A few years ago I read a wonderful book, Will in the World: How Shakespeare became Shakespeare by Stephen Greenblatt, and I was astounded by it. The author used William Shakespeare's plays to demonstrate that Will Shakespeare of Stratford - on - Avon could have penned the works that we see as belonging to the Shakespearean Canon. It has been a while, so please forgive errors in detail, but Greenblatt's essential process was to imagine the life of Shakespeare from the very few known fragments of the actor William Shakespeare's life and then to construct him from the plays he wrote - thus demonstrating that what he is purported to produce could, in fact, have been produced by him. I found the writing in the book compelling on many levels. It was just plain a good read. The author is a good story teller. He was able to tell the stories of the plays of Shakespeare, put them together in chronological order and to construct the story of a man, Shakespeare, that fit the plays. Masterful. It was also particularly compelling to me because it felt like it was psychoanalytically based psychohistory. The plays were essentially being read as dreams and the dreamer's life was being constructed from them in a plausible way. I was sold.
But the reluctant wife was not so convinced. Despite my fervor, she recommended that I read a very different book, "Shakespeare" by another name: The Life of Edward de Vere: Earl of Oxford, the Man Who was Shakespeare by Mark Anderson. This book, unlike the first, was thick and slow and filled with footnotes - almost half the pages are footnotes. It is written in the style of Historians, who can, when they are very good writers, write page-turners, but this did not quite measure up to the works of David McCullough as a piece of literature. But it had an interesting premise: That Edward de Vere, an English lord and, as a youth playboy who vied for the hand of Elizabeth, was supported by her to write plays - which he likely wrote with various secretaries who were very much men of letters - in first draft as light fare for the court, then as propaganda for her government and, in their final versions, as masterpieces of literature. Anderson's position is that de Vere could not take credit for his work because, as a lord, he could not engage in a lowly profession like playwright (even though he was being paid a hefty sum annually by Queen Elizabeth for no apparent reason, which Anderson interprets to mean he was being paid to write - to be the Queen's chief propagandist and artist).
I am writing this blog for two separate but related reasons. First, I want to relate the experience of re-reading and second to report one little fruit of that effort. Tom Ogden, a psychoanalyst who does a lot of reading and writing, talks about two kinds of reading in his book Creative Readings. One he calls transitive reading - this is an active reading, one where we are interacting with the author and the text as we read the text - actively re-writing the text as we make our way through it and make it our own. The second kind of reading he calls intransitive - and this involves becoming lost in the text, and we take on the author's perspective and see the world through his or her eyes. Both kinds of reading are important (as are both kinds of listening in clinical settings).
My first reading of the Anderson book was transitive. Violently so. I was still enamored of the vision of the untutored kid from Stratford becoming the Bard. I also missed the free flowing language (partially because it was unhampered by being tied to historical facts) and intertwining of the stories of the plays with the creature who was imagined almost exclusively from those stories. So I was reading the book critically. I was questioning the data. I was arguing. By the end of it, I had grudging respect for the author, for his scholarship and the effort that he made to tie Edward de Vere to Shakespeare, and was willing to grant the reluctant wife that her position might have some validity - that his argument felt, ultimately, stronger than the argument from Will of the World. But I wasn't convinced. Partly because I do not know the wider arguments and concerns, but more importantly, I think, because my contentious engagement with the book led me to be uncertain of what it was that the author had actually said. And I don't think I realized that until my current rereading of the book.
This time through, I have taken a more intransitive position. I am less concerned with the veracity of Anderson's thesis and more interested in finding out more about this de Vere character, but also about Shakespeare. What do his plays mean? And this reading lead to a very different set of experiences. I found out delightful things about both de Vere and Shakespeare that I had missed the first time. Some of this supports the thesis. The facts of de Vere's life, the bare bones of it, resonate so deeply and powerfully with Hamlet that - whether de Vere was the author or not, each helps understand the other better. Hamlet comes to life in the story of a royal born child whose father died early, who was raised by a powerful and benevolent figure who also took his inheritance from him, and the struggles that he engaged in throughout his life to regain what he felt to be rightfully his. As I write this, it is apparent the tale of Hamlet has particulars - and Anderson works to connect those to de Vere's life in various more oblique ways - that are not present in the life that de Vere leads. Yet it is quite compelling that the psychological structures that Hamlet exemplifies could well have grown within the parallel but distinctly different biography - de Vere did not have an Uncle marry his mother whom he kills after having players play out the death of his father on stage - of another person.
The experience of reading intransitively lead to several gems. One was that Shakespeare, whether de Vere or not, is a compelling author because, and I do think this is true regardless of whether he is a player from Stratford or a noble to the manor born, he is writing autobiographically. I think that he is able to sympathetically portray even heinous characters in part because they represent a part of himself - or some aspect that he could imagine having. I think he shares this gift with Elizabeth Strout who writes about troubled characters in compassionate ways - we connect with them - we know them intransitively - even though they are portrayed from the outside - where we could encounter them transitively - as if we know them - and could dismiss them as being, for instance, evil or banal or lazy or whatever. Instead, they are human: good, bad and indifferent. Conflicted. Complicated. Too virtuous to stand and too evil to imagine.
And one play, not delved into, but mentioned, really stood out for me as being one that I came to understand better by putting a story around it. MacBeth, the tale of the Dane whose wife would have him king, the man who - pushed by a woman - kills and kills and kills some more. Anderson ties this to Elizabeth and de Vere - and specifically to Elizabeth's appointing a council of Lords to try Mary, Queen of Scots, her cousin, for treason. Mary, the Catholic cousin, fell into a trap. She was discovered to be communicating with a Catholic who was supposedly planning Elizabeth's assassination so that Mary could assume the throne of England. De Vere and other royals were convened to hear the evidence and come to a foregone conclusion - one that Elizabeth then enacted and repudiated.
Anderson maintains that Shakespeare, and therefore by implication de Vere, fervently believed in the divine succession of royalty. De Vere was, in Anderson's mind, deeply troubled by putting a royal to death. Lady MacBeth's cries to eradicate that damn spot seem somehow more poignant when they come from the lips of a person who has actually committed the deed. Shakespeare is imagining lady MacBeth as Elizabeth, the Queen who ordered the botched execution - where her cousin was first struck in the arm and then had her head severed - the head that was then held up only to fall out of the executioners hands because it had a wig on it that did not hold. Something about the physicality of this ending - something about the bloody butchery - combined with the upsetting of the divine order - killing someone who, like Elizabeth herself, sat on the throne at God's command - and so, by killing her made it clear that she herself could also be killed - that God's orders could be circumvented by human design, something about the concreteness of it makes it chilling. Lady Macbeth's guilt - the spot that won't go away - is not just her feeling responsible for an innocent death, but the sense that the blood, once shed, could go on being shed indefinitely. De Vere's shared sense of guilt - and horror that he could overturn something he needed to believe upheld his own position, all of this creates a work of art that is not simply a means of telling a story - but of channeling very real, personal and immediate feelings into a vessel - a holder, not just for the author - not just for his queen, but for all of us - to know some very real aspect of what it means to be human - to act, and to feel the consequences of our actions. To know that we can do and have done great and terrible things. Art - and, I believe, analysis - allow us to know this viscerally, immediately, and irrevocably.
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