Saturday, November 12, 2011

Not Anonymous

The Chandos portrait of Shakespeare

The movie Anonymous, which opened in Canada last week, is only the latest ⎯ although perhaps the loudest ⎯ in a series of attempts to discredit William Shakespeare that reach back to the nineteenth century. Anonymous depicts Shakespeare as a fraud, a middling actor who merely served as the beard, or front man, for Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, whom the movie portrays as the real author of the plays. The film is directed by Roland Emmerich, who is best known for the disaster movies 2012 and The Day After Tomorrow, and for 10,000 BC, a film that gives an idea of the kind of distaste Emmerich has for historical accuracy.

And, indeed, Anonymous doesn’t disappoint in that regard. Emmerich shows us the playwright Christopher Marlowe alive and well on the day the Earl of Essex leaves for Ireland in 1599, when Marlowe had already been dead six years; he has a character say that Marlowe died when his throat was cut, whereas famously Marlowe was stabbed through the skull, just above the eye; he has audiences marvelling that Romeo and Juliet is written in blank verse, when blank verse had been the medium for drama for at least thirty years already, since Norton and Sackville’s Gorboduc in 1561; and most baffling of all, he offers no explanation as to how the Earl of Oxford, who died in 1604, went on to write a series of Shakespearean plays that continued to emerge at the rate of one or two a year for the next nine years, including some, such as Macbeth and The Tempest, that allude to specific historical events that occurred after Oxford’s death.

In short, Anonymous is a dishonest work. If it exposes anyone as a fraud, it is Roland Emmerich, not Shakespeare.

However, while he bears ultimate responsibility for the movie, some readers will rightly object that Emmerich himself is not responsible for the theory that the Earl of Oxford wrote Shakespeare’s works. True: that responsibility belongs to a man who rejoiced in the name J. Thomas Looney. Looney first proposed that Oxford was the real playwright in a book called Shakespeare Identified (1920). However, Looney was himself responding to earlier questions raised about Shakespeare’s authorship that had begun in the 1840s, and in particular those that had been advanced by Delia Bacon, who (surely not motivated by regard for her surname) had argued that a group of writers led by Sir Francis Bacon had written the plays. And those are just the two most familiar of many astonishing theories. Other candidates who have been proposed include Christopher Marlowe (who, in this theory, faked his own death), William Stanley, 6th Earl of Derby, and, most recently, Sir Henry Neville. What all of these candidates have in common is that they were graduates of either Cambridge or Oxford University, which William Shakespeare was decidedly not. Moreover, all of them, with the exception of Marlowe, were also nobles.

Those facts point us to what ultimately seems to motivate all theories that call into doubt Shakespeare’s authorship. They are all based in snobbery. They are founded in indignant incredulity at the very possibility that the son of a small-town merchant could become the greatest writer of all time. The theorists try to couch their objections in supposedly irrefutable facts: they say the plays must be the work of someone who was well-educated in literature and law, someone who understood court manners, and someone who was well-travelled. But each of these points is easily answered.

The evidence of education that the plays show is hardly anything that would be particular to the university, where little literature, let alone dramatic literature, was studied. Universities then concentrated on subjects such as philosophy, theology, logic and natural science. Rather, the plays show evidence of some education in rhetoric and Latin, both of which were taught in ordinary Grammar schools. One of these was located in Stratford-upon-Avon, less than a kilometre from Shakespeare’s home, and he would have been eligible to attend it free, because his father was the town’s High Bailiff (an office equivalent to Mayor). And if Shakespeare had no formal education after he left that school, he would be in good company, for any list of candidates for second best playwright in English would have to include the great polymath, Bernard Shaw, who dropped out of school at age fifteen, and the intellectually brilliant Tom Stoppard, who ended his formal education at seventeen.

There is, however, evidence of fairly wide reading. But, demand the conspiracy theorists, where would someone of modest income find these books in the absence of a public library? Well, many of the books upon which Shakespeare’s plays depend (including some of the most important, such as an English translation of Plutarch’s Lives, a Latin edition of Ovid’s Metamorphoses and a few others, possibly including Holinshed’s Chronicles, the source for the history plays), were published by Richard Field. Field was a prominent London publisher and book-seller, who was about two-and-a-half years older than Shakespeare and had grown up about a block away from him in Stratford-upon-Avon. It was Field who published all three of Shakespeare’s long poems.

