If you spend your life working on Shakespeare, sooner or later someone’s going to pop the question: “Did he really write the plays?”
If you are a serious, textual-studies minded Shakespearean, you might respond with something along these lines: “Well. Probably not all of them on his own. He only collaborated on 1 Henry VI, and wrote most but not all of Titus Andronicus; Timon of Athens and Macbeth likely have Middleton’s hand in them; and late in his career, he wrote plays with the obscure George Wilkins and the rising star John Fletcher.” And not only will you have spoken a sentence with two semi-colons in it (you are, after all, learned), you will also have disappointed or put to sleep your interlocutor. Alternatively, you will have upset the questioner, who will now accuse you of being part of the brainwashed majority of academics who are out to promote the fraudulent belief that a glover’s son from provincial Stratford could have written the greatest-works-of-literature-ever, the secular Bible, the texts that taught us how to be human, etc. Either way, you lose.
This isn’t really going to be a post about the so-called authorship controversy. It’s not an issue I’m especially interested in (because I, like my imaginary friend above, am part of the evil academic conspiracy). Like most of my colleagues, I can deliver, if required, a reasonably well-defined, fairly brief position statement on the non-issue. As far as I am concerned, the only motivation to question that Shakespeare wrote most of the words contained in the 1623 folio is a deeply ingrained (if baffling) classism, paired with an equally baffling conviction that writers can only write about what they know, as if no author had ever sprung the modern first-book trap of autobiographical inspiration. Therefore, if there are court scenes in the plays, the author must have been a courtier; if there is philosophy, he must have been a philosopher; if there are scenes set in foreign lands, he must have travelled (curiously, it does not seem to follow that if there is sheep shearing, he must have shorn sheep; if there is scrivening, he must have been a scrivener; if there is shrewish talk, he must have been a shrew; if there is whore-mongering, he must have been a pimp). But by those standards, many of Shakespeare’s fellow dramatists also must be decoys for more prominent members of Elizabethan or Jacobean society. Shakespeare isn’t the most perceptive or interesting early modern playwright on courtly culture (Webster is far more adept at that); he’s nowhere near as learned or sophisticated in his references as the university-trained Marlowe or the autodidact Jonson. His Italy is the stuff of travellers’ guidebooks at best (Jonson read his with a better eye for detail — just compare his Venice to Shakespeare’s); his Austria is a joke (Vienna? Really?); and his Bohemia… well, you know the story. Shakespeare writes pretty much exactly with the frame of reference one might expect from a reasonably well-educated middling-sort Englishman with good connections to the book trade, especially the trade in popular books. He does not write like a snobbish BA, nor like a courtier, nor like a high-ranking nobleman. There is nothing in his works to suggest that he had access to privileged knowledge or experiences unavailable to his colleagues in the world of London’s professional theatres. He may have had a more capacious imagination, a better ear, a more daring sense of expression than most of them, but that is no reason to question his origins or identity.
But if I go much further into this, the post will become about the authorship question, and that’s not what I had in mind. So, in sum, I do not believe that there is an authorship question, because I do not see the basis on which one would reasonably ask it.
I’m after something slightly different here. Looming on the cinematic horizon is a film built around the idea that Shakespeare’s plays were really written by Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford. It’s being directed by one of the intellectual giants of contemporary film, Roland Emmerich — a filmmaker singularly adept at squeezing preposterous story lines from inherently sober and serious issues (climate change, life on the mammoth hunt, alien invasion. Oh, and ventriloquism). Those of us liable to break out in hives at the mention of the Earl of Oxford should rejoice at this news: it’s hard to imagine that Emmerich’s film won’t do damage to what silly people call the “anti-Stratfordian” position.
More depressingly, however, the film stars Mark Rylance. Rylance has long been a vocal proponent of authorship skepticism; he’s also, to my mind, one of the most consistently interesting Shakespeare actors around. He was, paradoxically, the inaugural artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe, he has played memorable versions of many major Shakespearean characters (his Richard II was a landmark of sorts — compare it to Michael Pennington’s and marvel at how much less predictable, how much more enlightening and unexpected Rylance’s choices are), and he is single-handedly responsible for converting me to the belief that Cymbeline may actually be a good play. I’m listing his achievements in descending order of importance, I suppose.
Now, I recently discovered a clip from a press conference in which Rylance explains the supposed importance of the film, and talks about why the authorship issue matters to him. You can watch it here (and you should, to get a sense of his anger and his investment in the issue), but I’ve also transcribed it:
I love the Shakespeare plays. I particularly love the author, and I love new plays. And I think in any field if there was someone who had achieved what this author has achieved in his field, the people who work in that field would be interested, if it was in medicine or war or aviation or farming, people would be interested in how that person had surpassed, not just the people in his country, but seemingly anyone that anyone can mention anywhere in the world. No one’s written such a wide compass of plays as Shakespeare. So yes, I’m interested in how he did that and at the moment there is a massive campaign to convince us that this is some kind of impersonal literary exercise. And that’s being taught to young people who pay a lot of money in many universities, that the sonnets are a literary exercise. I have never ever encountered a poet, a playwright, any artist that doesn’t involve himself or herself personally in their work and doesn’t draw upon their own experience and their own efforts to learn by books or by talking to other people or by visiting places, by putting a lot of work in. To say that these works – that you make up 14 plays about Italy, set in Italy with accurate details of Italian landscape, customs, habits, culture – that you just imagine that stuff – I think it’s an absolute crime that young people are being taught that, an absolute crime that members of my profession are being taught that.
