Sunday, March 27, 2005

Shakespeare: who was he?

I have a certain fascination with the much-debated Shakespeare authorship question, as demonstrated by the three essays I've posted on the topic (which can be found here). Now a new book has entered the fray, an attractively produced volume titled Players : The Mysterious Identity of William Shakespeare, by Bertram Fields.

In a nutshell, the authorship controversy centers on whether William Shakespeare, a not-very-well-educated lad from a small farming town, could have acquired the range of knowledge, the life experience, and the massive vocabulary (21,000 words, almost three times the vocabulary of John Milton) that are evident in the plays and poems published in his name. Stratfordians - i.e., those who insist that Shakespeare of Stratford did indeed write the works, say that Shakespeare's innate genius allowed him to overcome all obstacles. The doubters, clumsily dubbed anti-Stratfordians, say that even genius is not a sufficient explanation for the playwright's apparent familiarity with Greek, Italian, and French, with European locales, with high-flown metaphysical speculations, with legalisms, with military and nautical terminology, with aristocratic pursuits like falconry (forbidden to the middle class), and with the intricacies of life at court. They also see in Shakespeare a distinct preference for the upper classes (nearly all of his major characters are nobles or royals) and a disdain for commoners, who are typically depicted as comical louts or dangerous mobs.

Bertram Fields revisits all these issues and more in his readable, user-friendly volume. The great virtue of his book is its evenhandedness. Fields carefully presents both sides of all the major arguments, never sliding into dogmatism or insisting he has all the answers. This approach may frustrate the absolutists on both sides of the debate, but it allows for an intelligent assessment of the claims and counterclaims, without emotion or invective.

In a book that covers such a large subject, there are bound to be some lapses. Fields makes a few mistakes; for instance, he says in passing that Shakespeare's four major tragedies - Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear, and Othello - did not appear in print until the First Folio of 1623. Actually, three of the four were published in earlier quartos (the exception is Macbeth). He says that the Earl of Oxford's arms depicted "a rampant lion shaking a spear," when it would be more accurate and less tendentious to say that the lion is holding a broken spear. (Did the lion break the spear by shaking it too hard? Oxfordians - those who think the earl was the real Shakespeare - like to think so.) He also quotes Gabriel Harvey's tribute to Oxford, "... thy countenance shakes a spear," without mentioning that the tribute was written in Latin and the words can be translated in other ways.

These are minor points. What bothered me more was the paucity of citations to other scholars. The book has only three or four footnotes, no endnotes, and most surprising of all, no bibliography. Fields owes most of his arguments to earlier writers, but they are only intermittently acknowledged. His analyses of both Henry V and The Merchant of Venice seemingly owe much to Harold Goddard's superb commentary The Meaning of Shakespeare, but Goddard is never mentioned. He gives little or no indication of the sources for his information on Christopher Marlowe and the Earl of Derby, among others. More citations would have been helpful to readers who wish to pursue this subject further, and would have been appropriate in giving credit where it is due. (For those who are interested, my essays - linked above - do provide a list of sources, including Web sites.)

These caveats should not detract from the overall value of Players. Fields has done a commendable job of summarizing a vast amount of information in a clear, straightforward way, and exhibits a level of common sense often absent from this contentious dispute. His own theory, put forward tentatively at the end, is not terribly convincing (at least to me), but he does not demand allegiance to it. It's just one possibility among many.

In the end, what Fields's book and others like it demonstrate is that the case for "the Stratford man" is relatively weak, and that other contenders can and should be taken seriously. At the same time, they also demonstrate that no single contender fits the bill. Oxford died too early, and the poetry that survives under his own name is not of Shakespearean quality. Marlowe can be a candidate only if he faked his own death in 1593 - not an impossibility, but surely an obstacle to plausibility. The Earl of Derby left no writing in his own name, giving us no way to judge his talents as an author. Francis Bacon had a worldview radically different from Shakespeare's, and his multifaceted career kept him busy enough without penning 37 or more plays on the side. Other proposed candidates are even more unsatisfactory.

The riddle may never be solved. The great value of Players : The Mysterious Identity of William Shakespeare is that the book is content to raise the questions and leave them, ultimately, unresolved. Sometimes the most honest answer is none at all.


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home