22 November 2009

What's in a name?

One of the guys with whom I work is a rather intelligent man- I believe he was a teacher in his homeland- who is, I am sorry say, also a very lazy man intellectually. His problem, in so far as I see it, is that he considers himself to be very smart with a piercing, critical intellect. Therefore he seeks out the works of others whom he considers to be piercing critical intellects, and makes their opinions his own. (The irony of reading critical works uncritically has never dawned on him, although it has struck me many times over. It is rather like those who unuestioningly accept the authority of the bumper sticker slogan "Question Authority") Even worse, being a lazy man, he does not read their entire books to gain insight into the depth of the author's knowledge and the nuance of their thinking. Instead he reads synopses of books, often taking the book reviewers opinion uncritically (thus reading a critical interpretation of a critical viewpoint/interpretation uncritically, doubling the irony) and then decides that this is the absolute truth on a given subject.

A case in point, last Friday he read a review of a book, written in German, which examines yet again the question of whether or not Shakespeare, the man from Stratford, wrote Shakespeare, the greatest plays ever. The author of the German book reaches a single conclusion which my co-worker regarded as definitive: No, Shakespeare did not write Shakespeare. Case closed. For myself, I do not much care, what he reads or believes, except he then spent much of the remainder of the day trying to convince me of his new position. To make a long story short, he said nothing I had not heard before, and I remained unconvinced. By the same token, I could say nothing to him that could shake his new found conviction.

Still, he got me thinking again about my old studies and my old degrees, colossal waste of time that they were. I asked myself the question, if we did not know the author of the play, how could we go about finding the identity of this body of work? Modern methods give us several options- diction, stylistics, and so on. For example, according to an analysis of, shall we say 'Shakespeare' for the moment, referring only to the plays, not the author?, we find he bears a resemblance to the work of one Fulke-Greville, a poet who is a near contemporary of the plays. There is, however, a small problem: Fulke-Greville published his own work, and it is second rate to the end. Why would a man write his greatest works under the name of another, and then publish his worst under his own name? Keep in mind, this was a time when writers and nobles alike were obsessed with the idea of immortal fame. Doing this, he wold be giving himself an immortality along the lines of that of Herostratos: near infamy, not fame.

There are those who believe that the plays were actually written as part of a co-operative effort, as part of a group of writers who presented the work under the name of 'Shakespeare'. There is some evidence to this point. For instance, the last few plays, as they are currently dated, show signs of parts being written by Beaumont and Fletcher, as well as parts being written by someone else. Beaumont and Fletcher are known to have taken over writing plays for the King's Men, taking over right around the time that Bill Shakespeare retired from London and returned home to Stratford. Let us treat that as a mere coincidence for the time being.

There is also the manuscript of the play Thomas More. The manuscript has parts written in several different hands. The history of the manuscript and the different hands has been pieced together thusly: The play was written for one company, but over time the company changed, and new parts had to be written in or adapted to meet the needs and the abilities of the new members and the new company. In short, the play was written and then re written for specific actors. It is this point that I wish to address. But before I do, let me say the Thomas More manuscript has been under intense scrutiny of late, because one of the sets of handwriting in on of the adapted scenes bears a very strong resemblance to the handwriting found in the six most famous signatures in the world: Shakespeare's. Some of the people who claim Shakespeare did not write Shakespeare claim the signatures were written by law clerks, thus proving Shakespeare was illiterate and could not possibly have written Shakespeare. They have not explained what a law clerk was doing writing amendments to Thomas More. Let us treat that as a mere co-incidence as well.

Going back to the issue of the relationship between plays and actors, we find that the plays written under the name of Shakespeare share a close relationship to the actors in the company. First and foremost, the best known and greatest actor in the troupe was Richard Burbage. He was regarded as one of the greatest actors of the age. He appears to have been, to put it mildly, a ham. Of all the plays extant from the period, those which may be regarded as what we today call a 'star vehicle', those plays which are dominated by one roll, and by dominated I mean the plays have one roll of five hundred lines or more, over ninety per cent of those star rolls can be tied to one of two actors, Richard Burbage, and Ned Allen. The implication is that these rolls were written for these actors.

As a further indication of how these rolls were tied to the actors, we can see in the plays of 'Shakespeare', as they are currently dated, a progression in the age of the main character. Is this because the writer was getting old, and thus more sympathetic to and concerned with the issues of age? Or is it because the lead actor is getting older, and can no longer play Romeo, but instead must needs play a Lear or Prospero instead?

There is also the question of Shakespeare's clown characters. They often seem to fall into one of two categories: Rather morose, and rather wise fools. Does the difference follow some dramatic need, or a change in the troupes, with an actor who specializes in one form of comedy being replaced by someone who specializes in another? Critic Edward Malone has claimed that the arrival of John Heminges, an actor who specialized in playing fat, funny drunks, to Burbage's troupe lead to the creation of one of the plays' most memorable figures: Sir John Falstaff. As evidence that an actor who specialized in playing the popular fat drunks continued with the troupe, another very similar roll, Sir Toby Belch, appears in Twelfth Night.

We have before us what seems to me a difficult question: What part did the actors take in writing their own rolls? In all honesty, I cannot answer that question. I can tell you that John Heminges did play for other troupes, but only one created Sir John Falstaff. I can say other writers wrote for Burbage, but none created a Hamlet. At the very least we have a gifted writer who has close ties to the troupe, who knows their strengths and their weaknesses thoroughly.

The writer(s) also know the playhouse. The stage directions, while few, were geared towards the Globe Theatre where these plays were originally performed. The writer also knew the stage well and tailored his plays to work within its strengths and weaknesses.

There are those who claim the writer of the plays was a nobleman. The author of the book reviewed in the article that my co-worker read which convinced him that Shakespeare could not possibly have written Shakespeare says that an Earl by the name of Edward de Vere If I am correct in my belief that the writer of the plays must have known the actors and worked intimately with the actors, then I would have to say that a noble author seems unlikely to me. Players in the period were considered to be servants and vagabonds. It is unlikely a nobleman would have worked as closely and for as long as these plays would have required. He would have considered it beneath him, and could have caused a scandal for working so closely with another man's servants, as the players were.

The alternative to this is that the writer was someone within the troupe itself. The familiarity the author fo the plays shows for his company and his theatre indicate strongly, in my opinion, someone who was connected to the theatre and the actors, with the possibility of the actors adding and embellishing their rolls. Do we have any evidence that there was someone in the Lord Chamberlain's Men, later the King's Men, who wrote? As it turns out, we do.

He went by the name of 'Shakespeare'.

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