It is true that the plays show some sense of how the law worked (although there is little about actual law cases); but then the Elizabethan middle class was breathtakingly litigious, and we have plenty of evidence that William Shakespeare was frequently in court.

As for the insistence that the author of the plays would have to be a noble to be as familiar with royalty as the plays suggest, there are several quick answers: court intrigues and manners were all but universally imitated in the literature of the time; and anyway, Shakespeare was often at court as an invited performer. Furthermore, it would have been much easier for a middle-class writer to learn of courtly manners and speech than for a noble to imitate the language of commoners, which the plays also contain, and which is represented more convincingly than was managed by other playwrights of the time.

The most laughable objection is that plays that are set in Bohemia, Italy and Greece show that the author must have been well-travelled, whereas Shakespeare had never been outside of England. Well-travelled? The plays speak of the seacoast of land-locked Bohemia, and likewise suggest that there is a sea-port in the inland city of Milan; they put a thick, dark forest on the outskirts of Athens, where for centuries there had been no more than olive groves; and they seem innocent of the knowledge that there are canals in Venice. I could go on, but the point is that these are the works of someone with a vivid imagination much more than they are eyewitness accounts compiled by a world-traveller. (By contrast it has to be said that the plays accurately depict the geography of England.)

Other complaints concern the alleged lack of evidence that the actor Shakespeare was an author. For example, it is sometimes declared that we have no letters written by Shakespeare. Not true. We have a few, all prefacing his poetry and typical of the grovelling that writers of a lower class were forced to assume toward noble patrons. We also have first-hand testimonials as to his authorship from those who knew William Shakespeare, such as fellow actors and company share-holders John Heminges and Henry Condell, and from his friend and greatest rival as a playwright, Ben Jonson (for whom Shakespeare had acted). Those who believe these statements are evidence that a vast conspiracy was maintained amongst all those who worked with Shakespeare have obviously never worked in the notoriously gossipy theatre profession, let alone encountered the level of indiscretion that can be expected from a bitter rejected actor. And on that point, we can say that there are also statements from enemies, such as those who objected to the success enjoyed by a playwright of modest class and education, which likewise explicitly identify William Shakespeare as the author of the plays, the author with the actor, and the actor with the man who was born in Stratford-upon-Avon.

The bald fact is that no doubt whatever was raised from any quarter about whether Shakespeare had written the plays attributed to him until the 1840s, about 230 years after his death.

Why was such a doubt raised then? Well, we know that the nineteenth century saw an enormous growth in the status-obsessed middle class, and the identification of fine sentiment with aristocratic nobility. But a further reason must be that the authors of that age showed remarkably little feeling for theatrical language. Although theatre was popular, there was little new real literature to be heard on the stage; and the attempts to write new poetic dramas in the vein of Shakespeare’s resulted in many flat, turgid “closet dramas” that no one thought of staging then, let alone today. Accordingly, they overlooked the one point that stands most conclusively in favour of the actor William Shakespeare being the author of the plays attributed to him: his plays are better than the others produced during his lifetime because they were and are more theatrical. And why? Well, here is the crucial fact: of all his contemporaries, Shakespeare was one of the very few playwrights who actually lived every day in the theatre, where he learned how actors thought and worked and how audiences watched and listened. Shakespeare clearly loved the theatre, and understood better than any of his contemporaries its enormous potential to reach the secret recesses of the human heart. That he and his fellow company members realized that potential over and over again is not an achievement of which he should be robbed simply because some people cannot imagine how he did it.

The true Shakespeare is not anonymous.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Twelfth Night; or, What You Will

These are the programme notes I wrote for the production of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night I directed for the 2011 St Lawrence Shakespeare Festival.

