Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Shapiro spoke at Stratford Shakespeare Festival August 13, 2011

As Tom Hunter said in his August 17 post here, a group of anti-Stratfordians attended Contested Will author James Shapiro’s lecture at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival on August 13, 2011. Oberon members Tom Hunter, Richard Joyrich, Sue Width, Tom and Joy Townsend, and I were joined by Lynne Kositsky, her husband Michael, and Roger Stritmatter to swell the ranks of approximately 220 spectators at The Studio Theater in downtown Stratford, Ontario.

Shapiro appeared scruffy chic in his bagged-out black T-shirt, wrinkled gray jacket, jeans, and black oxfords. His tossled hair was cut long on the top in the manner of mid-life men everywhere. A slim, good-looking man with an engaging manner and a gentle, raspy voice, Shapiro charmed the audience as he praised the Stratford Shakespeare Festival.

“This is an extraordinary place,” he said. “I've never been here before and I'll be back as a theater-goer. You're all fortunate."

He read expressively from a prepared manuscript, stopping often for audience laughter at jokes lampooning anti-Stratfordians. The laughter was cued by Shapiro’s use of a particularly dry delivery, and the audience was so responsive to this command that I began to wonder if they knew what they were laughing at.

One of the more hilarious jokes went something like this:
“If I were rather hard pressed by an Oxfordian, I would say we know Oxford was a contemptible person who was accused of having sex with a horse. Should we go back to the play where he says ‘My kingdom for a horse?’”

Another joke had to do with the subversive nature of authorship research and the dangers of Roland Emmerich’s forthcoming film on the topic, Anonymous.

“Roland Emmerich is one of the great and most popular filmmakers . . . (his film) is a major, $40-million, Hollywood production in which Queen Elizabeth was not a virgin queen and her son was her lover. It’s a different kind of disaster film, for every teacher in North America -- ‘You didn’t tell me Queen Elizabeth was a ‘ho!’”

I can’t help but wonder if Shapiro is the real subversive. Although he seems totally committed to the Stratfordian attribution and thoroughly disdainful of authorship inquiry, the professor wrote the book that opened the academic gates on a topic that has traditionally been taboo. And he excoriates Stratfordians – In Ontario naming Stephen Greenblatt, Michael Wood and Germain Greer, specifically – for tarting up biographies of Shakespeare with historically unsupported speculation.

“This has been a blessing for those who deny Shakespeare‘s authorship,” Shapiro said. “If you dismiss claims related to Shakespeare’s life in the works, then the (anti-Stratfordian) argument collapses because there IS NO OTHER proof.”

In this, Shapiro makes the mistake of assuming that anti-Stratfordians have been convinced by similarities between de Vere’s life (to use one example) and the contents of the plays. I’m guessing that Shapiro believes this because he may feel that this “evidence” is a powerful persuader. He doesn’t realize that this “biographical” similarity provides only a fillip of interest when compared to the deep historical study that comprises Shakespeare authorship research. He seems to think that if he can get Stratfordians to stop making things up, the authorship question will evaporate.

Shakespeare Birthplace Trust director Stanley Wells came in for a bit of Shapiro's criticism when an audience member asked about the Cobb portramal" style="font-family: 'Times New Roman';">
“Those mainstream Shakespeareans who did that had a wrongheaded notion”, Shapiro said. "That kind of identification of Polonius with Burghley is nonsense."

When a gentleman in the audience described Shapiro’s criticism of Greenblatt as “unsettling”, Shapiro replied:

“Greenblatt invents material that has no historical validity. When you say ‘This possibly is so.’ you’ve crossed a line – a line that leads to Roland Emmerich. It’s the same speculative strategy. It has enabled the kind of work that Emmerich has created. . . . When you mingle speculative items with facts in a biography, it is dangerous. What’s dangerous about Greenblatt and Emmerich is they tell great stories.”

Roger Stritmatter asked Shapiro, “If biography was an invention of the nineteenth century, what was Ovid’s Tristia all about?” 

And Shapiro replied,“As far as we know, we don’t know the relationship between the writing and life.”

And yet, previously, in his talk Shapiro had said:

“When you write Shakespeare biography, you end up writing autobiography and I’m as guilty as the next one.”

I found this statement remarkable coming from a man who insists that Shakespeare did not put his life in his work. Does Shapiro believe that human nature altered between the time Shakespeare put pen to paper and the professor opened his laptop? To me this statement indicates that Shapiro understands very well the impossibility of removing the worker from the work – and that fact of life has nothing to do with biography emerging in the eighteenth century as a publishing phenomenon, as Shapiro contends in Contested Will.

When an audience member requested a course of study, Shapiro said, “I never took a course in Shakespeare. I went to see the plays and that’s what you should do, too. Study Shakespeare. You don’t waste your time on my books.”

What I take away from Shapiro’s talk is that, more than most Stratfordians, Shapiro understands what a hole they have dug for themselves; and I think he wishes, like most of them, that the authorship question would just all go away.

Aug. 26, 2011: James Shapiro will discuss Roland Emmerich's film Anonymous after a screening of the film at the by New Yorker Festival, Sept. 30-Oct. 2, 2011.