Friday, March 22, 2013

Praying We See the Light by Anthony Kellett

“There is no God but God, and his name is William Shakespeare.” 
Harold Bloom, in his foreword to Living with Shakespeare, a new anthology by Susannah Carson.
In 2003, preceding Bloom’s revelation, Bill Browning, then Head of English at King’s School, Canterbury, quoted Jonathan Bate when he said, “As soon as you have a God, you have apostates."

So, let’s examine that statement.  Rephrased, it could be stated as: “Shakespeare is a God, and therefore you will always get people who renounce their faith in him and who may be shunned by the members of their former religion."

Yes, I think Jonathan Bate was correct; that is exactly how it is with the Stratford man and his followers. But should we really tolerate such an attitude in academics, studying and teaching a factual subject to our children?

Bill Browning went on, in that same interview in Mike Rubbo's documentary film Much Ado About Something, to claim that looking at the authorship issue is just a substitute activity for studying the plays. “It doesn’t really help us," he commented.  Is that true, too?  Carson’s book claims “we live in Shakespeare’s world,” an environment that has been “fine-tuned for us” by a poet whose vision is so potent “that it’s difficult to conceive who we would be” if he’d never existed.  If true, is it not valid that we examine the author of these works?  Carson’s book speaks of the poet’s vision, of how he, the poet, affects our lives.  Surely, this compels us to examine more than the works alone.

Notwithstanding this, does it not strike anyone else as a little sad that a Head of English, at the school of Christopher Marlowe, Hugh Walpole and Somerset Maugham, believed that the biography of the author should be considered irrelevant and that we should read the works in isolation from their creator?  I wonder what Somerset Maugham would think of that viewpoint.  

It was sometimes said that Maugham’s years as a medical student were unproductive, creatively.  Yet Maugham himself said in his Summing Up
I saw how men died. I saw how they bore pain. I saw what hope looked like, fear and relief; I saw the dark lines that despair drew on a face; I saw courage and steadfastness. I saw faith shine in the eyes of those who trusted in what I could only think was an illusion and I saw the gallantry that made a man greet the prognosis of death with an ironic joke because he was too proud to let those about him see the terror of his soul.
How can anyone reading that quote for the first time fail to have a heightened emotional awareness when they read a Maugham passage which may have been coloured by these experiences?

When he wrote Liza of Lambeth, Maugham drew on experiences he had as a midwife in Lambeth.  At other times, he drew on knowledge gained as a secret service agent in Russia during the 1917 revolution, as did Walpole, in no small way.

Walpole sets one of his most famous books in Cumberland, so it comes as no great surprise he had a house near Derwentwater in that county.  He tentatively explored an ecclesiastic career before abandoning the idea, yet it manifested itself in his writing, along with his exploits for the Propaganda Bureau in Russia.

I have no doubt that many people enjoyed the writings of these men, oblivious to their background.  If all one wants from a book is a "good yarn," then that is neither to be criticized nor lamented.  However, surely the Head of English, at such an eminent school, should have higher goals and aspirations than that, should he not?  Should we not be illustrating to students how the life of the author influenced the themes within his works, so that they may become more connected, too?  It seems to me that the expression of "self" in any art, be it written, painted, sculpted, designed or composed, is exactly the kind of skill that will yield the next generation of artistic talent. If students are taught creativity is born solely from imagination, without any personal emotional content, is art not bound for a bland, formulaic, and sterile future?  

The authorship debate is gold dust, in this respect.  It is not only a perfect vehicle for exploring personal content in varied works, by numerous authors, then relating those to the Shakespeare canon, for what that might reveal about its author; it is also a way to teach young people how to question preconceived ideas and dogma.  It can teach them how to reason from basic principles. It teaches them not to blindly accept what they are presented as fact, to analyze data for themselves, and to debate their findings with others.
It seems to me that the authorship debate is the perfect vehicle to introduce pupils to the art of debating and thereby to political debate and politics itself.  It can teach them the application of logic, history, scientific method, archaeology, documentary research, economics, philosophy as well as the genius of the plays themselves.  Moreover, all these myriad "angles" open the possibility that pupils will find these works far more interesting and alluring.  At present, we merely sit them down to learn what they perceive as a foreign language, as something serving no purpose other than to pass a meaningless exam, which they do not value.  I think it is time for a different approach, and we may yet produce a generation excited by Shakespeare and the works we all love. 

I want young people to start their lives, in this complex world, with a knowledge and understanding of the lessons in Shakespeare.  Unfortunately, most never learn them; and even those that do, tend to do so far too late in life.

 © Anthony Kellett, March 2013

Also by Anthony Kellett:  "Shakespeare's Anonymous Death"; "William Shakespeare, Businessman - Forgotten Genius"; "Shakespeare Scholars: A Lament"; "A Case for Marlowe - Made Simple"

Click here for the blog's home page and recent content.


Peter Farey said...

