All entries for October 2008

October 31, 2008

October Round–Up

It's been a while since I've posted, partly because it's been an extremely busy month. So, without further ado, here's what I've been up to:

Reading: Reading this month has taken two strands. Following on from last month, I finished my trawl through 18th century editions and did some more in-depth work on Edward III's journey to (near) canonicity. My critical reading, though, has been more geared towards the cultural value of 'Shakespeare' and the growth of his centrality in British culture. Andrew Murphy's Shakespeare in Print and Michael Dobson's The Making of the National Poet have been the two biggies, though I've also for the first time read Jonathan Bate's The Genius of Shakespeare. Primarily I'm focussing on getting historical and literary context for Shakespeare's cultural place up until the end of the 18th century.

That's actually been about it for the PhD; the rest of my month has been spent in a blur of conferences, seminars, academic training, teaching and all kinds of other related activities, all of them up on my e-portfolio. I've also got back to my reviewing. It is pleasant to be settling down to doing a bit of reading, and it's sparking off a lot of ideas. Pleasingly, a great many books seem to give related information while not actually applying it to the apocryphal plays, so there are lots of gaps in which my own research fits, the 'missing chapters', so to speak.

Back to the books...

October 17, 2008

Shakespeare and Art: Stuart Sillars and Rosie Dias

Writing about web page

It's been a bit of a week for seminars. This, the first session of the Humanities Research Centre's interdisciplinary research series, was of particular interest, it dealing with questions of Shakespeare and his cultural reception in the 18th century, the era during which bardolatry escalated and the apocrypha became just that - apocryphal.

Stuart Sillars is over for a few days from the University of Bergen in Norway, and presented a paper on 'Reading Illustrated Shakespeare: Issues and Methods'. This was a fascinating paper beginning with the start of the 18th century editorial tradition. Even Nicholas Rowe's 1709 edition included etchings, and Sillars provided insightful commentary on the importance and impact of pictures. Through the illustrations chosen to accompany text, we see an attempt to direct and guide the reader's imaginative process, drawing them towards those moments which the editor and artist feel of most interest or significance. One image that particularly struck me was the selection of Pistol apprehending a French soldier; both an image of national pride in the light of then-current wars with France, but also a satirical commentary on warfare through our received understanding of Pistol's own character. Sillars finds, particularly in early illustrations, an illusion of stagecraft probably unfounded in actual practice, but indicative of a contemporary understanding of dramatic representation; that is, the illustrations depict what the artists imagine themselves to see on stage, even when that might be technically impossible to actually represent.

Frontispiece from Rowe
Frontispiece from Rowe's edition of Shakespeare

As the century progressed, we find more naturalistic images in the serialised editions of John Bell, which began creating 'real' scenes in naturalistic settings (yet, perhaps paradoxically, often still depicting the leading actors of the day in the roles). Then, Charles Knight's 1838-42 edition, entitled Pictorial Shakespeare, placed great emphasis on historical accuracy and included pictorial footnotes illustrating artefacts from the period in question, "visual annotations". Sillars also went into detail on the implications of the specific placement of images within the text, particularly as to whether they appeared in advance of the action represented or alongside it. The illustrated edition represents the intersection between the scholarly and popular version of Shakespeare, and in many ways maps the increasing idea of the author as unique poetic genius - even in Rowe's edition, see the above frontispiece which depicts Shakespeare in an almost iconographic way. In later editions, we saw such allegories as images appearing within large mirrors, Shakespeare thus 'holding up a mirror to nature'.

Rosie Dias, from Warwick's History of Art department, then gave her paper on 'Boydell's Shakespeare: Illustration and Imagination', which dealt more specifically with the opening of The Shakespeare Gallery in 1789 by Boydell, the foremost print seller of his day. In many ways, this opening was a visual culmination of the growing trends of bardolatry, and the kinds of commission represented this; the country's leading painters were commissioned to create canvases depicting scenes from Shakespeare's works, as well as engravings to be bound into folio form.

