More Shakespeare Authorship Silliness

5 05 2008

Ex-director of Globe Theatre doesn’t believe in Bill

Mark Rylance signing the so-called Declaration of Reasonable Doubt.

A side effect of the ingrained cultural tradition of praising the unique greatness of Shakespeare is the question of the “real” authorship of the plays attributed to the bard. The idea is that, if the literary and intellectual qualities of the plays are so far beyond that of any dramatist before or since, someone much more sophisticated than a mere actor from the provinces must have written them. The element of snobbery in this debate has always been blatantly obvious. Hence, even before the proliferation of misinformation brought by the internet, there have always been efforts to promote the authorial claims of various court figures and aristocrats like Edward de Vere, Seventeenth Earl of Oxford, Francis Bacon, Lady Mary Sidney, James I, Michelangelo Crollalanza, and – why not – Lord Peter Wimsey or Yvette Mimieux.

The authorship question is in the news at the moment because Mark Rylance, the first artistic director of the Globe Amusement Park and Ye Olde Gift Shoppe in London, has recently made apparent his own scepticism about the Shakespeare myth. In a recent feature in The New Yorker, to promote his appearance on Broadway in the classic tragicomedy Boeing-Boeing, we discover that “He thinks now that Shakespeare was likely a front for a small band of writers, perhaps headed by Francis Bacon, which included, among others, Lady Mary Sidney.” Indeed, he claims that his challenge to received ideas, along with his opposition to the Iraq war (a political stance unique in theatrical and academic circles), made his position at the ersatz theatre untenable and obliged him to resign.

What’s so special about Bill anyway?

Of course, if Shakespeare was seen as just another dramatist, we wouldn’t feel obliged to come up with elaborate explanations for his presumed greatness. In working on the representation of Italy in early modern drama, I have come across the authorship question a lot because many people seem to think that Shakespeare’s plays display a distinctive knowledge of the literature, history, and geography of the peninsula – a knowledge that only a widely travelled aristocrat or renowned period intellectual could have attained. Even among professional scholars who would feel embarrassed spouting crackpot historical conspiracy theories, we get grandiose claims about how Shakespeare must have visited Italy and spent an extensive amount of time in Venice in particular. However, it is worth remembering that we are talking the dramatist behind The Tempest, a play which depicts the landlocked city of Milan as a seaport (I have seen Italian productions of the play that silently changed the locale to Genoa to avoid inappropriate laughter in the stalls). What comes to the fore in looking at Shakespeare in the context of early modern drama as a whole, as I will do in my forthcoming book Shakespeare, Politics, and Italy: Intertextuality on the Jacobean Stage, is that everyone in the theatre was writing about Italy – and, for the most part, they were doing it by cribbing from books readily available in England.




4 responses

5 05 2008

Where you say:

“The idea is that, if the literary and intellectual qualities of the plays are so far beyond that of any dramatist before or since, someone much more sophisticated than a mere actor from the provinces must have written them. The element of snobbery in this debate has always been blatantly obvious.”

That is not the idea. Yes, that would be snobbery. The idea is that there is a unique documentary void, a completely anomalous absence of personal, contemporary, literary evidence that ties Will Shakspere of Stratford to the Shakespeare canon. The Stratford attribution rests upon the posthumous identification of the First Folio and the Stratford monument as the means whereby we tie the name on the title pages to the man from Stratford. The attribution does not rest upon manuscripts in his hand, or contemporary evidence that he was paid to write, or evidence of a direct relationship with a patron (the dedications to the Earl of Southampton do not, in and of themselves, document a relationship: many writers dedicated works to nobles they’d never met in hopes of gaining patronage through flattery), or notice at death as a writer (Shakspere’s death went utterly unsung and unnoticed), or letters by friends referring to him as a writer, or evidence of education, etc.

The point is that we have all these for everyone else. For virtually any writer of even minor significance in Elizabethan and Jacobean letters, we have one (and in most cases several) of these documented literary paper trails. People who wrote for a living in those days left evidence from their lifetimes of their profession.

With one notable exception, for whom the only evidence is posthumous. That this exception should be the most famous and highly praised (even in his day) of them all is simply not credible.

It’s easy to dismiss the authorship issue as snobbery. I once did so myself. But the facts indicate otherwise.

Michael Dunn

5 05 2008

So even Shakespeare’s “documentary void” is greater than that of other writers?

6 05 2008

Michael: Thanks for your comments. As I mentioned in the post, my experience with the authorship debate comes from studying the representation of Italy in early modern drama for a number of years. What I soon discovered, after an encounter with an Oxfordian at one of the first conferences I attended as a graduate student, was that many people are convinced that the importance of Italian literature, culture, and geography in the plays of Shakespeare (or – if you like – those attributed to Shakespeare) is evidence of an intimate familiarity with the peninsula – a familiarity more appropriate to an aristocrat with the means to embark on an early version of the grand tour than a working actor from the provinces. Indeed, I see that there is a current discussion of the presumed travels of Shakespeare (or a reasonable facsimile) in Venice on the Shakespeare Fellowship Discussion Boards:
For some Sicilian Shakespeare enthusiasts, as I discussed in a recent post on the Crollalanza authorship theory, Shakespeare’s works must have been written by an Italian.

The problem with this argument, which to be fair is not the one that you make here, is that the Italian material in Shakespeare is not particularly unique. Every dramatist of the period was writing plays set in Italy. Apart from the obvious example of a work like Ben Jonson’s Volpone, there are numerous examples of Italianate drama from Dekker, Beaumont & Fletcher, Middleton and all those obscure playwrights who never achieved glory before or since – it’s just that most interpreters – scholars, actors, and laypeople alike – only read the prestigious works of Shakespeare, contributing to a skewed panorama of the intertextual practices of the theatrical community in London.

As for “the unique documentary void”, my suspicion that this is a product of the Shakespeare Myth. As Shimano 105 notes above, Shakespeare has to be superlative in everything, even in the mysteries surrounding his works. We love the plays so much that we want (and expect) more evidence about the dramatist than we would for the unsung authors of works we really don’t care about. Indeed, I am always surprised at how much does remain from what is, after all, a long, long time ago.

7 05 2008

I wrote those plays. Why won’t anyone give me credit – and the residuals?

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