An Oxfordian Journal: Chapter 8: The Fragile Stratfordian Universe

One morning long ago I looked up from the newspaper and saw our cat, Ruffles, in the hall.  He was crossing past the kitchen doorway from left to right.  I turned back to the paper, but two seconds later I glanced up again and saw Ruffles make the same crossing.  What I had seen, of course, was impossible – there had not been time enough for him to race backward and walk by once more.  So I automatically started shuffling my thoughts to make sense of it.

There was extreme urgency, even panic, in this frantic shuffling of the brain deck.  In an instant I had begun to doubt my sanity.  The impossible is intolerable unless explained.  Even a miracle has to be accounted for, especially if God didn’t perform it.  I needed a reasonable explanation and needed it fast.  Was something wrong with my eyes?  Had I experienced a flash of double vision?  Had the cat leaped back, when I wasn’t looking, and then paraded by again in the same direction?

I was putting the pieces of the universe – this tiny universe bounded by the kitchen, doorway and hall – back together before it exploded.  Thankfully, however, my daughters came to the rescue by discovering I’d actually seen not one cat but two!  Ruffles had come through the front door in the hall and had walked past the kitchen doorway, only to be followed by another cat looking exactly like him!  How that had happened wasn’t important – a long lost twin, perhaps; but the crucial part was that there was, in fact, an explanation.  The universe had returned to normal.

In the years after living in Portland, Maine, trying to write a play set inside the White House and reading those biographies of the traditional Shakespeare, to see how he managed to set so many plays inside those royal palaces and courts, my thoughts would go back to that morning when my brain had scrambled to make possible what seemed to be impossible.  That’s what the biographers were doing – they had to.  That was their job, nay, their profession, and they had to make sense of things.  To do that, the contents of the plays and poems had to be “dumbed down” to fit within the tiny Stratfordian universe; and by the same token, the magical or miraculous side of the author’s invisible “genius” had to be inflated to godlike proportions.

Marchette Chute in Shakespeare of London (1949) wrote that Shakespeare’s acting company “put on about fifteen new plays a year and Shakespeare, as a regular acting member of the company, must have appeared in most of them.”  Not a single notice of any Shakespeare performance has ever been found (unless you count the legend of him playing the Ghost in Hamlet), but no matter – the point is that, if Ms. Chute is correct, and Shakespeare was memorizing and rehearsing and acting day in and day out, not to mention traveling with the troupe, how did he have any time left over to write all those plays, poems and sonnets as well?

The answer, to make the universe come back to normal, is that Shakespeare stood apart from his writing labors.  There was no need for blood, sweat and tears.  He simply let his “imagination” flow from his head and heart into his arm and finally down to the hand that held his pen, moving it across the page.  It all happened virtually without his need to be there.

He also had no need to be involved in the social or religious or political events and issues of his time. Hamlet tells Polonius that the actors are “the abstract and brief chronicles of the time,” that is, they deliver reports and commentaries about persons and events of contemporary England, with members of the audience being ever alert for such allusions.  But the image of Shakespeare conjured by Marchette Chute could not bear this additional burden, lest the universe fall apart, so she tells us:

“Shakespeare was almost the only playwright of the period who saw no need to comment on contemporary London in his plays, and he did not share Hamlet’s view that a playwright should chronicle his own time.”

Marchette Chute, fourth from left, in 1954, preparing for a Book-and-Author Dinner in the garden of the Valentine Museum in Richmond, Virginia

Folks, there it is – the traditional version of Shakespeare as the man from Stratford must stand above and beyond his own environment and times.  He stands outside it all, channeling inspiration from the gods.  And he stands not only apart from contemporary London, but, also, from his own experiences and thoughts and emotions.  Ms. Chute offers this example of how he could create the agony and madness of Lear while otherwise playing solitaire and calmly tending his garden:

“It has sometimes been said that Shakespeare’s plays mirror his life; but King Lear was written at a time when the country was prosperous and at peace and Shakespeare himself seems to have had no troubles of either a business or a personal nature.”

Shakespeare was happy when he created the cries of Lear.  Why not?  Moreover, Ms. Chute adds (in the same way she might explain how the cat passed by twice), he was sad when he went for the laughs:

“It was in the difficult years of the late 1590’s, when a depression had gripped England and his only son had died, that Shakespeare wrote his radiant series of light lyric comedies.”

The Birthplace, in 1892, at the height of the Victorian enshrinement of Shakespeare’s nativity in Stratford upon Avon

[The truth of the matter (just as there was no miracle but, rather, two cats instead of one) is (1) the first “Shakespearean” version of King Lear had been created years earlier, at least by 1589, reflecting the true author’s anger and agony over having been betrayed; and (2) the first versions of those comedies had originated as satires on current events, during the latter 1570’s and early 1580’s, when they had been performed in the relative privacy of the royal court.]

Meanwhile, in the spring of 1987, having given up all hope of comprehending Shakespeare and learning anything about his method of working, I abandoned the White House as the setting for my play.  Instead I began again, this time placing the action of the play inside my version of a casting office in New York that I had known during my acting days.

The hell with it, I thought.  I’ll start over again, this time with a setting where I feel at home.

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