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?

37 Responses to People Being Stupid About Shakespeare II

  1. Mauricio Martinez says:


    If I could shift the focus a bit I’d like to suggest that the question is less how actors think than how scholars think. It seems to me from the debate above that actors, like many other people, employ a somewhat heuristic form of analysis that is far removed from that used by scholars trained in the methods of historicist criticism, and that really makes all the difference.

    For instance, both Shakespeare and Ibsen were geniuses, I’m sure. But I’m also pretty sure that when Ibsen wrote a play, he didn’t take out a Bible and put it on his desk and copy out about 30-50+ passages, change some words around, and throw them in. Shakespeare did that (or something approximating that), and we know because the evidence is right there in the plays. And Shakespeare went even further, remorselessly ripping-off the work of writers around him. We can look at Nashe’s ‘Pierce Pennilesse,’ and see a passage like, “Were Barbary half so barbarous,” and then look at Tamora in Titus Andronicus, who says, “Were Scythia half so barbarous.” Now we’re not exactly sure who borrowed from whom, but Nashe’s phrase *works better.* It’s more interesting, and, in context, even a bit humourous. So who’s the genius now?

    I also think careful historicists tend to reject the notion that the process of artistic creation is the same for every time, for every culture, and for every condition of existence. Shakespeare’s extensive borrowings (or plagiarism, if we can use the term anachronistically) testifies to a different kind of creative work than that of, say, the contemporary novelist or playwright, who tends to be more sensitive about appropriating the work of others. One thing about films like ‘Shakespeare in Love’ is that they don’t tend to focus so much on his writing process. These films tend to show him with a pen in hand and paper on the table, and not much else (maybe a cup of ale or something). In all likelihood, he wrote like scholars tend to write, surrounded by piles of books and papers, heavily annotated and underlined, filled with references, ideas, and turns of phrase he wanted to steal (or paraphrase, to put it nicely).

    This seems self-evident to scholars, who tend to be familiar not only with more contextual material, but also with scholarly databases like Early English Books Online and the MLA Bibliography. Academics can just do a keyword search for “my kingdom for a horse,” and then some minutes later say “ok, he got it from there.” It’s very easy to make those connections, and draw upon the connections that others have made in the critical tradition. So I think what academics can say to actors and other artists with confidence is that yes, Shakespeare was a genius, but he wasn’t *your* kind of genius. Someone like Sidney or Spenser were obviously better at creating elaborate narratives just off the top of their heads, whereas Shakespeare often took existing material, cobbled it together, and polished it up in some interesting ways. (The former were also significantly higher-up on the social ladder, incidentally).

    Anyway, I’m rambling. I don’t usually post to blogs like this; I’m usually a more slow and deliberate writer. Suffice it to say that the judgments of artists and non-specialists are simply not going to be as accurate as those with specialist knowledge and advanced tools. It’s that simple. It’s like someone trying to convince an electrical engineer that the remote control for their television works through ‘the force.’ Umm… no. It works differently, and I can tell you why.

  2. Hi,

    I’ve just been to the real shakespeare website and i’m not really sure who Ian Steere is presenting as the true author. Or do I have to buy the book to find out?

    yours in the name of Will,


  3. Ian Steere says:

    Holger, we are going in circles only because you won’t look at, or allow us to explore, any detailed terrain beyond the radius of your mindset.

    You say that your post is about Shakespeare’s plays, but you included the sonnets in your initial analysis and conclusions – which is why I was prompted to respond. You had only to disclaim any interest in this topic at the outset and I would have let sleeping dogs lie.

    To any reader who does have an interest in continuing this exploration: please feel free to browse and/or contact me on realshakespeare.com.

    • Holger Syme says:

      Ian, I have disclaimed interest in biographical readings of the sonnets, over and over, so I don’t know why you keep insisting on waking those dogs.

      As far as the narrow confines of my mindset are concerned, however, I’ll say this (also not for the first time): I don’t think it’s illegitimate to read those poems autobiographically, but unless you show me some conclusive evidence (rather than merely compelling parallels), such a reading is no more authoritative than any other. Which means the standard to measure it by is how interesting or revealing it is — and by that standard, any number of non-autobiographical interpretations strike me as more intriguing. Others, including you, may disagree, but there’s no tribunal to say who’s right or wrong. It’s a question of personal preference. I’d prefer not to.

      • Ian Steere says:

        Disingenuous, Holger. You included the sonnets in the theme on which you are commenting – but sought to play down their relevance to that theme only well into our discussion.

        You should not apply inconsistent standards in assessing what you describe as “conclusive evidence”. For example,there is no one piece of such evidence for Shakespeare’s authorship of his plays – rather it is the combination of separate pieces of evidence which provide most open minded analysts with a very high level of confidence in his authorship.

