Tag Archives: nonfiction

Caesar’s Legion, by Stephen Dando-Collins

CaesarsLegionTitle: Caesar’s Legion: The Epic Saga of Julius Caesar’s Elite Tenth Legion and the Armies of Rome
Author: Stephen Dando-Collins
Year of Publication: 2002
Length: 336 pages
Genre: nonfiction – Roman history
New or Re-Read? New
Rating: 3.75 stars

I was looking for a comprehensive yet readable military history featuring the Roman legions, and Dando-Collins delivered. This book (more or less) follows the history of the famous Tenth Legion, raised by Caesar and present for most of the battles of his Spanish and Gallic campaigns as well as during the Pompeian War. Following Caesar’s death, they fought first for Antony, then for Octavian, and then fell into disuse in Syria. General Domitius Corbulo whipped them back into shape a few decades later, and they were instrumental in subduing the Jewish Revolts of the 60s and in taking the fortress of Masada in 73.

Dando-Collins walks the reader through these events with vivid attention both to military strategy and to the daily life of the legionaries. Both are valuable to me — you get the big picture from Caesar’s viewpoint. He focuses on some lesser-known battles of the Conquest of Gaul as well as the most famous, and does a particularly nice job detailing the end of the Pompeian Civil War, after Pharsalus. Most accounts just sort of take the attitude of, “and then Caesar left Egypt and mopped everybody else up.” This does a better job showing just how fierce the resistance continued to be, even with Pompey’s death and the capitulation of several other key Optimates. He seems to want to excuse the Tenth Legion from its mutinies where I’ve seen other writers come down pretty hard on them for turning on Caesar, attributing it to bad influence and a few corrupt centurions (rather than to a not-unreasonable expectation of getting paid). They manage to redeem themselves, though, and restore their reputations to one of honor and glory — just to sink back down again a few decades later.

That in of itself is an interesting view of the Roman legions that we don’t often see. Mostly you hear about how they were the finest military machine the world had ever seen (I know some Parthian cataphracts who might wish to argue the particulars, but, whatever). We hear about the ones that get obliterated (Carrhae and Teutoburg Forest, for example). We don’t often hear about those that sink into idleness and ignominy. He also gives you both sides of Caesar — the truly genius military mind, but also the one slightly in over his head after the Rubicon, prone to errors that would’ve been uncharacteristic in earlier years.

This book had two major drawbacks for me. One was Dando-Collins’s decision to replace Roman military rank with modern American military rank. Maybe it helps some readers, but for me, it just made it more confusing. I know what tribunes, legates, and proconsuls are, but I can no more decline the strata of modern major generals than I can perform integral and differential calculus The other was that this wasn’t really a history of the Tenth Legion. It was, in many places, a speculation on where the Tenth might’ve been and what they might’ve been doing, and in others, nothing to do with the Tenth at all. We spend a fair bit of time with the Sixth and the Thirteenth, for example, and a fair bit of time just unraveling political matters and personal vendettas. I understand that history leaves gaps, and that it would’ve been strange and jerky to leap from one event to another without explaining intervening matter, but then, why set that as your premise in the first place? Why not just write a comprehensive history of the civil war between Caesar and Pompey? Or of the evolution of the legions from late Republic into early Imperial Rome? It seemed strange to me to promote such a conceit when the actual narrative digressed so very often (even when those digressions were rather nice and things I appreciated, such as the chapter spent on the story of Germanicus and Agrippina). At least he admits when he speculates, though — it makes the reading a bit tiresome, with so many “if”s and “perhaps”es and “maybe”s littering the pages, but it bespeaks academic honesty.

Dando-Collins has written another book, which does purport to look at the history of every legion. That one’s on my to-read shelf, so I’ll be interested to see how it compares. He’s also written a number of other Roman histories, and I like his writing style well enough to look into them someday. It’s accessible but not childish, managing to be comprehensive without drowning a reader in dense details the way many military histories do. I appreciate how often Dando-Collins refers to primary sources, which further enhances this book as good reading material for someone with an interest in not just the mechanics but the culture of the Roman legions.

