If what Evelyn Waugh wrote is true – “personal experiences are a novel- ist’s capital, to be hoarded, and spent only with prudent avarice” – one may wonder what he thought of the canon – the plays and poems – of William Shakespeare. Would he have viewed with suspicion the life experiences of a fairly provincial man of middle-class roots and habits, whose family only recently had entered the gentry, an actor of little distinction whose only known travels encompassed the limited circuit of London and the surrounding counties? Or would he have seen the potential for the greatest works of English theater flowing from an individual genius who transcended his narrowness of exposure?
If he doubted that the William Shakespeare of Stratford-on-Avon was the William Shakespeare who authored “Hamlet,” Waugh would have found good company during the past 200 years. As far back as the middle of the 19th century, previously murmured rumors of the Authorship Question came into their own, as academics and laymen alike started smelling something rotten in the state of English literature. Once the gates of doubt cracked open, a flood of speculation poured forth. Deception, conspiracy, and cover-up were the bywords of the people who are called the anti-Stratfordians – and everyone had a favorite suspect for the true authorship. But fortunately, William Shakespeare has his supporters still.
Two of the best recent arguments for his authorship come from very different sources. The first is “The Case for Shakespeare: The End to the Authorship Question” by Scott McCrea. This may be the most fun you can have in the frustrating world of conspiracy-mongering and conspiracy-counter- ing. The author knows how to take an intimidating subject and render it lively and accessible. McCrea delights in thrusting the rapier of logic, crying out to the doubters, “If you quarrel, I am for you. I stand as good a man as you!” Many readers will say, as I do, “Yes, and better.”
The book is constructed as a defense, its first part asserting the claims of William Shakespeare’s authorship; the second demolishing the rival claims. McCrea starts with the arguments of the detractors. He is fearless in confronting the difficult questions. What of Shakespeare’s meager education? What of his wildly divergent signatures? What of his less-than-eloquent last will and testament? Why did his will not bequeath his books and papers? What of the doggerel adorning his grave marker?
To these problems, McCrea provides reasonable and well-researched solutions, using each one to make his case for Shakespeare stronger and more plausible. For instance, anti- Stratfordians find in Shakespeare’s will a dearth of poetry and expression that seems unreasonable for such a great poet. McCrea answers this doubt by examining other wills that were executed by Francis Collins, the man who prepared the will for Shakespeare. He finds that “its lack of emotion, which kindles the doubts of the anti-Strat-fordians, might be significant if such a lack were unusual, but a quick glance at other Collins-prepared wills shows us that it’s not. … Like his modem counterparts, Collins must have discouraged (or simply ignored) any of his testator’s sentimental adjectives or clauses; these, he knew, could lead to lawsuits and wrangling among beneficiaries. Then as now, verbal artistry was hazardous in legal documents” (p. 48).
Addressing the claim that a great author could not have failed to bequeath any books or papers, McCrea does the research and provides a nimble answer: books were not usually bequeathed separately from other goods, unless there was a positive need to bestow them apart from the rest of the estate; and manuscripts were usually kept in the property of the acting troupe for which the playwright wrote. In fact, “[m]anuscripts and books are missing from the wills of playwrights Samuel Daniel, John Marston, and James Shirley, and there are no books mentioned in the testaments of writers Thomas Campion, Reginald Scot, and even Sir Francis Bacon” (48).
One by one, McCrea thrusts his blade into the fallacious flesh of doubters, and draws red blood. My favorite part of the book begins when McCrea turns his attention to the canon itself and examines what it can tell us about the author.
Anti-Stratfordians love to transform him into a man of extensive learning and expansive travels, and they point to the writings to prove their points. Mc- Crea points to the writings to prove the opposite. One assertion of the heretics is that the author was a well-educated man – a university scholar, consider-ing his command of language. But there is nothing in Shakespeare’s background to indicate that he studied at a university; from what we know of his timeline, this is highly improbable; therefore, the author cannot be Shakespeare.
McCrea says, essentially: OK, let’s make it a given that the author was a university man. Greek was a required subject at both Cambridge and Oxford. Surely, then, the author must have known Greek. Ah, but what does the canon show us? Is it rife with classical allusions? As a comparison, McCrea considers the work of John Taylor, “the poet and watertaxi-driver, who’avowed his failure to get through the Latin accidence, and his ignorance of alliances but his own,’ [yet who] has a greater number of classical allusions in his small body of work than occur in all the Shakespeare plays” (66). Furthermore, when Greek authors and philosophers are. quoted by Shakespeare, he is evidently using texts that were translated into Latin or English, rather than those in the original language. As McCrea says, “He had small French, less Italian, good Latin, and little if any Greek. His plots he took from sources, and his dialogue he often contrived by re-writing others’ passages. He was a man of superior imagination and observation, not extraordinary experience” (221).
The second half of the book continues in the same light-hearted yet serious manner. McCrea reviews the claims of the various people who have been suspected of writing Shakespeare’s plays, identifying the few in this long parade who are worthy of more than cursory attention. Then he zeros in on the darling of the modem heretics: Edward de Vere, 16th Earl of Oxford. Here is an erudite fellow who appears to have all the
One by one, McCrea thrusts his blade into the fallacious flesh of doubters, and draws red blood.
experience that Waugh could desire. De Vere was well-traveled, learned, fluent in French, knowledgeable in history, a patron of the theater, and, most importantly a nobleman well acquainted with the language and manners of the highest classes. McCrea is not intimidated by this formidable fellow; he shows, indeed, that de Vere’s very accomplishments put him out of the running for the authorship.
