(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser February 2014)
“I know not, sir, whether Bacon wrote the works of Shakespeare, but if he did not, it seems to me that he missed the opportunity of his life.” James M. Barrie
A year ago we took possession of a spanking new paperback edition of The Oxford Companion To Shakespeare, the large handsome tome coming our way in a manner worthy of Shakespeare, and by that I mean in the way of the Bard’s zanier comedies in which complicated circumstantial chaos ends well—lovers united, villains chastised, parents pleased, gods appeased, and fools revealed to be wise. I should add that I never would have bought this book due to my limited financial reserves, thus it was only through cosmic largesse that the goodly tome became ours.
Here is the story. Our friend David Jouris, charming Berkeley eccentric, peripatetic photographer of dance companies, and indefatigable collector of quotations, is also the author of two unusual atlases of North America entitled All Over The Map and All Over the Map Again. These two delightful volumes are composed of thirty-three and thirty-four thematic maps featuring towns that really exist, accompanied by fascinating stories about the origins of some of the more intriguing town names. Among my favorites are an Optimistic map showing towns such as What Cheer, Windfall and Sublime, and a Pessimistic map showing such towns as Troublesome, Gripe, Last Chance and Bitter Springs. There are Theatrical, Dancing, Armed & Dangerous, Utopian, Literary, Animal, Musical, Eccentric, Egotistical, Numerical, Sporting, Lovers’, Saintly, and Mythical maps, to name a few, and most importantly, for the purpose of this tale, a Shakespearean map featuring such towns as Desdemona Texas, Rialto California and Romeo Colorado.
Some years before 10-Speed Press published David’s atlases, he brought out several of his thematic maps as black and white postcards under the aegis of his Hold the Mustard postcard line, and these map cards were deemed so groovy by the Library of Congress that several of David’s thematic maps were blown up huge and displayed in the Library of Congress lobby in Washington D.C. Then one day, two years after All Over The Map Again was published, and for reasons cloaked in mystery, David asked me if I thought he should bring out a color postcard of his Shakespearean map. The mystery is: why would David ask my advice when he unfailingly does whatever he wants regardless of what anybody else thinks? But not only did David ask my opinion about the Shakespearean postcard, he heeded my enthusiastic prediction that such a card would be a huge success, and he proceeded to publish the beautiful thing, thus making possible the comedy of errors I am recounting here.
Despite the ensuing (and mystifying) commercial failure of David’s Shakespearean postcard, I am ever happy to have this card on hand for sending to friends and to use as the self-addressed stamped postcard I include with my plays when I submit them to theater companies hither and yon. Shakespeare, it seems to me, is a most appropriate messenger for the ongoing and unanimous (so far) rejection of my plays.
Then one day David made a startling discovery: Oxford University Press was featuring his Shakespearean map in recent editions of The Oxford Companion To Shakespeare, the striking half-page reproduction captioned with, “This 1998 novelty postcard, which assumes a thorough familiarity with the Shakespeare canon, attests to the continuing presence of Shakespeare in American popular culture.”
Perhaps due to their excitement at finding such an ideal illustration, the editors at Oxford University Press neglected to secure the rights to use David’s creation for their book and thus had not recompensed him. Conveniently for David, the Oxford numbskulls published his map with © DAVID JOURIS/HOLD THE MUSTARD prominently displayed across northern Mexico, and thus were not only caught with damn spots on their hands, but with their spotted hands deep in the cookie jar.
Following relatively civil negotiations, the Brits agreed to pay David a paltry sum along with two copies of the hardback edition and two copies of the paperback edition of The Oxford Companion To Shakespeare, one of those paperbacks my reward for convincing David to manufacture the blessed card in the first place. And for the past year the good book has gone largely unread by moi until two weeks ago when, having finally completed the novel I’ve been madly writing for a year, I thought I’d try reading something I didn’t write, and possibly something I hadn’t read before.
So one tempestuous night, the fire crackling, the kettle burbling, I began to read that encyclopedia of Shakespearean factoids, and found the contents fascinating, entertaining, and scrumptious food for thought—may the gods of improbable probability be thanked for this gift. Here are a few brief selections from the tome.
acting, Elizabethan. The Elizabethan word for what we call acting was ‘playing’, and the word ‘acting’ was reserved for the gesticulations of an orator.
acting profession, Elizabethan and Jacobean. The Elizabethan word for an actor was ‘player’ and there were three classes: the sharer, the hired man, and the apprentice. The nucleus of the company was the sharers, typically between four and ten men, who were named on the patent which gave them the authority to perform and which identified their aristocratic patron.