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Ancient Rome on 5 Denarii a Day, by Philip Matyszak

Title: Ancient Rome on 5 Denarii a DayAncientRome5DenariiDay
Author: Philip Matyszak
Year of Publication: 2007
Length: 144 pages
Genre: nonfiction – history
New or Re-Read? New
Rating: 3.75 stars

This book is a great resource, though it isn’t quite what I’d expected or hoped for. Matyszak writes with his usual felicity and accessibility, but this book is not, as the title and cover might led you to believe, quite so similar to his Legionary or Gladiator. The premise does not really drop you into the role of ancient tourist. Rather, the book provides a snapshot view of Rome-at-a-glance, somewhere around the year 200.

And it just that — a glance view, with plenty of anecdotes and trivia, but not a particularly deep exploration. I do like the book’s organization, which takes you through things to do, places to go, and social customs to observe. Matyszak pays special attention to the geography of the city of the Caesars: what’s on which hill (temples, temples, and, oh yeah, some more temples), what you’ll find in the Subura (crime and prostitutes, mostly), what’s across the river (nothing you want to be a part of), which forums to hit for what activities and shopping excursions. He stresses a lot of the activities most important to Roman social life at all strata — bathing, eating, gossiping, going to the races. Roman entertainment can be beautifully poetic or utterly depraved, though Matyszak does unpack the goings-on at the Colosseum — not always lethal combat between gladiators (who were, after all, expensive investments), not necessarily to everyone’s taste (Romans throughout the centuries voiced their distaste for the more gruesome activities — though enough still approved, clearly, that they kept it up), and Christians pretty much never got thrown to the lions (they got crucified instead, because that’s the Roman sense of humor there in a nutshell). He notes the architectural genius of the colosseum, able to fill in 20 minutes and disperse as quickly, using techniques that stadium-builders still employ today.

Matyszak also does a great job of discussing the integration of religion with Roman life — all-important and yet not terribly pious, at least to a modern point of view. The gods are everywhere. Literally, everywhere. Every hill, every valley, every home, every crossroads. Celebrations in their honor dictate the movement of the calendar. Auspices and astrology inform political life. And yet the gods don’t actually care if you believe in them. So long as the rituals are observed, they’ll hold up their end of the bargain, and you can go on to merrily worship anyone you choose. “Confessing a deep love for a particular god,” however, as Matyszak notes, “is superstitio and the person concerned is probably emotionally disturbed.”

Though the humor in Ancient Rome in 5 Denarii a Day is not as laugh-out-loud funny as I found Legionary to be, or even the Classical Compendium, Matyszak’s sly humor still shines through periodically. Some of the best bits of the book, though, actually showcase the humor of the ancients, every bit as dry and ironic as the best of the BBC. Matyszak liberally sprinkles the book with quotes from Plautus, Cicero, Tacitus, Plutarch, and others — and even when those are from “serious” sources, they often highlight the absurdity of social or political life. They also provide insight into those great geological details about what sort of people you’d find in what places.

Overall, this is a nice resource to have — not particularly comprehensive, but an excellent overview, and certainly inspirational for me. There are all sorts of fun tidbits to mine and to research further. This would be a great addition to any Rome-enthusiast’s bookshelf.

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The Plantagenets: The Warrior Kings and Queens Who Made England, by Dan Jones

PlantagenetsTitle: The Plantagenets: The Warrior Kings and Queens Who Made England
Author: Dan Jones
Year of Publication: 2013
Length: 560 pages
Genre: medieval history
New or Re-Read? New
Rating: 3.5 stars

This book is a comprehensive political history of England from the early 12th to the end of the 14th century. Jones opens with the wreck of the White Ship and closes with the deposition of Richard II, and in-between, he charts the evolution of the English monarchy, the rise of the cults of St.s George and Edward the Confessor, and the ebb and flow of English fortunes in French territory. While Plantagenet history is something I’m more than passingly familiar with already, I was happy to get a really solid look at some reigns that don’t always warrant a lot of historical attention — John (apart from Magna Carta), Henry III, Edward I. Jones also provides some anecdotes and small details which flesh out the broad strokes. My favorite had to do with the sinking of the White Ship, and how the heir to the throne would’ve been safely away — had he not gone back to rescue his sister, which led to his lifeboat being overwhelmed by other drowning victims.

