Everything and Nothing

There is a new movie that purports to be about William Shakespeare. Its title is “Anonymous” and its premise is that the immortal plays of the Bard were not written by William Shakespeare, an actor and the son of a Warwickshire glove-maker, but rather by Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford. (This “controversy” is known in scholarly circles as the authorship question, and you can read about here.)

ImagesThe most important thing you need to know is that there is not one shred of evidence that the Earl of Oxford wrote the works attributed to William Shakespeare, and there is a boatload of evidence that the plays were written by the actor from Stratford-Upon-Avon.

(It resembles the JFK murder conspiracy theories in that there is a mountain of evidence that Lee Harvey Oswald committed the murder, and no evidence that anyone else was involved — and yet the “controversy” lives on.) There are, of course, people who deny the Holocaust ever took place, or that evolution occurred, or that Barack Obama was born in Hawaii, or that existence exists.

I suppose that the movie was intended to be one of those “mysteries of the past” like The DaVinci Code or National Treasure. It’s almost as ludicrous.

The whole thing makes me quiver with indignation and here’s why: The real story, the story of the greatest genius the world has ever known, is a riveting one — a much better and more moving story than any imagined conspiracy.

 I am hardly the only one who is indignant. Read Ron Rosenbaum’s piece in Slate, “10 Reasons Why I Hate Anonymous.”

I went and saw the movie because it is (at least marginally) about one of my favorite subjects and also to see how the filmmakers went about re-creating the London theatrical world of the 1590s. I did my best to enjoy it. It is telling that the bits I liked best were actual Shakespeare: like the on-stage performance of Henry V, in which the audience is so stirred by Henry’s St. Crispin’s Day speech that they rush the stage, looking for Frenchmen to kill.

 I am what is called a Bardolator. I worship at the shrine of William Shakespeare. The framed picture over my desk is a poster-size reproduction of the First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays. I think I have read every word he ever wrote, and I own 40-50 books about Shakespeare. (If you’d like to know all the most important stuff, you can read Bill Bryson’s short — 196 pages — book, Shakespeare: The World As Stage.)

I own several editions of the complete works of Shakespeare. My favorites are the Pelican Shakespeare, and The Norton Facsimile of the First Folio, both gifts of love.

I owe a life-long debt (for many things) to my college Shakespeare professor, Barbara Hernnstein Smith (currently Distinguished Professor of English at Brown University). I will never forget the first day of her Shakespeare class, in which she announced that since it was her class, she got to do all the readings, play all the parts, and lead all discussions. How I envy her in retrospect. If only I had a captive audience to which I could read Shakespeare several times each week! She took my adolescent affection for Shakespeare (perhaps largely based on the Franco Zefferelli movie of Romeo and Juliet) and transformed it (and me) into something deeper, richer, more subtle and more complex.

I remember talking with her about my reaction after reading King Lear (described by her as “the greatest work of literature by anyone, ever”). I found it difficult to visit the shattering spiritual abyss represented by the events and language of King Lear, and then stagger out of my college dorm room into the sunshine and trivia of everyday life.

“That’s the way it is,” she told me. “We watch King Lear, and then we go out into the lobby and eat peanuts.”

For many, the question of who was the “real” Shakespeare is not very important. It is only important that someone wrote these magnificent works.

My own Shakespeare is the one imagined by Jorge Luis Borges in his parable, “Everything and Nothing” [From Jorge Luis Borges Labyrinths (Penguin, 2000) Trans. J. E. Irby]:

There was no one in him; behind his face (which even through the bad paintings of those times resembles no other) and his words, which were copious, fantastic and stormy, there was only a bit of coldness, a dream dreamt by no one. At first he thought that all people were like him, but the astonishment of a friend to whom he had begun to speak of this emptiness showed him his error and made him feel always that an individual should not differ in outward appearance. Once he thought that in books he would find a cure for his ill and thus he learned the small Latin and less Greek a contemporary would speak of; later he considered that what he sought might well be found in an elemental rite of humanity, and let himself be initiated by Anne Hathaway one long June afternoon. At the age of twenty-odd years he went to London. Instinctively he had already become Images-1proficient in the habit of simulating that he was someone, so that others would not discover his condition as no one; in London he found the profession to which he was predestined, that of the actor, who on a stage plays at being another before a gathering of people who play at taking him for that other person. His histrionic tasks brought him a singular satisfaction, perhaps the first he had ever known; but once the last verse had been acclaimed and the last dead man withdrawn from the stage, the hated flavour of unreality returned to him. He ceased to be Ferrex or Tamberlane and became no one again. Thus hounded, he took to imagining other heroes and other tragic fables. And so, while his flesh fulfilled its destiny as flesh in the taverns and brothels of London, the soul that inhabited him was Caesar, who disregards the augur's admonition, and Juliet, who abhors the lark, and Macbeth, who converses on the plain with the witches who are also Fates. No one has ever been so many men as this man who like the Egyptian Proteus could exhaust all the guises of reality. At times he would leave a confession hidden away in some corner of his work, certain that it would not be deciphered; Richard affirms that in his person he plays the part of many and Iago claims with curious words 'I am not what I am'. The fundamental identity of existing, dreaming and acting inspired famous passages of his.

 For twenty years he persisted in that controlled hallucination, but one morning he was suddenly gripped by the tedium and the terror of being so many kings who die by the sword and so many suffering lovers who converge, diverge and melodiously expire. That very day he arranged to sell his theatre. Within a week he had returned to his native village, where he recovered the trees and rivers of his childhood and did not relate them to the others his muse had celebrated, illustrious with mythological allusions and Latin terms. He had to be 'someone: he was a retired impresario who had made his fortune and concerned himself with loans, lawsuits and petty usury. It was in this character that he dictated the arid will and testament known to us, from which he deliberately excluded all traces of pathos or literature. His friends from London would visit his retreat and for them he would take up again his role as poet.

History adds that before or after dying he found himself in the presence of God and told Him: 'I who have been so many men in vain want to be one and myself.' The voice of the Lord answered from a whirlwind: 'Neither am I anyone; I have dreamt the world as you dreamt your work, my Shakespeare, and among the forms in my dream are you, who like myself are many and no one.'