        Developing this concept, if we take the probability that Shakespeare was the true author of his works at 99%, I submit that the probability of substantial biography in his sonnets is around 95% – based on a collection of cohering pieces of evidence, some of which is not commonly known.

        Now, I am happy to develop the argument for this position, but there is little point if you are disinterested in the topic or if you are not prepared to invest a moderate amount of time into some side-reading and dispassionate assessment of the evidence presented.

        If you don’t want to do this, I am happy instead to demonstrate that allowing underlying biography into the assessment of a sonnet can lead to greater appreciation of both its complexity and the skill of the author.

        • Holger Syme says:

          Ian: this will be my last response, since this discussion has clearly run its course (ad hominem attacks are usually a sign of that). My post is about actors and plays; I reiterated that point in my second reply to you (I didn’t shift my position). The sonnets are relevant to this discussion only because Rylance brought them up. Now, you’ll note that your original contention — that scholars aren’t interested in biographical evidence anymore — actually mirrors Rylance’s claim that scholars think the sonnets are “merely” literary exercises. I think you’re both wrong: I don’t think anyone believes that Shakespeare’s writings are completely divorced from his life, nor do I think it’s correct to say that scholars don’t care for biography anymore (just think of the large number of very prominent Shakespeareans who have published biographies in the last 10 years). But foregrounding the biographical angle is an analytic choice. You think it’s a good one; I don’t. That’s a matter of preference.

          I haven’t doubted your scholarship in any of the above: I just don’t care. Let me address once more your continued attempts to connect my disinterest in purely biographical readings of the sonnets to authorship skepticism. We actually have a wealth of concrete, documentary evidence that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare: title pages say it; his contemporaries say it; no-one doubts it at all until the 19th century; etc. The evidence for Shakespeare’s predominant authorship is as strong as for virtually any other author of the period. On the other hand, the authorship conspiracy-theorists use exactly the kind of evidence you rely on (which isn’t to say that kind of evidence can’t be compelling — it may well be in your case, since there is no external evidence either way, though it isn’t in the case of authorship, where there is plenty): supposed parallels between textual details and historical/biographical minutiae. The evidence that Shakespeare wrote the plays is pretty much conclusive, to my mind (largely because of the absence of any kind of similar evidence to the contrary); it’s certainly compelling. But it’s evidence of a different order than anything you’ve offered. The percentage figures you list are just plucked from thin air.

          And for the last time: I don’t doubt you’ve found intriguing parallels. But the kind of pursuit you’re engaged in is of little interest to me. That doesn’t make it less important — it just makes it unimportant to me. I’ve given you plenty of space to advertise your efforts here; please stop accusing me of things I haven’t said or done, and let me carry on in my Bartleby-ish ways.

          • Ian Steere says:

            Holger, I haven’t accused you of anything. I’ve only commented on the thrust of your responses, always bearing in mind your central, I think mistaken, thesis: that allowing consideration of biography into the interpretation of Shakespeare’s works diminishes our ability to appreciate. Nevertheless, I have found our discussion enlightening, I have the answers to my opening questions and I thank you. Best wishes.

  4. Holger Syme says:

    Dear Ian,

    I’m not sure what you mean. I was referring to a key in the form of external documentation of authorial intention of the kind we don’t have for the vast majority of early modern (or later) writers. I don’t think you’re claiming to have discovered such a thing.

    “Historical” background is something very different from “biographical” background, wouldn’t you say? And while I agree that adding additional layers of meaning to a work makes it more complex, biographical readings tend to have the opposite effect: they tend to privilege one meaning, the autobiographical one, and relegate all others to a lesser, less authentic, less clearly warranted status. They, generally speaking, turn the text into evidence for or of something else (the author’s life). Again, I don’t think that’s improper — but it doesn’t strike me as the most rewarding kind of analysis.

    • Ian Steere says:

      Hi again, Holger.

      For me the “keys” are independent, contemporaneous documents which corroborate as biography the stories and associations discernible in the Sonnets. And, yes, I do think they have been discovered and am happy to elaborate beyond my summary above, if you are interested and prepared for a modest amount of side-reading.

      I think, too, that biography is an aspect of history and that awareness of its presence in a work can enhance not only the layers of meaning, but our appreciation of the wit and artistry of the author. Sonnet 80, which I have pointed to above, is, I suggest, a good example of this capability (whether or not one accepts the validity of the biography in this particular case).

      • Holger Syme says:

        Ian: we’re going in circles. The documents which “corroborate” supposed biographical references can never be conclusive evidence, though they may be compelling. They can at best form an intriguing assemblage of possible parallels; to argue for more than that, you’d need the sort of evidence we don’t have. Since we’re in the realm of interpretation, however, I choose to find other readings of the sonnets more interesting than those that reduce them to autobiographical statements. But that’s just me. (And I’ll say again that I’m not especially interested in the sonnets anyway — this post and my own work are pretty much exclusively concerned with Shakespeare’s drama.)