Jones does an excellent job of chaining cause and effect together, even when those things are complex, balancing the demands of family and feudalism. Jones relies on a lot of primary sources, though he writes in such a way as to keep them from becoming too dense — those who fear footnotes will not need to cringe at this text. Instead, he offers a bibliography of suggested further reading at the end of the book, and most of those sources date from 2000 and forward.

Jones does a nice job of contextualizing the relationship between the king and the barons and how it changes over time, as well as the complex network of ever-shifting alliances on the continent. Reading this book, you do get the sense — as I always felt about Tudor-era politics — that really everyone was out to screw England all the time. No one can seem to hold an alliance for more than twenty minutes. Similarly, the English don’t seem to be able to keep control over the Welsh, Scottish, and Irish any longer than that.

What’s particularly fascinating from my point of view is seeing the aristocracy take shape underneath the king’s rule. As someone who loves family trees, it’s fun to see when different families wax and wane, particularly once it starts getting into the 14th century and the names become those more recognizable to those of us familiar with Shakespeare’s history plays and with Tudor history — de Bohun, de Vere, Howard, Dudley, Neville, Montagu. In so doing, you also see the entire country become more thoroughly English. Slowly, the Norman and Aquitanian influence bleeds out and the nobility comes from England’s own magnates.

There were, though, ways in which the book was disappointing. For something subtitled The Warrior Kings and Queens Who Made England, there’s precious little on those queens. This is, still, a male history. Queen Matilda and Eleanor of Aquitaine get a little attention, but nothing compared to their men — and really not much to personalize them. Their deeds are mentioned, not themselves. Joan of Kent, somewhat scandalous wife of the Black Prince, is little more than a tabloid feature. As for the other women crucial to the Plantagenet line, all those wives and daughters and sisters — Phillippa of Hainault, Eleanor of Provence, Isabel the She-Wolf of France, Eleanor of Castile, Princess Joan, Princess Isabella — hardly get any attention but for how they affect the reigning king. Once they’re married out or pensioned off, and thus “off-stage”, as it were, they cease to exist. And it’s such a shame, because they have stories in their own rights. They had will and agency. So many of them defied type, or redefined it. Jones does them a discredit, I think, by relegating them only to the reactionary status women have so typically occupied in histories. Based on the book’s title, I was really hoping for much more. (Jones also goes out of his way to dismiss any whisper of homosexuality or bisexuality as attached to the English crown; I’ll give him that claims about Richard I and II still generate a lot of disagreement, but Edward II? Aren’t we pretty sure about that? Yet Jones waves it all off with no examination whatsoever).

It also ends rather strangely. This book covers up to Richard II’s 1399 deposition, and Jones tries rather hard to make this a conscious stylistic choice, rather than an awareness that going on through the rise of the Tudors would produce an 1100-page book. Except that it rings false. While the essence of kingship may change after Richard II’s fall, Jones simultaneously tries to claim that his ascension somehow breaks the line of Plantagenet kings — which is ridiculous. Henry Bolingbroke had every drop as much Plantagenet blood in him as Richard. They were both sons of Edward III’s sons. First cousins. Jones even points out that Henry was Richard’s closest heir in the male line. So it’s a bit hard to claim that the blood line was broken, any more than it was when King John succeeded Richard I.

So, on the whole, this is an easily digestible compendium, and I could recommend it as a good starting point to someone with no real familiarity with the era. Someone with more background in England’s medieval history might not find much new here, though, and if you’re looking for something incisive that treads new ground, this isn’t it. Jones compiles a rather unchallenging view of English history in a simple presentation — perhaps too simple, really.

