Book review entries

March 29, 2011

Sir Thomas More

Book front cover
Title:
Sir Thomas More (Arden Shakespeare)
Author:
William Shakespeare
ISBN:
1904271480
Rating:
Not rated

It's been a variable couple of years for the Arden Shakespeare. On the plus side, it has brought us stirling editions of The Taming of the Shrew and Double Falsehood (which, regardless of the ongoing debates over attribution, is a fine critical edition). On the downside, we've been given a dull Winter's Tale and an unstructured Merchant of Venice, as well as an updated version of the Sonnets that added almost nothing to the original version. Now, only a year after Double Falsehood, Arden have once more taken a risk (albeit a lesser one), becoming the first Shakespeare series to publish an independent critical edition of Sir Thomas More.

Happily, John Jowett's volume is a masterpiece of scholarship, setting a new benchmark for Arden in editorial standards, accessibility, lively discussion and the integration of textual and staging matters.

A lengthy introduction is particularly strong on the historical and literary sources for the play's conception of More, and the political contexts within which the writers were operating. Significantly, though, Jowett always pulls the sources back to the question of the play as a theatrical creation, concentrating on how themes and ideas present in the sources were selected and re-shaped for dramatic purpose. This is hugely important for the question of Thomas More, a play too often treated in fragmented terms. Jowett's insistence is on the play as a surprisingly cohesive and structurally sophisticated drama.

Context on the identified writers is included (and Jowett sticks to his guns on the identification of Hand B as Thomas Heywood, the clarification of support for which is an important contribution that this edition makes), but the play is not reduced to its relation to particular authorial canons. Instead, it sits at the juncture between a number of genres (including some useful discussion of Cromwell which helpfully sets up my own writing on that play for my thesis rather than gazumping it, thankfully!), debates and company movements.

The section on performance history offers a model of how to use performance to raise important critical questions, rather than using stage history to selectively illustrate moments of interest. Jowett discusses, for example, the relative effects of the RSC 2005-6 production's excision of the Erasmus/Falconer episodes on the play's overall structure, and the questions of doubling as a thematically embedded strategy rather than mere conservation of resources.

The usual issues of an introducion are extended into a series of appendices. While I am usually averse to the growing Arden trend to relegate textual discussion to a separate appendix, for More this is surely the desirable strategy, allowing the play to be discussed as a dramatic artwork in the introduction and as a bibliographic assemblage in its appropriate place. Jowett's "Textual Analysis" (344-94) will surely become the standard reference guide for all future students of the play, summing up issues of chronology, revision and design that are insanely complex in a detailed, rigorous but always clear narrative.

A further long appendix (415-460) discusses authorship and dates. Among his major contributions are a confident redating of the Original Text to c.1600-01, much later than usually suggested. Jowett sums up the authorship question confidently with particular attention to Hand D. He inclines towards the positivist here, giving perhaps too much weight to flawed projects such as Craig/Kinney's volume (ignoring the errors and limitations of Watt's study of Hand D) and not enough to recent critics of the orthodox position such as Jeffrey Masten and Paul Werstine. This is not so much a complaint as a desire to have seen Jowett's fair-minded and judicious approach applied to the detail, particularly of Werstine's argument about the underlying motives of the 1923 Pollard collection. A two page section at the very end raises the questions I deal with in my thesis about "Shakespeare, Sir Thomas More and the Ideology of Authorship" which would have been the ideal place to at least draw more attention to the consequences and implications of the play's addition to the canon, but perhaps this is best reserved for elsewhere.

The text itself is clear and readable, offering the play as a work to be studied and enjoyed. A simple series of annotations, superscriptions and underlinings draws attention to the points in the manuscript where alterations have been made, and for the specialist Jowett provides scrupulous annotations. The physical divisions between the original text and the various editions are marked with lines through the text, above and below which are noted the authors of the text. While I disliked this approach in the Oxford Shakespeare, where it seemed unnecessarily interventionist, here it provides an ideal critical cue to the important shifts between stages of textual survival, and the identification of authors is unobtrusive enough so as not to dictate reading.

I'll be thinking much more about this edition over the next few weeks, but I'm pleased to see that this wonderful play has finally been given the text it deserves. With all respect to Gabrieli and Melchiori's diligent Revels edition, the scope of that series doesn't allow for the kind of depth preserved here. Jowett has outdone himself, and the text reclaims Arden's aspirations to leading standards of textual scholarship.


April 05, 2010

Shakespeare, Computers and the Mystery of Authorship

Book front cover
Title:
Shakespeare, Computers, and the Mystery of Authorship
Author:
ISBN:
0521516234
Rating:
Not rated

I've just reviewed this new volume for the journal Early Theatre, so I won't repeat myself here. It's of substantial interest to this blog, however, to note the results that Hugh Craig and Arthur F. Kinney's stylistic tests have come up with.

Arden of Faversham: the middle third of this anonymous play is shown to be substantially by SHAKESPEARE.

The Spanish Tragedy: the additions to the 1602 edition of Thomas Kyd's play are shown to be by SHAKESPEARE.

1 and 2 Henry VI: while these two plays are both partly written by SHAKESPEARE, the scenes involving Joan la Pucelle and Jack Cade are shown to be by MARLOWE.

Edmond Ironside: this anonymous play can be attributed to NO KNOWN DRAMATIST.

King Lear: the revised version of the play from the 1623 Folio is proven to be by SHAKESPEARE.

Sir Thomas More (Hand D Addition): the case for this addition being by SHAKESPEARE is strengthened.

Edward III: a substantial part of the play is affirmed to be by SHAKESPEARE, while the rest is by NO KNOWN DRAMATIST (refuting recent cases for Marlowe and Kyd).

If these results are to be accepted (in a nutshell, I think their statistics are incomplete but persuasive, and further testing is definitely needed), then not only is the extended canon given further support, but the case for Arden of Faversham will be very much brought back into the spotlight. Whether or not their conclusions regarding Spanish Tragedy will gather support is another matter: but, I'm certainly not convinced that they can be ignored.