Thank you Anthony, I agree one hundred per cent. I was brought up in a home where Shakespeare was always present, my step-father working for the then very Shakespeare-oriented Old Vic company; and my most enjoyable time at school (despite the efforts of Eng. Lit. O & A levels to put me off!) was spent acting in Shakespeare's plays. We also lived within a short bus-ride of the Old Vic itself, where I was able to get (and did) a place on a bench up in the 'gods' for sixpence. Yet even with these huge advantages, I can honestly state that I didn't really start to 'get' Shakespeare until my interest in just who wrote this wonderful stuff was aroused by the authorship question.


CARLO D. said...

To use a more modern example, let's take Hemingway. His experiences in World War I (including his injury) and the Spanish Civil War, for example, certainly provide for a rich exegesis of such works as A Farewell to Arms, For Whom the Bell Tolls, the Nick Adams stories, etc. Let's say the same for Joyce - certainly his stories were shaped by his life experiences in very Catholic Dublin.

Hemingway and Joyce unquestionably drew from their personal experiences.

Browning clearly hasn't rubbed elbows with many who study Shakespeare authorship - my experience is that those who do pursue the authorship question actually study the plays even more closely.

Donna said...

What a fine essay, Anthony. The Stratfordians often do treat questioners as apostates! But I try not to blame them too much. After all, this puzzle was set up so that people would believe the actor from Stratford wrote the works. It's what they were taught by their own professors.

What a shame, though, that most of them are defensive about the authorship question, rather than curious. For in addition to learning the lessons you mentioned, questioners learn lessons about humility, wisdom, and the foresight to think not only about the present, but about generations to come. If the Stratfordian did not write the works, the primary author who did possessed these qualities in abundance. And his nobility of character would make William Shakspere look boorish by comparison (as is William in "As You Like It")

The story future English professors teach their students could be so much deeper and inspirational.

Maureen Duff said...

Beautifully expressed, Anthony. Couldn’t agree more. Here's my experience. Mike Rubbo's documentary made me realise that Shakespeare had no documented literary existence outside of the plays and poems attributed to him. My curiosity fired up, I turned to late 16th century history to find out more. I learned about the war in the Netherlands, the threat from Spain, the religious divisions of Europe and the subsequent flood of French and Italian immigrants into England, the question of the succession, the Earl of Essex’ disastrous Irish campaign, Archbishop Whitgift’s English Inquisition, the Cambridge connection to the plays and the various European intellectual movements of the time. I also read about many of the personalities associated with "Shakespeare", eg, members of the Sydney family, Sir Fulke Greville, John Florio, etc – all of whom have documented biographies. This allowed me to understand and appreciate the plays more deeply, for they are rooted in the historical time and place of their invention. However, there remains a disconcerting gap in the centre. Where is the author’s life? What kind of man could have written them? My conclusion so far from the plays and poems is that the person (or persons?) who wrote these exquisite poems and plays was Cambridge educated, fluent in Classical and 16th century Italian sonnet forms, had visited various parts of Italy and had a deep knowledge of 16th century European intellectual ideas to the point of satirizing some of them and, of course, was able to pour a well of passions and wide-ranging emotions into the language at the heart of his work. It is hard to believe that these biographical elements conjure up the profile of a marriage-broker and grain merchant from Stratford whose six faltering signatures on legal documents are the only evidence we have that he could write at all.

Sam Blumenfeld said...

Superb essay, Anthony. Should be read by every professor of English lit. The authorship question forces you not only to read the plays in the First Folio but also the plays written by Marlowe. It wasn't until I had read all of Marlowe that I was able to find so many of the clues in the plays attributed to WS. That the people in charge of the Hoffman prize should not really believe in the Marlowe theory is something of a scandal. Intellectual curiosity, as Maureen points out, is not an act of apostasy. It's an absolute and fearless pursuit of truth no matter what others may think.

Anthony Kellett said...

Thank you all for your comments.

Clearly, my piece reaches far wider than Marlowe’s possible authorship; or the authorship issue, itself. However, I think it is important to take a step back, from time to time, and recognise our work has far wider potential (or should have) for future generations. The authorship issue can be a tool to facilitate a much-needed sea-change in education.

One the finest ‘speeches’ I ever heard was actually a response, in a live debate, by Christopher Hitchens. Though he was responding to a theological point, I do not think it is inappropriate to my case; particularly given the framing of my piece.

When already close to death, from terminal cancer, Hitchens was asked why he doesn’t simply accept the ‘wonderful offer’ of eternal life in heaven. I unreservedly agree with the conclusion of his moving reply (of which I recommend a full viewing)…

“To me, the offer of certainty, the offer of complete security, the offer of an impermeable faith that can’t give way, is an offer of something not worth having.

I want to live my life taking the risk, all the time, that I don’t know anything like enough yet; that I haven’t understood enough; that I can’t know enough; that I am always hungrily operating on the margins of a potentially great harvest of future knowledge and wisdom. I wouldn’t have it any other way. And I’d urge you to look at those people who tell you that you are dead, until you believe as they do - what a terrible thing to be telling to children - and that you can only live by accepting an absolute authority. Don’t think of that as a gift; think of it as a poisoned chalice. Push it aside, however tempting it is. Take the risk of thinking for yourself. Much more happiness, truth, beauty and wisdom will come to you that way.”