Saturday, June 20, 2009

The Shakespeare Caper

We are such stuff As dreams are made on, and our little life Is rounded with a sleep. ~ William Shakespeare, The Tempest
Not too long ago, a portrait belonging to one Alec Cobbe was announced as being a true portrait of William Shakespeare, which would not be a big deal except that it looks very different from other portraits. Now it turns out that Professor Hildegard Hammerschmidt-Hummel says most emphatically, "Nein, mein Herr". Her technique involves comparisons with other images along with some basic detective work about wardrobe.

So here we are, once again, dealing with that age-old question, "Just who was this Shakespeare cat anyway?" I've discussed this before at some length, and I've allowed as how it basically doesn't make a crinkled farthing to me who wrote the plays. It does, however, seem to bother some folks a great deal. So, what the heck, let's take another shot at it.

Some time ago, I read
Players: The Mysterious Identity of William Shakespeare by Bertram Fields, which takes a little different tack on the subject: Now, I'll warn you in advance that people didn't come flocking to his point of view, but I find it intriguing. Besides the book is a fun read.

Fields spends most of the book discussing what few actual facts are known about William Shakespeare. There is the Shakespeare of Stratford-on-Avon who seems to be an ordinary Joe who was a merchant, who sort of mysteriously goes off to London for a time. There's the Shakespeare who was an actor, who was a principle in running (and possibly writing for) a theatre. It turns out to be a little tricky to tie these people together. If you do tie them together, then you have to deal with a number of issues. For example, how did a grammar-school educated Shakespeare come to know history so well? How did he become so wordly wise in his writing and imagery? And why did he write such a lousy epitaph for himself?

Good friend for Jesus sake forbeare
to digg the dust enclosed heare!
Bleste be ye man yt spares thes stones,

And curst be he yt moves my bones.

That has all the charm of "There was a young lady from Nantucket."

After attempting to separate what is fact, what is surmise, and what is plain old conjecture, Fields lists the candidates for authorship of the collected works of the bard, and it's quite a list. It includes, in no particular order: Edward DeVere, Earl of Oxford; Christopher Marlowe; Francis Bacon; Roger Manners, Earl of Rutland; and Elizabeth I, Queen of England. So who does Fields think is the culprit?

He thinks it was a committee. Well, he uses the term "collaboration", but you get the drift. Essentially, Oxford is the main author of the group, since he's been penning a few poems and plays on the side. It isn't considered proper, however, for nobles to be stooping to show biz, so he hooks up with this struggling actor named Shaksper and gets him to be a front man (for which Shaksper will be paid well), but only after changing the name on the frontspiece to Shakespeare.

Things chug along nicely. Christopher Marlowe provides assistance on some of the plays, and even Shaksper provides some suggestions, what with his being an actor and all. Oxford, meanwhile, holds some plays back, mostly because he doesn't think he's gotten them quite right. Meanwhile, "Shakespeare" is turning out plenty of pretty good stuff.

Then Oxford becomes ill and dies. His son-in-law, Lord Stanley, finds the plays and consults the family lawyer, Francis Bacon, who, it turns out, knew about Oxford's little hobby. Plays are dusted off and, in some cases, punched up by other playwrights, like John Fletcher and Thomas Middleton.

No, I've never heard of them either.

Anyway, this all goes on for sometime until Shaksper himself kicks the bucket. Once Oxford's family finds that the "bard" hasn't spilled the beans about Devere's little arrangement, Stanley decides it would be a good idea to collect the plays and sonnets together, so he gets Ben Jonson to do this. Jonson being the editor of the First Folio is a major irony because he had no use for Shaksper, but, on learning of Oxford's arrangement, he thinks it would be a hoot to immortalize the man he considered to be a two-bit thespian.

So there you have it. Oxford, Stanley, Jonson, Middleton, Fletcher, and Marlowe (plus some other minor characters) are the authors of the plays. William Shakespeare is a front. Sorry, no Queen Elizabeth. She was busy doing queen stuff.

Now, does that diminish the plays somehow? Not to me. Those works stand (or fall, in the case of a few of them) on their own merits. Frankly, it matters not to me if Shakespeare's butcher in Stratford wrote the things. I'll still find enjoyment in Othello, Macbeth, or Richard III. And I'll be frustrated by Hamlet.

Really now. With all those authors, couldn't someone have helped Hamlet make up his mind?

No comments:

Post a Comment