.

    Whereas I don't mind the tum-ti-tum iambics of Marlowe, no way he wrote Shakespeare's pentameters. Unless Marlow didn't write Marlowe!

  23. Elizabeth (Lizzie) B.November 17, 2011 at 1:35 PM

    Yep, Newton was just a bright lad from a humble home, and Captain Cook too. Just like Shakespeare. But where are the contemporary blockbuster entrepreneurs in all of this raging debate? Marlowe was such a jack-the-lad there's a whole Da Vinci Code in the swashbuckling tale of his derring-do and literary undercover and murder by his jealous lover Shakespeare when he secretly returned with a scoop on the Vatican before he could write it up. Pity Marlow's tale has been pipped at the movie post by some rotten aristocrat.