  5. Ian Steere says:

    I was interested in your comments on the sonnets, Holger. Are you open to these being substantially autobiographic in nature (amongst the other things to which you refer)?

    If you are, do you not agree that this prospect brings a potentially major new dimension of interest and enjoyment to these works? And that, therefore, the prospect is worth pursuit, research and/or encouragement unless and until it can be ruled out?

    If you are not, do you have any objective grounds for your rejection? This question is not meant to be antagonistic, by the way. I am genuinely curious to understand why the current generation of scholastic opinion is so unsympathetic to the notion of autobiography in the sonnets.

    • Holger Syme says:


      I have no idea. The sonnet is such an artificial form, governed by such well-established rules and conventions (even if they’re breached all the time), that any “autobiographical” reading necessarily is fraught with problems. I also don’t know what form research into the autobiographical nature of the sonnets would take. Finding parallels between the poems and the lives of real-life figures is inconclusive at best; reading them to learn something about Shakespeare’s love life strikes me as reductive and hopelessly a priori: we want them to be autobiographical, therefore they are. You can’t rule out that they’re about the author’s real life, but neither can you confirm it independently (unless you find external documentation that says as much, preferably in the author’s hand).

      I’m not sure you’re right about current trends, though. The homoeroticism of the sonnets has certainly been read as “autobiographical” lately, even if people are no longer as keen to figure out who the dark lady was. Personally, I think it’s fine to read Shakespeare’s works in the hopes of finding out more about the man, but that’s not the same as reading them as either plays or as literary works. It’s reading them as evidence of or for something else, and that’s necessarily reductive and necessarily makes them appear less complex than they are. This is obviously true of the plays, with their multitude of speakers and the absence of a central voice telling you who’s right and wrong, but I’d say it’s equally true of the sonnets and narrative poems — Shakespeare, to my mind, is wearing multiple masks in those as well (as did other poets).

      • Ian Steere says:

        Holger, thanks for your thoughts. It is interesting that you cite documentation in Shakespeare’s hand as the preferable form of evidence (in this case that the Sonnets contain biography). A similar threshold of proof is applied by anti-Shakespeareans, who argue that the absence of such documentation constitutes a major weakness in the case for his authorship generally. Yet open-minded analysts, looking at all the facts, can reasonably conclude only that the evidence for Shakespeare is overwhelming. I suggest that a similar degree of assurance is available with respect to the existence of substantial biography in his sonnets.

        Much (though by no means all) of the relevant evidence for this conclusion may be summarized as follows:
        1)There are at least a dozen separate characteristics shared by the Fair Friend of the poems with Shakespeare’s patron, the third Earl of Southampton – with no strain or mismatch. This exceptionally powerful alignment is reinforced by the echoing of unusual themes between the Sonnets and Venus & Adonis, which was, of course, dedicated to Southampton.
        2)In addition to the above correspondences, the key, extraordinarily rare elements of the Sonnets story – the two triangular affairs involving (i) addressee, sonneteer and his dark-haired girlfriend and (ii) addressee, sonneteer and his rival – are uniquely mirrored in independent, contemporaneous documentation associated primarily with Southampton and/or Shakespeare.
        3)The chronology of composition of the Sonnets which emerges from the underlying biography aligns almost to perfection with independent datings derived from analyses of trends over time in Shakespeare’s vocabulary and grammar.
        4)The several peculiar (probably collectively unique) features of publication of the Sonnets are perfectly explained only by the biography suggested therein and Southampton’s history.

        If you (or anyone else) is interested I have described the evidence more fully elsewhere. However, with the assurance of underlying biography, the sonnets themselves take on new meanings and complexity (which brings us back to the point which started this discussion – your questioning of the relevance of the author and his background to an appreciation of the works).

        Take, for example, your comments on homo-eroticism in the sonnets. With awareness that these are, in effect, private correspondences between Shakespeare and his patron, it becomes clear that Sonnets 52 and 80 (among others) are cleverly homoerotic. Equally interesting, with other sonnets they show that, though Shakespeare regarded himself as a womanizer, he was prepared to have sex with a man if this would advance the cause of patronship (though, as is wryly indicated, he was not too good at providing this form of satisfaction in this particular relationship). There is, I suggest, much potentially to learn from this topic of Sonnet biography, though such an outcome can arise only if leading Shakespeareans are prepared to look anew at the evidence.

        • Holger Syme says:

          Ian: well, the “external documentation” standard works a bit differently in the case of the doubters. Given that that sort of evidence doesn’t exist for the majority of Shakespeare’s colleagues, I don’t think it’s remarkable, disturbing, or troubling that we don’t have a lot of documentation surrounding his works. It would certainly be strange and highly unusual if a “key” to the sonnets were to be discovered!

