Category Archives: Scholarship

My Kingdom for a Porsche

It’s been almost two weeks now and I still haven’t seen anybody use this obvious groaner for a story about the announcement that yes, indeed, those bones are “beyond reasonable doubt” those of King Richard III. (“Porsche’ because they were found under a car park, get it, hahaha?) It’s up to me to stand up for the great Shakespearean tradition of bad puns.

Are you as strangely moved by this story as I am, and as the whole of England seemed to be? Oh, sure, there were jokes, my favourite being this one:


[All over the web, but I borrowed it from]

Not only is any reminder of the Elizabethan series of Blackadder welcome, the reminder of Baldrick, played by Tony Robinson, is particularly in keeping. As presenter of Time Team, Robinson must have been kicking himself since the discovery of the bones was first announced. If the search for Richard wasn’t the ultimate Time Team episode, what could be?

For just think about it! If there’s one thing we learn from watching Time Team, it’s the sheer contingency of archaeological exploration. These are serious people, funny though some of them look, doing actual science, and how many times have we seen them lay down their three intersecting trenches and come up with nothing? Indeed, you may remember how Richard Buckley, the lead archaeologist of the Richard III dig, was at pains to lower expectations—rightly so, of course. He is a scientist, after all. On his account the Leicester team was engaged in something more like reconnaissance than a hunt for Richard’s remains. It was “a shot in the dark.”

And then. And then. The very first thing they find, in the very first trench on the very first day, is the skull of Richard III. If you’d made it up, nobody would have believed you. But because it really happened, we wanted it—desperately wanted it—to be true. My own sense of wonder is mingled with relief that it did turn out to be true. If those bones had turned out to somebody else’s I think I would have been crushed.

I wouldn’t have been the only one. I watched the Channel 4 special, Richard III: The King in the Car Park, with a fascination that developed into a distinct feeling of unease. I’d never seen the shaggy-haired presenter, Simon Farnaby, before. I gather he claims to be a comedian. He came across as rather more of a prat. The power of the special comes from the way it depicts the Leicester team conducting a happy marriage of history, literature, and science. History and literature gave them the broad outlines; where to dig, what to look for in analyzing what they found. Science then went to work, proving that history and literature were indeed pointing to the right object.

The University of Leicester has finally gotten [by the way, British readers, did that sound like fingernails on a blackboard to you? I am genuinely interested in this taboo of yours about the perfectly respectable form gotten. It was good enough for Shakespeare—why do (some of) you have a problem with it?] around to putting up the video of the press conference. It’s well worth watching in its entirety.

These are heroes of science, and, of course, of literature. The biggest hero of all in my opinion is Dr. Jo Appleby, the osteoarchaeologist. The Channel 4 special reveals her crucial role at every stage of the process, from the initial dig (it was she who found the skull), through—of course—the analysis of the bones, right up to the press conference. Don’t skip Dr. Buckley’s presentation, but watch her starting at about 11:15 of the video, and fall in love.

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It’s a Crying Schama (2 of 2): Simon Schama’s Shakespeare, Part 2

After two posts on the subject you may be thinking, “But Diamond Jim, tell us what you really think about Simon Schama’s Shakespeare.” Well, since the transition from Elizabeth to James is a good place for it, I do; I will.

First, this series has no reason to exist. Yes, Auntie Beeb is saturating the airwaves with Shakespeare in 2012, but it’s already done a three-part series by an actual Shakespeare scholar, James Shapiro’s The King and the Playwright, that covers much of the same material. Moreover, Shapiro has written some of the best general-audience books about Shakespeare of our time. Schama is not a Shakespeare scholar and, despite his pretensions, is not the sort of omnicompetent intellectual whose opinions on anything are worth listening to. What was the BBC thinking when it commissioned two hours by this popinjay even though it already had three from a real expert?

Second, when Schama does try to say something interesting about Shakespeare, he makes questionable claims and relies on dubious sources. I’ll talk about some of these later in this post.

Third, and most important, Schama’s interpretive approach is fatally flawed. For somebody who published a scathing review of Anonymous, he shares that film’s assumptions to a surprising degree. To see how, let me pick up where I left off in the last post. Schama says that once James I named the Lord Chamberlain’s Man, Shakespeare’s company, the King’s Men, Shakespeare was “officially the court playwright” [my emphasis] His fresh opportunities to observe James closely led him to “explore the hearts and heads of kings,” focusing on such themes as madness versus sanity, good versus evil, the corrupting nature of ambition, and revenge. Of course, he hadn’t lost the common touch, as Schama claims Hamlet shows. According to Schama, Hamlet is about James’s youth; James’s’ father was assassinated and his mother, Mary Queen of Scots, married the suspected murderer with unseemly haste. The performance of Hamlet at court in 1603 therefore shows that Shakespeare had not “lost his edge,” and James’s head must have been spinning to see the crime of his youth not just enacted on stage but reenacted again within the play by the Player King and Queen.

