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Part three: Norwood reviews PBS series Shakespeare Uncovered

James Norwood, PhD says PBS series “Shakespeare Uncovered” inadvertently reveals inadequacies of Stratfordian attribution of Shake-speare’s plays. In part three of his review, Norwood examines episodes on Antony and Cleopatra, and Romeo and Juliet. See“Shakespeare Uncovered” for more information.

Part three of review of Shakespeare Uncovered:
Antony and Cleopatra and Romeo and Juliet
by James Norwood, PhD

Maurice Charney is a retired English professor from Rutgers University and the author of the book Shakespeare On Love & Lust (Columbia University, 2000). The dust jacket features a photograph of actors Joseph Fiennes and Gwyneth Paltrow in the 1998 film comedy Shakespeare in Love.

Charney’s thesis is that Shakespeare’s treatment of love is more erotic than the idealized neoplatonic philosophy of such Italian Renaissance theorists as Marsilio Ficino. But English Renaissance playwrights were not engaged primarily in abstract neoplatonic thinking. They were developing moment-to-moment human realities in intense character interactions to be presented on the stage. The idea that the author of Shakespeare’s works could be drawing upon his own life experience to write about love never seems to occur to Charney, who asserts that the author remains “curiously hidden”.

In 1984, Charney appeared with Charlton Ogburn, Jr. on the television program Firing Line, with William F. Buckley, Jr. serving as moderator. The goal of the program was to debate the Shakespeare authorship question. Charney represented the Stratfordian position, and Ogburn argued for the Oxfordian side. But rather than discuss the issues raised by Ogburn, Charney would consistently derail the conversation by categorically rejecting as preposterous any idea contrary to his Stratfordian position. Gordon Cyr, PhD, reviewed the program under the title “Firing Line Debate”  in the Shakespeare Oxford Society Newsletter, Vol. 20, No. 3 in 1984.

In Antony and Cleopatra and Romeo and Juliet, the author Shakespeare wrote two of the world’s most enduring tragedies of love. But after four hundred years, the conventional biographers have failed to uncover evidence from the author’s life to inform our understanding of how he wrote so profoundly about love in the plays, sonnets, and narrative poems. In this final episode of the second season of the PBS series Shakespeare Uncovered, will the two programs offer new insights about the playwright, or will the author continue to remain “curiously hidden”?

Antony and Cleopatra (full episode link)

In 1937, a production of Antony and Cleopatra starring Tallulah Bankhead was roasted by New York critic John Mason Brown as follows:  “Tallulah Bankhead barged down the Nile last night as Cleopatra – and sank.”

Antony and Cleopatra is nearly impossible to produce successfully. Through no fault of their own, notable performers have failed to engage audiences in productions of this play — a reality that is lost on the producers of this segment of Shakespeare Uncovered.

Apparently building on her career-defining role as Samantha Jones in the TV series Sex and the City, actress Kim Cattrall played Cleopatra in two British productions in 2010 and 2012, receiving mixed notices on both occasions. Invariably, the polite reviewers described the productions as flawed. For the 2010 production, critic Charles Spencer wrote of Cattrall’s interpretation: “. . . she often misses the pulse of the verse, and she has a tendency to shout stridently.”

The critic Jane Shilling wrote of Cattrall’s 2012 Cleopatra that she was in strained voice.  Unwittingly, the critics were realizing the worst nightmare expressed by the character herself in Shakespeare’s play that after her death, “some squeaking Cleopatra” would impersonate her greatness on the stage.

The Shakespeare Uncovered program tap dances around the troubled stage history of Antony and Cleopatra.  Professor Jonathan Bate describes the play as a tragedy with powerful elements of comedy.  But he does not acknowledge the play’s unusual combination of four acts of comedy and one act of tragedy.

The first four acts are The Taming of the Shrew redux, and the final act has the somber tone of Shakespeare’s narrative poem The Rape of Lucrece. Cattrall refers to the play’s structure as cinematic. But the play has never made a successful transition to either the big or small screen.  Despite Janet Suzman’s dynamic 1974 performance, the televised version failed to compel audiences.

