Saturday, October 22, 2011

Theatre For Thought, October 22, 2011

...the canon is a symbol for the ultimate possibilities of artistic thought and for the universality of the human condition.
joel fishbane

Hate laws are being re-examined in this country, but I’m going to come out and say it: I hate the movie Anonymous and I don’t care that I haven’t seen it. The film, which opens October 28, is to the movies what Keir Cutler’s  Teaching Hamlet was to the Montreal Fringe: a story that springs from the perpetual and irritating Shakespeare authorship debate. As if Shakespeare’s work wasn’t abused enough, now its very parenthood is being called in question, which is sort of like discussing whether Alexander the Great lied on his entrance exam to the Greek army. Even if you could prove it, which you can’t, it amounts to little more then a historical footnote. Attributing authorship would be a valiant task if there were any descendants left to sue for royalties: since there are not, discussing who “really” wrote Shakespeare’s plays is nothing but a parlour game for intellects. 

It’s elitist thinking and it smacks of 19th century eugenic theory...

Perhaps what bothers me the most is that at the heart of the authorship debate is rank prejudice: the crux of the argument is that Shakespeare, humble and obscure, could never have written all those plays. This isn’t the only argument in the Oxfordian arsenal, but it is a central component. It’s elitist thinking and it smacks of 19th century eugenic theory, which isn’t surprising since this is when the authorship question began. Eugenicists, of course, argued that heredity always triumphed over environment: poverty, immortality and criminal behaviour were all passed down through the genes, an argument which led to forced sterilization in the U.S., Alberta and British Columbia for years. 

I’m aware that the question of authorship was broached a few decades before the word “eugenics” was even coined. But class-based bias knows no era and in any case, the question really hit its stride in the early 20th century – the first mock trial to examine the question was in the 1890s, less then a decade before the first sterilization laws came to Indiana. By the time Shakespeare Identified was published in 1920, eugenic laws had become a common sight in the western world. (Shakespeare Identified is the first book to suggest Hamlet was written by the Earl of Oxford, the theory which forms the basis for Anonymous.)

And of course the Nazis, who took eugenic theory to loathsome heights, appropriated Shakespeare for their own.

I also find it interesting that eugenicists had a unique relationship with Shakespeare, to the point that many used his work as a means of supporting their line of thought. In 1927, an essay appeared in The Eugenics Review which claimed the Bard understood “the contrast between nature and nurture as understood by us.” And of course the Nazis, who took eugenic theory to loathsome heights, appropriated Shakespeare for their own. Although they exiled Henry V from the canon, they worked to reconceive Shakespeare as a pro-German writer. At the start of WWII, Hitler personally approved the performance of Shakespeare, leading a surge of performances of Richard III, Hamlet and the Scottish Play (for more on this take a look at The Nazi Appropriation of Shakespeare by Rodney Symington). 

While I’m not saying that anyone who questions Shakespeare is a Nazi, it is interesting that both eugenicists and the Oxfordians are all dancing around the same subject: inherent to the debate is the notion that Shakespeare’s “nurture” could never have overcome his “nature” and allowed him to learn the things he needed to know. Detractors, for instance, question how such an inferior could have had such an extensive vocabulary (thereby forgetting the fact that he clearly didn’t – why else would he have had to invent so many words, like eyeball and skim milk?)

Having Two Gentleman of Verona on your resume is a dubious honour at best.

Frankly, if I was the ghost of the Earl of Oxford, I’m not sure I’d want the immortality, even if I could get it. Having Two Gentleman of Verona on your resumé is a dubious honour at best. And that’s just the point: the question of who wrote the plays will never alter the plays themselves. Whether written by Shakespeare, the Earl of Oxford or Anne Hathaway’s dog, Hamlet will always be Hamlet while Two Gentleman of Verona, unfortunately, is doomed to forever be a travesty. 

Shakespeare himself stopped being a person long ago. He is an icon. Meanwhile, the canon is a symbol for the ultimate possibilities of artistic thought and for the universality of the human condition. This universality has become more important than the person who created it. It is not the intelligentsia who have been keeping Shakespeare alive for four centuries: it is, to use a phrase going around these days, the other 99%. Generation after generation, the humble and obscure find truth and meaning in Shakespeare’s work. This is the thing we should celebrate and promote. In an age where theatres persistently abuse Shakespeare’s text, it is not the artist who needs our protection but the art itself.

If, after all this, you still care about this debate, Stratford’s general director Antoni Cimolino, will be defending the Stratfordian opinion at McGill on October 24. For details click here.

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