The Baker Street Shakespeareans
Neither one is urgently needed. Two scholarly editions of the Holmes stories already exist. As for Shakespeare bios, theres at least one new one every year, though no new facts about the Stratford man have been found in the last ninety years.
But so what? We cant get enough of these two great fictional characters, Holmes of Baker Street and Shakespeare of Stratford. It was nearly seventy years ago that Christopher Morley founded the Baker Street Irregulars, a group dedicated to applying Holmess methods to the Holmes stories and, pretending to take them as fact, playfully deducing solutions to the problems they pose.
The author, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, was a somewhat careless writer who left a lot of loose ends and even contradictions in his yarns as narrated by Dr. Watson. The Baker Street Irregulars treated Dr. Watson as the real author and, with mock solemnity, tried to figure out how many times he was married, why his wife (or one of them) calls him James when his name is John, and why his old war wound is recalled as first in his leg and then, in a later story, in his shoulder.
The real solution to all these mysteries that Conan Doyle wrote in haste and never looked back is excluded by the rules of the game. Some people derive an enormous amount of fun from all this, and its easy to see why. I started reading Holmes when I was eleven, and I still reread all the stories every few years. The temptation to regard them as history is almost irresistible. Holmes is still one of the most magnetic characters ever imagined so magnetic you almost forget hes imaginary.
Conan Doyle had the gift of the born writer: the ability to put an unforgettable voice on a page. You cant get enough of Holmes; you want to know everything about him, though all there is to know is what Dr. Watson tells you. We know that Holmes went to a university, for instance, but we arent told where. Such biographical data are frustratingly meager.
The Baker Street Irregulars have an odd counterpart in Shakespeare scholarship. Again, the biographical record is inadequate, and huge gaps must be filled in by deduction or guesswork. The only rule of the game and a rigid rule it is is that you must posit that the Stratford man is the real author. Then you build an edifice of speculation around the dates of his birth, marriage, death, and a few odds and ends.
As with Holmes, we hunger to know more about Shakespeare. I read dozens of biographies, vainly hoping to get closer to him, before I realized that they were all written about the wrong man. Their Shakespeare was, like Holmes, a beloved but imaginary character.
Professor Greenblatts new biography is charmingly written and worthy of the Baker Street Irregulars in its ingenious deductions. He supposes, for example, that Shakespeare witnessed the grisly execution of a Jew and was thereby inspired to write The Merchant of Venice. He further surmises that Hamlet somehow issued from the death in 1596 of Shakespeares little son Hamnet. These are stretches, but Professor Greenblatt is carried away by the sheer creative pleasure of rounding out the character he has imagined.
It is a capital mistake to form a deduction before you have all the facts, as Holmes says. But this maxim, applied consistently, would put Shakespeare scholarship out of business. The first fact you have to get right, if you want to write a biography of the author, is who the author was.
The real author, Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, created an imaginary character when he put the name William Shakespeare on a published poem in 1593. This was certified when his collected plays were published under that name, with a portrait of the nominal author, in 1623. Nearly two centuries later scholars started digging in Stratford for hard information about the man theyd mistaken (through no fault of their own) for the author, and the game of discovering Shakespeare continues to this day.
What the heck. Its innocent fun, and nobody really gets hurt.
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