Anonymous and Shakespeare Being Shakespeare

With some trepidation, I’m going to wade into the “did Shakespeare write Shakespeare” kerfuffle. My trepidation is not a result of doubt on my part, but is rather that I don’t want to attract the crazies (and despite what Keir Cutler says, many of the anti-Stratford position are indeed certifiable) and that I’m not an expert on Shakespeare, having taken only one graduate-level course on the Bard. As a result, I’m mainly going to be pointing to a better scholar than I on the subject.

First, I haven’t seen Anonymous, nor am I likely to. My unwillingness to see it isn’t due to the subject, but rather that by all reports it is simply a terrible movie. I enjoyed Oliver Stone’s JFK, which has an equally ludicrous plot, and I found Shakespeare In Love to be delightful, even though it probably has as many historical inaccuracies and anachronisms as Anonymous. So I’m not going to comment further on the movie, per se.

Keir Cutler’s recent opinion-piece in the Montreal Gazette gives a nice summary of the anti-Stratfordian position and argument. Implicit within Cutler’s piece is the notion that Shakespeare was a singular genius (he even quotes Henry James referring to the “divine William") and that a mere glover’s son, the scion of low-birth, could not possibly have written the plays. Such snobbery and elitism is endemic to the anti-Stratfordian argument.

Holger Syme has replied to Cutler in the pages of the same paper and effectively demolishes the anti-Stratfordian arguments, showing that their scholarship is only a thin veneer that is easily smashed by only the slightest bit of rigorous research and analysis. I wrote a few days ago about the myth of Shakespeare’s coining new words. And for even more, go to Syme’s blog, where he has written extensively. See the entries here, here, and here. (Disclosure: Syme is a professor here at the University of Toronto, but he is not one of my teachers, and the extent of my relationship with him is once chatting briefly at a faculty-grad student softball game.)

I will make one further comment on one aspect of Cutler’s piece, however, because Syme does not mention the topic and it is an area of Shakespeare scholarship where I have more than a passing knowledge. Cutler writes of Shakespeare’s “mastering of at least five languages other than English.” This is utter hogwash; there is no evidence that Shakespeare was master of any language other than English. Ben Jonson famously wrote of Shakespeare that he had “little Latin and less Greek.” Of course, the anti-Stratfordians will claim that Jonson is writing about the Stratford man and not the author of the plays, but when one examines the Latin that appears in Shakespeare’s corpus it is apparent that it has been culled from distant memories of schoolboy Latin. The most extensive use of that language by Shakespeare is the Latin lesson in The Merry Wives of Windsor 4.1, which is taken almost word for word from the opening pages of Lyly’s A Shorte Introduction of Grammar, a text that every first-year school boy in Elizabethan England would have learned by heart. Latin elsewhere in the plays consists of little more than individual words and phrases. (Strangely, Shakespeare’s Roman plays have almost no Latin in them, “et tu Brute” being the famed exception, but I digress.) Similarly, the only other extensive use of a language other than English in Shakespeare’s corpus is in Henry V 3.4, in which Princess Katherine commands her maid to teach her English. And we get phrase-book French here, a simple lesson on naming parts of the body, with lots of sexual punning thrown in. One doesn’t need to know French at all to understand exactly what is happening on stage, and it wouldn’t have taken “mastery” of French to write the scene. As for other languages, there are a couple phrases and a half dozen words from Italian and three brief snippets of Spanish from the plays. That’s it. My point: Shakespeare was a master of dramatic art, but his work doesn’t display anything other than ordinary command of foreign languages. He is not exceptional in this regard, and in fact is probably somewhat sub-par when compared to his contemporaries, like the university-educated Marlowe.

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