What a Shakespeare folio does not prove

A copy of the 1623 folio of Shakespeare’s collected plays has been discovered as part of a former Jesuit library in France.  This has re-ingnited speculation that Shakespeare was a Roman Catholic.  But, as Shakespeare scholar David Scott Kastan points out, that a Jesuit would own a copy of a Shakespeare book published after his death proves no such thing.  In fact, another folio in another Jesuit library was heavily censored for what the owners back then considered anti-Catholic sentiments. [Read more...]

Shakespeare the capitalist

One of the many unfortunate legacies of Romanticism (there were some fortunate ones as well) is the mystification of the artist, as if, say, a literary genius were some ethereal sensitive soul far above the crass material realm of everyday life.  Whereas in reality, actual literary geniuses–like Chaucer, Jane Austen, Dickens–tend to be of solid, down-to-earth middle class stock.  That certainly was true of William Shakespeare.  Recent research into the abundant records of his business dealings show him to have been a rather ruthless capitalist. [Read more...]

Finding and seeing Richard III

We blogged about how archeologists have discovered what they thought was the skeleton of King Richard III, the monarch who, according to Shakespeare’s play of the same name, murdered his way to the crown until he was killed at the Battle of Bosworth field (“a horse!  My kingdom for a horse!”) by Henry, the Earl of Richmond, who would found the Tudor dynasty.  Well, yesterday DNA evidence confirmed that the skeleton–with its curved spine (Shakespeare described him as a hunchback) and a skull that had been hacked by a sword–is, in fact, that of Richard III, the last of the Plantagenets.  Not only that, facial reconstruction based on the skull showed his face, which is exactly that of a contemporary portrait of Richard.  This has also sparked controversy about whether Shakespeare was a propagandist for the Tudors in making him such an over-the-top but extraordinarily interesting villain.  Some say Richard was a good king after all.  The details of the DNA research, my take on the controversy, and the  pictures are after the jump. [Read more...]

Jesus and other punsters

The BBC has a wonderful article by Sally Davies on puns, basically a review of John Pollack’s book  The Pun Also Rises: How the Humble Pun Revolutionized Language, Changed History, and Made Wordplay More Than Some Antics.  The article offers different theories of puns, most of them ludicrous.  (Why are “power” and “coping with despair” considered valid categories of explanation, while “because they are funny” is apparently not?) Puns have often been condemned, though they are used by by such luminaries as Shakespeare and JESUS (so there can’t be anything wrong with them).  The article includes some world-class puns.  Read it, linked below.  Here is a sample: [Read more...]

Digging up Shakespeare

An effort is afoot to dig up the body of William Shakespeare:

Paleontologists are looking to examine the remains of William Shakespeare, hoping to unlock the mysteries of the life and death of the world’s most famous playwright — and to prove that the poet once puffed.

The bard is buried under a local church in Stratford-upon-Avon. And a team of scientists, led by Francis Thackeray — an anthropologist and director of the Institute for Human Evolution at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa — have submitted a formal application to the Church of England for permission to probe the site where he sleeps, perchance where he dreams.

Safely, of course.

“We have incredible techniques,” Thackeray told FoxNews.com, referring to the “nondestructive analysis” the team has planned. “We don’t intend to move the remains at all.” Instead the team will perform the forensic analysis using state-of-the-art technology to scan the bones and create a groundbreaking reconstruction.

The first job is to confirm the playwright’s identity, Thackeray said.

“We’ll have to establish the age and gender of the individual,” he told FoxNews.com. The team also plans DNA tests for not only Shakespeare, but also the remains of his wife and sister, also buried at the Holy Trinity Church.

For Thackeray, the next priority is solving the longstanding mystery of Shakespeare’s final days. “We would like to find out the cause of death, which is not known historically.”

If all goes well, he believes the research could ultimately establish a full health history and build a picture of the kind of life the writer led. “Growth increments in the teeth will reveal if he went through periods of stress or illness — a plague for example, which killed many people in the 1600s,” Thackeray explained.