Perhaps the Irish scholar Edward Dowden summarized Antony and Cleopatra best when he wrote over a century ago that, “Shakespeare’s tragedy fills the imagination better than the stage.”

As a playwright, the author known as Shakespeare was a master craftsman who was in complete control of his stage in terms of building scenes rhythmically and devising well-motivated entrances and exits.  But until the final act of Antony and Cleopatra, the dramatist is not controlling the mood and the pace. Nor is he building drama into the scenes. The fragmentary fifteen scenes of act four suggest that this was an early draft, as opposed to a final script.

To uncover the truth about this unique play, it is essential to understand the nature of Elizabethan satire — a term that is never mentioned in this program. Elizabethan satirical writing was social, political, and religious criticism to be interpreted on multiple levels through the use of allegory. In a previous Shakespeare Uncovered program, allegory was raised in a discussion of the character Titania from A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the title character from Spenser’s lengthy poem, The Faerie Queene — both of whom may be interpreted as allegorical representations of Elizabeth I.

But there is only one moment in this program when the comparison of Elizabeth and Cleopatra is implied, and there is no indication that the writer’s chief purpose was satire. Professor Bate barely touches on this subject when he says, “I think audiences would have seen some resemblances. Elizabeth was famous for using her sexuality as a political tool. She was famous for her temper and for her wit. And all these things, of course, Cleopatra has absolutely in spades.”

But Bate sidesteps the issue of explicit satire of the queen when he equivocates as follows:  “I’m not saying Cleopatra was a direct representation of Elizabeth.”

Through the Middle Ages and into the Tudor era, people were conditioned to think by analogy. The representation of the Egyptian queen Cleopatra as Elizabeth would have been understood instantly by readers or theatergoers, leading to the inescapable conclusion that her treatment in the play was a direct representation of the English queen.

By focusing on the pattern of allegory, it becomes apparent that the author was writing a biting satire of the queen and her male consort, as apparent in the tempestuous relationship of Antony and Cleopatra depicted in acts one through four. The most logical candidate as the model for Antony is Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. The famous speech of Enobarbus describing Cleopatra’s alleged first meeting with Antony on her barge at Cydnus is mentioned in the Shakespeare Uncovered program. But if we place the speech in the historical context of those occasions when Elizabeth rode on her own barge on the River Thames accompanied by Dudley, the speech resonates with an entirely new meaning:

One soft April evening when the silvery Thames rippled invitingly between its banks, Elizabeth with her retinue entered the gilded State barge manned by liveried oarsmen, and rowed up towards the city….Lord Robert Dudley, master of the horse, handed out the Queen, whilst less privileged courtiers offered eager assistance to the Maids of Honour.  The girls gathered their wraps round them as they walked through the Palace garden, where the scene of pale spring flowers hung in the air, and the earth seemed throbbing with the insistent vitality that pulsates through the nights of early spring.

  Violet A. Wilson, Queen Elizabeth’s Maids of Honour and Ladies of the Privy Chamber, London:  John Lane The Bodley Head Limited, 1922, 11.

In Shakespeare Uncovered, Enobarbus’s speech is compared to the original text of Plutarch. But scholar Violet Wilson offers an allegorical assessment of Enobarbus’s description of the barge, concluding that, “Shakespeare, when writing this description of a State barge, doubtless had in mind the one used by Queen Elizabeth.”

If the author wanted to write a satire of the relationship of Robert Dudley and Elizabeth I, the first four acts of Antony and Cleopatra could not have been a more devastating lampoon. Antony is depicted as incompetent in all of his actions, including his own botched suicide attempt. Much of the action is pure farce, such as the hilarious scene when Cleopatra berates and physically assaults the messenger delivering the news of Antony’s marriage to Octavia. Actress Vanessa Redgrave suggests that the self-centered Antony does not even love Cleopatra. And for four acts, Cleopatra is portrayed as a whiny brat with notoriously bad taste in men.