The term “Twelfth Night” refers to January 6th, which is the day that commemorates the coming of the Magi, the first revelation of Christ to the Gentiles. So, in one aspect it represents salvation for those who previously lacked understanding. But there’s another aspect. For the Elizabethans, this day would have marked the end of the festival season, and so this accounts for both the mood of celebration that hangs over the play as well as the sense of melancholy that arises as the holidays come to a close. It might have felt to them a little like our New Year’s Day often does to us: the last chance to celebrate, which, because of the celebrations that have preceded, is a little more muted, as the “appetite is sickened by excess” ⎯ to paraphrase Orsino’s first lines. So, there are two ideas here: the melancholy close of celebrating a season of miracles, but also a sort of hopeful last chance for joyful miracles to arise.

It is that latter idea which is promised by the alternative title, “What You Will.” And this is one of the main businesses of Comedy: to help characters sort out what they think they would like to happen from what they really would like. It is, as Viola puts it, a hard knot to untie; however, only when it is untied can vitality and love emerge triumphant. The other main business of Comedy is a related one: to depict the development of self knowledge in some characters and to ridicule the lack of it in others. In this respect, Twelfth Night is an acknowledged masterpiece of the genre. It shows us excess in both the poles of dignity and festivity, and it encourages us to find a golden mean.

The country in which the story takes place is “Illyria,” which, if we are to be literal, is located in the former Yugoslavia. What is more important than geography, however, is that “Illyria” be depicted as a place caught between melancholy and joy, a place that is deeply devoted to music, and a place in which foreigners arrive to find that miracles are still possible. So, for this production, we are asking the audience to inform their idea of what “Illyria” might be like with a vague idea of post-1798 Rebellion, pre-Home Rule Ireland. This idea is meant to be less a representation of any real Ireland than an evocation of the “Ireland” of our literary imaginations: a place where festivity, melancholy, enchantment and the age-old anxiety about enforced servitude to false masters all combine to create what Yeats would call a “terrible beauty.”

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Steve the P(i)M(p)

You have a fiancĂ© named Steve. Well, he SAYS he’s your fiancĂ©, but some people call him your pimp. (And, if you are a straight male or a lesbian reading this, so much the better, because that will help you experience the feeling of a deeply ill-advised connection.) Steve was a little brutal and callous in his younger days, but you hope that he has calmed down a little since then. Certainly he seems strong and decisive, but there are moments in which you worry that he may be a little too controlling for your comfort. There were, for example, those kids that he and his friends beat up last summer, when they were making some noise out in the street. But you’ve decided for the moment to wait and see how things work out, because Steve clearly wants to move on to the next level of a more serious connection.

You are out in the car which was purchased with your money. In fact, everything is done with your money, and while you don't exactly begrudge spending it, there are times when you wish Steve would appreciate a little more the fact that it IS your money. Steve is driving, as he always does, and for the time being you are content to let him do so (although you are a little bothered by the presumption with which he has personalized the licence plates to read “HRPRS RIDE”). There are plans to run several errands, some of which are important. But he is often also stopping to give money ⎯ your money ⎯ to his sleazy friends, and you really aren’t sure why. And in one case, he stops at a gun store and brings out some enormous and expensive-looking weapons which he has purchased on your credit card. “Wow,” you say, “how much did THAT cost?” “Look, shut-up,” he tells you, “we can afford it, okay?” Similar things happen at several other stops and suddenly the prospect of all this money going out makes you begin to feel ill and to want to go home immediately. You tell him just that, saying “Steve, please, let’s not make any more stops or spend any more money, okay?” Without looking at you, he mutters “Uh-huh.” You press him for a more explicit answer, and he says “Yes, yes, alright! No more today.” But just a little bit later, he is pulling into the driveway of yet another friend’s house and you see him at the door writing a cheque on your account. When he gets back into the car, you say “Steve, I thought you told me that there would be no more?” And he turns to you with his cold grey eyes, a trace of a smirk on his lips and he says: “Well, it’s no more than I PLANNED.”

So, the question is: do you marry the guy?

