Wednesday, September 6, 2006

What's In A Name?

I shall ne'er be ware of mine own wit till I break my shins against it. ~ Williams Shakespeare, As You Like It

I was reading an article the other day dealing with the issue of who wrote the plays of William Shakespeare. To be honest, until a few years ago, I'd always thought the debate over whether Shakespeare in fact authored the works attributed to him was something of a gag, reserved for comedies of manners where someone was supposed to be a stuffy so-and-so and proved it by declaiming that Macbeth, Hamlet, Othello, and all those other works were created by Francis Bacon.

It turns out that, for some people, this business of authorship is still a live issue. A couple of years ago, there was a PBS series on the topic, which concluded that one William Shakespeare of Stratford-on-Avon did, in fact, write the body of plays and sonnets attributed to him. The September “Smithsonian Magazine”, however, brings the whole canard up again, thanks to a new exhibit of portraits of the bard, none of which, apparently, can be proved to actually have been him.

Despite all the old jokes about about Bacon, it appears that the number one suspect is Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford. Other candidates have included Christopher Marlowe and Queen Elizabeth I (who one suspects would have been a bit too occupied with fighting Spain to be knocking out “Troilus and Cressida”), but Oxford (as his friends no doubt called him) seems to be the candidate of choice.

Now I'm not going to go into all the gory details of why most people feel this is bunk; if you're interested, invest a few bucks and buy the magazine. But, the arguments center on how little we really know about Will Shakespeare, how there are no definite portraits, and how a commoner from an illiterate family could have written all these plays, some with classical themes, others with classical references, and some borrowing from other literary sources. The answers to these issues?
  • Shakespeare was a commoner; we don't know a lot about any of them. That we can learn much about him at all is reasonably amazing. Ordinary folks didn't get books written about them, and playwrights weren't regarded any more highly than, say, accountants, perhaps less so, if that's possible.
  • You didn't drop into the paint-o-mat and get a portrait knocked out. You had to pay for it, and commoners didn't have tat kind of money; Shakespeare, in fact, like J. S. Bach later, was constantly trying to get money owed to him. He also wasn't all that famous in his day; he was a writer of popular plays, sort of like being a film writer today. Once he retired, other plays were produced by other authors and Shakespeare sort of dropped from view. He just wasn't famous enough in his day to rate the attention of a painter. Most, if not all, of the images of Shakespeare were done much later when he began to gain posthumous fame.
  • Shakespeare got a grammar school education. In those days, that meant studying the classics of Greece and Rome. Topics like Julius Caesar would have been bread and butter to someone like Shakespeare; making allusions to classical poetry and mythology would have been second nature to him. As to borrowing from other literature (like Hamlet and Othello), well, as an actor he would have become familiar with works like these. Doing his own remakes would have been a normal activity, just as it is today.
I don't know about you, but it doesn't bother me one way or the other. I still enjoy the plays, and it doesn't matter a whit whether William Shakespeare or the Earl of Oxford knocked them out. Perhaps the name Shakespeare was used by many, just as Alan Smithee was used by directors, who for one reason or another didn't want their names to appear in the credits for a film. Maybe some noblemen (or noblewomen) or some writer's collective used Shakespeare's name as a cover. It doesn't make “Macbeth” any the less riveting.

But, I really wanted to write about something else that the article brought to mind. Back when I was in high school, walking four miles to school, uphill, both ways, in the snow, killing sabretooth cats on the way, I knew a guy whom I shall call Bob, mostly because that was his name.

Bob was a genial character who was one of the primary class comedians. He was also a pretty sharp cookie, but for one reason or another, he downplayed that side of his personality. He was an okay student because that's all he wanted to be. For example, he was a very good writer, but he was technically sloppy, particularly with spelling.

Bob overcame these deficiencies as time went on, especially on the spelling front. I know about the spelling, because he cleaned my clock in a long running “hangman” match we had. We played tough rules. No words less than five letters and only six misses allowed; we didn't even draw the little stick figure, just tallied the misses. I figure he would have killed me at Scrabble (TM).

Before he developed these skills, though, he was the bane of our English teacher during our sophomore year. She used to give content and mechanics grades on each essay. Bob would get a score in the high 90's for content accompanied by something in the 70's for mechanics. But he outdid himself on an essay concerning the Bard of Avon.

Consider, if you will, how many times the word “Shakespeare” would occur in a 2 or 3 page essay on “Hamlet” (I think it was). Consider further how a mechanics grade might suffer if, each time you wrote that name, you spelled it “Shakspeare” or “Shakespear”. That's what Bob did. I don't recall the exact mechanics grade he got, but the teacher mentioned that she stopped marking that error after about thirty of them.

It is totally ironic that, in his own time, the Bard's name was variously rendered as “Shaxspere”, “Shagspere”, and “Shaxberd”, according to the Smithsonian article. Variants of names were not uncommon in those time, particularly if you weren't the Earl of Whatever. Now, Bob could debate with the best of them, and I wonder what the confrontation between him and the teacher would have been like had he been aware of the variability of spellings. It definitely would have made for one lively class. I certainly would have taken his side.

After all, he hadn't started beating my brains out at “hangman” yet.

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