The Shakespeare Controversy

01v/11/arve/G2582/016Perhaps many of you will have heard that there is a sort of controversy over Shakespeare’s authorship of the plays. I shouldn’t really describe it as a controversy because it isn’t, or it shouldn’t be; a controversy exists when there is some doubt about one side of an argument, when there are two sides to an argument and no matter how tenuous one side is, there is some substance to it. Over eighty alternative authors have been put forward for alternative authorship; they have one thing in common: there is not a scrap of evidence for any of them.

This is a subject that, since I became aware of it, has made me quite angry. I have tried to ignore it, but it always creeps back; you see even the ‘Does it matter’ arguments are annoying. Of course it matters. I shall try, briefly, to explain.

Apparently, doubt as to the authorship of his works began in the mid-nineteenth century, well over 200 years after his death. Friends and colleagues of his time had no doubt about his identity; they worked and socialised with him; Ben Johnson said of him that he

‘never blotted a line, would that he had blotted a thousand’.

It seems to have taken rather a long time for people to question his identity. A paucity of evidence from his life has helped, giving doubters ammunition to invent and speculate, but despite the paucity there is ample evidence that he was the author of the works. It takes a rather strange mind to doubt it. Unfortunately, especially now, there are plenty of strange minds around. And, I repeat (it can’t be repeated too often), there is not a scrap of evidence for anyone else having written his works. None whatsoever.

This poses the question as to why there are doubters. If we discount those always keen on any conspiracy theories and those with a vested interests (often lawyers), we are left with a relatively small bunch who simply refuse to believe that Shakespeare wrote his own plays. This is important; it is not that they truly believe any alternative, although they profess to do so, it is that they merely refuse to believe the truth. There is a reason for this: it is called snobbery.

The most popular fantasy today is that the Earl of Oxford wrote the plays, supposedly because only an aristocrat could have known so much about court behaviour, Italian history and poetry. As Bill Bryson has observed, this does make it rather difficult for him to have written Othello, King Lear, Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra, The Winter’s Tale, The Tempest and many others, on account of being dead. But his champions merely point out that there was a conspiracy and evidence was falsified to protect Oxford’s identity. Why it needed to be protected or why it has taken nearly 400 years to discover this, does not seem to concern them. The Oxfordians have some quite well-known followers, Jeremy Irons, Vanessa Redgrave, Derek Jacobi and Mark Rylance among them.

The fact that there is any controversy at all is extremely irritating, indeed US writer James Shapiro felt the need to write a recent book, Contested Will, to try and end the argument once and for all. It would have been much better had he used his time more productively – he is a marvellous writer on Shakespeare generally – but felt compelled to write on this topic when an 8 year old in his class expressed doubts as to the authorship (the debate, of course, is quite popular in America). I’m afraid that, having reached America and the lawyers and the film makers, even Shapiro’s excellent book will not make the doubters disappear. Although very much a minority, they are vociferous and probably growing. A film with Vanessa Redgrave and Derek Jacobi has already been made. Thankfully, it was awful.

But back to snobbery. Shakespeare has been described as looking like a ‘self-satisfied pork butcher’; he liked money; he hoarded grain; he lent money; he bought a coat of arms and a new house (called New Place) in Stratford. He was far from both the aristocracy and the poor, grammar school educated (a classical education) and with a father on the wrong side of the law. All this is too much for those who need him to be a bit more refined, a bit more superior, a bit more above everybody else. Pork butcher? Money lending? Hoarding grain? A criminal father? No, we can’t have that.

This is where the snobbery comes in. The likes of Irons, Jacobi and Redgrave need to have the author of such wonderful works as somebody a little better than them. Having never struggled to pay a bill, never struggled with anything really, they can’t accept that an ordinary boy from Stratford could be so much smarter than they are, be so wiser than they are – be so utterly brilliant. So they have to believe that it was really an aristocrat who wrote the plays; lacking any evidence for anybody, other than an aristocrat who happened to be dead when many of the plays were written, they cling desperately to an illusion. What awful, silly people they must be.

masks-001Shakespeare was so brilliant, so good, partly because he wasn’t a member of the aristocracy, wasn’t tainted by privilege and received ideas.  He hadn’t been brainwashed by a university education. He was real and he knew people. He lived among them in London, he visited pubs and brothels; he knew and understood life. He is one of us, one of the people – he is ours. That is what the likes of Jacobi cannot abide. They have to try and raise Shakespeare above us. They simply cannot stand the fact that he was an ordinary person and, more importantly, that ordinary people are capable of being Shakespeare – that there may be another Shakespeare out there among the masses. They would have to admit that it was possible, that there is more possibility among the masses than their privileged upbringing and lack of brainpower allows.

