Monday, June 9, 2014

The Question... Keir Cutler on Shakespeare Crackpot (Fringe)


The Rant
by Estelle Rosen

Keir Cutler has a PhD in theatre from Wayne State University in Detroit, a playwriting diploma from the National Theatre School of Canada and has a B.A from McGill University. He is the author of the ebook, "SHAKESPEARE AUTHORSHIP QUESTION: A CRACKPOT'S VIEW" available on Kindle, and he is the playwright/performer of nine monologues and one two-character theatre play.  Keir is married and lives in Montreal.

CHARPO: Seems like Montreal Fringe Festival would be incomplete without your Shakespeare rant! Though the basic subject is constant, you have presented us with varying approaches to the Shakespeare question. Do you ever feel - ok enough - on to something else? And how does this particular presentation fit with previous rants?

CUTLER: Shakespeare Crackpot is my 10th original show to debut at the Montreal Fringe Festival, and my 5th dealing with some aspect of Shakespeare.  (Teaching Shakespeare 1999, Is Shakespeare Dead? 2002, Teaching As You Like It 2006, Teaching Hamlet 2011.)  I am indebted to the Montreal Fringe Festival, and to the Canadian Association of Fringe Festivals for affording me this opportunity to develop new work. As I’ve travelled and performed across the country, I’ve had the chance to meet and work with other artists, including the inestimable TJ Dawe, who is directing me once again in this new work. (cont'd)
Cutler, left, with TJ Dawe

CUTLER: (cont'd) One might ask, “Haven’t you exhausted everything you have to say about Shakespeare yet?”  And the answer would be, “Not even close!  I actually feel like I have barely scratched the surface.”  Of course many of my plays not only deal with the works of Shakespeare, but also how Shakespeare is taught, understood and deified.  

In my new work, I am taking a personal look at the many, often comic, reactions people have had to my belief that the man from Stratford did not write the Works of Shakespeare.  I also recount my experience with my adaptation of Mark Twain’s Is Shakespeare Dead?' Twain was one of the many literary giants from history who doubted the traditional story of William Shakespeare, and he wrote perhaps the funniest assault on Bardolatry. Twain exposed the total guesswork that is the hallmark of all Shakespeare biographies. In 2002, I adapted 'Is Shakespeare Dead?' and have been performing it consistently ever since. I just got back from the Orlando Fringe where my performance was selected 'Best in Fest' by the Orlando Weekly, stating, “Montreal's Keir Cutler is offering one of the smartest, most thought-provoking shows at the Fringe …  using Twain's trademark intelligence and wit --  Cutler makes the strongest argument possible that William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon did not write the works credited to him.”

And yet despite the success of my adaptation, the vast majority of people still think anyone who doubts the man from Stratford wrote the Works of Shakespeare is a crackpot. Hence my title, 'Shakespeare Crackpot.'

Not only a crackpot, but people like me, according to the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Stratford-upon-Avon, England, have a “psychological aberration.” are “ignorant snobs,” “publicity hounds,” “parasitic leaches,” “conspiracy theorists,” “have a poor sense of logic,”  “refuse to accept evidence” and are possibly “certifiably mad.” Understandably the people in Shakespeare’s hometown do not like doubters like me. Their tourist industry, the second largest after London in the United Kingdom, is based on the proposition that the man who wrote “Hamlet” and “Romeo and Juliet” was born in their little town.  

And this little town of Stratford-upon-Avon, with the help of most Shakespeare professors, has been extraordinarily successful in keeping knowledge of the actual facts of the debate from the public. To the average person a Shakespeare doubter is to be ignored, he or she is after all just another deluded conspiracy theorist.

Frequently online I am trying to explain why I believe the man from Stratford didn’t write Shakespeare, and I’m invariably showered with insults. Often by people who have never heard there were doubts, and have yet to hear my reasons for doubting. A while back, I was asked, “If you believe Shakespeare wasn’t Shakespeare, you must also believe the moon landings were faked.  Don’t you?  This is a serious question, I demand an answer!” 

Just a few days ago, after pointing out the devastating fact that there is no contemporaneous paper trail connecting William of Stratford with Shakespeare’s Works, and that the great Shakespeare is largely a post-humous creation, I received the following wonderfully phrased invectives from someone in cyberspace.  “You have absolutely no idea what you're talking about. … You, sir, are a complete idiot! … you want to fly into cuckoo-land … you're no smarter than the average Walmart shopper, and a good deal more gullible!”

I am not sure how the average Walmart shopper got into the discussion on early modern literature, or why the average Walmart shopper should be considered the epitome of stupidity.  Nevertheless, this blanket dismissal of arguments against Shakespeare’s authorship exists even in most schools and universities, which are duty bound by their mission statements to promote academic freedom, critical thinking and give students both sides of an issue. But doubting Shakespeare of Stratford was a writer is considered so extreme, that their mission statements don’t apply.

And don’t take my word for it. Let me quote Professor James Shapiro of Columbia University, one of the world’s foremost authorities on Shakespeare, and a strict believer in the traditional tale of Shakespeare. “I happen to believe that William Shakespeare wrote the plays and poems attributed to him. But the Authorship Question remains virtually taboo in academic circles . . . and walled off from serious study by Shakespeare scholars.”

Since so-called 'reputable' scholars are 'walled off' from the subject, it is left to others to examine the evidence concerning Shakespeare’s authorship. There are several fairly recent books done by 'non-reputable' scholars exposing the weak case for the man from Stratford that I briefly reference in “Shakespeare Crackpot.”  These books rarely appear on any professor’s reading lists. In our modern world, we no longer burn books, we just leave them off lists.

