About

  • Daniel Green is a literary critic and sometime fiction writer. His reviews, critical essays, and fiction have appeared in a variety of publications, both online and in print. He has a Ph.D focusing on postwar American fiction and an M.A. in creative writing.

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08/30/2010

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Howard Schumann

Imagination is the new mantra for one simple reason. Stratfordians cannot show a single connection between the man Shaksper and the plays and poems of William Shakespeare. Believe me, if there was any, even the slightest connection, they would be trumpeting it to the far corners of the world.

steve mitchelmore

Dan, isn't the notion that the variety and depth of Shakespeare's plays emerged from "a vigorous imagination" also dependent on biographical assumptions?

You're arguing that we needn't worry for too long about authorship and instead should enjoy the plays for what they are before us, and I have to agree. Yet still there remains a fascination with the conditions that produced such plays. Why did they emerge then and why haven't they been equalled since (except, I would argue, by Beckett). The unique historical conditions do seem to play a decisive role – to put it crudely, it was a time between sacramental and intellectual religion – allowing a figure like Shakespeare to dramatise the distance between the two (e.g. the disintegration of Richard II's divine right) and thereby create the Shakespeare we know.

Biographical readings then just become inevitable extensions (or contractions) of all the familiar readings you mention, including your own. After all of them, we're still left with Shakespeare's extraordinary good fortune in finding the form and conditions which enabled his imagination to flourish. We ask ourselves, are we missing our own form? Is it a matter of luck as much as talent and hard work? Or is this instead a moribund culture, stuck between dry appreciation and clever epigones hyped on the covers of national journals?

Dan Green

Steve:

I can't deny that "unique historical conditions" partly account for Shakespeare's work. But this is a version of the argument that a writer is a "product of his times." I can't deny that, either, but it seems to me too many people make too much of the idea. Of course a writer, including Shakespeare, is a product of his times. How could he not be? He lived then, rather than then, there, rather than there. Shakespeare may have had "extraordinary good fortune" in living in interesting times, interesting both historically and in the development of theater. That Shakespeare was able to take advantage of the opportunity through the exercise of imagination--which I locate in the plays themselves rather than in Shakespeare's head--also seems extraordinary, however.

william sutton

Howard Schumann as usual is being quietly inflammatory. To qualify his statemnet, there is little or no evidence that he accepts. The panic he imagines Shakespeareans to be in, illusory. His candidate has extant handwritten letters, purportedly Shakespeare's! Now why is no-one except Oxfordians trumpeting that to the world?

Great article which I linked on my facebook group page.

Thanks,
William S.

Richard

It seems to me, Dan, that in your reaction to the "too much" that "many people" make of the fact that writers are "products of their times", you invariably, in your actual arguments, dismiss the idea out of hand as frankly irrelevant. Yes, you always say "how could they not be", as if the obviousness of the fact makes the details not worth attending to. But I doubt you think Steve falls into the category of "many people" making too much of it. So what about what he says, or other readers who are sympathetic to his points? Who are you arguing with? Who is your audience for such remarks? Just about anyone likely to read your blog regularly is on board with the idea that "many people" read too much biography into writers' works. If we treat Shakespeare's plays as only disembodied aesthetic artifacts, we miss a lot. As Steve suggests, one question is the question of form and its context. Where does a writer's form come from? What makes it available or justifiable?

Dan Green

I don't dimiss it as irrlevant, I regard it as inevitable and therefore of not much interest unless you are interesed primarily in the "the times" themselves. (Although I recognize some people might be interested in "the times" in addition to the text. I'm not one of them, but there's nothing wrong with having a cultural or historical interest that you satisfy through literature. The danger is that putting too much emphasis on "historical conditions" too often leads to a dismissal of the aesthetic interest of literature as "irrelevant." I think this has happened now in academic criticism.)

Partly I have in mind as audience people like yourself who disagree with me and want to debate the point. Partly I'm just expressing my opinion.

The question of where Shakespeare's form comes from is an interesting one, and to a large extent it comes from the theatrical form he inherited and that was being used in his time. What he did with that form is of more interest to me, however.

Shelley

A writer's work is, absolutely, a reflection of his life.

His inner life. Invisible.

steve mitchelmore

My doubts about a purely literary/aesthetic approach is not meant to prioritise historical or cultural examinations instead (they too exclude what's important). I thought it was quite clear that the focus of my comment is the very literary/aesthetic question: how do we create or recognise works of art as great as Shakespeare's when everything seems arbitrary and/or meaningless?