The nuances of this kind of satire could only have been registered by a court insider — not a journeyman actor who at best made casual appearances at court and would not have been privy to the courtly shenanigans that are skewered in this play.

In contrast to the comedic thrust of acts one through four, the playwright’s unparalleled mastery of verse and dramatic character are put on display in act five. Here, the transcendent Cleopatra appears spontaneously following the death of Antony. Well into three hours of the play, Cleopatra finally asserts herself with heroic grandeur, as she intones:

My resolution’s placed, and I have nothing
Of woman in me.  Now from head to foot
I am marble-constant; now the fleeting moon
No planet is of mine. 5.2.38-41

In this moment, Cleopatra begins to transform herself from a human into a goddess.  In these lines, can there be any doubt that Shakespeare was writing about the stoic and indomitable side of Elizabeth?

Romeo and Juliet (full episode link)
The narrator of this program, Joseph Fiennes, played the role of William Shakespeare in the fanciful film Shakespeare In Love (1998). The movie was inspired by an equally inventive novel, Anthony Burgess’s Nothing in the Sun — A Story of Shakespeare’s Love Life (1964). Professor Harold Bloom writes that “I always recommend to my students, in preference to all biographies of Shakespeare, the late Anthony Burgess’s Nothing Like the Sun.”

Over all of the standard biographies, Bloom recommends to his students a work of fiction. Yet the Yale professor dismisses the Shakespeare authorship debate as lunacy.

This Shakespeare Uncovered program is framed by contemporary real-life cases of young lovers who opted for a double suicide. Indeed, the play has the feeling of a case study of the tragic suicide of two young people. Clearly, the author of Romeo and Juliet exposes a gritty authenticity in the depiction of brutal street violence, yet making credible Juliet’s marriage to the murderer of one of her own family members.The dueling sequence that culminates in the deaths of Mercutio and Tybalt was depicted in gruesome detail in Franco Zeffirelli’s brilliant 1968 film.

The climactic suicide of the young couple is part and parcel of a violent world recreated by the author. The heightened language, the integration of sonnets, the presence of a chorus, and the first overt example in theater history of a stage kiss are contrasted with the realism of detail in the stage violence.

The opening scene of the play is startling in the representation of armed servants fighting on behalf of the two feuding families. One of the program’s commentators, composer Stephen Sondheim, describes how it was the family warfare theme — not the love story — that guided the artistic team in the concept for the musical adaptation of Shakespeare’s play that became West Side Story.

In late-sixteenth-century England, an example of this kind of street warfare may be seen in an actual blood feud involving two fiery members of the nobility — Edward de Vere and Thomas Knyvet. And in the strife that occurred over a period of years, the source of contention was a love affair within the two clans!

But Shakespeare Uncovered chooses to avoid searching for actual historical examples among the English nobility for the characters and situations portrayed in the play. Describing the playwright’s treatment of Juliet, commentator Germaine Greer asserts out of the blue and with no scholarly support that “. . . only a nobody from Warwick could have done this. I mean, anyone from the courtier class just wouldn’t have had the imaginative freedom to give this child this passion of power.”

There was no shortage of imaginative freedom for Greer in her highly conjectural book Shakespeare’s Wife (2007), wherein she suggested that Anne Hathaway became a successful malster who paid for the publication of her late husband’s plays in the 1623 First Folio. According to her fellow Stratfordian, James Shapiro, Greer writes out of wishful thinking, as opposed to careful scholarship. Another useful term to describe Greer’s methodology is fantasy. (Shapiro reviewed  Shakespeare’s Wife, under the title “Visible Woman” in the Sept. 2007 edition of the London Review of Books.)

Yet neither Greer nor any of the commentators are able to explain how a Warwickshire author from the middling order could write with trenchant naturalism about members of the nobility. In the sixteenth century, marriages arranged for wealth and title were just as prevalent among the English aristocracy as in Italy, and those are the precise relationships depicted by the author of Romeo and Juliet.

Like other Stratfordians, Greer is working from the false assumption that the author was writing exclusively from imagination. If the dramatist was drawing on his own experience for the situations and characters of his plays, including the luminous portrayal of Juliet, then it is clear that he was merely transmuting his personal environment to the world of the stage.