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Shakespeare’s London: Everyday Life in London 1580-1616, by Stephen Porter

Title: Shakespeare’s London: Everyday Life in London 1580 to 1616
Author: Stephen PorterShxLondon
Year of Publication: 2011
Length: 286 pages
Genre: historical nonfiction
New or Re-Read? New
Rating: 3.5 stars

Shakespeare’s London is a thorough and detailed look at the English metropolis during the early modern period. While other books have taken similar approaches, none have honed in quite so specifically on a particular place at a very particular time. Porter uses not just Shakespeare’s life but his time in London as his fenceposts, and this allows him to delve deep and narrow into a moment in history.

Porter is nothing if not comprehensive. The book wends its way through many aspects of early modern life, particularly with regards to economic realities and social conventions of the common citizens of London. Porter devotes a lot of time to industry and mercantilism, and not unjustly, since trade formed the basis for London’s explosive growth in following centuries. He discusses the various neighborhoods and their relative statuses at length, and the pictorial sections of the books include a number of illustrative maps (though, since they are early modern in origin and scaled down to fit the page, these are not always easy to read). Throughout the book, Porter liberally mixes primary source accounts in with his narrative, adding valuable details to the picture he’s painting. I particularly appreciated that during the heavily economic sections of the book, since it gave the real human interest factor back to what would otherwise have been a rather dry summary of trade deals and market fluctuations.

Major events to do with monarchs and nobles only get coverage for how they affected the bulk of the populace. One of my favorite examples has to do with King James’s influence on the cloth industry. England had always done quite a lot of trade in both heavy broadcloths and lighter linens, but typically sold them overseas “in the white,” undyed. English dyers just weren’t as adept as those in other countries, nor could they dye as cheaply, so although finished cloth fetched a higher price, England had chosen to rely on its strengths and focus on creating a huge output of undyed cloth. In 1614, King James decided, on the advice of a wealthy alderman (who, coincidentally, lent the king money), that the country would, from then on, only export dyed cloth. The Dutch responded by banning imports of dyed cloth, since that was one of their major industries. James then banned the export of wool, the main raw material which the Dutch used. This trade war did not go well for the English, who did not have the expertise to turn out quality material in high enough quantities to match previous sales of undyed cloths. In 1617, with the entire industry in England threatening to collapse, James changed his mind, with the Privy Council declaring that it was ‘now his Majesty’s pleasure and resolution not to disturb the trade of whites with any further essay, but to leave the same to the train and course of trade now in practice and according to the use before the former alteration’ (116-117).

The book also does a good job of tying the social history into the world of the plays. Porter frequently refers to various plays by Shakespeare and his contemporaries, illustrating how the temporal reality of London found its way into so many stories on the early modern stage. Playwrights like Dekker and Middleton often put London itself right up onto the stage, and Dekker was also a pamphleteer, whose observations about the world around him tell us much about life in the era. Shakespeare may never have written a city comedy, but that definitely does not mean that his London was absent from his plays. Porter relates the conmen and petty criminals of London to Mistress Overdone’s customers in Measure for Measure, and he suggests that “Shakespeare’s metropolitan audience at The Winter’s Tale no doubt smiled at the pretentiousness of the newly-rich shepherd and his son’s shopping list for their sheep-shearing feast,” based on recognition of the produce and spices traded out of London to country burghers (120). He points out that the Boar’s Head tavern in Henry IV was likely the same as that in Great Eastcheap, near to where the Lord Chamberlain’s men then played in the winters. The diseases and pestilence mentioned in so many of his plays were those that the people of London lived with and feared spreading. Any Shakespearean reference to apprentices reflected the vast population of young men in the city who, while vital to the economic structure, were also apparently prone to lethargy and rioting. Shakespeare’s London clearly lives in his plays, no matter if they’re set in Italy, Egypt, or Bohemia.

