Shakespeare, Resentment, Self-Education and Thieves

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.

About Elizabeth Scalia
  • Kathy Schiffer

    And I’ll read those diverse meanderings through history and truth and enjoy them all. Thanks, guys!

  • Elaine S.

    I think a better and more enjoyable reflection on Shakespeare is the play “I Hate Hamlet,” which I saw performed by a local university theater group last night. The premise of the play is that a young hotshot TV actor has been invited to play Hamlet in Central Park, has moved into the apartment John Barrymore once lived in, and has been visited by Barrymore’s ghost, who tries to help him overcome his fear of playing such an iconic role. While there is some questionable off color humor and language in the play, I like the way it skewers the notion of Shakespeare as “algebra on stage” — something so lofty and High Art that only an elite few can understand or perform it. I suppose it shouldn’t be too surprising that some people who hold to the “algebra on stage” concept of Shakespeare can eventually be convinced that even Shakespeare himself couldn’t have understood or composed it.

  • Thomas L. McDonald

    You can add Chesterton to the “never attended college” list. I remember one commentator sniffing at the fact that Joseph Pearce wrote about Shakespeare without ever earning a university degree. When I pointed out the Chesterton had done quite well without one, I got a “that’s entirely different!” response. Really? How?

    [People forget that Churchill, too, was largely self-educated. He was considered too stupid for study and only began to educate himself while in the military, when he was stationed in India and asked his mother to send him some books. Jennie Churchill sent him Gibbons and Macaulay and...Shakespeare, and Winnie took off from there! -admin]

  • Sr Rose

    I love this commentary! My sister sent me the link. And Madam Anchoress, the best part is how you see your colleagues riffing differently. Yes, this is what people do. They see the same thing in popular culture and have different takes.
    I saw the film yesterday and listened to NPR’s review on the way to the theater: “Stylish Claptrap BY Any Other Name” I wasn’t sure I believed the critic, but I was determined to see it anyway.
    There is so much we don’t know about Shakespeare and this contrived fiction served as an interesting take on a tentatively plausible alternative to say, Wikipedia’s version that hits all the main facts we think we know:
    As for the dates: De Vere could have written it all before he died and Mr. Shakespeare (per the film) was a cagey sort that could have released them to keep the income flowing.
    I thought Rhys Ifans as de Vere was exceptional.
    I enjoyed the commentary on art provided by the script and the band of thieves who made up the characters.
    People don’t realize that Shakespeare (or the author) was a clever scum bag because we don’t spend time on his language. He would be “R” rated for a lot of things, but language is one of them. He (or whoever he was) was one of the leaders of popular culture of his time. The authorities didn’t like any of the theaters around London (all were outside the city) because they drew crowds, increased unsanitary conditions (which the film showed fairly well but didn’t really show the inside of The Globe the way it really was and why the good seats were at the top and not the bottom. If you go to London, take the tour of the rebuilt Olde Globe just a few hundred feet from where it stood originally.) The crowds at the theater, the messages packed within the plays, the stories told, are the product of popular culture just as it created popular culture, and they disturbed the political, religious, and social status quo.
    See that tells about the edict against such language imposed by an Act of the Puritan influence parliament in 1606. Shakespeare’s plays after this time (and applied retroactively to his earlier works but now restored) reflect this censorship.
    A favorite Shakespearean insult quoted on the web is “I bite my thumb at you” from Romeo and Juliet. If you Google it you will find its meaning similar to the most detested word in our English language popular culture.
    Like Bono, like other poets, writers, filmmakers, TV producers, they often challenge us to explain ourselves and why we believe the way we do; they challenge us. Like “The Taming of the Shrew”? Then you should like “Desperate Housewives”. The creators of these shows are (as Shakespeare and other artists were) prophets in many ways because of the truths they tell no matter how those truths are “clothed”.
    The tension between puritanism and art is with us still. The film showcased this well. This alone makes the film worth seeing.
    Popular culture is so interesting. What in Shakespeare’s time appealed mostly to the motley unwashed masses, we now celebrate and spend lots of money to go see fine productions of Shakespeare’s work. What was grunge has become precious. I wonder what he (or whomever he was) must be thinking from wherever he is.
    Thanks for the opportunity to riff on your riff (you thieving lot!)

