Wednesday, October 25, 2006

My Official Statement Regarding the Authorship of Shakespeare's Plays

(By the way, 2 more people have now visited my profile, doubling the total [to 4]. Who are they? Does this mean I am taking off in the Blogosphere? If I get to ten I must get those books out of the library and figure out how to get some graphics on here...)

Since the question, or skepticism, surrounding the Shakespeare authorship appears to be in its own way as immortal, as well as popular, as the works themselves, it seems to me that every commentator of literature and the arts for a middlebrow readership ought to declare his position on the matter. Highbrows are: A. simply more interested in the ideas and use of language contained in the works than in figuring out who could or couldn't have written them; and: B. aware of who the author is in a far more intimate sense than any identification of a long-dead man, even one of excellent birth, would be able to provide them with. I, however, am not at this level, so my emotional stake in the question remains quite high, and has indeed prompted the necessity of writing an essay about it when there are so many more pressing issues to discuss.

While the question about whether the glover's son from Warwickshire could really have been the greatest writer in the history of the English language has been raised since at least the 19th century, it is of a type that is especially suited to several conceits that seem particularly current. The first of these conceits has to do with intellectual credentialing, and the second with the belief that our knowledge and understanding of history is superior to that of all previous ages, often including those who lived in the times under consideration themselves. Recently published histories, with very few exceptions, are always assumed to supercede in accuracy and theoretical rigor those from the 1950s or 1930s or, heavens, the very dark ages that preceded these, with little consideration given to the often formidable minds that composed these earlier studies. Sometimes an old historical-themed book of exceptional intelligence and literary merit such as Henry Adams's Mont-St-Michel and Chartres will be permitted to survive under the umbrella of literature, but I do not find that it is often referred to by professional historians as recommended reading on its subject, nor indeed is anything else more than ten or so years old.

There is apparently a new candidate for the "real" Shakespeare, an alpha-man named Sir Henry Neville, impeccably educated, who served as a diplomat and spoke 8 languages, can be presumed to have been familiar with royal courts and falconry and the law, had a number of events in his life which closely mirror episodes in the plays, etc. I do not know where the idea that Shakespeare must be some kind of great gentleman originated, especially of this exceptionally polished and rather effortlessly perfect variety represented by the Nevilles and DeVeres and so forth. I think it is a great stretch to imagine that men of such prodigious gifts and station would aspire to write so assiduously for the theater, which we are told was an occupation so far beneath such people at this time that we can hardly suppose they passed many hours at rehearsals and in the company of actors, and for which they would have had to use simple Bill Shakespeare as a proxy to present their ingenious productions to the world, either unbeknownst to everyone else in the company, or with the secret persisted in by all to the grave (I am thinking of the 1st Folio of 1623, largely compiled by surviving actors in honor of the supposed author, including the famous engraving of our large-browed poet). I could be wrong about this, but I believe most of the great playwrights of all time are pretty dyed in the wool theatrical people who have worked in numerous capacities in that milieu relating not merely to writing but in all aspects of putting on productions. Certainly the author of Hamlet appears to have been such a man. This seems to go for film as well, and I suspect also for opera and other musical concerts where the performance aspect is at least as important as the writing aspect, a circumstance which especially straight book scholars seem to have difficulty understanding. There is likewise very little history of people engaged for the most part in aristocratic pursuits or diplomacy or falconry or law producing masterpieces in performance-oriented artistic fields. The writing of books or even poems, if one lives in an age where poetry is not an alien means of approaching and experiencing language as our own is, is an essentially solo act, and can be done well in a certain degree of isolation and in idle hours separate from a wholly different occupation, but the performing arts at the highest levels especially are an intrinsically different matter, and the writer must be deeply immersed in the peculiar culture of his art--indeed it must be the dominant reality of his existence--for him to really succeed in it.

