The Bard in Retirement
Anyone can make a silly mistake, but not all of us find our blunders rewarded with lucrative Harvard and Oxford professorships. Listen, then, to the shocking story of Shakespeare scholarship.
Shakespeare biography is in what might be described as a persistent vegetative state. This is a rather natural result of trying to write a mans life without taking the preliminary step of making sure youve got the right guy. I own more than two dozen biographies of the Stratford man, most of them fairly recent, who has been mistaken for the real author for nearly four centuries.
Fortunately, some excellent literary criticism of the works is still being written, because it doesnt depend on biography. Whoever wrote King Lear, it remains a wonderful play. New and interesting things can still be said about it; Stephen Booths brilliant study of its indefinition shows how its seeming loose ends and contradictions actually display the subtlest artistry.
But the biographical department of Shakespeare scholarship is another matter entirely, marked by amazing obtuseness. Highly intelligent people can be obtuse when they refuse to use their heads; and this is often the case with certified experts in any field who claim slam-dunk certainty when simple common sense might have saved them from embarrassing errors.
In the prestigious Oxford edition of Shakespeares Complete Works, the editors Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor commit some incredible howlers. In a section of miscellaneous items headed Various Poems, they include such crude rhymes as this, Upon a pair of glove that master sent to his mistress, linked to the Bard only by dubious legend:
Then there is An extemporary epitaph on John Combe, a noted usurer:
Theres plenty more where this came from, including the Stratford mans gravestone inscription, with its mighty climax: And curst be he that moves my bones. Such trifles are dated to his later years, after hed left the London theater.
How do we know Shakespeare wrote this goofy stuff? Because someone or other said he did, and as Professor Wells solemnly notes, none of [these] poems was ever attributed to anyone else. What more proof do we need?
To say that the author of The Rape of Lucrece descended to this level in his later years (when hed supposedly retired to Stratford) is like contending that Bach finally gave up writing fugues for hip-hop. These things hardly rise to the level of tavern-wit. The idea that they are the fruits of the great poets maturity is absurd beyond words.
Lucrece is written in rhyme royal, an extremely difficult seven-line stanza form few English poets have ever attempted, let alone mastered. Read two pages of it, and ask yourself if its even conceivable that its author spent his final years composing bits of crude doggerel.
So what happened? Have Professors Wells and Taylor been hooted out of academe? On the contrary, they stand at the pinnacle of their profession. Nobody cracks a smile when they offer such obvious nonsense.
In fact, Harvards Stephen Greenblatt, author of a bestselling Shakespeare biography a year or two ago, also includes the same items in his own edition of the complete works. Not surprisingly, the biography got a rave review from Stanley Wells.
It would be scandalous if it werent so funny. These gents are not only professional scholars, but acknowledged leaders in their field. Mr. Ripley, call your office. This episode belongs in Believe It or Not!
Nothing in the Stratford mans will, written shortly before his death at age 52, suggests that he had ever made a living by his pen, let alone that hed been the most lavishly praised poet of his day. Did that just slip his mind? Had a preoccupation with real estate totally displaced the literary interests which, the experts tell us, had consumed nearly his whole adult life?
Or if, as were also told, hed retired from the London theater and returned to Stratford before he was 50, why didnt he resume writing gentlemanly poetry like Lucrece in his leisure time? Was writing doggerel in Stratford more profitable than writing tragedies in London? Im sure no explanation would be too far-fetched for the experts except, of course, for the obvious one.
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