This discussion of Hamlet so perfectly shows what is wrong with Schama’s whole series that I couldn’t have done better if I’d tried. Have you ever heard of this suggestion that Hamlet is the young James, the Ghost his father, Gertrude Mary Queen of Scots? Neither had I. Surprisingly, as a little research shows, it turns out to have had a long history, going back to the end of the eighteenth century. It’s plainly a crackpot theory, with no support or credence from actual Shakespeare scholars, and wouldn’t be any less so if its best-known adherent weren’t the Nazi historian Carl Schmitt. (Schmitt aside, isn’t the genesis of Hamlet better explained by the conventional account that notes the existence of the Hamlet legend going back to Saxo Grammaticus and the popularity of the so-called ur-Hamlet, which some think Shakespeare himself wrote? Not that I agree with that last claim, but do we have to reach to cobble up an allegory about James that, just by the way, involves the claim that Shakespeare made an otherwise undocumented visit to Scotland?) But is it so very much more crackpot than the theory that Hamlet is really about dynastic intrigues in Elizabeth’s court, that Polonius is a thinly disguised Lord Burghley, and that Hamlet—well, you know who Hamlet is on this theory.

You see where this is going. Schama is getting perilously close to Anonymous territory. But my problem is not so much with this particular interpretation of Hamlet, ridiculous though it is, as with the general interpretive approach. Though he may thunder in the Guardian against the Oxfordians, Schama shares their fatally flawed assumption. For him, as for them, the plays are not plays, they are some sort of Great Cryptogram under which Shakespeare was transmitting a secret message to the secret audience of these texts.

The only thing that separates Schama from the Oxfordians he despises is his proposed secret audience—James I. Yet bizarrely for all his protestations that Shakespeare was a champion of the common Briton, Schama shares the Oxfordians’ drive to convert him into a courtier. For Schama, the author of Hamlet, Macbeth, and Lear is the official court poet. I don’t really see what separates Schama from Delia Bacon, the first great exponent of the view that Francis Bacon wrote the plays, when she said that the author “carries the court perfume with him, unconsciously, wherever he goes.” The only difference—and it’s immaterial in the end—is that for Schama, it is Shakespeare the man from Stratford who stinks of the court perfume. In this documentary Schama accomplishes the astounding feat of becoming the first Stratfordian Oxfordian.

There’s one other point it seems Schama is almost daring us to observe as he moves from one outrageous interpretation to another. It would have been foolhardy for Shakespeare to have composed the great tragedies as the transparent, univocal political commentary Schama suggests they are—but insane to go on and present them at court. Even if you had a good explanation of why Shakespeare would write a play about questionable incidents in James’s youth (several years before James took the throne), you’d still need to explain why he dared rub the king’s nose in it—let alone why James forbore to have his head. I almost never make biographical claims about Shakespeare, but one thing we can certainly say about him (and Schama does, in another context) is that he was politically cautious and canny. He navigated the treacherous Elizabethan waters that pulled Marlowe and Kyd under; why would he take crazy risks under James? Schama’s comment that he must have been thrill-seeking just doesn’t cut it. (Schama’s view is not based on his own original scholarship, of course, so these remarks apply equally to his source, which I suspect but can’t prove is Alvin Kernan’s Shakespeare, The King’s Playwright.)

Once Schama’s assumption that Shakespeare is sending secret messages to James is rejected, as it must be, do his more specific interpretations of Macbeth and Lear have a leg to stand on? No, although to my surprise I find myself warming to aspects of what he says about Macbeth. Here, if anywhere, you would expect Schama’s theory to find purchase, because pretty much everybody except the Oxfordians agrees that Macbeth, written in the aftermath of the Gunpowder Plot, contains flattery of James, specifically the vision of Banquo’s descendants stretching out indefinitely as kings of Scotland (especially significant because the Stuarts in fact claimed a lineage that stretched all the way back to Banquo). Yet even here Schama seems compelled to say things that are absurdly untrue, such as his claim that Macbeth is about “the anarchy engulfing a country after the murder of its king.” Since Macbeth rules as a tyrant once he takes the throne, this is just wrong on its face.

When I spoke of “warming” to Schama, I meant that he touches on one of the most interesting and fascinatingly complex strands of Macbeth, its treatment of sexuality and its relation to power. Yet even here Schama botches the discussion. The most obvious and important aspect here is the reversal of conventional sexual roles between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, but Schama misses that the resulting sexual charge is all on Lady Macbeth’s side. I would be very interested to see an actual argument for Schama’s claim that “the connection between sex and power is at the heart of Shakespeare’s play”; I seem to recall that Polanski took this interpretation (surprise!), although I haven’t seen his film adaptation since it was originally released.

