Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Just finish it. That's what I keep telling myself every time I pick up another book this summer. I've read a few these past two months, but nowhere near as many as I would have liked. But I've started more books than normal. Jude the Obscure, The Line of Beauty, Where Angels Fear to Tread and Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. I've started and read at least 25 pages in each over the past three days and that doesn't count the incredible biography of Edward de Vere,Shakespeare: By Another Name by journalist Mark Anderson.

Time for some self-prescribed discipline. I intend to finish Forster's Where Angels Fear to Trend this week and then get into Alan Hollinghurst's The Line of Beauty. That's that.

Now that my schedule's in place I've been wanting to write about Anderson's stunning work that claims Edward de Vere is in fact the author of Shakespeare's work. I don't necessarily care who wrote the plays, whether it be William Shakespeare the actor, Edward de Vere, or anyone else, but I do want to know is who wrote them. I think it's integral to our history, to the understanding of ourselves, to know the truth and it won't change the significance of the plays...at least not to me.

After about five pages, I was mesmerized by the parallels Anderson was making between de Vere (the Earl of Oxford) and the Shakespeare plays. After 100 pages I've nearly been convinced that William Shakespeare the actor was not the author.

There are some passages that hit upon the improbability of the actor Shakespeare even being able to write some of the plays. Anderson explains that Laurence Nowell was de Vere's tutor at Lord Burghley's estate in 1563 when he translated the only known copy of Beowulf in the English language and inscribed it to de Vere.

Beowulf and the original Hamlet myth ("Amleth") are cousins from the same family of Scandanavian folklore. Shake-speare uses both as sources for Hamlet. Once Hamlet kills his uncle Claudius, Shake-speare stops following "Amleth" and starts following Beowulf. It is Beowulf who fights the mortal duel with poison and sword; it is Beowulf who turns to his loyal comrade (Wiglaf in Beowulf; Horatio in Hamlet) to recite a dying appeal to carry his name forward; and it is Beowulf that carries on after its hero's death to dramatize a succession struggle for the throne brought on by an invading foreign nation.

By the time Hamlet was written and performed, I'm sure William Shakespeare may have had opportunity to read the myth and make it his own, but in de Vere, it was ingrained in him.

And, though not definitive in any sense of the word, de Vere's life is too similar to the plays to be mere coincidence.

Perhaps the most autobiographical play in Shakespeare is Hamlet, with multifarious connections to de Vere's life that are discussed in nearly every chapter of this book. For example, when de Vere was traveling through France at age twenty-six, he encountered a Teutonic prince who paraded his troops before de Vere's eyes. Soon thereafter, de Vere boarded a ship that was overtaken by pirates, and de Vere was stipped naked and left on the English shore. In Act 4 of Hamlet, in a sequence that is in no known source text for the play, Hamlet first witnesses the invading Prince Fortinbras's troops and then boards a ship that is overtaken by pirates, in an ordeal that leaves a humiliated Hamlet stripped naked on the Danish shore.

Though the books is saturated with such assurances, there are sure to be many people who either won't read the book or who would read the book, but still defend Shakespeare the actor. To each their own. I've had a few discussions with friends about de Vere and the authorship of Shakespeare's plays and I've been met with much resistance. I don't know if it's too much of a change to the fundamentals of our lives if Shakespeare the actor was nothing more than a performer and not the author of our memories. But if de Vere is the true man behind the greatest literature, why not give credit to the man who has lived in the shadows for too long? It is plausible and so far, probable.

Now reading:
Mark Anders "Shakespeare" By Another Name
E.M. Forster Where Angels Fear to Tread
Alan Hollinghurst The Line of Beauty

Just finished:
Charles Nicholl The Reckoning: The Murder of Christopher Marlowe

Up next:
Thomas Hardy Jude the Obscure
Susanna Clarke Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell


May said...

I don't think that discipline has much to do with the appreciation of a book.

M. Barresi said...

Welcome May,
I agree, discipline doesn't have anything to do with the appreciation of a book. I was saying that I had to be be disciplined to finish the book.

May said...

I guess that the approach is different if literature has to do with one's work or field of study.

Anonymous said...

When I think of Beowulf, my first assocation is...Grendel! That the author of Hamlet managed to come up with poisoned swords is...unremarkable. Also, as for the only manuscript of Beowulf (if you believe there is any assocation at all with Hamlet), I will point out A)that de Vere had access to the only *known* copy; and B)the beauty of oral tradition is that it need not be written to be known...

For documentation of Shakespeare's life, please compare Anderson's book to McCrea's "The Case for Shakespeare" (basically, a documented and unembellished version of Greenblatt's speculative "Will in the World"): the documentation that Shakespeare was, indeed, Shakespeare is overwhelming, especially when compared to the real dearth of information on his contemporaries (to include, e.g., Bacon).

Oswald killed JFK (and the magic bullet, we now know...wasn't);
Radical Jihadists brought down the Twin Towers;
The earth is round;
and William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon wrote the plays.

Anonymous said...

The other major conceit of the Oxfordians, i.e., that country bumpkins (and Shaky was no bumpkin) cannot be specialists in all the things that "the playwright" must have mastered, is the implicit denial that--just as they do today--writers did not CONSULT experts (and we KNOW that the playwright consulted, e.g., Holinshed) or RESEARCH their subject. Billy Shakes wasn't exactly working in a vacuum, you know... Heck, many an untalented but wealthy wannabe sought writers to give life to their stories; if you MUST relate the plays to de Vere, is it not more plausible that de Vere regaled a known and popular writer with his tales of derring do? (Tom Clancy--a freakin' insurance agent--was accused of leaking classified info via The Hunt for Red October.)

Anonymous said...

Lastly--the plays were written by someone intimately associated with live theater (hence Shakespeare's popularity greater than that of, say, the univesity wits).

Do you think de Vere, from his estate or during his travels, would have taken advantage of ubiquitous theatrical detritus? "Exit pursued by a bear," comes to mind (given that theaters sometimes doubled as bear-baiting pits); or when, in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Launce has a conversation with his scene-stealing dog, Crab; or how about the Queen Mab speech--was de Vere on such common terms with famous actors that he would write parts specific to them? Or, say in The Merry Wives of Windsor, a "pack em in" bid for theater-goers pennies (modern-day equivalent of the cash-cow sequel or super-hero franchise); or how about fart jokes--did de Vere, in solidifying his own autobiography, write fart jokes?

Viewing the plays as ensemble pieces, with parts written for specific personalities (Richard Burbage, for example), the writer indeed was on intimate terms with the theater and its players. Shakespeare's success was greater than Jonson's due very much to this direct connection. Was de Vere hangin' in the green room? I think not.