Conference – “Shakespeare: from Rowe to Shapiro”
The Globe/London: 28 November 2009
Reported by De Vere Society Secretary Richard Malim with assistance from Kevin Gilvary
Shakespeare’s Globe are to be applauded for organising a conference drawing together many academics who have published on the life of Shakespeare. Among those present were various Oxfordians, Dr. William Leahy, and Mark Rylance, who has done so much to bring the authorship question to the fore. The conference was not particularly well attended, with about 60 present including a number of students and there were eleven speakers.
The content of some of these papers was very mixed: some must be passed over in the silence of anonymity as even the academic applause was moderate. For example, one speaker contended that the eleven year old William Shakespeare might have been entranced by his un-evidenced sighting of the Queen at Kenilworth (some eleven miles from Stratford), and thus inspired — but I am left uninspired, and amazed that anything so remote from possibility may be thought to have some claim to scholastic recognition
Two speakers spoke at length on how current biographies affect the writing of historical novels – nothing to do with the history and development of Shakespeare’s biography, but interesting nonetheless to illustrate the cross-over between fact and fiction in Shakespeare biographies.
Graham Holderness confirmed that there two sources for the deer-poaching tradition, which makes it more likely that it is correct: whether it is relevant to the biography as it impinges on the Works was not explained. It is mainly used to explain why the young man left his native country for the uncertainty of city life. Rene Weis thought that more research should be devoted to Shakespeare’s descendants in the hope that evidence of Shakespeare’s library might yet be discovered.
On a more positive note, Brian Cummings emphasised that modern reconstructions or replacements such as St. Paul’s Cathedral, Shakespeare’s Birthplace and the Cottage Garden reflect the taste of the age of the redeveloper. Extrapolating that thesis to scholarship in regard to the canon, such endeavours may invite ridicule today. The Wallaces’ discovery of the Bellott-Mountjoy deposition was a desperate disappointment to them, but with the luxury of hindsight we Oxfordians can inquire what else they could have expected. When the quotation from Coleridge was put to him that he (Coleridge) preferred the internal evidence from the plays to the documentary research of Malone on his (Malone’s) play dating scheme, Professor Cummings answered that he preferred Coleridge’s approach.
Stanley Wells & Paul Edmondson
Stanley Wells and Paul Edmondson launched an attack on the William-Shakespeare-autobiographical thesis for the sonnets. They made some good points particularly about the Dark Lady sonnets 127ff; noting that only three are actually addressed to a woman (139,141 and 145), although others reflect on her dark/black appearance and behaviour. These last group of sonnets smack also of exercise-like material rather than strict autobiography.
They were very effective when they denounced the desire of biographers to find William-Shakespeare-autobiographical references, i.e. the connections between “the lovely boy” and William Shakespeare: in doing so they kicked away the ladder whereby any connection between the irrelevant life and the canon can be invented – a valuable exercise for Oxfordians, who can demonstrate over and over again the biographical connections between Oxford and Southampton in their biographies as they reappear in the Sonnets’ references.
The highlight was the appearance of James Shapiro, whose talk was on the effect of Malone’s conversion of Shakespeare into an autobiographical writer.
Notes on Shapiro’s talk:
Almost nothing we know shines light on his (Shakespeare’s) personality. There are no personal essays and no diaries; we have to admit there is now any chance of further illumination of his inner life is irrevocably lost; and in Malone’s chronological listing there is nothing likewise to be learnt. The temptation for biographers is to line up the life with the works. The loss of his only son in 1596 cannot be said to have inspired the speeches of Constance in King John, as Malone suggests. Likewise there is no evidence that Ann Hathaway was unfaithful to William: Sonnet 93 (“…like a deceived husband”) does not properly connect with the bequest in the will of the second best bed; or that the jealous husband of Othello is a reflection of that surmise.
Furthermore there is no evidence of what William did during the “missing” years 1586-1590 – all that stuff about being a school-master, a lawyer’s clerk, a soldier etc. is unprovable rubbish. There is as a result a temptation for biographers to be ingenious (and here Shapiro confessed he had done it himself), to which they almost all succumb. Wordsworth’s opinion of the Sonnets : “With this key Shakespeare unlocked his heart”, and Coleridge’s view that the plays reflected Shakespeare’s psychological development in the canon are both valueless. The problem is that so much modern writing is autobiographical, modern biographers assume Shakespeare’s writings are the same.
Of course there must be some shards of his life in the works, but we do not know where or why they are included, and Shapiro has no confidence in even the ones suggested by Wells or Weiss. He would dispute Michael Wood’s assertion, that Prospero in The Tempest is an autobiographical portrait, and Greenblatt’s surmises about Shakespeare’s marriage. Both Stratfordians and anti-Stratfordians are at fault when they seek to couple the life and the works and include in apparent topicalities.
These errors are not just an aberration, as the whole approach can be traced back to Malone and his original mistaken view. It diminishes the power of Shakespeare’s imagination: all his characters are within that imagination.
Shapiro’s approach represented a shift (which he actually denied in reply to a question) from what he wrote in his recent book, 1599 A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare, when he wrote:
We know too little because we don’t know very much about what kind of friend or lover or person Shakespeare was . . . Even if we don’t know about his personality, we know a great deal about his career as a writer (more than enough to persuade a reasonable sceptic that he wrote the plays himself).
Now he has destroyed the personality nexus almost completely, diminishing what we (think we ) know about his career as a writer.
It was certainly gratifying that there were none of the usual snide anti-antiStratfordian comments or humour. It is just possible that there is a degree of academic acceptability on the horizon for Oxfordians. The more distinguished speakers were very much against any clear link between particular parts of, or incidents in, William Shakespeare’s life and the works.
By discarding what might have been the stronger argument for Stratfordians, and having to fall back on the chronology scheme as revised by Dowden and Chambers, and only subsequently qualified in minor ways, means this makes the De Vere Society’s dating project even more germane.
Soon William’s case therefore will patently be totally shattered: whether academia will recognize the true extent of the wreck is another matter. First the Oxford biographical connections to the works need to be taken on board, and the criticisms of the conference speakers’ attempts to do that for William will not work on the Oxford connections because of the sheer volume and exactitude of them; and secondly the topicalities. (These were totally ignored by the conference – of course, because there are none such, if the present chronology is used.) Finally the De Vere Society dating project will draw these strands together.
Perhaps the reality of the acceptance of Oxford as the author is an inch or two closer.