Sunday, April 14, 2024

Does Shakespeare's Authorship Matter?

 I mean, it is a legitimate question, right?  

After all, isn't the content of the plays and poems so much more important than any specifics of identity?  Yeah, there are some fairly obvious parallels between what we know of William Shakespeare's life in terms of (for example) Hamlet and Twelfth Night and The Tempest.  Still, wouldn't they be just as good if the author were unknown?  Just as the works of Homer are?

Well, yes and no.

And by "no" I mean the agenda of those who insist on the so-called Authorship Question.  These Oxfordians (or more generally Anti-Stratfordians) claim to be interested in nothing but the truth.  Evidence suggests otherwise.  Because the vast majority, especially the die hards, flatly refuse to look at any contrary evidence while insisting their own assumptions and prejudices are gospel.  I cannot tell you the number of times I've seen the following exchange happen in one form or another.

Oxfordian: Show me one solitary piece of evidence that William Shakespeare wrote anything at all!

Someone:  Look at all these published books from the period with him listed as the author.

Oxfordian:  THAT ISN'T PROOF!!!!

See the problem?  A demand for evidence, which then instantly becomes a demand for ONE piece of what they call "proof."  But of course they treat their own interpretations of vague references or assumptions of the time as beyond any doubt.  Along with banishing any possibility that coincidences might happen.  Ever.  Prejudice remains the key word here.  Very key.

Questions about Shakespeare seethe with bigotry.  We know William Shakespeare the Man (and there is lots of documentary evidence he existed AND was a member of the Lord Chamberlain's Men) did not go to University.  We know he was not related to any nobility.  His dad was of the Yeoman Class, a prosperous and for a time prominent tradesman and local official in a marketing town.  Oxfordians turn up their nose at this pedigree, calling him an illiterate peasant and son of illiterate peasants.  How could this dirty filthy commoner write great poetry?  Or understand the workings of the minds of knights and kings?  I have literally read folks scoff at the notion Shakespeare--who lived in a major port city--could possibly have simply asked sailor what it was like being on a ship.  Or know anything about Italy without visiting the place (btw there were plenty of books describing Italian city-states at the time).  

Notice the premise?  That nobles are somehow fundamentally different from the unwashed masses?  I'm reminded of when F. Scott Fitzgerald insisted "The rich are different from us" to which Hemingway is said to have replied "Yeah they have more money."  And bluntly, I don't think it much of a coincidence that questions of William Shakespeare's authorship first arose the same decade "eugenics" entered into the world of discourse.  In other words, Oxfordians are snobs.  They seem themselves as an Elite, as among those who "understand" what it is like to be King or Duke or the like, so much better and higher than such a lowlife prole, almost a serf!

And they are wrong.  There are no superhumans and no subhumans.  Just Humans, who carry within themselves the full potential of all human endeavor--good, bad, and all points in between.  Great human beings pop up from nowhere all the time.  So so human monsters.  John Wayne Gacy was about as ordinary as anyone comes.  So too Abraham Lincoln.  Yeah Leo Tolstoy was a great writer, and a nobleman.  But Anton Chekhov is at least as renowned, but came from the depths of Russia's middle class.  All one needs do is listen to Anti-Stratfordians for a little while and the prejudice (as well as gross ignorance) drips out.  

The same ideology that insists someone of "noble" birth must have been England's greatest playwright insists the children of the political or economic Elite (in other words, those whose recent generations were successful warlords and pirates) alone can be trusted to make decision.  It arises from a sense of contrariness and disgust with ordinary human beings, often proclaimed quite openly.  Everything else is an excuse.  I have literally "proven" the Earl of Oxford must have written The Game of Thrones based on the same kind of evidence these folks use.  After all, he had friends with lions, wolves, bears, dragons and roses in their coats of arms.  He lived while a Queen sat on the throne of England, and faced an invading fleet fueled by religious fervor, and trouble coming from the northern border.  Queen Elizabeth's mother was accused of incest!  She had very own "Master of Whisperers" even!  While pirates from Western islands were a thorn in her side!  Huh?  Huh?  Makes just as much sense!

Which is to say, none at all.

Just like the argument that the school records of students at Stratford Upon Avon no longer exist, so that must mean the school must not have had any students at all right?  Or, just not the son of the Chief Alderman?

Why accept arguments like this?  Just intellectual laziness?  In some cases, no doubt.  But when so much of the rhetoric comes down to eugenics, seems pretty clear some other ideas are swirling about.  Ideas of much more import than who wrote what four hundred plus years ago.

