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.

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Copyright vs. the Truth

The family of the poet Ted Hughes has just "withdrawn permission" for Hughes's biographer to quote from his papers and letters, including papers and letters that the family has already sold to the British Library. The biographer, who's been working on this book for years, has already read those papers. He knows what's in them. But he is no longer allowed to tell us what he knows. How can this be? Copyright law.

The Shakespeare scholar Jonathan Bate, who began working on a biography of the former poet laureate in 2010, said he was surprised that the estate has barred him from private archives, asked that he return photocopies of privately held documents, and withdrawn his right to quote extensively from the poet's work – described by the professor as "an essential aspect of serious scholarship".

That's right. A respected scholar (and Bate is extremely well-respected) has been legally barred from quoting archives that are housed in the national library. Because Hughes's heirs have inherited his copyright. This has become a standard tactic used by writers' families to suppress facts.

In 1987, J. D. Salinger sued Random House and successfully blocked a biography of him, because it used letters that Salinger had sent to people. Under earlier copyright law, those letters would have been fair game, but under current law the author and his heirs have a right to control just about everything he's touched. So Salinger could prevent biographers from using his letters. This is so extreme that when the biographer paraphrased what he'd seen in the letters instead of quoting them, Salinger still managed to sue and win. It's not that Salinger was suppressing lies about him. After all, he had written everything in those letters himself. Copyright law allowed him to keep the truth from the light of day.

Later, James Joyce's family forced the Joyce scholar Carol Shloss to remove nearly all the archival evidence from her book on the role Joyce's daughter Lucia played in her father's work. Shloss then got savaged by reviewers for making claims that she apparently couldn't back up with facts. Actually, Shloss did have the documented facts, she just wasn't allowed to use them.

Shloss eventually won the right to republish her book with the actual evidence in it, but it took years and years of suits and counter-suits. And even if that sounds like a happy ending, it's not. If a publisher knows that publishing your book is going to mean years of expensive litigation, it is not going to publish your book, even if you have a good chance of winning in the end. The threat of legal action by estates is enough.

Here's the joke: this law can only be used to prevent a scholar from telling the truth. The estate only holds the copyright of a letter or diary because their ancestor did actually write it. A writer's heirs could never sue a biographer for libel. Dead people cannot be libeled. But a writer's family can come after your house for quoting that writer accurately.

Worse still, families can use the threat of withdrawing permission in order to demand that biographers turn out the biographies that the family wants. If you don't make Grampa look the way they want Grampa to look, they can kill a book that you've already spent years working on. The law is abused to create propaganda instead of scholarship, to force biographers to turn out distorted, hero-worship versions of the truth. Society gains nothing from that. The law as currently enforced actually promotes falsehood and dishonesty.

And please remember: this law does not only apply to writers. It applies to everyone, including public figures. Everyone's personal letters, diaries, and journals are copyrighted until 75 years after they die. Which means that public figures' heirs will also be free to cherry-pick which historical evidence about them gets published, and what can never see the light of day.