That scenario came to me during the federal leaders debate, when Stephen Harper (or Steve, as he was back in his Reform Party days) said flatly that there were no more corporate tax cuts in his budget. And yet, as many sources will confirm, the Conservative plan has the corporate tax cut going from 18 per cent last year to 16.5 per cent this year to 15 per cent the year after. So what he meant was that there would be no more than he had already PLANNED. This kind of casual deceit, showing so much contempt for citizens, is absolutely typical of Harper. It is exactly what brought him into the situation in which his became the only government---not only in the history of Canada, but in the history of the entire commonwealth---to be found guilty of contempt of Parliament. Harper would have you believe that it was a “partisan” parliamentary manouevre, but the fact is that it depended on the decision of the very non-partisan Speaker of the House that the Government had indeed been guilty of Contempt of Parliament. And in case you believe that the Conservatives wouldn’t agree that Milliken was a non-partisan judge in this case, here is House Leader, John Baird (known to some as “Harper’s pit-bull”) on Milliken at his retirement: “Speakers from all around the Commonwealth look to you as their leader and their inspiration as someone who has conducted himself very professionally.” That doesn’t sound like the description of a man who has used his office for dishonourable partisan ends, does it?

Okay, so let’s suppose for the sake of argument that we all agree that Harper has shown arrogance toward clearly answering the people of Canada through their elected Parliament (keeping in mind that a clear majority of Canadians did, after all, vote for a party other than his). That’s a fault, certainly; but if he is really working for the good of Canada, we could consider it a “benevolent dictatorship,” couldn’t we?

However, the effects of this dictatorship are NOT benevolent, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the mismanagement of the economy, which is going to reap serious consequences as we are forced to spend a greater and greater portion of the federal budget on the servicing of the debt. This is no small deal: the debt now stands at over half a trillion dollars ($519 billion) and given Conservative policies is projected, by the Parliamentary Budget Office, to increase to $652 billion by 2015-16.

How did we rack up so much debt? Well, of course, by running deficits.

By now, every Canadian knows, or ought to know, so frequently has it been mentioned in the media, that after several years of running surpluses and reducing our overall debt under the governance of the Chretien-Martin Liberals, the Government of Canada is currently running a $56 billion deficit. However, there is a widespread view, one maintained even amongst some of Stephen Harper’s most ardent detractors, that the deficit that the Conservatives have racked up during their five years in office is due entirely to the global economic crisis that took hold in October 2008, and that no government could have avoided it, so that Harper and his finance minister, Jim Flaherty, are not to be blamed for mismanagement. While there is no doubt that the crisis would have caused some trouble, it is edifying to go back to the report of Kevin Page, head of the Parliamentary Budget Office to see what he had to say in November 2008 of the deficit the government was already running:
“The weak fiscal performance to date is largely attributable to previous policy decisions as opposed to weakened economic conditions, since nominal GDP is higher than expected in Budget 2008. Tax revenues are down $353 million year to date compared to a year earlier, due in large part to recent policy measures, such as the second one-percentage point reduction in the Goods and Services Tax and reductions in corporate income taxes.” Library of Parliament: Parliamentary Budget Office, "Economic and Fiscal Assessment" – November 2008 page 16

In February 2011, in his Opening Statement to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Finance, Kevin Page basically reiterated this analysis, saying that when, as expected, the economy reaches its full potential by the end of 2016, there will still be a deficit of $10 billion because of policy decisions. In other words, the federal deficit is not temporary and circumstantial, but structural, because Conservative policy has the government spending more money than it can possibly take in even under ideal circumstances. (February 15, 2011, page 2, available on same webpage)

So, the point is that, in an effort to win voter support, Harper reduced the Goods and Services Tax by two points, which, while a somewhat popular gesture, is almost meaningless to the vast majority of Canadians. (Honestly, can you say that a 2 per cent sale would ever induce you to buy an item that you would otherwise consider too expensive?) But while meaningless to individual Canadians, that gesture deprived the Federal Government of billions of dollars of revenue. And the corporate tax cuts, while they ensure the continued financial support of the Conservative Party from those who run the corporations, likewise have generated no discernible benefit to the Canadian economy, as I will allow this economist to explain. (You might want to click through on the title to watch it on YouTube, because otherwise the framing of the video may be off.)

(Of course, it's true that economists can have differing views, and that Harper cites U of Calgary economist Jack Mintz as saying that corporate taxes would reduce jobs. But it's worth remembering that this is the same Jack Mintz that Harper attacked as incompetent when he supported a carbon tax in the Financial Post in 2008, so apparently Mintz is brilliant when he agrees with Harper and a dolt when he doesn't. Which is typical of Harper's attitude.)

