Shall we ever be satisfied in our search for the Bard?

18,000+ results on Google were produced by my use of the exact phrase “real Shakespeare”. 18,000. While I recognize that the academic field of Elizabethan drama both is crowded and fraught, there are not that many bits of scholarship roaming around, begging to reexamine the author’s identity for, let’s be honest, a rather (wondrous, yet still very) small set of work. I suppose tracing these thousands of leads would be a revelation in comprehending the necessity of identification. But I have neither the patience nor the nerd-power required of such a task. Instead, and wisely I might add, I found that a great many of the source pages of these words (“real”/”Shakespeare”) shared a great deal in common. Ready for it?

Amazon.com; Half.com; Ebay.com. Authorial agency (or perhaps conspiracy would be better) is big business!

Coerced pen names, the scandal of noble obligations, the intriguing figures assigned authorship of the entirety of The Western (English) Canon. It has all the intrigue you’d expect of daytime soaps, sounding more like a lesbianic lovechild of Jackie Collins’ and Philippa Gregory’s novels than the conspicuously-coiffed image WE ALL KNOW TO BE THE TRUE BARD! [Those who know the field of Shakespeare portraiture I hope will appreciate that my carelessness in that last sentence is not out of malice or non-familiarity with them. To be clear, I am entranced thoroughly by the Cobbe, hate the Chandos, and have mixed feelings about the engraved Droeshout, in spite of Johnson’s claim that it looked about right.]

Who is the "real" Shakespeare?

Though it seems the Shakespeare we (actually do seem to) know wasn’t always so plain. That image-ideal we have stocked in our head has shifted since the turn of the 19th century, when perhaps the distinctions between the Bard and the bogus were slightly blurred. Smithsonian Magazine (which I have previously praised here heavily and will continue to do) has recently released a piece on a full-fledged Shakespeare hoax, which began in 1795. Quite an interesting story actually and one that I had never before heard. [Read the full article here].

Oddly enough, the story surrounding this centuries-old canard appears similarly soaked in soap-opera melodrama. Apparently, a young William-Henry Ireland, seeing his father’s obsession with the Bard’s masterpieces and history, set out to “discover” some previously undocumented pieces of Shakespeare memorabilia. In the playwright’s own hand. Let’s try to understand the thought process happening here with some examples.

  • His father, Samuel, reportedly possessed a “silver-trimmed goblet carved from the wood of a mulberry tree that Shakespeare was said to have planted in Stratford-upon-Avon.”
  • His father and his mistress, William-Henry’s mother, whom acted as a live-in housekeeper named Mrs. Freeman in the household, denied that William was their child.
  • William-Henry was not the sharpest quill in the drawer.

Hence the daddy-drama begins.

“In a burst of manic energy in 1795, the young law clerk produced a torrent of Shakespearean fabrications: letters, poetry, drawings and, most daring of all, a play longer than most of the Bard’s known works. The forgeries were hastily done and forensically implausible, but most of the people who inspected them were blind to their flaws. Francis Webb, secretary of the College of Heralds—an organization known for its expertise in old documents—declared that the newly discovered play was obviously the work of William Shakespeare. “It either comes from his pen,” he wrote, “or from Heaven.”

Aside from the scant physical evidence, what could convince these experts of the authenticity of the documents? A good discovery story, of course. “He said he had found the deed while rummaging in an old trunk belonging to a Mr. H., a wealthy gentleman friend who wished to remain anonymous. Mr. H., he added, had no interest in old documents and told him to keep whatever he fancied.” How, um, convincing, I think.

Compiling more and more documents in Shakespeare’s own hand was time consuming, so he ambitiously promised his father a new play never before seen but recently found in the trunk. So, naturally, he saved time:

“The young man wrote the play on ordinary paper in his own handwriting, explaining that it was a transcript of what Shakespeare had written. The supposed original document he produced later on, when he had time to inscribe it on antique paper in a flowery hand.”

Really, late 18th century antiquarians? Really? One man, whose theatre would eventually mount the newly rummaged play, wisely observed that no one could doubt the authenticity of the items when they looked so ancient, despite his doubts about the play’s writing style.