That is also why the question of authorship matters, that the greatest writer of all time was ordinary is very important. It should give inspiration to everybody. Allow these idiots to give the credit to an aristocrat and you rob the whole world of the possibility of great achievement. It matters.

I don’t have much space to go into the question of proof for Shakespeare’s authorship, I shouldn’t need to, but feel it necessary to mention a couple of things. The forest is a recurring theme in his plays. I quote from Peter Ackroyd’s biography:

“To the north of Stratford lay the Forest of Arden. When Touchstone enters the woods in As You Like It, he declares ‘I, now I am in Arden, the more foole I’. Shakespeare’s mother was Mary Arden.  Anne Hathaway lived on the outskirts of the forest.  His consciousness of the area was close and intense. The evidence of Shakespeare’s work provides evidence that he was neither born nor raised in the city. He doesn’t have the harshness of John Milton, born in Bread Street, nor the hardness of Ben Jonson, educated at Westminster School; the sharpness of Alexander Pope from the City or the obsessiveness of William Blake from Soho. He is of the country.”

On the question of snobbery I quote from an interview with Bill Bryson about his excellent short biography of Shakespeare:

Interviewer: Is it snobbery? He was a relatively ordinary man from a relatively ordinary background and they want him to be an aristocrat or somebody sort of special.

Bryson: That is really quite insulting to ordinary people. The idea that you could come from a modest background and that somehow that would disqualify you from being William Shakespeare is really a very demeaning thought. There’s no evidence for it. There never has been any evidence for it.

Oxfordians cannot explain Shakespeare’s knowledge of the country and its people. His knowledge of the cities came from living with them, his knowledge of Roman history from Plutarch. He was mainly an adaptor, he took other works and improved them. He wrote what are still some of the best parts for women, 400 years before feminism. He understood both men and women. He was modest; I’m sure he would be baffled by all the fuss about him today, although I’m sure he would take advantage of it.

Academics are generally very polite. In all the works stating (again) that the man from Stratford wrote the plays, they are very kind to the likes of Irons, Redgrave and Jacobi. They shouldn’t be; these people are a menace. They are snobs and idiots, too stupid to realise the damage they are causing. I suppose the best thing now would be to ignore them. I try to, but unfortunately they keep cropping up on television. It’s hard to see a solution.

To the Tower with them?

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Writing Heroes – William Shakespeare

“It is not in the stars to hold our destiny but in ourselves.”

My first experience of Shakespeare was a performance of The Tempest on a school trip; I hated it. Three years later I was given a copy of Macbeth as one of my ‘O’ Level books: I loved it. I read it and studied it and wrote about it. I achieved a good grade. After that, until I reached middle-age, I had very little to do with Shakespeare; I don’t enjoy the theatre much and found his plays difficult to follow. I went to see Roman Polanski’s Macbeth at the cinema in the 70s and loved that (it is still the best version), but It was only when I began helping students with their English that I started to appreciate him, and, only then, through the filmed versions.

Since then, having studied him on and off for a few years, I have discovered that I like Romeo and Juliet, Othello, The Merchant of Venice, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, As You Like It and A Winter’s Tale; I love Macbeth but baulk at the walking wood. I don’t like Hamlet or King Lear. I do like Julius Caesar, Troilus and Cressida, Measure for Measure and Coriolanus, all rarely performed, although Coriolanus does seem to be having a revival, partly due to its supposed similarities with today’s society.

wsquote-001All of the Henry plays are good but particularly Henry VIII, one of the least performed. I like Richard II and love Richard III, even though it is a complete fiction (Tudor propaganda); I like Much Ado About Nothing but don’t yet understand The Tempest; Anthony and Cleopatra is marvellous; I enjoyed bits of Cymbeline, but the version I watched had a young Helen Mirren dressed as a boy (impossible to believe). I don’t like Pericles or The Taming of the Shrew. I am indifferent to Love’s Labour’s Lost, Twelfth Night and All’s Well that Ends Well. I know nothing about the Two Gentlemen of Verona, A Comedy of Errors, The Merry Wives of Windsor or King John.

