Friday, April 23, 2010

And now for something completely different....

M. responds to the idea of S'peare's possible mediumship:

Hi August,

I've encountered this quote about Shakespeare before, but IMO the spiritualist theory doesn't hold up.

First, it's not true that there are no references to Shakespeare's contemporaries in his works. Of course, in his day literature was heavily censored and the penalties for insulting anyone in authority were severe. Ben Jonson was jailed for writing The Isle of Dogs, a satirical play, and Christopher Marlowe was scheduled to be tried before the Star Chamber for his atheistic writings when he was (perhaps too conveniently) murdered in a brawl. Thomas Kyd, author of The Spanish Tragedy, was tortured after atheist documents were found in his possession. Other authors similarly fell afoul of the law. Elizabethan England was a police state, with the usual atmosphere of spies, informants, torture chambers, secret trials, and politically motivated executions.

In this environment it's not surprising that authors resorted to veiled allusions and even hidden codes when commenting on public affairs. Nevertheless, they did comment. Shakespeare makes many veiled references to Queen Elizabeth (usually symbolized by the moon). Macbeth contains a comic monologue about the "equivocations" of Jesuits, who resorted to doublespeak when interrogated. Henry V includes a monologue usually interpreted as referring to the Earl of Essex's military campaign against Irish rebels. Polonius in Hamlet is a daring satire on Lord Burghley, the spymaster of the realm. Etc.

For a somewhat speculative but revealing look at possible coded messages in Shakespeare, see Clare Asquith's recent book Shadowplay, which relates the motifs of the plays and poems to the tumultuous conflict between Protestants and Catholics in that era.

Second, Shakespeare's knowledge of history is sketchy, bookish, and hardly what we would expect of someone who had actually lived in the eras he writes about. Wouldn't a real ancient Roman know that there were no mechanical clocks in Julius Caesar's day? (A clock strikes the hour in the play of that name.) More important, would an ancient Roman need to crib historical details from Plutarch's Lives? Shakespeare's plays set in the ancient world rely heavily on Plutarch, even to the point of nearly quoting North's translation at times. He is similarly indebted to historians like Holinshed for English history. Clearly the author of the Shakespearean canon was a prodigious reader, but nothing suggests that he knew his history outside of books.

I do agree that the man from Stratford is most unlikely to have had the education, legal training, military and naval experience, opportunities for European travel, etc. that are reflected in the Shakespearean works. That's why I think Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, is a better match for the author. Will Shakespeare was probably a play broker who served as a middleman for the earl; in those days the nobility could not be known to participate in the public theater without suffering an immense loss of face. Most likely, many of the Shakespearean plays originated as court entertainments that de Vere later expanded for public performances. In some case the courtly origins remain obvious; Love's Labour's Lost is clearly a play written for the Queen's inner circle. (Incidentally it is chock full of topical references to courtly intrigues, ambassadorial comings and goings, and rather malicious gossip; a play with more references to the author's contemporaries would be hard to find in any era.)

It's also worthwhile to notice that all the major events of Oxford's life are reflected in the Shakespearean works. Oxford , like Hamlet, was captured by pirates and set free. Oxford, like Bertram in All's Well That Ends Well, was pressured into a marriage he didn't want, and fled to Europe to escape his wife, only to be duped into consummating the marriage by means of a "bed trick." Oxford was Burghley's son-in-law, as Hamlet is Polonius' prospective son-in-law. Oxford, like Prince Hal, participated in a sham robbery at Gad's Hill as a lark. Etc. Mark Anderson's excellent bio of Oxford, "Shakespeare" By Another Name, presents hundreds of parallels between Oxford's life and key incidents in the plays.

Of course I might be wrong. Maybe the Stratford man did write the material himself, as orthodox scholars think. One way or the other, I see no grounds for the spiritualistic hypothesis in this case. Mediums come through with some good information, but also a lot of nonsense. Emily French seems to have been a legitimate medium, but I think either her unconscious mind or a playful spirit was having some fun with her that day!

Best,

"M."

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