Monday, October 7, 2013

W40: The Facts About Shakespeare

This week’s Biblio-Mat book came out of the machine with a quick tumble. Pocket-sized, it had the non-descript look and thickness of a book that meant trouble.

And trouble it was.
The Facts About Shakespeare, by William Allan Neilson and Ashley Horace Thorndike, was a very generic looking book. Navy blue cloth binding with the title only on the faded spine, it fit in well with the other early century books I’ve received from the machine. First published in 1913, this was the 1931 revised edition that clocked in at 266 pages.

When I first picked the book up, I was intrigued. The Facts About Shakespeare sounded like a look into the mythos of the bard and I had high hopes for conspiracy theories, scandalous revelations, dark secrets, and unabashed criticism all around. Why? Because I cannot stand Shakespeare, or more precisely, the reverence that surround him and his work. Blasphemy coming from a an English Literature major, I know, but it’s not that I hate his work, I just think it’s greatly overrated and overanalyzed to the point where scholars have imposed countless meaning onto the work that was not there originally. If you dissect any piece of work enough you can argue any point and I feel that his work has become more and more abstract over the years as every university student shoehorns multiple levels of contrived significance into stories that were entertaining at best. I simply believe that we are giving the man, if it was really just one man, too much credit, which is why ‘Blackadder:Back & Forth’ is one of the most satisfying pieces of entertainment ever created. (How do you top Mr. Bean punching Mr. Darcy in the face?).

That being said, my said high hopes were seemingly dashed the moment I flipped the book open and saw that it was a study on the life and times of Shakespeare. Thankfully, it wasn’t all about the bard’s work but instead covered the world Shakespeare lived in.

The first section of The Facts About Shakespeare focused on England at the time, specifically London. Touching on the Protestant Reformation, it painted a picture of a society in change engulfed by a radical storm of culture. Roving gangs of actors and musicians filled the countryside spreading imagination in art drive-bys. Sleazy thespians filled the cobblestone alleyways reciting immoral lines for a few pence. Wordsmiths plied their wares under lanternlight as literature addicts scuttled about frantically selling their possessions for another page of the latest hand-illuminated manuscript. Or at least that’s how I first imagined it.

In actuality it turned out that it wasn’t far off with the Englishmen of this period being an industrious crowd that spent half their time bettering London’s infrastructure and the other half finding new ways of living in decadence that floated down across all the social classes. Theatre just happened to be one of these sources of entertainment. The book did stress, though, that above all else this was a time where individuality was allowed to bloom, which set the stage for Shakespeare to prosper.

Enough to get a few monuments.
The second section of the book explored Shakespeare’s history. In amazing detail. Right down to how his father, John Shakespeare, was fined twelvepence for failing to remove a heap of filth in front of his door in 1552, twelve years before William was born. For those that didn’t already know, he had a semi-privileged life growing up, being the son of a bailiff, and the book painted a comfortable childhood. Outside of his family life, it also detailed his rise in the theatre world at the time and the friends and enemies he made. Interestingly enough, it spent a few pages dedicated to a Robert Greene accusation of plagiarism that brought to light the nature of competition at the time.

The Facts About Shakespeare then moved onto his writing. The history of his work is well known already but the book specifically looked into his documents and records. While the book was mostly text, it did contain three photos – the frontispiece of the Shakespeare Monument in the Stratford-on-Avon Parish Church, the cover of the first folio, and three of his six known signatures. After looking at the signatures, his literacy comes into question a bit more.

"Written" is used loosely.
The third section delved into the literature of the time and where Shakespeare potentially got his inspiration and drew his knowledge from. Presenting a wide range of lesser known works, the book drew connections between those and some of his plays. The conclusion was that if Shakespeare wasn’t a scholar, he was at least an extremely well read man. Fair enough.

The following chapter attempted to piece together a chronological development map of his works. While I had seen many write-ups trying to explain when each piece was written, this book broke it down scientifically into three tables that deconstructed every play and re-ordered them, counting basic attributes like total number of lines to more advanced Rain Man-esque percentage of blank verse with feminine endings. Just goes to show that one cannot hide from math no matter where he runs.

Ruining my reason to go English Lit.
The next parts of the book explained the nature of Elizabethan drama and the Elizabethan theatre. Giving a rich history that was a bit on the dry side, it contained a wealth of information but what really made the book extraordinary was that in the section about the theatre, one of the previous owners had cut out a map of 1601 London from some newspaper and sandwiched it between two pages. Whatever acids on the clipping had also bled out onto those two pages to create an interesting preservation effect.

Someone really loved this subject.
The subject of Shakespeare’s texts came up again in the following chapter where another investigation occurred to piece together when he published his plays in written form. This drifted into the discussion of later editors modifying his work and culminated into the subject I had been waiting for – authenticity of his work. Breaking down different collections of his plays, the authors ultimately agreed that many works that had been attributed to Shakespeare were actually written by contemporary poets of 1612 – the year when an anthology of his work was published. The Facts About Shakespeare also pointed out that a number of his pieces were also written in collaboration with other writers with few actually having traces of his hand.
A folio of lies!
From here the subject matter became even more interesting as the book talked about forgeries and questions about authorship. While it doesn’t state anything concrete, the book did bring up many theories, including the famed Bacon discussion. Of course, it was a lot of speculation but it was satisfying nonetheless that there were other people with literary tinfoil hats besides myself.

All in all, The Facts About Shakespeare was a fascinating read as it painted a rich image of Shakespeare’s era, not just focusing on the writer alone. The fact that it presented all the main theories on his authorship lent a great deal of credibility to this unbiased view of his life. If more classes dug into this darker side of his work then I probably wouldn’t have skipped out on so many classes. Maybe.

Book rating: 8/10 (Bonus point for not actually dissecting any pieces)

Random quote: “Shakespeare’s England was merry England. At least, it was probably as near to deserving that adjective as at any time before or since.”

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