April 01, 2010

Review: Shakespeare and His Authors (Continuum, 2010)

Book front cover
Title:
Shakespeare and His Authors
Author:
ISBN:
0826426115
Rating:
Not rated

I intend to give William Leahy's new collection, Shakespeare and His Authors (Continuum, 2010) a fair hearing. I feel obliged to make this clear up front, because certain essays in the volume make it clear that they pre-emptively feel I will be coming from a biased position. This disparate collection on the "Authorship Question", the doubt over the identity of the writer of the plays attributed to William Shakespeare, collects a commendably wide range of viewpoints and ideas, but certain ideas crop up repeatedly, that attack my position before I've even had a chance to comment.

1) That academic institutions - and English Literature departments in particular - are deliberately and systematically dedicated to the silencing (as opposed to answering) of anti-Stratfordians, or in fact anyone who expresses doubt. This is something I'm very happy to concede. The book collates some shockingly extreme and offensive language applied to anti-Stratfordians that compares them to Holocaust deniers or Creationists. The violence of the academy towards anti-Stratfordians, to my mind, is ill-judged, unprofessional and very troublesome. There is nothing morally wrong in questioning Shakespearean authorship. Universities try to shout down authorship questioners rather than answer them; not only is this poor academic practice, but it also fosters a martyr-like atmosphere of persecution that turns anti-Stratfordians into righteous underdogs. James Shapiro's new book, which came out after this volume, is hopefully a step towards the informed counter-argument rather than the tyrannous subjugation. I say all this because I am a member of an English Literature department in a Russell Group University, and thus am speaking from an establishment position; however, I do not accept that that necessarily means I have a priori views from which I cannot be persuaded.

2) That there is an intrinsic problem with Shakespearean biography, as exemplified primarily by Stephen Greenblatt and Jonathan Bate, the latter of whom is of course my supervisor. I have no innate felt need to defend Shakespearean biographers, however, and several of the essays (on both sides of the debate) identify real and genuine problems with Shakespearean biography: it is almost entirely the domain of English Lit. academics, it is necessarily largely speculative (though rooted in much stronger evidence than several of the writers here would care to admit) and it can be extremely repetitive. It also inevitably puts a lot of importance on the Man From Stratford, which provokes the anti-Stratfordian counter-arguments. Even in the poorest essays here, there are strong arguments about orthodox biography showing them to be, in large part, often no less rooted in fiction and personal opinion than those of the anti-Stratfordians, and that's an important contribution made by the volume.

With my position outlined, then, I repeat that I intend to give the book a fair hearing. I don't have an agenda I want to advance, and theoretically I'm more than happy for the question to be advanced, particularly if it's in the spirit of genuine conversation.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Leahy, although he doesn't mention it in his writer biography (perhaps because he feels it will prejudice readers against him) is the founder of the MA in Shakespearean Authorship Studies at Brunel, and in his introduction explains that he wishes to allow genuine and open academic research of the Authorship Question. This is a long-contested issue, and resisted by Stratfordians because they feel it opens the academy to being a platform for poor-quality research. Leahy's point is that, if the research is of good-quality (regardless of the result), then it has a place in the academy. I agree, and further agree that that it's not responsible to dismiss results without reading the working, as too many critics of anti-Stratfordian behaviour do. In that sense, this collection of essays is timely and important, looking at the interesting facets of the question (the reasons that we ask, the reasons that we search for The Author) rather than advancing any particular candidate.

However, Leahy does stretch credibility when he tries to suggest that the Question existed even in Shakespeare's lifetime. Dependant on Diana Price (who is quoted extensively by all the anti-Stratfordian commentators in the book, emphasising how integral her study Shakespeare's Unorthodox Biography has become to this argument), he argues that Robert Greene's Groatsworth of Wit can be read as an accusation of literary theft, supported later by Jonson's On Poet-Ape. The problem is that Groatsworth has to be sorely twisted to fit this reading; ideas of literary theft and quotation can have many meanings, and while Leahy's reading cannot be proven to be wrong, it very much has to be imposed on Greene's text. Further, there is nothing to suggest that Jonson's poem is making any kind of reference to Shakespeare, apart from Price's hunch. Even if both these cases WERE true, they are hardly sufficient to antedate the opening of the Authorship Question back more than 250 years from 1850 to 1592.

Andrew Bennett follows with a useful essay on Romanticism and the beginnings of biography. Shakespeare is imagined as having a Protean quality; our fascination with him comes precisely from his lack of a substantive biography, allowing him to be simultaneously "everyone" and "no-one". His universality, for which he has been appropriated, is dependent paradoxically on knowing very little about him; and the Authorship Question is the necessary consequence of a Romantic study focussed on the mystical individual. It is in essays such as this that the collection really justifies its worth, positioning the Question as part of our wider ongoing cultural negotiations with Shakespeare. After him comes Willy Maley with a thoroughly entertaining article that tackles the debate from a number of angles, most interestingly that of theology. For Maley, the Authorship Question emerged during the 1850s at a time of a cultural crisis of faith. As we moved away from God, so was faith relocated in Shakespeare, creating both the "faithful" and "heretics", hence the charged language that characterises the debate.

Once one reaches William D. Rubinstein's article, however, one realises the problems of a volume that provides an academic platform for what is essentially a vitriolic rant. Rubinstein, a historian, castigates English Literature departments and academics for their careless and irresponsible use of historical data. Only Literature academics, he contends, would (a) allow themselves to be so creative with hard facts and construct a whole imaginative life from them, and (b) would not allow a spirit of fair exchange in matters of doubt - which, after all, are the bedrock of historical research. While rather over-generalising, this seems a fair comment, and his examples of "creative" biography from Rene Weis are well-chosen, if quite mean. His essential argument is that we shouldn't be writing biography when there is so little to go on - although this does, to me, seem to be a rather narrow definition of biography.

The bulk of Rubinstein's article, however, is taken up with enumeration of the reasons to doubt Shakespeare's authorship - if you like, the meat and potatoes of the entire question. Now, I'm not an expert here, but even without further research I can address the majority of Rubinstein's points, and I'd like to take the time here to point out the flaws in his questioning. He posits three criteria which allow reasonable doubt.

