One of the worst crimes committed by the modern academy is what might be called Shakespeare abuse. It takes many forms. There are those who say that Shakespeare was a cynic who sneered at religion, or those who claim that he was a homosexual, or those who claim that Shakespeare was not really Shakespeare but was really someone else. It is, therefore, necessary to learn to sift the sense from the nonsense in the study of Shakespeare. With this in mind, I was intrigued to see an article in the Washington Post by a young academic, Ari Friedlander, entitled “Five Myths about William Shakespeare.”
The article begins unpromisingly with Friedlander proclaiming that “[m]ythmaking about William Shakespeare is so common that it even has a name, ‘Bardolatry.’” Clearly bardolatry is not the name for those who make up myths about Shakespeare but is the name applied to those who idolize the Bard. Such looseness in the use and abuse of words bodes ill for an article which claims to spread light on those who have misunderstood Shakespeare and his work.
Nonetheless, and this initial unpromising faux pas aside, Friedlander addresses the very real danger that “[b]ecause we so highly value our estimations of Shakespeare’s talents, we tend to make up myths about his life and work to justify them”:
Yet dispelling these myths, as the more historically minded scholarship of the past 35 years has tried to do, does not mean diminishing Shakespeare and our appreciation of him. Rather, it opens new ways to understand his works and their relationship to the culture that gave rise to them.
The first myth that Friedlander endeavours to dispel is the old and weary, and wearying, assertion that Shakespeare did not write his own plays. Friedlander refers to Roland Emmerich’s 2011 film Anonymous, which dramatizes the so-called Oxfordian theory that Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, was the author of Shakespeare’s works, and he laments that even the well-known Shakespearean actor Derek Jacobi had fallen prey to the Oxfordian myth. He points out that there is no documentary evidence whatsoever from Shakespeare’s own time of such an unlikely and elaborate conspiracy and that nobody so much as contemplated such a bizarre suggestion until 1805, almost two hundred years after the Bard’s death, when a certain James Cowell purportedly recorded his doubts about Shakespeare’s authorship of the plays in a manuscript called “Some reflections on the life of William Shakespeare.”
Friedlander highlights some of the recent historical research which has shown, beyond any reasonable doubt, that the Cowell manuscript is a forgery, written many years later. He then goes on to suggest that the growth of conspiracy-theories surrounding the alleged authorship of the plays was caused by “new discoveries” about Shakespeare’s life, including records that Shakespeare hoarded grain during a time of famine, a selfish act which “proved unsavory to Victorians who venerated the nobility they saw in his work.” Disgusted by such ignoble behavior, Friedlander conjectures that these prudish Victorians therefore “decided to find another, more noble, author.” Here, Friedlander succumbs to the speculative “mythmaking” that he is purportedly trying to debunk. It is, for instance, more likely, considering the anti-Catholic fervor in England following John Henry Newman’s conversion in 1845, that Victorians were much more horrified by the Bard’s purported “popery” than they would have been about his alleged hoarding of grain. As early as 1801, the French writer Francois René de Chateaubriand had asserted that “if Shakespeare was anything at all, he was a Catholic.” The great Victorian, Thomas Carlyle, had written that the “Elizabethan era with its Shakespeare … is itself attributable to the Catholicism of the Middle Ages.” John Henry Newman, concurring with Chateaubriand and Carlyle, had stated that Shakespeare “has so little of a Protestant about him that Catholics have been able, without extravagance, to claim him as their own.” The historian and literary scholar Richard Simpson added to the growing belief that Shakespeare was a Catholic with his own solid and groundbreaking research in the 1860s and ‘70s. This Shakespeare, the papist Shakespeare, would have been much more uncongenial to the pride and prejudice of the Victorians than a Shakespeare who allegedly hoarded grain. Needless to say, this same Shakespeare is equally uncongenial to modern and postmodern scholars.
In spite of his own descent into the realm of wish-fulfillment theory, Friedlander returns to solid historical ground when he insists that William Shakespeare is indubitably the author of the plays ascribed to him: “It is far more likely that the many contemporaneous references to Shakespeare, like that of Francis Meres in 1598, mean what they say: that William Shakespeare, stage actor, theater owner and, yes, barley hoarder, was a widely recognized and admired writer.”
Another Shakespearean myth tackled adroitly by Friedlander is the myth that Shakespeare had a uniquely huge vocabulary. He didn’t. He just lived in a culture that was much more literate than our own—or, to put it more bluntly, he seems incredibly smart because we’re incredibly dumb!
Friedlander also addresses the myth that Shakespeare was uneducated, which rests largely on Ben Jonson’s claim in the First Folio edition of Shakespeare’s plays that the Bard had “small Latin and less Greek.” “This comment,” Friedlander writes, “along with the fact that Shakespeare did not attend university, has been read as implying that Shakespeare was either a brilliant autodidact or a well-known fraud.” Friedlander rightly insists that Shakespeare was neither a fraud nor an autodidact and laments that the idea that the Bard had little or no education “is endlessly repeated by doubters of his authorship.” He also notes, as evidence of the persistence of this particular myth, that Shakespeare is included in Wikipedia’s list of famous autodidacts.
