Saturday, April 18, 2009

Well, So Much for Their Judgment...

I see that the Wall Street Journal has outed Justice John Paul Stevens as among the tribe of unbelievers who think that Shakesepeare did not write Shakespeare--not only that, but that Stevens has marshalling three other Justices (one deceased) on his side.

Well, no point in arguing with him--I know of no instance where an unbeliever was ever convinced back to the true faith. They certainly do enjoy the squabble though, which always struck me as tedious and distracting.

At the risk of transgressing my own first principle, I will offer a few thoughts by way of trying to situate it. That is: it seems to me that the notion that "Shakespeare could not have been Shakespeare" is based largely on a misconception: a misunderstanding of who Shakespeare was and what he did. He was, in particular no "universal genius." He was first of all, a working entertainer (and, by the by, a pretty good businessman-entrepreneur) with an extraordinary knack for engaging with--and responding to--the great, crackling fireworks display that was 16th-Century London. He was also a master pillager of other people's works and ideas. I mean no disrepect here: Shakespeare was a career marauder, but he never once stole an idea that he didn't improve. If you doubt it, lay your hands on a copy of Shakespeare's Plutarch; read North's translation of the relevant Plutarch lives, and then compare with the Shakespearean rendition's helpfully footnooted at the bottom of the page. Or do something similar with Holinshed's Chronicles As Used in Shakespeare's Plays (I grant that neither of these is easy to find--both appear to be out of print--but they are worth the effort)(but cf. Chris' comment below--ed).

I want to add, perhaps pompously "or just see the plays." That's the right advice as far as it goes: Shakespeare wrote first and last for the working theatre and he never else carries conviction better. The trouble is that there is a fair amount of awful Shakespeare around not least in the movies, mostly because producers too often fall into the marmoreal error: treating him as a statute to be admired, rather than letting his own energy shine through. Fact is I have a suspicion that this is often exactly the problem with the "somebody else" cult (though in fairness, I don't know whether this is true of Justice Stevens himself)--most of them seem far more interested in combing and sifting the "evidence" than in letting the plays stand on their own terms.

Fn.: I see that Roberts and Alito and Roberts won't tell which side they are on here. What is that all about? Is there some sort of Federalist Society memo here?

Fn.: I see that I have written my annual Shakespeare birthday piece, only five days early.


Chris said...

That's the most sensible thing I've ever read on the Shakespeare controversy.

Google Books has the Plutarch and the Holinshed. Now if only one could read them on a Kindle, I might get a one.

Buce said...

Thanks, always good to hear from a satisfied customer. And thanks doubly for the Google links tip--it never occurred to me.