The Shakespeare industry -- still booming after all these years
ccording to the none-too-scholarly website iheartquotes.com, Shakespeare penned the legendary words "Oh, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive."
He didn't, of course.
Roland Emmerich, director of the new film "Anonymous," would agree. Shakespeare, the film suggests, could not possibly have written those lines -- for he could scarcely write.
The latest effort to untangle the web of Shakespearean authorship, "Anonymous" delivers a thesis that would earn a failing grade on grounds of weak evidence in nearly any respectable classroom. To its credit, the film has united teachers of literature as only opposition to a common enemy can do.
It is not my intention here to rebroadcast the sufficiently convincing argument in favor of Shakespeare's ownership of the plays and poems. The best statement of the position is Columbia professor James Shapiro's book "Contested Will." If you don't have time for the book-length treatment, check out his short article "Alas, Poor Shakespeare," which ran in The Los Angeles Times last year.
Instead, I'd like to address the corollary question: Who cares?
High school English teachers are especially fit for such terrain. We've done battle with "who cares?" and well know its regenerative power. If Shakespeare is immortal, so too is adolescent apathy to Shakespeare. They're symbiotic.
I like to goad my students into reacting to the uniquely obsessive world of Shakespearean scholarship. Each year I open our "Macbeth" unit with the Shakespearean cryptogram buried in the King James Bible. It goes like this: Although there's no record that Shakespeare had any part in the commissioned King James translation, you can count 46 words into Psalm 46 and arrive at "shake" and 46 words backwards from the end of the Psalm 46 and find "speare."
Who cares, you say? Well, Shakespeare was 46 years old when the King James Bible was first published. Cue the gasps.
At this point in class, a student predictably asks whose life could reach such a pathetic state so as to allow time for such an absurd discovery. One of the smaller gratifications for the seasoned teacher is the setting of a dependable snare.
I explain that Shakespeare is as much an industry as an author. No other literary master can compete economically.
There are annual Shakespeare festivals around the world. Hollywood has made a fortune off of the guy. There are Shakespeare professors on every college campus who generate Shakespeare articles for Shakespeare journals housed in Shakespeare libraries. Formulate any cockamamie theory about Shakespeare, and odds are it's already been written.
You can buy Shakespeare T-shirts, mugs, greeting cards, posters, Christmas tree ornaments, board games, playing cards, shower curtains, action figures, onesies for your darling baby boy -- you can even buy a replica of the Shakespeare bust from Bruce Wayne's manor on the old "Batman" TV series. Like the original, the bust opens below the chin to reveal a switch that can be wired to any electrical device in the room. Mr. Wayne, of course, chose the sliding bookcase.
Similar to the infinite monkey theorem that results in the eventual random typing of "Hamlet," there have been so many people paying so much attention to Shakespeare over so many years that one of them was bound to discover the King James Bible coincidence. Or is it secret code? Who cares?
Likewise, only with Shakespeare could a spurious theory such as the one portrayed in Mr. Emmerich's film find any traction. Indeed, could anyone but the mighty Shakespeare have stolen the conspiratorial spotlight from the president of the United States and his beleaguered birth certificate?
The immediate response to "who cares?" is to acknowledge that the existence of the plays should take precedence over doubts regarding the author or authors or earls or aliens. We can set aside less consequential details and agree to appreciate great literature.
But the more challenging version of that persistent question comes from a place of fashionable indifference, a reflexive suspicion towards that which culture has deemed great over the centuries. Thus, the objection is not "who cares who wrote the plays?" so much as "who cares enough for the plays to debate such matters?"
My portrayal of the Shakespeare industry goes only so far with students. The words on the page and their incarnation on stage and screen must, at length, deliver on the hype, as they did for British poet Robert Graves, who famously said, "The remarkable thing about Shakespeare is that he is really very good -- in spite of all the people who say he is very good."
I've been lucky in recent years. I teach Shakespeare to a spirited cadre of AP students, among whom it's paradoxically un-cool to dislike Shakespeare. They spring to life when we enact the scenes, perform their roles with due poise and passion. A couple of years ago, one of my Macbeths read all of his lines (the final act he'd memorized) in a full-on Scottish burr. They're extraordinary kids. They never ask, "Who cares?" They make me worry I'm growing soft.
But they're only part of my day. My other students are equally lively, though you'd never catch them reading Shakespeare on the weekends or sitting voluntarily through two hours of an authorship conspiracy plot. One could say they're normal.
Last year I gave them two quotations -- "There's not one wise man among twenty that will praise himself" and "The more you praise and celebrate your life, the more there is in life to celebrate" -- and had them guess which was said by Shakespeare and which by Oprah. Easy question, they said, and not merely because the language is a giveaway. The first quotation is typical of Shakespeare, one girl wrote, "because he's always telling you not to get too full of yourself, unlike people today." Not a bad insight from a representative of the iGeneration.
True to form, Shakespeare triggers some of the best thinking that takes place in English class. Even in the face of student resistance, "myriad-minded" Shakespeare, as Coleridge called him, insinuates himself into readers' intellectual lives, prods them to think deeply about vanity, courage, love, betrayal, ambition, jealousy, honesty, sacrifice, regret, passion, justice, loss -- all the most human themes that ennoble the study of literature.
In the game of writing, Shakespeare's record is not without blemishes. But it's the best we've had, so superior that intrigue and fanaticism must follow, as the night the day.
First Published November 20, 2011 12:00 am