All entries for March 2010

March 30, 2010

Review Show

Writing about web page

The BBC's latest edition of The Review Show is still online for a few days here. It's the Authorship Question (ie the conspiracy theory side) rather than my area of authorship that they're discussing, but it's still of general interest, and I strongly recommend Jim Shapiro's new book. The Authorship Question persists because people shout it down without listening to it; so, for a respected academic and writer to devote four years and a weighty volume to a serious consideration of the ongoing debates is truly refreshing, and hopefully a game-changer. Oxfordians and Baconians have no excuse not to engage with a book that gives the question a proper hearing.

March 26, 2010

The Shakespeare Curse by J.L. Carrell

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.

March 17, 2010

The Arden Double Falsehood: Brean Hammond and Carol Rutter on The Today Programme

In case you didn't catch it yesterday, here's Brean Hammond and Carol Rutter discussing the new Arden edition of Double Falsehood, which was officially released yesterday.


It's an unfortunately short section, and necessarily reductive in the time they've got. There are some interesting questions, though, about the nature of the Arden Shakespeare imprint and what it should be doing. By printing the play as part of this series, Arden have given it "the stamp of the approval, it's now part of the canon", and the interviewer comments that it should only be plays that Shakespeare had a substantial hand in, not things knocked together for a Friday night.

What ARE we interested in? What do we WANT from a "Complete Works"? I'm increasingly bemused and frustrated by this question. Do we want the actual words, an exhaustive list of the specific words that Shakespeare the man specifically chose? Or are we interested in those plays that, in however corrupt a form, were ones that he took a substantive role in devising and shaping for the stage? In that sense, imagine if King Lear hadn't survived. Would we accept Nahum Tate's Lear, with its happy ending, in its place? Would that contain enough of "Shakespeare" to still be considered "worth" something, for what it does preserve of the Immortal Bard?

I'm interested by Carol's assertion that Double Falsehood should be under the "Arden Early Modern Drama" imprint, rather than the "Arden Shakespeare". I don't necessarily argue this. However, I would like to ask - where is the cut-off point? Where does the Arden "Shakespeare" end, and the rest of "Early Modern Drama" begin? Prior to yesterday, the Arden Shakespeare contained only plays with a solid external attribution to Shakespeare: they were either in the First Folio or published in an early Quarto with his name on. Following Double Falsehood, though, the Arden Shakespeare will also be publishing editions of Edward III and Thomas More, both of which have an element of Shakespearean collaboration.

So, how Shakespearean does something have to be to be in the Arden Shakespeare? The editor of the Arden 1 Henry VI expressly admits he doesn't think that there's much Shakespeare in it. The best comparison, though, might be between Double Falsehood (never granted table space before) and Thomas More (increasingly appearing both as the Shakespeare addition and in a full text, such as in the Oxford Complete Works). What is more "Shakespearean"? A play for which Shakespeare wrote a single addition, almost certainly entirely independently of the creation of the rest of the play, yet for which we have evidence of his unique hand writing identifiable lines? Or a play in which probably very few Shakespearean lines remain following adaptation, yet which preserves a lost drama which Shakespeare and Fletcher created together and which Shakespeare may well have been involved in the overall planning of? Where do we draw the line? Do we want our Complete Works to be an anthology of all the words Shakespeare wrote, or a canon of drama which Shakespeare helped create? There's a distinct ideological difference between these two conceptions of "completeness", and I'd argue that this is exactly what is at stake here.

More on the edition once I've had a chance to read it. Provisionally, though, I'm sympathetic towards Arden's wider-reaching conception of canonicity. I'm just interested to see how they present it.

March 08, 2010

In bookshops shortly….

It's a reasonably minor publication, but significant for me. From Shakespeare's birthday the next batch of the RSC Shakespeare single editions will be available at a good bookshop near you, including the new The Merchant of Venice.

The Merchant of Venice

Why is this one particularly significant? Well, it's my first published appearance in a book, as opposed to a journal. I've contributed a (selective, obviously) stage history of the play from original performances up to Propeller's 2009 production which features at the back of the volume. It's only a small part of the book, but still, it's novel to see something I've contributed to on a shelf!