My biggest criticism of Shakespeare’s London is that I think this book could have benefited from a different organizational structure — perhaps by sub-dividing chapters or by simply having more chapters. There are only eight in the 250-page book, and so each one has a lot of topical ground to cover. As a result, sometimes the sense of storytelling is rather haphazard — and as someone whose attention span often struggles with nonfiction anyway (even when I enjoy the topic!), it led to more than a few moments of nodding off while reading. A few chapters get a little “info-dump”-y, while others seem to have a strong narrative which then gets derailed. The best example of that is when the section on printhouses and print culture comes in the middle of a chapter which is otherwise about demographics and the early modern life cycle. The information is both interesting and useful, but it sort of comes out of left field. Printing also doesn’t get a mention in the index (which seems to focus more on proper nouns than on broader topics), so if you picked this book up specifically looking for information on that subject, it would be difficult to suss out where to find it. Information about the playhouses and playgoing culture is also scattered through a few different chapters.

On the whole, though, Shakespeare’s London is chock-full of fantastic, detailed information, much of it straight from the original sources. I think it’s most comparable to David Cressy’s Birth, Marriage, and Death: Ritual, Religion, and the Life Cycle in Tudor and Stuart England: a compendium of information, almost overwhelming at times, but providing a detailed window into the lives of everyday citizens who just happened to live four centuries ago. 

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Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?, by James Shapiro

Title: Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?
Author: James Shapiro
Year of Publication: 2010
Length: 338 pages
Genre: nonfiction – history
New or Re-Read? New
Rating: 5 stars

One of the greatest challenges for a modern historian is to remove the filter of Romanticism and Victoriana when we look backwards through time. Modern society has inherited a lot of inaccurate notions about the pre-Industrial world from our more immediate forebears, creating an assumption that the medieval and early modern worlds shared the same values, the same culture, the same societal structures, the same goals as the Victorian world – an assumption that is, in many ways, far off the mark. To achieve greater understanding of anything early modern, a historian – professional or recreational – must first clear her eyes of the haze which the nineteenth century imposed on them.

Lifting this veil is, to my reading of it, the major triumph of James Shapiro’s Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?. Both history and historiography, this book examines the case both for and against Shakespeare as the author of the works attributed to his name – and comes down, quite definitively, on the side of Shakespeare. Shapiro notes, in the opening pages of the book, his interest, which lies “not in what people think – which has been stated again and again in unambiguous terms – so much as why thy think it. No doubt my attitude derives from living in a world in which truth is too often seen as relative and in which mainstream media are committed to showing both sides of every story.” Noting the prevalence of opposing viewpoints in modern society – such as those on creationism vs evolution, whether or not man walked on the moon, and “more disturbingly,” those who deny the Holocaust deniers – Shapiro states, “I don’t believe that truth is relative or that there are always two sides to every story. At the same time, I don’t want to draw a naïve comparison between the Shakespeare controversy and any of these other issues. I think it’s a mistake to do so, except insofar as it too turns on underlying assumptions and notions of evidence that cannot be reconciled. Yet unlike some of these other controversies, I think it’s possible to get at why people have come to believe what they believe about Shakespeare’s authorship, and it is partly in the hope of doing so that I have written this book.”

Shapiro begins with the first attempts, in the eighteenth century, to expand knowledge of Shakespeare’s life and works, with George Steevens and Edmund Malone arguing their various perspectives. This idea of construction, of needing to find reasons in Shakespeare’s life for the events and viewpoints in his plays, led to a somewhat desperate search on the parts of Samuel Ireland and his son, William-Henry, for new evidence about Shakespeare’s life. Unfortunately, these gentlemen came to the idea several decades too late; any evidence not already preserved was long gone. William-Henry, motivated in Shapiro’s depiction as somewhat pathetically frantic to bolster his father’s deflated confidence, embarked on an orgy of forgery, creating numerous documents in “Shakespeare’s hand”: deeds, letters, inscriptions, even entire plays. Briefly celebrated, then proved false under William-Henry’s own confession of fraud, these documents nonetheless opened the door to the search for biography in Shakespeare’s plays. Even Malone, who vigorously attacked the Irelands for the fraud, still entertained:

the presumption that Shakespeare could only write about what he had felt or done rather than heard about, read about, borrowed from other writers, or imagined. The floodgates were now open and others would soon urge, based on their own slanted reading of the plays, that Shakespeare must have been a mariner, a soldier, a courtier a countess, and so on. By assuming that Shakespeare had to have experienced something to write about it with such accuracy and force, Malone also, unwittingly, allowed for the opposite to be true: expertise in the self-revealing works that the scant biographical record couldn’t support – his knowledge of falconry, for example, or of seamanship, foreign lands, or the ways that the ruling class behaved – should disqualify Shakespeare as the author of the plays.