Here is one way to test your views about the role of sexuality in Macbeth. What do you think happens in bed between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth after Duncan’s murder—more or less in the gap between Act II and Act III? Be downright pornographic if you like; whatever you come up with is sure to teach you something. Do feel free to post your results in the comments. Hints at my answer follow immediately.

So, sex and power, fair enough; but almost as if he doesn’t even care what’s issuing from his mouth, Schama then comes up with remarks like “Macbeth and his wife lust for the throne” or “The sexual rush of killing is at the heart of Macbeth.” Lady Macbeth can be said to lust for the throne and feel a sexual rush at the idea of killing—her dialogue after Duncan’s murder is positively postcoital—but the whole point of the play is that Macbeth doesn’t share those feelings. If he did, Lady Macbeth would not need to spend an act and a half persuading him, nor would he have given the great speech that ends

Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood
Clean from my hand? No, this my hand will rather
The multitudinous seas incarnadine,
Making the green one red.

You could perfectly well argue that, goaded by the Weird Sisters, Macbeth has made up his mind that he wants the throne and that Lady Macbeth’s ardor only helps him screw up his courage to the sticking place where he can do what he has already decided to do—but I wouldn’t call that “lust for the throne.” That Schama uses this phrase in connection with Macbeth strongly implies that he isn’t even paying attention.

That impression is confirmed when Schama discusses Lady Macbeth’s tremendous speech in Act I scene v, just before Macbeth returns but after she has read the letter in which he relates the Weird Sisters’ prophecy:

The raven himself is hoarse,
That croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan
Under my battlements. Come, you Spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,
And fill me from the crown to the toe, top-full
Of direst cruelty! make thick my blood,
Stop up th’ access and passage to remorse;
That no compunctious visitings of Nature
Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between
Th’ effect and it! Come to my woman’s breasts,
And take my milk for gall, you murth’ring ministers,
Wherever in your sightless substances
You wait on Nature’s mischief! Come, thick Night,
And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of Hell,
That my keen knife see not the wound it makes,
Nor Heaven peep through the blanket of the dark,
To cry ‘Hold, hold!’

To me, this is the most terrifying moment in the whole play, far more than the somewhat comical appearances of the Weird Sisters. They are external, or at best external projections of inner forces; Lady Macbeth herself is the force here, something far more powerful than the three so-called witches. The key is her plea to the “spirits” to “unsex me here”; to divest her of what makes her human, to transmute her sexualized passion for power into something beyond sex, something beyond human, to make her a being that can say, as she shortly does to Macbeth:

I have given suck, and know
How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me:
I would, while it was smiling in my face,
Have pluck’d my nipple from his boneless gums,
And dash’d the brains out, had I so sworn
As you have done to this.

Schama spends some time on the “unsex me here” speech—he can hardly ignore it, given what he has said about the warped sexuality of the Macbeths—but he misses its power completely. (That it is given to Judi Dench to recite doesn’t help; she may be a great actress, and by report she was a great Lady Macbeth back in 1975, but her colorless reading here doesn’t even hint at the speech’s otherworldly passion.) For Schama, the speech merely means: take away all the qualities of the “right kind of woman”–chastity, humility, obedience—and the result is exactly what male moralists of the time would have predicted: madness, insomnia, suicide. It’s as if Christopher Sly had woken up to watch the wrong play. Lady Macbeth is not imploring the “spirits” to make her a shrew; she wants to be one of them—that is, inhuman.

After all this it is pretty easy to imagine what Schama has to say about Lear, so I’ll be brief. Kings must be reduced to destitution before they can see the truth about themselves and their place in humanity. If this were really what Shakespeare was trying to say, one has to wonder why he would bother saying it to James, who—as Schama elsewhere notes—was the least likely person in the kingdom to listen (and, we might add, the most likely to misunderstand, to the messenger’s possibly fatal cost).

Let’s step back for a minute. Is this a false account of Lear? Certainly not, as far as it goes. Lear is reduced to destitution and worse, and comes to see his place in the world clearly. And for all any of us know, Shakespeare was in fact trying to send a message to James. But is it anything like enough to leave it at that? Does Schama begin to explain why Lear is one of the canonical works of world literature? Of course not. We will spend quite a while on Lear, five or ten years down the road, but for now I would say that its staggering power rests in its depiction of an arrogant old man so blind to his own world that he rejects love and truth in favor of their opposites; in losing everything he thought he had, material and otherwise, he finds his whole being turned inside out. And it still isn’t enough. You can see that something has to be desperately wrong with Schama’s interpretation from the fact that he doesn’t even mention the ending—and he can’t, really, because on his view once the king has returned from madness and now understands his place as a mere man just like the rest of us, well, Happy Ending! Only it isn’t. Oh yes, we want it to be with our whole hearts and souls. Oh yes, it was in Shakespeare’s source material, the old Leir play. Oh yes, we want Cordelia to live and our sense of the world as a good and ordered place where at least sometimes people learn from their mistakes in time to save their lives is confirmed. But in one of the bravest acts of literature anybody has ever committed, Shakespeare refuses us the comfort of a happy ending.

