Thursday, January 13, 2011

Shakespeare in the Attic

After finally finding a copy, I was 20 or so pages into Ron Rosenbaum's hefty tome with the startling title The Shakespeare Wars: Clashing Scholars, Public Fiascoes, Palace Coups (published back in 2006), enjoying it immensely and wondering why... and then, thinking out loud, I realized, "This is as strange and wonderful and oddly exciting as Confederates in the Attic!" (Tony Horwitz's critical smash published in 1998 is still one of my favorite books of the past quarter century.)

My thoughts sped on, racing and tumbling over one another: The characters are quirky and sometimes fanatical, the stories told are wild and woolly and weird, the writers get right down in the trenches with the participants (Bard experts and crazed "reenactors"), the imagery and actions center on history and warfare real and imagined, the subjects are perennially important (England's Man from Stratford and America's Civil War), and the books deliver edifying information, life-changing experiences, and sheer entertainment... both books just damn-fine fun to read.

Like the reconstituted Armies of the North and the South, the "bardolators" and scholars reconnoiter, skirmish, and attack. Raids behind enemy lines are common, whether staged out in the open, or secretly within ivied walls. Electronic messages fly back and forth. Schemes are hatched, plans made and made again; feints and retreats mark postmodern theories stated, held for a time, then revised. Papers--whole books--are published then quickly superceded. Dedicated souls risk their reputations, their futures, indeed their very lives...

Okay, okay, it's true I've exaggerated the melodrama (and our Will always abjured such, of course!); I've abused Rosenbaum's metaphorical title and conflated the activities described in both books. And yet... The Yanks and Rebs fire blanks, languish through battlefield pauses, fight over which soldiers among the units have garbed themselves most accurately; the experts argue blank verse, end-line pauses, New Historicism and "original" intent. The reenactors dress up, sleep on the ground, march hither and yon; the scholars assume the mantle of 16th-century transposing scribes, attempt to pin down the identities of type compositors, leap back and forth from Quartos to Folios to unascribed fragments. Rogue warriors from all camps venture radical innovations, maybe gain headlines for a time, but ultimately win no battles as the vested interests and stickler-for-accuracy historians reassert the not-yet-defeated status quo.

Such were my admittedly romanticized notions as I kept reading the Shakespeare book (and remembering Confederates). So imagine my delight when I reached page 249 and found a brief but possibly vindicating passage. After a chapter devoted to scholarly debate over the rhythms and brief pauses built into, and in between, Shakespeare's pentameter lines, Rosenbaum takes up the academics' arguments over differing spellings of words:

I had initially sought to avoid the unmodernized spelling argument like a plague. From my initial, superficial knowledge of it, I didn't see how it could be of interest to any but the most antiquarian-minded of scholars. I thought of it as analogous to the mindset of Civil War "reenactors" who are so concerned that the threads stitching the buttons on their uniforms be "authentic" or "original."

But those soldiers and certain experts on Shakespeare find the fate of battles and the actual meaning of entire plays to be sewn from such threads. And that is the evident intent of Rosenbaum's book, to explain in light-hearted, first-person prose the far-ranging, complex minutiae driving the scholars in their search for what "Shakespearean" means or, indeed, is.

The Bard's biography is impossibly meagre--yes, all those "Life of Shakespeare" volumes are 99 per cent invented!--so the plays must be the thing wherein to catch the conscious of the country man. Certain deniers want to prove that other, better-educated aristocrats did the writing rather than Will; others are fixated on his revisions--however small, however great--if Will actually made any, rather than the copier scribes and print typesetters engaged by his theater companies. Indeed, entire different versions are known, found in the various Folios, Quartos, individual playbooks, cue sheets and such (three versions of Hamlet, at least two of Lear, and so on). All the plays we think we know actually represent conflations of selected words, spellings, lines, speeches, whole scenes, entire plays that have been cobbled together by earlier Shakespeare editor "experts," not to mention actors, directors, publishers, and anyone else with an axe to grind or an act to engrain.

Now whole armies of modern scholars are attacking the received wisdom on several fronts, and Rosenbaum wants us to know about them, and how Will's works in their infinite variety really are unfixed--or re-fixed every succeeding generation, changed by new academic theories battling established schools of thought. So the Shakespeare industry thrives, and tenure marches on.

