Tag Archives: Shakespeare: from Rowe to Shapiro

SAT trustee Julia Cleave reports on Shakespeare bio conference at The Globe

Shakespearean Authorship Trust Trustee Julia Cleave gave SOS permission to reprint her report on the conference: “Shakespeare: from Rowe to Shapiro held Nov. 28, 2009 at The Globe in London. This report appeared initially in Nina Green’s email list, Phaeton on December 3. Her report supplements an earlier report by De Vere Society Secretary Richard Malim.

A selective report by Julia Cleave on an event held at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London on 28 November entitled: Shakespeare: From Rowe to Shapiro – a one day symposium on the function and critical value of Shakespeare biographies to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the first biography of William Shakespeare by Nicholas Rowe: Some little account of the man himself may not be thought improper. (1709)

About 100 people attended the symposium, including, to my knowledge, at least a dozen anti-Stratfordians – though Patrick Spottiswoode, Director of Globe Education, later claimed in an interview on the BBC Radio 4 programme ‘Today’ that 99.9% of those present were ‘non-dissenters’!
My own impression of the day was that all eleven speakers, to varying degrees, were haunted by the elephant in the room – given the paucity of evidence for a ‘life’ which matches the ‘works’ – the spectre of an alternative authorship. Three speakers, in particular, appeared to be re-positioning themselves, post New Historicism, in anticipation of a paradigm shift on the whole issue. Speaking from the heart of the academic establishment, the concessions they made, both implicit and explicit, to the case for ‘Reasonable Doubt’ were both refreshing and, I would suggest, unprecedented!

Brian Cummings

Brian Cummings, Professor of English at the University of Sussex, spoke in sub-texts. Responding to a question put to all the speakers about extrapolating the life from the works, he came out with a stream of observations, requiring much reading-between-the-lines. These are, presumably, points he will be expanding on in his forthcoming book – a debate on literary biography and Shakespeare entitled: Shakespeare in the Underworld.
  • “In contemporary publishing it is much easier to write / publish / sell books of biography than any other kind of writing about writing. (He cited Homer as a counter example of impersonal authorship).
  • People react to changes in chronology!
  • What is Thomas Nashe doing with his mischievous references?   – provides a terminus ad/ante quem to various of Shakespeare’s plays.
  • There is a chronological time-bomb under Shakespeare!
  • How much difference does it make to say a play written in 1603 / 05 / 08?
  • The historiography we use to explain works of literature links with biography.
  • The Tempest is placed at the front of the First Folio – Why?
  • Has to have been a very late work?
  • Issue of chronology is problematic because the ‘new Shakespeareans’ in the nineteenth century were eccentric and wrong-headed.
  • Twelfth Night and Winter’s Tale created back-to-back?
  • It wouldn’t be impossible to find a document which proves Malone right. Terminus ad and ante quem – still not accuracy – more than a year or two either side.
  • Shifting of ground methodologically is happening anyway – Re-examining historicism – When is a fact a fact?
Cummings talk had the ‘playful’ title: Anti-Biography
  • “I’m going to voice the secret doubts we all share about the ‘life’ which has been problematic since before Rowe.”
  • All Shakespeare biographers know what is missing!
  • We cannot precisely date any play.
  • We have created a ‘life’ because a modern author is somehow incomplete without a life.
  • Shakespeare’s life especially impossible to tell because of the paucity of the evidence and the gaps in between.
  • Conclusion:  “Maybe we should write more openly about the nature of the problem.”

James Shapiro

James Shapiro – his forthcoming book on the Authorship Question: Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? due out next year – gave the final paper of the day: ‘When Shakespeare turned Autobiographical’.  He sought to defuse the authorship issue by arguing that all attempts at cradle to grave biographies are essentially misconceived:
  • “I’m here to look at How, When and Why Shakespeare was transformed into an autobiographical author.”
  • It’s time to abandon any hope of learning about Shakespeare’s inner life – irrevocably lost to us!
  • The anti-Stratfordian movement is a bi-product of a mainstream scholarly tradition.
  • In a few months, in 2012, Emmerich’s film ‘Anonymous’ will come out – arguing that Shakespeare did not write Shakespeare.
  • I have studied this more intensely than any other Stratfordian.
  • Minds are not really going to be changed on this subject.
  • Debate on both sides is circular and self-serving.
  • There is a history to how we think what we think.
  • “These debates are not going to be easily resolved.”
Graham Holderness
From an Oxfordian point of view, most startling of all was the declaration made by Professor Graham Holderness, University of Herefordshire.  In the middle of a discussion re the questionable facticity of tales of deer-poaching, calf-killing and horse-holding, he stated baldly – without further comment:
If you were to construct a biography which ticked all the boxes – if you were to read Shakespeare’s plays and infer a biography from it – it wouldn’t be Rowe’s, it would actually be the Earl of Oxford’s.