1) "There are no sources from Shakespeare's lifetime which unequivocally make it plain that the Stratford actor was the author of his supposed works." This is, quite simply, wrong. What Rubinstein means is that there are no sources that he will accept. He is looking for an unequivocal statement along the lines of "I saw Master Will Shakespeare at the theatre with his newe play Hamlet, which he showed me to read and explained ye plot" (Rubinstein actually says, p.45, that this is what he wants). This is a lot to ask for, surely. What we do have are numerous title page attributions from his lifetime and afterwards; his own dedications to his narrative poems (and, I ask Rubinstein, if we accept that he wrote Venus and Adonis, why is it such a leap from them to the plays?); contemporary testimony, most damningly that of Francis Meres in 1598 which makes it clear that Shakespeare wrote several named plays, and the talk of Shakespeare in the Parnassus plays, as well as a great deal of evidence from shortly after his death, including that of Munday, Webster and, most crucially, the compilers of the First Folio. Rubinstein sets arbritrary limits which admit none of this evidence. This is NOT the practice of an academic historian intent on creating the best possible narrative from the available data, but the practice of someone who wishes to prove a particular point and thus aims to debunk all evidence to the contrary. He contrasts this "lack" of evidence with that of every other writer of the period; yet why ignore Meres, but accept John Felder's preface as evidence for Jonson's identity? Rubinstein's standards are inconsistent, and it is this kind of sloppy argument that gives anti-Stratfordians a bad name.

2) "He almost certainly could not have done what he must have done to have written his works": the biography argument. Italian scholars think Shakespeare must have been to Italy in order to write what he did, and Rubinstein ridicules any idea that Shakespeare could have picked up this information in the pub. The lack of evidence for Shakespeare's learning is, crucially, not evidence AGAINST, which is Rubinstein's blind spot. Rubinstein's "must have done" shows a lack of understanding of how creative writing occurs, and the lack of evidence about Shakespeare's life is surely the strongest argument in his favour: we do not know who he spent time with, where he went or what kinds of activity filled his time. We do not know enough about Shakespeare to say what he could or could not have done. We know that travelling players went abroad; we know that a bricklayer's son was able to be educated to University standard; and the descriptions of other times and places in the plays are hardly pinpoint accurate (witness the famous port of Bohemia).

Further to this, he argues that Shakespeare could not have held down the dual roles of actor and playwright: that he would have been too physically and mentally exhausted. In this, he again assumes too much. We do not know that Shakespeare was a full-time actor once he began writing, and certainly not after the founding of the Lord Chamberlain's Men. Rubinstein assumes a state of affairs that would be impossible, and can see no compromise. Yet we know other men of the period managed to be both actors and writers, and there is no reason at all to assume that Shakespeare might not have taken a less active role in performance as he wrote (which several scholars have argued). Again, we do not know enough about the circumstances of playing in order to debunk the most obvious and well-supported evidence.

3) "There is no real mesh between his life and the evolutionary trajectory of his works." The argument that Shakespeare's biography does not match the plays has been sufficiently debunked elsewhere, but I feel it is worth answering a couple of Rubinstein's specifics in order to show the limited scope of his thinking. He can see no reason why an actor in the company, for example, would kill off Falstaff in 1598-9 when Falstaff was such a big seller and crowd-pleaser - no practical theatre man would have made such a move. Rubinstein seems entirely ignorant of Will Kemp's departure from the company at that exact time, and it is usually assumed that the departure of the actor who (probably) created and performed the part of Falstaff would have been sufficient enough reason for the character to be written out of Henry V. In a different vein, the works apparently show that the author must have had a great trauma in 1601 which occasioned a sea-change in his chosen genres. But "He suffered no known traumas in 1601". This is the exact kind of argument which shows the flaws in Rubinstein's thinking: again, a lack of an argument is NOT EVIDENCE AGAINST. Even if one accepts that there was a biographical reason for the change in writing style (which I see no reason to assume, and none is given), there are any number of potential disasters which may not have been publicly documented, and even if they had, this documentation (like the vast majority from the period) may not have survived.

I spend time on this in order, frankly, to question how Rubinstein can call himself an historian or academic. This is not because of his conclusions, but because of the limited scope of his doubts and reading, which are so easily answered. Yes, there is room for doubt if all of these things are accepted: but no, it is not acceptable to preach the necessary acceptance of doubt without challenging and rebutting all objections to these questions. You cannot make this kind of claim without addressing and effectively answering all of the positive evidence to the contrary.

Nicholas Royle's essay on Freud is followed immediately by an effective response from Sean Gaston. Both essays are extremely entertaining and interestingly-written, looking at the question from the perspective of literary theory. Royle identifies the search for authorial signature with the search for the self, and then has great fun playing with polyphony in order to show how Shakespeare's name is "sounded" throughout his work. This works as an essential counter to claims of cryptographic messages hidden showing "Shakespeare" to be "Bacon" - if we accept this line of argument, then Shakespeare is similarly embedded in the writing. Gaston plays with this further by jokingly showing how Royle's own name is signed in his works! Gaston builds on Royle to show how we, as humans, are irretrievably obsessed with the quest for the author: "writing invents the literary character", and we cannot help but create that author, although this author is almost inevitably self-created rather than having any real, attainable existence.

The ever-interesting Graham Holderness tackles the question of Shakespearean biography which keep recurring throughout this collection, looking at Greenblatt's Shakespearean Negoatiations. Here, Holderness demonstrates how the biographical act is necessarily an act of self-imposition on the writer, re-imagining him through the lens of the self. We make our writers (and our heroes) like ourselves, we understand their writing through our own experience. Taken with the previous two essays, we are moving in the collection towards a necessary understanding of our own creation of "Shakespeare" - we, the later critics, are in many senses all the "Shakespeare" that we need.

Leahy himself writes the 7th essay on "Shakinomics", re-opening the question of the institutional response to the Authorship Question. He is particularly interested in how the authority of established academics is used to ridicule the work of "amateurs", and the language used in order to ban the Question from the classroom. As he points out, the evidence is not beyond all question, and any scholar must in truth say that they "believe" Shakespeare to be the author, rather than that they "know" it to be true. I'm happy to accept this, but then, I also "believe" that the Earth orbits the Sun, that evolution is a real phenomenon and that man walked on the moon - Leahy lacks a frame of reference for his assertion of "belief", and doesn't really demonstrate why the Shakespeare question is uniquely open to debate. He is right, though, that the internet allows us to question orthodoxy, and I do agree that it's only right that the question be answered sensibly (and therefore, far more completely) than shouted down or treated as blasphemous.