Delia Bacon, c. 1853Shapiro also positions these early days of the search for authorship evidence in light of the early attribution studies for the Bible and the works of Homer; for the first time, literary monoliths were subject to question and interrogation. Shapiro then moves through the first seeds of the anti-Stratfordian argument to its full-blown manifestations in the propositions of first Francis Bacon and then Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, as alternate candidates. The Baconian theory, for instance, began with Delia Bacon (no relation) in the mid-19th century. Shapiro explains how Delia’s ideas about Francis Bacon connected to the notion of a grand conspiracy, focused on the polymath English courtier as the center of a radical proto-republican political movement. The evidence for these claims, she determined, was present in a close reading of the plays as biographical in nature. Shapiro demonstrates how the logic of such an association is inherently flawed, thanks to the limited scope both of Delia’s historical awareness and of the plays which she examined:

The framework within which [Delia Bacon] imagined the world of the English Renaissance, also typical of her day, was limited to monarchs, courtiers, and writers. The rest were written off as ignorant masses. […] It was history from the top down and limited geographically to London and the court. Her Shakespeare canon was no less restricted and also typical of nineteenth-century readers: at the center of it were Hamlet and The Tempest, and it extended to the plays meatiest in philosophical and political content – Othello, Julius Caesar, Lear, Romeo and Juliet, Richard the Second, and, unusually, Coriolanus – but not much further. While she had surely read the other thirty or so plays, as well as the poetry, they didn’t serve her purpose, and for the most part she passed over them in silence.

Delia Bacon published, to moderate success, though most people who supported her initially came to regret it, because of the mental instability she developed following a very public jilting. Shortly after the release of her book, she was institutionalized, and spent the last two years of her life in an asylum. Despite this tragic end, her ideas caught fire in the decades following her death, earning the attention, if not always the outright endorsement, of celebrities including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Mark Twain, Helen Keller, and Henry James. Delia Bacon also introduced the notion of a secret cipher embedded in the texts of the plays, an idea picked up and popularized by Ignatius Donnelley – and an idea risible under even the lightest scrutiny for several reasons, not least of which is that a tweak of the cipher could yield any result the seeker wanted, but also because, as Shapiro points out, “Donnelly didn’t have a clue about how compositors worked in Elizabethan printing houses, where such a scheme would have been unimaginable and the layout he describes impossible to reproduce.”

By the 1920s, however, Shapiro points out that “Philosophy and politics were out, Oedipal desires and mourning for dead fathers in,” giving rise to the new Oxfordian theory. Psychoanalysis imagined a link between the writer of Hamlet and the character of Hamlet, based on repressed sexual urges and dysfunctional family relationships. Sigmund Freud questioned Shakespeare’s identity but did not embrace Bacon as the alternative; John Thomas Looney (pronounced “loany”, despite temptations to the contrary) picked up the psychoanalytic thread and proposed Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford. Shakespeare’s life did not mirror the required narrative; the Earl of Oxford’s could, especially if you layered on other theories about de Vere being Queen Elizabeth’s lover and/or son. From a secret political group under Bacon’s direction, the anti-Shakespearean case now rested on a more lurid narrative: a conspiracy tinged with sexual misconduct, succession anxiety, and disrupted inheritance.

For decades, the Oxfordians plagued themselves with divisive conclusions about this reading, however: nobody knew about the conspiracy; everyone knew and didn’t think it worth mentioning; everyone knew but was kept silent by Queen Elizabeth’s totalitarian state; a select group knew and kept it quiet to protect the Queen; and so on. Never mind that Oxford died in 1604, before many of Shakespeare’s plays were written; in the scope of such an all-encompassing conspiracy, Oxfordians find that small matter to explain away. They were written earlier, and released after his death, as a way of perpetuating the myth of William Shakespeare as the front man. Shapiro details how, in more recent years, the Oxfordian theory has gained traction due to the public’s increasing fascination with conspiracy theories of all sorts. From moon landings to who shot JFK to the vast circulation of conceptions about secret government involvement in nearly every act of tragedy or terrorism of the past three decades, modern culture has propagated a pervasive suspicion of authority. “In such a climate,” Shapiro says, “a minor act of conspiratorial suppression on the part of Tudor authorities made perfect sense.”

