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"