  • Mary De Voe

    There were five inventors to the radio. And using Tesla’s diagrams, all invented the radio, separate and apart from each other. When an idea has come into its time, there is no stopping it. I was collecting my own thoughts into a book, when another woman beat me to press by three months with her book and she had the same title. Besides, in this town there are four people with the same name, my name, no relation, not even the same race or ethnic group.
    This is why detractors have to prove their detraction of another person. They have to prove pilfering and infringement. That Shakespear is the only Catholic being bashed is interesting. Some of these bashers behave like scalywags.
    And Wikipedia is so politically correct and religiously biased, my life is too short to read it.
    I enjoy your new picture and the work you do Anchoress.

  • Diane

    So glad to read this – I have no interest in the movie. I’d rather go down to the Globe in San Diego and see one of the plays. It’s been too long.

  • William Ray

    I see that you are misinformed about Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford as the author of the Shakespeare canon. It is a handy canard that ten or more plays were written after 1604. All plays were written before he died in June 1604, though not all in complete form, and these were altered by then current playwrights, no more than five. The proof of my statement is proof by omission, that is, whereas all Shakespeare plays had mentioned current celestial events in the various plays, this pattern stopped in the summer of 1604. After that, all events, and there were several significant celestial events and discoveries, were not noted in any play. These include the retrograde Mars, very disturbing to a still superstitious population, the discovery of the moon of Jupiter and of Venus due to the invented long-range telescope, and a supernova in Cyngus I believe. The plays written after his death argument is the snappy kind of answer to not only argue against but violently dismiss the possibility of any other author than the atrributed one, Shakspere of Stratford. Anonymous deserves great credit for not being intimidated by the educational establishment and trying to deal honestly, if fictitiously and artistically, with this strange gap in our cultural history. Your imaginative attempt to justify the impassable chasm between a money-lender who could not write and a great artist by saying he copied others need trouble you any longer. Oxford was one of the most learned men in England and a prodigy at languages and rhetoric. He did adopt traditional sources but always in a way that he could use his personal experience too. I encourage you to read a recent scholarly book, Katherine Chiljan’s ‘Shakespeare Suppressed’ to fill in your own blank spots in an important field. Your website painting is very beautiful.

  • Erika

    There is a difference between Dickens and Shakespeare – Dickens had reservations about Shakespeare’s authorship.

    As did Mortimer J. Adler, Charlie Chaplin, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry James, Walt Whitman, Orson Welles, and Mark Twain (who even authored a whole book about it).

    When you look into and study the man Shakespeare, there are some problems. I’m not saying he did write the works attributed to him or didn’t, but there are many unanswered questions, and things that do not make sense. The man William Shakespeare was a great mystery, and we really don’t know much about him.

    Love your blog, Anchoress, and keep up the great work! :)

  • Deacon Norb

    A little over a year ago, there were three scholars who delivered a panel at a major regional gathering of Shakespearean scholars. Two of them (a father and son team; none-the-less!) designed out a paradigm-breaking assertion that since Shakespeare was a highly acclaimed entertainer of his era (along the lines of Stephen Spielberg, George Lucas or Akira Kurosawa), what is this madness we have about judging him as a writer/composer of fine literature?

    Instead, maybe a group of maybe twenty scholars — including several from international settings — respectively listened while the son of this team of presenters (a tenure-track professor of Theater at a regional Midwestern university) explained in detail how modern drama is written and prepared for production. He pointed out the significant yet unrecognized roles that “improv,” “oral composition,” and audience/actor “conversations” have on the staging of any final script. He also reminded all that the final script we publish “for the record” is often a “post-production” script anyway. The father of this team, (a published but retired Shakespearean scholar representing a major private college) then asked the damning question — why are we using an out-dated literature paradigm to judge the post-production (and even post-mortem) scripts of an entertainer?