The program takes a brief look at Shakespeare’s source for Romeo and Juliet, which was a lengthy poem entitled The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet, published in 1562. This earlier version was composed in the verse form of poulters measure, which alternates twelve- and fourteen-syllable lines and utilizes rhyming couplets throughout the poem, ending with this pair of lines as a tribute to the young lovers:

There is no monument more worthy of the sight,
Then [sic] is the tombe of Juliet, and Romeus her knight.

With greater simplicity in the play version, Shakespeare abbreviates this couplet into the beautiful iambic pentameter (ten-syllable) verse lines that end the tragedy:

For never was a story of more woe
Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.

A lengthy note to the reader was printed prior to the beginning of the Romeus and Juliet poem, indicating that the forthcoming story is intended as a moral lesson. In the note, it is made clear that the two young lovers are guilty of concupiscence and an abhorrent betrayal of their parents. The note recommends the poem as a cautionary tale of “ . . . a coople of unfortunate lovers, thrilling themselves to unhonest desire, neglecting the authoritie and advise of parents and frendes . . .” by leading an “. . . unhonest life, hastnyng to most unhappy death.”

The Shakespeare Uncovered program offers the misleading impression that the author’s address serves as a chorus or narrator within the poem.  To the contrary, there is no chorus and the moral admonition is part of the separate and self-contained note to the reader before the poem begins. Based on the prefatory note, Professor Jonathan Bate asserts that the author was writing a morality play, which is not borne out in a close reading of the poem itself.

By the end of the long Romeus and Juliet poem, it is clear that contrary to the message of the prefatory note, the author has great compassion for the young lovers. There is no rebuke or homily, and one of the closing passages stresses the importance of keeping alive for posterity “. . . the memory of so perfect, sound, and so approved love.”

The two young lovers will be memorialized by removing their bodies from the vault and displaying them “. . . in stately tombe, on pillers great”, where they will rest in perpetuity on public display. The pitfalls of fortune, accident, and coincidence haunt the star-crossed lovers —not the moral shortcomings of the two youths.

While the name of Arthur Brooke was attached to the address to the reader, a completely different voice emanates from the poem itself. In This Star of England (1952), Dorothy and Charlton Ogburn, Sr. were the first scholars to argue that Romeus and Juliet was the work of young Edward de Vere. In this view, the youthful literary work resembles an educational exercise of a child prodigy, which was later adapted for the stage by the mature author, who was writing court spectacles.

By exploring how an early source may have been reworked by the author, a new awareness of the creative process of Shakespeare begins to emerge. Instead of the unsubstantiated hypothesis of the author as a writer in the London public theaters, another model suggests the creative evolution of a writer who begins as a court poet, then comes to learn the craft of the theater, adapting his early poems into plays.

It is enormously convenient for Stratfordians like Maurice Charney to assert that the author of Shakespeare’s works remains, as Charney says, curiously hidden. This position permits him and the numerous commentators for Shakespeare Uncovered to draw almost any conceivable conclusion about the author of the great literary works. This series demonstrates that without an understanding of the true identity of the author, the result is a surface-level and flawed understanding of the plays. Conjecture and hypothesis lead to shallow, unsupported conclusions, based primarily upon the author’s magical powers of imagination.

These programs serve in romanticizing the authorship of the great literary works exactly like the film Shakespeare in Love. Rather than challenging audiences to probe deeper into the evidence about Shakespeare’s life and world, they recycle the same clichés about imagination, genius, and a man of the theater.

But by shifting our focus to the world of the court, a new perspective appears based on the author’s background, education, and creative process as a literary artist. That is how we uncover Shakespeare.

About Linda Theil

One comment

  1. Yes, James, you named it. “…to truly uncover the creative process of the author of The Taming of the Shrew and Othello, it is essential to acknowledge that the playwright was writing his masterworks not from perspectives gleaned from a life on the stage, but by exposing his personal experience from the stage of life.”

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