          Beyond that, I can only reiterate what I said before: “I think it’s fine to read Shakespeare’s works in the hopes of finding out more about the man, but that’s not the same as reading them as either plays or as literary works. It’s reading them as evidence of or for something else, and that’s necessarily reductive and necessarily makes them appear less complex than they are.” I don’t think there’s anything wrong with embarking on the kind of endeavour you’re engaged in, but unlike you, I don’t think it can ever make a work of literature more complex. Reading texts as evidence for something else necessarily reduces their range of meanings — which is fine, if that’s what you’re after.

          Note, however, that I wasn’t asking about appreciation. I was writing specifically about Shakespeare’s plays, not his poems (which makes a huge difference), and about actors, not readers.

          In any case, thank you for your thoughts!

          • Ian Steere says:

            Holger, you can’t reasonably imply that keys to the Sonnets are undiscovered, if you won’t look at them. Nor can you reasonably conclude that historical background can never “make a work of literature more complex”, when, demonstrably, additional meanings can emerge as a result of such background.

  6. William Ray says:

    In response to Holger’s question, posed with the words, “how can an author who isn’t (unlike Virgil) present in the text be a guide?” and, “if the plays are universal, why should the personal, necessarily limited and historically placed “mind of the creator” matter at all?”

    Good questions. In a sense they drive from the same concern with the distance between artist and posterity. Taking the second first, like all rhetorical dichotomies, the apparent opposition of universal and personal existence is a false one. The specific and personal in art are not necessarily limited to their time. They are just a starting point. The plays reflect our existence within a social frame accessible to the audience. The author takes the lead and suggests the implied outline of the human condition, which all intuitively understand as persons in a crowd, as personal souls within the universal one that is life. Jung would refer more abstractly to the universality of dream symbolism, common to all cultures, that percolates down in their art manifestations. Shakespeare’s aesthetic approach was not so intellectual. He accessed the Roman and Greek epic dramatic style, made plot borrowings from European theater, with emphasis on the sense of moral individuality that Montaigne and Cardan were speaking of in philosophical terms. Shakespeare’s plays depict the seeds of Destiny working out of his characters’ individual souls and experience. We may call it psychological insight in a bleak world empty of God, but the Bible which he studied assiduously put it more simply, you reap what you sow. The universal descends to the personal through barely comprehensible laws of justice. The ambitious loses all, the mighty is humbled, the cruel is broken and ashamed. Such is the catharsis of classical resolution in the Shakespearean world. Though not real, it is real in our imaginations. We believe him.

    How can long-dead Shakespeare, unlike Virgil be our present Guide, i.e., spiritual mentor? Virgil, as we know, explicitly represented the wisdom of the classical tradition in The Divine Comedy. The world-view was given a dramatic role, for aesthetic and philosophical clarity, in Dante’s medieval quester myth. With Shakespeare, and more so when novels received their voice from an omniscient narrator, a whole world of fate and surprise lay back of the drama,pending as powerful as Nature but implicit rather than portrayed. Shakespeare, whoever he was when alive, leads us through this implicit realm, makes sense of its order, and we trustingly join in common imagination with the author. It is probably out of cathartic gratitude that the reader, or viewer, or actor, wishes to know more of such an all-seeing, albeit absent, leader. We never will. It is a yearning. Time does present that limit. And we usually don’t give ourselves credit for the spirituality we contributed in transcending time. This, Shakespeare knew would occur: “Not marble nor the gilded monuments/ Of princes shall outlive this powerful rhyme.” Art is as alive as the moment written.

    It is also true that art-forms take on a kind of life, comprised of the feelings it inculcates in our comprehending sensibilities. ‘Guernica’s meaning grows with time. The linguistic code that began as the text becomes a reflective source, that we read differently as our own depth and range change.

    It is also true that modern critical history has augmented the passed-down text with informed historical fact and suggestions of biographical parallels, aiming to guess (get closer to?) the artist’s motivation. If we can gain artistic appreciation by knowing more about da Vinci and his influences, the same principle applies and has applied salubriously to literary figures too. So I imagine Rylance wants to know more about Shakespeare, to manifoldly understand more of that art and this life.

    • Holger Syme says:

      William —

      thank you. I could barely disagree more with your take on literary interpretation, or on culture, or on artistic creation, or on “modern critical history,” but these are still very nicely expressed ideas, and I appreciate them as that. As far as I’m concerned, Shakespeare couldn’t be less of a “leader.” That, to my mind, is the best explanation for his unusual longevity: impossible to pin down, philosophically, theologically, politically, his works are extraordinarily flexible or promiscuous, and have accommodated the most remarkable range of readings over the centuries. That doesn’t make them universal, though (for that, they’d have to accommodate all those views at the same time, and of course they don’t).

      It may just be a temperamental difference, but I remain puzzled by the idea that a profound aesthetic experience should produce a yearning to know the creator of the work that allowed us to have the experience. That seems to me a very limited, very reductive, and at best faux-positivist reaction. The work is the work is the work. Knowing who made it can only be a limitation. (Which is not to say all biography is pointless — but if you want to know more about a work of art, understand it better, appreciate it more fully, explore its vast range of meanings and possible interpretations, asking the artist for advice or guidance is almost never the right move.)

