Sunday, June 7, 2009
The Shakespeare syndrome
The many Shakespeares?
A recent post on the Arts Fuse brings word that a "symposium" was held in Watertown last weekend for "Oxfordians" - that is, people obsessed with the idea that Shakespeare was not actually "the man from Stratford" (as they call the actor/manager whose contemporaries collected and edited most of the canon, and published it under his name), but was instead Edward de Vere, the seventeenth Earl of Oxford, whose portrait is appended to several supposed likenesses of Shakespeare, above.
There is, of course, no actual evidence linking Edward de Vere to Shakespeare's plays. Zip. Zero. And he died too early to have written several of the them (that is, unless we pretend along with the Oxfordians that Macbeth, The Tempest and others could actually have been written well before there's any mention of them in the historical record - the truly bizarre Oxfordian chronology is available here).
But the Oxfordians distract opponents from this lack of historical evidence with parallels between the texts of the canon and de Vere's biography - and these are, to be sure, plentiful and intriguing. De Vere traveled to Europe (while as far as we know Shakespeare didn't), and his travels map neatly to the locales of Shakespeare's plays; likewise, his personal life contains echoes of the plot of Hamlet, and offers a possible explanation to the mystifying "biography" seemingly evinced by the sonnets.
There are many more such correspondences - enough to make any reasonable person scratch his or her head and ponder whether there's any truth to this particular rumor. But Oxfordian textual claims are easily undermined by the possibility that Edward de Vere may indeed have been a model for Hamlet without having been the author of Hamlet. (As it's known that de Vere sponsored theatre companies and therefore probably mixed with actors privately, it's quite possible Shakespeare could have picked his brain for all manner of details for Hamlet, or other plays.) Indeed, after a little thought, one realizes that the central Oxfordian argument is a bit like insisting that F. Scott Fitzgerald was secretly a Long Island millionaire, or that J.R.R. Tolkien must have been a hobbit.
Indeed, the real mystery about the "man from Stratford" is why so many people have tried to usurp his authorship (almost always in the name of a nobleman, which is rather telling). The Oxfordians themselves point out that Shakespeare is unique in this regard; there are plenty of lacunae in the biographies of other major authors, and composers, and artists, but only Shakespeare has inspired a virtual cottage industry devoted to denying his authorship.
Why is this so? If societies are prone to collective neuroses, as Freud claimed, then what accounts for "the Shakespeare syndrome" (which the good doctor himself fell into)?
Well, one obvious cause is the genuinely strange disjuncture between an achievement that later ages deemed perhaps the greatest artistic legacy ever left by anyone, and the seeming indifference to that legacy exhibited by its author. In a word, when Shakespeare retired, he seemed to shrug off the fact that, as Harold Bloom would have it, he had just "invented the human." There are hints that he collaborated on a few more texts, but his affairs in retirement (and the handful of documents that survive from the period) are utterly quotidian. And he made no effort to gather up, edit, or publish his own work, as Ben Jonson did. What's more, upon his sudden death there seems to have been no outpouring of public mourning (although eventually a monument was raised in Stratford).
I agree that this makes Shakespeare an unusual case, although not quite as unusual in Elizabethan or Jacobean eyes as modern ones (the whole idea of editing and publishing "collected works" was in fact brand new at the time). But for the Oxfordian theory to pass muster, it must, of course, offer a more reasonable explanation for this strange, eventful history than the "Stratford theory" does.
But it doesn't. Indeed, if Edward de Vere actually wrote the canon, his behavior is even more bizarre than that of "the man from Stratford." It's possible, of course, that de Vere used Shakespeare as a front for his plays, as it was widely thought inappropriate for noblemen to write for the theatre (and we know other noblemen used pseudonyms and fronts for their efforts). But this explanation can't actually cover the sonnets, as other noblemen wrote sonnets - and de Vere himself even published a few. What's more, these are generally thought inferior to Shakespeare's, and a computer analysis found little stylistic similarity between his work and the Bard's. Now perhaps there was a bug in that software - but we're still being asked by the Oxfordians to believe that de Vere would publicly take credit for his lesser work while crediting his greater work to someone else. Likewise contemporary accounts actually mention de Vere's plays, and even cite their quality. So he was, in fact, known as a playwright among his set at the time. Oxfordians are therefore in a pretty tight logical knot - their argument is that de Vere was keeping his writing a secret even while his writing was being discussed in public. And that he was taking credit for his weak work, while granting credit for the greatest artistic achievement in history to a nobody from a hick town outside London. And that no one in de Vere's set wanted to rectify that miscarriage of literary justice after his death - while friends of the "man from Stratford" were eager to gather together and publish the same work under Shakespeare's name. Huh?
As I think is pretty clear, the Oxfordian "explanation" for the Shakespearean mystery is actually no explanation at all. Instead, it's a parallel, competing mystery. Of course someday some sort of factual evidence linking de Vere to the canon may emerge. But until then, I'm afraid I'll continue to think of the Oxfordian theory as the latest manifestation of "the Shakespeare syndrome."