But, as in every story, the truth will out. The production of Shakespeare’s new play was a massive failure. And William-Henry was glad of it, so he could admit to his father that it was his imbecile of a son who had concocted the whole hoax. Expect a happy ending, do you? Well, not in this soap. Samuel Ireland never gave up belief that the items his son produced were authentic…or never to his son, at least. So W.H. moved out and sent his father a long letter, saying that if he thought the papers’ author were capable in any way of matching Shakespeare’s genius, “I Sir YOUR SON am that person.”  Gross.

You know, the combination of academia and pop-culture (think: Harold Bloom) is repulsive…unless it is the History & Discovery Channels, which I adore. I think this story functions more as the latter, thankfully.

In my complete neglect of this blog for the past six months, I have forgotten to give any record of my thoughts on two book club picks long since read. These are the epistolary Zenzele: A Letter for My Daughter and (my own choice) the murder mystery The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo written by J. Nozipo Maraire and Steig Larsson, respectively. Apologies to any who have been dying to read this amateur’s thoughts on two largely followed published works.

First, my thoughts on Zenzele: A Letter for My Daughter:

Any book fascinates me when it can successfully narrate a story via the epistolary mode. As a particularly restrictive structure that relates the novel’s events through letters, epistolary too often collapses under the intrusion of outside points of view included by the narrator. But when done successfully, there is a direct connection between the reader and the storyteller. Rather than the “spiritual” distance of an omniscient narrator, the document-based storyteller creates an alternative space where the reader is an active part of the text. There is certainly something highly attractive about being directly addressed by a narrator, as though we are the non-present “you”/protagonist. It catches your ear. This mysterious (inborn) “you” owns the experience applied to us.

This fascination I have with the structure should not be taken as a seal of approval for Zenzele, though. While I can appreciate the difficulty in fulfilling such a task, J. Nozipo Maraire deprives the reader of that emotional connection inherent in the structure, driving to alienate the “you” being addressed with unveiled maxims and continually slapping on the moral lessons one after the other. The story is not really a story, which poses the novel’s main issue. Written by a mother to her daughter, the novel is a series of short tales told to illustrate and encourage pride in African & Zimbabwean heritage. In essence, the text is one giant sales pitch urging her university-bound child to return to Africa after her education and assist their own. Do not become an adopted westerner, it seems to say, and reject your life here.

We become her child and hear the experiences and stories the mother tells, as the letter is written to us. And the stories are each a treat. We learn more about African culture through them (or at least what the author wants us to think). The man who abandons his family, marries a white woman, and refuses to speak in his “forgotten” African tongue is a particularly moving one. But with so many individual tales told through one character through letters, the distance grows and the story betrays its point. We separate ourselves from the pleading mother, whose own stories, fleshed out, would have been sufficient for this novel. While there is certainly value in the lesson of the story, it is so heavily painted there is little to distinguish true African culture and desperation of a family to prevent the loss of its daughter.

There are moments of joy in Zenzele, but they do not occur in the final two chapters. The novel will leave you unsatisfied and feeling used by the final lines. We become more than the daughter. We are a billboard to post upon, a twitter page to spread the word, and nothing more.

Now my thoughts on The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo:

I have to begin by admitting something to you: I LOVE MURDER MYSTERIES (possibly too much). And so, as this is my own choice for Book Club, I had doubly high expectations for it. It had to entertain me, but it also had the task of introducing mystery-haters to the genre. With quite a sizable reputation recommending the work (hence the tagline “The International Best-Selling Novel) and the curiousness that is posthumous publication, I was quite ready to take on what Publishers Weekly called a “strikingly original thriller.”

And, departing from the New York Times Review, I really quite enjoyed this particular mystery.

If you decide to venture into this 400+ pager, be aware that it will take you at least 80 pages to discover who the protagonist is and which issue is being explored. This is both the cost and benefit of doubly encased stories that function nearly independently of one another. The story, as it has developed 80 pages in, becomes this: a recently discredited financial journalist accepts a job from an incredibly wealthy octogenarian to look into what he believes to be the disappearance/murder of his niece more than 30 years prior. It takes on the best dramatic elements that only a rich, broken family can provide.