Fuseli's Titania and Bottom from the Tate Britain website

The most fascinating part of Dias' talk, from the point of view of my research, was the discussion of Fuseli, who contributed several works to the Gallery, most famously Titania and Bottom (which has been the production image for Gregory Doran's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream this year). Fuseli used Shakespeare to register his own artistic identity, to canonise his own (self-perceived) genius. Fuseli, apparently, was rather mad, mind addled by opium, and in attaching his own slightly unhinged artistic personality to the imagery of Shakespeare, he was able to appropriate Shakespeare's 'genius' for himself. Dias provided a fascinating close analysis of this canvas, in particular drawing out the increasing grotesquery of the characters as our eyes move to the fringes of the canvas (the woman with the tiny old man on a lead being a particular highlight, though my own eyes are drawn to the demonic figure being held by the witch in the bottom right hand corner). She also demonstrated the visual referencing of earlier masters, again a self-conscious attempt to place himself within a visual canon. Shakespeare was, by this stage, the epitome of original genius, and Fuseli saw himself as the artistic equivalent. The fact that this is such a famous painting, of course, may perhaps bear this out; though it is impossible to separate poetic and artistic genius in this kind of image. I would imagine that far more people recognise Shakespeare in this picture than Fuseli; that Fuseli in this case effectively piggybacks on Shakespeare's cultural capital. This doesn't make Fuseli any less of a genius, however; his genius is in the remaking of Shakespeare in his own image.

The last comments to draw out of Dias' talk deal with the representation of Shakespeare himself that stood above the door to the gallery, showing him being simultaneously inspired by poetry and painting. Dias suggests that, rather than choose one over the other, it is through Shakespeare that Boydell wished to show poetry and painting meeting to create a greater whole. Shakespeare being the catalyst for this is a significant indicator of the rise of bardolatrous attitudes; no longer a simple dramatist, he is the conduit for all the creative arts, the point at which they can intersect and create truly great things. One thing not mentioned in either of the two talks in this session is the fact that Shakespearean scenes were beginning to be granted the kinds of artistic treatment more usually reserved for Biblical or Greco-Roman mythologies; yet another factor in the elevation of Shakespeare to classical dominance.

Histories of Drinking

The Arts Faculty Postgraduate Seminar Series kicked off on Wednesday with a massive turn-out for a session called Histories of Drinking (now there's a way to drag in the PhDs!). Papers as follows:

  • Deborah Toner (History) : 'The National Disease: Alcoholism in Late Nineteenth-Century Mexico'
  • Mark Hailwood (History) : 'John Jarret and Roaring Dick of Dover: Popular Attitudes to Drinking in Seventeenth-Century England'
  • Dr. Demmy Verbeke (Renaissance Studies) : 'Contra Nycticoraces: The Humanists' Approach to Drunkenness'

I'm not going to review or provide synopses of the papers, of course, but there were some interesting jumping-off points for some of my own ideas which I wanted to log while they're still in my mind.

What leaped out at me from Deborah's paper, which provided a historical and literary reading of the impact of alcoholism in Mexico at the end of the nineteenth century, was the iterated concern with the effects of alcoholism on subsequent generations, in terms of it causing mental and social dysfunctionality (one fear articulated was that the children would grow up to be animal rights activists, amusingly!). The effects of drinking on children are of interest to me too, yet from a different angle - in the early modern period, there is often explicit connection between drunkenness and infertility, the inability to (ahem) "stand to", as the Porter puts it. Obviously we're separated here by a gap of several hundred years, but I found the difference in focus interesting; perhaps in the early modern period, with the need to have as many children as possible owing to the high infant mortality rate, this idea of a man rendering himself impotent through alcohol was far more serious; his main responsibility being to ensure the continuation of the species. As the centuries passed and children stood a great chance of surviving their first years, the focus presumably shifted towards the subtler and longer-lasting effects on children; the quality of their survival rather than survival itself. However, to pursue that thought further I'd have to know a lot more about 19th century Mexico! I also wondered about a parallel with 20th century Ireland, another culture (fairly or unfairly) associated with the enjoyment of alcohol, but where there was also a concern with future generations, this time through the Catholic church's attitude towards contraception and birth control. Mexico was also a heavily Catholic culture, though in answer to my question Deborah suggested that the populace was by and large secular, their day-to-day lives less governed by religious matters. I'm going to stop this train of thought now as it starts extending into areas where I'm entirely unqualified to venture (and it's nothing at all to do with authorship studies!), but it strikes me that there is interesting work to be done on the relationship between alcohol, its effect on generations, contraception and the Church.