Never, never, never, never, never.

Why do we read or perform or watch Lear over 400 years after it was created (whereas we never bother with Leir except as an appendage to Shakespeare)? For those five words. Lear’s soul may have been turned inside out on the blasted heath but these “never”s come from the bottom of all of our souls. It is here that Lear becomes truly human.

This then is my real problem with Simon Schama’s Shakespeare. It shares the fundamental assumption of Shakespeare deniers and Bardolaters alike that the plays require some kind of secret decoder ring to be understood. And by adopting the specific view that Shakespeare, especially under James, was essentially a courtier—a de Vere without a dukedom, sending coded messages to the king about kingship—it renders us unable to understand why Shakespeare is now—or was in his time—of any greater general interest than Castiglione. To repeat, any interpretation of Lear that doesn’t even feel it’s necessary to mention the ending need not detain us.

I’ll conclude with the observation that it’s amusing that given his antiroyalism in this series, Schama is the BBC’s go-to guy for color commentary about royal events. He was there at the Royal Wedding, he was there at the Diamond Jubilee; would he seriously suggest that Elizabeth II needs to be stripped and left on a blasted heath, and Princess Anne hanged, before the queen understands that she is but one human being among others?

And yet there’s one thing you can always say on Schama’s behalf:

He ain’t David Starkey.

And with that, let’s move on. We’re still two—but only two—posts away from a new play!

It’s a Crying Schama (1 of 2): Simon Schama’s Shakespeare, Part 2

In Part 1 of his series Simon Schama’s Shakespeare, Simon Schama asserted that in his Elizabethan plays Shakespeare forged the English national self-image, or something—it was never quite clear what. In Part 2, he discusses the Jacobean Shakespeare and, despite his protestations, draws a portrait of Shakespeare as a courtier a little too close to the king to be genuinely interesting. Not unlike a certain other courtier; and indeed Schama’s real problem is that he commits the original sin of Shakespeare interpretation, reading the plays as easily identifiable transcriptions from Shakespeare’s biography.

This second episode is called “Hollow Crowns” and sets forth the argument (among other things; it’s a bit confused) that once James succeeded Elizabeth and Shakespeare’s company became the King’s Men, Shakespeare, now the “royal playwright,” used his new proximity to the crown to examine the nature of kingship, specifically whether kings are like the rest of us. (At this point I desperately wanted Ernest Hemingway, or at least his ghost, to appear and slap Schama on the belly with a big wet fish.) Not to worry: Shakespeare did not lose the common touch with which he created the English self-image in Schama’s first episode.

Put like this, Schama’s position is either banal or crazy. Banal if the suggestion is that many (hardly all) of Shakespeare’s middle-period works are about kings; crazy if it’s that they are specifically about and directed to the reigning monarch, James I.

The episode begins with another of those blasts of b-roll, this time of various royals doing royal things, including Prince William and the Duchess of Cambridge, while Schama voices over: “Are they really like us?” His answer is that the repetitive message of Henry V, Richard II, Hamlet, Macbeth, and King Lear is that they are mad or sociopaths until they are brought down to our level. Schama doesn’t seem to notice a contradiction between his earlier picture of the canny writer who almost alone stayed out of trouble with the authorities and the “royal playwright” who just can’t resist thrusting his stick into that hornet’s nest. Surely James especially could not have taken a play about a sociopathic king lightly.

Never mind. Let’s look at Schama’s first comparison. Elizabeth’s great speech to her troops at Tilbury. The exposition starts with yet more b-roll of a rainy London night. (Damn film noir for making rainy nights such a lazy shorthand for emotional lows.) It’s the 1590s and Elizabeth is in decline from her high point, her speech to the troops massed to defend against the Armada at Tilbury. Perhaps, Schama speculates, it was seeing Elizabeth in decline tha led Shakespeare to write a play celebrating her at Tilbury. And what play would that have been? Henry V, of course.