The frame story is hardly relevant aside from inciting the action. Only at the abrupt conclusion of the mystery do you thank the heavens that the frame story is still left to be resolved. I know this aspect of the novel is often critiqued and rightfully so. The plot becomes entirely outrageous, involving disguises, money transfers, and obligatory CCTV and press coverage. But it ties everything together happily enough, and I relished a bit more of these characters sans murder theories.

The mystery itself has all the requisite thrill required of such a novel. Episodes concerning a dead cat, a trip to a secret cabin, and BDSM dungeon are particularly frightening, perfect for a fire side evening read when you need a little excitement. The characters all play their part well enough, resembling their counterparts in movies like “Clue” and “Gosford Park,” but may be a bit too stiff and archetypal. I accepted it: it’s a stylistic trope, I believe.

Back to the rest… After pouring a good 5 minutes into figuring out who’s who, I easily slid into the Swedish world of Dragon. Apart from notions of gorgeous blondes and a fish-heavy diet, I knew very little about the setting of this story prior to my reading. And I am not surprised to find that there was a significant backlash to what Larsson has written about his native land. Originally titled Men Who Hate Women, the novel portrays a darker (brunette?) Sweden, housing sexual deviants, incestuous and pedophilic men, along with your run of the mill slum lords, drug addicts, and voyeurs. And considering that most of the novel takes place in a secluded and tiny town covered with mounds of snow, that description of Sweden becomes particularly rank.

The main character, Michael, is immediately likable to both the reader and the other characters in the story. However, there is such little development over the course of the novel that one wonders if he really is just an oversexed egotist bent on belittling bigger, wealthier men. Still, his woodenness makes comprehending the mystery a priority: we skip out on his emotional needs in lieu of some racy family secrets.

His partner in crime, Lisbeth, who is the titular girl, is his emotional opposite. You can smell the sexual tension in the air already, can’t you? And, indeed, she is very unlikable at the opening of the novel. Yes, she has had a mysterious and devastating past, but we don’t care. It is the way she changes throughout the book that hooks us in to the good guys side of the mystery. Her development from unstable, absolutely independent sadist moves into one we can all understand, that of someone getting more attached than comfort allows to another solo-minded person. Those final scenes irk me, but I love them at the same time when her character accepts and is rejected by what she becomes.

I think there are much worse ways to spend a day or two than with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and I would recommend it to anyone seeking out a great mystery.

Book Club…

June 16, 2009

The first book is: The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga

The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga
The White Tiger- Aravind Adiga

With only a two week period to read this book (following Jordan’s invite to be the sole male member of a women-only book club), I devoured this book. Within the first day of picking up The White Tiger, I was lured in by Adiga’s gritty, straight-forward prose. Told through the first person, Adiga’s “protagonist” immediatedly polarizes his readers with the recounting of a murder he committed, turning this ambitious hero into a do-what-it-takes, social-climbing anti-hero. As with many books and movies using this technique, once the ball is dropped, the remaining part of the novel seeks to build up to that point and give it context. In Adiga’s book, he is not asking us whether the murder was ok. To his character, it is absolute necessity. Instead, the novel throws so many justifications your way that you are left wondering if you would have committed it yourself. Do conditions make a man’s decisions or is there always a choice? Irrelevant, the main character would say.

Utilizing the frame of letter writing (the story is compiled for the benefit of a visiting official from China, to show him about the real India) allows the story to be more natural and life-like. It also makes the main character more difficult to dissect and interpret. Can you pass judgment on what you hear about a person from that person’s own mouth? Part of the entertainment of this novel is seeing the character slip into the flaw-area and out again. Will he reveal too much?

Read it and you shall see.

Update: The book club met on June 9th to discuss The White Tiger. All enjoyed the book, the wine, and the somewhat Indian-inspired meal that accompanied it. Thoughts were: Is this the century of “the brown man and the yellow man”? Silly question, is the concensus. Does one’s life experience give them an excuse for behavior? Mixed opinion.

Next month’s book: Zenzele: A Letter for My Daughter by J. Nozipo Maraire