Treasons, Stratagems and Spoils
The Bludgeoning of The Bard
Speaking at your daughter’s funeral is a terrible task for a father. So in those harrowing days of grief following our Sarah’s untimely death, aged 46, on December 23, 2012, I struggled with the dilemma of what I might say to the mourners. This also raised a serious question of conscience. As a writer in love with literature, poetry and prose, and being no stranger to public speaking, I felt that those attending at Mansfield’s Crematorium on January 4th 2013 would expect me to speak. Yet I had to somehow separate the possible conceit of a ‘performance’ from the very sad reality of the situation.
Births, marriages and deaths are those occasions when the ordinary man faces the terror of expected oratory. So in those 12 days, which included the incompatible ‘festive season’ of Christmas and Hogmanay, between Sarah’s departure and her funeral, whilst for me there was no terror to face, there was another mountain to climb; emotion. This wasn’t some poetry slam or a reading at a writer’s club. I was saying goodbye to our first-born.
There are some poems I have recited where the passion of the words is so visceral that I struggle not to weep; for example, Wait for Me by Konstantin Simonov. Our daughter wasn’t an intellectual. She was a fun-loving music and film fan whose inner compassion was released in her lifelong occupation as a carer and an NHS nurse. Yet I had to find some words which expressed the way I would feel on that awful day. So, even though I knew that Sarah’s reaction would have been “What the bloody hell is he on about!?” there would only be one man to go to for such an event: William Shakespeare.
Our son, Martin, an English Scholar whose PhD thesis was entitled Tragedy in The Age of Shakespeare gave a poignant and emotional eulogy on the theme of his closeness to his beloved sister. I felt it contained much of the plain, domestic aspects I might have overlooked. Sarah’s husband, our son in law, Ivan, had done something I ought to have been capable of; no terror for him - he had written a poem which reduced us to tears. Yet despite my misgivings over my choice, I mounted the lectern to speak and commenced with the only words which matched my grief.
I have of late—but wherefore I know not—lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercises, and indeed it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy, the air—look you, this brave o'erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire—why, it appears no other thing to me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors. What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world. The paragon of animals. And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me. No, nor woman neither, though by your smiling you seem to say so.
Fighting back the tears was difficult. I then reminded the gathering that Sarah would have been more than bemused by her Dad’s peculiar choice, and continued my eulogy around what she meant to us and her place in the family. Yet although I knew what Sarah might have thought about my choice of the Bard, (who at least did say it is a wise father that knows his own child), he got me through an emotional public bottleneck where my own creativity might have failed miserably.
Why is Shakespeare Important?
He was naturally learned;
he needed not the spectacles of books to read nature.
He looked inwards, and found her there.
John Dryden (1631–1700) Essay of Dramatic Poesy
Ben Jonson dubbed William Shakespeare ‘Sweet Swan of Avon’, saying ‘He was not of an age, but for all time!’ Most of the world agrees. Laurence Olivier once commented that with Shakespeare we touch "the face of God" If you look at the way Good Will was regarded by the major poets and writers across the literary spectrum, you’ll find no shortage of justified adulation. His greatness only came to me, a rough-hewn hack with three paltry GCE O levels, after years of blundering through reading matter and frequently gasping at some brilliant line, asking ‘Who the hell wrote that!’ only to discover is was that man yet again. Why does his work span the whole globe as the greatest benchmark in drama and verse, translated and performed in just about every language? To me, it is because he speaks of humanity in such a timeless way, and touches every emotion. And so I find an aggravating perversity in the fact that there exists a tight conclave of academics and, sadly, famous Thespians, who stubbornly believe that William Shakespeare was a fraud who wrote next to nothing. Why do they believe this?
Al Pacino once said that actor Mark Rylance played the Bard "like Shakespeare wrote it for him the night before". Yet Rylance, who surely owes a great percentage of his fame to Shakespeare, leads the pack of hounds who refuse to believe that the Swan of Avon was anything more than his chief American detractor, Delia Bacon (1811-1859) said was ‘no more than a 'vulgar, illiterate...deer poacher' and 'Lord Leicester's stable boy.' Shockingly, Rylance is joined in his thoughts by such other beneficiaries of Will’s talent as Sir Derek Jacobi, and even Vanessa Redgrave. Further back, giants such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge, a writer named Herbert Lawrence, (who was a close friend of another Shakespearian Thespian, David Garrick), Benjamin Disraeli and the great Mark Twain all clambered on board the ‘Shakespeare was an illiterate nobody’ band wagon.
