Friday, October 16, 2009

The tipping point

University of Michigan English Professor Ralph Williams, 67, is a specialist in Medieval and Renaissance literature. He has spent his life teaching Shakespeare, and was instrumental in creating and developing the Royal Shakespeare Company Residency program at the University of Michigan, according to university sources. A charmer in the lecture hall -- lithe and graceful in a mis-matched, gray suit -- Williams uses his body and voice like an actor. There can be no question that he loves the Bard.

“Shakespeare is so intimately wrought in the English language that he is on your breath every day of your life – you speak Shakespeare,” he said from the stage, his voice resonant and intent.

On October 12 in Rackham Auditorium, at the first in a series of “Who is . . .” lectures on playwrights whose work is being presented at the university this season, the first words out of Williams mouth are stunning.

“Shakespeare is the only one in this series whose historical identity has been called into question,” Williams said. “I shant spend a lot of time on that.”

And he didn’t. His account of the playwright was pure Stratford. His handout materials recommended Bate, Greenblatt, Schoenbaum, and Wells. Ogburn,  Sobran, Anderson, Price, and Stritmatter had no place in his story. And yet, those telling first words announced that the tipping point has come when no one – not even the most devout Stratfordian – can talk biography without acknowledging the questionable authorship.

Williams trotted out Stratfordian mythology:

“Will started school at 6 a.m. and attended continuously for eight years studying Latin grammar and rhetoric and he spoke only in Latin at the higher stages. He had three years of Greek. In short, he had as much Latin as a PhD student at the University of Michigan. The theory he was an uneducated bumpkin of the Midlands is overstated.”

“Henry VI was a barnstorming success – was said to have had 10,000 spectators which brought him considerable envy by those university playwrights who referred to him as a ‘. . . crow dressed in others feathers’.”

  • There is no evidence whatsoever that the Stratford man attended school – saying so is sheer speculation.
  • The “crow” quote from Groatsworth of Wit never mentions Shakespeare, let alone a playwright from Stratford. The actor named is a “shake-scene”. To assume that term could only refer to the man from Stratford is sheer speculation.
  • There is not a single word written in the Stratford man’s hand, only five painfully made signatures on legal documents. Assumptions that the Stratford man could write is sheer speculation.
Regarding the authorship controversy, Williams said:
“Although generated in 1920 -- that is very widespread now – by a person with the unfortunate name spelled L-o-o-n-e-y who said the work was by the Earl of Oxford. It has become a virtual industry.”

During the question period, authorship researcher Tom Hunter, gently chided Williams for this remark. “You said what we do has become an industry. On the contrary, Stratford is an endless $800-million a year industry.”

Hunter and Williams agreed to discussion, whereupon Williams pronounced the death knell of Stratfordianism:

“The part that really matters to me most profoundly about ‘Who is Shakespeare?’ -- Shakespeare is most profoundly his presence in our culture. It wouldn’t disturb me if it was discovered that Shakespeare was a name assumed – that would not upset me.”

. . . That love and pity are -- or ought to be -- at the heart of our humanity, he (Shakespeare) believed."

Love and pity from the litigious Stratfordian who disinherited his wife and never educated his children? No wonder Williams is willing to give him the boot.

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