  7. Nora Williams says:

    So much depends on the text of the play itself. As you say of Vergil, there are some texts in which the author’s voice is very much present and necessary. In Shakespeare, however, it seems unnecessary to be concerned about what the playwright’s personal connections to the script were/are because his voice is not explicitly present in the text. It’s part of Shakespeare’s appeal, I think, that his personality in the texts is so elusive. With all due respect to Jane Shaxpere, unless one digs deep enough to uncover obscure and potentially unrelated or irrelevant drowned girls vaguely resembling Ophelia, there are precious few instances where the man Shakespeare interferes with the playwright Shakespeare.

    While I cannot argue that detailed performances are usually better performances, I would be cautious as an actor about delving too deeply into the playwright’s history and losing the character in the process. Certain actors I have worked with lost all their powers of creativity because they overwhelmed themselves with minutia. Suddenly, the actors in question could no longer play and discover because they allowed the playwright and his “voice” to dominate their performances. The excess of detail actually resulted in a much less interesting performance.

  8. Ann Zakelj says:

    Carolyn, please describe more fully these “other forces” that are possibly at work in regard to Mark Rylance. Tell us you’re not one of those Stratfordians who do a double entendre on the name “Looney” or, worse, alarm skeptics with the unfortunate facts surrounding Delia Bacon’s final days.

    • Holger Syme says:

      Ann: I think Carolyn’s jokey point was that Rylance appears to be into all sorts of unusual ideas. A chuckle seems to be as appropriate a response to her post as to the truly hilarious fact that the Rev. Looney existed.

      Let me clarify something: I obviously knew I was touching the third rail of Shakespeare studies here. But I’m not interested in the broader authorship debate, and I will not make room for it here. There are many much more public fora than my blog for that discussion. I allowed your comment because it allows me to make that point, and to say that I would politely ask readers who would like to debate the merits of the Earl of Oxford or any other contenders to take their conversation elsewhere, although you should of course feel free to link to this post.

      I also want to say that I’m not a Stratfordian. I’m a Shakespearean. As a former advisor of mine once wrote in a letter to the New York Times, calling people who believe that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare “Stratfordians” is akin to calling people who believe the earth revolves around the sun “Copernicans.” We don’t agree on everything, but I completely share that point of view. So, please, no more use of that terminology here. Call me a censor.

  9. Linda Theil says:

    I would like to assist you in simplifying the answer to why actors (or anyone else) are interested in the Shakespeare authorship question. The reason is simple curiosity. Some readers are not satisfied with the data connecting the poet’s work with the man from Stratford. I understand that you do not share this dissatisfaction, but your bafflement does not automatically impute psychological defects to anyone holding an agnostic position on the Shakespeare authorship question.

    • Holger Syme says:

      Linda: I don’t think authorship wonks are mentally disturbed or deficient. I think they’re both wrongheaded and wrong, have little to no evidence on their side, and ask questions that I find neither reasonable nor interesting, but I don’t think there’s anything pathological about any of that. But curiosity is a loaded term: it sounds open-minded, and hence good, but there are many, many issues where curiosity is an inappropriate or inadequate response — where being open-minded isn’t in fact warranted.

      I will reiterate, though, that I don’t care to engage in the authorship debate. Rylance’s particular obsession with Shakespeare’s personal identity is merely a facet of the larger issue I’m interested in, the actorly investment in access to the author (whether contested or not — this could also have been a post about Ben Jonson, but no one would have cared). I’m also not interested in “simplifying” answers or questions. I’m puzzled and fascinated by the idea that performing a play, playing a character, is a form of serving an author, and I’d like to discuss that, in the complex, complicated, and probably inconclusive form a question like that requires.

  10. Rosa says:

    Personally, I find Jasper Fforde’s take on the matter of the authorship debate and its idiosyncasies a very amusing relief. ‘Baconians’ ringing your doorbell at odd hours to discuss the urgent matter… If I remember correctly, the ‘Earl of Oxford’ sect has been outlawed in his ficitonal universe (or was it the other way around?).
    But back to your question: No, I do not think the impulse can be justified – in any reasonable sense. I do not think it offers any new insights. Too closed circuited for that: I imagine my own mythical genius to then feel intimate with him/ her. But it seems to be a very pervasive phenomenon of fandom in general (though I suppose Rylance would prefer to be called an afficionado rather than a fan). As authorization a personal bond/ love (usually stemming from childhood or early adulthood) etc. is usually invoked. And, I’m afraid, the bashing of academe is very often part of it. You denigrate the elite which presumably is in possession – or in a gatekeeper function – with regard to your beloved object.
    And, of course, this is a PR-interview. They are selling a film whose sujet is certainly in danger of eliciting a mixture of yawns and ridicule. So why not project a controversy / state of affairs that does not exist in order to show how radical and important this new version is?