Summarizing the historical groundwork done by Michael Wood, among others, Friedlander writes:
To Jonson, a renowned neoclassicist, Shakespeare’s Latin may have seemed small, but that doesn’t mean he was poorly educated. If his education was like those of similar socioeconomic status, Shakespeare probably attended the king’s Free Grammar School at Stratford. Sadly, the school’s records did not survive, but based on the records of similar schools, Shakespeare would have studied Latin grammar, rhetoric and literature, Renaissance humanist textbooks and classical Latin texts by Cicero, Ovid, Seneca and Virgil, among others. He probably would have been required to speak Latin in class, and to translate Latin texts into English and then back into Latin. Shakespeare’s plays, particularly Love’s Labor’s Lost and The Merry Wives of Windsor, dramatize the life and lessons of the Elizabethan grammar school classroom, and his work throughout shows an awareness of its curriculum.
This is all very good but Friedlander fails to add the other significant fact that “those of similar socioeconomic status” as Shakespeare, whose father was mayor of Stratford-upon-Avon, would have been expected to have had a university education. Shakespeare’s lack of such an education was due to his Catholicism and that of his family, Catholics being excluded from Oxford and Cambridge.
The fourth of the five myths that Friedlander tackles is the widely held assumption that “Shakespeare was a solitary artist,” a myth that is hardly likely to cause great controversy. It is, however, the fifth and final myth that is most controversial and which exposes Friedlander’s own agenda. It is in addressing the myth that “Shakespeare’s love poetry was written about a woman” that Friedlander reveals his own attraction to the myth that the Bard was a homosexual and his own adherence to the sordid oddities of so-called “queer theory.”
Like others of his critical persuasion Friedlander endeavours to rewrite history in his own image, declaring that “the Renaissance didn’t attach the same stigma to male-male attraction that later generations would” and asserting that “Shakespeare’s poetry evinces a pleasure in and comfort with male same-sex erotics that exceeds that of much of his later audience.” In other words, Shakespeare was ahead of his time, adopting a homosexual lifestyle that marked him as better than the generations of “homophobic” audiences and critics who failed to see or acknowledge the “gay” dimension to their hero’s life and work. Incredibly and rather bizarrely, Friedlander justifies this sweeping assertion by pointing out that those sonnets addressed to a man caused no scandal at the time that they were first published in 1609 and that the original “scandal” of Shakespeare’s sonnets was caused by those addressed to the unnamed woman traditionally called the “Dark Lady,” thereby proving that Jacobean England was comfortable with homosexuality. This misreading of the Bard signifies a singular ignorance or willful blindness on Friedlander’s part considering that homosexual practice was punishable by hanging in Shakespeare’s day. Considering that homosexuality was a capital offence, is it not far more likely that no scandal was attached to the sonnets addressed to a man because nobody in Shakespeare’s day conceived any sexual connotation to them and that such connotation was not conceived until later generations, informed by different cultural and sexual preferences, “discovered” it? In Shakespeare’s day, men could say that they loved each other without fear of causing scandal because love, in Shakespeare’s day, was not synonymous with sexual activity. Love was a Christian virtue and had nothing to do with lust. Indeed, they were opposites.
Contrary to Friedlander’s own glib acceptance of the myth of Shakespeare’s homosexuality, isn’t it unlikely that Shakespeare would have escaped punishment in a culture in which homosexual practice was punishable by death if the sonnets were so transparently “queer” as “queer theorists” proclaim them to be? Isn’t it more likely that Shakespeare’s love for the person to whom the sonnets is addressed is innocent and that the critics are guilty of seeing bawdy innuendo when they should be seeing the love of one person for another, staring at the gutter when they should be looking with the poet at the stars?
Having declared himself a believer in the myth of the “queer” Bard, Friedlander commits further Shakespeare abuse when he succumbs to postmodernity’s obsession with race and attempts to transplant this obsession onto Shakespeare and his times. Referring to “an influential essay” by Margreta de Grazia, Professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania, Friedlander informs us that the so-called Dark Lady’s “darker skin … would have been a far greater barrier to a socially acceptable romance than Mr. W.H.’s gender.” Such a reading misses the patent reality that referring to a person as “dark” in the monoracial society of Shakespeare’s day would have referred to the colour of their hair or eyes and not the colour of their skin.
In spite of Friedlander’s exposé of several pernicious Shakespeare myths, he is as guilty of Shakespeare abuse as those he criticizes. One would be tempted to say that he is an example of the pot calling the kettle black, except that doing so might be seen in this muddled and befuddled day as evidence of racism. Upon seeing Friedlander’s own agenda-laden myth laid bare, we are not surprised to discover that he is currently writing a book that rejoices in the lurid title of “Rogue Sexuality: The Erotics of Social Status in Early Modern England” and which, we are told, is “about sex, crime and class in Shakespeare’s era.”
Perhaps it is best to leave Friedlander and his ilk in the gutter where they evidently prefer to be and to look with Shakespeare at the stars of goodness, truth and beauty to which his God-given Muse so wonderfully points. In doing so, and in presenting the accumulating evidence for Shakespeare’s Catholicism, which, in Friedlander’s own words, “the more historically minded scholarship of the past 35 years has tried to do,” we will be “dispelling the myths” surrounding the Bard, which “does not mean diminishing Shakespeare and our appreciation of him. Rather, it opens new ways to understand his works and their relationship to the culture that gave rise to them.” In this, at least, Friedlander is indubitably right, even if he is right for the wrong reasons.
Books by Joseph Pearce may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.