Now the b-roll changes to footage of the Blitz, George VI touring the damage in mufti, and Churchill proclaiming England will never surrender, and if you can’t see the St. Crispian’s Day speech lumbering down Broadway you haven’t seen many BBC cultural specials. The visuals create loose associations between the three monarchs sharing danger with their people; fair enough, but Schama goes further to claim that Elizabeth and Henry, at least, were conveying the message: “I’m one of you!” The theme of Elizabeth’s reign, he says, was the link between crown and people (tell that to the Catholics); that aside, Schama goes still further to claim that the resemblance of the St. Crispian’s day speech to Elizabeth’s address “cannot have been a coincidence” and that Henry is one of us, as shown by the humanizing scene in which he goes out in disguise among his troops the night before Agincourt.

Much of the reading here isn’t exactly wrong—much is pretty obvious—but the conclusions are daft. I linked above to the Tilbury speech as posted by our friends at, and I recommend taking a moment to read it; it’s very short. I don’t see Elizabeth saying anything like “I am one of you”—quite the opposite, I take her to be saying “Even though I am not one of you—and have the body of a weak and feeble woman—I come here today to stand with you. That’s what a monarch does.” And Henry’s reference to “this band of brothers” means nothing more than that the warriors at Agincourt (unlike Elizabeth, including himself) are about to undergo a shared experience that will mark them as apart from ordinary “gentlemen in England now abed.” Not so much “I’m one of you” as “You’re a little more like me than those other guys because we’re about to fight together—but that doesn’t mean you are really at all like me.”

I find Schama’s discussion of the night before Agincourt a little better. The idea of the king going in disguise to learn what his subjects think is a very, very old one, and it doesn’t indicate any identification of the ruler with his people. The ruler is pretending to be one of the people, and inherent in the trope is the possibility that the people aren’t fooled. In this very scene it is entirely possible that the soldier Michael Williams knows he is speaking to the king when he delivers the “I am afeard that there are few die well that die in a battle” (IV.i.141-142) speech that Schama cites. (Yes, Williams later says “Your Majesty came not like yourself” (IV.viii.50), but his life is at stake.) On the other hand, it is Henry himself who says, in his disguise as “Harry Le Roy”, that

I think the King is but a man, as I am: the violet smells to him as it doth to me; the element shows to him as it doth to me; all his senses have but human conditions; his ceremonies laid by, in his nakedness he appears but a man; and though his affections are higher mounted than ours, yet, when they stoop they stoop with the like wing.

The message is indeed that kings are like ordinary people—but the fact that it is the king himself saying this introduces the familiar edge of irony whose detection is not one of Schama’s strengths.

In fact, Schama, like most commentators, misses the irony and double-sidedness at the core of the Henriad. Most idolize Falstaff and many, like Schama and Bloom, exalt him as some sort of larger-than-mortal life force at the same time as they hold up King Henry V as a model of kingship, at least on St. Crispian’s Day. The problem is that Henry V becomes the king he is in Henry V because of his rejection of Falstaff, his rejection of “all the world.” The greatness of his kingship can therefore scarcely rest in his identification with the common people. Schama is particularly subject to this criticism because he’s working on such a crude level. Falstaff = Spirit of England; Henry’s rejection of Falstaff therefore = rejection of the spirit of England; Henry’s position as iconic King of England and victor at Agincourt = his identification with the plebs who are England. Those can’t all be true together. And it looks as if Hal made the right move in banishing Falstaff, doesn’t it?

This is the general problem that arises from the most important passage in all of Shakespeare, Hal’s “I do. I will,” and Schama simply doesn’t have the analytical tools to answer it.

And so, after an anachronistic discussion of Richard II (which was entered in the Stationers Register in 1597, though Schama is now into the seventeenth century), Elizabeth dies and James I, decidedly not a man of the people, comes to the throne, appointing Shakespeare’s company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, as the King’s Men. Here is where Schama, who has been eccentric, sometimes obnoxious, but not so far from the truth as to be worthless, goes completely off the rails. Since the following is the most important point in my critique of Schama, I’m not going to bury the lede, but start a new post with it.

A Low-Down Dirty Schama: Simon Schama’s Shakespeare, Part 1

I know this is supposed to be the Year of Shakespeare but for God’s sake does that mean that every established BBC presenter gets a crack at him, however little they actually know? After the two parts of Simon Schama’s Shakespeare (or SSS) I can only wonder who’s next, Niall Ferguson?

Don’t get me wrong, Schama has done at least one thing I admire. I still get a warm feeling when I remember how he tore into John Bolton during the BBC’s coverage of the 2008 United States presidential election. I’m not the only one: it’s mentioned in his Wikipedia entry. In truth, though, John Bolton is a thug, and somebody should have taken down the white-mustached bully boy years before; he should never have been allowed near the BBC. And what I’ve seen of Schama’s popular output has not impressed me; an episode or two of his History of Britain and Power of Art. Neither struck me as having needed to be made; still less does SSS.

