The Playgoer: Shakespeare & "Reasonable Doubts"

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Sunday, September 09, 2007

Shakespeare & "Reasonable Doubts"

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.


Anonymous said...

The "classroom" element of this story is probably what bothers me most; isn't this similar to the argument "since evolution's only a theory (like gravity), then it's perfectly reasonable to believe the world was created from nothing only 5000 years ago"? And the Declaration itself (I plan to address this myself soon) definitely does reveal a lack of understanding of what 'authorship' meant in the 16th and early 17th century, before the Romantic notion of the creative genius came about.

parabasis said...

Hey G,

First off, let me just say that I believe Shakespeare at least cowrote all of his plays. There's some strong evidence of uncredited collaborators, but not enough to sully the idea that Shakespeare is the author.

Still, though, you say you're going to refute the arguments, but what you actually do is dismiss them. Now, perhpas they're not actually worthy of refutation, but the issue that Shakespeare's will makes no reference his plays, books or poems is a little odd and separate from the (less pertinant) issue that it is dryly written.

What Jacobi and Rylance are raising is that, other than his name on the title page, there's little evidence that Shakespeare wrote his plays. Of course the problem is, you know his name is on the title page of his plays and there is absolutely zero evidence that anyone else wrote them.

Playgoer said...

Issac--good point about "collaboration." Just to show how reasonable the consensus Shakespeare scholarship is this day, it's not about Bardolatry anymore. It's taken as a given that Elizabethan theatre was an environment of intense collabration between writers, perhaps many on particular plays. (Exactly like Hollywood, by the way.) And there are many reasonable cases for collaboration on both the earliest and latest plays--reasonable because of the existence of some documents naming other authors!

The difference between this collaboration and the "collaboration" cited in this latest "declaration" is a collaboration between established PLAYWRIGHTS. Not between a playwright and some mysterious nobleman in the shadows.

About Will's will, let me be clear I was indeed just addressing the complain that that and other legal documents of his are not more colorfully written. A frequent complaint from the conspiracy theorists, by the way....The question of what happened to his books and play manuscripts is a good one, I grant. Not easil explained away, true. But not decisive, and I object to the negative of that being used to prove the positive of someone totally different therefore writing the plays.

People do borrow books (I know I do). And he may very well have made other personal arrangements to give the papers and books to one of the daughters or his Globe buddies (who published the Folio of course). My own take? How about Shakespeare as an Elizabethan Salinger--a guy who has it all, then says fuck you to literary society, retreats to the country bidding good riddance to the whole business without any nostalgia or sentimentality. I mean--is it a REQUIREMENT to hold onto all your old playbills, for instance?

And yes, I agree, having your name on the title page--consistently-- is a pretty big piece of evidence.

Bing said...

Despite the Cubs-related links on this page, I totally agree with you, o playgoer.


HJ (Go Cards!)

Zack Calhoon said...

The other thing that Bacon and De Vere theorists always try to avoid is the proof that not only did William Shakespeare purchase a coat of arms, he also had a mortgage. Now these are not sexy literary proofs of his authorship, but it does prove that he existed.

I really believe that a lot of this has to do with snobbery: How could a man from humble beginnings and know so much about human nature, and the class system? How could a man who never went to college write some of the best poetry ever written? To my knowledge, Tom Stoppard never had a college education and he is probably one of most learned, prolific, and inventive living playwrights in the world.

Anonymous said...

While I agree with parabasis that there's a strong likelihood that he cowrote plenty of his plays, the Earl et al are hard to present as good writers. When Mr. Oxford actually wrote poetry, it stunk.