Anyone can make,a silly
mistake, but not all of us find our blunders rewarded with lucrative
Harvard and Oxford professorships. Listen, then, to the shocking story
of Shakespeare scholarship.
Shakespeare biography is in what might be described as a persistent
vegetative state. This is a rather natural result of trying to write
a man’s life without taking the preliminary step of making sure
you’ve got the right guy. I own more than two dozen biographies
of the Stratford man, most of them fairly recent, who has been mistaken
for the real author for nearly four centuries.
Fortunately, some excellent literary criticism of the works is still
being written, because it doesn’t depend on biography. Whoever
wrote King Lear, it remains a wonderful play. New and interesting things
can still be said about it; Stephen Booth’s brilliant study of
its “indefinition” shows how its seeming loose ends and
contradictions actually display the subtlest artistry.
But the biographical department of Shakespeare scholarship is another
matter entirely, marked by amazing obtuseness. Highly intelligent people
can be obtuse when they refuse to use their heads; and this is often
the case with certified experts in any field who claim slam-dunk certainty
when simple common sense might have saved them from embarrassing errors.
In the prestigious Oxford edition of Shakespeare’s Complete
Works, the editors Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor commit some incredible
howlers. In a section of miscellaneous items headed “Various
Poems,” they include such crude rhymes as this, “Upon a
pair of glove that master sent to his mistress,” linked to the
Bard only by dubious legend:
The gift is small,
The will is all:
Then there is “An extemporary epitaph on John Combe, a noted
Ten in the hundred lies here engraved;
A hundred to ten his soul is not saved.
If anyone ask who lies in this tomb,
“O ho!” quoth the devil, “’tis my John-a-Combe.”
All the experts agree …
There’s plenty more where this
came from, including the Stratford man’s gravestone inscription,
with its mighty climax: “And
curst be he that moves my bones.” Such trifles are dated to his
later years, after he’d left the London theater.
How do we know Shakespeare wrote this goofy stuff? Because someone
or other said he did, and as Professor Wells solemnly notes, “none
of [these] poems was ever attributed to anyone else.” What more
proof do we need?
To say that the author of The Rape of Lucrece descended to this level
in his later years (when he’d supposedly retired to Stratford)
is like contending that Bach finally gave up writing fugues for hip-hop.
These things hardly rise to the level of tavern-wit. The idea that
they are the fruits of the great poet’s maturity is absurd beyond
Lucrece is written in rhyme royal, an extremely difficult seven-line
stanza form few English poets have ever attempted, let alone mastered.
Read two pages of it, and ask yourself if it’s even conceivable
that its author spent his final years composing bits of crude doggerel.
So what happened? Have Professors Wells and Taylor been hooted out
of academe? On the contrary, they stand at the pinnacle of their profession.
Nobody cracks a smile when they offer such obvious nonsense.
In fact, Harvard’s Stephen Greenblatt, author of a bestselling
Shakespeare biography a year or two ago, also includes the same items
in his own edition of the “complete” works. Not surprisingly,
the biography got a rave review from Stanley Wells.
It would be scandalous if it weren’t so funny. These gents
are not only professional scholars, but acknowledged leaders in their
field. Mr. Ripley, call your office. This episode belongs in “Believe
It or Not”!
Nothing in the Stratford man’s will, written shortly before
his death at age 52, suggests that he had ever made a living by his
pen, let alone that he’d been the most lavishly praised poet
of his day. Did that just slip his mind? Had a preoccupation with real
estate totally displaced the literary interests which, the experts
tell us, had consumed nearly his whole adult life?
Or if, as we’re also told, he’d retired from the London
theater and returned to Stratford before he was 50, why didn’t
he resume writing gentlemanly poetry like Lucrece in his leisure time?
Was writing doggerel in Stratford more profitable than writing tragedies
in London? I’m sure no explanation would be too far-fetched for
the experts — except, of course, for the obvious one.
Copyright © 2011 by the Fitzgerald
Griffin Foundation. All rights reserved. This column was published originally
by Griffin Internet Syndicate on January 3, 2006. Joe Sobran is the author
of Alias Shakespeare: Solving the Greatest Literary
Mystery of All Time (The Free Press, 1997).
Joe Sobran was an author and a syndicated columnist. See bio
and archives of some of his columns.
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