Shakespeare--or "Fakespeare" as the Bard has slyly been called--isn't one of my usual obsessions. Having just seen the film "Anonymous," however, I felt the need to dig a little into this long-standing controversy over who really wrote Macbeth, Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet etc. "Anonymous" (2011) vividly re-imagines the true playwright to be Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, who for political reasons, allowed a loud-mouthed actor named Will Shakespeare to take all the acclaim for his work. (Even just writing these words, I think about all the English teachers collectively weeping into their hand-stitched leather tomes...)
So what's the truth of it?
Quite frankly, I don't know. But here are some things I learned:
For a 150 years, an escalating war has been waged between "Stratfordians," who believe Shakespeare to be the playwright he's long been purported to be, and "Anti-Stratfordians" or Oxfordians, who label him a fraud. In addition to de Vere, Anti-Stratfordians (the likes of whom even included Mark Twain!) have put forth Christopher Marlowe, Francis Bacon, and even Queen Elizabeth I herself as viable alternatives.
Non-Stratfordians claim that only an educated noble could have been knowledgeable and articulate enough to pen such greatness. As the son of a glovemaker, Will did not fit that bill. Allegedly, no evidence has been found--letters, notes, unpublished works--that attribute to him even the most basic writing ability. This may be the most credible evidence, I don't know. What it implies however, is that genius can not come from humble beginnings, or that a person cannot overcome obstacles to achieve greatness. That bothers me.
Will Shakespeare's detractors further purport him to be a hack and a known thief of words (and if you believe the film, a murderer to boot). Yet, borrowing of words was a widespread practice. Notions of plagiarism, and authorship for that matter, were far more lax (even non-existent) during the late sixteenth, early seventeenth centuries. For example, there was more than one King Lear--the one we know as Shakespeare's as well as a number of other pieces detailing the life of the the Celtic king--but what does that signify in terms of authorship? The message in the film, and perhaps in the larger controversy, seems confused on this point.
(The film itself, I found intriguing, and the computer-generated sets spot-on. The precarious shops on London Bridge (but no heads on Traitor's Gate, alas!), the sickening bear-and-bull baiting in Southwark, the glimpse into the printing industry, the pummeling of slops during performances--great stuff! What wasn't so great: the blunt suggestion that the "Virgin Queen" had borne multiple children (one of whom she unwittingly took on as a lover later). Given that Elizabeth I's lack of an heir was one of the most pivotal concerns in British history, an additional conspiracy along these lines seems hard to swallow.) Ultimately, to read, enjoy and assess plays or novels, do you need to know who the author "really" is? Does it matter, today, whether an author was the son of a glover or an Earl or a Queen (or a girl from West Philly, for that matter)? For me, there's something comforting in knowing who the author "really" is (or was). And, conversely, something profoundly distressing to think we may have gotten it wrong.
What do you think?
"Monsters" in seventeenth-century England were funny sorts--not like today's zombies or even Frankenstein's creature--but rather aberrations of humanity. Real human beings who, like my antagonist in Monster at the Gate, had crossed society's lines--committed murder or other unspeakable acts. Their humanity was restored only by execution--usually by public hanging.
(Ironically, the early modern crowds who gathered to watch these executions--men, women, and children who cheered on the criminals' grim ends--were not themselves considered to be monsters, despite their bloodlust and fascination with the gallows. But hey, people aren't always consistent, are they?)
Booksellers and printers understood and exploited these sentiments, tapping into the public's fears, passions, and anxieties. Long before modern tabloids sensationalized criminal activity, early modern woodcuts, ballads and chapbooks conveyed to their readers 'true accounts' of each monstrosity, offering sordid and titillating details of the crime, the victim's last hours, and the monster's motivations. Implicit in many of these accounts was a warning--less to future victims, and more to society at large--that monsters walked among them. Though masked and disguised as humans, their monstrous nature would out. Woe to the community who did not catch and put an end to them!
So when reading these accounts, I always wondered what parts of the sensationalized accounts were true, what was contrived, and most of all--Who were these monsters, really, when they weren't being monsters?
The first image I had for Monster at the Gate was dreamlike, cruel--and a bit of a mystery cliche, although I did not realize it for years. I'd been pouring through woodcuts and broadsides-- researching gender patterns in domestic homicide--and I was struck by the same story that appeared again and again. A woman, stabbed in a secluded glen, discovered with a letter in her pocket. The letter would say something like 'Meet me at the secluded glen. I must see you.' And then it would be signed, 'L.J.' or something like that. The townspeople, the constable, everyone would scratch their heads--'Who was the monster? Who could have killed her?'
Huh? Was it possible that a whole community could be so naive? So gullible? I mean, there was a signed note from L.J.!
Or was this just some sort of early literary trope that booksellers created to sell their wares? Either way, the story was not just sad, but incomplete.
In some ways, MATG became the answer to the questions that never got asked--Who was this woman? Had she been excited when she met her murderer? Why the heck hadn't she been more suspicious? And most important of all--how could she get the justice she deserved?
The image of that woman stayed with me for years, eventually becoming the prologue--until I learned that prefaces are pretty much despised by agents, editors, and readers alike. So ironically, my inspiration for the novel will never make it to publication. Re-reading it now, I think it was right to cut the preface. Yet, in my mind, this image will always remain pivotal for me. So I thought I'd share it here, both to share my original thinking, and to show why it won't make it to print.
The young woman stumbled through the long grasses, squinting in the moonlight, trying to find the path. She had not dared to steal a lantern, and now she lamented her folly. Her long skirts caught on a branch, and she tugged impatiently at her red embroidered sash. Hearing a twig crack behind her, she whirled around. Recognizing the shadowy figure before her, she relaxed. But still she was puzzled.
“What are you doing here?” She asked, panting slightly. “Have you a message?”
The glint of a shining knife stopped her. Too late she realized her assailant’s intention. A quick thrust, and the blade ripped inside her. Brutal, fast, she barely had time to react. A hand clapped tightly over her mouth, muffling her dying sighs. Her struggles ceased, and her body grew limp in her captor’s arms.
A moment later, her body fell to the soft ground. Clouds glided before the moon, and a light rain fell gently on her still form. Blood and water soon plastered her hair across her face. Her murderer gazed at her for a moment, then stole away.
So....was I right to kill the prologue?