The above reason, however, I take as merely an aside, because I am convinced by other reasons that "Shakespeare", whoever he was, was a person of a background more like Shakespeare of Stratford than an aristocrat. The greatest objection made against the tradition of Shakespeare as the author is that he did not have the education that would have been necessary to produce such works. Presumably thousands of other people, including many prominent living scholars, have had such an education over the past 400 years, and most have not come close to approaching works of similar quality themselves, so I think it is hard to say exactly what this education must consist of. Shakespeare is most celebrated for, roughly in order, his domination of the English language, his knowledge of the souls and characters of men, his knowledge of the world, alike in its human and natural and cosmological organizations, including professions and stations as disparate as physician, soldier, lawyer, prince, clown, etc, his wit and humor. His was quite obviously a unique intellect, of the very rare sort that does not merely absorb the lessons of a mentor or collect information, but embellishes and redefines human experience and understanding of such phenomena as he is presented with. I do not think it unreasonable to suggest that such a person, perhaps having been arrested on an occasion or two and gone through a process of law, or been engaged in a lawsuit, would not be able rather easily to decipher the customs and principles which prevail in that milieu. I have passed a few days of my life in district courts myself and following the processes in person for several hours does much to demystify the various auras which educated people especially tend to invest in fields of knowledge outside their own expertise. I suspect the same would apply, for intelligent people, in other professions requiring forbidding amounts of experience such as medicine, politics, the military, etc, if we were not so easily intimidated by the idea of knowledge. Shakespeare was not intimidated by knowledge. Nor was Aristotle, nor Tolstoy, nor Wittgenstein. They appropriated to themselves the right to present and declaim upon all subjects as these presented themselves to their intellects. Of course one must have a modicum of intelligence to justify oneself in doing so, but good native intelligence of this sort is not so rare as our current culture appears to have artificially rendered it.

But of course the best, as well as most indispensibile, means to become wise in societies where writing has made any advancement at all, is by reading, and reading no doubt was an activity in which Shakespeare, even if we presume by this to mean the Stratfordian, engaged in often and with an admirable degree of skill. It is also here that the most compelling argument for the middle-class origin of our author is to be made. For in the Elizabethan period and indeed for some time afterwards, men of the best formal educations would have done most of their primary reading in Latin; indeed they would have written in it foremost upon serious matters too, as dissertations on science and philosophy, legal treatises, requests for favors to important people, etc, were generally composed in this tongue. Authors of this class such as Francis Bacon or even Ben Jonson, when they take up English demostrate a decided Latinate influence on their diction and style and bring with them a whole host of allusions and devices from Latin literature that are absent from Shakespeare, who when set beside such learned authors has such a fluency in his sentences as mark in one for whom English was his first language both of reading and composition more than any other prominent writer of the age (I will try to provide some demonstrations in a future post, I don't have time to dig them out right now). Also I think it is instructive to note that the sources from which Shakepeare gets his plots--Holinshed's Chronicles, Plutarch, the book of Italian romances that contained the seeds of Romeo and Juliet, Two Gentlemen of Verona, Twelfth Night, etc--are fairly limited in number and are all books that were available in English in that time. The Roman plays especially it must be noted (Caesar, Coriolanus, Antony and Cleopatra, etc, are all out of Plutarch. Any influence of Juvenal, Seneca, Plautus, even Virgil and Horace, which formed the backbone of the reading of those educated in the universities and from which influence few men of letters could escape who were once taught them, is decidedly muted in comparison to other English poets and playwrights of the era, appearing as it were at second or third hand if one insists on its being present at all. This may be the effect of Shakespeare's genius steamrolling even these titanic authors in its expansiveness, but if this is the case then I don't see why it is necessary that he must be an Earl to do so. This is not to disparage the learning of Latin, of course. People who are capable but not possessed of genius ought to learn as much Latin and anything else that they can certainly, and so even should the genius, but the genius can get away with a few more imperfections in his learning because his insight in other places is so exquisite.

I cannot believe how long it takes me to write these articles. 3 little boys under 5 is my excuse, though I am aware that Dickens wrote 4 or 5 1,000 page novels in the span from 1837-41 in the corner of a room full of young children, guests, men of the world and ladies. But his was a unique intellect.