Speakers/Topics at “Shakespeare: from Rowe to Shapiro” conference:
Michael Caine: Can you trust Nicholas Rowe?
Rene Weis: From John Hall to Nicholas Rowe
Andrew Murphy: Chronology meets Biography: Edward Dowden’s Shakespeare
Brian Cummings:  Anti-Biography
Graham Holderness: Fact and Tradition in Shakespeare Biography
Stanley Wells and Paul Edmondson: The Plurality of Shakespeare’s Sonnets
Andrew Dickson: Starring Shakespeare as Himself: snapshots of the author on stage, page and screen
Helen Hackett: Was Queen Elizabeth 1 Shakespeare’s muse? Theories about young William at Kenilworth in 1575
Richard Wilson – Welsh Roots: The Bard and the Brits
James Shapiro: When Shakespeare Turned Autobiographical

Julia Cleave, Trustee of the Shakespearean Authorship Trust : MA (Oxon) is a member of the academic board of the Temenos Academy. She originally studied Shakespeare with Professor Hugo Dyson, the most puckish of the Inklings, the literary group based in Oxford which included C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. Subsequently, in her career as a teacher and teacher trainer, she taught Shakespeare in the context of training courses for foreign teachers and lecturers sponsored by the British Council. Since 1998 she has worked as an independent scholar, tracing the presence of Hermetic traditions in Renaissance and seventeenth century art and literature. Her interest in the Authorship Question was first piqued by reading John Michell’s Who Wrote Shakespeare? This interest has since deepened and developed through participation in Wisdom of Shakespeare workshops at The Globe, and the Shakespearean Authorship Trust conferences and lectures. She is a member of the Francis Bacon Research Trust and the De Vere Society.

Malim reports on Globe conference

Conference – “Shakespeare: from Rowe to Shapiro”
The Globe/London: 28 November 2009
Reported by De Vere Society Secretary Richard Malim with assistance from Kevin Gilvary

Shakespeare’s Globe are to be applauded for organising a conference drawing together many academics who have published on the life of Shakespeare. Among those present were various Oxfordians, Dr. William Leahy, and Mark Rylance, who has done so much to bring the authorship question to the fore. The conference was not particularly well attended, with about 60 present including a number of students and there were eleven speakers.

The content of some of these papers was very mixed: some must be passed over in the silence of anonymity as even the academic applause was moderate. For example, one speaker contended that the eleven year old William Shakespeare might have been entranced by his un-evidenced sighting of the Queen at Kenilworth (some eleven miles from Stratford), and thus inspired — but I am left uninspired, and amazed that anything so remote from possibility may be thought to have some claim to scholastic recognition

Two speakers spoke at length on how current biographies affect the writing of historical novels – nothing to do with the history and development of Shakespeare’s biography, but interesting nonetheless to illustrate the cross-over between fact and fiction in Shakespeare biographies.

Graham Holderness confirmed that there two sources for the deer-poaching tradition, which makes it more likely that it is correct: whether it is relevant to the biography as it impinges on the Works was not explained. It is mainly used to explain why the young man left his native country for the uncertainty of city life. Rene Weis thought that more research should be devoted to Shakespeare’s descendants in the hope that evidence of Shakespeare’s library might yet be discovered.

Brian Cummings
On a more positive note, Brian Cummings emphasised that modern reconstructions or replacements such as St. Paul’s Cathedral, Shakespeare’s Birthplace and the Cottage Garden reflect the taste of the age of the redeveloper. Extrapolating that thesis to scholarship in regard to the canon, such endeavours may invite ridicule today. The Wallaces’ discovery of the Bellott-Mountjoy deposition was a desperate disappointment to them, but with the luxury of hindsight we Oxfordians can inquire what else they could have expected. When the quotation from Coleridge was put to him that he (Coleridge) preferred the internal evidence from the plays to the documentary research of Malone on his (Malone’s) play dating scheme, Professor Cummings answered that he preferred Coleridge’s approach.

