When I was a teenager growing up in Northern California at the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, Shakespeare was Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey in velvet clothing stroking each other and panting poetic dialogue in amber-tinged moonlight. The author was relatable: his star-crossed lovers could have been my peers, and it seemed obvious to me that anyone who’d ever been in love and had half an imagination could have dreamed up the plot. Fortunately my 9th grade English teacher, Mrs. Carol Graves, had let our class know that the identity of the author of Romeo and Juliet was sometimes disputed. That other individuals with more record of having lived a writer’s life had been suggested as having been the true author; such as Francis Bacon and Mary Sidney. Because there was so little surviving factual evidence, she informed us that the biography she was required to teach was mostly surmised. The expression on her face as she continued her lecture was as desolate as her surname.
I went on to study drama in college in San Francisco and remember at some point in a roundtable discussion grappling with the arbitrary, unconscionable actions of King Lear. Having been raised in a loving family I could not understand how any father could have been so cruel to his demonstrably true-hearted daughter! I finally decided that Lear simply had to have been drunk to have engaged in such wrong-headed behavior. Dramaturgy draws creative people who wear their hearts on their sleeves and from the stressful lability required of the craft they can emotionally disintegrate away from the stage. As a sheltered girl from a middle-class home I was sometimes shocked to watch my theater colleagues raging in their alcoholic or drug-induced stupors. But as time went on I was even more disturbed to see some of these magnificent artists succumbing to clinical depression—and those that didn’t succeed in ending their lives doing their best to make life miserable for themselves and everyone around them.
About half a century later, with decades of working in regional and educational theater as an actress, stage technician, technical director and production designer, in 1999 I happened to read a Panel discussion in Harper’s Magazine, “The Ghost of Shakespeare.” Of the panelists, Mark Anderson’s words in particular resonated with me and I was prompted to read his “Shakespeare” by Another Name. Learning about the biography of de Vere was like a truth portal drawing open a fogbank in a cheesy science fiction movie. The Shakespeare canon, with all its quirky, often unknowable allusions suddenly made more sense to me. And Lear. Wow, to me he was no longer a raging alcoholic but a terribly depressed human being. The words were no longer those of a carefree wordsmith dancing a merry branle with a lusty barmaid, but those of a deep, brooding thinker; a person whose privileged life was complicated and problematic; a troubled soul falling backwards over the brink into the darkness.
“How I Became an Oxfordian” is edited by Bob Meyers. You may submit your essay on this topic (500 words or less in an editable format such as MS Word), along with a digital photo of yourself, to: email@example.com. Also include a sentence about yourself (e.g., “John J. Smith is a businessman in San Francisco.”).
Next week’s essay is by William Ray.
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