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James Shapiro’s “Consequential Choice”

January 23rd, 2011 6 comments

Dante’s praise is that he dared to write his autobiography in colossal cipher… Emerson

Here’s the problem with William Shakespeare in a nutshell: his expense of poetic spirit went into writing not his own, but the earl of Oxford’s life in colossal cipher.  What a shameful waste!  Why couldn’t he have chosen someone more universally admired and democratic, such as Philip Sidney?

This right here and nothing else, is the seismic fault that caused James Shapiro to write a book called Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? According to Shapiro, folks weren’t doing autobiography back in those days, at least not on stage.  But what he finds most disheartening about the persistent claim that someone else used Shakespeare’s name to surreptitiously write about what he knew best (i.e., himself) is that this “diminishes the very thing that makes him so exceptional: his imagination.”

Like many other active Stratfordians, James Shapiro has clearly signaled his dislike of our Edward.  What he can’t see because it so palpably terrifies him, is that Shakespeare himself put Lord Oxford into his plays.  J. Thomas Looney sure didn’t put him there.  There would be no authorship question if Will hadn’t used his exceptional imagination to bring forth the Elizabethan world through all five senses of Sidney’s insolent and haughty foe, Edward de Vere. As Ben Jonson – who truly honored Philip Sidney’s memory this side idolatry – mischievously observed in his poem to “my beloved Master William Shakespeare”:

Leave thee alone for the comparison
Of all that insolent Greece or haughty Rome
Sent forth, or since did from their ashes come.

Just as he began his book with a deceptive title, Shapiro ends by offering his readers a false choice.  And he asks us to base our choice, not on the conclusions of his scholarly research, but on our private beliefs about the Bard’s thoughts and abilities:

We can believe that Shakespeare himself thought that poets could give to “airy nothing” a “local habitation and a name.”  Or we can conclude that this “airy nothing” turns out to be a disguised something that needs to be decoded, and that Shakespeare couldn’t imagine “the forms of things unknown” without having experienced it firsthand.  It’s a stark and consequential choice.”

Is that true?  Shakespeare couldn’t walk and chew gum at the same time?  And at this particular time, when all of literate London thrilled to the sport of encoding or decoding the cunning and subversive parallels of Lyly, Spenser, Marston, Jonson and the anonymous author of Willobie his Avisa?  None of his plays were eagerly nibbled to shreds by Nashe’s “legion of mice-eyed decipherers”?  The brash creator of Sir John Oldcastle (oops, make that ‘Falstaff’, says Will) simply refused to play the game?    How dull, stale and unprofitable such a decision would have been!

The Shakespeare that Shapiro believes in plays it straight.  You may have noticed that the professor seems mighty uncomfortable with disguised somethings that need to be decoded – he’s like an intelligencer adrift behind enemy lines, with no cipher wheel in his pocket or “alphabet” lodged by his heart.  So he chooses to valorize imagination over and above the artistic intelligence required to create ever-living dramas that make sense both superficially and when translated as risqué commentary on the times.  We needn’t follow Shapiro’s stark and silly example, of course.  Proof that the Bard could strut and blow bubbles at the same time shows up even in his earliest published play, Titus Andronicus.

The best survey I’ve read of traditional scholarship on the political allegory in Titus Andronicus comes from Lisa Hopkins, in The Cultural Uses of the Caesars on the English Renaissance Stage (2008). Her first chapter, “Reformation and Deformation” is a superb summary of the play’s topical allusions and potential for pro-Catholic interpretations.  My recent article, “Titus Andronicus and the Treasonous House of Howard” (The Oxfordian, Vol. 12) adds a new discovery to these insightful attempts to decode the play.  Through a close reading of the thirty-one lines assigned to Marcus Andronicus at his first entrance, I have shown, through ten strong correspondences, (nine of them from one document) that Thomas Howard, 2nd duke of Norfolk was the author’s model for the battle-weary Titus in the play’s opening scene.

With this key to the main character’s initial historical context now in the public domain, other readers should be able to make the same discoveries that I recorded in the 652 pages of The First Mousetrap – that is, if you dare.  A proven link to the Tudor crown’s most powerful Brit­ish rivals—the  “poor remainder” of the massacred House of Howard— will lead you inexorably towards a singular guiding spirit behind this very personal revenge drama.  “Shakespeare” – now in quotes, you’ll notice, because Wm. of Stratford could never have gotten away with writing so cunningly about the Queen’s dangerous cousins – “Shakespeare” most certainly was a poet who gave voice to the intense memories of wrongs done to the Howard and de Vere families.  And he must have been someone with powerful connections to both the ruling elite and the under­ground Catholic resistance.

In Titus Andronicus, “Shakespeare” has left us a penetrating biography of little Lord Bulbeck’s childhood, with poignant imaginings of how the earl’s father and his noble Aunt Frances would have remembered Henry VIII, Protector Somerset, Thomas Seymour, Henry Howard, the poet earl of Surrey and his beheaded Howard cousins, Queen Anne and Queen Catherine, Henry Fitzroy and Mary Howard, (the duke and duchess of Richmond), Mary Tudor, Robert Aske and Joan Jockey.  They are all in there; if you ask me, I can show you where and tell you why.

No one, not James Shapiro, or David Kathman, or Terry Ross, or Tom Reedy, or Stanley Wells, or Jonathan Bate or a whole legion of blinkered SHAKSPEReans, can take this mirror of Edward de Vere’s childhood out of “Shakespeare’s” canon.