According to BBC Two, “Simon Schama argues that it is impossible to understand how Shakespeare came to belong ‘to all time’ without understanding just how much he was of his time.” Fair enough, and Schama’s history is not terribly objectionable (he is, after all, a historian). But he is not a Shakespeare scholar and has no other special source of insight into the plays; this series exists because of Simon Schama, not because of Shakespeare.

The first installment in the series, “This England,” argues that Shakespeare gave the English their idea of England by showing them “England unedited,” “the cream and the scum.” (I was interested by the casual assumption that we would all agree which was which.) That’s the Protestant cream and the Protestant scum, mind you. After the Reformation, Protestant England “needed to tell its own story” to oppose itself to rebel Catholics “abroad—and at home.” Shakespeare hasn’t even started creating “England” and already it excludes a sizeable portion of the English people, including his mother’s side of the family. (In this part of the documentary Schama is cribbing his history from Stephen Greenblatt’s Will in the World, not the soberest of sources. However, Schama cannot mention the idea, which Greenblatt considers at length, that Shakespeare was Catholic; that would have made it hard for him to forge the voice of the Protestant English people.)

That points to the big problem with this first hour of the series. Schama seems to assume there is something we can all agree on as the English national self-image, but he never actually says what it is. He gestures toward various snippets, such as the idea of Deep England, Churchill vowing to fight the Nazis on the beaches, and the lowlifes and prostitutes of the Boar’s Head Tavern, but he never gets them to jell. When he says something like “What you feel at Wembley, they felt at the Globe” I can only respond that I have no idea why the true comparison isn’t “What you feel at Wembley, they felt at the bear-baiting pits.” I can well imagine that the Globe’s audience had a communal experience, but I need to be persuaded that it was an experience of Englishness.

The concept of Shakespeare as the national voice of England is a cliché by 2012; but the idea that he consciously tried to forge a national identity, to the extent it makes sense, can in fact find some support in the plays. There’s John of Gaunt’s great “This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England” speech in Richard II. And above all there’s Henry V, as conscious an exercise in national-myth building as you could ask for. But Schama doesn’t mention either play in this context. Instead, he argues that the plays that forged the English national consciousness are the Henry VI trilogy and Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2.

A focus on Henry VI might seem perverse. These three plays are among Shakespeare’s most neglected, and in the case of Part 1 at least, there’s a scholarly consensus that most of it isn’t Shakespeare’s. It is still, according to Schama, “the record of a genius in the making,” which is a far cry from being constitutive of the British national character, but never mind. The argument that Part 1 is significant (apart from Schama’s way-over-the-top characterization of it as “Kill Bill in tights”–I kid you not) is that it features the English national hero John Talbot, of whom the “Nancy boy” French are terrified even when he’s their prisoner. Schama conveniently omits the presence of Joan of Arc in this play and her triumph over Talbot. Some English national hero; he can’t even beat a girl!

Part 2 is significant for the only reason anybody remembers the trilogy, the suggestion by a peasant rebel “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.” Like most people, Schama misattributes the line to the rebel leader, Jack Cade. He also oversimplifies Cade’s complex characterization (see Marjorie Garber’s Shakespeare After All for a more nuanced unpacking) by stating that Shakespeare, “the first poet of class warfare,” nonetheless prevented identification with Cade, covering his own Bardic behind, by making him a megalomaniac.

Schama starts from the familiar observation that Shakespeare presents all elements of society, the high and the low, and certainly Part 2 does this. But it doesn’t follow that the plays, especially Henry VI, created an English (really Protestant) national self-image that also contains all elements of society. One could as well conclude from Part 2 that England contains rabble, and when they get ideas beyond their station they will be smashed. (Come to think of it, I’ve seen considerably more inaccurate accounts of the English character.)

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Please Don’t Try This at Home—Reading Romeus and Juliet (Part 2 of 2)

(Picking up where we left off in the previous post . . .)

So much for the Nurse and my point 4. What of the heart of the story, the passion of Romeo and Juliet? In Brooke, it is a damp squib. So far from the all-consuming fire we know from Shakespeare, so far from a balcony scene that happens immediately after the Capulet banquet, in Brooke Romeus spends six months mooning under the balcony. That’s not a lover: that’s a stalker. As for the actual words the lovers speak, as Peter King put it in his e-mail to me: “frankly, the lines Romeus and Juliet exchange at the party are really bad. It’s like the
love dialogue in Attack of the Clones. Maybe not as good.” Remember, this is the scene in which Shakespeare has the lovers speak a sonnet in alternating lines. Could there be a better example of how Shakespeare has deepened, improved, and transcended his source material?

