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Wednesday, August 03, 2011

SHAKESPERE, ON THE LOW DOWN

I am very unhappy with Sir Derek Jacobi. He’s the actor, probably best known as star of the BBC series “I, Claudius”, who has officially signed on with a group trying to sell the idea that William Shakespeare did not write the plays of William Shakespeare. And before your eyes glaze over,  allow me to explain that Will Shakespeare was not that different then the average person today. As a teenager Will got his girlfriend pregnant and had to marry her. And then, in his early twenties, he ran out on her and their three daughters, and then made a nice living as an actor and 14th century sex symbol, who probably had many meaningless affairs, perhaps with members of both sexes, but who also continued to provide for his family at great economic sacrifice to himself. And just because he lived before the invention of the iPad he is considered boring? Posh! A bisexual philander? They are always relevant in the theatre community!
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John Shakespeare, the father, was a landowner and politician, with a trophy wife and a coat of arms. As any good politician John liked to refer to himself as just a simple guy, a mere maker of gloves, in much the same way 350 years later Joe Kennedy liked to call himself a liquor importer,  instead of a politcal bootlegger, which is what he was. But like old Joe Kennnedy, John Shakespere was ambitious. He served in almost every job in Stratford city government, and as the son of a pre-capitalistic bourgeoisie, William got the best of everything. Will was probably even educated in the King’s New School, a sort of junior college for civil service types. But young Will got sidelined by that thing that side lines most teenagers, sex. In 1582, at the age of 18, Will married Anne Hathaway and six months later she gave birth to their first daughter. John must have been very disappointed. Then, three years later, Anne gave birth to twin girls. It was shortly thereafter that the now 21 year old Will ran away from home and joined a London theater company, The Lord Chamberlain’s Men. John must have been doubly pleased.
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Most people in London knew Will as an actor, but we know he wrote poetry, because there is a 1593 copy of “Venus and Adonis” and a 1594 copy of “The Rape of Lucrene” with dedications signed ‘William Shakespeare”. “Even as the sun with purple-colored face – Had ta’en his last leave of the weeping morn – Rose-checked Adonis hied him to the chase; - Hunting he loved, but love he laughed to scorn”. Okay, it’s not up to the standard of “Gimmie Some'a Lovin'”, but it was pretty hot for its day. 
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Doubters like Sir Jacobi like to point out that there are no copies of Will’s plays or poetry from the 1590’s with him listed as the author, but over a third of all the plays published at this time listed no author at all. Authorship had just been invented,  and they didn’t have it standardized yet. It would be another 400 years plus before the RIAA sued any college students for downloading music. But a 1598 book written by Francis Meres does mention twelve plays defiantly written by William Shakespeare, including Two Gentlemen of Verona, A Comedy of Errors, Love Labors Lost, King John, Titus and Adois, Romeo and Juliet, and Henry IV, and what must be a lost work, William Shakespeare’s The Matrix Redux”.
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The usual argument given by the "antistratfordians" is that Will was the front man for a nobleman who could not publicly admit to being involved in the theatre, not because being theatrical back then was considered “gay”. There was no “gay” stigma before the Victorian era. But being theatrical was, periodically, illegal. The general feeling at the time was that human actors on stage were a degenerate form of amusement, where as the other great public entertainment of the time, bear baiting, was wholesome and family friendly. Just not toward the bear’s family.
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But Will’s plays were popular and profitable, with lots of violence and sex. Whoever wrote this stuff, this was not your average stuff. And the works have survived for 500 years because they are extraordinary and because in 1624, after Will’s death, Richard Burbridge, Will’s friend and fellow actor and fellow investor in the theatre company, made sure the plays were preserved using the still novel invention of printing. Thank God he didn’t record them on Betamax.
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But why does Sir Jacobi think that a common jerk could not have written “To be or not to be, that is the question…” (Hamlet) or “Out damn spot. Out” (MacBeth), or “Oh, ye fen sucked fogs!”(King Lear)? Considering that everything attributed to Will was based on earlier works by classic authors like Plato and Plutarch, not to mention the works by that most prolific writer in the ancient world, Ann Ominous, it is clear that Will knew the first rule of good writing; steal only from the best and steal often.
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In ten years in London’s theatre community, generally a hand to mouth existence then as now, Will made enough money to buy the second largest house in Stratford, to keep Anne and the children comfortable and quiet, even while he remained in London. If he was not the writer of plays, where did that money come from? Crack hadn’t been invented yet, nor had tobacco. How was Will able to afford a partnership in the Rose playhouse unless it was as compensation for the content he created for the company? And where did he get enough money to buy those snazzy little leotards everybody wore?
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There are always other explanations and theories as to how and why Will Shakespeare could not have written all of these magnificent plays. But if not Shakespeare, then who; if not Shakespeare, then why: If not Shakespeare then Whatzzup? All other theories as to the plays authorship require a conceit of some kind, some slight of hand and trick of hidden identities and women disguised as men and men in horse suits with stolen credit cards, the kind of stuff that Will used in most of his plays. Nobody would ever believe that stuff. But always the simplest explanation is that Will Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare. And that’s why every one at the time said he did.
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In 1634, almost 20 years after Will’s death, a Lieutenant noted that his militia company had stopped at Stratford where, “…that famous English poet, Mr. William Shakespeare, was born …”. Now, popular culture today may give credit to some who do not deserve it, and that happened in the 17th century as well. But, what is more likely; that in an age when the printed word was still subservient to the spoken one, that a writer known for his scribbled poems would be misidentified as the author of well loved plays, or that Shakespeare was who we think he was and that Derek Jacobi is just full of hoo hoo?
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In 1610, when the Shakespere twins were old enough to be married and out of the house, Will returned to Stratford and to Anne. He died there in 1616, as proven by his will, which details the division a rather large estate, including several properties in London. The length and complexity of this document indicates a successful man. But there is also one petty little item in the will about leaving Anne his “second best bed”. That item cries out for an answer to the question, “Who got his first best bed?”
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