Several of the future publications in this series will also include my stage histories: Richard II and Troilus and Cressida are already underway, and I'm working on Julius Caesar, Coriolanus and The Merry Wives of Windsor over the coming months. It's peripheral to my work on the apocrypha, but keeps me in touch with the performance criticism that was my first love.

March 03, 2010

Shakespeare's Vortigern and Rowena @ Radio 4

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This Radio 4 afternoon play by Melissa Murray had tangential relevance to this blog. While Vortigern and Rowena was an acknowledged Shakespearean forgery in its own time, and thus has never occasioned any serious critical debate about its authenticity, the story of its first performance in 1796 is an important reflection on Shakespeare's growing cultural status at the time, and about questions of authenticity, value and status.

The play was essentially a backstage drama set during the production's first night. Samuel (Bruce Alexander) and Henry Ireland (Rufus Wright) were, prior to the curtain being raised, praised as heroes by an acting company excited not only by the opportunity to be the first to perform the "lost" play, but also by the prestigious audience attracted by Shakespeare's name. The language used ("A good ghost walks among us") placed the occasion, in its own context, as being of universal significance, a turning point in dramatic history.

Yet this weight of expectation began to crumble even before the performance began. The great J.P. Kemble (Alex Jennings), star actor at Drury Lane, found the play "underbred" and amateurish, while a comic actress given a tragic part complained that it was unspeakable. Yet the promise of Shakespeare forced the play forward. R.B. Sheridan (Lorcan Cranitch), manager of the theatre, had paid £300 in order to outbid Covent Garden for the honour, and had virtually bankrupted Drury Lane in the process.

As the play began, Henry Ireland's forgery became apparent. Early hints, such as suggestions that he might go on to try his hand at writing, gave way to accusation and recrimination. In a great scene, as an actress and his one-time lover challenged him with forgery and the ruining of both the theatre and her personally, Ireland finally snapped and began ranting that he had been possessed by the spirit of Shakespeare, that the words had written themselves, that he had shared souls with the Bard himself.

This led into some funny discussion of the nature of authorship. On the authenticity of the play, Ireland told Sheridan "I gave you my word, not as a gentleman, but as an author." Authors were imagined not to be absolute fountains of truth, but as plagiarisers and collaborators, inspirations and muses.

As the play fell apart and threatened to descend into riot, it was left to Kemble to save the day by turning the play into farce, making a mockery of the lines he was speaking and bringing the audience onside in collaborative jeering at the words. The comedy of this part contrasted nicely with Henry's dismay and the surprisingly touching characterisation of Samuel, who could not be brought to believe that his son was a liar. Denying this to the end, the doddering old man left the stage on a proud, but defeated, note.

A play about ambition and pride, then, but also pleasantly insightful into the business of forgery and Bardolatry. Ireland knew that he could only begin his literary career by attaching Shakespeare's name to the title-page of his own play, and his sense of his own genius just needed the veneer of Shakespeare to get it sold. At the same time, the story spoke of a public idea of what "real" Shakespeare is: despite Shakespeare's name and the authority of Sheridan and Kemble, the audience could tell a fake when they saw it. It leaves open the question: what is our sense of Shakespeare? Is the Shakespearean quality a tangible, recognisable thing? Or are we less attuned to the marketing than we think? It was a long time before people realised that Timon, 1 Henry VI and Henry VIII (to name just a few) weren't wholly Shakespeare's. Are we so sure that we know what "Shakespeare" "is"?

(Thanks to Duncan for flagging this up!)

March 01, 2010

Medieval and Early Modern Authorship conference

Writing about web page

This is what happens when you don't check the Call for Papers alerts regularly enough. Sadly I can't go to this as it clashes with another trip, but a brief look down the announced papers shows a really relevant range of research topics. At least, happily, there's a collection coming out of it, so I'll be able to catch up belatedly with some of the conference conversations.


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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  • Congratulations. by Andrew on this entry
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