Well, maybe. This is Brooke’s version of the Aubade:

Thus these two lovers pass away the weary night,
In pain and plaint, not, as they wont, in pleasure and delight.
But now,somewhat too soon, in farthest east arose
Fair Lucifer, the golden star that lady Venus chose;
Whose course appointed is with speedy race to run,
A messenger of dawning day and of the rising sun.
Then fresh Aurora with her pale and silver glade
Did clear the skies, and from the earth had chaséd ugly shade.
When thou ne lookest wide, ne closely dost thou wink
When Phoebus from our hemisphere in western wave doth sink,
What colour then the heavens do show unto thine eyes,
The same, or like, saw Romeus in farthest eastern skies.
As yet he saw no day, ne could he call it night
With equal force decreasing dark fought with increasing light.
Then Romeus in arms his lady ‘gan to fold,
With friendly kiss, and ruthfully she ‘gan her knight behold.
With solemn oath they both their sorrowful leave do take;
They swear no stormy troubles shall their steady friendship shake.

Shakespeare gives us the back and forth, the mercurial shifts of emotion of real human beings in love, brilliantly externalized in the what-bird-is-it byplay. Brooke gives us conventional images (Lucifer, Venus, Aurora, and Phoebus!), his usual labored verse, and some downright weird behavior from his characters. Where Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet actually make love, Romeus waits until it’s almost dawn and time for him to fly before he even embraces Juliet—after which they exchange a “friendly” kiss. It’s true that the OED does give “lover” as one sense of “friend” and cites instances in Love’s Labour’s Lost and Measure for Measure, but it cautions that this is not a usual sense (it certainly isn’t now, when the line “I just want to be friends” signals a crushing disappointment rather than a consummation). It actually does seem to be Brooke’s sense, though, since Romeus and Juliet don’t betray any interest in intimacy.

In short, everything that makes the Aubade at once so beautiful and so heartrending is Shakespeare’s contribution.

Continue reading

Please Don’t Try This at Home—Reading Romeus and Juliet (Part 1 of 2)

Occasionally—only when dealing with matter other than the works of Shakespeare themselves—I adopt the motto “I read ‘em so you don’t have to.” Alas, sometimes I’m too late to save you from yourselves. Thus it was that my dear friend Peter King, professor of philosophy and medieval studies at the University of Toronto, asked me whether Shakespeare was really responsible for what I praised as his clever use of Friar Laurence to cover up a major plot hole—and before I could post, answered his own question by reading Arthur Brooke’s Romeus and Juliet (1562). Before any of the rest of you make the same mistake, this post provides you with as much about this, Shakespeare’s principal source, as you’ll ever want to know. Brooke’s 3,020-line poem is worth knowing about as a vivid case study in Shakespeare’s transmutation of his sources. Not even I have the cheek to call Shakespeare the Rumpelstiltskin of literature, but if you want to see him spinning dross into gold, look no further.

The Romeo and Juliet story originates in folklore, but narrative versions can be traced back to fifteenth-century Italy. The introduction to the stand-alone Oxford edition gives an account of the Italian novelle that relate the tale and that Brooke drew upon. (Brooke’s poem is the first version of the story in English; William Painter’s The Palace of Pleasure, on which Shakespeare also drew for other plays, came some years later.)

We know nothing about Brooke except that he published Romeus in 1562 and died in a shipwreck a year later. Romeus contains pretty much everything you would read in a synopsis of Romeo and Juliet, but it all comes down to the details.

The first obstacle to overcome if you actually try, against all my entreaties, to read Romeus is the style. We’re used to blank verse, the unrhymed iambic pentameter of Shakespeare and Marlowe, because pretty much everything we still read from the Elizabethan period (let alone later) was written in it, but it was not the only verse form popular at the time. In particular, Romeus is written in a form called “poulter’s measure,” consisting of alternating lines of iambic heptameter (so-called fourteeners, with seven feet and fourteen syllables) and hexameter (six feet, an alexandrine). This page has examples and a good explanation of the various forms, including poulter’s measure, related to the “common measure” used for hymns.

But since you’ll be very hard put to find anything recent written in poulter’s measure, here is the opening of Romeus:

There is beyond the Alps, a town of ancient fame,
Whose bright renown yet shineth clear: Verona men it name;
Built in a happy time, built on a fertile soil
Maintained by the heavenly fates, and by the townish toil
The fruitful hills above, the pleasant vales below,
The silver stream with channel deep, that thro’ the town doth flow,
The store of springs that serve for use, and eke for ease,
And other more commodities, which profit may and please,–

I think this gives a pretty clear sense of how alien this verse form feels to us modern readers. We are not used to alternating lines of different lengths (yes, I know about The Star-Spangled Banner) and I, at least, experience them as having a distracting start-stop quality. I kept getting thrown on the short line expecting the extra foot and vice versa. That meant that I kept counting syllables, which was even more distracting.

