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Home :: Archive :: 1993 :: November ::
Re: Shakespeare: the Evidence
Shakespeare Electronic Conference, Vol. 4, No. 757. Thursday, 11 November 1993.
 
From:           Martin Green <
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Date:           Wednesday, 10 Nov 93 11:12:06 -0400
Subject:        Shakespeare - the Evidence
 
Well, I tried to send this directly to Larry Schwartz but, no doubt
through my ineptitude, it was returned. So here are my comments, sent
in a more public forum, by someone painfully aware that people who live
in glass houses shouldn't throw stones.
 
===============================================================================
Yes, I've read Wilson's book, and while it is, on the whole, a perfectly good
biography, I fault it for not living up to the claims in its title.  I must
tell  you up front, however, that I'm the author of a competing book, and thus
you may feel warranted in discounting  - perhaps 100% - my comments. But, for
whatever they're worth,  here are my views:
 
Wilson's book, entitled _Shakespeare: The Evidence_ is subtitled "Unlocking the
Mysteries of the Man and his Work." Basically, it is a review of the few,
well-known materials we have about Shakespeare's life, and, in fact, "unlocks"
nothing.
 
Since, presumably, a blurb on a jacket focuses on what the author thinks the
book is about, I shall primarily address only the book's treatment of those
"mysteries surrounding the man and his work" which are listed on the jacket
blurb, and which,  one might think, the book would attempt to unlock. The
specific mysteries featured in the  jacket blurb are:
 
1. How much does the latest archaeology tell us of the theatre Shakespeare
knew?
 
2. Who were his fellow actors?
 
3. Were he and his family Protestants or Catholics?
 
4.  Was he a homosexual - or an adulterer?
 
5. Who was the Dark Lady?
 
6.  Why, when just about to retire to Stratford, did he purchase a mysterious
London gatehouse?
 
7.  Why did he leave behind no manuscripts of his work, nor even a single
letter?
 
8. Finally, why did he set a curse upon his grave?
 
Now, it seems to me that "mysteries" 1 and 2 hardly qualify as such. In any
event, accepting the "mysteries" as the jacket blurb states them to be,  Wilson
does not "unlock" them; here are his solutions to each of the mysteries
featured on the jacket:
 
1. Wilson  devotes two paragraphs (on pp. 114-115) to describing the Rose
theatre (shape, size, etc.) as it is emerging from the excavations in London,
and while I will not quarrel with anyone who says that this information is of
value in envisioning what a Shakespearean production must have looked like to
an Elizabethan audience, this is a theme which Wilson does not develop;
 
2. So far as I can see, Wilson, in answer to this question, recapitulates (at
pages 116-118) only already well-known material (see, e.g., Chambers' _William
Shakespeare_, II, 71-87);
 
3. Wilson doesn't know (p. 55); he knows only that Shakespeare grew up in an
atmosphere "far more subtle and politically charge" (p. 56) than might be
expected in a simple glover's (or butcher's) shop;
 
4. Homosexual? No. Wilson's reason: he was genuinely God-fearing, and religious
people considered sodomy as an instant passport to hell (p. 146); adulterer?
Yes, with the Dark Lady (p. 150);
 
5.  Wilson says that the Dark Lady is Emilia Bassano because, of all those
proposed, "by far the most convincing Dark Lady [is] one discovered  by chance
by Dr. A. L. Rowse" (p. 154); Wilson gives no reason of his own in support of
Rowse's conclusion, nor does he point out that the basis for Rowse's conclusion
was an error in reading a manuscript;
 
6.  The gatehouse was associated with Catholic activities, but "the documents
throw little further light on exactly why Shakespeare chose to buy this
particular property" (p. 375);
 
7.  So far as I can find, Wilson does not attempt to explain the lack of
surviving letters; I guess it was just a rhetorical question;
 
8. In the curse over his grave, "Shakespeare tak[es] his stance particularly
stridently against the sacrileges he had seen Protestant clerics committing
throughout his lifetime, during which it had been all too common for them
unceremoniously to turn out old bones of those laid to rest in the Catholic
past in order to make way for the monuments and other vanities of the
Protestant present. . . . It is almost as if Shakespeare's curse was a form of
battening-down of the hatches in the hope that one day the church might be
returned to the old Catholic rite" (pp. 395-396).
 
Now, as a standard biography of Shakespeare, the book is OK, and, in fact,
utilizes interesting background material not found in other books on
Shakespeare. Like Dennis Kay's recent book (_Shakespeare, His Life, Work and
Era_) it suggests that Shakespeare was a Roman Catholic, at least in his youth.
Also, Wilson's suggestion that Ferdinando Stanley, 5th (and shortlived) Earl of
Darby was a patron of Shakespeare, is interesting and provocative.
 
But the book offers itself as something other than a standard biography: its
title suggests that it's going to resolve certain questions. "The Evidence" -
the evidence for what? The first chapter discusses the authorship question, and
one expects, somewhere along the way, a discussion that the "evidence" - the
material, I suppose, which Wilson presents re the facts of Shakespeare's life -
will lead to a conclusion as to why the actor from Stratford is indeed the
author of the plays: but Wilson never ties up at the end the threads that he
threw out at the beginning.  Perhaps he thinks that his review of the life of
Shakespeare shows convincingly enough that the actor in fact wrote the plays (a
proposition of which I have no doubt) - but I think that he should have
expressly addressed somewhere in the book the question he raises at the
beginning. But the first-chapter question, like the jacket-blurb questions,
remains unanswered.
 
So the reason for my unhappiness with Wilson's book is that, as the foregoing
review of Wilson's treatment of his  mysteries reveals, the actual text does
not even attempt to live up to the promise of the subtitle: "Unlocking the
Mysteries of the Man and His Work." Had the book not promised so much, I would
not have expected so much: but since it promised, and I expected, I necessarily
am disappointed.
 
(It occurs to me that the poor author might be the victim of his publisher's
marketing people, who may  have felt that the author of _The Turin Shroud_,
_Jesus, the Evidence_, and _The Columbus Myth_, had to be touted as making,
with respect to Shakespeare, startling disclosures. But he makes no startling
disclosures.)
 
        Martin Green 
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