Sunday, February 10, 2013

The Bard's Last Hurrah

For well over a century there have been those who doubt that William Shakespeare of Stratford on Avon wrote the plays historically attributed to him. The controversy has always peeked my interest and the more I look into it the more my mind is set that the man from Stradford was indeed the bard. The latest piece I have stumbled across concerned Shakespeare's personal life and how it relates to the plays.

The real origin of the doubts about the authorship of Shakespeare's plays dates back to the early nineteenth century. Before that, it was taken as an incontrovertible fact. But in the nineteenth century, amid the culture of owning slaves and the science of phrenology, there was the concept that some people were better then others. It led to the assumption that more primitive peoples were mentally inferior and that the upper classes were mentally superior to the lower classes. As we know today, that is totally untrue, but along with that, it was called into question how a man who was barely educated, from a middle class family in the small town of Stratford could have moved to London and crafted plays that have come to be regarded as the best literature in the English language. The doubts rolled in and a slew of candidates for the real author were put forward.

The only problem with this scenario is that there are absolutely no facts to back up the idea that someone else wrote and William Shakespeare was just an actor and theater owner. What is has done is to send those who hold that Shakespeare was the author on a quest for every last piece of documentation and evidence that could possibly exist. The shear volume of information retrieved from the Elizabethan and early Jacobian era is astounding. Every piece of evidence points to one answer, that Shakespeare did his own writing.

As a writer myself, I have always been quite offended that the only reason Shakespeare couldn't have done his own writing was because of his class and perceived education and literacy status. The most prominent alternate candidates do have that pedigree and were known to write, but there is no concrete evidence to link a single one of them to the plays. Plus, it requires all the extant attestations that William Shakespeare was from Stratford and wrote the plays. Particularly the attestations in the First Folio, be false and that there was some conspiracy afoot to preserve the secrecy of the real author. We call such ideas that lack evidence and are based more on the alternate theory or denying the real evidence a conspiracy theory. Some of the other ones are that we didn't really land on the moon and the 9/11 was an inside job. Again, no basis in fact, just a denial of the official history and facts and alternate theories that really make no sense.

Then we come to his last plays. His son, Hamnet (named after a family friend in Stratford), died at the age of 11. Just a few years later, in Twelfth Night, we find fraternal twins (mirroring Shakespeare's own children Hamnet and Judith) and the girl thinks the boy dead. It is a main focus of the play. Then we come to Hamlet. The name is different, but similar, but it is the true sense of loss that fills the story that links this play to Hamlet's son. Records of who played what part indicates that Shakespeare played the Ghost. It is an interesting twist on speaking beyond the grave.

But the real interesting bit comes from The Tempest. This story has no direct origins and appears to be original, inspired by news of the day. The records of who played the roll indicate Shakespeare himself played Prospero and that it was not performed at the Globe, but at an indoor theater where the lighting could better be controlled and would call for additional stage directions. If that is true, it is very telling that the words Prospero speaks are words of farewell, appropriate to a writer and actor in his last work. The lines seem to have double meaning, in the story carrying a strong meaning and for Shakespeare himself having a second meaning. This was the last play written and last performance of Shakespeare. He soon retired to Stratford and died five years later. All the dates correspond and it is far too great a coincidence that following the last play written by Shakespeare, the actor retired and that the lines he spoke on stage were so very poignant to a man planning on retiring. None of the alternate candidates have such a connection to the plays.

Sometimes it is hard to believe who holds an anti-Stratfordian opinion. Sir Derek Jacobi does and Samuel Clemens did. But at their heart, the words of Shakespeare have something that requires one thing of the writer, genius. No mind, no matter family status or education, could create such lasting and deeply moving works without genius. Genius knows no class and is not hindered by education. For the one thing that the plays of William Shakespeare most certainly are, are works to be spoken, not read. These are plays by an actor for actors. They offer some of the most challenging parts every created. With few exceptions, we only have dialog to get across to the audience who these characters are and it is done in a masterful and genius way. Yet in The Tempest we have what amounts to a sign off. The perfect end to a glorious career as writer and actor. Prospero is the main character, front and center and has the last lines. Playing Prospero, Shakespeare would have been on stage almost constantly. What a treat for his audience. A man noted as both a playwright and an actor (something we have many of in our own time) having a grand exit as both. Oh, to have been in that audience on the last night he performed.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting blog. It would be great if you can provide more details about it. Thanks you