Then, Mark's paper focussed on ballads, which he put forward as one of the most effective media for understanding the attitudes of common people towards social issues in the seventeenth century. As well as being a hugely entertaining paper, this opened up a fascinating area of potential interest to me which I hadn't previously considered. One of the most important recent writers on authorship studies is Jonathan Hope, who determines authorship via socio-linguistic factors. So, for example, a university-educated city-born writer might use all the latest emerging word forms and grammatical usage, whereas a rurally-educated writer might show a tendency towards older grammatical forms. It's a fascinating study which I haven't gotten fully into yet. However, Mark's paper pointed out the differences in attitude towards drinking and plebeian culture that can be seen in the penny-ballads as compared to, say, Ben Jonson. We have the means to see how poor people represented themselves, and how they were represented by relatively priviliged city dramatists - a group which, again, includes Shakespeare. It's interesting to note that Shakespeare's most famous representation of a hawker of ballads is Autolycus, who appears in a rural sheep-shearing festival rather than in the city, which was the primary printing centre of ballads, even though they were often set in the provinces. Yet, while Shakespeare effectively gives the illusion of a provincial and grass-roots level approach to drinking attitudes, he is of course a London dramatist writing in a city environment. One aspect which might be of genuine interest to my studies is to look at taverns; several of the anonymous apocryphal plays feature provincial inns, which I have a sneaking suspicion are actually far more representative of London taverns than actual provincial inns. Having a closer look at the ballads and getting a sense of how plebeian culture represented itself and its environments could therefore be useful in providing necessary social context to explore how engaged with country/city life the plays actually were.

This is a little rambling, my thoughts aren't fully formed. It's flashes of momentary inspiration rather than concrete new directions to take my research in. It's always a pleasure, though, to find new ideas coming out of seminars which you didn't expect to intersect with your own research at all!

October 14, 2008

Sloppy science

I'm no scientist. However, I do have a fair amount of common sense when it comes to experiments and evaluating your findings. One of the things I find quite frustrating about some of the articles on authorship I've been reading is the lack of information pertaining to people's basic assumptions before beginning their study. The key example I'm thinking of here is Kenneth Muir in his Shakespeare as Collaborator (1960).

Muir's general thesis in the section I'm concerning myself with is to show elements of collaboration in Edward III. To do so, he splits the play into two sections, his Part 'A' (the scenes thought to be Shakespeare's) and Part 'B' (everything else). He then goes on to show, rather impressively, that there are some big differences between the two sections, such as the frequency of 'new' words introduced.

What's the problem? Well, it's the lack of reasoning as to how he created the division of the two parts in the first place. For all we know, his divisions are entirely arbritrary. Worse, those divisions could have been created by the exact criteria which he then goes on to test, creating a circularity of argument which looks impressive but is anything but. Similarly, without knowing the grounds on which Parts 'A' and 'B' are distinguished, the tests lose their validity.

This is not to say that Muir is, necessarily, wrong. The ongoing cumulative weight of evidence supports a split close to the one he made. However, if you are going to prove something as contested as the authorship of an anonymous play, we as readers need to know where the experiment is starting from. The problem is that almost all articles since Muir take these divisions as read. If an experiment is going to be conducted in a laboratory environment, for lack of a better phrase, then this kind of received assumption needs to be interrogated.

In this sense, I'm far more interested in the work of MacDonald P. Jackson with LION. In articles I've read so far by Jackson, he begins with a thesis and then tests it in the widest possible sense; for example, in a 2006 Shakespeare Quarterly article testing for the author of Scene 8 of Arden of Faversham, he tests the scene against the entire corpus of English drama for a twenty year period around the estimated date of the play's authorship. This particular article tested the scene against 132 Elizabethan plays. Granted, it is only relatively recent technology that makes this kind of search practical, but it allows Jackson to provide cold, hard statistical data that can be clinically interrogated.

It strikes me that, in the study of authorship, one needs to commit to being either artistic or scientific. If you're going to be artistic, go with it; use aesthetic judgements, rely on instinct and the feel of a piece. If you're going to be scientific, follow the basic principles; define your search limits, explain your control defaults, provide objective data. Too often, however, sloppy science is used to lend credence to what is essentially a subjective judgement. The essential point I want to make here is that valid aesthetic judgements are undermined by badly-applied science. Sloppy science is obvious, and immediately invites interrogation and scepticism. It is all-too-easy to fight someone on scientific grounds, and in the ensuing debate the gut instincts lose their value.

This is all, of course, easier said than done. There are few articles on authorship which don't contain a certain measure of subjective interpretation. The difference is how you articulate that interpretation; whether you try to pass it off as being as scientific as your data, or you admit your own subjectivity. Passion and science can work together, but passion must not alter the science, otherwise one's experiment is compromised. The best scientists, it seems to me, are dispassionate about their method, but passionate about their results.