Diana Price’s 2001, “Shakespeare’s Unorthodox Biography,” is perhaps the most significant.  Price comes from a background in theatre administration, not academia, and thus could actually do research.  “Taboo,” and “walled off from study” research, which Shakespeare scholars, according to Professor James Shapiro, must never do.  Price found that of the 25 best known writers from the time period, only Shakespeare left behind no personal evidence of his career as a professional writer; a totally unique deficiency! Price demonstrates in her book the case for Shakespeare authorship is built on misreadings, mythologizing, and even willful misrepresentations. But she is not accepted as a scholar, and is not to be read by students.

Then there is Richard Roe’s “Shakespeare’s Guide to Italy.”  Most Shakespeare scholars have said for decades that the man from Stratford never left England, and got Italy all wrong. They have said this since it is highly unlikely that an Elizabethan commoner like the man from Stratford could have travelled widely. Some scholars have written that Shakespeare put Italian names on British places, and knew nothing of Italy. Or even the ludicrous idea that all of Shakespeare’s vast knowledge of the country came from 'a few choice conversations' with Italians living in London. As though this might somehow explain 106 scenes set in Italy with over 800 references to the country. Of course Shakespeare scholars never went to Italy to check if the references were accurate, because that would be research which is 'walled off' and 'taboo.' And anyway, these scholars had already decided what findings they wanted.  So why do research?  But Richard Roe, wasn’t an academic, he was a real estate lawyer, and he spent 20 years in all the Italian cities described in the Shakespeare plays. Roe showed Shakespeare got Italy dead right. An embarrassing fact that has left some traditional Shakespeare scholars scrambling. But to most scholars Roe’s book is not a problem, they just don’t read it.

Then there is “Shakespeare: Beyond Doubt? Exposing an Industry in Denial,” written by a dozen 'heretics.' This book provides reasonable doubt that the man from Stratford wrote the famous plays and poems of Shakespeare.  One of its writers is Dr. Earl Showerman, a medical doctor with 30 years of hospital emergency room experience, who is astonished with Shakespeare’s medical content, his unique clinical genius, and the extraordinary richness of his medical literary sources. When could Shakespeare have found the time, given his duties as a theatre manager and actor, to become such a medical expert?  Shakespeare scholars have had a devil of a time, discounting Shakespeare’s legal knowledge, so the last thing they need is to start explaining is the dazzling array of several hundred accurate medical references from untranslated texts of the time. There are actually more medical references than legal ones in Shakespeare. Not only are these medical references left unexplained, they are often completely ignored, since many Shakespeare scholars are trying to dumb-down the Works so they mirror the man from Stratford, who at best had a grammar school education.  
All this begs the question, what would happen if college students were given the chance to do their own research, and make up their own minds on who wrote Shakespeare?  
Well I actually can tell you. In recent years, Professor Don Rubin of York University in Ontario has been conducting a course called, “Shakespeare: The Authorship Question.”  To my knowledge York is the only university in all of North America that is regularly teaching such a course.  The goal is not to prove any particular candidate is the author of Shakespeare, or even to prove or disprove the traditional story, the sole purpose of the course is to introduce the students to this fascinating topic. The class is limited to 4th year college students, it fills up quickly, with a waiting list.  I’ve visited the course and I can tell you the students are engaged and clearly love studying the subject.  

How does the course work?  Students are divided into small groups, and each group is assigned one of the many authorship candidates, including William of Stratford.  Each group will eventually have to argue the case for their assigned candidate in front of the class. To prepare for these presentations, students read various plays and poems of Shakespeare and historical works and documents. It is an exercise in research and argumentation.

On the final day of class. There is an open debate, then a secret vote to see which candidate the students consider is the most likely author of the Works.  In a recent vote, the traditional story of William Shakespeare, the one we are all told is beyond doubt and cannot be questioned, came in seventh. Poor William lost out to the Group Theory, the Earl of Oxford, Sir Francis Bacon and several others, but the man from Stratford did come in just ahead of Roger Manners, the 5th Earl of Rutland.  All the students in their evaluations said they appreciated the course, that it helped open up the history of the time, and they all saw the debate as purely an exercise in critical thinking.   

Yet this course at York is highly controversial.  It even comes under attack from theatre critics and other professors. Why?  Because the Shakespeare Authorship Question, at almost every academic institution on this continent, is 'taboo, …and walled off from study.' It has to be, because when students are allowed to research the subject, most will arrive at the same 'crackpot”'conclusion as Mark Twain and so many others have, that the traditional orthodox story of William Shakespeare never happened.

We all suffer from the prejudice that professors, teachers, instructors, academics are somehow 'in-the-know.'  They must have some secret information that we could never really understand.  They say it is certain and beyond doubt that the man from Stratford wrote Shakespeare, so it must be the case.  After all they are the authorities.  But Albert Einstein said, “Blind belief in authority is the greatest enemy of truth.”

Isn’t it time for all of us to understand that the so-called experts draw their conclusions about Shakespeare from inclusive evidence, and then defend these weak conclusions at all costs?  It is one thing for irresponsible bloggers to shower The Bard’s doubters with insults, it is quite another for academics to dismiss anyone as a crackpot who dares to question the traditional tale of the man from Stratford. What kind of an educational system promotes orthodoxy over curiosity? 

With my monologue, “Shakespeare Crackpot” I hope to entertain, provide some laughs, but also provoke a discussion about education. I would like to end here with a quote from former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s recent excoriating critique of colleges and universities that refuse to tolerate opposing views, delivered at Harvard University’s 363rd commencement.

“A university’s obligation is not to teach students what to think, but to teach students how to think. And that requires listening to the other side, weighing arguments without prejudging them, and determining whether the other side might actually make some fair points. . . .  if students graduate with ears and minds closed, the university has failed both the student and society.”  

June 13 - 22

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