Sunday, August 30, 2009

Authorship cover story in Washington Post magazine today

Waiting for William: After four centuries, we may finally be seeing history's greatest writer for the first time By Sally Jenkins Washington Post, August 30, 2009 (with slideshow) 

Writer Sally Jenkins will be taking questions about this Cobbe portrait story on Monday, August 31 at 12 noon. 
Click here to submit comments or questions before or during the discussion.


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This credulous article by Sally Jenkins is as much about authorship as the Cobbe portrait. She immediately -- in the second paragraph -- points out that Stanley Well’s favored Cobbe portrait of Shakespeare brings the authorship into question, but she dismisses an aristocratic connection with a flip of the wrist.

“The fellow is clearly no earl -- he lacks the arrogant jaw -- but he's someone. Maybe too much of a someone to be a mere playwright.” 

As if weak chins or arrogant jaws -- whatever they may be -- never occurred in the noble English genome. She then goes on to describe how very Shakespearean the sitter appears:
Then again, there’s a touch of Shakespearean mischief in his face. He wears a barely checked smile and a blush. He’s ardent, and Shakespeare was nothing if not a lover.
Well! Case closed – the Cobbe is definitely Shakespeare!


The author reports that Alec Cobbe is a descendant of Southampton 3 – the purported lovely boy of Shakespeare’s Sonnets – who also discovered a family-owned portrait of the youthful Southampton, assisted by a longtime friend and art-restorer, Alastair Laing.


The author again touches and veres from the authorship question when she refers to the 2006 “Searching for Shakespeare” exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery in London: 
‘Searching for Shakespeare’ was a quixotic title for a show, given that it's hard to go searching for someone when you don't have much of an idea who he was. What Shakespeare looked like in his prime is just one of the many things disputed about him, along with how many plays he wrote and in what order, whether he was a nice guy or a jerk, how he treated his wife, if he was a bisexual, or a secret Catholic, and what killed him at age 53.
She then delivers a coup de gras to the authorship commenting about the Droeshout and the Stratford bust:
Both depictions are so unintelligent-looking that scholars blame them for instigating the Author Controversy, which is not really a controversy so much as a campaign by conspiracy-minded amateurs to prove that someone more visually appealing wrote the plays.
How’s that for intelligent commentary? Scholars blame the ugly looks of the author for the authorship question? OMG, DdUC dat nt cute guy? Would these be the scholars from Local Middle School? No! Jensen quotes two traditional Stratfordian scholars: Greenblatt and Garber, to support this view that she says is held by non-traditional anti-Strats.


Here is how she proceeds to demolish what she calls the Author Controversy:
The Author Controversy persists despite considerable documentary evidence. We have the man from Stratford's pay stubs for performing at court, his certificate of occupancy for the Globe Theatre, and his will, in which he left memorial rings to some London actors. Funny he would do that if he was just a country burgher who didn't write the plays.
Then she says something totally amazing: “Still, it would help to have a decent picture of the man in his prime to keep the conspiracy theorists at bay.”


How is it possible that after a century of authorship research, a statement like this can be made in one of the country’s most respected journals? I can’t imagine that any rational person could construe the authorship question in this abysmal light.


And she quotes Stratfordian Jonathan Bate to further support her thesis that the authorship question rests on the Bard’s appearance:
The problem with Shakespeare is that here is this work of phenomenal beauty and intelligence, endlessly rewarding, and yet there is this awful picture of this bald bloke," says Bate. "People are desperate to find an image that answers to more our idea of the sort of glamour of genius, the glamour of creativity.
She’s setting up a anti-Strat straw-man with Stratfordian quotes. This is why rhetoric should be taught in high school.


Besides asserting that geniuses must be glamorous, Jenkins makes other non-sensical statements and repeatedly makes the anti-Stratfordian case by quoting Stratfordians. For example: 
(Stratfordian Stanley) Wells acknowledges the patchwork nature of his reasoning. ‘You have to do a lot of stitching,’ he says. ‘Where you've only got a limited number of pieces, you've got to create the links.’
“Scholars” she says, do agree that Shakespeare “probably” sat for a portrait in his heyday. But, oops! No one can find this probable portrait!


