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June 07, 2011

A quick methodological note on Peele's authorship of King John

I'm currently working my way through Charles R. Forker's excellent and timely new edition of The Troublesome Reign of John, King of England. This hugely important play has been long overdue a good, scholarly edition, and Forker's is, from my first few dips into it, shaping up to be just that.

Troublesome Reign

I just wanted to flag up a methodological note that screams out at me from the very first page though. Specifically, in Forker's preface, where he acknowledges Brian Vickers's support on the question of authorship. He cites Vickers's article on the play's authorship in the collection Words that Count (2004) which is, I feel, one of Vickers's strongest pieces of attribution scholarship for its nuance and dramatic/literary sensitivity. I'm very happy to accept the claims of both Forker and Vickers that the play is by George Peele, which seems to fit with my (limited) knowledge of both Peele's work and the wider contexts in which the play seems to have been born.

My caution is with the reportage of a new set of collocations created by Vickers using the Pl@giarism software that has been central to his recent work. I quote from Forker:

He [Vickers] generously shared with me his as yet unpublished reflections on Peele's dramaturgy, a document from which I have borrowed freely. Most important of all is his graciousness in letting me present for the first time in print (as Appendix 2) his list of 219 verbal collocations between this play and other works by Peele - collocations of three identical consecutive words, in each case unique to The Troublesome Reign and plays already established as Peele's. Sir Brian isolated these impressive matches in 2009 by means of a computer program in a way that, in my judgement, not only establishes the attribution beyond cavil but that holds rich promise of further such discoveries in the study of anonymous Elizabethan plays. (xiii, my emphases)

The collocations are duly reprinted in the appendix, 335-56. They are thoroughly interesting - some are relatively commonplace - which makes it all the more surprising that they are unique - while others are very idiosyncratic. I particularly liked the find of "I, poor I" as a shared collocation between Troublesome Reign and The Arraignment of Paris for example, which is a peculiarly emphatic and deliberate usage.

While these are interesting, however, there is a glaring omission in the reportage of these results that could potentially undo the effectiveness of these results. It's the same one flagged up by MacD. Jackson in his critique of Vickers's work on Kyd in Research Opportunities in Medieval and Renaissance Drama. I'll apologise for the liberal use of bold emphasis in the paragraph that follows:

As it stands, this appendix represents a mere accumulation of parallels between Peele's work and the play in question. It has established 219 interesting links, which are unique and give us valid data. However, this number is meaningless in isolation. In order to establish the power of these results, we need to know how many unique links were shared between Troublesome Reign and the canons of other writers.

So, if we know that Shakespeare's early plays have 21 unique collocations with Troublesome Reign, Marlowe has 60, Greene has 85 and Kyd has 3, for example (and I'm making these numbers up), then we can say with confidence that Peele is an extremely likely candidate. However, for all we know from these results, Marlowe could have 170 different unique links with Troublesome Reign; Greene could have 350 etc; in which case, the 219 links with Peele suddenly look less impressive.

An accumulation of parallels in favour of one author is of no real quantitative value unless those parallels are compared on a like basis with parallels accumulated in favour of other authors.

Even though I'm sure that Vickers has done this (it is, after all his Shakespeare Co-Author that taught me these principles), we need to see this in reportage. Forker's edition is going to be fundamental in consolidating the authorship of the play by Peele, and yet Forker has apparently uncritically accepted the sheer weight of numbers without seeking to contextualise what those numbers actually represent. This is troubling from a methodological point of view, as non-specialists reading the edition will assume that this is standard practice and then, turning to Eric Sams's Edmond Ironside or Michael Egan's Thomas of Woodstock, find the exact same one-sided accumulation of parallels supporting Shakespeare's authorship of those plays.

I stress again - I am ASSUMING that Vickers has done this research and that the unique collocations between Peele's work and Troublesome Reign outweigh in both quality and quantity the unique collocations between TR and Greene, TR and Marlowe, TR and Shakespeare etc. But for the credibility of authorship studies, we need to have these comparisons upfront, so that lay readers have a frame of reference for understanding the strength of the claims. Scholars turning to the "Authorship and Date" section of the introduction will find Forker's excellent analysis, heavily dependent on Vickers's more nuanced work, which in my mind clinches the case for authorship. But if the use of collocations is going to be so heavily foregrounded, literally bookending the scholarship on the play, then it needs to be properly and responsibly reported.

April 12, 2011

Three new editions

Three new RSC Shakespeares that I've contributed stage histories to are now (or are to shortly be) available in good bookshops near you:

The Merry Wives of WindsorCoriolanusJulius Caesar

March 29, 2011

Sir Thomas More

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.