I'd forgotten that Horwitz's book had the subtitle "Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War"--an accurate description of the mock battles staged (not deadly but serious, as though all the world were at stake), and the comical reenactor fixations and adventures like the marathon multi-battlefield trek called the "Wargasm." But the harmless stories take a sharp turn when Horwitz covers Ku Klux Klan rallies on behalf of the executed-as-traitor ex-commandant of Andersonville Prison and in support of the Confederate flag in that continuing bastion of racism and stupidity, South Carolina. His 15 chapters in fact detail encounters across nine Southern states, and while Northerners (or Northwesterners like me) might find the whole shooting match amusing/bemusing/disturbing, those Rebel believers in "the Lost Cause" or "the War of Secession" or "the War Between the States" (but never that Yankee phrase "Civil War") are as serious as a heart-stopping cannonade...

But hold; enough with the stretched comparisons. Read about our unfinished war to be amused and appalled. Rosenbaum amazes in a different way. And though the 15th century Wars of the Roses--the source for Shakespeare's History Plays--were "civil wars" of a sort, the actual English Civil War came two centuries later in the 1640's.

Some of the scholars interviewed do actually talk of battles and victories and destroying their rivals, and doubting Ron was himself threatened by the poltroon who used computer analysis to "prove" successfully, for a few years anyway, that Shakespeare wrote the "Funeral Elegy," a pathetic long thing completely devoid of poetic merit, probably the work of Will's rival, John Ford. (The word-count attribution fooled too many other experts for a time, until those outcast souls who still believe in "close reading," in imagery and language and style, were able to banish the pretender, his SHAXICON computer program, and the bastard text.) In general, however, the academics only fuss and feud, snipe and snarl, vying for career advancement and envying each other's research findings.

Though the arguments over minutiae are surprisingly interesting, at least as Rosenbaum tells the stories, certain chapters resonate more deeply; I would nominate Ron's discussion of the extra and unexpected dimensions of Shakespeare on film; the potentially seismic manuscript of unproduced play Sir Thomas More, a round-robin multi-playwright dud which just may house 147 lines handwritten by Will (identified among the scribes as "Hand D"), which would be the first ever found; the mysterious concept of "the secret play," whether hidden within each individual work, or perhaps existing as a single coded master secret, the key to all things Shakespearean.

Best of all are Ron's encounters with theatrical director Peter Brook and his famous, life-altering 1970 production of A Midsummer Night's Dream--and related to that, Rosenbaum's intuitions about the character named Bottom, the weaver and self-appointed leader of the "Rustics," the village's "rude mechanicals." Bottom becomes oddly central to things, and the misread "Fairy Play" a work central to all things Shakespearean. The weaver's words (some of them quoted below) come to suggest the infinite "bottomlessness" of true Shakespearean themes/thought/theater.

It's not that Will willed humanness into existence--the claim trumpeted by Falstaffian Harold Bloom, one of Ron's few betes noirs (the virulent anti-semitism infecting The Merchant of Venice is another)--rather that Shakespeare was the most human. Peter Brook explains the man's exceptionalism thus:

I think the uniqueness inheres in his generosity. I think there's no one else who manages to insert himself totally in such a wide range of human beings... That he could have, in the act of writing, instead of using them partly to express what he himself wants to say, lets them say what they want to say... to be such a highly developed, highly acute servant of other people's truths is unique.

Yet Shakespeare remains anonymous too, "quite simply because he does disappear, dissolve, parcel himself out to his characters..."

This person walking through the streets of London must have lived each single moment with an incredible richness of awareness. So many levels, infinite levels of meaning... He can overhear and notice two kinds of things: all the life and noise pouring out with great excitement. Yet at the same time, even though he's a very practical man, he can evoke in words faraway worlds, strange tales, astonishing ideas, and develop and link them to an intimation of meaning in society, in regard to the gods, a sense of cosmic reality--these were all pulsing through his mind, all these levels at the same time...

Shakespeare managed to link the highest levels of metaphysical thought with political thought, with a social sense of life, with a sense of human comedy, with a sense of human tragedy. A joy in human vulgarity, a likeness for human likeness and a joy in human grossness. And all of these put in their place, combined, make up the whole of his works...

