Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The Shakespeare Slly Season

This week marks Shakespeare's 450th birthday, leading to many celebrations. We don't know exactly which day he was born (because we only have a record of his baptism, not of his birth), but it was sometime before April 26, and the April 23 has become the "official" birthday. (Why? 1. Shakespeare died on April 23, so wouldn't that be cool? and 2. April 23rd is an English national holiday, so wouldn't that be lovely and patriotic?)  But because it's a big round-number birthday, it's also attracting scammers and hucksters.

First, there was a viral post about the discovery of lost Shakespeare play, Cardenio. Now, there is a lost play by Shakespeare called Cardenio, which various contemporary witnesses refer to as his. (There may well also be a lost play called Loves Labors Won, the sequel to Loves Labors Lost. If you've read to the end of LLL, you'll know why some people might be expecting a sequel.) And now, news of that Cardenio has been discovered! Bad news ... the website announcing this discovery is worldnewsdailyreport dot com (which I will not link), the online successor to The Weekly World News. It's a website about Bigfoot and Bat Boy; the story after the Cardenio one is about UFO links to the Vatican. (I did not make that last bit up, because I could not.) So, nope. Good timing to drive traffic, though.

More seriously, a pair of antiquarian booksellers in New York are claiming that they've found William Shakespeare's personal dictionary, the Alvearie (or Beehive) by John Baret. A very fair-minded response to their claims can be found here, courtesy of the Folger Shakespeare Library. The book isn't signed; the booksellers claim it's Shakespeare's handwriting. But they claim that the expert scholars they've had examine the book are too timid to risk their reputations. Translation: they've asked a bunch of experts who haven't given them the answers they wanted. For example, the writing in the margins of this book are in a different type of script than the script we've seen Shakespeare use. (Just about everything we have in his hand is in what's called "secretary hand," and this is in an italic hand. Whoops.) But the booksellers have timed their publicity for maximum attention.

Actually, respectable scholars are willing to put their neck out to claim "new" Shakespeare all the time. In the 80s it was a "new" Shakespeare poem, duly put into some anthologies, but now back out of most of them. A few years ago it was a "new" portrait of Shakespeare, looking much thinner and better-dressed than the attested images (Shakespeare can never be too rich or too thin, it seems). That's still an image you see a lot, and it's treated in some quarters as genuine; we'll see how that goes over time.

What's amazing to me is what kind of Shakespeare discoveries, or "discoveries" get play in the news. They're always pretty concrete, but seldom anything that would tell you much about the poems or plays. If that were his dictionary, it wouldn't teach us much about his plays, because the only sign it's him is that he's underlining things we already know from his plays. (Another explanation, of course, is that an early Shakespeare fan marked up this dictionary; that's a kind of reading practice we've come to recignize and expect.)

Let me make a suggestion, if you're in the mood to celebrate Shakespeare's birthday this week: celebrate some old Shakespeare. The old stuff is right there between the covers, just as it has been, and those poems are so rich and complicated that you can almost always find something you haven't noticed before. I've been stumbling across surprises in that book for decades, and the more I know, the more new things I see.

Discover some old Shakespeare. It's pretty good.

1 comment:

Fretful Porpentine said...

You know, this is bringing back a sudden and vivid memory of interviewing for a grad school fellowship. The fellowships were administered at the grad-school level and open to all disciplines, so the interviewers typically had no background at all in the subjects the prospective students were interested in studying.

One of them asked me, "What would a dissertation in English literature even look like? Like, if you found a new Shakespeare play, would that be enough for a dissertation?"

(I can't remember exactly how I answered. I think I did my best to keep a straight face and described my mother's dissertation on Tennessee Williams, which was the only example of doctoral research with which my twenty-one-year-old self had sufficient familiarity to talk about. Alas, I fear that the interviewer came away disappointed in my entire discipline.)