There is a great phrase in U2′s The Fly, where Bono sings,
“Every artist is a cannibal
every poet is a thief
they all kill their inspiration
then sing about their grief.”
U2 was then in its Big Irony period, and the lyric is supremely ironic, as the first line of it was lifted from an interview with a British textual artist whose name I forget.
With the opening of the latest “Shakespeare could not have written his plays” conspiracy theorist’s latest entry, Anonymous, once again teasing imaginations, Allen Massie rolls his eyes at the notion:
What do Shakespeare, Keats and Dickens have in common, apart from being great writers, masters of the English language? The answer is pretty obvious. None of them went to university; to some extent all three were self-educated. Ben Jonson said that Shakespeare had “small Latin and less Greek”, and likewise I don’t think Dickens and Keats, despite the latter’s “Ode to a Grecian Urn”, had much of either.
What’s the difference between them? Nobody, I think, has ever suggested Keats didn’t write that ode and others, or that Dickens wasn’t the author of Bleak House and Great Expectations. But Shakespeare – ah Shakespeare – there’s a whole industry devoted to trying to prove that somebody else wrote his plays. So here we go again, with a movie from Roland Emmerich, entitled Anonymous, which hands the authorship to Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford.
Never mind that Oxford died in 1604, some years before Shakespeare’s last plays were written and produced. Such considerations are a mere bagatelle when conspiracies are being revealed. Never mind that nobody at the time attributed the authorship to anyone but the man from Stratford. Evidently they were all fooled, even Ben Jonson, a fellow playwright who knew William Shakespeare and was not devoid of jealousy.
Snobbery is the reason for the nonsense. The “uneducated” Shakespeare, an actor and theatre manager, who attended neither Oxford nor Cambridge, could not – could he? – have had all the knowledge of Greece and Rome and Italy etc displayed in the plays.
Massie destroys the argument deftly: aside from death intruding on the theory, Massie notes that Shakespeare reveals what is lacking in his education through the plays, themselves.
What Shakespeare reveals above all is every artist’s gift for thievery; the ability to crib a bit of history, steal the musing of another, lift a snatch of conversation overheard in a pub and then stir it all up in the stew of one’s own not-unsubstantial reason and imagination and serve it up as something entirely new.
Of course, in once sense, it is all new — old stuff filtered, re-pondered and restyled. Fashion is like that. Fine art is like that. Music is certainly like that. And even blogs and op-ed pieces are like that.
Every writer is unique, both in thievery, (Mark, Katrina, Max, Marc, Francis, Deacon Greg and I may all read the same news story and lift different aspects of it to build on) and in execution: Mark Shea will diligently hit it with never-tried Catholic theory the Catechism; Katrina will make a forthright summation or generously link to a laserburn; Max will throttle it with history and cigarettes; Marc might ignore it as irrelevant; Francis will touch on the thing obliquely and elegantly; Greg, like a short-order cook, will serve the blue plate special, then walk away telling you to figure it out for yourself, and I’ll prose on about ironies, trivia and how annoying I find it all.
That, by the way, is how Massie says plays are written: by thievery and a pluck-to-the-bone audacity and the application of the writer’s particular gift, to everything that came before.
Master, be one of them; it’s an honourable kind of thievery.
And where would any of us be without Instapundit?
Meanwhile, Francis Phillips says Anonymous should be ignored by all Shakespeare lovers. I agree. I’m not plunking down my hard-earned on it.