The Emperor has no…

If this authorship stuff wasn’t so important, for reasons such as getting the true history straight, you could die laughing.  I am speaking of the attempts of Shakespeare biographers who write from the “traditional” or “orthodox” or “Stratfordian” viewpoint, such as Stephen Greenblatt’s Will in the World (2004) and James Shapiro’s 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare (2005) – two of the latest efforts, in this case from Harvard and Columbia, in a long line going back and back to the eighteenth century.

Let us imagine,” Greenblatt begins his first chapter, and so begins a fresh attempt to breathe life into a set of facts related to (1) the documentary record of the businessman William of Stratford and (2) the record of the illustrious printed Shakespeare name in reference to the great poet-dramatist.  These two very different elements are conflated, merged or fused into a single entity, woven together, and then pumped with the author’s personal inspiration and, yes, imagination: “Let us imagine that Shakespeare found himself from boyhood fascinated by language…

A pretty safe guess!  The reasoning is circular: the Shakespeare works are filled with thousands of words, twice the vocabulary of the poet John Milton, profoundly affecting the development of the English tongue, so the man who wrote them must have been “fascinated by language.” No kidding!  And as Greenblatt puts it, while there is no proof that “Shakespeare” attended the Stratford grammar school, he “almost certainly” went there as a boy, because “where else would he have acquired his education?” (p. 19)

Where else?  Well, if the boy happened to be Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, then he had studied with the best private tutors from age four, graduating with honorary degrees from Cambridge and Oxford at fourteen and sixteen, before studying law at Gray’s Inn and later (at age 20) joining the military campaign against the Catholic northern earls.  Arriving at Court the next year, 1571, this young man wrote his eloquent Latin introduction to a translation (from Italian into Latin) of Castiglione’sThe Courtier (an acknowledged source of Hamlet), in which he praises the skill of the translator (one of his former Cambridge tutors):

“Whatever is heard in the mouths of men in casual talk and in society, whether apt and candid, or villainous and shameful, that he has set down in so natural a manner that it seems to be acted before our very eyes.”

(And can’t you hear Prince Hamlet reminding the players that their purpose is “to hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature; to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure”?) ”

“Again to the credit of the translator of so great a work, a writer too who is no mean orator,” young Oxford continues in his 1572 introduction to The Courtier, “must be added a new glory of language.”

Yes, I put that stirring phrase in bold italics!  A young man standing at the threshold of the great renaissance of English literature and drama to come in the 1570’s and 1580’s, a Hamlet-like figure who will become a central figure of that renaissance, leading to the sudden first appearance in 1593 of “Shakespeare” on the printed page – here he is, speaking “from the Royal Court,” as he puts it, blazoning the arrival of this very renaissance!

In 1572 the boy from Stratford is eight years old.  He will be sixteen in 1580, when John Lyly dedicates the novel Euphues his England to 30-year-old Edward de Vere Lord Oxford, thanking him for his help, and when the Vice Chancellor of Cambridge writes to Oxford’s father-in-law William Cecil Lord Burghely (the acknowledged model for Polonius in Hamlet) that the earl’s acting company be allowed to “show their cunning in several plays already practiced by them before the Queen’s Majesty” – here is biographical material for which we have no need to “imagine” a young Shakespeare who is “fascinated by language.”

No, just by looking at the facts of Edward de Vere’s life, his writings, his letters, the tributes to him, on and on, we can see clearly why the academic establishment is worried.  We can see why we have been treated to so many recent attempts to breath life into the legendary (and ghostly) figure of tradition.  To put it simply, the Oxfordian biography is so filled with real life that the effort to keep propping up the Stratford man must be getting tougher and tougher.

This effort has become so difficult that Shapiro accuses Shakespeare in 1599 of  “ransacking” an earlier play The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth for episodes to use in writing 1 Henry IV and Henry V – in so many words, our beloved dramatist is accused of being a plagiarist.  We’ll continue later with this aspect of the increasingly desperate, shrill attempts to convince rational thinkers that the emperor from Stratford is in fact wearing clothes.  No, no, compared with the fully dressed Oxford their man is stark naked!  Or, if you will, an empty suit!

They have only two choices – fight or flight.  With Shapiro working on a book about the authorship, apparently the former mode is still in play.  Well, as they say, let’s get it on…

Published in: Uncategorized on November 26, 2008 at 10:10 pm  Leave a Comment  

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