Derek Jacobi and Mark Rylance are certainly two of my most favorite Shakespearean actors. But shall we trust them as historians?
Some of Britain's most distinguished Shakespearean actors have reopened the debate over whether William Shakespeare, a 16th century commoner raised in an illiterate household in Stratford-upon-Avon, wrote the plays that bear his name.
Acclaimed actor Derek Jacobi and Mark Rylance, the former artistic director of Shakespeare's Globe Theater in London, unveiled a "Declaration of Reasonable Doubt" on the authorship of Shakespeare's work Saturday.
The "doubts" are classic ones. So nothing new, but worth refuting yet again.
The document says there are no records that any William Shakespeare received payment or secured patronage for writing. And it adds that although documents exist for Shakespeare, all are nonliterary. It also points to his detailed will, in which Shakespeare famously left his wife "my second best bed with the furniture," as containing no clearly Shakespearean turn of phrase and mentioning no books, plays or poems.
Yes, if you were a great playwright, wouldn't your checkbook be more alliterative? Your customer service accounts have better story arcs?
It argues there are few connections between Shakespeare's life and his alleged works, but they do show a strong familiarity with the lives of the upper classes and a confident grasp of obscure details from places like Italy.
Which I take to mean that Romeo and Juliet and Taming of the Shrew are not plays about love but about the author's summer trip to Italy. And as far as the "upper classes" go, I guess Mistress Quickly & co. be damned, eh? (And don't tell me "Sir" John Falstaff represents only "noblemen.")
One thing about that phrase "reasonable doubt." It gives away how lawerly the whole "authorship" issue is, and explains why it is not a pursuit of actual literary historians but a weekend hobby of lawyers. Sure, in a court planting "reasonable doubt" in a jury's mind is all it takes. But I'm afraid in the face of a huge paper trail of linking "that man from Stratford" to the plays--and no documents explicitly linking any other "candidate" (and I don't mean "code") to any one title--it takes a little more than poking "reasonable doubt" holes to overturn history. Sorry counselors, the burden of proof is on you in this case.
One way to bear that burden of proof, of course, would be to actually prove authorship the way grown-ups do--by linking specific authors historically to specific texts. It's not enough to show that if your man could have written one of the plays, he therefore wrote them all. (Not even real Shakespeare scholars claim the case for WS on each and every play is airtight.) It's also not enough to argue that in some fantasy world Edward de Vere could have had the knowledge and/or life experience to write Hamlet. Just imagine how many potential authors, by those standards, there are for R & J. (Been in love and been to Italy? You too could have written a masterpiece. Better yet if you killed yourself.)... So instead of publishing a mere "declaration" how about putting your money where your mouth is, guys? How about publishing a nice big coffee table book of "The Complete Works of Edward de Vere." Where--like any reputable Complete Shakespeare--you have to write an intro for each and every play showing the paper trail connecting the author to the play. Hmm, that would be harder, wouldn't it.
Anyway, I still look forward to Jacobi and Rylances next performances. If this what they need for motivation in their rehearsal process, so be it. But, good gentlemen, please keep it out of the classroom.