Friday, October 20, 2006

The Game of Art, Part 4

People who have had some humanisitic education but are still poor at traveling, or writing, or discussing ideas in cafes, or arousing erotic desire in members of the opposite sex often console themselves with the thought that their minds are for whatever reason not attuned to the age in which they happen to live, its politics and economics and geography, but properly belong to other, better times and places, wherein they would have made real figures. I have determined that my own mind, as far as aesthetic taste, cultural comfort level, pace of life, compatibility with women, preferences in food and drink and transportation and hotel accomodation seems to measure on the magnetic scale of ages and places somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, hopefully on an ocean liner, equidistant from New York, Paris and London--or, to be more precise, probably Utica, Nottingham and Le Havre, around the winter of 1947-1948, which unfortunately was several decades before I actually happened to be born. Almost all the developments that have taken place since this time--increased specialization of knowledge, globalization, feminism, drugs, computers, exercising, bourgeois luxury (whatever happened to the good old simple but self-respecting middle class hotel that cost $45 but managed to keep the riffraff out anyway?), the reassessment of the Western and more particulary the Anglocentric tradition--have only left me, who remain stubbornly rooted in the mindset of 1948, further and further behind.

People with this unfortunate affliction only become worse when they attempt to go abroad to some country they may have had read a little about. In England I have reached the point where I am able to persuade myself it is just about any time between 1700 and 1960 depending on whatever monument, gritty alley, arrangement of furniture in a tavern or boiled beef dinner happens to present itself before me. I am not able to channel the middle ages or the Elizabethans so directly; however I think I can at least approach the idea of the middle ages with a suitably Romantic mindset or that of Shakespeare with enough of a Victorian sensibility to salvage something of the experience. The modern Britain full of snide people go around calling each other wankers and snogging and easy girls who vomit on the street I obviously have nothing to do with, nor it with me, however much I might wish it otherwise; so it by necessity fades away. France I have taught myself to regard as essentially medeval, which is the only way for me to combat the cult of epicurianism that has consumed the tourist industry of that "fantastic nation", but which besides is still present and haunting in the layout of towns, roads, and the landscape, though I also at times can acknowledge a cinematic France (1930-1970) and an interesting expat France (1850s-1950s). The art, music, literature of the bourgeois France of the post-Waterloo era through the Dreyfus affair interests me greatly also, but as a tourist its spirit has remained surprising inaccessible. The peninsula of Italy is also many things, almost never the current upstanding member of the EU with its standard 21st century problems. I am not deeply intimate with either the glories of the Roman empire nor the lives of the Catholic Saints but I am conscious of being within the pages of those books and the aura that only empires and religions of antiquity can suggest to the mind from the instant of descending the foot of the last Alp, and I know not enough to wish to escape from them for the duration of my holiday.

One of my favorite countries to experience in this vein is the late and sometimes lamented empire of Austria-Hungary, the pleasure of being in which was not the conscious work of my imagination but which came upon me over the course of being in that part of the world for some months. It is not merely that the old routes and railroads of this formerly single state remain largely intact though they now spread across many borders, nor is it exactly a similarly of diet, of religious custom, of musical heritage, of cafe and restaurant customs, of the geography of towns or those haunting empty roads crowded with lines of trees along either side of it throughout the region, that force this impression on one. This is a large area in the middle of Europe that, while maintained beautifully in certain crucial aesthetic points and functioning as a modern society, is loaded with pockets of which the only comparison I can make that captures the deadness, the unrealness, the displacement in time and persepctive, is the atmosphere of Kafka's The Castle. I have experienced on numerous occasions in these lands--walking across a field cleared of trees in a snowstorm in the dead of night in Spindleruv Mlyn (where, I later found out, Kafka actually started writing the book I have referred to); peering through the shuttered windows and wandering around the porch of the doomed Empress Elizabeth's little cottage at the emperor's hunting lodge at Bad Ischl (an unbelievably modest and accessible accomodation--no gates, walking distance to the shops in town, etc--for the potentate of a major power who lived within a century of my writing this, and thousands of whose former subjects must still survive) on a brilliantly but cold afternoon with snow patches over the immaculately kept but apparently unsupervised grounds; walking several miles from any of a number of antiquated train stations in rural Bohemia along similarly antiquated dusty paths or through planted forests devoid of undergrowth with no town or castle or other people in evidence until some natural obstacle can be cleared--the conviction that this must resemble death in some way, which idea I have never felt any place else, though my wife claims to have had the same sensation when she was in the panhandle of Texas. I however, have not been there.

