Monday, February 3, 2014

The Question... Joshua Stodart on Edmund Ironside - Shakespeare's lost play

The Special Case of Edmund Ironside
by Estelle Rosen

Joshua Stodart is an actor, director, and Shakespeare enthusiast based in Toronto. A recent graduate of Ryerson Theatre School, he founded Ale House in 2012 and has produced and directed three full and uncut Shakespeare plays. Recent acting credits include: Feste and Bassanio with Ale House; Mason in Journey's End (The Empty Room); and he will soon be starring as Dob in Dib and Dob (Carousel Players).

CHARPO: The Ale House Theatre reading of a lost Shakespeare play brings up many questions, particularly whether Shakespeare indeed wrote his plays. This is is a much discussed topic these days. Tell us more about the upcoming reading, Who Wrote Shakespeare, and the 'lost' play.

STODART: On Monday, February 3 Ale House Theatre Company will be doing a reading of a 'lost' Shakespeare play called Edmund Ironside. I will also be attempting to make the case for Shakespeare’s authorship of this play. This of course raises the larger question of, “did William Shakespeare write any of his plays?” I think it is a valid question and anyone who wants to develop a more meaningful relationship with the texts might ask it.

The current mainstream literary opinion on who Shakespeare was, what he did, and what and how he wrote is admittedly somewhat unbelievable. It’s really no wonder people can’t believe he existed! The “National Poet” was born to a glover, which is yes a little low class, but it’s possible he made Cheverail gloves – a phrase we clearly hear in Twelfth Night – which were preferred by the nobility. The young Shakespeare then went to school at the age of seven, uninterrupted, until he was 16. This would give him a greater knowledge of Latin and classical works than any modern major in those subjects today says Gary Taylor, editor of the Oxford Complete Works. He then used this profound knowledge to make gloves until he was… … 29, at which time – for no known reason – he decided to go to London and write 36 of the greatest plays ever. He wrote them consecutively, without revision, and without flaw.

This mysterious and exalted origin of the greatest poet of all time may feel right to anyone who has been overcome by the beauty of his works. But it unfortunately runs contrary to a teeming list of facts we have about the real William Shakespeare. These facts come from four sources:
  • Legal and official documents that mention William or the members of his immediate and extended family.
  • Personal description of Shakespeare by his contemporaries (either directly or – more common to the time – by sly allusions).
  • Descriptions of life events by friends and family connected to William and recorded by biographers within the first 100 years of his death.
  • The texts themselves and the various illusions to life and historical events as well as how they relate and influence each other.
Together these sources create a rough sketch of the real life Shakespeare lived. But they are instead cherry picked and entirely ignored by orthodox critics. Here are their reasons.
  • The official and legal documents are real but shed little to no light on the life of Shakespeare.
  • The personal descriptions of Shakespeare by his contemporaries – especially those that happened before the time they declare Shakespeare was in London – are wrongly attributed and are actually referencing another person of rural origin that has still not been identified.
  • The stories recorded by biographers near the time of Shakespeare’s death are mere gossip and rumour and cannot be trusted. This despite the fact that while stories vary about certain events, all do contain consistent nuggets of fact. Also any biographer writing today about someone who had passed less than 100 years ago would be completely in their right to interview and investigate the living ties – the friends and family – to the person in question. 
  • The texts themselves are the main source of material for mainstream literary critics but they are only concerned with the 36 texts published in the First Folio by Shakespeare’s peers seven years after his death. Any Tudor texts that resemble these plays but seem of inferior quality are deemed to not be authentic and are scooped into familiar categories and theories such as Bad Quartos, memorial reconstruction by actors, source plays, and derivative plays, which are all worth a Google. 
These theories have been in development since the late 19th century and save Shakespeare (and the British Empire) from the embarrassment of him having written any bad plays. This feels right but: A) common sense tells us that even geniuses may undergo a period of development; and B) these hypotheses rely on no evidence and only imagination while there is evidence supporting Shakespeare’s authorship (Google: Ockham’s Razor).

I think the most popular and well-developed theory belongs to the Oxfordians (some notable: Sigmund Freud, John Gielgud, and Mark Rylance). 

A man named Eric Sams put together a complete lists of facts (pre-birth to 1594) derived from the sources mentioned above in his book The Real Shakespeare (1995). This is certainly the most thorough attack against the Shakespeare Orthodoxy and has been promptly ignored.

An origin story inclusive of all the items on this list reveal a very different (and more realistic) man! One who was a dirty, farm raised, butchering, school evading, Catholic-born, deer stealing, anti-authoritarian, pre-marital hero of the English Language who had damn good reason to flee to London at the age of 18 – just in time to write all those bad plays including Edmund Ironside! He was an early starter at playmaking and he was a great reviser of his works. This nasty story never reaches the masses, which makes it natural to assume the great works of Shakespeare were indeed written by another of more noble birth and education.

I think the most popular and well-developed theory belongs to the Oxfordians (some notable: Sigmund Freud, John Gielgud, and Mark Rylance). The theory states that Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, wrote the plays under Shakespeare’s name in order to preserve his dignity. I am not well read in this theory but I understand that it is very well developed. The theory relies heavily on comparing the texts with events in Oxford’s life. Arguments can be made for and against the Shakespeare Orthodoxy almost point for point! I’ve even read an essay supporting Oxford’s authorship of Edmund Ironside! 

But there are some damning points against, especially when you use Shakespeare’s complete history rather than the clean version. One example would be that the Ghost of Hamlet’s father quotes the actual will of William’s father. This evidence is never brought up, however, because it also brings up the very embarrassing fact that Shakespeare’s father was extremely Catholic. No way are we having a Catholic be the Poet of the British Nation!

Either way, I think we must fully respect those who argue an alternative view of authorship. It is achieving the same goal as exploring the historical evidence we have of the real Shakespeare. It brings the texts back to reality. They weren’t written by a God or divinely inspired. Maybe by a genius, but they were written from the perspective and observation of a human existence. They are so good because they mirror human nature with more truth than anything that came before, during, and maybe after Shakespeare’s life. They are accessible, relatable, and can be read by the common man!

I of course advocate an alternative view of Shakespeare based on the evidence we have before building an entire new theory of authorship. And maybe one day the Pandora’s box of Shakespeare Orthodoxy can be closed and there will be a great reunion of humanity with its finest portrait. 

Until then, however, we will always have high school students, sweating, reading Shakespeare’s holy word – end-stopped of course – thinking that they’ll never be able to get it! We will have directors foregoing poetry and character in an attempt to update and make the play relevant for a frightened audience. And we will have actors getting red in the face and tight in the throat as they try to reach the greatness that is Shakespeare’s poetry (something I have both observed and experienced!)

I hope you can join us on Monday, February 3, 7:00 pm, at Woodlot Restaurant (293 Palmerston Ave.) where we will explore this topic further and have a reading of Edmund Ironside. Admission is free and ale is of course available!

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