I think that just about covers them all; forgive me if I have forgotten anything. I enjoy watching Hamlet even though I don’t like him. Such a fuss is made about his tortuous journey and his suffering and tragic death, but I just find him a terrible whinger and get fed up with him very quickly. He is responsible for the deaths of Polonius (harmless old fool), Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (to be fair they would have had him killed otherwise, but only because of his awful behaviour), his mother and Ophelia, the one true innocent in the play. I found Ophelia the only sane person in the play and she is destroyed by Hamlet. Kenneth Branagh’s four hour film is quite entertaining but the best I’ve seen so far is Zeffirelli’s version with Mel Gibson.

hamlet-001King Lear and Hamlet are two of the most popular plays today. It is easy to obtain copies of performances and there are many films of both; I have seen quite a lot of them (the best King Lear is a Russian version by Grigori Kozintsev). As I said, I enjoy watching performances of Hamlet but have no sympathy at all with the play’s theme, which to me is: spoilt, self obsessed brat prattling on endlessly about his problems and dealing with them far too late, thereby causing the deaths of many. I suppose I get fed up with critics taking Hamlet (the character) so seriously (I grant his language is wonderful) when I find him very unlikeable.

King Lear is a play often performed and analysed. I hope I’m wrong, and one day might be convinced otherwise, but I find the whole thing ridiculous. I know it is about a foolish old man mistaking flattery for love and not recognising true love, of not understanding that the giving away of territory would change everything – of not understanding anything until it is too late; but it is told in such convoluted fashion, with too many characters and too many ridiculous scenes. I cannot watch the scene on the beach near the end without laughing.

I find Macbeth one of the most watchable of plays, partly because it is so short (the shortest). Its theme is simple: overarching ambition and female manipulation. There are one or two parts where I have to suspend disbelief: the walking wood, Lady Macbeth collapses into madness too quickly, but it is a marvellously entertaining example of what Shakespeare was best at: taking basic human emotions and dramatising them; of course all drama should do this but only Shakespeare did it so well.

One thing that stands out in all the plays though, is the language; there is wonderful language in all the plays. I’ll make a ridiculous understatement and say that Shakespeare had a way with words. Like no other before him or since, he could encapsulate the most profound thoughts and feelings in what is, when studied, beautifully simple language. His best plays are a joy throughout – I can watch them once or twice a year. The recent BBC series of Richard II, Henry IV parts 1 & 2 and Henry V was superb.

The way I found access to Shakespeare was through film. Watching his plays in the theatre I find that, unless one knows the play by heart (difficult), the language is lost – while thinking about one line, it is quickly followed by another and another and so much is lost, simply because it is impossible to keep up. With film, and today almost everything has subtitles, it is possible to pause and think, to absorb and understand and thereby find a way in to the plays.

This has been only a brief and haphazard introduction into my thoughts on Shakespeare. I have already written a rather self-indulgent review of Throne of Blood, Kurosawa’s film version of Macbeth. But bear with me. I would like occasionally to share my thoughts on Shakespeare, particularly the ridiculous authorship controversy, in the future. How do other writers feel about this – any other Shakespeare lovers out there? Or am I merely wallowing in my own enjoyment of him?

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Throne of Blood

Macbeth was the first Shakespeare play I encountered. It captured my imagination more than any other, partly perhaps because it is more concise: it tells a simple tale and wastes no time. I remember at age sixteen that I thought Lady Macbeth was the main influence of the tale, that Macbeth, left to his own devices, would have done nothing.

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Recently, I watched Throne of Blood, which is Akira Kurosawa’s (1957) filmic take on Macbeth. Though dated in some ways, I found it fascinating, and I thought he placed much more emphasis on the Lady Macbeth figure, Asaji. Because Japanese society was so hierarchical and constricted, particularly for women, it allowed Kurosawa to demonstrate Lady Macbeth’s (Asaji’s) influence. Although women were restricted in Macbeth’s time, it was even more so for Japanese women. Kurosawa created a film that showed subtly and cleverly, how a woman can manipulate a man. Washizu (Macbeth) is not very bright, but he has all the power. Asaji must be very careful how she manipulates him. In this sense I think Kurosawa was limited by the constraints of following the play. Asaji’s collapse is too quick, too brief – she was stronger than that (as was lady Macbeth in the original play).

But enough preamble; this is a bit self-indulgent (and long), but I hope you will bear with me. Without having seen the film, this will mean nothing to you, so all I can do is recommend it very highly. Perhaps if any of you watch it, you can then come back and agree or disagree with me.

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 The film begins…

throneblood-001Throne of Blood – The Review