    • Holger Syme says:

      I agree with most of this, Rosa (hallo nach Bamberg!). I do think Rylance is very serious about this entire thing, though — it’s not just PR. This really, really matters to him, and he clearly takes what he perceives as the “academic” line on Shakespeare as a personal assault.

  11. William Ray says:

    In response to your particular question at the end of the blog essay, Mark Rylance, or any committed actor, seeks one intuitive form of knowledge above all else: human motivation. What is in the heart and soul of the character? As the author conveys that, he conveys his own sense of what humanity is, to benefit the actor and via him to trans-substantiate that sense to the darkened Chorus we refer to as the audience, the Hearers. Consciousness is being shared under cover of lowered light. Thus, the author is a Guide and trusted friend, like Virgil leading Dante through the depths of spiritual experience. As Freud had it, we have a need “to acquire affective relations with [artists], to add them to the fathers, teachers, exemplars whom we have known or whose influence we have already experienced, in the expectation that their personalities will be just as fine and admirable as those works of art of theirs which we possess.” That emotional and spiritual sharing embues the character with greater, with near living, reality. The words of the text are the code that artist and actor start from together. It is not the end, not even the end of the beginning, of what the writer challenges the actor to intuit and for a moment to be. How can this be justified, you have asked. By the importance of the universal often frail and fallible humanity common to author, actor, audience, and all whom they will touch in the course of their own expressions and being. You wish to know, truly, the mind of the creator. That Shakespeare remains a personal enigma hampers full transmission from writer to receptor, to an indeterminable degree. Like Freud did, Rylance probably feels that it is “undeniable painful that we do not know who was the author of the Comedies, Tragedies and Sonnets of Shakespeare.” In searching out that person, to whom he owes so much, Rylance is seeking to fulfill the responsibility bestowed by his craft, namely to be as true as he can be on the stage.

    William Ray

    • Holger Syme says:

      William — how can an author who isn’t (unlike Virgil) present in the text be a guide? Where is the mother in Freud’s line?

      Beyond those, the question of universal humanity is up for debate, not a given. I find Shakespeare’s historical specificity much more interesting than his putative universality (which always requires a lot of editing). But the very claim that Shakespeare speaks to universal ideas and principles should surely defeat the point of the authorship debate: if the plays are universal, why should the personal, necessarily limited and historically placed “mind of the creator” matter at all? The plays either speak a universal language or they don’t. Their “truth” either lies in the text, or it doesn’t. If they required access to an author, from Stratford or from elsewhere, that would mean that they’re necessarily not “universal.”

  12. Toby Malone says:

    I’ll echo all the other posters in my admiration for your post – and I hope you’ll forgive me for circulating it which will hopefully give you a few more replies from performer types.

    This issue is such a vexed one, and one that I confront every week as a dramaturge working through text with actors. The desire to KNOW, to be inside the text, to understand motivation and sense and dramatic arc and all the rest is the cornerstone of many actors’ processes (not all, I hasten to say – I was a notoriously lazy actor that way, which is why I got out of the game). When you’re working on Death of a Salesman you can read Timebends and you’ll know all about Arthur Miller’s childhood and we can read the account of how he wrote the play in a shed in Connecticut. Actors love that stuff: it’s the nuts and bolts that build the muscle of a performance. Again, when you’re talking about Ibsen and Chekhov and all the others that Rylance cites, we have concrete proof of their processes which is comforting: we love to hear about the Ghosts controversy because it gives us the context on which we may lay our performance. When it comes to Shakespeare, however, all we have are mounds and mounds of borderline (and actual) apocrypha which is elusive when attempting to build a performance, and many actors struggle to lay great stock in the quote unquote ‘academic’ (LITERALLY a curse word at a certain regional Shakespeare festival I worked at recently) because they’ve been trained that it’s all hocus pocus: but of course you’ve already mentioned this. More reader-friendly scholarly texts like works from Bloom or Wells or Garber or Greenblatt or Anthony Burgess can work, but the combination of density of material with regular contradiction with the pervasive idea that Shakespeare might be a fraud means it’s much easier to give up on that background work and write it off as worthless. Of course, when you have an inquiring mind like Rylance, inaugural head of the most tourism-driven relic of the Shakespeare universe, this actors’ process takes over and you start to think ‘I don’t buy that there’s no information about his life, so let’s look elsewhere.’ Problem is, aspects of Shakespeare’s life are useful to a limited extent when it comes to building a role, because aside from writing detailed programme notes, laying in in-jokes, or emoting really hard , it’s just about impossible for that background information to be played usefully to an audience. So, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, where we seek answers to build our performance through the author who is writing himself into the text only indirectly, and obsess about minor details rather than seeking them in the work itself.