One way we give value to a work nowadays is to prioritise its cultural profile (i.e. Franzen must be good/important because he is on the cover of Time), while another is to admire the intricate playfulness of a text in which there is, for good or ill, absolutely nothing at stake (my definition of Postmodernism). Both may be straw men, but there doesn't seem to be anything more fleshy than straw around.

A concern for the aesthetic is not enough, for me at least, because it represses the unique quality of the reading experience, which is almost – for want of a better word – theological. In an age that has (thank God) no faith in a transcendent force, it still exhibits a need for works of art disproportionate to their apparent value, suggesting it misses what has been lost even if it masks the interest in chatter and/or connoisseurship.

For me, the works of art that mean most have a numinous quality even if one is, again like me, terminally secular. I'm not saying literature is a form of religion or an alternative to it, I'm just saying this aspect of my experience of reading seems to be the only reason to read and to write. Discussion of writing which excludes it is both pointless and boring. Close reading of the words themselves is not pointless and boring, but the wood is just as interesting as the trees.

Perhaps the fascination with the authorship of Shakespeare's plays is an unconscious need to grant Shakespeare's wish in Borges' story: to be himself alone and not his plays. Our pathological, post-religious condition cannot allow anyone to be everything and nothing. Yes, it's an observation based on "the times we live in" but it also seems like part of eternity.

Dan Green

I myself experience the aesthetic and the "numinous" as the same thing, but as something very concrete and not metaphysical.

Abelard

as much as this still acknowledges a divide between in the text and outside the text....

I think dan rightly points to a disconcerting fetish concerning the historical surroundings that occur around a work of art. Claims that suggest some tremendous elucidation of any piece of art centered on its historical circumstances leave me exceedingly incredulous. Historical investigations are tautological; of course an artist is writing in a certain time and place, and some may be more explicitly responding to those circumstances. However, it is generally the rule that pieces of art which elevate themselves above the historical, contingent circumstances are the ones which come to be viewed as meriting closer study. In fact, I would even aver that"artists" who are, stricto sensu, involved with the historical as such are what are derisively called "journalists," and not worth paying much attention to in the first place.

Plato famously said that philosophy begins in wonder. Most people who professionally (and the philistine readers too) wrestle with poets and philosophers lack the potent imagination of the writers they are supposed to be usefully glossing (Schopenhauer and Nietzsche have preternaturally revealing commentaries on this paradox), and because of that lack of imagination, simply and literally cannot account for that imagination. Thus, they embark on a foolish historical study, when really the deep and rewarding content is already right there in front of them, in the text.

relatedly, Brown's English department turned itself into a History department.

steve mitchelmore

That's very interesting to know Dan. If you do experience the aesthetic in such a way, I haven't noticed it being addressed in your discussions of books; at least, not in a way that questions, wonders, pushes at its implications.

And I didn't use the word "metaphysical" because it has inappropriate connotations. I wouldn't use "concrete" either.

Dan Green

I mostly avoid words like "numinous" because for me they always come with metaphysical baggage. But I think that what you mean by using that word is close to what I experience with great works of art, only through palpable formal or stylistic effects. Of course I can't finally really know what a "numinous" experience is for you.

Howard Schumann

William S. If there is any biographical evidence that connects William of Stratford to the plays or sonnets, I have yet to see it. On the other hand, there is much evidence for Oxford even though of course it is all circumstantial as described in the following one pager.

http://politicworm.com/2010/07/06/the-smoking-canon/

arthur

Well, just to be even-handed about it, in case anyone rational is undecided...
http://shakespeareauthorship.com/

Howard Schumann

Arthur - There was a time when anyone who believed that the earth revolved around the sun was considered irrational. Denial, ridicule and entrenched belief systems are extremely potent defenders of the status quo.

Dan Green

Howard Schumann is pretty clearly a true-believing Oxford man. I'd suggest that "Stratfordians" not grapple with him further. You'll be skaking the idiocy off for days.

Rahul DB

http://shakespeareauthorshipcontroversyends.com/ Here is someone claiming to have nailed the authorship controversy once and for all. Would like to know if anyone has verified this author's claims??

Finn Harvor

Behold the men.

Frances Madeson

Bekold the men skaking. (One of my all-time favorite things.)

Howard Schumann

Interesting that you should call me a “true-believer” Dan, a phrase connoting someone whose belief in an idea is so strong that it constitutes a faith, irrespective of the evidence. I think here you have a case of mistaken identity.