In the Game of Art for the mass consumers of higher culture, this is where Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele--who is promoted heavily in Prague and especially Cesky Krumlov to the tourists that are desperately looking for an historical name or two to identify with these towns full of people who, as Neville Chamberlain pointed out in another context, are about as well known to the general population of the Anglosphere as the Incas--come in. Klimt's Kuss of course is, or at least was in my time, on the short list of college girls' favorite artistic icons (the rest of the list that comes immediately to mind is Doisneau's other Kiss, Prufrock, Truffaut's Jules and Jim, and Billie Holliday's greatest hits). The adoration of this painting however, while striking even when seen on a poster, like much else from the time and nation it comes from, is enigmatic in its origin. Compared to the other items on that list it springs from apparently nowhere and doesn't seem to lead anywhere particularly, for its modern admirers, either. My freshman roommate had the poster strategically placed so as to attract art-minded girls passing by our room (and indeed, it lured a quite amazing number in momentarily, though upon seeing us most retreated hastily). Before this time I had been entirely unfamiliar with it. I observed that people who struck me as more than worthy of all the delights of a good education and a proper introduction to the manifold delights of European culture were often eager to praise and identify with this picture, the idea and composition contained in which seemed to cast a spell over some of the sharpest and most realized people I ever encountered, as if it were their unattainable image of ideal life. What it was about it that made it so, however, I am afraid I was never able to discover.

The Austrian artists therefore have a rather high status in the game, with me personally almost the very highest, because the girls who like these painters are the ones I tended in my youth to feel the most passionate about with the least chance of "getting" however one wishes to define that term. The level of education and humanistic culture attained even by failures in the society that was Vienna 1850s-1930s makes me, I will confess, ashamed of my own mind, and if it doesn't make most modern-day Americans so for whatever reason, should at least make them blush to refer to themselves as learned or possessed of an artistic sensibility or even sophisticated about food (surely you read the article in the NYT about the Viennese steakhouse where the patrons could be counted on to understand what part of the cow each dish on the menu originated from and what it ought properly to taste like. Sadly, these patrons are nearly all dead now). I do not write these words because I hate my own nation or even its positive contributions to world culture, which I believe are not negligible. It must be understood, however, that I have always been a poor American, and I don't think I will ever be a good one. I did not fully understand this until I went to Europe of course. Foreigners did not wish to hear my opinions about opera, or opera houses, or literature, or wine or whatever even if it were their own interest. Such things are not, and never will be, the proper provinces of Americans, especially white ones. Even among Communists and the staunchest anti-modern media cultural conservative types, a real American worthy of their respect is financially successful, even a little ruthless, and is a master, completely free from any torments brought upon by philosophy or liberal education, of the sort of technology and attitudes toward marketing and globalization that are likely to crush smaller and more localized enterprises and cultures. These people may despise the system almost so as to define their being, but as an American and therefore assumed to have privileged entry into as well as no substantial intellectual misgivings against it, to be visibly unconnected to it without establishing a notably vibrant alternative following such as tempts the great system to partially co-opt you, marks one as a failure within the terms of one's one culture, and therefore hardly a serious person.

In brief, my point is that it is perceived to be natural, and not terribly difficult, for a American of ordinary mental abilities to become by global standards fairly wealthy and knowledgeable about markets and technology compared to those of other nationalities but virtually impossible for him (our hypothetical American) to become highly cultured and deeply learned about anything compared to the same; and that this is very painful for the American who was hoping to escape the sense of failure life in his hometown must inevtiably confront him with or find a community of minds more sympathetic to his own abroad. Unless one can demonstrate a very unique and pleasing superiority to those abandoned he will always be measured first by their standards before he will be assessed on any other terms.