“Awfully decent of him”: Sobran reviews Shapiro

As defenses of the Stratford biography continue to arrive in bookstores in a mainstream effort to stem the tide of authorship inquiry, hyped by other academics and other left-brainers in online reviews, I can’t help but think I should join the debate.  I could get a review copy and add my two cents––so why don’t I?  For one thing, since I’m still mostly preaching to the choir here, I think it’s more useful to promote the Oxfordians who who can get their reviews published in mainstream journals.  I hardly have time to read the books stacked and waiting, books with the kind of information that’s truly useful, as more Stratfordian groupthink is not.

But basically, it’s just a matter of “been there done that.”  I’ve argued in private and in print with Ward Elliott and in public with Alan Nelson.  I went at it with the coneheads on SHAKSPER.  I watched Beauclerk debate Louis Marder and Stritmatter debate Terry Ross and have read David Kathman at length.  I finally realized that these folks aren’t being stubborn in the face of reality.  It’s not that they won’t see it, it’s that they can’t.

Most academics are herd animals, they follow the leader, usually the head of the English Department at their university.  If she tells them that William’s the man, it never occurs to them that she might be wrong (and if it does, he’s better off elsewhere, for there he’ll never prosper).  For over a century believing in William has been the English Lit ticket to preferment, to tenure, to getting published, to getting the juicy stuff, what there is of it.  It took 200 years before they would even allow the plays to be performed at Cambridge or Oxford, longer before they began teaching him.  They scoffed at the idea that there was anything of value in Shakespeare, like some scoff today at classes in film or popular music.

Academics are good with details, with focussing in on a small area and putting it in order, one reason why we have so much good material to work with.  But they’re no good at putting the bits together.  It seems never to occur to them to check how or if these chunks of scholarship fit together.  Not only can’t they see the forest for the trees, they don’t even know there’s a forest.  They’re good thinkers or they wouldn’t have gotten where they are, but they can’t think outside the box they were handed along with their diplomas.  Most of them have been inside the left-brain academic box since they were six years old and so they don’t even know there’s a great multi-dimensional world outside it.

Authorship scholars have a fully functioning right brain, which warns them when gaps appear in the record; academics don’t.  They can follow a trail of published facts, but if it takes them off into some empty wilderness it seems never to occur to them that something might be wrong.  Unable to imagine that anyone who knows the facts could be so blind, we accuse them of bad faith, but the truth is that, they simply can’t see the big picture.  Like the vain glamour girls in the days before contact lenses who refused to wear glasses, everything farther away than fifteen inches is a blur.  They refuse to talk about anything but the little facts they can see up close, not the big ones that are so obvious to anyone who bothers to dig a little deeper .

It never seems to strike them how very peculiar it is that we know so much about Shakespeare’s fellow playwrights Ben Jonson and Christopher Marlowe and so little (that makes sense) about their far more important contemporary.   We can track Marlowe from a childhood at the Canterbury School to teen years at Cambridge to his twenties at the Rose Theater and Tamburlaine to his death in Deptford.  We can track Jonson from the Westminster school to the lowlands army to acting, then writing, for the London companies, then to his long association with the Lord Chamberlain’s-King’s Men and the Pembrokes.   In both of these the events of their lives, their known associations, and the plays they created all fit together like pieces of a puzzle to produce a believable scenario.  How is it that the academics  don’t see the difference between these two genuine stories and the Stratford fairy tale?

Nevertheless, although I can’t take the time myself, it’s still a delight to hear our side of the debate articulated by someone with the skills of Joe Sobran as in his recent review of Shapiro’s Contested Will.*  There’s no point in throwing facts at defenders of the Stratford faith, they bounce right off.  Why not take it easy on them, as Joe does with Shapiro.  After all, as should be clear, their time is coming to an end.  And we have much to thank them for.

*Many thanks to Sam Robrin for supplying the link to Sobran’s review.

