Monday, March 28, 2016

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.    


This is going to be a post about how we imagine ancient language, but in order to get to the point I’m going to go a roundabout route, so I hope you’ll bear with me.

My roundabout route goes thus…..

As I have noted before on this blog (see the posting From Bard toWorse), there are persistent nutters who would have us believe that the plays of Shakespeare were written by somebody other than Shakespeare. Occasionally (but only very occasionally) they have some valid minor points to make. As even mainstream scholars would admit, not ALL of Shakespeare’s works were written in toto by Shakespeare. There seems to be general agreement that the three vigorous, but somewhat ragged, Henry VI plays were essentially patch-up jobs that the young Shakespeare did with existing material. It is generally agreed that one of the bard’s very last works, Henry VIII, was as much the work of John Fletcher as it was of Shakespeare, and some have gone so far as to suggest that it was entirely the work of Fletcher (especially as it sticks out like a sore thumb as the only Shakespearean play to endorse openly the new-fangled Church of England). Bits and pieces of other canonical plays seem to have been written by others. And, of course, there is the obvious fact that nearly all Shakespeare’s dramatic subject matter derived from other sources – Holinshed, Plutarch, European folk-tales, Italian novella and so forth.

But to note all this is a far cry from suggesting that Shakespeare’s plays were all written by somebody else. Though “alternative authorship” people flinch at the term, the reality is that they are subscribing to a conspiracy theory. One would have to believe that all the people who wrote the prefatory material to the First Folio, with all its commendations of Shakespeare, were somehow in on a plot to deceive, as were the printers of the few volumes with Shakespeare’s name on them which appeared in Shakespeare’s lifetime, and the many volumes with Shakespeare’s name on them which appeared not long after Shakespeare’s lifetime.

Therefore “alternative authorship” theories are conspiracy theories.

I stick to my (well-founded) view that such theories about Shakespeare were essentially the outcome of a form of snobbery. By the 18th century, when David Garrick and others were celebrating the 200th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth, Bardolatry took hold and Shakespeare was promoted to almost mythical status as the supreme genius of the English nation. But it was galling to realise that, as all the scant authentic biographical evidence clearly confirmed, Shakespeare was a small-town, lower-middle-class boy, who had never been to university and who was not a member of the aristocracy. So the hunt was on to “prove” that the esteemed plays were written by somebody of higher social status. You will note that nearly all the “alternative authorship” theories about Shakespeare’s plays wish to reassign the plays to a nobleman.

And should you waste your time reading in detail any such theories (as I, as a book-reviewer, often have) you will quickly discover that nearly all attempt to strip the author of the plays of the faculty of imagination. One persistent, and very tiresome, argument from the “alternative authorship” people is the one that goes thus: How could these plays possibly have been written by William Shakespeare, who never travelled outside England, when the plays show so much knowledge of France and Italy and Greece and sundry other foreign parts? And how could a non-university-educated, lower-middle-class small-town boy possibly know how people spoke in royal courts, as the author of the plays apparently does?

I hope you note the paradox here. First the conspiracy theorists claim that the author of the plays is a great literary genius. Then they say that the author of the plays can have had no imagination because he could not have imagined how royal courtiers and their rulers spoke, and must have lived in every nation about which he wrote.

So he wasn’t a literary genius after all?

I was put in mind of all his recently when my wife and I had the great pleasure of attending, at the Auckland Arts Festival, Rona Munro’s three James Plays as performed by the Scottish National Theatre. It’s not my business here to sing their praises in detail, but to orient you briefly – the trilogy of plays concerns three Scottish rulers in the fifteenth century, James I, James II and James III, as they fight off pretenders to their northern throne, have marital and domestic problems, settle scores with unruly subjects and always have to deal with the malign power of England, ever seeking to make Scotland a vassal state. The action is swift and unrelenting. We see the murders of untrustworthy kinsmen, what amounts to rape (a rough marriage-night scene between James I and his English bride), the vivid and horrible nightmares of the imprisoned boy king James II, and the overtly camp carryings-on of James III, who is more interested in a male courtier than in his long-suffering wife. The language sometimes rises to heights of oratory, as when James I, in the first play, outlines to his rioting cousins his vision of a united Scotland; and Queen Margaret, in the third play, tells the nobles how she will rule with them now that her troublesome husband James III has been removed from the scene. But more often the language is coarse, colloquial, crude and violent. There is much effing and blinding, especially in the battle scenes. Courtship is not carried out with amorous verses but with the roughest of sexual directness. Enemies are told to f*** off. F*** and f***ing become words of choice as intensifiers when tempers rise and the knives are out. (I mean when the literal knives are literally out.)

Now is this rough, crude, obscene demotic language fitting for noble medieval kings and their courtiers?

In terms of subject matter (British chronicle history), the obvious comparison for the James Plays would be Shakespeare’s history plays. Kings in Shakespeare’s play don’t eff and blind. In fact kings in Shakespeare’s plays tend to speak in noble blank verse and iambic pentameters. Take, for example, King Henry IV, whose best-known utterance is spoken in the second (and in my opinion lesser) of the two Henry IV plays, when the cares of state are keeping him from his sleep. It goes thus:

And in the visitation of the winds,
Who take the ruffian billows by the top,
Curling their monstrous heads and hanging them
With deafening clamour in the slippery clouds,
That, with the hurly, death itself awakes?
Canst thou, O partial sleep, give thy repose
To the wet sea-boy in an hour so rude,
And in the calmest and most stillest night,
With all appliances and means to boot,
Deny it to a king? Then happy low, lie down!
Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown
. (Henry IV, Part Two)

Ah yes. “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.” The single most famous line uttered by Shakespeare’s fictionalised version of Henry IV who, truth to tell, is far less interesting in the two Henry IV plays than fat Sir John Falstaff and his drinking buddy, the king’s son Prince Hal. But note the poetic grandeur that comes out of the mouth of Shakespeare’s imagined king. Is this how medieval British kings spoke?

Now let’s see how the same historical King, Henry IV, is depicted in the James Plays. In the first play, James I, King Henry IV of England is about to release the Scots Prince James after having held him captive for many years, and planning to make an arranged marriage for him. The Scots prince objects that he does not want to marry somebody he hasn’t even met. King Henry IV swiftly tells him that he does not know the first duties of kingship, which are “Fucking women you don’t know and killing your relatives.

Crude, brutal, and not as Shakespeare would have written it. But who is to say that it is any less credible as royal dialogue than blank verse in iambic pentameters? Sure – it is colloquialism of the 21st century, not of the 15th, but then it could be a perfectly valid equivalent of what was said (and meant) in the 15th century. For the record (and you will find this chronicled in the just-published and most reliable biography, Henry IV by Chris Given-Wilson), King Henry IV spent much of his reign murdering the unreliable allies who had helped him to usurp the throne in the first place, and he is likely to have used very crude language indeed when giving orders to his hit-men.

The point is, Shakespeare imagined how kings spoke just as Rona Munro does. The two playwrights had no access to how people in past ages expressed themselves in private conversation. They simply wrote what was theatrically appropriate and acceptable for their own age.

Please let us bury the notion that Shakespeare didn’t write his own plays because he had the skill to sometimes express himself like a toff.

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