And since the authorship question was opened to me, my respect for the author, my attention to the details of the plays, my feelings that I’m working with someone who is possibly, in this particular story, sharing something of enormous personal pain and suffering, that these words were not just made up – that’s a ridiculous idea – that there was enormous personal suffering that went into this kind of writing. Let them bring forth other writers, let them bring forth evidence that Ibsen, or Chekhov, or Goethe wrote without deep feeling, or Dostoevsky, wrote without deep feeling and personal input. There’s a great, great deal of rubbish being put about about Shakespeare and it’s getting in the way, it’s getting in the way badly. And fortunately people like Roland and these actors, who are putting themselves in the line, and the people who backed this film, and the person who’s written it, are doing a lot to break down that idiocy. As there is idiocy in many fields at the moment, isn’t there. Many, many fields. And one of the fortunate things of this Shakespearean thing is it’s totally unimportant. It doesn’t matter a jot. But when you break through it it starts to teach you how to question and break through other fallacies that are being put about at the moment. So that’s the difference it makes to me as an artist, sir.
There is a lot to talk about here, so I will cherry-pick. I don’t think I know anyone who has suggested that Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets are purely “literary exercises,” totally devoid of any kind of personal investment. Rylance seems to think that it’s somehow a radical thing for him to propose that authors draw on their personal experiences and feelings in writing. He also thinks academics believe that Shakespeare randomly made up stuff about a place called Italy without ever cracking open a book on the subject or talking to someone who might have been there. I have never met anyone who believes any of this, and I certainly don’t know anyone who teaches such things to students or actors. I’d gladly inform Mark Rylance that the crime he thinks is being committed on campuses across the globe is not, in fact, taking place. At the same time, I find it seriously saddening that one of the major Shakespearean actors of our time has absolutely no idea whatsoever what his fellow travellers in the academy think or do.
That said, conceding that Shakespeare was not some sort of odd writing automaton does not mean that the sonnets weren’t also, among other things, literary exercises. They are efforts in a particular form, addressed at least in part to readers who cared more about particular turns of phrase, certain conceits, specific metrical or rhythmic shifts and tricks, the occasional clever rhyme even, than about dark ladies or endless love. If Rylance doesn’t believe that, he might want to stop hanging out with the rather intense 19th-century brood of writers he references and start spending some more time with Shakespeare and his contemporaries, among whom a keen sense of “look what I did there!” and “clever, eh? Bet you couldn’t pull that off” was an essential part of the writer’s toolkit.
What’s more, it’s completely unclear that the concession that there’s a lot of Shakespeare in Shakespeare significantly aids in the interpretation of the plays. So Shakespeare was a Warwickshire man, and his works are rich in the vocabulary of his childhood home: what does that mean? Does it change our understanding of Hamlet to learn that when he’s telling Horatio that “There’s a divinity that shapes our ends,/Rough-hew them how we will,” he is using language that Warwickshire farmers still use when talking about trimming hedges? It is a fascinating factoid, to be sure (much like Jane Shaxspere), but what does it do? Does it change the character of Hamlet into a prince with an unhealthy interest in agriculture? A Hal-like linguistic chameleon who evidently spent part of his youth hanging out with hedge-trimmers from the Midlands? Presumably — hopefully — not. Finding too much of the author in a play tends to be a problem rather than a benefit, given that plays usually work as multivocal artefacts propelled by the orchestration of multiple, potentially contradictory perspectives and viewpoints. If it is simplistic to reduce a novel, or even a lyric poem to a single voice or perspective, doing so to a play comes close to missing the point altogether.
I have frankly no idea what either Rylance’s strange and misguided polemic against his imaginary academic foes or his reductive model of how authors and texts relate to each other has to do with Shakespeare’s identity, though I suspect he thinks that a play like Hamlet could not have been written by someone who had not experienced the kind of princely suffering (what we might now call first-world problems) Hamlet experiences. I don’t know why he might think that, given that Shakespeare likely wasn’t a woman, or an extraordinarily fat man, or an aging king, or a Roman senator, but there you have it.
In any event, it appears that the authorship question is merely part of a more fundamental investment in the ideology of authorship itself: Rylance doesn’t think the glover’s son wrote the plays, and that issue of identity matters; but what matters more is that the author who wrote those plays had feelings and experiences, and those feelings and experiences seem to be what’s most significant about the works. Which is why denying their importance is “getting in the way, badly” of doing Shakespeare justice.
I find this an awfully limited understanding of literary or dramatic creation, and an awfully limited program for interpretation. But I’m especially perplexed that an actor of all people should argue for such a view so fervently. (And Rylance isn’t alone in this: another great contemporary Shakespearean, Derek Jacobi, is fully on his side.) Why would actors feel so beholden to an author and his feelings rather than to the text or its characters? If an actor is constrained by anything (and that’s a debate for another day), it must surely be the experiences, feelings, and ideas the text gives to his or her character, not those of an author who may or may not be in some shape or form present in the play. Where does the playwright’s personal life even begin to feature in the process of finding the character? And why should it?
Actors, writers, academics, friends: tell me. Where does this strange actorly impulse (if that is what it is) to turn to the writer rather than to the text, or to the text in order to get to the writer, come from? And how can it possibly be justified?
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- Young Chekhov (trans. David Hare; dir. Jonathan Kent) National Theatre, London; Aug. 2016 (and also some The Plough and the the Stars)
- Prose and Verse in the 1608 King Lear Quarto: An Alternative Explanation
- Doctor Faustus (Marlowe; dir. Maria Aberg) Swan/RSC, August 2016
- The RSC and London: A widening Gulf?
- The Alchemist (Ben Jonson; dir. Polly Findlay) RSC/Swan, Stratford-upon-Avon, August 2015
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Holger Syme's work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.
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