A man who had traveled the Continent as extensively as the earl, especially a man who had spent as much time in Italy, would never have made the mistakes in geography that Shakespeare consistently makes. He is very vague in his descriptions of Venice, Florence, Verona, and other distinctive locations, using adjectives like “fair,” “old,” and “sweet,” and omitting reference to such landmarks as the canals of Venice, the Ponte Vecchio of Florence, or the impressive gates of Verona (73). McCrea asks incredulously, “are we to believe that a writer – any writer – who had been to Venice could set two plays there without mentioning canals?” (74). The author had a knack for giving seacoasts to landlocked cities like Padua and Milan, and putting mountains in the way of flatland routes, like the one from Mantua to Milan. The truth is, Elizabethan audiences clamored for Italian settings and costumes and storylines, so that is what the author gave them, to the best of his ability.
McCrea’s evidence seems conclusive. But wait! There’s another book, the fascinating “A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599,” by James Shapiro. He also makes a good case for Shakespeare’s authorship of the canon, though that doesn’t seem to have been his main intent. “A Year in the Life” is one of those really nifty books that can be enjoyed by both Shakespeare scholars (my dad) and Shakespeare novices (me). Shapiro weaves a tale, part his- tory, part speculative biography of an extraordinary year in both Elizabethan England and Shakespeare’s body of work. He packs the narrative so full of historical facts and literary lessons that you feel you are seated at the proverbial feast of fat things. I love this kind of book, and Shapiro’s craft with the written word makes him worthy of the genre – and his subject.
The book begins with men on a winter’s night in 1598, men armed with tools and moving in secrecy using hands red and rough with the frost of a particularly unkind December to tear down a theater – The Theatre, the home of the acting troupe, the Chamberlain’s Men. This is Shakespeare’s group, the group to which he belongs as both an ensemble player and, more importantly, a playwright. They are tearing the building down because of a dispute with the leaseholder, and they will move its materials across London to the site of what will become The Globe. That is the inauspicious start of a pivotal year in the life of the Bard; a year in which, as Shapiro writes, “[A]t age thirty-five, Shakespeare went from being an exceptionally talented writer to one of the greatest who ever lived. Put it another way: how, in the course of little over a year, did he go from writing ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’ to writing a play as inspired as ‘Hamlet’?” (xvii).
This book makes the case for Shakespeare as author by showing him actually working as an author, month by month, season by season. Shakespeare the playwright comes alive; his plays are shown to be intimately involved with the turbulent times and the middle-class environment in which he lived. We see him eating, sleeping, trav-
eling, doing business, keeping current on new publications and abreast of current events. Of even greater interest, we glimpse his creativity and hard work. The chapter about the writing of “Hamlet” will erase any fancies you may have harbored about Shakespeare never blotting a word. The “official” version of “Hamlet” is as long as it is – and it is mighty long – because he reworked it so often, and his literary heirs included every word of every draft, lest they lose something precious. It was never meant to be a four-hour play.
Equally compelling is the history of the times, especially when Shapiro relates the events of 1599 so well to passages of the plays that were written that year. How was the composition of “Henry V” affected by the Irish campaign and Elizabethan censorship? Did that ill-fated Irish adventure and the uncertainty of a possible Spanish invasion that became known as the “Invisible Armada” influence the tone of “Julius Caesar”? What of the perennial conflict between Catholicism and Protestantism, heightened in tension by an aging and heirless Queen – was that struggle reflected in the plays? Was the anxiety that Shakespeare saw in his
As far back as the middle of the 19th century, academics and laymen alike started smelling something rotten in the state of English literature.
travels between London and Stratford over consecutive years of poor harvests translated peripherally into his comedy, “As You Like It”? Did the rise of a new literary format called the “essay” lead Shakespeare to experiment with the device most famously associated with him, the soliloquy? These fascinating questions are explored and answered in “A Year in the Life of Shakespeare” – putting the man and the author in the context of his times, and restoring his credibility. Such a man could indeed write such plays and sonnets.
Is it human nature to build up a man to heroic dimensions in one generation, and then tear him down in the next? Unfortunately, yes. The legend of William Shakespeare, the Bard of Avon, grew exponentially from his death up through the 18th century. He was given mythological abilities, prodigious attributes; he seemed, from.tne vantage of less-than-scrutinizing scholars, to have sprung fully-formed from the brow of deity. With a setup like this, it’s not difficult to foresee the coming fall.
But neither the lionizers nor the detractors are fair to the man who was William Shakespeare. He was a man of deep genius and powerful talents, true. Yet he was also a craftsman who worked diligently at his trade and drew sweet waters from the wellspring of middle-class Elizabethan life. How sharper than a serpent’s tooth Shakespeare might have found the thankless anti-Strat-fordians who, having been nourished by those waters, now call the well bitter and shallow! As McCrea writes, “A man
who has given us so much deserves, at the very least, recognition for his accomplishments” (xiv). Both of these Shakespearean histories will contribute to defanging that serpent and restoring the reputation so richly deserved by this singular· contributor to English literature.