Wednesday, January 16, 2013

First, We Kill All The Scholars


William Shakespeare stands so much above everyone else in the English canon that he begs for conspiracy. He couldn't have possibly written those plays; they're too brilliant, say the deniers, who have invented a whole industry built on doubt. "There's a whole Shakespeare industry out there churning stuff out with assembly-line regularity. My favorite comment was that of Mark Twain, who said that the Shakespeare plays were written by a different person with the same name,"Lorna Salzman writes.

by Lorna Salzman

Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens has thrown his weight behind the Shakespeare doubters, claiming the plays were written by the 17th Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere, adding yet another candidate to the lengthy ballot of candidates. Cast your vote now for the winner.

Conspiracy theories go back a long way before 9/11. Pseudo-scholars never seem to tire of beating the "who wrote Shakespeare's plays?" dead horse in order to get attention for their feeble treatise or book. There's a whole Shakespeare industry out there churning stuff out with assembly-line regularity. My favorite comment was that of Mark Twain, who said that the Shakespeare plays were written by a different person with the same name.

It is hard for many of us brought up in an age of diaries, confessions and electronic communications to believe that the greatest writer that ever lived left us nothing but a few town clerk documents on debts and property. But no one else of Shakespeare's time left us anything either. Shakespeare was an actor and later a playwright. Later he was a prosperous property owner. Being a playwright in those days was a profession like any other. He hung out with the theater crowd, like any actor today does; after the show you go out for a beer and a bite with the gang. You meet in pubs and have arguments, make jokes, and have a good time.

Why would you write down any of these conversations...especially when it would take days for a letter to get anywhere? Who would care what you wrote, when you had already given your opinion in person at the pub? What would you write about that you didn't already talk about with the guys? Why would we imagine that Shakespeare said to himself: I am the greatest writer that ever lived and I want to make sure posterity has a complete accurate record of every idea and opinion that ever entered my head. Actually, it is truly regrettable that he didn't do so, because now we are stuck with trunkfuls of speculations by scribblers hoping to cash in on the Shakespeare Conspiracy Industry. Shakepeare was a playwright, not a philosopher.

I read Peter Ackroyd's biography of Shakespeare and apparently those smarmy critics who think Shakespeare was an ignorant peasant boy never read this book. It opens with a fascinating and detailed history of Stratford, its nearby farms and villages and then recounts how the residents earned their living, the clash of Catholicism with Protestantism, Shakespeare's parents and grandparents, and, not least, how the local schools educated their children. Shakespeare's father was a glover, a burgess and mayor at one time, a prosperous businessman and often a money lender. His mother came from well to do yeoman's background.

When he wasn't in school, Shakespeare devoured the Bible and numerous books, says Ackroyd. In his plays there are references to and influences from Malory's Morte d'Arthur (mentioned in Falstaff); old English romances of Sir Degore and Sig Eglamour and Bevis of Southampton; The Book of Riddels; The Hundred Merry Tales. Biographers agreed that he owned a copy of William Painter's The Palace of Pleasure and Richard Robinson's translation of Gesta Romanorum, legends which he borrowed for some of his plots.

After lower school he advanced to the King's New School, as the son of an alderman. To be admitted to this school he had to demonstrate fluency in reading and writing English and show he was "fit" to study Latin and ready to learn Grammar. Latin was the basis of the curriculum, both grammar and rhetoric, via reading, writing and memorization. After a few months he studied William Lilly's Introduction of Grammar, with examples from Cato, Cicero and Terence, after which the pupils were expected to imitate these masters by writing simple Latin sentences. Many English phrases in his plays can be traced directly back to Latin phrases in his textbooks. Imagine this curriculum being offered in today's high schools....

Later he read selections from Plautus and Terence, moving on in following years to Aesop in Latin, which he apparently memorized. By this time he could translate easily from English into Latin and vice versa. Many of his plots were taken from Latin poets and his works contain words from Virgil and Horace. He began to read Ovid's Metamorphoses from where he absorbed myths. Later he also studied Sallust, Caesar, Seneca and Juvenal (from which Hamlet reads).

In 1569 theatre came to Stratford as it came to towns all over England in the form of travelling troupes; when Shakespeare was five he saw the Queen's Men and the Earl of Worcester's Men. Imagine again theater troupes travelling all over the United States to present the latest dramas.... Over the next few years ten more troupes came to Stratford; in one year alone Stratford had five companies, including the Earl of Warwick's Men, the Earl of Oxford's Men, the Earl of Essex's Men and other travelling players. And Shakespeare's father likely took his son to Coventry to see the famous cycle of mystery plays; Shakespeare mentions King Herod, the villain of these plays, five times

It is quite evident that Shakespeare and the students of his day absorbed an intense and thorough classical education, undoubtedly far better than most students today get in high school or maybe even college—no gender or cultural studies!—but rigorous immersion in the Latin classics and language. Add on to this the exciting exposure to theatre presented by travelling players, and the nonsense about Shakespeare being an ignorant country boy carries no weight whatsoever.

The author, a graduate of Cornell University, has been an environmental writer, lecturer and activist since the 1970s. Her articles on environment, energy, biodiversity and natural history have appeared in leading journals here and abroad, including The Ecologist, Index on Censorship, Resurgence, New Politics, and Business & Society Review. Her professional career began when David Brower, the leading conservationist of the 20th century in the USA, hired her as mid-Atlantic representative for Friends of the Earth, where she worked on wetlands, coastal zone and nuclear power issues for over a decade. In this period she was instrumental in the preservation of two key wildlife habitats (Swan Pond and Maple Swamp) in Suffolk County, NY.

Later she became an editor at the National Audubon Society's journal, 
American Birds, followed by directorship of the anti-food irradiation group, Food and Water. In the mid 1980s she co-founded the New York Greens, later the New York Green Party, on whose state committee she served for several years, and became active in the national green movement.

She worked for three years as a natural resource specialist in the NYC Dept. of Environmental Protection, focusing on wetlands and coastal zone protection. In 2002 she was the Suffolk County Green Party candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives in the 1st CD on eastern Long Island, and in 2004 she was a candidate for the U.S. Green Party's presidential nomination. Her hobbies are mushroom hunting, classical music and birding around the world with her composer-husband Eric. They have twin daughters, one a pop composer and lyricist in NYC and the other a poet and writer based in England. They live in Brooklyn Heights, NY, and East Quogue, NY, and have lived for extended periods in Italy and France.

Copyright ©2013. Lorna Salzman. All Rights Reserved. It is published here with the author's permission. More of her writing can be found at