Speaking of Shakespeare in Love, I happen to be one of the few people who really didn’t like that film. It traced all his plays back to love affairs or funny little things he might have heard in the pub, and it ignored everything I find most interesting about Shakespeare.
I have divided feelings about it. I liked the spirit of it, but my critique of it is similar. I felt it treated art as something unserious. It attempted to be bravely contrarian but was actually expressing conventional ideas about Shakespeare: that he didn’t care much for his plays, that he just dashed them off and didn’t think twice about them, whereas in fact there’s a whole civil war going on among serious scholars over whether he did care.
Besides which, someone else could have had those same love affairs and gone to the same pubs and not come out with Shakespeare’s plays. So does it really matter which conversations Shakespeare might have overheard or which women—or men—he might have dated?
I agree. In some respects, I think this is a result of today’s celebrity culture, where we’re more interested in the person than in the work. I mean, I can’t blame people for wanting to know what a great writer was like. But what has made Shakespeare last for 400 years is that the language is so amazing. Look at Homer—Homer’s greatness is not diminished because we don’t know whether he was a redhead or not. I just feel that biographical analysis reduces the language to “this is what Shakespeare must have been like,” some explication of his life.
And this is why I’ve spent some time critiquing biographical reductionism. In popular biographies, Shakespeare’s plays are mined for clues about his life, his supposed views on love, sex, and marriage. And then his life, or what’s conjectured about it, is mined for ideas about his plays. It’s all a useless, circular game, because there’s very little certainty about the events of his life.
I was surprised to learn from your book that there are serious scholars like Stephen Greenblatt coming up with elaborate stories about events Shakespeare might have witnessed and how those might have given rise to certain plays.
"Shakespeare in Love, or In Context" (December 2004)
By Cristina Nehring
If society creates art, as Stephen Greenblatt believes, then why was Shakespeare's achievement so singular?
Greenblatt’s book Will in the World was actually a departure for him. I admired his earlier book, Hamlet in Purgatory, which considered the treatment of the afterlife in Shakespeare. The Protestant Church abolished purgatory, but Hamlet’s father’s ghost seemed to come from a Catholic purgatory. There are a lot of arguments in his book that place the play in a very interesting context. So I was somewhat surprised by Will in the World, which abandons abstract theory but leaps into pure biographical speculation. I think the book has many, many smart things in it. But it should be regarded as smart fiction about Shakespeare, at best.
For instance, there’s his conjecture about The Merchant of Venice. Greenblatt’s reasoning is the following: Shakespeare lived in London, a lot of people died in London, Shakespeare was interested in death, and therefore Shakespeare must have attended a lot of executions. He guesses that Shakespeare attended the execution of Roderigo Lopez, a converted Jewish physician who was allegedly part of a plot to poison Queen Elizabeth and was executed and disemboweled—drawn and quartered. Greenblatt thinks that Shakespeare witnessed this and heard the crowd laughing when Lopez said, “I love the Queen as I love Jesus Christ.” Greenblatt suggests the crowd was taking that statement as ironic because they had seen Christopher Marlowe’s play The Jew of Malta, with its one-dimensional wicked Jew. And according to Greenblatt, Shakespeare was troubled by this and decided he would write a play about a Jew who was more human than the Jew of Malta, who may or may not have provoked the laughter at a funeral he may or may not have attended. That just seems like a lot of work to sanitize the anti-Semitism in The Merchant of Venice—make it seem like an improvement somehow, when in many ways it goes deeper than Marlowe’s.
While we’re on the subject of conjecture, tell me about the controversy over “The Funeral Elegy.”
“The Funeral Elegy” is a poem that is about 600 lines long but feels like it’s about 6,000 if you try to read it all the way through. It had supposedly been written by someone with the initials “W.S.” about a guy named William Peter who was murdered in a brawl in 1612. It lay moldering in an Oxford library until Donald Foster, then a graduate student at U.C. Santa Barbara, published a study in attribution in which he came very close to saying it had been written by Shakespeare. Then in 1996, Foster and his colleague Richard Abrams announced to the world that they were certain this poem had been written by Shakespeare. Their certainty was backed up by a computer database with the capitalized James Bondian name SHAXICON, which supposedly proved that “The Funeral Elegy” had identical linguistic fingerprints to canonical Shakespeare.
I tried to believe this. But I concluded that Shakespeare had never before shown his ability to write this tediously, this piously, this unskeptically, this humorlessly, with almost none of the depth or resonance or flashes of brilliance that any other 600 lines of Shakespeare would provide. There’s also the fact that if “W.S.” had been William Shakespeare, we would have to look at “The Funeral Elegy” as his final poem—almost his parting thoughts about life, death, mortality, fame, ignominy, disgrace, all these great themes.
So I started writing columns for The New York Observer attacking the Shakespearean attribution of “The Funeral Elegy.” And in fact, Foster was later forced to admit that he had been wrong, that poem was most likely by Shakespeare’s contemporary John Ford.
You also discuss another ongoing controversy known as “Hand D.” It involves a passage from a never-published play about Sir Thomas More, possibly written in Shakespeare’s own handwriting. If this turns out to be true, what are the implications?
I took up the “Hand D” controversy after reading an article by the scholar Paul Werstine. I feel, and I’m not alone, that the resonances between the Sir Thomas More passages identified as Shakespearean and Shakespeare’s own work are really strong thematically. But Werstine takes issue with some of the arguments people have used to support this. His main concern is that this attribution is causing us to make decisions about other open questions in Shakespeare scholarship.
In other words, people have concluded that the handwriting is Shakespeare’s, and they’ve used that as a basis for validating other Shakespearean passages.
Yes, in particular, the ending of Othello, where Othello talks about himself as either a “base Indian” or a “base Judean”—depending on what text you use—“throwing away a pearl richer than all his tribe.” A major thematic difference. And for some, the alleged Shakespearean handwriting of Hand D was being used to make the choice. Werstine thought this was ill advised; he wasn’t sure that Hand D should be allowed to be the arbiter. He felt it was a shaky foundation on which to establish any important decision about what Shakespeare really wrote.