The team also looks to address a controversial suggestion Thackeray made a decade ago, when he examined a collection of two dozen pipes found in the playwright’s garden and determined that Shakespeare was an avid marijuana smoker.

Thackeray claimed the devices were used to smoke cannabis, a plant actively cultivated in Britain at the time. The allegation has provoked disbelief and anger among some fans of the bard.

via Did Shakespeare Smoke Weed? Let’s Dig Him Up and Find Out – FoxNews.com.

I wouldn’t do that if I were you.  On his tomb, the Bard himself begs people, in Jesus’ name, to leave his body alone.  Not only that, he put a curse on anyone who would be so presumptuous as to dig him up:

“Good frend for Jesus sake forebeare,/ To digg the dust encloased heare;/ Bleste be the man that spares thes stones,/ And curst be he that moves my bones.”

I’m suspicious of this story.  The Church of England says that it has received no such request to exhume Shakespeare.  Though the Institute and Prof. Thackeray seem to exist, their expertise on Shakespeare sounds very shaky.  Yes, people have grown hemp for centuries, but it was used for rope, not dope!  There is NO evidence that I have seen, NO documentary evidence, that anyone smoked weed in the 16th or 17th centuries.  If that happened, Shakespeare would have written about it.

Shakespeare’s grammar: “He words me”

A neuroscientist describes one of the things that is so remarkable about Shakespeare’s language:  The way he–along with the Elizabethan English of his time–can use words for different parts of speech:

E. A. Abbott (1838-1926) was one of the great Victorian schoolmasters, who wrote, at the age of thirty, A Shakespearian Grammar. He described it as an attempt to illustrate some of the differences between Elizabethan and Victorian English so that his students could understand that the difficulty of Shakespeare lay not so much in the individual words, which could always be looked up in a glossary, as in the syntactic shaping of his thought. In Elizabethan grammar, he said, ‘it was common to place words in the order in which they came uppermost in the mind’ – and then fit the syntax around that mental excitement. Elizabethan authors, he continued, never objected to any ellipsis – any grammatical shortcut – ‘provided the deficiency could be easily supplied from the context’.

I told my brain scientists that one small but powerful example of this quick Elizabethan shorthand is what is now called functional shift or word-class conversion – which George Puttenham, writing in 1589, named ‘enallage or the figure of exchange’. It happens when one part of speech is suddenly transformed into another with a different function but hardly any change of form. It sounds dull but in performance is almost electrically exciting in its sudden simple reach for a word. For example: an adjective is made a verb when in The Winter’s Tale heavy thoughts are said to ‘thick my blood’. A pronoun is made into a noun when Olivia in Twelfth Night is called ‘the cruellest she alive’. Prospero turns adverb to noun when he speaks so wonderfully of ‘the dark backward’ of past time; Edgar turns noun to verb when he makes the link with Lear: ‘He childed as I fathered.’ As Abbott says, in Elizabethan English ‘You can “happy” your friend, “malice” or “foot” your enemy, or “fall” axe on his head.’ Richard II is not merely deposed (that’s Latinate paraphrase): he is unkinged.

This mental instrument of fresh linguistic coinage, which Shakespeare used above all, holds in small within itself three great principles. Namely: the creative freedom and fluidity of the language at the time; the economy of energy it offered for suddenly compressed formulations; and the closeness of functional shift to metaphor – that characteristic mental conversion that Shakespeare so loved – in the dynamic shifting of senses.

via Literary Review – Philip Davis on Shakespeare and Neurology.

My favorite example of this is in Antony & Cleopatra (II.ii) when Cleopatra responds says to her handmaidens of  Octavius Caesar’s smooth but deceptive rhetoric:  “He words me, girls, he words me.”

Some of Shakespeare’s language-bending has entered into the language has a whole, to its great enrichment.  For example, he took “lone,” as in “lone wolf,” which simply means “one.”  He added -ly to invent “lonely,” the feeling you get when you are “lone.”

The scientist goes on to do an experiment to try to find out how this works in the brain.  But this is also good literary criticism; that is, noticing what an author is doing.

HT: Joe Carter