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Home :: Archive :: 2003 :: July ::
Re: Michael Wood's In Search of Shakespeare
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 14.1347  Wednesday, 2 July 2003

[1]     From:   Keith Hopkins <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 1 Jul 2003 19:47:25 +0100
        Subj:   Wood on Shakespeare

[2]     From:   Martin Steward <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 1 Jul 2003 20:58:16 +0100
        Subj:   SHK 14.1338 Re: Michael Wood's In Search of Shakespeare

[3]     From:   Tam Nguyen <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 1 Jul 2003 20:38:30 -0700
        Subj:   Re: Michael Wood's In Search of Shakespeare


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Keith Hopkins <
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Date:           Tuesday, 1 Jul 2003 19:47:25 +0100
Subject:        Wood on Shakespeare

I have to say that I do have my reservations about Mr. Wood.   He first
appeared on British Television about 20 years ago, and did a programme
called - In search of Dark Age England, for our US friends, that is not
a description of life in Mr. Blair's Britain, 'though I suppose it might
be',  but England before the Norman conquest. It was and interesting
programme, quite well researched and with a lot of Mr. Woods trade marks
of airy generalisation and half-baked revisionism.

He carried on with his 'in search of themes'  and did one where he
followed in the footsteps of Alexander the Great  Campaign trail which
was all good boys own stuff.

I think the one where I drew the line, was his 'In search of the Trojan
Wars'  when, not withstanding, the paucity of historical material,  Wood
presented as serious history ,pretty much the whole Homeric saga, or in
ways that suggested that the myths had some proven reality.

He was basically and obviously in thrall to Homers story and there is
nothing wrong in that except if you wish to present as a fairly serious
history, which presumably was Woods intention.

His method seems to be a million miles away from, for instance, the work
of the team of brilliant German archaeologists at work at Troy today.
He is also very out of date. He doesn't really seem able to assimilate
work which has been published since the 19th century, and his 'Troy'
programme  went on and on about Schliemann and his contemporaries,  who
important though they are should surely be seen in the light of the most
recent research.

Now we come on to his treatment of Shakespeare.

Wood seems to make a big thing about Shakespeare's Catholic roots as
though this was some new and exciting discovery, again another Wood
trait to talk up the stock of things which if not established facts have
been so well known or suspected  for so many years as to be stunningly
obvious.

Shakespeare's Catholic roots have been discussed by critics and
biographers for at least a hundred and fifty years. Wood seems to think
he has made a terribly exciting discovery. It is perfectly true that
what one might call the Whig or Protestant custodians of English culture
in the 18th and early 19th century were less than enthusiastic about
England's greatest artist and symbol of independence having had Catholic
parents, or horror of horrors!, even being a Catholic himself.

But Wood, unsurprisingly I suppose, for a product of the 1960's seems to
think that the establishment in recent years was, or is terribly
concerned about this. To suggest as he has in the recent article that
the idea that Shakespeare grew up a Catholic was unthinkable to the
Victorians, is utter and complete Bunkum, indeed dangerous bunkum,
because it casts an unjustified blight on the work of such great
scholars such as;  George Russel French,   Halliwell-Phillips, and
Edward Dowden.

He also seems not to be aware again of the most recent research which I
find to be a little troubling in someone who professes to teach popular
history, he says that there is not recent work as yet, which can locate
Shakespeare in his time and place and in a way that commands broad
agreement.

Has he not heard of or does it not suit him to mention the brilliant
biography that came out in 1998 by, 'Park Honan' called 'Shakespeare a
Life'?.

This is all very much a piece, I think with Woods utterly outdated
liberal prejudices about Shakespeare which taint pretty much all that he
says.  Shakespeare's religion, has been for at least a hundred years an
ambiguous question and if Victorian scholars said little about it, it is
because, even today little is known of it.

Whether Shakespeare may have been taught by Jesuit teachers at
Stratford, is utterly beside the point, because all teachers whatever
their persuasion were required  to enforce the teaching of the
Elizabethan religious settlement.

