March 29th, 2011


Delicious LiveJournal Links for 3-29-2011


March Books 27) Contested Will, by James Shapiro

An excellent book about the Shakespeare authorship controversy, which was a topic I once wasted quite a lot of online time on (between about 2000 and 2004). Shapiro is not really writing about the balance of evidence on either side, though he makes it clear that his sympathies are with the Stratford man rather than with Francis Bacon or the Earl of Oxford. His subject is more an attempt to work out why various highly regarded intellects (Mark Twain and Helen Keller for Bacon, Sigmund Freud for Oxford) should be attracted by such peculiar theories. His answer is that, for Twain and Freud in particular, it was emotionally important to see the plays and sonnets as autobiographical and revealing of their author's state of mind, even though this is completely anachronistic in terms of how Shakespeare and his contemporaries wrote and thought about writing.

The grand Oxford conspiracy theory (which in its wilder variations has the Earl as both son and lover of Queen Elizabeth, as well as being the author of the works of Shakespeare, Marlowe and many more) then happened to hit the Zeitgeist of the last few decades, when we have learned that governments often do lie to us about more important issues than who wrote a play, and questioning received wisdom has become habitual.

Finally, Shapiro points out that Shakespeare's claim to sole authorship of all the plays is no longer accepted by mainstream scholars, in that several of the plays are in fact collaborations (with Fletcher, Middleton, Wilkins and Peele; and he omits Kyd and Edward III). The idea that even a small part of Shakespeare might not be by Shakespeare was heretical until surprisingly recently. But real research, unlike Oxfordianism or Baconianism, moves on.

A good book to read as I crystallize my own biographical endeavours.

March Books 28) The Canterbury Tales, by Geoffrey Chaucer

This is the Penguin edition of the Canterbury Tales, translated rather bravely into modern English verse, and omitting the bulk of Chaucer's own Tale of Melibee and also the Parson's Tale (which is admittedly very boring). I have a number of general observations:
  1. It is striking how many of the Tales are unfinished, either interrupted by other characters or simply not completed by Chaucer - the Shipman's Tale being the most egregious example, ending in mid-sentence.
  2. Chaucer is happier writing about sex than high politics. The Monk's Tale with its list of virtuous rulers is a yawn a minute. The Knight's Tale is far too long and should have concentrated on the love story rather than the courtly jousting. By contrast the Miller's Tale and the Reeve's Tale are vivid sketches.
  3. There are a lot of unfaithful wives in Chaucer, yet I sense his sympathy is more with them than with the virtuous (who often end up dying painfully spiritual deaths). I don't think there is direct evidence that the Wife of Bath ever cheated on any of her five husbands but one senses that she would not have let an opportunity slip past her and that Chaucer approves.
  4. The astrology really is a big deal. The late great J.D. North wrote several books addressing Chaucer's astrology which I absorbed with great interest while doing my MPhil twenty (gulp!) years ago, but basically the point is that Chaucer knew what he was talking about and his astrology is carefully calculated. (Unlike Shakespeare, who is cheerfully hazy on the details of cosmology.)
  5. By contrast, Chaucer's geography is rather weak once you get past Flanders and northern France. In the Man of Law's Tale, poor Constance's boat is washed from Syria to Britain without coming in sight of her native Italy or of any other land mass.
  6. It is a shame that the rather dull and over-long Knight's Tale tends to be placed first in the collection. I am sure it puts off many potential modern readers, and most of the rest of the stories are great fun.
Anyway, strongly recommended, apart from the points noted above.