    Much of it comes from an actor’s mistrust of ‘scholars’ – some simply believe that over-analysis of the text is counter to the performing mentality; of course, stacks of it comes from the Stanislavsky/Group Theatre mentality of performance, where we need to understand motivations, not only of characters, but of playwrights: Stanislavsky not only studied Chekhov’s plays as they worked together, but Chekhov himself, to seek clues behind how to decode Astrov. The amount of American actors who went into psychoanalysis to draw performances out of themselves (only to be – perhaps apocryphally – told that, according to Stanislavky, via Stella Adler, that they were doing it all wrong) and the willingness for actors to jump on the anti-Stratfordian bandwagon is, I think, linked. Actors seek to have all of the answers through a desire to live the text fresh on stage, and one of the variables that we have to employ is the playwright. Of course, when the playwright is elusive at best, we can either accept the gaps in our knowledge or we can listen to spin from Derek Jacobi or Mark Rylance. Or, I guess, Rhys Ifans as de Vere this summer.

    Really, though, performance is an intensely personal process, which varies for everyone, regardless of whether they subscribe to the same school of thought. Some just seek to know details, and those of us who trust in academia usually spin off and become directors or dramaturges. I feel I’ve rambled here and am very aware of the eloquence of the person for whom I’m writing, but I’m glad I had a chance to ponder the question.

    I’m doing a Macbeth at the moment and am consulting daily with actors who seek to know answers which are irrelevant (Lady Macbeth’s father and child are relevant because they’re mentioned in the text: Banquo’s wife is not) but which help them in their quest to discover meaning behind the text and below the surface. If authorship queries help them understand their role better, then have at it, but if I’m ever asked about it I always dismiss the arguments in almost precisely the way Holger describes. If it works for you, though, actor-playing-the-second-murderer, then consider it. Doesn’t make it right though.

    • Holger Syme says:

      Thank you for this long comment, Toby — as interesting an inside perspective as it is depressing (from the point of view of an academic who has at least a residual interest in bridging the gap between stage and classroom).

      That gap can be described in different ways, though, and I’m struck how oddly placed the dividing line seems to be in the theatre world you describe. I would have assumed that it’s academics who might care about getting a reading right in the sense of paying full attention to every nuance of the text — or, if you’re an extremely old-fashioned or extremely populist academic, in the sense of being true to an author’s intention (which only you, the brilliant reader, can fully perceive and identify in the text). Actors, I would have assumed, should care not about getting things right vis-a-vis the text, but vis-a-vis the performance — the principle isn’t faith to text or the author, but making the play work on stage, and in the present moment (whatever that means). In a way, that’s what you’re talking about at the end, isn’t it? Use whatever works, even if it’s intellectually problematic or historically less than well-founded.

      But if that’s true, then why not just run with it? Why the claim that the entire exercise isn’t about putting on an exciting performance, a challenging or entertaining or provocative show, but about serving not just the text but the author, and serving them more faithfully, more adeptly, more fully than non-actors ever could? Why is there that need to somehow ground the actor’s authority in his or her special access to a point of origin — especially if that point of origin is as historically remote and alien as the 16th century?

      The Stanislavsky line is part of an explanation, I think, and a very interesting angle, but there must be more to it than that — no?

      • Holger Syme says:

        To add one more thought: I get why actors playing, say, Banquo might want to imagine a family for the character (something an academic couldn’t, shouldn’t, and likely wouldn’t try to justify in her own work). What seems strange to me is that such an actor would turn to you, the dramaturge, for confirmation. If thinking of Banquo as married to Ethel, daughter of MacAllan of Glengoyle, and now grieving newly single mother of Fleance, helps the actor to play Banquo, isn’t that good enough? And what do you do with queries about Lady M’s family? The text is obviously, famously, opaque on the issue(s) — so isn’t it up to the actor, or the director, to decide whichever way to play her? How can one ground that kind of decision in any kind of outside authority?

        • Toby Malone says:

          My job as a dramaturge is primarily that of a sounding-board: I ask questions and listen to actors’ ideas about their impressions of the role. So, if an actor has the need to create a backstory for a character, then they’ll often bounce ideas off me to see whether it sticks. If someone says ‘well, it’s clear to me that Lady Macbeth never had children’, I’ll point to the textual evidence that is not true; just as often, if an actor is open to it, I’ll pose those questions to them: ‘okay, so what is the relationship between Ross and Lennox?’. These hypotheticals can open up a performance, and are just as often not based in the text as they sometimes are. My approach to the work is different to many dramaturges or directors: having an academic background I am intensely interested in textual and contextual matters, and pose those points with actors. As say, I act as a sounding board, and having an intimate relationship with the text, the world, and the playwright means that I can provide answers and opinions on whether those choices are logical. If an actor makes decisions independently in their own homework time, it often makes sense to talk those ideas through before wasting time in the rehearsal room with it. In terms of dramaturge as an ‘outside authority’ (regardless of what Toronto.Com wants us to think), I firmly believe that the dramaturge’s relationship with the director is symbiotic and collective – it is not about imposing ideas or overwhelming another person’s vision, but it is about servicing the director’s vision while offering perspectives and alternatives. I work in tandem with the director, and spend several hours with each actor to go into detail on their own journey – a luxury often not available in an abbreviated rehearsal process.

