Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Shakespeare and the Creation of Myths

William Shakespeare was like the way I described him in my first post on this subject. We know this because that's the way Ben Jonson described him-- as a guy who just couldn't shut up. The closest analogy to him that I know of is Philly underground poet Frank Walsh-- a flawed individual who loves to talk about anything and everything and owns a flair and exuberance with words that (sometimes) allows one to overlook his failings. ("Shakespeare never blotted line; would that he blotted a thousand" may even sometimes apply, at least with his prose.)

One thing we also know about Shakespeare is that he "borrowed" liberally from everyone (especially from Marlowe). He could've given Tom Bissell lessons in borrowing, if that's possible. Shakespeare was a great re-writer. He would sit in front of novels, histories, legal documents, and re-write them, adding his own special incomparable verve and flair, bringing the words alive-- adding a vibrant life to the language which has never been equalled. He added insights from his unique knowledge of life and people, but there was hardly anything original in what he wrote (nor even how he wrote, when Marlowe is considered, Shakespeare's great example and influence).

The problem is this: The reputation of this wonderful author, this dynamic character, Shakespeare, for two hundred years kept growing and growing. The hyperbole about his works reached outlandish proportions. Critics claimed for him vast knowledge about the law, sailing, politics (when he'd mainly just rewritten others' narratives). It was said that all the knowledge of mankind since ancient times was contained in his plays. The genius of all ages. The greatest writer ever seen-- a titan standing above mortals.

Then someone glanced at the actual man, the human being who'd written the plays, our flawed and talkative friend from Stratford, England. Could this modest personage fit the legend? No way! It was an embarrassment for his fans to even think about it.

Much the same must've happened with adventurer and writer T.E. Lawrence, "Lawrence of Arabia," he of the legendary exploits. One thinks of this great, heroic person (which he was) and envisions what such a person must look like. A young and blonde Peter O'Toole, just as tall, but maybe sturdier. Heroic physique and visage. At a party people are waiting to meet the great Lawrence of the mighty deeds, looking at the time, wondering why he's late. Meanwhile a mild-mannered little guy is standing among them, 5'4, a bit of a professor, and keeps silent because he doesn't wish to disillusion anyone.

I'm reminded of stories about the legendary bouts between old-time fighters like Gentleman Jim Corbett and Bob Fitzsimmons. In the stories that had been written about them in the Police Gazette and elsewhere their fights were extremely exciting, the fighters tearing into each other relentlessly, blood everywhere. Drawings of the fights showed full stands and enthusiastic crowds. Then in the 1960s film buff Jim Jacobs discovered many of the long-lost films of the boxing matches. He screened the Corbett-Fitzsimmons bout in front of boxing writers like Stanley Weston who'd grown up on the tales of its surpassing greatness. What they saw was two safety-first boxers moving slowly and carefully around the ring, pacing themselves, before half-empty stands, the dullness punctuated by brief flurries of activity. The legendary fighters seemed to be moving underwater. The boxing writers' jaws dropped. "There must be something wrong with the film," they claimed.

This is something of the feeling Shakespeare fans experienced when they thought about the real Shakespeare. No, he couldn't have been this petty and insignificant man from Stratford. He was more sensitive and noble. The intelligence of all time was encompassed within him. The fans then began to look for someone who could play the role.

For the hoax enthusiasts, Shakespeare isn't a front man for the Earl of Oxford-- not really. The Earl is front man for Shakespeare. In their minds, when they put the aristocrat out front, in the Stratford man's place, all is well with the world.

Fans are disillusioned time and again (usually in sports and politics) by the failings of their heroes. In a way, it's an inability to grow up and face the truth about people and the world.

I think of the revelatory moment in the old children's movie, "Lili," in which the naive waif (Leslie Caron) falls in love with the funny puppets, yet at the same time hates the crippled, misanthropic puppeteer. Finally the curtain is ripped off, and she sees the puppets and puppeteer as they are-- one and the same person. It's the same way with Shakespeare. His fans are looking for the writer to BE Hamlet, to be the puppet of his voice and imagination. They look for someone like deVere who can play the puppet, but as Lili did before she came of age, forget about the puppeteer.


Anonymous said...

I've got nothing outside of the fact that this was exceedingly well-written and insightful, the best thing posted yet on this blog. Good job, King.

Adam Hardin said...

He went for the throat on things. The most direct writer of all time.

Today writers are taught to go the circular and ironic route. To hide things in verbage. To write for themselves. To be ponderous and elliptical. To wallow in oneself. From his writing no one knows who Shakespeare was because he wrote about all kinds of people. Bloom said he invented the human. Damn right.