Sandra G.L. Schruijer, a social psychologist, attempts to present the results of a survey looking at the reasons why Stratfordians and non-Stratfordians react the way they do to the debate, though the response of only 5 Stratfordians to her call for participants doesn't exactly give her substantive samples to work with. This is a fascinating article from an anti-Stratfordian, however, looking at the debate in terms of conflict politics and showing how the two sides of the argument are essentially irreconcilable owing to a lack of mediation and an essential disparity in terms of base criteria for argument. She convincingly demonstrates why the argument is so fierce, though to my mind is rather overly optimistic about this generation's heresy becoming the next's orthodoxy.

Finally, two interviews with Mark Rylance and Dominic Dromgoole close the book. I actually love Rylance's interview. It's personal, funny and honest, essentially one man's account of how he began to believe something and the effect it had on his life. Through his fascination with Bacon, he began getting interested in aspects of Bacon's research and writing, and how larger concepts of science, metaphysics and spirituality impact on the writing. Essentially, the authorship doubt allowed him to move beyond the normal parameters of what is taught about Shakespeare, which he felt allowed him to deepen his performances. There's nothing shameful in that at all, although the obvious argument is that one doesn't need an authorship debate in order to widen one's field of research. Rylance also talks about the prejudice he encountered in taking on directorship of Shakespeare's Globe as an anti-Stratfordian. The pleasant thing about the interview is that he's not trying to convince us to his point of view; he's merely showing how he's personally reconciled to it and believes it benefits him. Good for him. Dromgoole, a Stratfordian, is more bullish, and uses the interview to express his personal frustration at the Shakespeare "establishment" - he finds Stratford-upon-Avon false (people may think this is a bit rich coming from the Globe's current director) and the culture around Shakespeare arrogant and dictatorial. However, as a working director he sees no disparity between Shakespeare and the plays, and finds the imaginative creation of worlds exactly that - imaginative.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Aside from the Rubinstein article, which I feel has no place in this collection owing to its essential belligerence, I actually found this an intelligent and interesting volume. It's important to understand where the Authorship Question comes from and why, as compared to other conspiracy theories, it persists so violently. Stratfordians and Bardolaters have created the atmosphere in which it thrives, and it's only through debate and the opening-up of the Question that it might actually be resolved - or, at least, answered sufficiently so that it falls out of the mainstream.

I believe Shakespeare wrote the plays (in collaboration on many of them, of course), but it doesn't bother me that other people don't believe this. What does bother me is, on both sides, the violence of the language used in the debate, and the selective use of evidence to support one view in order to shout down the other. Neither are practices I would ever hope to engage in, and if nothing else, hopefully this volume establishes the parameters within which a more reasoned, amiable and academic debate could be held. The chance of that ever happening, of course, is unlikely.


March 26, 2010

The Shakespeare Curse by J.L. Carrell

Book front cover
Title:
The Shakespeare Curse: Number 2 in series (Kate Stanley)
Author:
J L Carrell
ISBN:
0751542229
Rating:
Not rated

I wasn't a big fan of J.L. Carrell's previous thriller, The Shakespeare Secret, but her story was interesting enough that I felt it was only fair to give her sequel, The Shakespeare Curse, a chance. It's currently riding high on bestseller lists, and it's less close to my specific area of research that, at the least, I thought I could enjoy a nice easy read.

The premise of the novel is actually quite interesting. The idea that the Macbeth printed in the First Folio is a later adaptation of Shakespeare's play is, indeed, a widely-held academic belief. The "original" text of Macbeth (as far as modern concepts of originality can be applied to the Early Modern theatre) is indeed lost, and Carrell uses this as her foundation. Here, the proposition is that the young Shakespeare, while touring in Scotland with a group of players, witnessed a rite of dark magic performed by an ancestor of the historical Lady Macbeth, which he later wove into his play on the same subject. The danger of this rite - which, if performed, could genuinely call up demons - caused the authorities to order a rewrite, hence the redacted version of the play with harmless scenes based on stock witch figures replacing the potentially dangerous material.

Carrell's knowledge of the Shakespearean canon allows some further exploration of the implications of her fiction. The idea is that the original rite allowed Shakespeare to be divinely inspired, hence his sudden appearance on the London stage writing miraculously good plays (my regular readers will know my thoughts on this - but it's fiction, so I'll let them pass). More interestingly, she ties this early association with magic in with other plays, particularly 2 Henry VI with its unusually ritualistic and detailed conjuration of demonic prophecies (which, in the novel, is staged and actually raises a demon, dispelled by the visiting magus John Dee who is in the audience) and The Tempest. As an exploration of Shakespeare's use of magic, it's a compelling read. My only disappointment in this part of the book was that, despite a couple of mentions of Faustus, she doesn't extend her exploration of stage magic to this play, which would have tied in quite nicely with her other concerns over authorship and stage representations of demonic summoning.

The rest of the historical material, however, is confused and confusing. The sheer volume of letters, artefacts (fake and real versions of almost all of them), books, recordings and pamphlets unearthed in the modern-day plot creates a jigsaw of evidence that is difficult to follow and, at times, often seems self-contradictory. For all Dan Brown's flaws, one of the great things about his Robert Langdon books is that the historical data found by the protagonists is presented to the reader in a clear and suggestive way: we don't need to have every gap explicitly filled in, and the things that are found are allowed to slot neatly together. Carrell, by contrast, insists on providing letter after letter from 16th, 17th, 18th and 19th century historical figures in order to trace a continuous and hole-free trail of evidence between the Shakespearean time period and the modern plot, but there's just too much of it to keep track of, and rather reduces each artefact's relative importance.

The novel's real letdown, however, is the modern-day plot. A theatre director is invited to Scotland to direct a production of Macbeth using historical documents, but finds that she is also there so that she can track down the lost original manuscript of the play. Nefarious forces wish to find it first, though, in order that they can unleash the dark magic contained therein. It turns out that Lady Nairn, the actress and landowner who has commissioned the production, is a descendant of Lady Macbeth herself and a practising Wiccan, but her evil niece wishes to pervert the family heritage by calling upon the same divine inspiration that first inspired Shakespeare.