Meanwhile, as the debt increases, we are becoming ever more vulnerable to the international economic troubles that have created havoc in one country after another.

So, my point is, if we are expected to be content being treated by our Prime Minister as a nasty pimp treats his hookers, shouldn’t we expect some actual protection in return?

Sunday, March 13, 2011

In Memory of Suze Rotolo

The cover of the 1963 album "The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan" shows Dylan moving through the snowy streets of Greenwich Village with a young woman at his side. It is she, rather than Bob who looks straight into the camera, and therefore straight at the viewer, and therefore, straight at the teenager I was at the time I bought the record (about 15 years after its release). To my mind at the time, she seemed to affirm our mutual enthusiasm for Dylan (albeit perhaps for different reasons), and this made me feel a sort of distant connection with her. The young woman is Suze (pronounced "Suzy") Rotolo, 19 years old and Dylan's girlfriend at the time. Rotolo died last month at age 67, not long after publishing "A Freewheelin' Time," her memoir of the years so iconically captured by that photograph. She certainly deserved to be on the cover of Dylan's albums. It had been Rotolo who had introduced Dylan to the poet Rimbaud and to the songs of Brecht and Weill, both of which Dylan considered important influences. However, having a relationship with a man like Dylan couldn't have been easy at the best of times; to try to ride the out-of-control bronco that was Dylan's rocketing career at the time must have seemed impossible.

Indeed, it wasn't long after "The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan" was released that Dylan and Rotolo broke up. In a way, the writing had already been scrawled on the wall before the cover photo was even taken. In the previous year, 1962, Rotolo had gone with her mother to Italy. It was clear that her family wanted her to put some space between Dylan and herself, and the tactic seemed to work when Suze decided to stay on, turning the scheduled short vacation into a six-month stay. Dylan felt the relationship was over, and he wrote one of his most moving songs, "Boots of Spanish Leather" (Spain standing in for Italy) to capture the sense of desolation he felt. As it happened, Rotolo did eventually come back; she and Dylan were re-united; according to her memoirs, Rotolo became pregnant but then had an abortion; then she and Dylan broke up permanently. At this point Dylan became quite deeply bitter and in that frame of mind, he wrote the scathing song "Ballad in Plain D" describing in the most thinly veiled terms how, in his view, Rotolo's family had poisoned their relationship. Dylan later regretted having written and recorded that song, and he never performs it anymore. However, the song "Boots of Spanish Leather" he does perform, and it remains an honest and thoughtful rendering of the growing sense of hopelessness that attends the apparent end of a relationship. Interestingly, Dylan never allowed any other private relationship to be photographed as frequently as he had permitted himself to be shot with Rotolo, and that fact helps to create an extra aura of precious innocence around this youthful relationship. For after this time, Dylan guarded his private life much more jealously, and so in most of his off-stage photographs, we see him alone, isolated, free from attachments: an existentially absolutely self-determined figure.

Here's a short film I put together using a 1999 bootleg recording of Dylan performing "Boots of Spanish Leather."

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Toronto Subway 1949-54

"The Toronto Subway Song" was a 78 record released by Ozzie Williams and his band in 1950. Here's a link about the record. (This is NOT the same Ozzie Williams who currently leads the Marion Street Band and who is Taj Mahal's son.) I happened to stumble across a recording of the song recently, just after I had been looking at the photos in the City of Toronto archives, and they seemed to cry out to be put together.

Lest anyone should look for a political message in this video, I probably should state explicitly that my enthusiasm for the Toronto subway as it is should in no way be taken as an endorsement of the current Toronto Mayor Rob Ford's absurd idea of extending it. Building subways in the mid-20th century still made a lot of sense, but the cost has since sky-rocketed, and sadly, no city anywhere in the world is starting a new subway now. Ford's notion (one hesitates to call it a "plan," because there is so little serious thought behind it) is a multi-billion-dollar pure fantasy that would cost three times as much and serve far fewer people than the light rail plans that he wants to scuttle. Ford's attempt to lead people to believe that he could back out of the light rail plans and destroy the city's streetcar system and build new subways instead was disingenuous at best. There is no evidence that he ever would be able to proceed past the first part of the plan: tearing up streetcar tracks and light rail systems.