Monday, April 5, 2010

The Never-Ending Shakespeare Debate

William Shakespeare is one of the most written about playwrights of all time (duh), not only in terms of literary criticism but also in the realm of biographies. Shakespeare was born over 450 years ago and people are still trying to figure out the truth about him--whether he actually wrote his plays, what his role was in 16th-17th century society, and then the ever popular questions of his sexuality, religious beliefs, and what he looked like.

These are things that will will never actually be known, no matter how many people theorize about him. But that doesn't stop scholars from trying. contributor Michael Caines wrote an interesting piece recently about the various Shakespeare biographies in print (and even touched about the bios that show themselves in films loosely based on the Bard):

Shakespeare has inspired a lot of wonky scholarship from his biographers - a source of much fun for the connoisseur of snobbery and ignorance.

James Shapiro's Contested Will concentrates on the lunatic fringe of Shakespeare authorship theories – a fascinating topic, to be sure, if you admire snobbery, philistinism and ignorance.

But as it happens, Shakespeare biography is now (at least) 300 years old, and there have been plenty of bemusing, eccentric or downright surreal contributions to the field, even among those biographers who don't think Shakespeare was the Earl of Oxford. Crackpot theorising, outright fantasising and expressions of superimposed vanity (Shakespeare, c'est moi!) are all part of the fun. Take the following examples, for example: attempts at writing the ultimate writer's life, good, bad, indifferent, ugly, or just plain delusional. Further suggestions/angry objections welcome.

According to [John] Aubrey's Brief Lives, that fine blend of antiquarian notes and 17th-century table talk, Shakespeare's father was a butcher. When he was a boy, "he exercised his father's trade, but when he killed a calf he would do it in a high style, and make a speech". Shakespeare was a schoolteacher for a while and taught Latin (no doubts there about Shakespeare's linguistic abilities). "His comedies will remain wit as long as the English tongue is understood."

The business of Shakespeare biography gets going with [Nocholas] Rowe, the poet laureate and playwright who (correct me if I'm wrong) gave the English language the word "Lothario". Rowe prefaced his 1709 edition of Shakespeare's Works with a short biography that was reissued last year to mark its 300th anniversary. Marvellously wide of the mark on most matters of fact, it's full of praise for the plays. Rowe sees Shylock in The Merchant of Venice as a serious rather than a buffoonish part, which is how it was acted at the time, and defends Shakespeare against general critical prejudices. The young Shakespeare was a deer-poacher. Getting caught led directly to his move – his escape – into the theatre business.

Read the rest of the article HERE
(and check out some of the interesting comments too)

Normally, I probably would've overlooked this article, to be perfectly honest. While I am certainly a Shakespeare fan (I own an amazing edition of his complete works that I love and once had a Shakespeare reading group--yes, we all had parts and read aloud, dorky but fun!), I don't generally read biographies so my eye naturally passes over them.

But this time, it caught me because I already had Shakespeare on the brain. My dear friend TS over at Must Love Books introduced me last night to a few hysterical YouTube videos called "Sassy Gay Friend" involving what would have happened to characters like Ophelia, Juliet, and Desdemona had each of the self-destructive ladies had a gay boyfriend to snap them out of their funks:



Romeo and Juliet

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