Certainly in the 1580's paranoia set in and in the 1590's attendance at
Anglican service was compulsory.  But outward conformity was one thing,
the freedom of the artist was another, and Wood seems unable to
understand that Shakespeare could move as easily in both worlds when it
suited him and nothing is to be inferred from his non-attendance at
churches in London if that is the case, because the whole point about
late renaissance England is that behind all the sound and fury of
religious disputes, religion was becoming far less important in peoples
lives.

For Wood to say that Shakespeare is ambiguous in this respect is a mere
platitude.  Has he not read  'Hamlet'? Indeed it a matter of concern
that Shakespeare's plays are obviously a no go area for Wood, who either
has not read them or does not bother to read them, or if he has failed
to think about them.      He is presenting as a novel arguement things
that have been known about for many years, and he is trying to re-locate
Shakespeare in some sort of grey half protestant, half Catholic
hinterland which I am not sure is of any real relevance, certainly to
the plays, and in any event has been known about for a century or
more.     Certainly, if some new documents cast new light on
Shakespeare's links to recusants or his own recusancy then no doubt we
would all be interested, but does the Phoenix and the Turtle poem really
suggest as Wood would have us believe that it shows the Bards connection
with Catholic circles?.  I think Woods claim that Shakespeare's possible
crypto Catholicism taught him to sympathize with others and made him
evasive for fear of being persecuted is risible,  the best laugh I have
had for a while!.  It is clear that Wood really understands nothing at
least about Shakespeare the artist and universal genius. I used to think
that any history even bad history was worth a run in order to get people
interested in the subject.

Now I am not so sure.

PS. Are there history programmes on American TV?  I must confess one
point here, which is that I do not have a television and I rely for my
Wood expose on his book based on the programme and a recent article he
wrote in the FT  magazine.    I remember seeing his earlier programmes
at a friends house.

Finally, I would just like to say there appears some confusion in Mr.
Woods mind as to the difference between 'Catholicism and 'Roman
Catholicism and he seems to be unaware of the differences between the
party description and the wider term.

Best wishes,
Keith Hopkins
London

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Martin Steward <
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Date:           Tuesday, 1 Jul 2003 20:58:16 +0100
Subject: Re: Michael Wood's In Search of Shakespeare
Comment:        SHK 14.1338 Re: Michael Wood's In Search of Shakespeare

"Martin Steward seems to be objecting to Wood's use of the term
'Catholicism' as opposed to the term 'Roman Catholicism' in reference to
Shakespeare's religious stance. But contemporary usage seems comfortable
with 'Catholicism' as shorthand for 'Roman Catholicism,' as opposed to
Catholicism of some other kind."

Well, yes, I had noticed - but that doesn't make it right, or, more
importantly, useful. Besides, any Anglican who recites his or her creed
must know full well that the Catholic Church most avowedly is not the
Roman one.

Shakespeare certainly saw himself as a member of the Catholic Church - a
number of his plays work very hard at teasing out the possible meanings
of this Catholicism, and it was precisely the Catholicism of his Church
that Shakespeare seems to have been interested in and attracted to (as
ever, I point readers to Cymbeline on this issue above all the other
plays). He almost certainly was not, I would contend, a member of the
Roman Catholic Church.

I encourage everyone to turn to the splendid and scandalously underrated
Richard Field for a lucid explanation of what these terms meant for
Shakespeare's contemporaries: Of the Church (London 1606), esp. the
opening of Book I.

m

[3]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Tam Nguyen <
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 >
Date:           Tuesday, 1 Jul 2003 20:38:30 -0700
Subject: 14.1338 Re: Michael Wood's In Search of Shakespeare
Comment:        Re: SHK 14.1338 Re: Michael Wood's In Search of Shakespeare

>I had heard this project was in the works (I enjoy Wood's work).  Is it
>now showing only in the UK?

According to J. Cranmer of Maya Vision International, Woods' documentary
is scheduled to air in the US on PBS in January 2004.  It will be
released on VHS & DVD at the end of July, 2003 - but on the UK PAL TV
system and the DVD will be encoded for Region 2 (not US format).

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