Sunday, February 8, 2009

Shakespeare: A Bard By Any Other Name

'Shakespeare' by Another Name
by Mark Anderson is the best book that I've read in years. It was fascinating. I left it on the passenger seat of my car, open, so I could read it at red lights. The designation of "Red Light Book" is my highest honor for a book. 

More to the point: I like Shakespeare's works. I took two Shakespeare classes in undergrad. When I watch a play, I tote along my big, red Bevington (dog-eared, written-on, and wrinkled with coffee, wine, and tears,) to read along. 

During one undergrad class, one professor noted in passing that some people didn't think the guy from Stratford on Avon (the town) wrote the plays, but it didn't matter, really, who wrote them. The play's the thing that matters. 

I didn't realize that the authorship issue was so hotly debated. (Read some of these other reviews, not to mention the websites and books and forums and conferences dedicated to debating this issue. Wheesh!) I just assumed that there was ample evidence that William Shakspeare (no typo, that's how the guy from SOA spelled his name,) went to London, became an actor, and wrote the plays. It was only 400 years ago. The year 1600 (a round number within the Shakespearean era) isn't the Iron Age. We have many records and books from the era of Elizabeth I. It's just not that long ago. 

A few years ago, I saw a special on PBS about the Shakespeare authorship question. I've been hooked ever since. 

*'Shakespeare' by Another Name* by Mark Anderson is a convincing compilation of the Oxfordian side of the argument. At almost 600 pages long, it is indeed quite complete. As I stated above, I read every word avidly. I read the appendices. 

Anderson does indeed write a biography of Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, and parallel events, characters, and situations from de Vere's life with WS's works. It's exhaustive but hardly exhausting. With each new tidbit, I became more convinced that de Vere indeed adopted a pen name and stuck to his story. Even his heirs stuck to his story. 

While there is, ultimately, no smoking gun, Anderson presents a convincing case. Let's go with the classic structure of a murder case: means, motive, and opportunity. 

While Anderson does not stoop to such a crass outline, he nevertheless explains in deep detail *how* de Vere pulled off the Shakespeare hoax, *why* he used a pen name at all and why that one, and *when* the hoax was first perpetrated and then canonized. 

Anderson's writing is amusing, lucid, and strong. There are laugh-out-loud lines and paragraphs that made me gasp, astonished. 

Here's a little preview: as a young lad, de Vere lived with a guardian after his father died, received a world-class education, and had access to a phenomenal library. This library included, at the time, the only extant copy of Beowulf. Beowulf, though well-known today, was almost lost to the ages, but for *that one copy.* De Vere's tutor, an old English scholar, signed his name in the copy (a common thing, back then, kind of like a check-out slip.) Consider, if you will, the obvious plot and character parallels between Hamlet and Beowulf. The author of Hamlet clearly had read Beowulf and understood deeply. (Any other explanation is like denying the literary relationship between "Heart of Darkness" and *Apocalypse Now.*) De Vere was one of very few people in England or elsewhere with access to Beowulf, let alone that his tutor signed it at the time he tutored de Vere. 

That's one small example. There are hundreds. De Vere signed his ancestral home over to his three daughters while he was still living (like King Lear.) Hamlet appears to be very thinly veiled autobiography. 

I also really liked the statistical analysis of the Biblical quotes in Shakespeare's works vs. the underlined passages in de Vere's Bible. While this sounds dry, Anderson keeps this short and pithy. Just enough math to support the conclusions. 

Anderson is so convincing that from now on, when I watch Shakespeare, I plan to tote not only the big, red Bevington, but also Anderson. De Vere's life informs the plays and makes them more poignant and brilliant. 

I'm an Oxfordian convert. With conversion, as anyone who knows an ex-smoker is aware, comes zealotry. If de Vere wasn't Shakespeare, he should have been. 

You have to read this book. It's a literary mystery wrapped in reimagining of history. Even if you're a die-hard Stratfordian, you should read Anderson's book. 

TK Kenyon 
Author of 
Rabid: A Novel and Callous