Stanley Wells & Paul Edmondson
Stanley Wells and Paul Edmondson launched an attack on the William-Shakespeare-autobiographical thesis for the sonnets. They made some good points particularly about the Dark Lady sonnets 127ff; noting that only three are actually addressed to a woman (139,141 and 145), although others reflect on her dark/black appearance and behaviour. These last group of sonnets smack also of exercise-like material rather than strict autobiography.

They were very effective when they denounced the desire of biographers to find William-Shakespeare-autobiographical references, i.e. the connections between “the lovely boy” and William Shakespeare: in doing so they kicked away the ladder whereby any connection between the irrelevant life and the canon can be invented – a valuable exercise for Oxfordians, who can demonstrate over and over again the biographical connections between Oxford and Southampton in their biographies as they reappear in the Sonnets’ references.

The highlight was the appearance of James Shapiro, whose talk was on the effect of Malone’s conversion of Shakespeare into an autobiographical writer.

Notes on Shapiro’s talk:
Almost nothing we know shines light on his (Shakespeare’s) personality. There are no personal essays and no diaries; we have to admit there is now any chance of further illumination of his inner life is irrevocably lost; and in Malone’s chronological listing there is nothing likewise to be learnt. The temptation for biographers is to line up the life with the works. The loss of his only son in 1596 cannot be said to have inspired the speeches of Constance in King John, as Malone suggests. Likewise there is no evidence that Ann Hathaway was unfaithful to William: Sonnet 93 (“…like a deceived husband”) does not properly connect with the bequest in the will of the second best bed; or that the jealous husband of Othello is a reflection of that surmise.

Furthermore there is no evidence of what William did during the “missing” years 1586-1590 – all that stuff about being a school-master, a lawyer’s clerk, a soldier etc. is unprovable rubbish. There is as a result a temptation for biographers to be ingenious (and here Shapiro confessed he had done it himself), to which they almost all succumb. Wordsworth’s opinion of the Sonnets : “With this key Shakespeare unlocked his heart”, and Coleridge’s view that the plays reflected Shakespeare’s psychological development in the canon are both valueless. The problem is that so much modern writing is autobiographical, modern biographers assume Shakespeare’s writings are the same.

Of course there must be some shards of his life in the works, but we do not know where or why they are included, and Shapiro has no confidence in even the ones suggested by Wells or Weiss. He would dispute Michael Wood’s assertion, that Prospero in The Tempest is an autobiographical portrait, and Greenblatt’s surmises about Shakespeare’s marriage. Both Stratfordians and anti-Stratfordians are at fault when they seek to couple the life and the works and include in apparent topicalities.

These errors are not just an aberration, as the whole approach can be traced back to Malone and his original mistaken view. It diminishes the power of Shakespeare’s imagination: all his characters are within that imagination.

Shapiro’s approach represented a shift (which he actually denied in reply to a question) from what he wrote in his recent book, 1599 A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare, when he wrote:

We know too little because we don’t know very much about what kind of friend or lover or person Shakespeare was . . . Even if we don’t know about his personality, we know a great deal about his career as a writer (more than enough to persuade a reasonable sceptic that he wrote the plays himself).

Now he has destroyed the personality nexus almost completely, diminishing what we (think we ) know about his career as a writer.

It was certainly gratifying that there were none of the usual snide anti-antiStratfordian comments or humour. It is just possible that there is a degree of academic acceptability on the horizon for Oxfordians. The more distinguished speakers were very much against any clear link between particular parts of, or incidents in, William Shakespeare’s life and the works.

By discarding what might have been the stronger argument for Stratfordians, and having to fall back on the chronology scheme as revised by Dowden and Chambers, and only subsequently qualified in minor ways, means this makes the De Vere Society’s dating project even more germane.

Soon William’s case therefore will patently be totally shattered: whether academia will recognize the true extent of the wreck is another matter. First the Oxford biographical connections to the works need to be taken on board, and the criticisms of the conference speakers’ attempts to do that for William will not work on the Oxford connections because of the sheer volume and exactitude of them; and secondly the topicalities. (These were totally ignored by the conference – of course, because there are none such, if the present chronology is used.) Finally the De Vere Society dating project will draw these strands together.

Perhaps the reality of the acceptance of Oxford as the author is an inch or two closer.