    The extremely fluid scripts were created in a collective synergy of actors, play-wrights, and production staff working on each story-line together. Shakespeare was their producer — he had to “stage” it. But the story stayed fluid all through the production run.

    The final “literature” versions were the culmination of hundreds of performances remembered by audience members and then the oral text was frozen into what we have today.

    The third scholar, the respondent, then reviewed the various theories now extant about who “wrote” Shakespeare — but by that time, most of the audience began to realize that these plays were not composed at all the way our modern post-chirographic society assumes.

    No, I am not going to see “Anonymous.” I am confident I know what really happened: I was the “father” of that team (my secular scholarship field is Medieval and Renaissance studies) and the second participant — the “son” of that team — was my son. Our respondent was a former student of mine on her way up in the profession of academic scholarship.

  • Elizabeth K.

    I head an interview about the movie, where the writer or director or whoever he was stated that we know that Shakespeare never went to Italy. Um, really? We know that? How, exactly? Not to mention that there has recently been evidence uncovered that Shakespeare may very well have gone to Rome, specifically to the English College for Catholics. Deacon Norb makes an excellent point about the way we judge texts as opposed to how these texts were written; Stephen Orgel has written brilliantly about this, as have other scholars. And yet I defy anyone to spend a long time reading Shakespeare’s contemporaries, as I have, and to come away without a distinct sense of Shakespeare’s voice and the way he constructed his plays. The voice and style are consistent with the sonnets and his long poems, and completely unlike any of his contemporaries (who are often very good in their own way).

  • Elizabeth K.

    I decided I need to go on and on about this, so I linked to it and then went on and on, as aforesaid. Great collection of links, here–so thank you, also.

  • Rick DeLano

    Elaine: While I have never seen the play “I Hate Hamlet”, I was moved to laughter and to tears in the space of a minute and a half by a monologue performed from it. That would bode pretty well for the whole, I expect…..

    Viva Chisto Rege!

  • Dr. Weevil

    The best counterexample is a contemporary. Which living English-language playwright is the most educated, judged by his very intellectual plays? Which one is known for “his word-playing intellectuality, audacious, paradoxical, and self-conscious theatricality, and preference for reworking pre-existing narratives” (of Shakespeare and others – so Wikipedia), and for writing plays that feature Latin textual criticism, or quantum physics, or “the meeting of chaos theory, historiography, and landscape gardening” (Wikipedia again)?
    That would be Tom Stoppard, best known for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, who left school at 17 and never went back. The fact is that a self-taught man can be extraordinarily well educated, if he has the brains and self-discipline to do the job himself.

  • Paul Rimmer

    Well, even outside of literature:

    One of the most successful physicists and one of the most successful logicians of the past generation never got PhD’s. Freeman Dyson and Saul Kripke. And Stephen Wolfram published his most cited science article before he finished college.

    College is unnecessary (maybe even counter-productive) for some people.

  • Manny

    The people who think Shakespeare didn’t write his plays are the conspiracy theorists of the literary world. First of all the language of the 36 plays where he tis he sole author (there are two plays he co-authored) is consistent with the writing style and diction of a single author. So either all were written by Shakespeare or all were written by a different specific person. There are many references to a person named Sahkespeare, especially Ben Jonson’s poem praising Shakespeare. And of course there are the historical records of a Shakespeare born in Avon, maintained a family there, grew quite wealthy, and then died there. Shakespeare existed and by all accounts wrote the plays. People who think otherwise are the kooks of the literature departments.

  • Manny

    Oh on the other subject here, yes a college education is no proof of intelligence. But it’s awfully hard to get a job without it these days. It can be done, but it depends on the field. You can’t go into a science field without a science degree.

  • class factotum

    But it’s awfully hard to get a job without it these days.

    Those $100,000 Womyn’s Studies degrees are sure a good investment!

  • Cambias

    It is precisely because the Earl of Oxford or Francis Bacon were both extremely well-educated men that attributing Shakespeare’s plays to them is idiotic. Shakespeare’s plays are full of Roland Emmerich-style howlers in fact and logic. An educated man wouldn’t have had striking clocks in Caesar’s day, or given Italian names to Danish courtiers in Hamlet.