[E]ach line of Shakespeare is an atom. The energy that can be released is infinite--if we can split it open.

The mentions of infinity--and Brook is just one among the many actors, directors, and scholars so enthused--returns Rosenbaum's musings to Bottom and his spell-induced "radiant dream," during which he is transformed into half-man, half-donkey, consorts with the under-a-love-spell Queen of the Fairies, and eventually awakens:

I have had a most rare vision. I have had a dream, past the wit of man to say what dream it was. Man is but an ass, if he go about t' expound this dream. Methought I was--there is no man can tell what. Methought I was, and methought I had--but man is but a patch'd fool, if he will offer to say what methought I had. The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man's hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report, what my dream was. I will get Peter Quince to write a ballet of this dream. It shall be called "Bottom's Dream," because it hath no bottom...

Of course the speech is often singled out for its multiple levels of punning humor, the bewilderment and wonder, confused synesthesia, and echoes of 1st Corinthians ("The eye hath not seen, and the ear hath not heard..."). But Ron learned during his research and interviews that the same passage in the 1550's Geneva Bible ended with these words: "For the spirit searcheth all things, yea, the bottom of God's secrets." ...Which can never be fathomed.

Bottomlessness, the Abyss, the Void--these words are often employed to invoke Shakespeare's limitless language and wisdom, depths of meaning and character, encompassing love and endless sorrow, tragic foolishness and comic, even cosmic, cruelty... speaking the complexity of every human emotion ad infinitum. He took what his imagination bodied forth--the forms of things unknown--and turned them to shapes, giving "to aery nothing/ A local habitation and a name."

The rest is silence.


Alan Kurtz said...

Fascinating subject. I get why scholars and theater people (not that those categories are mutually exclusive) obsess over Shakespeare 400 years after his death. I cannot, however, understand the appeal to reenactors of the Civil War 150 years after its end.

You lived in the South. What's up with that? I mean, once committed to reenactment, it makes sense to strive for accuracy even down to the smallest detail. But why reenact? And why that war? You mention Ku Klux Klan rallies and support of the Confederate flag "in that continuing bastion of racism and stupidity, South Carolina." But are reenactors generally racists and stupid?

I imagine that if Shakespeare could write about American Civil War reenactors it would be a comedy, not a tragedy, yet contain characters as complex as his always are. The problem is that Civil War reenactments are not penned by Shakespeare; they're staged by otherwise seemingly ordinary people. To me, it's a puzzlement. Do you reckon that 150 years from now Americans will spend their summer days reenacting the war in Vietnam? "The horror …"

I Witness said...

Horwitz researched and wrote among Southern reenactors only. I think Yankees do it for a lark--to dress up, shoot guns, feel a part of history. Many Rebels have a different agenda; truly there are a host of Southerners who continue to feel betrayed. The one-two punch of the loss/surrender and the subsequent occupation (Reconstruction) by Yankee carpetbaggers and new-citizen black people put in positions of power over the defeated white folks(and much corruption resulted) left a deep wound that has never healed--thus the birth of the Klan, institutionalized racism, mythologising about Jackson, Lee, Stuart, the "Lost Cause" and Southern gentility (all gone with the wind).

So Rebel reenactors proceed from a very different perspective; they dream of winning the battles, not just recreating them. Of course, not all are crazy or racist, and maybe I was unfair to South Carolina (but the current governor and most of the state's congressmen don't inspire much beyond disgust), but the Horwitz book's cover photo is contemporary, and Tony spent many days with that deadly-serious, fanatical gent. Black people are safer in Atlanta than the surrounding country, Montgomery's whites tout the birth of the Confederacy and reluctantly acknowledge MLK Jr., Texas has crazy people in office and carrying guns in the streets, and Miss'ippi's still the most backward state even with writers like Faulkner, Welty, Morris, and Grisham reporting in.

From the fife and drums of the Hill Country to the fiery end of Lynyrd Skynyrd, from can't-kill-'im-off Jerry Lee to the megahits of Brooks and Dunn, the Rebel flag flies high. Dig out your Confederate money, Alan--the South is rising again.