For example, take the outlook that is clearly evident in Shakespeare’s plays. The works of Shakespeare reflect an aristocratic perspective. Of the 37 plays, 36 are laid in royal courts and the world of the nobility. The principal characters are almost all aristocrats with the exception perhaps of Shylock and Falstaff. From all we can tell, Shakespeare fully shared the outlook of his characters, identifying fully with the courtesies, chivalries, and generosity of aristocratic life. Lower class characters in Shakespeare are almost all introduced for comic effect and given little development. Their names are indicative of their worth: Snug, Stout, Starveling, Dogberry, Simple, Mouldy, Wart, Feeble, etc. Combative cultural wits have center stage in Merchant of Venice and Love’s Labour’s Lost. The commercial class of which Shakespeare was a member seems almost unknown to the playwright.

The history plays are concerned mostly with the consolidation and maintenance of royal power and are concerned with righting the wrongs that fall on people of high blood. His comedies are far removed from the practicalities of everyday life or the realistic need to make a living. Shakespeare's vision is a deeply conservative, feudalistic and aristocratic one. When he does show sympathy for the commoners as in Henry V speech to the troops, however, Henry is also shown to be a moralist and a hypocrite. He pretends to be a commoner and mingles with the troops in a disguise and claims that those commoners who fought with the nobility would be treated as brothers.

But we know there was no chance of that ever happening in feudal England. What can scarcely be overlooked is a compassionate understanding of the burdens of kingship combined with envy of the carefree lot of the peasant, who free of the "peril" of the "envious court", "sweetly…enjoys his thin cold drink" and his "sleep under a fresh tree's shade" with "no enemy but winter and rough weather". This would come naturally to a privileged nobleman. There is no evidence whatsoever that William of Stratford ever occupied the position of a court insider or confidante.

So tell me Dan, who is the true believer?

Dan Green

I thought you might take my comment as a hint I didn't want this thread to become a forum for debate about the authorship controversy itself. I made my own opinion of it pretty clear, and as the subject of the post otherwise is not the purported case against "William of Stratford," more discussion of it here won't be productive.

Howard Schumann

Dan, my post was directly germane to the topic of this thread - whether or not a writer's work is a reflection, direct or indirect, of that writer's life. It's ok, however, if you choose not to discuss it.

Steven Augustine

"If anything, the distorting effects of the belief that fiction is just autobiography..."

Fiction is autobiography distorted. A mind is shaped by its experiences which, in turn, shape the mind's creations. The popular fallacy is in thinking that the "code" is easily broken, or can be broken at all, least of all by the mind in question. There may be no such thing as "pure" Fiction (written as though no particular human experience correspond to it), but the autobiographical aspects, impossible to remove, are also impossible to get at.

Even a man with a Portuguese wife and three children who writes a novel about a writer writing a novel about a man with a Portuguese wife and three children isn't, necessarily, telling us anything explicit or comprehensively "true" about himself. And even if he is *trying* to, he can't.

And even when we read a writer's biography, written by a fastidious biographer, we project so much of ourselves into the reading of it that the writer's life remains as mysterious to us as it was to his biographer and the writer himself. Primarily because, I think, "feelings", not statistics (birthday, height, income, frequency of marriage and bouts with absinthism), are key to the meaning of one's life, and although they can be triggered in a reader, they can't be transferred, intact, from writer to reader. And even if they could, they could only speak about a moment or two in time.

The autobiography that all writing is is a ghost of the lived life of the particular body the writing and the ghost are chained to: things seen out of the corner of the eye; agitated rappings heard; laughter or weeping in the next room... that's the autobiographical content of Fiction, in my opinion. All communication is inexact and unstable and Fiction just raises those conditions to the category of Art.

PS Howard: I'm a Marlovian

Steven Augustine

err'tum:

"written as though no particular human experience correspondS to it"

or

"written as though no particular human experienceS correspond to it"

Matthew Merlino

Howard, whhich Renaissance playwrights were writing working class characters who weren't there for comic relief? Which Renaissance playwrights were not using high-born characters as their main protagonists (and antagonists)? For that matter, which tragedies by Sophocles, Euripedes, or Seneca did not focus on kings and royal families?

Your same logic would tell us that Victor Hugo could never have been the son of a Napoleonic war hero given his extreme royalism until the period of *Les Miserables*.

I also think my 15 year old high school sophomores would be surprised to learn that *Much Ado about Nothing* has no connection to practical, everyday life. Every time I teach the play, they tell me how weird it is that Shakespeare's characters act like the teenagers around them, trusting gossip over what they realy know about someone's character, dealing with "haters" like Don John, signifying and snarking at those they secretly love, etc.

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