Okay, yeah, sure…
We traditionally celebrate Shakespeare’s birthday on the 23rd of April. But we don’t really know when he was born. We do know he was baptized on this date.
Now, I’m as traditional as the next guy.
Heck, on a good day, I can take on all comers… tradition wise…
But that ding-dang A to Z Challenge thingy didn’t line up properly, to ‘do’ Will on the 23rd.
So I’ll ‘do’ him now.
Because there are some days that should never go by unremarked…
The controversy over the authorship of the works attributed to Shakespeare continues apace; and shows no sign of abating any time soon.
And the thought has to occur, eventually, that the uproar appears to have much in common with any other issue of revisionist history.
The parallel thought also happens upon me, that this struggle bears many of the same markings of the current skirmishes, in the never-ending culture wars we seem interminably engaged in.
I have a friend – a very good friend, in all the senses of those words – who is neither actor nor dramaturge; who is married to an accountant, and is himself involved in all kinds of ‘accounty’ things… in other words, who has no dog in this fight… and who is firmly convinced that Shakespeare never wrote a single word.
And the question has to be asked: why should it matter so very much to him?
For those who are involved in the ‘industry’, and thus might conceivably have a stake in the issue (though it’s rather hard to think what that stake could possibly be, given the distances involved) – well, okay then.
But to those outside the ‘affected areas’?
Why so much vitriol?
It begins to defy imagination.
And that is where I think the supporters of a non-Shakespearean authorship reveal the flaws in their arguments; for all the ingeniousness with which they postulate this royal or that bureaucrat as the ‘true’ author.
They lack the imagination required for such an exercise.
They cannot imagine that someone they consider ‘uneducated’ (though we have no hard evidence of Will’s education, one way or the other) could possibly be the author of the finest plays in the history of the language.
They cannot imagine that anyone not born into the landed gentry could produce such fine work – though Will became a member of said group later in life, through his own efforts.
It begins to very much feel like a bit of class warfare – as ugly as the charge might sound.
Beethoven wasn’t of the nobility, nor was his education anything but rudimentary, yet he wrote (perhaps) the greatest music of all time.
And so with Brahms, and Debussy and Shostakovich and any number of musicians; classical, jazz, blues, rock – whatever the genre.
Why are they not subjected to the same jealous ravings of those whose paucity of imagination cannot allow for the genius of mankind?
Had Beethoven not made a complete ass of himself, personally, and left numerous court filings and changed his dwellings on the average of every six months, over the course of some thirty years spent in Vienna, thereby leaving copious amounts of evidence for his existence – and just in general been something of a jerk – would these same people be going after his legacy?
There are people who cannot abide greatness, and would spend their entire life tearing it down.
Others can only see greatness of their own definition.
Still others are easily moved by what I like to refer to as the ‘cult of personality’; that is, they are swayed by the charismatic purveyors of cultural snake-oil and literary nostrums.
Some of the most intelligent, funniest people I’ve ever met didn’t have enough education to get even a minimum wage job, in today’s world.
My grandfather, if memory serves, never got past the 3rd grade. And he was something of an aviation pioneer, with an airport and a day named after him.
My own father never got past the 11th grade; because that’s as far as high school went, when he was growing up. And he did all right.
The line of cars for his funeral procession was several miles long.
Not bad, for an ‘uneducated commoner’.
I have written at length before (poorly, it’s true) about a certain book; concerning, not the question of authorship, but the textual integrity of the ‘works of Shakespeare’.
I suppose I could return to that post of some years ago, and make it a better piece.
But there comes a time when work belongs to the period in which it was created.
I could make the post more succinct – but it would no longer be that post. It would become something different.
The post in question concerned a book by the English author Charles Williams, called The English Poetic Mind. And in tracing that mindset, Williams spends a bit of time talking about Shakespeare, and the arc of the poetry. He talks about it from beginning to end. He traces the evolution of the thought, and the growth of the ability of the author.
He also uncategorically states that, for the purposes of his book, it doesn’t matter a fig to him whether the author was Shakespeare, Oxford, Bacon or Marlowe. It is only the poetry which concerns him.
He charts the progression, in power and in execution, of one body of poetry; using only that poetry as the subject of his study.
He points out where Shakespeare was constrained, not by society, but by his own gift. For Will hadn’t yet found that wellspring of power which was to become evident in the later plays.
Shakespeare started with luxuriating in the merely sensual – as I suppose we all do. But he somehow stumbled upon the path towards what it is that makes us human.
And then he figured out how to infuse a character with that humanity – an ability pointed out by another, inestimable critic from our own time, Harold Bloom.
But Shakespeare did not stop there. Dramatically speaking, Will began to solve the problem of having more than one fully realized character within a single play – more than one draw, or character pulling focus, if you will. It began to appear as if, eventually, all the ‘players upon a stage’ might become living, breathing representations of life.
Again, Will wasn’t satisfied. By the time the Tempest came along, he had so fully elucidated the ‘human’, he had seemingly come out on the other side. Ariel might be taken as a depiction of what could await us, as we progress through humanity, into something other – something more.
That some might become frightened by such a thought is understandable, but (I think) mistaken. Do not go about your life, praying to a higher power, or trying to connect to a higher plane of awareness, of existence, if you cannot recognize that level when it’s presented to you in other than your familiar, comfortable language.
That, perhaps more than anything, might explain religious sectarian violence.
But I digress…
Shakespeare had now come full circle, only to present us with the idea that perhaps it really isn’t a circle after all. More of a path – a straight-line journey from where we now are, to that mindset of “further in, and further up…”
A journey towards the stars.
And now Shakespeare is free.
Free to elucidate the destiny of all mankind.
Free to reveal that birthright which is the inheritance of us all, if we will only embrace it.
Free to show us that impossibly bright background, upon which all of creation was drawn.
Only he died.
And I cried when I read that sentence.
I cannot do the book justice. But this book, and this chapter in this book, convinces me of Shakespeare’s legitimacy.
I’ll take textual criticism any day, over the fanciful conspiracy theories of a group who seems more intent upon destroying a certain reputation, rather than the building up of another.
Because those who postulate other authors for Shakespeare’s work have not taken into account human nature; and above all, the nature of genius.
Genius rears its terrifying head without warning, and in the most unlikely of places.
Genius couldn’t possibly care less about your ideas of appropriateness.
Thank God for those who can see genius when it comes; and at the very least, get out of its way.
Thank God for those who are not threatened by the greatness of others.
Thank God for the phenomenon of genius.
“And since you know you cannot see yourself, so well as by reflection, I, your glass, will modestly discover to yourself, that of yourself which you yet know not of.”
Cassius, in Julius Caesar, Act 1, Sc 2, 1. 67-70
“I did never know so full a voice issue from so empty a heart: but the saying is true ‘The empty vessel makes the greatest sound’.”
Boy, in Henry V, Act IV, Sc 4, 67-9
“Tis an ill cook that can not lick his own fingers.”
2nd Servingman, in Romeo and Juliet, Act IV, Sc 2 1. 6-7
Those are the sentiments of an every-man.
Those are sentiments that take no education to arrive at.
The genius is in the presentation.
Go find any old-timer, un or under-educated, down-home farmer you can – and listen to the genius of his expression.
And then explain to me again how an ‘un-educated’ English man from Stratford couldn’t possibly have written the greatest works in the English language.
Image found here.