All entries for May 2009

May 31, 2009

Apocrypha – an earlier mention

Interesting discovery the other day. I've been working for some time under the belief that C.F. Tucker Brooke was the first person to call the disputed plays attributed to Shakespeare "The Apocrypha". However, I was at the Shakespeare Centre Library on Thursday going through Charles Knight's volume on the plays in his multi-volume collected works. While his terming for the group of plays is 'Plays Ascribed to Shakspere', he does, in the course of discussion, refer to them as "apocryphal plays".

This is a bit of a surprise, and will occasion a bit of re-working on my part. I'd based part of my discussion of Brooke's edition around his introduction of the term 'apocrypha', and yet here it is, appearing over sixty years earlier in a major edition of Shakespeare.

The core of my argument isn't spoiled, as the primary point is the titling of the collection, rather than the association with the word. However, it epitomises some of the frustrations of the kind of work I'm doing. Every time you think you've got something settled, another bit of historical documentation comes up which moves the goalposts again. I have a sneaking suspicion that I'm going to be editing this overview right up until my final submission deadline.....


May 27, 2009

Artistic apocrypha

Writing about web page http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/europe/8062309.stm

I've been following with some interest this story regarding a sculpture of Christ supposedly by Michaelangelo.

The disputed sculpture
The Disputed Sculpture (picture from BBC)

The dispute is instantly recognisable to me, echoing extremely closely the disputes that have raged over the Shakespeare Apocrypha. Key points:

  • Critics claiming that the work is mediocre, and therefore not good enough for Michaelangelo.
  • Supporters claiming that the work is superior to any other artist of the period.
  • A nation 'selling' Michaelangelo as its national artist.
  • Bystanders asking whether knowledge of the artist actually affects - or should affect - our enjoyment and appreciation of the artwork.
  • The argument that it could represent early work by the young artist, showing us the artist's development rather than maturity.
  • The unequivocal presentation of the sculpture as authentic by the authorities who have invested in it, as opposed to admitting the debate.

I'm going to keep an eye on this, because it may be extremely useful. It's a live debate about what is, essentially, an apocryphal sculpture, and these debates over authenticity seem to follow set patterns. It may, therefore, provide an insight into the debates surrounding my plays.


May 21, 2009

The Sonnets – 400th anniversary

Sorry I missed this. Yesterday was the 400th anniversary of the publication of Shakespeare's Sonnets, a book I'm particularly interested in as comparison to the First Folio. The idea of an individual authorial authority is, as I've argued elsewhere, difficult to sustain in the case of the posthumously published dramatic works, and even to an extent in the case of the quartos published in Shakespeare's lifetime. The poems are a different matter: they circulated in a very different kind of literary culture, and the authorial pronouncements in their prefatory matter are the closest we get to Shakespeare's own voice (I don't buy into the sonnets themselves being autobiographical, unless in a very obscure sense).

An important book then, and I'll celebrate with my favourite Shakespearean sonnet.

My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips' red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damasked, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress when she walks treads on the ground.
     And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
     As any she belied with false compare.

May 20, 2009

Problems of Bardolatry #1: Cardenio

As another Cardenio makes the rounds, it seems a perfect opportunity to point out one of Bardolatry's most glaring negative consequences.

Producing a "lost Shakespeare play" is, without a doubt, one of the best theatrical marketing strategies you can hope for. In the case of Cardenio, every now and again a new staging of Theobald's Double Falsehood turns up, usually with claims that either the acting company or attendant academic have decided that it is, in fact, almost entirely Shakespearean. It's a necessary marketing factor: the more Shakespearean it is pretended to be, the more important it becomes (poor John Fletcher) and therefore the more attention and selling power it will have.

What is forgotten by the Bardolaters seeking for new Shakespeare is that the claim for the authenticity of Double Falsehood is actually dependent on its UNLIKENESS to Shakespeare. The claims that the play appears to be Shakespearean actually diminish the play's chances of having a genuine Shakespearean connection.