October 08, 2008

Neural networks

I felt the need to quickly put a thought down before I get swamped in material. I'm currently working through articles on Edward III by Thomas Merriam, a rather clever gentleman who has published several articles outlining a case for Marlowe's involvement in (either as writer, collaborator or the original writer of source material adapted by Shakespeare) scenes of that play.

These articles mark my first tentative steps out of the relatively safe and familiar world of historical investigation into the decidedly unfamiliar world of stylometric testing. Specifically, I'm just powering through an article detailing the creation of a particular neural network that Merriam and his colleague developed which can distinguish with (according to them!) a high level of accuracy between the writings of Marlowe and Shakespeare, using a select number of function-word ratios.

It's mind-boggling stuff for a literature boy. Yet it's also incredibly exciting. Throughout all of the studies I've read so far on the use of modern stylometrics, there's an iterated concern for the application of simple common sense to these tests, which have been used to great and damaging effect by many literary scholars who simply didn't understand the basic scientific/mathematical rules which needed to be followed in order to provide meaningful results. It's the kind of basic error which leads people to, for example, calculate ratios based on the number of function words per line in a given play, yet doesn't take into account the length of a line, whether a line is verse or prose, whether the texts are standardised with each other and so on.

I'm excited because, so far,I get it. Not just the common sense bits, but the technical data. I'm not saying I could design these tests myself (give me time), but I'm picking up how to read them and, more importantly, how to interrogate them. One of the main problems with this field, as Merriam himself points out in a 2002 article, is that the level of detail needed to make a thorough case is so massive in any particular investigation that it renders itself unreadable to anyone who isn't a specialist. By contrast, if you don't put it in the detail, clarity comes at the expense of accuracy and devalues the research. Therefore, for anyone seriously considering studying authorship, it's imperative to gain a solid understanding of how to read this stuff, how to interpret and respond to it. Otherwise, you just have to take people's word for it; or, alternatively, dismiss it out of hand as many scholars do.

This is a massive challenge for me, but one I'm really excited about. It's nice to be doing something interdisciplinary (though I won't be at a stage where I can hold meaningful conversations about this with Computer Science PhDs for quite some time), and it's nice to be taking on an area which puts off so many literary academics. Bring it on!

October 03, 2008

September round–up

Every month I'll be putting up a quick summary of my month's work. I imagine that this will become increasingly meaningless once I start putting the thesis into long chapter-form, but for now it's a good way of keeping track of what I've actually been doing!

So, this month:

  • I have re-read and written synopses of seventeen apocryphal plays, from the likely (Edward III) to the extremely unlikely (The Lady's Tragedy). The synopses are written partly to help me keep track of what's actually going on in all the plays, but more importantly to log the various conversations and themes within the play, which will be of use when considering parallel passages later.

  • I've created my e-portfolio, and also a site for the project team. Both still need a lot of work, but they're up and usable!

  • I've done an initial collation of all the contemporary external evidence for the plays and prioritised on that basis (and that basis alone) the strength of the claims of each to Shakespearean authorship. It's extremely satisfying to ignore the 400 years of subsequent commentary and just look at the historical evidence. It also throws up interesting points - for example, there is far more contemporary evidence for The London Prodigal being by Shakespeare than The Two Noble Kinsmen. Yet the former play is widely unknown, primarily due to subsequent criticism - all justified, I'm sure, but it's fascinating to look at the original evidence without prejudice.

  • I've been learning about authorship methodologies, the various criteria and tests used to establish a play's authorship: verse tests, parallel passages, vocabulary, socio-linguistics etc. This is something I'll be getting into in more detail further down the line, but for now I've developed a solid general understanding of the techniques, which is essential when editors are summarising their own beliefs.

  • I've been reading! This month it's mostly been editions, including the first five single editions in the RSC Complete Works as well as various editions of the apocrypha. Best book this month - John Jowett's Shakespeare and Text. Most useless was James McManaway's The Authorship of Shakespeare pamphlet, basically a riposte to anti-Stratfordians which did, however, include some useful points on the burgeoning cultural value of Shakespeare.

  • I've attended a training session on teaching for postgraduate tutors and had my first meetings about the Warwick Business School course I'll be assisting on this year.

  • Finally, I've just started two more strands of work; one going through the early editorial tradition and tracking the appearances and commentary on the apocrypha (or, as Alexander Pope referred to them, "those wretched plays"); the other, some more detailed work on Edward III and Arden of Faversham, two plays with no reliable early connection to Shakespeare which have subsequently risen to the 'top' of the apocryphal pile.

That's it for this month!


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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