Shakespeare the Soap Opera Committee writer: James Shapiro's 'Contested Will'

Fri, 26/03/2010 - 21:37 -- Heward Wilkinson

James Shapiro has written a fascinating book, which I shall clearly have to get, but whose core theses are becoming clear already!

And I think the Shapiro situation is a real opportunity for anyone who doubts the Stratfordian attribution.

Here is an illustration of the two Stratfordian polarities.

First, this is the Spectator picking up McCrum's interviews.

Now then, if Shakespeare is the towering genius, creating as the unique individual, inventor of the human, way ahead of his time, psychologically almost a 20th Century man, then questions naturally arise about the relationship of the man to these towering works, because in other cases where we have someone of towering genius, and monumental force of will and being, - is it even possible the two not going together?? - then the impact of such individuals on their time is monumental. Think of Michelangelo, Beethoven, John Donne, Bunyan, Marlowe, Goethe, Byron, Wagner, Dostoievsky, Tolstoy, Dr Johnson, Charles Dickens, DH Lawrence.

We can even go back a bit and think of Chaucer, who is amazingly congruent as between what we know of the life and the work, and actually corresponds to what the myth of the 'genial burgherly Shakespeare' invents!

So, if Stratfordians go down the pure genius pathway, then, in this day and age, with what we know of genius, the question of the 'how' is bound to arise.

If, on the other hand, they respond to the cipher-like identity of William of Stratford, by emphasising Shapiro's 'team-player/soap opera' script writer model,

then, as Shapiro does, they are invoking the democratic epoch implausibility of works which are on the gigantic scale Ben Jonson evokes in the First Folio panegyric

and which the democratic Walt Whitman evoked in the way he does in November Boughs.

And then the writers committee man Shakespeare becomes a ludicrous model. Notwithstanding Dr Johnson, when we think of Shakespeare, are we not moved to think about this more as Nietzsche does in Beyond Good and Evil about the opening passages of the Torah?

52. In the Jewish "Old Testament," the book of divine justice, there are men, things, and sayings on such an immense scale, that Greek and Indian literature has nothing to compare with it. One stands with fear and reverence before those stupendous remains of what man was formerly, and one has sad thoughts about old Asia and its little out-pushed peninsula Europe, which would like, by all means, to figure before Asia as the "Progress of Mankind." To be sure, he who is himself only a slender, tame house-animal, and knows only the wants of a house-animal (like our cultured people of today, including the Christians of "cultured" Christianity), need neither be amazed nor even sad amid those ruins—the taste for the Old Testament is a touchstone with respect to "great" and "small": perhaps he will find that the New Testament, the book of grace, still appeals more to his heart (there is much of the odour of the genuine, tender, stupid beadsman and petty soul in it). To have bound up this New Testament (a kind of ROCOCO of taste in every respect) along with the Old Testament into one book, as the "Bible," as "The Book in Itself," is perhaps the greatest audacity and "sin against the Spirit" which literary Europe has upon its conscience.

In other words, without going all the way with Nietzsche's denunciations of modern Europe, if we go with the Oxfordian case, are we not faced with the genuine implications of an 'Aristocratic Shakespeare' (not the facile snobbery accusation, but a genuine Ulysses' speech-on-degree like affirmation of the feudal world view - it is significant Shapiro’s hints of proto-Nazism in relation to Looney which I think are suggested sidelong, or more than sidelong, in Shapiro, from what I have read - I have yet to get the damn thing!)?

Now I think that in reality the possibility of that strengthens our case, but it will be ridiculed in the democratic-Whig press of course (Hilary Mantel's line on it

is congruent with her brilliant defence of the Whig view of history in Wolf Hall).

Of course, Shakespeare eludes the categories in great part. Measure for Measure, and King Lear are the utterances of a feudal genius who has grasped in Christian terms the bankruptcy of feudal supremacism. But of course NOT in the name of democracy. Rather, the interventions of Edgar in King Lear and the Duke in Measure for Measure are Christlike interventions of one who has emptied himself of his possession and exercise of power - they are Kenotic, in theological terms, like the descent into humanity of Christ the King.  Where is G Wilson Knight when you need him?

What we have to do is to deconstruct the Shapiro committee man Shakespeare,

The conflict we are in the midst of is the fault line of the doubts about democracy - and equally about the alternatives to it! - in this our democratic epoch. This is one of the hidden forces we are dealing with here. Perhaps the Prince Tudor theory (Southampton as the son of Elizabeth 1st and Oxford) which is a faith of some Oxfordians, is the romantic tip of the iceberg of that deeper and more dangerous chasm - one which prevents us seeing our real problem like a Will O'The Wisp.

And to end by returning to 'honest Ben Jonson', I think the Spectator reference to Trevor Nunn's comments - for me - open up one of our (Oxfordians) 'top ten' ACTUAL grounds for doubt - the utter ambiguity of the First Folio testimony, and especially of the masterly double-meaning embedded in what for me is Jonson's amazing walking of the high wire in that poem, which appears in every way to confirm - 'preachers apt to their auditors' - the Stratfordian attribution, whilst denying it all ways up at the substantive level, and which four centuries later no one reads!

I’ll post my thoughts on why the ‘Swan of Avon’ allusion in this poem cannot refer to William of Stratford, another time!

Here is the Spectator article:

Humanity has an appetite for conspiracy, and JamesShapiro offers a soupcon by examining the attribution of Shakespeare’s plays. The ‘anti-Stratfordian’ case assumes that a journeyman actor from the suburbs of what is now Birmingham could not have penned such plays. They have a point: it is a platitude to say it, but Shakespeare’s is an astonishing, unsurpassed canon. But that should not ventilate questions of attribution. Shakespeare is an enigma precisely because of his genius.

In a fascinating article in last Sunday’s Observer, Robert McCrum interviewedShakespearean luminaries, Mark Rylance, Simon Russell Beale, Deborah Warner, Peter Hall and Trevor Nunn for their views. Only Rylance doubts Shakespeare’s authorship, convinced that the plays were produced by a coterie of writers with Francis Bacon at its heart. It is an interesting and plausible analysis, but one that contrasts with the growing individuality that was a feature of that literary era. Marlowe and Jonson emerged from the collective anonymity of the medieval world’s drama troupes and mystery plays. Though those forms persisted into the 17th Century, it seems unlikely that the era’s foremost dramatist was the invention of the dying breed of jobbing actors.

Certainty is, of course, impossible. But for me, Trevor Nunn, courtesy of Ben Jonson, comes close to settling the issue:

‘Who is Ben Jonson?" challenges Nunn. "He is Shakespeare's great rival and a real talent. Garrulous, argumentative, jealous, proud, and deeply committed to exposing hypocrisy and corruption. Not a man to kowtow to nobility or privilege. What does he do? It's Jonson who coins "the Swan of Avon" (ie the declaration that the author of the First Folio is from Stratford), and it's Jonson who declares that he is "for all time" and then claims him as "MY Shakespeare".

"Why on earth," Nunn continues, "would Jonson, who owes nothing to anyone, and who had competed with Shakespeare throughout his professional life, take part in a cover-up to help the Earl of Oxford from admitting that he had anything to do with the theatre?" This, says Nunn, is "game, set and match to Shakespeare”.’