Go ahead and chalk that up to my failings as a reader. That doesn’t change the fact that Brooke is a terrible versifier. Look at that opening again:

There is beyond the Alps, a town of ancient fame,
Whose bright renown yet shineth clear: Verona men it name;

The man is shameless, or clueless, enough to torture the syntax into “Verona men it name” just to get the rhyme with “fame”—and this is only the second line of the poem. I’m not going to belabor these formal features (not even “profit may and please” to rhyme with “ease” at the end of this excerpt). Just take my word for it that they don’t get any better, and that they make for an extremely trying read.

More important, of course, is Brooke’s version of the story. How does it compare with Shakespeare’s? What did Shakespeare take from it and what did he add? Consider the half-dozen or so most striking things we have seen about Romeo and Juliet:

  1. The atmosphere of Verona, a town without pity whose combination of gang violence and family tyranny is as oppressive as its externalization, the August heat;
  2. The great set pieces between Romeo and Juliet—the balcony scene, the Aubade, the tomb;
  3. Juliet’s evolution from child to something more than woman, and her glorious soliloquies;
  4. Mercutio and the Nurse;
  5. The electrifying shift from comedy to tragedy that pivots on the duel;
  6. Friar Laurence’s delusions of grandeur and his farcical attempts to manipulate the action.

These are at least some of the features that make Romeo and Juliet what it is. Would you believe that none of them can be found in Brooke’s poem in recognizable form? Continue reading

A Stern Article from Tiffany

You’ll remember that at the end of his introduction to the Arden edition of  the faux Shakespeare Double Falsehood, Brean Hammond mentions that he had heard a lecture by Professor Tiffany Stern of Oxford University that made even him doubt the attribution of this play to Shakespeare in any degree:

Tiffany Stern’s keynote lecture was the most openly skeptical contribution. Her study of the various ways in which plays could be plotted in Shakespeare’s period—in particular her contention that co-writing might not actually involve two hands being present in the finished article because one of the authors might be responsible only for the “plot” or narrative content—paves the way for saying that both Shakespeare’s and Fletcher’s hands need not be found in a collaborative play by them. . . . Stern built up a case convincing enough to render any editor of the play cautious. And “cautious” is what I hope this edition has been.

(True to form, Hammond did not address her criticisms or his doubts.) Professor Stern’s paper (at 40 pages, it cannot be the lecture she delivered) appeared in Shakespeare Quarterly last year (“’The Forgery of Some Modern Author’? Theobald’s Shakespeare and Cardenio’s Double Falsehood,Shakespeare Quarterly 62:4 (2011), 551-93)and I am finally catching up with it. (Here is a link that, alas, works only if you have access to Project MUSE

I might not have wanted to return to the subejct of Double Falsehood in this blog–I wouldn’t blame you for thinking I’ve already run it into the ground–but I’m the more impelled to do so because of this news. Professor Gary Taylor has long, long had a reputation as a Bad Boy among Shakespeare scholars, but he finally seems to have gone full Theobald, unabashedly adding his own writing to what he takes to be Shakespeare’s. Perhaps he should bear in mind that if Theobald is remembered at all outside the narrow world of Shakespeare editors, it’s for being the main target of The Dunciad.

Taylor is notorious for his challenges to traditional attributions of Shakespeare. His edition of Middleton, as this article proclaims, includes Macbeth, Measure for Measure, and Timon of Athens. Because he has spent much of his career as a provocateur, one takes his claims with the needed boxcar of salt; but this paper claiming that All’s Well That Ends Well was cowritten with Middleton has been getting serious attention. (Yes, serious attention, although for convenience I am linking to the Telegraph.) Serious enough attention to have drawn this stinging refutation from Brian Vickers and Marcus Dahl (best known, at least to me, for this critique of Taylor’s claims about the authorship of 1 Henry VI).

I find all this distressing. Just a year ago I was praising the potential of stylometric analysis to illuminate the conditions of English Renaissance playwriting, specifically to educate us about the realities of collaboration. Yet even then I qualified my praise with the reservation “properly applied.” As I understand stylometric analysis, it is a statistical technique that requires large corpora to compare authorial styles. Elloitt and Valenza would not, if I understand them, claim to discern how Shakespeare starts a single scene, hands off to Middleton, and then comes back for the ending, as Maguire and Smith do. So perhaps I should speak of attribution studies here, a broader category. In any event, given the now-untraceable intervention of scribes and compositors, we don’t (and can’t) have a technique for making the kinds of fine-grained distinctions Maguire and Smith make so blithely. It’s not so different from the idea that we can chisel away the barnacles of eighteenth-century revision to get to the original Cardenio.

Have attribution studies jumped the shark so soon, then? (Has the phrase “jumped the shark” jumped the shark? Probably. But you know what I mean.) I’ll be coming back to this subject.