Legendary Shadows

Contemporary writing represents the triumph of experience over imagination. What shifts units is celebrity autobiography and rehab/misery memoir. The most popular blogs are written by public servants describing their work. Magazines and newspaper supplements feature real-life stories rather than fiction. Something imagined is better than something remembered, said T S Garp. Not according to the market.

Oliver Kamm draws attention to the writing of Charles Vere Beauclerk, an aristocratic conspiracy theorist and descendant of Edward de Vere, who he claims is the true author of Shakespeare’s work. From Beauclerk’s website:

Until the modern schools of literary criticism took over, it was universally accepted that personal experience is the life-blood of fiction and an author’s works are – unavoidably – an expression of him or herself. In other words, art grows out of life as naturally as plants grow from the soil. As Samuel Butler wrote, ‘Every man’s work whether it be literature or music or pictures or architecture or anything else is always a portrait of himself, and the more he tries to conceal himself, the more clearly will his character appear.’ If this is true, it follows that an author’s life will illuminate his works, and vice-versa.

It’s hard to think of an artist with greater breadth of vision than Shakespeare. The sheer range of his characters and situations marks him as a man who wanted to bring all the world to his stage. It’s this that triggers the conspiracists. How, the cranks demand, could a glover’s son from rural Warwickshire been able to write so well about court intrigues and high society? An anonymous 1852 essay complains about the difficulty of reconciling the ‘unsurpassed brilliancy of the writer’ with ‘the quiet uniform mediocrity of the man’.

Shakespeare the person was ‘a cautious calculating man careless of fame and intent only on money-making.’ No way could this grasping little bourgois have written Hamlet. The true author must be someone of refinement and breeding like Francis Bacon or the Earl of Oxford. A colleague of Beauclerk’s wrote that the authorship question matters because ‘it is offensive to scholarship, to our national dignity, and to our sense of fair play to worship the memory of a petty-minded tradesman while leaving the actual author of the Shakespeare plays and poems unhonoured and ignored.’ As Kamm says: ‘Doesn’t that phrase ‘petty-minded tradesman’ tell you something about this school of thinking?’

The inability to separate the author from the character is a basic failure that most scholars overcome around the first year of an undergraduate literature degree. But, as James Shapiro shows in his fascinating Contested Will, it has trapped greater minds than that of Beauclerk. James was sceptical about Shakespeare’s authorship. Freud was an Oxfordian who thought that Shakespeare’s ‘cultural level’ could not have been achieved by someone who grew up with ‘a tall dungheap in front of his father’s house in Stratford.’ Twain is a good case study. An overwhelmingly autobiographical writer, he believed that great fiction had to be autobiographical, and therefore ‘given what was known about his life, Shakespeare could have no claim to the works.’

Twain’s friend, the writer and radical Helen Keller, became a convinced Baconian. Shapiro points out the irony and sadness here. Keller fought against profound disabilities to become a respected writer, but all her readers and editors wanted was misery memoir. In the preface to The World I Live In Keller complained that ‘while other self-recording creatures are permitted at least to seem to change the subject, apparently no one cares what I think of the tariff, the conversation of natural resources, or the… Dreyfus’ case.’ Every time Keller tried to move beyond the naturally finite resource of herself she was told to ‘please tell us what idea you had of goodness and beauty when you were six years old.’ As Shapiro says, Keller was the ultimate living proof that you don’t have to see something to write about it. And yet in her enthusiasm for Shakespeare conspiracies, she ‘joined a movement committed to the belief that literature was ultimately confessional.’

Stephen King’s short story ‘Dedication’ centres on a cleaner at an upscale New York hotel. The worst guest on her rounds is a boorish, misanthropic novelist, based on an acquaintance of King’s, who trashes his suite with parties filled with swaggering army pals: he throws a bash to celebrate the Kennedy assassination, and ‘thought people who were trying to do good or improve the world were about the funniest things going, he hated the blacks and the Jews, and he thought we ought to H-bomb the Russians out of existence’. Out of curiosity the cleaner picks up a novel written by the nightmare guest and, to her surprise, finds it addictive and moving: she struggles to comprehend how ‘a nasty, cold-hearted man like him could make up characters so real you wanted to cry over em when they died…. His books were his dreams, where he let himself believe in the world he laughed at and sneered at when he was awake.’ The genre novelist understood what great minds of literature could not.

All conspiracies bleed into each other and Kamm has great stuff on anti-Stratfordian links to Eurabiaism and holocaust denial. Shapiro’s book details efforts to prove the ‘question’ of authorship through numerology and pseudocryptography – a posthumous source of amusement for an artist with a cheerful indifference to ideas of meaning and order in the universe. From Macbeth:

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

Or as King put it: ‘I am a writer by trade, which means that the most interesting things that have happened to me have happened in my dreams.’

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