Crackpot Theories and Shakespeare

Recent studies show that conspiracy theories are highly democratic. These loony beliefs “cut across gender, age, race, income, political affiliation, educational level, and occupational status.” So despite all the evidence, there are people who maintain that President Obama wasn’t born in the U.S., and just as tendentiously, there are people of all kinds who fervently believe that Shakespeare didn’t write his plays.
58f8c92c2600001500c46b7e
They’ll present a blizzard of proofs that melt  under close inspection and have suggested dozens of candidates as the “true author” over the last 150 years including Ben Jonson, Sir Francis Drake, Sir Philip Sydney, The Freemasons, Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe, The Rosicrucians, a whole assortment of nobles, poets and playwrights—and even Queen Elizabeth.There are many ferocious arguments and they start with a bogus negative. The Refuseniks simply cannot believe that someone who wasn’t upper class and a world traveler could have been a brilliant writer. This shows a gross misunderstanding of the creative mind and contemptuous snobbery. What about Jane Austen, the Brontës, James Joyce, and Dickens?

The  Shakespeare Deniers make lots of flimsy claims, as well as assertions that are anachronistic. These might look solid at first glance, convincing people who don’t know the period Shakespeare wrote in. Deep-fried Doubters want you to believe that there have always been suspicions about “authorship,” but that’s completely false.  Nobody in Shakespeare’s time and for years afterwards every doubted that he wrote the plays. The “controversy” started in the middle of the 19th century.

58fc39de1400002b001b5c98
And one of the main “proofs” that he didn’t write the plays is this: we don’t have any of his manuscripts or his handwriting. Well, guess what? That doesn’t mean anything at all. University of Chicago’s David Bevington, a Professor of English, notes that “the lack of manuscripts, of handwriting samples . . . are what one would expect of a playwright of the period, even the most famous. We don’t read and preserve movie scripts today, and often do not even know who wrote a movie we particularly like. Play scripts were like that in the Renaissance. They existed to enable an acting company to put on a play. The wonder is that so many of Shakespeare’s plays were published at all. We have no manuscripts of plays by Marlowe or Jonson or Webster, even though some of their plays rival Shakespeare’s in their literary and dramatic qualities.”
The Nonbelievers also argue that Shakespeare was barely mentioned in his own time. But that’s simply not true if you bother to read that great Shakespeare scholar James Shapiro’s book Contested Will. There was solid contemporary commentary about Shakespeare. People who claim otherwise are discounting inconvenient evidence that shakes and topples their conspiratorial Tower of Babel.
Shapiro dives deeply and amusingly into the slumgullion of falsehoods and half-truths cooked up with rabid intensity by a thriving industry that can easily convince the gullible and the uninformed.  But let’s face it: going against the settled truth of a few centuries is a good way to gain notoriety and generate headlines.A few years ago, the widely distributed magazine Reform Judaism devoted a badly edited cover story to proving Shakespeare was actually an obscure Jewish woman poet. It ignored the highly inconvenient fact that she wasn’t really Jewish because Judaism is matrilineal and her mother was not a Jew. It also side-stepped her authorship of a viciously anti-Semitic poem that’s a stone dud and shows nothing like the artistry of his plays whatsoever. But hey, why let any of that that get in the way of a good, sexy theory? I’m surprised the story didn’t throw in Queen Elizabeth and the whole Tudor court as secret Jews for extra points. That could have been the real reason Spain sent the Armada….
It’s probably exciting to uncover a “secret,” to feel like a hero, to connect disparate dots as if the fate of the world depended on your dazzling acumen. It likely gives people a sense of power and control, and can make any life seem like a Dan Brown thriller. And as in The X Files, these people see, to desperately want to believe—for reasons of their own—that the truth is out there. So Shakespeare Skeptics and the legion of cranks who think our moon landing was faked might have more in common than you’d think.
Lev Raphael is the author of The Edith Wharton Murders and many other books in genres from memoir to writer’s guide.
This blog was adapted from an article in Bibiliobuffet.

Don’t “Translate” Shakespeare!

The Wall Street Journal reports that the Oregon Shakespeare Company is getting translations of all of Shakespeare’s plays to make them more comprehensible. Why? According to a Columbia University professor:

Most educated people are uncomfortable admitting that Shakespeare’s language often feels more medicinal than enlightening. We have been told since childhood that Shakespeare’s words are “elevated” and that our job is to reach up to them, or that his language is “poetic,” or that it takes British actors to get his meaning across.

Most? Medicinal? I’m not sure where these people grew up or went to school, but I never heard any of this in New York where I saw lots of Shakespeare with American actors. I read him from an early age and learned that whatever was difficult on the page melted away in performance thanks in part to the production: lighting, sets, costumes, music.  And it didn’t matter if that was live or on film.

onstage 2When I took acting classes in college, I saw Shakespeare from the inside and understood how important a job it was for the director and the actors to make the play clear to the audience. The WSJ writer seems to think that a line like this from Polonius’s speech to Laertes in Hamlet needs translating: “These few precepts in thy memory / Look thou character.” Why? Because Shakespeare used “character” as a verb for “write.”  If an actor old enough to play Polonius can’t make it obvious through his voice and gestures that he’s telling his son to mark his words, then he shouldn’t be acting.

onstage 1Attending the Stratford Festival in Ontario for years and meeting their directors and many actors, I learned how much plays are cut to make that more possible. And how setting plays in different periods can give an audience visual cues to comprehend the action and text more readily.  A play is never just the spoken words, as the WSJ author seems to think.  Everything on stage carries meaning.

onstage 3

The author of the WSJ article says plays will only be 10% translated (will there be a Translation Meter?). But I don’t just go to a Shakespeare play to see it, I also want to hear it, enjoy Shakespeare’s word play, the rhyme, the rhythm, the assonance. Yes, I like the poetry, even though I don’t remotely think it elevates me. It’s entertaining, it’s beautiful music, its Shakespeare.

Why should some tin-eared scholar be making decisions about what people do or don’t understand, rewriting great poetry and spoon-feeding them Shakespeare Lite?

Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books in genres from memoir to mystery, available on Amazon.