Monday, December 30, 2013

Shakespeare and me, part I

I suspect this entry will have to be broken into several parts, as there is so much that could be said on the topic of Shakespeare, though certainly less (or at least less of general interest) in terms of my responses and reactions to Shakespeare.

The first thing that may possibly be of some interest is that I am related to Shakespeare, though not as a direct descendant.  One of my ancestors had two sisters that were Shakespeare's grandmothers (Abigail and Mary Webb -- you can look it up if not convinced).  I think that makes us second cousins, removed 15 times or so.  So not really that close, but not nothing either.  It does make me that much more defensive when I encounter those people who claim Shakespeare simply couldn't have been Shakespeare for any number of reasons.  Few of the arguments hold up, though I do suppose it is strange that he sort of vanishes from view after leaving London and then doesn't make any reference to his plays (or other books) in his will.  Though given there was nothing remotely like today's copyright scheme, and they may simply not been seen as valuable at all to anyone not in a theatre company.  At any rate they may well have been thought of as work-for-hire and not part of his estate.

What is absolutely true (if one can stomach looking through the various blogs) is that people (particularly English academics) have this deep-seated need to argue that a commoner like Shakespeare simply could not have understood all the intricacies of power and court traditions that are in his histories.  To which I call bull.  First off, most of the insights are not really that earth-shattering.

Second, he gets some details wrong (and don't get me started about how weak his Italian geography is).  I mean some of these people make outrageous claims that the author of the plays was an genius without parallel: a first-rate scientist and lawyer and could read 5 languages or whatever.  Again, I say piffle.  If such a god-like personage existed in Elizabethan times, then he should have spent his time on important matters, not skulking around and passing his work off as written by a commoner.*  Frankly, a writer with a good imagination who did a bit of research could have done this.  Indeed you often see the seams showing in Shakespeare's plays. (How accurate was the sleeping potion in Romeo and Juliet, for instance?)

And third, actors were around the Elizabethan court all the time, picking up gossip and so forth.  In the era before mass celebrities, who else was talked about all the time?  Of course these people close to the court knew the ins and outs of it, and who really ought to have married whom.  It truly is as absurd to say that Coppola or Scorsese must actually have been in the mafia, for otherwise how could they have gotten so much right...

I think where I do depart from the crowd is in the absolute hero-worship that Shakespeare inspires.  I just don't think it is healthy for one writer to so grossly squeeze out all other playwrights.  To say nothing of the fact that legitimate criticism of the plays is really discouraged in high school or college for that matter.  There are a few plays with absolutely terrible plot twists and contrivances, and to sweep this under the carpet doesn't really seem to do contemporary readers any favors.  I'll surely touch on at least a few of these.

Well, this post has already gone on for far too long and has risked becoming "controversial."  The next post will have some comments on which of the plays I have seen and anything particularly memorable about the staging(s).  Down the line I will have a post where I actually comment on the plays themselves (including a few that I consider so weak that I won't watch them or watch them again).

* I think the number one reason to ridicule the deVere crowd or the Bacon boosters (aside from the fact that Ben Jonson and others said Shakespeare was a writer -- and that Queen Elizabeth herself essentially ordered him to write Merry Wives of Windsor) is that these nobles would have had no understanding of how the theatre companies worked.  If they find traces of secret knowledge of the aristocracy in the Histories (and thus the writer must have been a nobleman), then how do they explain away the much, much more obvious intimate relationship with the theatre world?  Many plots involve some kind of meta-theatricality, i.e. putting on a play within a play or focusing on some kind of staging of pageantry.  In addition, we have figures like Prospero or even the Duke in Measure for Measure who order people around just like the director/troup leader would (not that we should imagine they had such specialization or such a clear distinction between roles in those days).  Following this same line of argument suggests that the writer of the plays must have been intimately involved in the theatre, and not merely a patron.  And whatever else we do or don't know, it is incontrovertible that Shakespeare was an actor with The Lord Chamberlain's Men.

But it is truly absurd to imagine that when Richard Burbage or William Kempe asked for a rewrite (and knowing actors a bit myself, I can guarantee that they would have), the request was relayed through Shakespeare to this unknown noble who was the true author and then any changes would have been funneled back to the company through Shakespeare.  This view betrays a total ignorance of how theatre companies would have operated and moreover makes the number of conspirators that much larger.  Not one of his contemporaries would have groused about how impossible it was to work this way?  It just seems such a convoluted way of answering the question: who wrote Shakespeare's plays?

Occam's Razor says: Shakespeare.

No comments:

Post a Comment