          Hope this makes some sense? We’re well overdue for that beer, methinks.

          • Holger Syme says:

            Of course — I didn’t mean that dramaturges function as quasi-dictatorial (and arbitrary) agents! I was more interested in the question why actors would turn to you (or anyone else) with a question that the text doesn’t answer, or more broadly, why there is that desire to get things right vis-a-vis a prior standard (the author, the text, history, etc.) rather than vis-a-vis the performance as such.

            Lady M isn’t the best example, though it’s an interesting one. On the one hand, your answer to the actor convinced that she’s playing someone who’s never been a mother has textual warrant. In that sense, confronting the actor with what the text says presumably works as a productive challenge: the character might feel like a childless woman to her, but that impression now needs to be reconciled with what looks like a biographical fact. But that then opens up questions and issues that the text doesn’t answer, right? The children are clearly no longer around — what happened to them? Did they die as infants? Later, as youths, perhaps on the battlefield? Were they girls or boys? Or was Lady Macbeth a wet nurse and a social climber? (She only says that she’s given suck, after all). Historically, that would be a hard sell, but in a modern production it’s not out of the question as an interpretation, no?

            That’s also the point where academics and theatre folk have to part ways, though — I can’t go anywhere near those kinds of questions, because they imply that the character is something more than what’s on the page. That’s true for most actors, and probably for many readers and audiences, but it has no place in analysis (because it’s entirely impressionistic and imaginary, and beyond the realm of argument, yadayadayada).

            What I find most intriguing about your comment — and yes, it’s emphatically time for a more in-depth conversation about this over beers — is your remark about choices being logical (or not). What’s the standard to go by there? The text? The production’s particular outlook? History? The character? I’d assume that every production of any given play has a logic of its own (which may or may not be at odds, deliberately or unconsciously, with the logic of the text it’s based on) — correct?

            The rehearsal process you describe does sound dreamy! I wish it sounded commonplace.

  13. Carolyn says:

    There is, of course, also the possibility in Rylance’s case that other forces are at work. This is from the Independent on 14June2011:

    “Rylance is a firm believed in the significance of ley lines, part of a series of mystical and spiritual theories about the natural landscape. In 1991, he toured The Tempest around British ley lines and ancient stone sites, apparently in an attempt to bring fertility to the land.”

  14. Carolyn says:

    Great post, Holger.
    Doesn’t it come from fetishization of the creative personality — and in a case like this, ego? The actorly ego, smitten with a sense of its own creative importance, wants more adulation for the creative personality of the writer it is committed to, which here comes with a classist aspect. Shakespeare is the son of a glover? Bah! *I* am not simply the son of a glover! How can *he* have been? I would quite like a knighthood, actually! Etc.

    • Holger Syme says:

      Not the most charitable reading, but sure — there’s presumably something to that. Though it’s a strange sort of narcissism. Playwrighting (at least pre-Enlightenment playwrighting) and acting are, after all, artistic activities that thrive on authorial absence more than on a celebration of the artist him- or herself. (And those who insist that it’s all about them, like Jonson for example, are liable to suffer.)

  15. Nice post, Holger.

    Perhaps these two actors’ desire to embody the author (and therefore to ‘get’ him better than people who have reckoned with his unglamorous biography directly and actually know something about it) stems from the same desire we all have as audience members: namely, to grasp the play as a unified piece of art.

    This is one of the key paradoxes of theater: that that multivocal event stems from a single mind, and flows into a single mind (that of the viewer). The actor partakes of all her own paradoxes — self and character, language and feeling — but perhaps Rylance and Jacobi have critical ambition to embrace all the characters, not just the ones they are playing. They understand the whole is more than the sum of the parts, but, when they try to think systematically, they think that that means each part is not itself a whole. Wrong: each character has her own mind.

    Falstaff himself is their refutation, in Bloom’s view; I might plump for Rosalind; but I think Guildenstern might be as well, in a given moment. Such ambitious thinking is refuted only by a moment’s act.


    • Holger Syme says:

      I think there’s something to that, Jim — it’s certainly one point of friction between experienced actors and academics: both claim to have a more intimate, more thorough, or more true understanding of the work, and some on both sides probably jump from that to the author. We could have a long discussion about what exactly it might mean for a play to be a “unified” piece of art (on what grounds or on what level of interpretation?), but even conceding that doesn’t get us to the author yet (right?), since presumably the unifying principle isn’t authorial identity.

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