She also says that one of the categories of evidence for Shakespeare’s identity is “ . . . what you can be pretty certain of based on the contextual evidence” and for this type of evidence she gives the example, “. . . he was exposed to great theater as a boy . . .” Maybe on one of his frequent visits to Kenilworth.


She even drags out the sad old “killing a calf in high style” story, and asserts the Stratford man “was educated” although there is no evidence for this assertion he was educated.
As a middle-class elite, he was educated at the local grammar school, where from age 7 to 15, six days a week, Stratford boys memorized Ovid, Terence and Plautus. It was an exquisite education taught by a succession of young Oxford scholars and would strain today's college student.
No evidence. In fact, counter-evidence based on his signatures and his lack of interest in educating his family would indicate the Stratford man was uneducated.


She follows with a short bio pitted with “perhaps”, “probably”, and more unsubstantiated statements and circular reasoning.
‘One of the biographical inferences you can make is that he took his craft seriously,’ says Folger director Gail Kern Paster. ‘The plays aren't good by accident. Someone is learning how to create stories and characters that will live in memory, how to create stories of human conflict that will resonate. He's trying really hard to do a really good job.’
Well, yes, that might be true of whoever wrote the plays, but says nothing about who that writer might be.
In about 1598, a series of satirical plays by an unknown author were performed for the entertainment of students at St. John's College, Cambridge (among them was the lovely young Southampton).
Southampton left Cambridge over a decade earlier.


She said, “By the mid- to late-1590s, he was so hugely popular that his name began appearing on quartos of his plays, the Tudor version of paperbacks -- the first time audiences ever cared who wrote their entertainments.”


This quarto/paperback pairing is a false analogy that gives the reader an inaccurate sense of familiarity with Shakespeare’s milieu, a breezy tactic the author uses repeatedly. A book in quarto cost about 9 shillings in Elizabethan England, a time when a master craftsman made about a shilling a day. That would make this purported Tudor paperback cost the equivalent of nine days pay. The only possible similarity with modern paperbacks is the fact that the quarto would have come from the printer unbound – requiring further outlay by the buyer to provide a cover for the book.


When reporting the “academic brawl” Wells ran into over his support of the Cobbe portrait, the author emphases Wells “eminence” and describes his appearance as an “elegant-voiced lecturer with a fine white beard” to support his authority along with his work as a Shakespeare editor and ex-governor of the Royal Shakespeare Company


Jenkins quoted Wells’ demur over what he called a circumstantial case for the Cobbe portrait as Shakespeare: “I've never declared myself absolutely finally certain."


She said the portrait was dated to 1610 when the Stratfordian would have been 46-years-old. Personally I think a viewer (See slide show that accompanies the article.) would have to be powerfully deluded to deduce the man in the Cobbe is middle-aged. Jenkins seems to address this issue later in the article when she asserts that portraits of the era did not include “. . . bad teeth, pockmarks, crow’s feet, graying hair, warts or moles.” Nor, one would suppose by that reasoning, did anyone see portraits of any sitters over the age of thirty.


What Jenkins called the “tortuous” process of authentication is reviewed in the Post article.
She appeals to a higher human power in her final analysis:
Faced with myriad images, the question becomes, "Which one do I think is him?" For that answer, the seeker has to employ something other than science or provenance, something described by a playwright with his own obsession with Shakespeare, who has arguably captured him better than any biographer.
"Gut instinct," Tom Stoppard writes in his play "Arcadia." "The part of you which doesn't reason. The certainty for which there is no back reference. Because time is reversed. Tock, tick goes the universe and then recovers itself, but it was enough, you were in there and you bloody know."
Her article continues with a long romantic story about Shakespeare and Southhampton ending with the Essex Rebellion and the staging of Richard II, moving onto Shakespeare’s 1603-04 “spree” of Othello, Lear, and Macbeth. She relates confined doom “Sonnet 107” to Southampton’s release by James I and concludes that “Of all the riddles of Shakespeare’s live, the will is the most puzzling.”


Yes, indeed, no mention of any manuscripts, books, or papers and by his signatures no indication that the man could actually write.

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