March 27, 2011

Reviewing Shakespeare – Special Journal Issue

Writing about web page

Volume Six of Shakespeare has just been published in hard-form. This volume includes 6.3, the special issue on "Reviewing Shakespearean Theatre: The State of the Art", to which I contributed an essay. It's not an outstanding piece, just a position paper on the use of tense in reviewing, but I'm happy with it, and I'm in prestigious company among scholars whose work I love: Michael Billington, Eleanor Collins, Peter Holland, Elinor Parsons, Stephen Purcell, Stanley Wells and a host of others. The essays are uniformly great, and there are several format-pushing experiments, including a "collective review" of a production and a selection of different approaches to the processes of gathering audience response.

It's also great, after years of relentless blogging, to finally have an academic context for "The Bardathon". Without wishing to be self-aggrandising, I was genuinely touched to have the blog mentioned by a couple of the other papers, and to be a part of the extremely important debate over the role of multiple viewpoints and new media in the future of Shakespearean reviewing. I'm not quite sure what the next steps are in this discussion, but I'm very much hoping to return to the question of performance criticism once I've put the Apocrypha to bed.

Many thanks to Pete Smith, Paul Prescott and Paul Edmondson for a wonderful conference, and for organising a very fun launch dinner last night for the authors!

February 05, 2011

Top Ten

I'm hugely pleased and privileged to have been asked to contribute a chapter to an edited collection coming out with Ashgate in 2012. Entitled The Elizabethan Top Ten: Defining Print Popularity in Early Modern England, and edited by Andy Kesson and Emma Smith, this is a hugely exciting project that will interrogate the idea of "popularity" in the early modern book trade. How do we measure and define what was popular? Is it a question of number of publications; of number of references; or of perceived literary quality? It's an important question - the battle between the popular and the prestige is eternally present, and much of our thinking about early modern texts is pre-conditioned by our perception of the kinds of audiences that books could have reached.

My contribution will be one of ten short essays, each dealing with a specific genre or phenomenon. I'm taking responsibility for "Drama" with an essay on Mucedorus, the anonymous play whose known number of reprints dwarves any other from the period. Most of the criticism on the play is bound up with attempting to explain how a play of variable quality (but high popular excitement) came to be published so frequently. I'm interested in looking at this body of criticism, and the play itself, and determining how we pigeonhole ideas of the popular in relation to drama, which was a necessarily popular form. Why has a play that, apparently, could have been one of the most successful plays of its time (if, indeed, we believe that this can be measured by numbers), fallen into obscurity and neglect? How does popularity and fitness to a time and genre shift? And how do we redefine the popular under the cultural weight of the prestige - in this case, to separate the play from its only early attributed author, Shakespeare?

Very much looking forward to writing this article. The colloquium is in September, which follows my PhD submission date frustratingly closely, but that just gives me more of a reason to get cracking!

August 27, 2010

More Publications

It's been a very good week for publications. Firstly, a special issue of Shakespeare has just been published, entitled "Reviewing Shakespearean Theatre: The State of the Art", which includes an edited version of the paper I gave at the the conference of the same name last year. My paper, " "What's Past is Prologue: Negotiating the Authority of Tense in Reviewing Shakespeare", interrogates the implications of the chosen tense in theatre reviews, and makes a case for the informed use of the past tense in most cases.

Unfortunately, the journal issue itself is rather expensive, and Warwick doesn't subscribe to this journal, so I'm hoping for a free copy, especially because there are other papers - particularly that of Jeremy Lopez, which appears from the abstract to tackle a similar issue to mine, perhaps from an opposing perspective - that I haven't seen or heard before.

Today, meanwhile, I noticed that the next batch of RSC Shakespeare single editions are out, including two more for which I've contributed the performance histories, Troilus and Cressida and Richard II. As ever, the performance histories are necessarily brief, but I think they're okay given the remit and space, and it's certainly a confidence boost to see stuff I've written on bookshelves, even if it's right at the end of the book!

Richard II Troilus and Cressida

(NB the Troilus image is different to the one I picked up today. I'm guessing this is an old rejected cover - note the quote from As You Like It which shows it was never a final draft. The new one uses "Power into will, Will into appetite")

July 09, 2010

New Arden Covers

With apologies to Jonathan, the Arden Shakespeare still do the best looking covers of any individual Shakespeare series. Here's the next batch of goodies (not including this month's Winter's Tale).

CoriolanusThomas More

Coriolanus edited by Peter Holland                              Thomas More edited by John Jowett

The Merchant of VeniceRomeo and Juliet

The Merchant of Venice edited by John Drakakis        Romeo and Juliet edited by Rene Weis

April 05, 2010

Shakespeare, Computers and the Mystery of Authorship

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)

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

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.


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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