Esteemed readers! It’s not as it seems! Please! Relax! It’s going to be OK! . . .
It is 2016. It’s a big year. Immense. Really, I do mean this! It is a time travel spectacular in which millions of people will move backwards in their minds to London in the early 17th century, or even further, to the late 16th, or if they abandon all pretense, to some very old place like Troy, or Rome at the time Julius or Anthony or further, Coriolanus, shook the earth with ominous tread.
They might even flip their inspired lids completely and lose every contact with any past or present reality and soak up the magic, the true magic, of the man who penetrated more deeply into and cut a wider swathe through the human condition than any before or since – William Shakespeare.
If you didn’t know that 2016 marks 400 years since the great one’s death well, you do now.
Actually, there is even more severance from reality on offer, given that there are more than a few who, seeing a man identified on a theatre marquee as William Shakespeare, will transform him magically into another man altogether – Francis Bacon, say. There’s a lot of it about.
Such a man as Shakespeare existed, these people say, but he was not the author of the plays. Some one else done them. A number of people have been put up as the real deal: Francis Bacon was the first*, and most notable. Bacon was, after all, a writer as well as a scientist and is known for a utopian novel. And as a crook – which he very definitely was – he had the devious mind required to secretly write some 37 plays, many in collaboration with other conspirators able to keep their mouths shut, as well as poems galore. Bacon was even able to keep a straight face when the collected works were published in 1623 with a preface by a fellow playwright who said he “loved the man this side idolatry” and criticised his learning and some of his writing.
Bacon is not alone. What he shares with the other pretenders is what Shakespeare lacked: noble blood. It just doesn’t do for these people that a commoner, with “little Latin and less Greek” as Jonson put it, from a dubious background, could have learned the crafts and arts of literature and beyond, and swept all before him.
So far as I know no one has put forth the notion that a woman really wrote Shakespeare’s stuff but given the times…
These determined souls will participate in the proceedings of 2016 with the grim satisfaction that it was not at all Shakespeare. . .it was X, Y, or Z. ..
They spout nonsense, as anyone who goes deeply enough into the works themselves will come to realise. There is also a wealth of material about the man that circumstantially boxes in the authorship so that it was that one – himself – and none other.
What is striking about the people who think they’ve found the real author is that they have in their minds someone who is not the man himself, and relate, as they must, to him. When they read or watch, they see meanings and nuance applicable only to this champion of letters.
The “canon” of Shakespeare becomes indisputably and irrevocably not just different in authorship, but in kind. It’s new work. Universes of interpretation open up depending on the author in question.
It is easy to smile at this kind of elitism. I do. See the post on this blog, “Charles’ secret spell on the throne”. Attempts to ennoble Shakespeare in another’s skin actually diminish him. Shakespeare’s genius rose from his common origins, his ready familiarity with the wide avenues of humanity thronging the narrow streets of London and wherever else he traveled. Of course he piled more onto his common upbringing with its “little Latin and less Greek” – a ready wit, an excellent mimicry, a terrific ear, and a creative spark that four hundred years later lights raging fires in the heart.
It is true there are those who don’t get it. They find Shakespeare boring, or worse – impenetrable. If you, dear reader, are among these, I wish for you to discover this amazing writer and embark on a journey that will tire you only at the end.
I cut my Bardo-teeth on Classics Illustrated, a wonderful comic book series for kids,so had an idea, but didn’t then really get stuck into him until I was around 40. Then the magic hit.
The edition that did it for me was the Arden series, each play being given an entire book, with a good-length forward, notes on the text as it went along, and a sort of postscript of materials that Shakespeare used when writing.
And the Arden that was first off the rank for me was Frank Kermode’s edition of The Tempest. Now, I had seen this play a few times, and enjoyed it, but Kermode opened my eyes to a much bigger play than I thought I’d seen. The Tempest is a multifaceted marvel. It canvases classical (or “pagan” meaning Greek and Roman) lore and symbolism, the emerging colonial empire of Britain, voyages of discovery, the “noble savage”, racism, magic, philosophy, morals, and more, all while providing a masque for the aristocratic patrons of Shakespeare and his company, including James I (who began his royal career as James VI of Scotland). Even tiny sidelights can have an abiding significance for me, as for example the model for Prospero, the “white magician”** who is the centre of the play. See my post “Storm splashes out of teacup, washes over saucer, stains tablecloth, trousers and reputation”, which attempts to show that the magus is based not on the Englishman John Dee, a contemporary of Shakespeare, but Giovanni Pico dellla Mirandola, a Renaissance philosopher quite a long time dead. The title of my post is misleading in that I don’t have a reputation to stain, but it is my proud footnote to the play and the Bard, and so far I’m sticking to it!
That is just one play! And while it is taken to be Shakespeare’s crowning achievement by many, there are heaps more to behold in wonder. The great tragedies – Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello, King Lear – comedies like Twelfth Night, As You Like It, Midsummer Night’s Dream, the “history plays”. . .one Arden argues that Shakespeare conceived an eight-parter before writing King John through Henry IV one and two, Henry V, Henry VI in three, ending in Richard III. That’s amazing to me. True, he had a ready source in Holinshed’s Chronicles, but even so. . .he didn’t find Falstaff in Holinshed, and even the historical characters in the series get a life they surely did not live through the quick quill of the man from Stratford.
Diligent followers of this blog – that’s you, isn’t it? – will know that the play that most gets me going is Troilus and Cressida (see the post “Toiling with Troilus” in case you have forgotten). It has so many mysteries attached to it – starting with the conundrum of whether it is a tragedy, or a comedy, but there is much, much more to that astonishing play. . .give it a try. . .with the David Bevington edition.
Whatever I write, there is more to Shakespeare. So many facets to behold, glittering jewels turned this way and that. When Ted Hughes wrote Shakespeare and the goddess of complete being he mounted an argument about 14 of the plays. – just over a third of his dramatic works that have come down to us – that is in itself a marvel of imaginative argument.
So what I would like is for the entire planet to get as turned on, as transfixed by Shakespeare as I am over this “festival” year. It won’t happen, but I’d still like it.
For those who do discover, or rediscover, or just keep discovering the amazing qualities of the man and through him his times, his contemporaries, the reality of living then and living today, all masks for the reality and meaning of life itself, this will be a supercharged year. Each of us will have our special Bard, the one who belongs to us and no one else, and hence – you’ve been waiting, haven’t you? and here it is! – the title of this post. Whatever your gender, your age or your interests, you will have your own personal Willie the Shake. We may learn much, have our idea of Shakespeare transformed, ah, “shaken”, but down in the part of our souls where we hold tight to our hard-won understandings and insights, this man remains ours alone.
Thanks for reading,
*There is a chapter on the authorship question in Bill Bryson’s popular biography that is worth reading.
** During the Renaissance a distinction was made between black magic – evil, evil, evil – and its opposite which was practised for good. This distinction enabled philosophers like Pico to delve into these arts, but authorities were always on the lookout for the horned one lurking behind the exalted claims.