To explain this, we need to go back to 1728 and the publication of Lewis Theobald's hugely successfully Double Falsehood; or, the Distressed Lovers. The play did well on stage, and was subsequently published by Theobald as being Shakespeare's, fitted up for the contemporary stage by Theobald himself. Theobald's claim was that he, somehow, had acquired manuscripts of a Restoration adaption of a Shakespeare play, which he had now adapted himself. Suspiciously enough, despite the fact that he claimed to have no fewer than three copies of this manuscript, they were never seen by anyone else (or, at least, anyone who recorded seeing them). Then, conveniently, they were apparently burned up in a fire at Covent Garden, where they were on display. Again, no-one records viewing them.

This is, quite patently, extremely suspicious, and instantly cries out "Forgery!". That was the opinion of Theobald's contemporaries. It was pointed out that the play bore far more resemblance to the works of John Fletcher, and that Theobald's ascription of the play to Shakespeare was fraudulent. Theobald realised he didn't have a leg to stand on, and quietly withdrew his claims, omitting the play from his Complete Works of 1733 despite his promises five years earlier that he would publish the play in full, along with his arguments for its veracity. It seems that even Theobald lost faith in his own ascription. The subsequent centuries have largely assumed that this was a simple exercise in Bardolatrous forgery, similar to that of William Henry Ireland.

However, records were discovered much later suggesting that Shakespeare HAD written a play in his final years of active work, a collaboration with John Fletcher called Cardenio, the source (from Cervantes' Don Quixote) for the story in Double Falsehood. Theobald did not know of this. As recent scholarship has pointed out, he would therefore have had no reason to imitate Fletcher's style in forging a play. If the play IS a forgery, it would be pseudo-Shakespearean. Instead, it is Fletcherian, which actually supports the play's authenticity.

Restoration adaptations of Shakespeare's plays fitted them to the demands of the time. In the 1660s, the vogue was for Fletcherian tragicomedy, and Shakespeare's plays were fitted to this requirement (see, for example, the happy ending of Nahum Tate's King Lear). Most pertinently, Davenant and Dryden's adaptation of Fletcher and Shakespeare's The Two Noble Kinsmen into The Rivals excised almost all of Shakespeare's sections of the play while retaining most of the fashionable Fletcher. It follows, then, that a Restoration adaptation of Cardenio would likewise be primarily at Shakespeare's expense.

The authenticity of Double Falsehood as an adaptation of an adaption of Cardenio is now largely accepted. However, as explained above, this authenticity has been established on the grounds of the play's general unlikeness to Shakespeare and general likeness to Fletcher.

For modern companies and academics to claim that the surviving Double Falsehood is largely Shakespearean, therefore, defeats the point. If Theobald's play is seen to be like Shakespeare, then that fact actually instead supports the original assumption that the play is merely Theobald's attempt to mimic Shakespeare's style as part of a deliberate fraud. By buying into the Bardolatrous desire to credit Shakespeare with as much as possible, the play is actually pushed further away from canonical status.

It is notable that professional academic scholarship is generally united in the belief that any Shakespearean fragments surviving in Double Falsehood are few and brief. The claims for substantial Shakespearean authorship are primarily made by amateur or unaffiliated scholars (see also: the authorship conspiracy theorists), or by actors who are inevitably more familiar with Shakespeare than Fletcher anyway, and whose basis for comparison is therefore skewed. It's a shame, as with The Two Noble Kinsmen, that the majority of people are so concerned with the question of who wrote which bits. Is the importance of the play as a fragment of part of Shakespeare and Fletcher's later repertoire not enough? Sadly, it appears, not.

P.S. The history page at the new Cardenio production's website has some interesting suggestions for further reading. It appears to be written in black on a black background, though, so you need to highlight the text in order to see it!