Carrell's characters are sorely lacking. The one sympathetic character, the kindly and often funny Eircheard, evokes some sympathy upon his murder, but elsewhere Carrell seems to think we will care merely because we are told to. The kidnapping of Lily, Lady Nairn's other niece, provides the Macguffin which drives Kate (the theatre director and her heroine) around the world to find the manuscript, but Lily herself is such a brattish, irresponsible, dangerous and whiny character that I had no real interest in seeing her saved. The love interest from the previous novel, Ben, is reintroduced in such a perfunctory way that his very presence remains confusing throughout, and the love triangle his relationship with an actress creates is crude, juvenile and frankly offensive, particularly in the ease with which he gets over his partner's murder. And Lady Nairn herself, retrospectively, appears to have had ALL the relevant information with which to get the manuscript in the first place, leaving Kate essentially going through the motions on her treasure hunt.

The writing is also, well, just bad. Characters - ALL the characters - speak like tour guides, providing curator-quality commentary on whichever museum/library/theatre/stark Scottish heath the characters are currently running breathlessly through. Kate's encyclopediac and instantly-recitable knowledge of Shakespearean text, theatre history, the occult, academia AND political history in particular renders her unbelievable as a character. In the descriptive prose, meanwhile, Carrell attempts to create cinematic images through detailed description, rendering the language mundane and often laughable, with characters noticing extraordinary detail even as they dodge bullets. What makes this more frustrating is that this isn't the case in her historical sections, where the writing is sparser and allows the audience to conjure up their own images. If I had one recommendation for Carrell, it'd be to stick to historical novels; her Tudor world is far more believable than her 21st century.

As a story, it's worth picking up for a bit of holiday reading, but I have to say, I think I've read enough of J.L. Carrell for the foreseeable future.


February 28, 2010

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

Writing about web page http://www.amazon.co.uk/Wolf-Hall-Hilary-Mantel/dp/0007230184/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1267368311&sr=8-2

Book front cover
Title:
Wolf Hall
Author:
Hilary Mantel
ISBN:
0007230184
Rating:
Not rated

I recently finished reading Wolf Hall, which as you probably know won the Booker last year. It's a wonderful historical novel, dealing with the key early events of the English Reformation. It's of interest to me as it is written from the perspective of Thomas Cromwell; the lead character, of course, of the Chamberlain's Play Thomas Lord Cromwell attributed in 1599 to Shakespeare.

One of the most striking features of the play is that, unlike the vast majority of other Elizabethan/early Jacobean histories based on a single figure, it begins in the lead character's youth before his entry into public life. We see Cromwell's teenage years living at his blacksmith father's, and then his travels around Europe before his entry into English public life, ascension to the highest offices and ultimate execution. It's an unusually person-centred play, building up a character before his public "character" is formed in office.

Wolf Hall follows a similar pattern, though concluding with the execution of Thomas More (and, by association, the collapse of the Catholic church in England) rather than Cromwell's own fall. While it's obviously a more popular historical novel motif to view a period through one individual's eyes, it's interesting to read two versions of Cromwell's history written four hundred years apart. Seemingly, this would indicate a prevailing fascination with the character. Born in obscurity, yet rising to favour through a combination of hard work and political savvy, he also navigated successfully the dangerous path from favourite of Wolsey to favourite of the King when the former fell. That this man, whose humble birth of course occasioned a great deal of prejudice against him, was also responsible for spearheading the English Reformation and, effectively, making possible Henry's remarriage to Anne Boleyn, is even more extraordinary.

Mantel's book is fascinating in its depiction of the interior life of this man. His pragmatism and directness are tinged with a disposition to violence, his childhood abuse informing his instinctive response to conflict-resolution. He recognises the fear he occasions in others and manipulates that fear; and his prodigious memory skills, learned in Europe, allow Mantel to weave an internal narrative that sees the past constantly impinging on the present, particularly in the persons of his dead wife and children. The play, on the other hand, is light on soliloquy, and we are curiously distanced from Cromwell. While his past is an important part of the character, here it is rather in the external circumstances of his youth: childhood connections return throughout his adult life, and he maintains a rapport with the lower orders that separates him from his aristocratic peers. Similarly, in Mantel's version of Cromwell, he shows a predisposition to help and support the young and poor, his household growing exponentially as he finds positions for those without work. This connection to the people, both endearing him to the lower orders and making an enemy of the lords, is constant in both versions.

Alongside this is the presentation of Thomas More, dramatically different in both. More is a presence in the Elizabethan play, and in his brief appearances we are reminded of his wit, humanism and essential decency, though his fall is spoken of without pity. Similarly, in the play of Thomas More, More is a man of humour and integrity, with implicit criticism of the circumstances that led to his fall. It's quite remarkable, when you consider that More was executed for his Catholicism and his opposition to Henry's marriage with Anne Boleyn, that two Elizabethan plays on More present him in so positive a light. By contrast, his presentation in Wolf Hall is ruthless. More's role in the torture and execution of Protestants (seen of course from the eyes of Cromwell, who shares those Protestant beliefs; or, at least, finds them more politically useful) is a secondary horror to his treatment of his family, and his self-martyrdom is taken to a degree that even Cromwell finds pitiful. The two men, in the book's closing movement, are portrayed as surprisingly similar, only with opposing spiritual positions; their dedication and obstinacy form a kind of kinship between them. It's a kinship that I read in the two Elizabethan plays that build their picture of Henry VIII's reign around them; these are two essentially decent men whose rise inevitably leads to their catastrophic falls.

Mantel's book is well worth reading. It's thoroughly entertaining and creates a tremendous world populated by rich characters, and it's just a disappointment it ends when it does. As related to the apocrypha, it's an interesting lens through which to revisit the earlier works on Tudor history.


November 26, 2009

Richard III (Arden Shakespeare, Third Series)

Book front cover
Title:
King Richard III (Arden Shakespeare.Third Series) (The Arden Shakespeare)
Author:
William Shakespeare
ISBN:
1903436893
Rating:
Not rated

I've just finished working my way through James R. Siemon's new edition of Richard III for the Arden Shakespeare (the first new AS, incidentally, since the imprint's move to Methuen Drama). It's a hefty volume even by Arden 3 standards, a whisker over 500 pages long, and as exhaustive as one might expect.

Siemon's text is eclectic. A lengthy appendix details the elaborate textual theory to which he subscribes, which imagines a complex textual genealogy including two authoritative (FMS and QMS, with QMS at least partially dependent on FMS) and an annotated manuscript influenced by FMS and by the line of quartos stemming from QMS. The upshot of all this is that Siemon's text flicks between base text according to whichever text is most authoritative at any given point, according to this model, while at the same time freely amending from the other early texts.

