All entries for January 2009

January 24, 2009

The Shakespeare Secret

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.

January 19, 2009

Arts Faculty Postgraduate Seminar series – Wednesday 21st January

This Wednesday, I will be presenting a paper at the Arts Faculty Postgraduate Seminar Series entitled:

"Those Wretched Plays: Bardolatry vs. The Shakespeare Canon

This paper discusses the Shakespeare canon, suggesting that the basic 36 play canon we still work from today was founded on bardolatrous - and hence, academically unsound by modern standards - criteria.I demonstrate that the First Folio was only retrospectively installed as the 'holy text' of the Shakespeare religion by the actions of 18th century editors and critics.

In particular, I look at the disputes between Alexander Pope and Lewis Theobald, the editors who returned to the 36 play canon after sixty years of a 43 play canon, and demonstrate that their motives for doing so were unsubstantial, yet their impact irreparable.

Finally, I look ahead to the mid-18th century, to a period where Shakespeare himself was invoked to deny his own involvement in 'those wretched plays', the Shakespeare Apocrypha.

This is based on the very earliest phases of my research, but it's been useful working through the narratives, and there's definitely some original thought in there! Hopefully it'll be an entertaining and interesting paper, and a good introduction to the issues surrounding the apocryphal plays for anyone with an interest.

5.30pm, Arts Faculty Graduate Space. All welcome!

January 13, 2009

A Yorkshire Tragedy – a hypothesis

A Yorkshire Tragedy is one of the most unified of the apocryphal plays. Scenes 2-10 of the play follow a prose source extremely closely in a dramatic tour de force of relentless bloody action.

Scene 1 of the play, however, is a problem. Three servants appear and discuss their betters, the story of a master having deserted a mistress. While their conversation is related to the source, the scene has almost no bearing on the remainder of the play. In addition, the style of the scene is very different, and this is the only scene in which characters are named (for the rest of the play, characters are simply 'Husband', 'Wife' etc.).

It's easy to conclude from this that Scene 1 was a later addition by another playwright. However, Baldwin Maxwell (1956) puts the more difficult question: Why was it written? The addition serves no apparent dramatic function.

Stanley Wells, in his edition of the play for the Oxford Middleton (2007), finds a possible solution in the original performance conditions of the play. The 1608 quarto bills it as 'One of the four plays in one, called A Yorkshire Tragedy'. Wells wonders if the scene acts as some kind of induction, connecting the short play to the other plays in the 'four-in-one'.

I agree with Wells that the origins of this scene probably lie in the original performance conditions, in the nature of the 'four-in-one' performance at the Globe. I would like to make an even more specific conjecture, however, regarding the nature of this addition.

Shakespeare's main source for Othello was the Hecatommithi of Cinthio. Each story in this 110-story collection began with summary and discussion of the play that had immediately preceded it. Thus, the Othello source-story begins with a group of characters discussing the action of the previous play, leading into one of them suggesting the Othello-source as their next tale.

The other three parts of the 'Four-in-one' are not extant, but I would like to suggest that their presentation owed something to Cinthio's structure. Imagine four short plays being played in an afternoon. They would doubtless have breaks between them. After the break, minor characters from the story before may have reappeared in a dramatic interlude to link the two stories. Thus, the quarto of A Yorkshire Tragedy as we have received it may well preserve the 'induction' scene that relates to the story immediately before it.

This fits in with Wells' hypothesis, but is dangerously more specific (happily, a blog allows me to conjecture freely). Rather than a general induction-style device which linked all four plays, I am suggesting a linear series of inductions similar to the Hecatommithi, where each piece connected to the next. I am also suggesting that the dramatist of each piece would be responsible for writing the next link. Therefore, Scene 1 of Yorkshire Tragedy would not have been written by Middleton (the writer of the main play), but by the writer of the play before.

This would explain the extremely loose engagement with the source material, compared to Middleton's close adherence to it. Let us imagine, for a moment, that the play before A Yorkshire Tragedy in the sequence was by Shakespeare, the in-house dramatist (who we know, of course, was familiar with Cinthio's work). Let us imagine that he had completed his part of the play, and was then required to create a linking piece to Middleton's play. The linking piece would not be in any way prestigious or worthy of painstaking work. He would most likely have skimmed Middleton's piece, glanced at the source material to see what remained unused, and then written a short scene in his own style to feed into the play.

While it probably wasn't Shakespeare who contributed Scene One (though those arguments have not completely died away), I don't find this an improbable scenario. It seems to explain the unique features of Scene One and doesn't seem out of keeping with what we know of playhouse practice. The problem, of course, is that none of the other plays in the sequence have survived, and so it is impossible to prove. However, I think this may be a useful hypothesis to work with, and an example of how, even in matters of textual authorship, an understanding of performance practice is indispensable.

January 09, 2009

A structure

I didn't do a monthly round-up at the end of December, as the last couple of weeks of the year were a bit, um, quieter in terms of the amount of work I got down. Well, it was Christmas. However, I did get quite a bit of reading done over December, and now I'm back into term with a vengeance.

A few changes this year. One is that I'll be working more in Stratford, using the resources of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust and Shakespeare Institute. As good as the Warwick library is for some things, it simply doesn't have the sheer volume of resources, and it's far easier to go to Stratford than arrange for transfers.

I've also, only today, finally drafted out a structure for my entire thesis. Currently, it looks like five chapters of 10-15,000 words each, plus introduction and conclusion. It's rather scary looking at my projected thesis in this form, but not the kind of scary that I was expecting. Instead, it all looks rather doable and easy. This is scary because a) it won't be, and b) it will almost certainly need massive beefing up. My biggest fear is that the 80,000 words I've scoped out will end up being reduced to a single chapter while the thesis takes me off in entirely new directions.

I don't expect the structure to remain intact. Already, this week, I've read an article which uncomfortably closely echoes a lot of the work I've already done on the eighteenth century treatment of the apocryphal plays. This doesn't invalidate the work I've done, but it means that it doesn't have the same clout I was hoping it would. Therefore, already I have to start redrafting and rethinking my ideas. One of the hardest things in Shakespeare Studies is to say something genuinely new, but I'm still optimistic that, over the next three years, I'll be able to make a substantial original contribution to the field. If I don't, I don't get a thesis, simple as that!

Finally, for today, I'd like to highly recommend Ben Jonson's Every Man Out of his Humour. Long, but extremely funny. Includes a scene with a drunk clown making his two sack-glasses have a fight.

January 07, 2009

Which Charles?!

One frustration I'm having at the moment is with an extremely simple piece of historical information.

The plays Mucedorus, The Merry Devil of Edmonton and Fair Em were bound together in a single volume entitled "Shakespeare Vol. 1", belonging to the library of a monarch. This edition is mentioned by most critics working on the apocrypha at some point, as it's the basis of the attribution of those plays to Shakespeare.

However, presumably through carelessness or through some more fundamental piece of misinformation, I keep finding different accounts as to WHOSE library it was in - Charles I or Charles II? It's obviously a very easy mistake to make, and irritatingly the ownership of the edition is rarely examined in any detail, the monarch is mentioned simply as an identifier.

So, which is it? Charles I or Charles II? Or was it both, remaining in the library of the father until the son took power? It's hard to know who to trust. I've changed it several times in my writing: every time I write down one name, I then find another article which says the reverse and I assume it's my error. I've now established, though, that there are actually several critics saying each thing.

Suggestions and clarifications most welcome!


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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