May 14, 2009

Authorship conference

I've just been accepted to give a paper at the Second Roehampton University School of Arts Postgraduate Conference, entitled "Authorship: An Interdisciplinary Conference". The papers look interesting, everything from Ibsen to Kubrick in there! I'm presenting a paper which I've ambitiously titled "Escaping the Author: Un-attributing the Shakespeare Apocrypha", which is going to essentially argue that the overstated importance of Shakespeare as an author has crippled useful criticism of many of the apocryphal plays, and use that as the basis to make an argument for a study of the drama of the period not centred around authors.

The conference is on June 10th - which is the day before Britgrad in Stratford, to which I've ALSO been accepted, doing a paper on a slightly different aspect of the apocrypha. This one is "Preserving Shakespeare: Bardolatry, Canon and the Shakespeare Apocrypha", which confronts the notion of an apocryphal canon, interrogating the motivations for its creation and the influence it has on our understanding of the wider Shakespearea canon.

Two papers in one week. In that week, I'm also reviewing Julius Caesar for the Shakespeare journal, All's Well that Ends Well and The Winter's Tale (Old Vic) for Shakespeare Revue, and seeing the Globe's As You Like It. I may also be required to pass my upgrade interview to PhD status that week. The deep breathing begins here.....


May 07, 2009

Drinking Habits in Shakespeare

Fascinating lunchtime paper yesterday, given by Rebecca Lemon of the University of Southern California. Concerned with the scenes of drinking and representations of alcohol in Shakespeare's plays, Lemon believes there is a prevailing view of these scenes as essentially convivial and celebratory. While there are naturally dark elements attached to them, performance and criticism revels in the communality of these scenes, the festival atmosphere, the joyous challenges to authority and the nostalgia of freedom and relaxation.

Lemon's paper posed a counter-argument to this reading, positioning herself (reluctantly!) as a "critical Malvolio". Her belief is that the idea that these scenes promote merry drinking is untenable, and instead finds them almost invariably to pose warnings about the tyranny and dangers of drink, and the people who employ it.

The prevailing view makes the critical examination of drink difficult. To question merriment is, in Lemon's view, to question art and inspiration, to come in from the position of 'official' culture and criticise 'folk' culture. However, Lemon feels that Shakespeare's drinking scenes similarly critique conviviality and the loss of control that drinking entails.

Lemon's key text was Othello 2.3. In Lemon's reading, the threat to Cassio is conviviality itself. To refuse to drink, to engage in the rituals of pledge-drinking, can be seen as unsociable and even disloyal. Despite his "unhappy brains for drinking", social custom overrules his acknowledged infirmity and therefore leaves him vulnerable to Iago's schemes. Social law tyrannically governs necessity and sense.

There is also a large meta-critique going on, which I found particularly interesting: the idea that audiences themselves are drawn into these scenes and swept along. The drinking scene in Othello provides a perfect example, if we imagine early audiences (themselves very possibly drinking) being swept along by the festival atmosphere of the scene and themselves becoming Iago's dupes, buying into the celebration and allowing themselves to forget that Iago is only pretending to be drunk, that the festivities are carefully orchestrated.

In this, I was reminded heavily of Filter Theatre's recent Twelfth Night, which turned that play's drinking scene into an epic party that included the whole theatre. To less sinister effect, Lemon's theory was played out for real in that environment - the audience, having rolled in from the pub for this late performance, bought into the party and were happy to put the play on hold, revelling in the celebrations and forgetting that we were supposed to be quiet, that this was an illicit party, that there was a play going on at all. No surprise, then, that when Malvolio entered he was booed by the entire auditorium. Here, the scene of festivity was used to deliberately draw along an audience to great dramatic effect.

I found Lemon's thesis convincing, though I have to admit I'd never particularly thought of the drinking scenes as being mere festivity. In particular, as I raised in the seminar, Antony and Cleopatra quite overtly criticises drinking: as the three pillars of the world topple under the influence, tensions rise, murder plots are hatched, latent homosexuality becomes (arguably) overt and the relationships between the rulers of the known world begin their inevitable collapse. However, investigating the ways in which Shakespeare uses and manipulates alcohol theatrically seems to me to be a useful and productive line of inquiry, and I look forward to seeing more of Lemon's research into this.


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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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