FOR A PENNY'S WORTH OF HAMLET

24 Apr 2018

IT WAS AN AGE WHEN PLAYS, poems, and letters were written in longhand. The pen was not just metaphor. Try to imagine a slower, more even rhythm. You were, after all, writing with the feather of a bird, a winged creature, with a long slow hiss and to a soft pulse of candlelight. The charm has worked on me now for many years.

 

The rise of the Elizabethan stage followed the dismantling of the monasteries and the muzzling of the Roman Church a generation earlier. This action by the king (H8) left a large gaping hole in culture. After all, there was still a large number of Catholics in England. The absence of the Mass, with its pomp, its high step, its transcendent elements, its gravity, was sharply felt. The theater became its natural substitute, and helped fill that gaping hole. If the Mass was anything, it was theatrical. Peter Ackroyd [1] attributes the tone of Shakespeare’s language to the high tone of the Mass.

 

The first theater in England, a generation after Tyndale (1570s), was appropriately called The Theater (James Burbage was an actor, not a poet). 

 

A perfect storm of events and circumstances including England’s victory over the Spanish Armada in 1588 that initiated England's Golden Age and the long reaching effects of the Tyndale Bible which initiated a new pride for the English language, literally set the stage for the emergence of a whole new breed of poets of the likes of William Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, Ben Jonson, and others. 

 

But enough backstory.

 

Today we celebrate the birth of William Shakespeare, the first, or chief of our English literary saints, born this day, 23 April, 1564. Our English is infected with his phrases, with the delicate algebra of his poetry, his constructions, the whimsy of his adjectives, the verbs he nouned, the nouns he verbed, and the peculiar way he bends a metaphor much like a guitarist bends a note. Whether we like the poor man or not, whether we have committed his better known lines to memory or have little or nothing to do with this odd creature, he is inescapable. As one commentator wrote, “he is in the air we breathe.”

 

In honor of his birthday, without singing hymns to him or some other rouse of hyperbole, I want to address a single issue, one that comes up often when his name is mentioned. That is, the so-called authorship question.

 

There is a school of thought that says William Shakespeare, a yokel, a cornpone actor from a cornpone country town, with no better than an eighth grade education, could not possibly have written the plays attributed to the great name.  

 

I have yet to hear of any scholar that agrees with this proposition. Harold Bloom, revered literary critic and confessed bardolator, Marjorie Garber, Peter Ackroyd, the Davids Norton and Crystal, and countless other large and pedigreed names give the issue no merit at all. Author Jane Smiley said once (and I agree) that such a conspiracy would have to be so wide and so inclusive, everyone would have to be in on it, most particularly Ben Jonson, who both loved and despised Shakespeare. With an almost Salieri kind of obsession, if Shakespeare had been given plays under the table, so to speak, as the theory suggests, Jonson, who perhaps watched him like a hawk (or some other great bird), would have been all over it, and would not have allowed his "rival" to get away with it.

 

The most prominent contender to date is Edward DeVere, the 17th Earl of Oxford (1550-1604). DeVere is the new darling. That the man was dead by 1604 doesn't seem to bother his camp, a particularly hostile camp at that, though it does present a mild conundrum. Some of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies were yet to be written by that time. Look for Oxford's poetry online and compare them with the poems of Shakespeare. The argument could be made, I suppose, that DeVere wrote mediocre poetry intentionally to mask the glorious poetry he wrote under the pseudonym, but that sounds absurd at a lot of levels. Other candidates include Francis Bacon, though I think his brother Anthony a better choice (world traveler, soldier, statesman), Christopher Marlowe (dead, or thought to be, in 1593), and others, including the great Elizabeth herself.

 

Essentially, the conspirators are resentful because he was/is not one of them, that is, he was not of noble birth, nor was he a “university wit.” In their mind, Shakespeare didn’t deserve to be Shakespeare.

 

It makes a delicious conspiracy theory. It is even film-worthy (ANONYMOUS, 2011). But like the film, the debate may entertain, it may even make us feel better about ourselves in an odd postmodern way, but it fails to convince. In plainest terms, it smacks of the-son-of-God-could-not-be-born-in-a-barn argument. And I think we all know better.

 

So much more can and perhaps should be said. But brevity is the soul of, well, you know, and of good web etiquette, so we will let these poor bones rest. By the way, Shakespeare died, it is thought, on the same day, 23 April, St. George's Day, fifty-two years later.

 

 

Note: The audio below will be familiar. I thought the selection appropriate considering the authorship question. To be or . . .  As usual, I have added the text for you to read along if you wish. By the way, don't be disturbed by the images in this video (STOP STARIN' AT ME, my wife says). The images are never the point. Only the words, and the music they continue to make. 

 

 

To be, or not to be: that is the question:

Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer

The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,

Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,

And by opposing end them? To die: to sleep;

No more; and by a sleep to say we end

The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks

That flesh is heir to, 'tis a consummation

Devoutly to be wish'd. To die, to sleep;

To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there's the rub;

For in that sleep of death what dreams may come

When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,

Must give us pause: there's the respect

That makes calamity of so long life;

For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,

The oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely,

The pangs of despised love, the law's delay,

The insolence of office and the spurns

That patient merit of the unworthy takes,

When he himself might his quietus make

With a bare bodkin? who would fardels bear,

To grunt and sweat under a weary life,

But that the dread of something after death,

The undiscover'd country from whose bourn

No traveller returns, puzzles the will

And makes us rather bear those ills we have

Than fly to others that we know not of?

Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;

And thus the native hue of resolution

Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought,

And enterprises of great pith and moment

With this regard their currents turn awry,

And lose the name of action.

—William Shakespeare, HAMLET, 3.1.56-85

 

 

[1] Peter Ackroyd, SHAKESPEARE: THE BIOGRAPHY, (Nan Talese, Doubleday, 2005). 

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