Saturday, April 16, 2011

Obama and Shakespeare: Authenticity

Like the Birther madness, which never seems to end, the persistent belief by many people that Shakespeare was not the author of the plays bearing his name refuses to go away. There will always be those who persist in believing what they want to believe, irrespective of the facts, who enjoy keeping controversies alive and calling them conspiracies.

Obama was born in the U.S., in Hawaii. End of discussion.

Alas, the Shakespeare controversy (or conspiracy in the minds of some) is much more complex. I have just read James Shapiro's Contested Will, which reviews the history of the problem and shows, again, why the facts do not support anyone but the man from Stratford as the author of the plays and poems.

The question of authorship was never in doubt in my graduate school training or in my teaching of the Bard. At the University of Illinois, lectures by T. W. Baldwin, who devoted his life to the curriculum of the Stratford school, showed that those boys who attended that school would have received a solid classical education, equivalent to today's college major in Latin. Will was anything but illiterate and made good use of Plutarch's Lives as well as the chronicles of Holinshed, from which he lifted big chunks (great authors don't just borrow; they steal).

And our studies of the sources and printing of Shakespeare's plays--and the history of scholarship behind this field--show just the opposite of what Mark Twain and others have insisted: that great writing comes only from experience: the author of the plays would, according to this theory, have had to visit Italy, not to mention ancient Rome, in order to have written plays set in these places. This is simplistic, at best, and ignores the scholarship of the past 200 years.

What about imagination? What about books? In the Renaissance, certainly in Elizabethan England, the modern idea of literature as autobiographical was as rare as the writing of autobiography itself. This method of interpretation was suppressed in my education at several universities for good reason: because we knew that writing in the 16th cent. was largely a matter of using old sources in new, creative ways; Shakespeare did not create his stories, only his plots. However realistic his characters might seem, his plots and locales are anything but realistic (based on life experience). They are the product of reading and imagination.

If we had studied Hamlet as a key to the personality of the poet, we would have been laughed at as naive fools, unacquainted with the literary culture of the period in which the plays were written. Yet this approach, along with a conviction that Will was a country bumpkin incapable of writing much of anything, is the basis of the anti-Stratfordian position (which means for most skeptics that the Earl of Oxford--cultivated and well-traveled--wrote the plays that bear Shakespeare's name).

Shapiro does a good job addressing the major questions raised by skeptics of the orthodox view, and he shows how the Internet--especially Wikipedia--for the first time gives the Oxfordians "equal time" to be heard, having been denied the legitimacy of academic publication. He shows how easily it was, once Shakespeare was deified in the 1800s, for speculation about possible fraud to arise.

If the denial of Obama's citizenship (and authenticity) makes me angry, I find the refusal of some prominent and intelligent people to doubt Shakespeare's authorship slightly irritating but also somewhat amusing. We will never know the truth about who the real Shakespeare was, but his authorship of 37 plays and some important poems was never in question until about 1800 and should not be in question today.

There are so many more important things to focus on.


Linda Theil said...

You make much of the Stratford school, but omit to mention that there is not a shred of evidence that William Shaksper from Stratford ever attended that school. You seem to think that your conviction that he did attend should convince others. You talk about evidence, but the evidence linking the Stratford man to the work is paltry.

Gerald Schiffhorst said...

Since all the enrollment records from the Stratford school are lost, are we to conclude that no one in the town (especially from 1570-1580) got an education--not those who went on to Oxford or to the study of law or people like London publisher Richard Field who had careers requiring literacy? It seems that common sense has to apply in cases when documentary evidence is irretrievably lost.

Linda Theil said...

You may conclude whatever you wish as long as you don't report your assumptions as fact, which you have done in the essay above.