Shakespeare, William (1564-1616), actor, playwright, poet, theatre administrator, and landowner; baptized, probably by John Bretchgirdle, in Holy Trinity church, Stratford-upon-Avon, on Wednesday, 26 April 1564, the third child and first son of John Shakespeare and his wife Mary.
Oxfordian theory, a term for what has since the mid-20th century been the most visible strand in the Authorship Controversy, the claim that Shakespeare’s works were in fact written by Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford (1550-1604).
“And melancholy is the nurse of frenzy.
Therefore they thought it good you hear a play
And frame your mind to mirth and merriment,
Which bars a thousand harms and lengthens life.”
from The Taming of the Shrew
While there is no debate that William Shakespeare was involved in the theatrical world of London, there has been much and continuous speculation for five hundred years about whether William Shakespeare actually wrote the plays, any of them, attributed to William Shakespeare. Now that I have gobbled The Oxford Companion To Shakespeare, which prompted me to re-read The Taming of the Shrew and Hamlet, I have my own theory about who wrote the plays of William Shakespeare.
Those who argue that Will Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon could not have writ the plays attributed to him ask: how could a man reputed to be one of the most prolific and learned writers in history not leave behind even a scrap of his plays and poetry in his own handwriting? Not a shred, not a line, not a tattered fragment of a tiny piece of a page in Shakespeare’s own hand survived even into the latter stages of his relatively short life, a time when various publishers and their agents were searching for such fragments from which to publish the plays! Why does Shakespeare’s last will and testament contain no directives regarding his plays and sonnets, or any mention of his writing at all, yet makes a fuss about who gets his second-best bed?
How could Shakespeare, at the height of his fame and influence, become so completely divorced from the London theatre scene, of which he was supposedly a massive pillar, and carry on with the wholly non-theatrical business ventures in Stratford-upon-Avon that apparently occupied him for his entire life? Why are there so few (virtually none) first or even secondhand descriptions of, or anecdotes about, Shakespeare, the actual person, by any of his contemporaries, literary or otherwise? And how can we explain that several of Shakespeare’s plays are set in Italy and nearly all his tragedies are set among royals and aristocrats, though Shakespeare never went abroad, his education was minimal, his children were illiterate, and the social milieu he occupied was that of the merchant class? From whence came his uncanny understanding of the ways and workings and subtleties of royalty, let alone his intimate knowledge of their histories?
What is irrefutable about the plays attributed to Shakespeare is that in the absence of original manuscripts, the extant texts are, without exception, collages of versions of those plays remembered by various actors who supposedly acted in those plays, which versions were written down and edited by several different men and different groups of men, and these written-down versions were then futzed with until deemed Close Enough by yet other men who then published the plays. The First Folio, entitled Mr. William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies—the foundational texts—was published in 1623, and the Second Folio was published ten years later, for which the editors made…wait for it…several hundred changes to the text of the First Folio. Several hundred! What were these changes based on? No one knows.
Along with the third and fourth and possibly fifth-hand nature of the “original” plays, is the undeniable fact that virtually every production of these plays, both in Shakespeare’s time and for centuries thereafter, and continuing to this day, employ scripts that are either edited, rewritten or wholly reimagined versions of the so-called originals. Thus the plays of Shakespeare, whoever wrote them, have never been static works and have always been treated as foundational forms to be modified and interpreted by directors who, like jazz musicians, knowingly improvise on popular standards and feel perfectly justified in doing so.
My theory runs thusly: William Shakespeare, a savvy business guy, travels to London to do business, buys his way into an ambitious company of actors, and quickly figures out that the better and more timely the plays a troupe has the exclusive rights to perform, the more successful that troupe will be, which success can lead to royal dispensation to build and own theaters and profit handsomely therefrom. A shrewd dude with a good ear for dialogue, William collaborates with a few talented writers on an early success or two, among them The Taming of the Shrew, and thereafter becomes a literary fence, so to speak, through which numerous writers—struggling actors, aristocrats wishing to remain anonymous, and talented provincials having flings at glory—benefit from the public perception that their plays were written by the hottest playwright in town.
The facts, such as they are, do not contradict my theory that Shakespeare was a superlative merchant of ghost writers or possibly the front man for a syndicate of play brokers, which would explain the wide-ranging stylistic variations in his plays, the comedies perhaps worked over by the Elizabethan equivalent of the gang of comics who wrote for the late great Sid Caesar—Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, and Woody Allen—the tragedies composed by brilliant and frustrated royals—latter day Gore Vidals—or persons associated with royalty.