Plenty simply are contrarian or love appealing conspiracy theories.  Hence nonsense written and proclaimed about everything from ancient Egypt to pretty much every notorious murder.  One person I knew insisted Robert E. Lee did indeed lose the Battle of Gettysburg on purpose--not because he knew anything at all about the Civil War, but because I made up a weird history conspiracy on the spot to make a point and he just liked the sound of it.

What bothers me most, though, is believing such ideas without evidence is so popular--while lending itself to unexamined ideas treated as absolute truth.  Aliens made Stonehenge.  Rome and Chine and Greece were colonies of the one great Pan-Slavic Empire which invented all writing.  Criminal trials against members of your political party are obvious political persecutions.  Inconvenient scientific facts are nothing but fraud.  Muslims have been bloodthirsty for thousands of years.  Europeans invented happiness then gave that gift to the world by conquering it.  The world is flat.  Vaccines change your DNA.  Men undergo hormone therapy and have their genitals cut off to win women's sports competitions.  All Jews are organized to take over the world from real Humans.  All Hollywood celebrities are vampires who prey on children.  Just having enough money makes someone subhuman and evil.

It would be funny.  Almost.  Until these ideas become so popular they start to seriously influence policy.  And laws.  And education.  

That is why this stuff matters.

Friday, April 12, 2024

King Hedley II (review)

 Spoilers ahoy!  

Curiously, I have never seen a bad production of any play written by the late August Wilson.  Not sure why.  But it remains a lovely detail in my life in theatre--which I may have just cursed by mentioning it.

King Hedley II, like the vast majority of his "American Cycle," takes place in the Hill District of Wilson's native Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  This one takes place squarely in the 1980s, when Reagan was President and White  Capitalist America was feeling especially good about itself while African America struggled.  One part of that struggle hinged (and hinges) upon identity.  Part of that in turn, and I would argue is a major theme in this play, is the effort to learn what it is to be a Man--man as in hero, man as in King, man as in father and son and husband and worker and warrior, avenger, wise man, judge, prophet, and the heir of all the generations past as well as present.  It emerges as a profoundly Sophoclean work, winding together the day to day and the mythic into a tragedy which somehow feels triumphant.

Our central character is literally named King Hedley (Aaron Jennings) who seeks to navigate the many roles to which he was born.  His best friend is simply known as Mister (Christian Henley) who remains loyal but frankly lacks King's vision and discipline.  His wife Tonya (Kacie Rogers) struggles to endure her fear of where his pride might lead him, amid many other terrors as she confronts have another child when she sees the world as a hungry jungle she herself only barely survives.  Likewise we have Ruby (Veralyn Jones) who is King's mother, although who did not raise him--a fact she deeply regrets, not least because she doesn't really know how to be his mother now.  Adding to the cauldron are Elmore (Ben Cain) Ruby's former beau, a skilled and charming con man eager to reconnect with her, plus Stool Pigeon (Gerald Rivers), a next-door-neighbor given to visions and dream like insights into the world.  A bit of a prophet is Stool Pigeon, a divine fool.  Capital D.  Capital F.

But all that barely scratches the surface of these characters, all of whom keep revealing amazing insights and facets on a scale truly vast.  In fact one of the sure signs of how very fine these performances--and how excellent the direction by Gregg T. Daniel--shows in how every character constantly keeps us guessing.  I never knew precisely what would happen from any of them.  Each word, gesture, and deed startled, yet also in retrospect seemed obvious, even perfect.  Wilson deserves plenty of credit for that, but the words of the dramatist remain dead without the actors breathing life into them.

Which this cast does.  Often delivering long, heart-rending monologues to one another, portraying the shape and timbre of their lives out of a very real need.  Shakespeare has such speeches, but only sometimes to they sum up entire lives as so many in this play do.  Imagine if you will modern versions of "To be or not to be" plus "What is a Jew" and "She should have died hereafter" plus at least half a dozen more.  Add to that something Biblical and Mythic enacted before our eyes, echoing within our ears, striking deep into our very hearts.

King Hedley wants to be great.  But what does that mean?  Everyone wants to tell him precisely what to do, and most just come out and tell him.  Most complain about how he never seems to listen, yet that soon proves just wrong.  He listens.  He often makes mistakes.  He learns and tries to grow.  He also succeeds far more than one expects or hopes for, but not in any simple way.

Life is rarely simple.  Greatness even more so.  That includes great theatre, like this magnificent experience.

King Hedley II plays until April 28, 2024 with performances at 7:30pm on some Thursdays (April 11 and 25), 8pm on Fridays and Saturdays, 2pm on Saturdays and Sundays at A Noise Within, 3352 E Foothill Blvd., Pasadena, CA 91107.