A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Bard Thou Never Wert

The following review ran, a little shortened for space, in today's San Francisco Chronicle:

Let's say you're at a party and you're introduced to a Shakespeare scholar. Please don't ask her or him if Shakespeare really wrote those plays. If you do, you'll get an icy glare, a weary frown, or some other expression that clearly says: Oh, God, not that again.

They've heard it all before, the scholars, and they're sick of it. For them, the matter's settled: William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon wrote “Hamlet” and “The Tempest,” “Romeo and Juliet” and “Love's Labour's Lost,” “Macbeth” and “All's Well Than Ends Well,” the two parts of “Henry IV,” the three parts of “Henry VI,” and at least 27 other plays, plus narrative poems, lyrics and sonnets.

But the question just won't go away. It doesn't just get asked of Shakespeare scholars at cocktail parties: In 1987, three United States Supreme Court justices participated in a mock trial to adjudicate the evidence for the authorship of either Shakespeare or Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford. Shakespeare won that one, but in 1989 a TV program on the Public Broadcasting System again treated the question as if it were a serious one. The anti-Stratfordians have succeeded in making people think that there is real reason to doubt the authorship.

James Shapiro, a professor of English at Columbia University, firmly believes that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare, but his entertainingly combative “Contested Will” is not just a rebuttal to the doubters. It's a cultural history, an examination of why there were doubts in the first place, and why authorship candidates such as Francis Bacon or the Earl of Oxford attracted such otherwise sensible people as Mark Twain, Helen Keller, Henry James and Sigmund Freud.

Blame it partly on the Germans, who developed the science of textual study. And particularly on Friedrich August Wolf, whose examination of the “Iliad” and the “Odyssey” challenged the idea that they were written by a single person named Homer. Today it's generally recognized that “Homer” is a legend – a figure who was attached to the oral tradition that handed down the Greek epics. And after Homer's existence was called into question there came the Higher Criticism, the textual analysis of the Bible which determined that the Pentateuch was probably not written by Moses himself, and then called into question the accuracy of the life of Jesus presented in the Gospels. The German scholar David Friedrich Strauss's The Life of Jesus was translated into English by George Eliot in 1846, and, as Shapiro puts it, skepticism about authorship “soon threatened that lesser deity Shakespeare, for his biography too rested precariously on the unstable foundation of posthumous reports and more than a fair share of myths.” 

One problem is that the documentary record of Shakespeare's life is that of a man who was all business: We have lots of documents of his existence: legal papers, real estate records, and the will in which he leaves his estate to his daughter and the “second-best bed” to his wife. But the Shakespeare of the records is bourgeois, provincial and dull. Surely a man who wrote in magnificent language about kings and princes couldn't have come from such a commonplace background. Wouldn't it be more likely that the works were those of a philosopher-statesman like Bacon or a playwright, poet and courtier like the Earl of Oxford? The question has sent people on all sides of the authorship question to scour the plays and poems for evidence about their author's life.

Shapiro is eminently fair in his portrayals of both Baconians and Oxfordians. He even comments that although one of the first Oxfordians was a man unfortunately named John Thomas Looney, the name has been “the subject of much unwarranted abuse” and that it “rhymes with bony.”  And he blames some of his colleagues, who agree that Shakespeare really was “the man from Stratford,” for encouraging the anti-Stratfordians by using the poems and plays as biographical material. Shapiro insists, “The more that Shakespeare scholars encourage autobiographical readings of the poems and plays, the more they legitimate assumptions that underlie the claims of all those who dismiss the idea that Shakespeare wrote the plays.”

Shapiro demonstrates that if you want to believe that that Bacon, Oxford, or anyone other than the man from Stratford wrote the plays you have to ignore copious evidence to the contrary and indulge in intellectual contortions. Moreover, you have to credit the entire Elizabethan and Jacobean cultural establishment with a conspiracy so elaborate and a cover-up so successful it makes Watergate look like hide-and-seek. But in a world in which even the fact of a birth announcement published in a Honolulu newspaper in 1961 won't convince some people that the president of the United States wasn't really born in Kenya, it's not surprising that the “Shakespeare conspiracy” won't disappear.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Ain't That a Kick in the Head?

Dear merciful goddess, the right wing hates soccer.

"It doesn't matter how you try to sell it to us," yipped the Prom King of new right, Glenn Beck. "It doesn't matter how many celebrities you get, it doesn't matter how many bars open early, it doesn't matter how many beer commercials they run, we don't want the World Cup, we don't like the World Cup, we don't like soccer, we want nothing to do with it."
And of course, according to G. Gordon Liddy, it's a game of the uncivilized. (G. Gordon Liddy is civilized?) 



It is, according to the right's anti-liberal-media site, NewsBusters (which you can find for yourself because I refuse to link to it), a creation of the liberal media:

The liberal media have always been uncomfortable with "American exceptionalism" - the belief that the United States is unique among nations, a leader and a force for good. And they are no happier with America's rejection of soccer than with its rejection of socialism.
And a game of the left that all true red-blooded, red-stated Americans rightly shun:
Since at least the 1970s, Americans have been told that soccer was the future, and it would soon dominate other sports. But the United States proved pretty resistant to soccer's charms, to the chagrin of its boosters on the left. (And yes, it's [sic] support has mainly come from the left; in 2002 conservative soccer fan Robert Zeigler plaintively asked in National Review, "What is it about soccer that makes it (in America) the nearly exclusive domain of liberal sports fans?")
It is a sport for poor people, especially brown ones, which means that all true Tea Partiers should learn to play polo, I guess.  It's (horror of horrors!) multicultural.

Can the republic survive? 

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Things That Make Me Blow My Top

Rand Paul on mountaintop removal:
PAUL: I think whoever owns the property can do with the property as they wish, and if the coal company buys it from a private property owner and they want to do it, fine. The other thing I think is that I think coal gets a bad name, because I think a lot of the land apparently is quite desirable once it's been flattened out. As I came over here from Harlan, you've got quite a few hills. I don’t think anybody's going to be missing a hill or two here and there.
A few years ago, I reviewed Coal River, a fine book on the subject of mountaintop removal which also featured the egregious Don Blankenship of Massey Energy, the man and the company responsible for that recent and terrible mine disaster. It's an environment and economic blight, and now we have Mr. Tea Party himself opining on the topic. My head hurts. 

Friday, June 11, 2010

Questianity

I'm going to start a new religion. All the other ones are too sure of themselves for me. (Well, maybe not the Unitarians or the Buddhists, but there's something too starchy about the former and too detached about the latter.) Its symbol (i.e., its cross or crescent or six-pointed star) will be this:



Its god will be the one Rabelais proposed to meet when he spoke his last words: "I go to seek a Great Perhaps."

Its deadly sins will be the same seven:

  1. Pride: the assumption that one has found the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth
  2. Envy: the preoccupation with whether what other people believe makes them better off than you are
  3. Wrath: the willingness to start a fight over beliefs 
  4. Avarice: using a community of belief, like a church, for one's own personal gain (e.g., most politicians)
  5. Sloth: being too lazy to search and question 
  6. Gluttony: pigging out on the perks of being a true believer (e.g., most politicians)
  7. Lechery: using the powers of a priesthood for sexual gratification 

Welcome to Questianity, fellow Questioners.