On the upside, this allows for a thorough 'maximal' text which contains all that is important from all the early editions. Siemon's edition laudably embraces the essential state of flux in which early modern texts existed and circulated, and thus rather than recreating and canonising any one material text, which would misleadingly prioritise one text above several other authoritative texts, he contributes his edition as representative of the varying accounts. The downsides are practical; compared to other Arden editions, the reader is required to work much harder to remember what is the base text at any given time and to respond to continuing shifts in the priority of the textual notes. It is difficult to get a sense of any one text's contribution to the edition, and while Siemon's 43-page textual appendix accurately reflects the complexity of the textual situation, its high level of detail and focus on non-extant manuscript originals doesn't render itself helpful to the more casual reader wanting to quickly establish the basic editorial strategies employed.

Add to this the combination of in text QQ marks for quarto-only passages and the usual asterixed footnotes for emendations and square brackets for editorial SDs, and I have to confess that I simpy found it too difficult to work out what in this text came from where, without having to actively search for the information. If I was in need of doing serious textual work on Richard III, this text would be my first port of call; that not being the case, I would have liked to have had the information more immedialy available.

Siemon's second appendix introduces a casting chart, in the introduction to which he notes that "it does not attempt to distribute the play's many minor and silent parts" (461); which is fine, but when it excludes characters such as Vaughan and Grey while including single-scene parts such as the Scrivener and Archbishop, one wonders how far such a chart can be useful?

The Introduction is fascinating, detailing the discourses surrounding Richard which circulated both prior to and contemporaneously with Shakespeare's play. To my mind, it's an exemplary piece of 21st century source-study, thinking not in terms of direct influence but in the ideas and processes that necessarily formed both Shakespeare's and a contemporary audience's conceptions of Richard and medieval history. My only concern is that this forms the bulk of the Introduction, about fifty pages, during which space the play itself gets very little mention. We learn much about Hall's Richard, More's Richard, Holinshed's Richard etc., but surprisingly little time is devoted to how our play reshapes that material.

A further 45 pages is then given over to stage history which, as Siemon admits, is little more than "a mere sketch" (79). lt's a good job of a stage history, surveying an impressive range of productions, but the space allowed doesn't allow for the depth of critical interpretation that would have made this really worthwhile. There are a couple of disappointing omissions, most crucially the BBC film: as one of the most widely available DVDs for students and academics to get hold of,;as the only commercially available Richard III that is part of a filmed cycle of history plays, thus allowing the chance to follow the progression of Richard and his brothers; and as a bloody good version in its own right, its snub here seems shortsighted. However, this is not a performance book, and the stage history generally fulfils its purpose of providing a starting point for further investigation of the play in performance.

The framing materials for the book thus cover three essential areas; sources and para-texts (excellent), text (dense) and performance (broad). What is lacking across these is real insight into the play; there is little space given to critical matters, apart from a brief discussion of the female characters and Richard's forbears in the Vice and Machiavel (which arguably feeds into the 'source' study). Happily, this is part of the edition's design, as Siemon's excellent commentary notes form the highlight of the book. Rather than surveying critical perspectives as part of the Introduction, Siemon spreads it through the notes, allowing him to pick up on relevant criticism and dramaturgical insight at every point of the play. His glossing is clear and helpful; his use of performance to expand on key moments is well-chosen; his notes on changes to the sources shed light on authorial strategies; and his highlighting of key critical debates cuts across important moments and links them with other areas of the play. It is in these notes that Siemon's engagement with the play finally comes across, and the play's greatness is justified.

In all, then, Siemon's edition eventually proved to be a thorough and consistently fascinating one, which seems to me to particularly justify its existence through its painstaking work on text and sources. It could have been much more user-friendly, particularly in regard to its apparatus and to the organisation of its framing materials, but the important stuff is all here. A strong addition to the Arden imprint.

On a side note, the cover finally completes the progressively darker and bloodier images of roses and thorns that has run through the Henry VI third series, providing some of the best covers of the collection.


March 30, 2009

Mark Dominik's 'Shakespeare–Middleton Collaborations

Book front cover
Title:
Shakespeare-Middleton Collaborations
Author:
Mark Dominik
ISBN:
0945088019
Rating:
2 out of 5 stars

As I picked on Mark Dominik's book rather meanly yesterday, I thought I'd continue where I left off with its predecessor, which argues for Shakespeare's hand in The Puritan and A Yorkshire Tragedy.

The book actually starts considerably more promisingly. He argues that the First Folio is considered anachronistically authoritative, using comparisons with the Jonson and Beaumont/Fletcher folios, and argues that Shakespeare is given special treatment in authorship studies owing to the Bardolatry of later centuries. So far, so good. Starting with Timon, he argues that the two apocryphal plays represent a period of extended collaboration between the two authors.

He sums up the 'features' of Middleton's hand (as identified in Timon of Athens) worryingly briefly, leaving himself an extremely general and vague base test for Middleton's hand elsewhere (such as "the intermixture of rhyme and blank verse" and "roughness of versification" (15)).

Sadly, once Dominik begins exampling his internal evidence for Shakespeare's hand in the two plays, he again resorts to an eclectic and impressionistic methodology. He entirely fails to perform negative checks, going instead for the approach that such-and-such a word is near this other word in the play, and the same is also true in a Shakespeare play, therefore both must be Shakespearean. One of his arguments for Scene 4 of Yorkshire Tragedy being Shakespearean is that "it concludes with what is for Shakespeare an ultimate horror, a murder between father and son" (19). I hardly need to explain how ludicrous this is as a measure of authorship. He is better, however, when discussing links that are both contextual and verbal; however, the instances he cites are few and general enough to not convince. Particularly irritatingly, he falls into traps such as citing links with Timon as proof of Shakespearean authorship, without identifying which parts of Timon are Shakespearean and which are Middletonian.

While Dominik purports to investigate multiple features, he in actuality restricts himself to similarities of vocabulary and proximity of repeated words to other repeated words. Without the support of technology, this is a necessarily restricted and impressionistic view. It's not dissimilar to the methodology being used by the Kyd/Ford team in London, but they are using computer softward to a) objectively pull up all links automatically and b) perform a simultaneous negative check against the entire extant corpus of contemporary early modern drama. Their results can be quantified and qualified with some degree of authority. Dominik's method simply allows him to point out similarities, but he is unable to demonstrate the quality of the similarity.

