The Plays & Players: “The Abstract and Brief Chronicles of the Time”

Lillian Winstanley wound up her book Hamlet and the Scottish Succession (1921) with this statement: 

“The final conclusion I arrive at is that it is not advisable to think our study of Shakespeare’s plays complete without careful reference to the history of his own time.”

Well, that’s the point of this blog site!  Our universities and colleges need to bring the History Department and the Literature Department closer together.   In the case of the private Sonnets to Southampton written for both him and posterity, I contend, the overlap of literature and history is complete.

I reproduce here a Comment today from Sander Fredman, quoting from another Winstanley book [Sander: Which one?) where “she describes her method”:

“Let me choose as a parallel case to the method I desire the Higher Criticism of the Bible.  There was a time not so very long ago when the Bible was assumed to be essentially true and equally intelligible for all men at all times and, as Ruskin puts the matter, it was so ordained by God in order that we might all understand it. Now this was a very simple and, granting the assumption of a Divine Author, a very logical way of regarding the matter. But let me point out that it was only logical in the cause of a Divine Author for no other could be supposed to be so far above space and time. No educated person, however, now thinks of regarding the Bible in that way. The Higher Criticism has taught us to concern ourselves with each book of the Bible individually, to ask ourselves first and foremost at what date each book was written and under what circumstances and what it would mean for the men of that age. Now in the case of the Bible, if anywhere, it might be logical to divorce it from space and time; but the principle of relativity being accepted even there, what is there to hinder us from applying it in the case of Shakespeare? He cannot be more divine than the Bible!’

She then reminds the reader that there were no newspapers for the Elizabethans and Jacobeans; people attended those early performances not only to be entertained but to further their knowledge of quite recent history. The censorship was the star chamber. Thus the need for disguise in what Winstanley called “symbolic mythology’’, which meant for Shakespeare using Plutarch, Saxo Grammaticus, Holinshed, and in the case of “King Lear’’ pre-Christian tales.

Kenneth Branagh as Hamlet

Thanks, Sander, for sharing this with us.   As Hamlet tells Polonius, the actors and their plays were the newspapers and CNN of their time:

“Let them be well used, for they are the abstract and brief chronicles of the time.  After your death you were better have a bad epitaph than their ill report while you live.”

Sander adds:

“The Lilian Winstanley quote on her methodology is from Macbeth, King Lear & Contemporary History: Being a Study of the Relations of the Play of Macbeth to the Personal History of James I, the Darnley Murder, and the St. Bartholomew Massacre, and also of King Lear as Symbolic Mythology

Warning: Stratfordianism is a Religion!

It seems that most people who are annoyed and angered by the Shakespeare authorship question are quite certain that we “anti-Stratfordians” must be snobs or conspiracy nuts or wackos or all of those things combined.  But it also appears that these same folks have very little knowledge of, much less interest in, the biographical and historical evidence concerning “Shakespeare” and the age in which he lived.  It’s a paradox!

And this paradox can only be resolved by realizing that the identification of Shakespeare as a London actor from Stratford-upon-Avon must be sacrosanct … inviolable … not to be questioned … “above and beyond criticism, change or interference,” as my Random House dictionary suggests.  Doubting it is an act of sacrilege.  Trying to replace that man with another man (such as Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford) is sinful if not criminal.

The Folio Engraving of 1623 -- It's a Mask over his face -- see that line down the side -- and see the eyes of an unidentified man looking thru the eye holes...

We’re talking religion here, pure and simple.  We’re talking about a belief that’s rooted in some deep-seated human need.  It has nothing to do with honest inquiry and everything to do with blind faith.  The majority of people in England and America are devoted to an image of the Bard that presents him as a “man of the people,” as the saying goes — a man of the people who lifted himself up to the heights of glory.  He possessed the ability of a genius to transcend all limitations by the sheer power of his imagination and/or his fantasy.

I bring up this subject after reading the latest blog post from the Oberon Shakespeare Study Group by R. Thomas Hunter, PhD, a prominent Oxfordian whose comments on the authorship issue are consistently thoughtful and insightful.  I heartily recommend his Declaration of New Shakespeare Scholarship issued on this Fourth of July 2010, agreeing with him that “much of the real discovery about Shakespeare is still in our future” and that “the problem” has consisted of the various ways in which “our traditional concept of the Bard himself has limited our questions about his work.”

There it is, in a single sentence.  Regardless of opinions to the contrary, the fact is that the limitations imposed upon scholars by their restricted views of the author himself have necessarily imposed limitations upon their ability to explore his literary and dramatic works.  It’s the same way that some religious views have imposed limitations on science, impeding medical or educational advances and so on.

I recommend that you look at the Oberon group’s Declaration of New Shakespeare Scholarship and I share Dr. Hunter’s enthusiasm about the future.  The declaration is undoubtedly correct, but it also provokes me to point out the kind of uninformed religious fervor that lies behind “the problem” mentioned above.  The deeper problem is an incredibly strong belief in something that’s really irrational; and when such a belief is challenged, the response is a bitter anger that’s equally irrational.  That’s when you get the whipped-up emotions and the name-calling.  That’s when you get the potential for violence.

While joining Dr. Hunter in looking ahead to a new era of Shakespeare scholarship, therefore, I am also aware that such a future will not arrive easily or overnight.

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