|Pacino as Shylock|
The festering root of this calumny has to be the peculiar hate-filled obsession of America’s Delia Bacon, who spent three years in England in the mid-19th century locked in a cold, damp room attempting to ‘prove’ Shakespeare’s talent was the combined outpourings of Walter Raleigh, Edmund Spenser and Francis Bacon, all members of a secret Elizabethan society which also included Sir Philip Sidney, Lord Buckhurst, the Earl of Oxford, and Lord Paget. She referred to Shakespeare starkly as ‘that wretched player’. This gathering of Elizabethan toffs, according to the erratic
and ill-informed ramblings of
dotty Delia, saw the plays as a way to promote
their radical political philosophies,
and not seeking to be recognised for their ‘beliefs’ used Will’s name as a
convenient umbrella. Yet she stubbornly refused to examine primary sources,
avoided the reading room at the British Museum, and relied totally on her own
in-built Transatlantic prejudice, writing to Nathaniel Hawthorne that “There was no man dead or alive, that really
on the whole gave me so much cause of offense with his contradictions. He
appeared to be such a standing disgrace to genius and learning, that I had not
the heart to ask anybody to study anything." Her subsequent 600 page
book The Philosophy of the Plays of Shakespeare
Unfolded was roundly trashed by the critics as the uninformed junk it undoubtedly
was, but like all subsequent conspiracy theories, from Apollo 11, 9/11 to
aliens crashing at Roswell, she had set a dirty snowball rolling down history’s
muddy hill. How bizarre, therefore, that it would attract the rapt attention of
seemingly intelligent people like Rylance, Jacobi and Redgrave.
|Over grilled, over-cooked, and|
unfortunately, over here.
|Mr. Looney ...|
if the name fits ...
Years later, the mission to destroy Shakespeare had a new controller. The suitably named John Thomas Looney (1870 –1944) an English Tyneside school teacher who kick-started the ‘Oxfordian’ theory, that Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford (1550–1604) was the true author of Shakespeare's plays. Looney began his philosophical life as a Methodist, later becoming an adept of something called the Religion of Humanity. It wasn’t enough for Looney to suggest that de Vere was the author of most of Shakespeare’s poems and plays. He went on to claim that de Vere had also written works published under the names of other poets. Looney, like Delia Bacon, might have been forgotten by now but they have remained as grubby compass points for Bard deniers everywhere.
Inevitably, in this writer’s lowly, blue-collar proletarian opinion, this is a question of class consciousness. A Stratford dullard? The agrarian son of a country glove maker? A lower middle class lad with scant education? How on earth could he compete with classically educated Earls, Lords and Princes? No, it wasn't possible. Where did he get his vocabulary from? Did he steal it? Did a humble gypsy like Django Reinhardt, even with a missing finger, become the greatest jazz guitarist because he mixed with European aristocrats? Then again, as Oscar Wilde said, “Really, if the lower orders don't set us a good example, what on earth is the use of them?” One thing’s for sure, though, and that is much of art has, in the past 200 years, become the domain (and in many cases the property) of the higher echelon of society. Go to any gallery opening, opera, literary fiction event, and you won’t see many plumbers, bricklayers or even glove makers. Yet Shakespeare’s words slice through everything. However, this sad story is about denial; a refusal to accept that a man from ‘the lower orders’ could, simply by living, listening and reading, eventually leave behind for humanity a semantic treasure chest of such value, passion and human understanding.
So I’m sorry, Messrs. Rylance, Jacobi and Redgrave (herself a so-called champion of ‘the Working Class’) until you absolutely prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Bacon, the Earl of Oxford or any other of the ‘noble’ notables propping up your beliefs produced Good Will’s fine work, I’m having none of it.
The deniers, however, have their opponents among those with as much experience with the Bard as they do. For a number of years Trevor Nunn, directed the Royal Shakespeare Company. He said "To accept that someone from the lower orders, not formally educated at Oxford or Cambridge, could be a genius is very hard for us." Similar sentiments are expressed by Peter Hall, who founded and directed the RSC from 1960 to 1968.
So Shakespeare’s words darted between the tears to send my dear departed daughter to the heaven she deserved. Maybe I should say that whoever wrote the plays and sonnets, we should still praise the Lord they exist. But I shall always have the Great Man’s visage in my thoughts. In any case, as the poet said:
Scorn not the Sonnet: Critic, you have frowned,
Mindless of its just honours; with this key
Shakespeare unlocked his heart.