The bulk of the book is given over to The Puritan. Dominik's agenda is set out by his initial statement that "granting the presence of Middleton, I will not give too much attention to the evidence of his hand - it is the presence of Shakespeare that I wish to establish" (42). He falls into the trap of all amateur authorship scholars by setting out to look for a specific hand: if not providing a wide search for authors, he should at least be attempting to reinforce the Middletonian presence throughout. Because he is looking for Shakespeare, he finds Shakespeare everywhere, again focussing only on positive links and failing to perform negative checks. He admits himself that the strength of his evidence varies hugely - his most important one is a series of thematic verbal links between Puritan I.ii and Lear IV.vi. Again, though, his failure to provide the appropriate evidence or statistics to qualify his evidence remains his biggest weakness - his arguments do not command attention because the reader is compelled to go and check for themselves whether or not these links are even valid.

And then, the book is over with little fanfare. It's certainly better than the Oldcastle study, showing more interesting engagement with canonical problems. However, Dominik's methods are quick and fail to usefully contribute to the debate.


March 29, 2009

Mark Dominik's 'A Shakespearean Anomaly'

Book front cover
Title:
A Shakespearean Anomaly: Shakespeare's Hand in "Sir John Oldcastle"
Author:
Mark Dominik
ISBN:
0945088027
Rating:
1 out of 5 stars

Mark Dominik's A Shakespearean Anomaly begins with a fair question. If Shakespeare collaborated with dramatists based at Henslowe's Rose on Thomas More, why might he not have also collaborated on other plays outside of those belonging to the Chamberlain's/King's Men? It's a good question, explored in literature Dominik seems unaware of by Carol A. Chillington ("Playwrights at Work") and the contributors to Howard-Hill's 1989 volume on Thomas More. Engagement with these works would have been hugely beneficial to Dominik in construcing his argument, which proceeds from this sensible start to utter ridiculousness.

Dominik's contention is that Shakespeare contributed to 1 Sir John Oldcastle, the play attributed to him by a 1619 title page. Dominik is quick to dismiss as unreliable the external evidence which usually rules out this possibility - the records in Henslowe's diary of payments to Munday, Drayton, Hathway and Wilson for the play. Dominik has formed his conclusions on the basis of internal evidence, and decides that, despite the record of any payment to Shakespeare, Shakespeare contributed to the play as part-penance for his indiscretion in naming the gluttonous knight of 1 Henry IV John Oldcastle. Interestingly, Dominik notes that Shakespeare's name was first attached to the play just after the death of Lord Cobham, the descendant of Oldcastle who originally caused the name to be changed. The implication is that Shakespeare was finally able, as a tribue to the dead lord, to acknowledge his contribution to the play written to appease him.

To overturn such strong critical opinion and persuasive external evidence (which S. Schoenbaum reminds us, of course, must take precedence over internal evidence) requires an impressive argument, which Dominik entirely fails to provide. His method is to prove that the play is more stylistically similar to the known works of Shakespeare than those of Munday. Owing to the absence of dramatic canons for Drayton, Hathway or Wilson, he dismisses them almost entirely from the discussion. The logic of this decision is impenetrable: all he could ever hope to prove from this is that parts of the play are more like Shakespeare than like one of the four named authors.

His stylistic evidence is based on general likeness and unlikeness to the two authors, and fails to be convincing in any way. Demonstrating a general likeness is not an argument for authorship without a substantive negative check, which he purports to provide. What texts does he choose for this negative check? The plays of Marlowe and the poems of Donne, Jonson and Spenser. He selects these canons for the availability of concordances, which is the laziest form of negative check imaginable. A negative check needs to be against relevant material: the dramatic canons of contemporary writers. Again, all Dominik proves is that neither Marlowe (dead), Spenser (a poet, and at the end of his life), Donne (another poet, and pre-career) nor Jonson the poet are likely to have contributed to the play. I need no concordance to tell you that.

Another complaint, particularly pertinent to this kind of play, is that he doesn't even consider the possibility of shared sources to explain similarities. One of his 'strongest' bits of evidence is the similarity of the chronicle-style explanation of the royal genealogy to those in 1 and 2 Henry VI (themselves arguably Shakespearean, but let that pass). He assumes that this is inherently Shakespearean, but doesn't even acknowledge that it is largely taken from the sources in Stow, Hall and Holinshed.

Dominik therefore essentially shows the following with his book:

1) Parts of the play show a greater resemblance to Shakespeare than they do to one of the play's four authors.

2) Shakespeare is more likely to have contributed to the play than Marlowe, Jonson, Spenser or Donne.

3) That there is no effective means to test for Drayton's, Hathway's or Wilson's contributions.

Essentially, then, the book is pointless. It's a shame, for Dominik provides some useful initial study of what is known of the relevant dramatists and asks some interesting questions. His methodology, though, is thoroughly amateurish and useless. To fly in the face of overwhelming external evidence requires a solid and well thought-out argument, and this is not it.


January 24, 2009

The Shakespeare Secret

Book front cover
Title:
The Shakespeare Secret: Number 1 in series (Kate Stanley)
Author:
J L Carrell
ISBN:
0751540358
Rating:
2 out of 5 stars

People sometimes get mixed up when I tell them I'm working on Shakespearean authorship. Rather than working on the academically fascinating matter of collaborative authorship, early modern repertory practice, the rise of Shakespeare's cultural status and so on, they assume I'm working on the loony fringe: the anti-Stratfordian conspiracy theories, as perpetuated by Mark Rylance et al, that someone else wrote the plays: Francis Bacon, Edward de Vere (the current favourite), Mary Sidney, the Earl of Derby, a conglomerate of some or all of the above.

Well, here's the pulp page-turner which, in all fairness, gives the conspiracies the medium they deserve. The theories make for a good story, and here J.L. Carrell gives them exhaustive treatment while also drawing in the other great 'secret' - the mystery of Cardenio.

