I’m turning over the first of my notebook entries today to a rant—a brief one—in response to this article by Stephen Marche. The author uses Roland Emmerich‘s film “Anonymous” (which I haven’t seen) to attack what is known as the Oxfordian view of Shakespeare: in a nutshell, the notion that the plays were written not by the man from Stratford but by Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford. I have written about this here before, so my views on the matter are clear. My beef with Marche will make sense, though, only if you read his article, which I hope you will. Here is the comment I planned to post on The New York Times site, only to discover that comments had been closed:
- It’s remarkable how much mileage people who lack positive evidence try to get out of J. Thomas Looney’s last name ( even though it is pronounced “loney”)—in lieu, that is, of engaging the evidence. This is known as the Bevis and Butthead school of argument.
- Note that Marche attempts so elevate sputtering outrage to the level of fact. There are, in fact, precious few facts presented here. This is because there are absolutely no facts whatsoever to support the idea that the man from Stratford ever wrote a play, owned a book, read a book, or traveled outside England (a fact that makes many of the details that turn up in the Italian plays hard to explain).
- Note how Marche critiques Emmerich’s film as if it accurately represented the Oxfordian position. Based on what I’ve read (I haven’t seen it yet), it does not. Attributing any errors in the film to Oxfordians is a canny but dishonest maneuver.
- I agree that readers should examine James Shapiro’s Contested Will; then they should read Richard F. Whalen’s incisive review of the book. They will discover that Shapiro has nothing in the way of positive evidence to offer in favor of the man from Stratford, only a via negativa argument: Elizabethan writers, Shapiro says, created their works entirely out of “airy nothing,” so much so that these works bear no biographical traces whatsoever. Shakespeare’s sonnets? Mere exercises in wit. All that ink spilled about the Dark Lady? And the Earl of Southampton? A waste of time, because the man made it all up.
- Finally, as the proud son of blue collar parents, I resent the implication that anyone who doubts the man from Stratford story is a “snob.” Believe me, I would prefer to think that a fellow of a background somewhat similar to my own could have written the plays. But it’s not bloody likely. That is a judgement based on evidence—a lack of it in the case of the Stratford man, and a growing mass of it in the case of de Vere. A respect for evidence is neither right-wing nor left-wing (as Marche pejoratively implies); it is the foundation of free and critical thinking—something one would think Mr. Marche might have practiced in the process of earning that vaunted Ph.D of his at the University of Toronto.
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From Lawrence Durrell‘s Livia: “The poet does not choose. The poet does not think of renown, for ten the voices which carry the furthest are only the echoes of an anterior, half-forgotten past. The poetic reality of which I speak […] is rather like the schoolchild’s definition of a fishing-net as ‘a lot of holes tied together with string’. Just as mappable, yet just as true of our work. Art is only to remind.”
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Hans Peter Duerr, in a dense and fascinating book called Dreamtime: Concerning the Boundary between Wilderness and Civilization (which I am slowly working my way through), quotes this piquant passage from Edmund Snow Carpenter‘s essay “Ohnainewk, Eskimo Hunter”:
The philosopher assists his partner in conversation in giving birth to an idea by applying Socratean maieutics; the Eskimo carver proceeds the same way when calling forth a shape from the ivory. He holds a piece of it up to his ear and whispers, “Who are you?” “Who is hidden there?” And soon he will, for example, free a seal from the material.
He also passes along this wonderful story:
The British explorer David Leslie, who one day lost contact with some of his hunters and therefore went to consult a [Zulu] medicine man, writes, “Finally the medicine man agreed to my demands, saying that he would open the Gate of Distance, and would travel through it, even although his body should i.e. before me…. The doctor then made eight little fires—that being the number of my hunters; on each he cast some roots, which emitted a curious sickly odor and thick smoke; into each he cast a small stone, shouting, as he did so, the name to which the stone was dedicated; then he ate some “medicine”, and fell over in what appeared to be a trance for about ten minutes, during all which time his limbs kept moving. Then he seemed to wake, went to one of the fires, raked the ashes about, looked at the stone attentively, described the man faithfully, and said, “This man has died of the fever, and your gun is lost.” To the next fire as before, “This man” (correctly described) “has killed four elephants,” and then he described the dusks. … I took a particular note of all this information at the time, and to my utter amazement it turned out correct in every particular.”
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Finally, this affront to the sonnet form (I apologize in advance):
Caught up in darkness the moment he turns
from the bathroom’s switched-off brightness,
he sees the bedside clock’s 2:00 a.m. burn
red as a hot brand. His eyes adjust
slowly: the dresser shimmers into view,
the TV’s blank eye, the moon-drenched drapes,
the bed with him in it. He bends down now,
scoops himself up like a clutch of grapes.
Lifted, he hears the blood’s wind-like rush
in the cavern of his apprehension. Which
of them is trembling? The one lifted, or
the one who lifts? Or that third one there,
hanging back in the shadows? The old ghost
who whispers, “My absence upholds you both.”