How Shakespeare Could Be Shakespeare After All

Last time we talked about small details as evidence.  Embedded in plays like fossils in shale, they testify that these quintessentially English productions were once bathed in Italian seas.  They carbon-date the plays with references from as far back as the 1570s.

These references act just like similar magpie-details in the work of contemporary writers I know.  They testify that the work was being thought out and planned, if not written, at a particular time and place.

I can't ignore them.

Personally, I'd much rather have William Shakespeare of Stratford.  It's appalling to think that your greatest literary hero embodies your worst fear about society:  that, just as it takes money to make money, it takes money to make literature.  It would be terrible if Shakespeare meant only that.

But if you accept the unthinkable, that Shakespeare came from a background of power and position, then a multiplicity of nagging biographical questions become easier to answer.  How did Shakespeare know French well enough to write in it?  The Stratford grammar school didn't teach French.  How did Shakespeare read books of Renaissance humanism frequently enough to quote about 200 of the approximately 800 humanist books published in England during Elizabeth's reign?  Richard Field and the Vautrolliers didn't publish that sort of books.  How did Shakespeare know lawyers' terminology and  hawking terms well enough to have them imbue his thinking and his language?  Surface knowledge, no matter how skillfully acquired, seldom dyes the writer's mind so deeply with metaphor.

Ingenuity can explain each of these.  But simplicity can explain them too.  Perhaps Shakespeare got someone to write his French scene for him, perhaps he somehow had the leisure and the connections to get and read those books.  But perhaps he had been taught French, perhaps he had a library and had friends who did, perhaps he studied under a lawyer, perhaps he owned hawks whose long-dead wings still rustle in the plays.

I have a small horse in this race, a Shetland pony or perhaps a large dog with a mullet:  While writing Chasing Shakespeares, I discovered a poem.  If you've read the novel, you know all about it. While reading an ancient book in the British Library, my hero Joe Roper finds an obscure poem that seems to him to sound like Shakespeare.  It is in iambic pentameter and in the rhyme scheme of Venus and Adonis; it has run-on lines, very early; it uses rare and new words, particularly words taken from sports; it uses dramatic voices; and, as Robert Lowell used to say about Shakespeare, every once in a while there is a good line, a very good line indeed.  I've published the whole thing where you can decide for yourself.  99c until November 5, 2011, $1.99 thereafter, in a variety of eBook formats:

In a recent post
the Shakespeare scholar Holger Syme calls for less Bardolatry and more real scholarly work.  Now is the time to do that work.  Once upon a time scholarship was restricted to a small elite.  Once upon a time, and not long ago, the only way to read Anthony Munday or Nicholas Breton was to travel to a library that owned the books, talk yourself into the library, and read them on site.  That costs money.  Either one had one's way paid by fellowships, or one paid one's way oneself.  I was lucky enough to get a Fulbright, or I'd never have been able to discover England.

Now we have the Internet and Google Books.  It still pays to check your sources--it always pays to check your sources--but it doesn't take a Fulbright or Mellon, or access to a great library, to do most of a piece of significant work.  It is possible to read online a large proportion of the books published in Elizabeth's time, and one person could do it.

Online it's also possible to learn a lot of what it once took graduate school to do.  For instance, you can learn the basics of reading secretary hand
or read Renaissance classics in Renaissance printings. Google Books has a 1506 edition of Il Cortegiano that looks lovely on an iPad, and to understand it, you can consult several Renaissance Italian dictionaries

Major work cab be done online on data-mining the archives.  The National Archives has major online efforts going; see for instance
and other major initiatives are working on data-mining Elizabethan online sources, looking at this wealth of newly accessible material.

This is a tremendously exciting time for Shakespeare studies.  Scholars with a passion for Shakespeare have more ways to hone their skills than ever before.  Information can be shaped more readily into knowledge.  Scholars can communicate with each other, build on each other's work, and save each other from mistakes.

What could dethrone every other claimant to Shakespeare's throne?  Knowledge.  Mark Anderson's Shakespeare by Another Name has convinced many people, including me, by its painstaking work in using known facts to create a life.  I would be happy to be convinced otherwise, but Bardolatry will not do it.  There's a lot of newly available sixteenth-century material out there, and somewhere in it is more about Shakespeare.  This is the time to find it.

In 1623, Ben Jonson said of Shakespeare "He was not of an age, but for all time."

Let's see what our time can do for him.

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