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4 responses to ““Awfully decent of him”: Sobran reviews Shapiro

  1. Excellent post. I was thinking yesterday about the LOVER’S COMPLAINT situation. I understand that Jonathan Bate has excluded it from his recent edition of Shakespeare. Presumably until convinced by Brian Vickers, Bate would have defended the poem’s authenticity. I would imagine that in the not-too-distant future someone (Duncan-Jones, or perhaps Kerrigan) will leap to the poem’s defense in a tedious analysis, which may persuade Bate into another rethink. There and back it goes, and who gives a damn? Same with the Katharine/Rosaline mix-up in LOVE’S LABOURS LOST; your scholarly critic will devote pages in trying to make sense of it…… but who cares? It’s a triviality. Yet the big picture eludes them.

  2. hopkinshughes

    Just think what will confront them when forced to admit Robert Greene, John Lyly (the Euphues novels), Thomas Watson, Thomas Lodge, Gascoigne, Golding and Pettie into the canon! But by then a new generation will surely have more zest for a far richer and more rewarding scholarly landscape.

  3. There we have to part company. Does Watson’s ‘Hecatompathia’ strike you as Shakespearean, or even proto-Shakespearean, with it’s assiduous and scholarly prefaces and discussions? The ‘Tears of Fancy’ are little finer.
    Who was the Golding who was a major beneficiary of the patronage of the Earl of Leicester, if not the man you presume was also Shakespeare? Whom did Leicester believe he was rewarding?

  4. hopkinshughes

    Historically, Watson was a member of the Cornwallis household at Fisher’s Folly, which suggests he was left behind by Oxford when he turned the house over to William Cornwallis.

    Literature-wise, Watson’s name was attached to somebody’s Latin poetry (not his own, he had no writer’s bio), in a tradition totally separate from that of English poetry. Not knowing Latin well enough, or the tradition well enough, to pass judgement, I can only surmise, but the nature of the poetry doesn’t seem all that different to me from Oxford’s early English stuff, which was also fairly traditional and formulaic. We need to keep in mind that most of his work never saw the light of publication until ten to twenty years after he was entirely done with its particular style.

    It’s no reach to claim that there must be Latin poetry out there that he wrote. Latin was the ne plus ultra of his time, and he was highly competitive in all literary arenas. He must have been an excellent Latinist to have created so many English words from Latin, and have known Latin literature well since so many themes and plots from his plays came from Latin classics. We need to keep in mind how fast and how far he grew from one decade to the next. Watson’s poetry can be no later than the 1580s, possibly even the 1570s. His English style in the 80s, The Famous Victories, the True Tragedies, Euphues, Mamillia, etc., give hints of what he’d be writing in the 90s, but they’re still a long way from Shakespeare. A most useful bit of scholarship would be to show how his style evolved from one watershed work to the next.

    One of the problems with the orthodox Shakespeareans is that they keep judging a man who was obviously one of the world’s great geniuses, not by the careers or the behavior of other geniuses, but by the kind of standards we use for ordinary folk. Yes, there was a general momentum in the society at large moving the development of language forward with printing, travel, rubbing elbows with educated Italians and French, but the Shakespeare masterpieces were by no means purely a product of the author’s place in time. As the point man for the creation of the first successful commercial theaters in England and the first popular periodical publishing venture he stands at the cutting edge of the entire English Literary Renaissance in ways more similar to creators like Alexander the Great (invented modern military tactics and weapons), Newton (invented calculus), or Darwin. As Ellen Winner emphasizes, besides his successes, a creative genius has to show a long history of failures. And what we would consider failures today, judging by his final stage, may not have been seen as failures at the time, except perhaps by Oxford himself, who left them behind, published as by one of his secretaries, as he himself continued to move forward, breaking new ground.

    Arthur Golding wrote a good deal on his own. He was in his late 20s when the translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses was published, so it’s not impossible that he wrote it all himself. We’ll probably never know. There seems to be some evidence that there were two hands doing the translating. It would certainly make sense that, as a Latin scholar, he’d engage his teenaged nephew in sharing the translation of something more pleasing to the youth than another tract by one of the early Church fathers, which was what Golding usually did to please Cecil.

    Just because the Metamorphoses was dedicated to Leicester doesn’t mean Leicester had anything to do with inspiring it or paying for it or even reading it. As the Queen’s favorite, he was the standard dedicatee of translations of sexy pagans like Ovid. Most of the translations that came out of Cecil House while Oxford lived there were dedicated to William Cecil, but Cecil was too concerned with his reputation as a Reformation patron to have wanted his name on a poem about the sex lives of the pagan gods, however classic.

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