Wednesday, October 9, 2013

"who wrote Shakespeare?"

At 15, I read a number of books about codes and ciphers, specifically the codes and ciphers alleged to be embedded in the works of William Shakespeare. The object of these books was to winkle out who, precisely, wrote the plays and poems of "The Bard."

My willingness to read these books and immerse myself in their arguments probably rested in part on the fact that my father taught Shakespeare at Smith College and I wanted to find a way to be nearer to him. But also, I suspect, I was just a teenager, and what teenager isn't desperately in search of answers, any answers? Codes and ciphers, however intricate, have answers -- concrete solutions in which jumbles of words and numbers can step out of the shadows and reveal themselves as comprehensible and meaningful and no longer a shape-shifting, incoherent mess ... the kind of mess the bedevils teenagers and other adults.

The occasion for remembering a time so long ago arrived yesterday in the person of a 2011 movie, "Anonymous," which a friend had enthusiastically recommended. "Anonymous" is scrumptious in its sets and costumes and muddied in plot and character development. The Guardian newspaper described "Anonymous" as "ridiculous," but there were plenty of other more-positive reactions.

The movie itself posits, as the books on codes and ciphers also suggested on occasion, that Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, had penned Shakespeare's plays and poems and wanted, for a variety of reasons, to remain anonymous. Shakespeare himself is depicted in this celluloid tale as a man who literally could not write. As I say, the movie struck me as scrumptious by visual presentation and muddy by tale-telling substance.

At 15, it never occurred to me to ask, "Would the plays and poems of Shakespeare be changed by so much as a single comma if anyone knew who wrote them?" What I knew was that seeking the answer was an adult pursuit, something serious and meaningful ... and I wanted my life to have that sort of substance and coherence. I wanted to be a grown-up ... you know, the people who know what they're doing and seem so assured in doing it. Instead, as a teenager, I was wracked by adamantine koans like, "If everyone is urging me to act like an adult, why do I have to take out the garbage that adults never seem to take out?"

How much like other aspects of life is scurrying down the academic rabbit hole of "who wrote Shakespeare?" Searching for meaning and coherence, breaking one code or cipher after another, positing one heart-felt hypothesis after another ... when all the time "Hamlet" or "Romeo and Juliet" lies open in your lap? If the answer to anyone's most compelling question were answered fershur, would it honestly be the answer that was sought? In Zen Buddhism, for example, there is the cautionary tale of the warrior who has been shot by an arrow ... and the best the wounded man can muster is to ask the identity of the shooter.

But I don't think anyone needs Buddhism to point out the misdirected energy that can go into the codes and ciphers of life. Who, Buddhist or otherwise, has not felt the lash of trying to deconstruct or solve or explain or believe ... only to come up feeling strangely bereft ... an acceptable adult, perhaps, but somehow still riven by teenage angst?

My father taught Shakespeare in college, a place known in my teenage years as a "seat of learning" or something equally august. And within that framework, Shakespeare was "literature" and, because it was taught in college, it was elevated in ways I could not exactly fathom. Literature was important and I stood somewhere between fear and awe of it. Awe because it seemed so distant and adult, but fear because its elevated status did not touch my heart. As a teenager, I learned to steer clear of "literature" and its smooth and perfected and icy heights. I hated reading Shakespeare in high school.

But in my early 20's, my mother dragged me to a Shakespeare play. It was summertime and the play was presented in a grassy bowl of a theater. "Shakespeare!" I thought derisively as my veins constricted.  And then the play began and a bit at a time, I was sucked in. Never mind that everyone was talking funny -- in the singsong of iambic pentameter ... suddenly that literary conceit fell away; suddenly "literature" fell away and ... holy shit! Shakespeare was just a dressed-up version of a soap opera! Love, jealousy, power, compassion, greed, friendship and enmity ... there really wasn't a hair's-breadth worth of difference. It was miles beyond any code or cipher. Miles beyond "literature." Miles beyond deconstruction and explication and term-paper meaning. It was delicious because it was human ... and because I was human too.

Not that this epiphany led me to run out an read all of Shakespeare's works. I had been trained too well in school to distrust artistic pinnacles and their adult adherents. But I was, for my own purposes, more at ease, less afraid. What need is there for an answer when you already have one? What need for codes and ciphers and a furrowed and adoring brow?

The epiphany did not leave me feeling somehow righteously right or blessedly redeemed ... it did not make me feel that I had to check my appreciation with some applauding throng. It was just that, in the absence of that applauding throng against which I had previously assessed my own fitness, I was at ease. Others might say and believe very fine things about racing down the rabbit holes of cipher and code. For all I knew, there was a more compelling ease than my own. I was willing to be corrected. But since I felt at ease ... well, why not be at ease?

Who knows -- maybe one day I will read William Shakespeare.


  1. At age 15 i read all of shakespeare's plays. I'd seen a televised production of A Midsummer Nights Dream with Diana Rigg, with whom i was smitten, and entertained fantasies of a romantic theater career. I was also in a body cast for sometime while on the Navajo reservation and only one television channel available.

    What i got from it was a facility for the kings english that enabled me to read the King James bible and thusly cure myself of that religion. I think language itself is a code intended to persuade benefit from others. But it's often misapplied for more noble usage.

  2. Game Show Host (John Cleese): Good evening and welcome to 'Stake Your Claim'. First this evening we have with us Mr Norman Voles of Gravesend who claims he wrote all Shakespeare's works. Mr Voles, I understand you claim that you wrote all those plays normally attributed to Shakespeare?

    Voles (Michael Palin): That is correct. I wrote all his plays and my wife and I wrote his sonnets.

    Host: Mr Voles, these plays are known to have been performed in the early 17th century. How old are you, Mr Voles?

    Voles: 43.

    Host: Well, how is it possible for you to have written plays performed over 300 years before you were born?

    Voles: Ah well. This is where my claim falls to the ground.

    Host: Ah!

    Voles: There's no possible way of answering that argument, I'm afraid. I was only hoping you would not make that particular point, but I can see you're more than a match for me!

    Host: Mr Voles, thank you very much for coming along.

    Voles: My pleasure.

    Host: Next we have Mr Bill Wymiss who claims to have built the Taj Mahal.

    Wymiss (Eric Idle): No.

    Host: I'm sorry?

    Wymiss: No. No.

    Host: I thought you cla...

    Wymiss: Well I did but I can see I won't last a minute with you.

    Host: Next...

    Wymiss: I was right!

    Host: ... we have Mrs Mittelschmerz of Dundee who cla... Mrs Mittelschmerz, what is your claim?

    Mittelschmerz (Graham Chapman): That I can burrow through an elephant.

    Host: (Pause) Now you've changed your claim, haven't you. You know we haven't got an elephant.

    Mittelschmerz: (Insincerely) Oh, haven't you? Oh dear!

    Host: You're not fooling anybody, Mrs Mittelschmerz. In your letter you quite clearly claimed that... er ... you could be thrown off the top of Beachy Head into the English Channel and then be buried.

    Mittelschmerz: No, you can't read my writing.

    Host: It's typed.

    Mittelschmerz: It says 'elephant'.

    Host: Mrs Mittelschmerz, this is an entertainment show, and I'm not prepared to simply sit here bickering. Take her away, Heinz!

    Mittelschmerz: Here, no, leave me alone!

    (Sound of wind and sea).

    Mittelschmerz: Oooaaahh! (SPLOSH)