In the style of The Da Vinci Code, a modern day scholar finds herself on a treasure trail left by an authority who is murdered in suspicious circumstances. While trying to track down the treasure - the long-lost manuscript of Cardenio - she uncovers evidence of the authorship conspiracy that points towards the plays being written by the conglomerate of four candidates. Meanwhile, a killer tails her, leaving corpses inspired by some of Shakespeare's bloodiest scenes.

The writing isn't the best, even for this genre. It's a stop-start narrative, spending most of its time in libraries; yet these are the most fascinating scenes. The action sequences, and the deaths, feel almost arbritrary, not really providing the sense of danger that they attempt to. Far more effective is the idea that the hidden villains are trying to reach the manuscript first in order to destroy it, in order to prevent any evidence against the Stratford man being a dramatist coming to light. In some ways, this could have worked far better without the shadowy murderer. Oh, and if you've read The Da Vinci Code, the bad guy couldn't be any more obvious.

The research also has some irritating holes. For one: how is it possible that a scholar who wrote her PhD on authorship conspiracies and has such an indepth knowledge of Shakespeare that she even knows the day of the week the Globe burned down, has never even heard of Cardenio? For another, despite having researched at the Shakespeare Centre in Stratford, Carrell still claims that there are no First Folios in the town. I also find it amusing to imagine a Shakespeare's Globe that features, in a single cast, leading international movie stars and knighted theatrical legends. Carrell is far more effective, though, in her presentation of the 'evidence' surrounding the authorship controversy, pulling together compelling links and ideas that, however ridiculous, present an undeniably fascinating story.

The book is also rather bardolatrous, in that it's extremely uncharitable towards the writing skills of John Fletcher and the scholarship of Lewis Theobald. It falls into the standard traps that anti-Stratfordians usually do - those of overestimating the plays to such an extent that the hands of 'lesser' people can't be involved in them, and that anything a lesser person touches is immediately worse. Anti-Stratfordianism is a story of cultural and social snobbery, and this book displays similar snobbery towards Shakespeare's contemporaries.

So, why read the book? Well, as an introduction to the authorship conspiracy, and to Cardenio (Carrell has some interesting discussion of the play's social context and possible original plot which, while almost entirely unfounded, is not uninteresting), it's accessible enough and at the very least managed to keep me reading. It also occasionally suggests links and ideas that might have some foundation. I was rather intrigued by Carrell's understanding of Theobald's preface to Double Falsehood, in which he refers to the play being written for Shakespeare's "natural daughter". Carrell reads "natural" as meaning "illegitimate", which hadn't occurred to me - I assumed it just meant one of his known daughters; and if Carrell is right, it's an interesting admission of Shakespeare's humanness at a time when he was being held up increasingly as a moral paragon. (Edit: I'm assured that 'natural', in this context, does indeed mean illegitimate).

The book is available used and new on Amazon for a penny, and it's well worth the money. Fun as a timekiller but, ye gods, don't believe a word of it.


September 30, 2008

Shakespeare and Text – John Jowett

Book front cover
Title:
Shakespeare And Text (Oxford Shakespeare Topics)
Author:
John Jowett
ISBN:
0199217068
Rating:
5 out of 5 stars

Another book to recommend. John Jowett is a lecturer at the Shakespeare Institute in Birmingham and an editor whose work I'm particularly interested in as he's both written on and edited important editions of Timon and Thomas More. He's also one of the general editors of the forthcoming Arden Early Modern Drama series.

I picked up Shakespeare and Text cheaply after a quick rifle through the contents page showed some potentially useful essays, and have been thoroughly impressed by the book. It's accessible, but for a slim volume is extremely detailed and covers a lot of ground. The book provides both a useful history and analysis of early print culture and the mechanisms through which Shakespeare first appeared in book form, and then expands to the process of editing and - most interestingly - the theories and practices behind editing.

Jowett's emphasis is on the instability of text. Outlining the various forms of textual transmission that brought us the texts we see today, he draws attention to the unspoken question that guides editors - what, exactly, are editors trying to do? The idea of a lost, original, authorial manuscript appears to be the holy grail towards which editors tend, yet Jowett demonstrates that a) we don't know whether this ever existed, given the processes of writing plays, and b) we don't know if that's even what we want. The 'finished' version of a play is similarly elusive, as a playtext is an active one, constantly evolving and changing for better or worse. So, does an editor try to recreate the text as it appeared at a particular stage? At first performance? As playable text? Do they include all variants? Do they try to recreate the author's original intention?

It almost seems hopeless, but Jowett doesn't let the impossibility of the task become overpowering; rather, he is outlining the questions that editors need to put to themselves in order to clarify what their task actually is. Ultimately, the aim of a modern edition is to provide a usable text to the reader and scholar, and within that we must accept a margin for error and conjecture.

Jowett also talks at length about the book as material object, and the questionable reliability in particular of the First Folio. Given the unstable process of authorship, Jowett deconstructs the Folio's claims that it was based on the 'True Original Copies', and voices the interesting viewpoint that the Folio's presentation of the plays as by one man and perfect in their origin has actually done centuries of harm to serious scholarship on Shakespearean authorship; to put it extremely simply (and not do justice to Jowett at all), that it created the impression that there were perfect, finished copies of the 36 plays written by a solitary genius. Creating a book which presents stable texts, coming out of a theatrical culture when texts were so UNstable, made the Folio into a bizarre anachronism. The Folio editors gave Shakespeare an almost unprecedented cultural value, which has led to the climate of bardolatry that has coloured authorship studies over the preceding centuries.

Ultimately, this book claims, work on Shakespeare's text must be grounded in a true understanding of the processes that formed the texts in the first place. Combined with the work I've been reading on systems of collaboration within the Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre, this book provides an important jumping-off point for my project. To understand the apocryphal plays and the processes that have led to their current status, it is essential to bear in mind their original transmission and the unbalanced importance of editors in deciding the 'canon'. Authorship studies have long been tainted by the aesthetic judgements of editors and an overly reverential sense of what is 'good enough' to be considered Shakespeare's. Current attribution methodologies, by contrast, are far more scientific and resistant to bias. With science on one hand, and a solid historical understanding on the other, hopefully this project should be able to re-open some important questions.


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I’m Peter Kirwan, a final year doctoral student in the English Department at Warwick, and this is my PhD blog.


Conferences, reviews, articles, thoughts and links relating to my interests in the Shakespeare apocrypha, early modern drama, authorship and performance.

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