LONDON, ONTARIO – Ten years ago in cold hard print I declared myself to be one of those conspiratorially minded chaps who believed that the obscure figure we are barely able to identify as William Shakespeare (1564 – 1616) was not in fact the person who wrote the greatest single cache of plays in the English language; perhaps not the greatest in number (though with 13 comedies, 10 histories, 14 tragedies and romances as well as a volume’s worth of poems and sonnets, he can’t have all that many contenders in that department either) but indisputably the greatest in artistic accomplishment and variety. He is an epoch-shaping literary colossus of the stature of Homer and Dante and . . . nobody else.
One can only marvel at the range of this very singular genius’ body of work. Contrast the aching depiction of first love in Romeo and Juliet with the iron-in-the-soul pessimism of King Lear; the moon-drenched hilarity of A Midsummer Night’s Dream with the oppressive menace of Othello or Macbeth. The great psychological motherlode of Hamlet juggles more themes than most playwrights tackle in their entire careers. And the only printed document that beats a script of Hamlet for more perfectly polished aphorisms to the page is a copy of Bartlett’s or The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations.
Even his less renowned plays remain astonishingly rich and relevant today. Any Canadian who lived under the reign of Pierre Trudeau will recognize the dynamics at work in Coriolanus which portrays the fall of a brilliant leader who’s too proud to flatter the masses. And if all he’d written was his late romance, The Winter’s Tale – a uniquely magical testament to the power of imagination to repair a broken world – Shakespeare would deserve to be studied and produced today.
Before I officially retract my misidentification of Shakespeare, I should like to remind the court that at least I wasn’t one of those dolts who fingered the early scientific philosopher Francis Bacon (1561 – 1626) as the doppelganger in bard’s clothing. Yes, their lifespans overlapped quite neatly and they both knew how to wield a quill pen but Shakespeare and Bacon’s temperaments and interests and experiential pools were a preposterous fit.
The dates were a mess with my chosen true bard, Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford (1550 – 1604) necessitating all kinds of elaborate hoo-hah about the bland Mr. Shakespeare acting as a frontman for the disgraced nobleman and the canny release of a good number of scripts after the true author’s death so as to further throw the hounds off the scent. As I say, all that was a little embarrassing to assert but temperamentally and experientially, Shakespeare and de Vere were a much more congenial fit.
For one, de Vere had at least published poetry (though not a patch on Shakespeare’s), his most famous verse beginning: “What cunning can express / The favour of her face / To whom in this distress / I do appeal for grace?” And the hot-headed courtier de Vere had travelled extensively abroad and moved in the sort of elevated and royal circles that the comparatively humble glove maker’s son from Stratford-on-Avon frequently wrote about.
More than de Vere’s poetic disposition and his wanderlust, what impelled otherwise sane people such as myself, Sigmund Freud, Orson Welles and Derek Jacobi to believe that he must be the author of all those cornerstone plays was the alarming paucity of biographical data about this so-called William Shakespeare. De Vere at least left some definite tracks regarding his whereabouts whereas Shakespeare left bewilderingly few. Infinitely more productive and celebrated in his day than contemporary scribblers like Ben Jonson and Christopher Marlowe, it was inexplicable that so much less material had been left to posterity about Shakespeare’s actual life. Again and again I would take up the latest in a succession of biographies about the bard, hoping that surely this one would fill in the picture at last, and find yet another speculation-heavy tome that was missing so much solidly connective data that it might as well have been printed using paper doilies for pages.
With characteristic frankness, Anthony Burgess openly acknowledged what he was up against when he wrote in the introduction to his 1970 biography of Shakespeare: “Given the choice between two discoveries – that of an unknown play by Shakespeare and that of one of Will’s laundry lists – we would all plump for the dirty washing every time. That Shakespeare persists in presenting so shadowy a figure, when his friend Ben Jonson is as clear as a bell and somewhat louder, is one of our reasons for pursuing him. Every biographer longs for some new gesture of reality – a fingernail torn on May 7, 1598, or a bad cold during King James I’s first command performance – but the gestures never materialise . . . What we want are letters and a doctor’s prescriptions and the minutiae of daily life which build up to a character. It is maddening that Shakespeare gives us nothing.”
This year has marked the 454th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth and for almost half of that period, speculation has been burbling away regarding who the English language’s greatest writer really was. Amidst those claiming he was Bacon or de Vere or Marlowe, there has also been a smattering of quieter voices such as Francois Rene de Chateaubriand, Thomas Carlyle, John Henry Newman and G.K. Chesterton suggesting that Shakespeare was probably Shakespeare all right but perhaps he was also a Roman Catholic who was producing his unequalled legacy of masterpieces at a period in English history when to openly identify yourself as a Dugan or a Mick was to court persecution and death.
With mingled shame and relief, I relinquished my conspiracy theory about five years ago when I finally caught up with historian Michael Wood’s 2003 book and four-hour BBC documentary, both entitled In Search of Shakespeare. Boldly, carefully, convincingly, Wood laid out the Catholic allegiance on both sides of Shakespeare’s family; an allegiance that continued throughout Will’s lifetime and into the next generation despite persecution, torture and beheadings. Wood also explored the incredibly elaborate recusant underground that the Shakespeares were part of and credibly showed how the rural lad from Stratford would have come into contact with underground priests and well-born Catholic emissaries from many parts of Europe who could have given him his otherwise inexplicable grasp of the ways in which worldly affairs are conducted.
In Wood’s wake have come two devoutly Catholic writers – Clare Asquith in 2005’s Shadowplay: The Hidden Beliefs and Coded Politics of William Shakespeare and this year’s Shakespeare and the Resistance: The Earl of Southampton, the Essex Rebellion, and the Poems that Challenged Tudor Tyranny and literary biographer Joseph Pearce’s The Quest for Shakespeare (2008) and Through Shakespeare’s Eyes (2010) – who have illuminatingly parsed what they see as the distinctively Catholic subtext in many of Shakespeare’s major plays.
While Asquith and Pearce have both been accused of over-zealousness in their Romanist cause, it’s interesting to see that in his review of Shadowplay, widely-respected Shakespeare scholar James Shapiro of Columbia University – who clearly does not have a Catholic pony in this race – believes that in the main, this resurgent emphasis on the ingrained Catholicity of the bard’s worldview is appropriate and overdue:
“In the past decade or so, historians have overturned the long-held view that Henry VIII’s break from Rome was both popular and decisive. It’s now clear that many still longed for the old faith, as England veered from Catholic to Protestant to Catholic and back to Protestant in the course of a few decades of Tudor rule. Shakespeare scholars, preoccupied with their secular trinity of race, class and gender, were initially slow to adjust to this new history, but they are making up for lost time in a hurry. Religion is now the rage, and popular biographers, including Michael Wood, Stephen Greenblatt and Peter Ackroyd, now see Shakespeare’s exposure to Catholicism as formative. While evidence that Shakespeare himself was a practising Catholic is flimsy, there’s no question that his plays engaged the great religious upheaval and uncertainty of the day.”
There is a crushing irony that we are finally cracking the mystery at the heart of William Shakespeare just now. After stiltedly teaching literature and history through the prism of English Protestantism for 25 or so generations, the needful correction arrives at a time when instruction is routinely run through the even more distorting prism of such historically irrelevant fripperies as feminist or gay theory. Now that we can finally come to grips with what really drove and defined Shakespeare, the modern academy in its relativist decadence no longer concerns itself with such jejune considerations as truth and faith.
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