Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Shakespeare Wasn't Perfect

So The Atlantic has seen fit to publish more "Shakespeare authorship" conspiracy-mongering, this time masquerading as feminism by proposing a female candidate. But the piece doesn't quote even a single line of the real poetry that woman wrote. It can't, of course, because that would give the game away. If the piece let you read Emilia Bassano Lanier's actual poetry it would become dangerously easy to hear that Lanier sounds like herself, not like Shakespeare. So the "feminist" conspiracy theory is dedicated to silencing the voice of an authentic woman poet. (Nobody said it was a good masquerade.)

The Atlantic piece rehashes the same old tired arguments that have been rebutted hundreds of times before. This isn't about real debate. But the biggest mistake is the assumption that Shakespeare is above criticism, and always has been. That has never been true. Shakespeare authorship conspiracies are outgrowths of an unhealthy hero-worship of Shakespeare, treating him as some infallible demigod.

Don't get me wrong. I think Shakespeare is terrific. I wouldn't spend my professional life teaching and writing about him if I didn't. But I also think he's great enough that we can admit his failings. Bardolatry, the idol-worship of Shakespeare, keeps you from understanding him.

So the Atlantic article begins by talking about how great Lady Macbeth is as a character (true enough), and rhapsodizes about how many other great female characters Shakespeare wrote. Then the first argument is basically that Shakespeare must have been a woman to write such great women. There's a little hedging, but that's the claim. Only a woman could write Lady Macbeth. If something seems wrong there, wait. One of the other examples is The Taming of the Shrew.

Yes. That Taming of the Shrew. Where the wife is, uh, a shrew. Who gets tamed. That Taming of the Shrew. Which apparently only a woman could have written.

And that, uh. Well. Kind of a surprise.

Or it would be if we were applying normal everyday logic to Shakespeare's works. To most casual observers, and a lot of professional ones too, The Taming of the Shrew looks sexist, what with Petruchio starving his wife into submission. (That is not my interpretation. That is what the text itself says. He doesn't allow her any food until she knuckles under.) But maybe it gets better if we look more closely? Say if we apply some English-major tools, like looking hard at all the metaphors Petruchio uses to describe Kate? Oops, sorry, no, he's always comparing her to domesticated animals. Whoops. Actually worse than it looks from a distance.

Now, Shakespeare being Shakespeare, there is a tradition of serious scholarship, much of it by feminist women, dedicated to saving the play from misogyny and discovering subtle anti-sexist messages inside it. We don't want Shakespeare to be a sexist pig, so we're going to work hard to get around any politics we don't agree with. I've read a lot of that criticism, and it's smart. But other feminist scholars disagree and say, Nope, sorry, all the stuff about dominating and subduing women means exactly what it says.

What's different is saying, No. The Taming of the Shrew is SO feminist that NO MAN COULD HAVE WRITTEN IT. And that, to borrow a phrase from psychoanalysis, is crazy talk.

Rather, it's a defense against cognitive dissonance, much like what we see with members of cults. The unpleasant truth has to be closed out. Our doomsday prophet isn't wrong! It's proof of how right he is! Shakespeare isn't a sexist with bad four-hundred-year-old politics! He's a feminist! In fact, he's the greatest feminist ever. He's such a great feminist that he could not actually be a man!

Whoo boy.

The Atlantic article's preferred ghost-writer, Emilia Lanier, also features in Shakespeare scholarship as a way to get past things that make modern readers uncomfortable. You see, her maiden name was Bassano (which is the name the Atlantic article uses, even though she didn't publish under it). And she had Italian heritage, and maybe-just-maybe Jewish heritage as well, so she got put forth forty years ago as a candidate for the Dark Lady of the sonnets. There's no reason to believe that. All we know is that the Dark Lady had dark hair and dark eyes, which doesn't narrow much down. We can't prove that Shakespeare and Lanier ever spoke with one another.

But, you see, if we can say the Dark Lady was a Venetian Jewess, then some things that make us uncomfortable about act four of The Merchant of Venice cease to be problems. See, Shakespeare can't be an anti-Semite! He had a Jewish mistress! (As if an anti-Semitic Gentile marrying his Jewish mistress were not part of the plot of The Merchant of Venice.)

As with Taming, there's a lively debate about whether Merchant is anti-Semitic or cleverly critiquing anti-Semitism. But having Emilia Bassano Lanier actually write The Merchant of Venice is three steps further into crazy land. If Merchant had actually been written by a Jew, that would be one seriously self-loathing Jew. It's a shonda, I tell you.

The problem here is that Shakespeare is treated as above reproach, so obvious complaints have to be explained away. No one is allowed to speak ill of the divine William. But Shakespeare was not a god. He was human, and flawed, and when we refuse to see the things that make us unhappy or uncomfortable we are refusing to read him. Better to take him as he is, flaws and all.

It isn't just the so-called anti-Stratfordians who do this. They merely express a mutant form of the excessive reverence that keeps many people from looking at Shakespeare honestly. It's not an accident that the authorship conspiracy theories don't start until 1850, when the Shakespeare cult had already taken full hold. Shakespeare got built up into a secular divinity, and then people looked at his all-too-human biography and decided it was uncomfortably ungodlike. So they looked for a better candidate. It's the literary-biographical equivalent of making up a divine ancestor for the founder of your tribe.

The author of the Atlantic piece, like many other conspiracy theorists, claims that the "doubts" began in Shakespeare's lifetime. She went on twitter to say so, and to complain that documents critical of Shakespeare had been suppressed by scholars. I mean, some of those documents get reprinted in collected editions of Shakespeare for students, and they were in my college textbooks, but I guess if you have to look in the back of the book that's a conspiracy or whatever.

The real point is that none of those critical comments about Shakespeare are disputing that he wrote the plays. They are saying that his plays suck. The conspiracy theorists claim that the plays are too wonderful for mere William Shakespeare from Warwick to write himself. But the critics they point to as "evidence" are actually saying that the plays are not good.

That seems unthinkable to us, but that's only because we've drunk the Kool-Aid. Not everybody liked Shakespeare during his lifetime. At least one person is on record liking Shakespeare as a human being but not liking his art, because he thought Shakespeare was a hack. Not that Shakespeare was too much of a hack to write Julius Caesar. He thought that Julius Caesar was hacktastic. No really.

Shakespeare also had fans and admirers, lots of them. But he had haters, especially at the beginning and the end of his career. At the end of his life, and for many decades afterward, he was considered an intellectual lightweight whose plays were not learned enough. Not that he wasn't learned enough to write the plays. That the plays themselves were not learned. Not sophisticated. Not intellectual. Pretty good, for an old guy, but no John Fletcher and no Ben Jonson.

This goes against everything our culture tells us about Shakespeare. But it's true. It's documented fact. For a lot of the 1600s the works of Shakespeare were not treated as lofty works of erudition. They were considered good, stupid, old-fashioned fun. A guilty pleasure.

That's not the way we look at those plays any more, but it isn't necessarily wrong. And it isn't crazy. Shakespeare's worth taking seriously, but he's not supposed to be a religion. If he's never fun you're doing it wrong.

cross-posted from Dagblog. Please post comments there, not here.