Overall, the impression this book leaves a reader with is that the anti-Shakespearean case is one stuffed with tragic figures and ulterior motives. Its very earliest characters are among the saddest: poor William-Henry Ireland, desperately seeking a father’s approval, and jilted Delia Bacon, who clung to her theories as a way of reclaiming agency over her life, but with a paranoid mania that drove her to madness and death. These are the figures often left out of the Baconian and Oxfordian narratives; they prefer, naturally, to tout the support of such grand figures as Mark Twain and Sigmund Freud. As Shapiro demonstrates, however, the rationale of the great figures is not untainted, either. They all require vast constructs, additions and suppositions to the historical record. Freud’s support of the Oxfordian case is deeply tied to his own theories about Oedipal desire; he had to read Hamlet in terms of Oxford’s own familial-sexual-philosophical entanglements, because to suppose that the story came from any other origin was a strike against the psychological theories on which he made his living and his fame.

Mark Twain's book questioning Shakespeare's identityIt’s Twain’s rationale, and Shapiro’s dissection thereof, that I find most interesting and most telling. Twain echoes Malone in supposing it impossible for a writer to draw from anything but experience; “For Twain, the notion that great writing had to be drawn from life – rather than from what an author heard, read, or simply imagined – was an article of faith, at the heart of his conception of how serious writers worked.” It is, in many ways, a very strange idea, taking imagination so entirely out of the equation, but it was a product of its time; in the 19th and early 20th centuries, more and more writers were publishing memoirs, and biography was a popular genre. The close association between fiction and experience was deeply embedded in the culture, providing fertile ground in which the anti-Shakespearean attitudes could take root. This is one of the more difficult veils to penetrate when looking back at the early modern period through modern eyes – the idea that the early modern writers simply did not view their craft in the same way that the Victorian tradition has convinced us all writers must.

Shapiro asserts that this legacy lives on in writing today, that modern readers retain assumptions that “novels necessarily reveal something about a writer’s life.” I would argue that this is more true in so-called “literary” fiction than it is of genre fiction. Readers of science fiction and fantasy novels (or viewers of those movies) — and to an extent, of mysteries, thrillers, and romances as well — have no more expectation of a creator’s personal experience with the subject matter than Shakespeare’s original audiences had. We need no more assume that Shakespeare had first-hand knowledge of Italy than that George Lucas had of Tatooine, J. R. R. Tolkien of Middle-Earth, or J. K. Rowling of Hogwarts. While “serious” fiction often retains a more autobiographical bent, I think it is in genre fiction that writers operate more like Shakespeare did: indulging freely in the realm of imagination, drawing off of previous stories, history and mythology, and timeless tropes for their inspiration. There you find writers more interested in telling a good story than in talking about themselves – which is not to say that glimpses of a writer’s viewpoint won’t peep through from time to time, but they don’t dominate in the way that post-Romantic assumptions would indicate. (It is in many ways ironic that the very people who disdain the use of imagination in writing are so wonderfully and copiously imaginative themselves, at least when it comes to creating the fantasy narratives necessarily to support alternate authorship candidates).

The final chapter of the book is a tour de force in defense of Shakespeare – though Shapiro acknowledges the absurdity that Shakespeareans should even be on the defensive, that the burden of proof has somehow shifted to us to prove there is no conspiracy, rather than on the Oxfordians to prove that there is. After entertaining the anti-Stratfordians and exposing their flaws, Shapiro comes down unquestionably (and refreshingly unapologetically) on the side of Shakespeare of Stratford:

When asked how I can be so confident that Shakespeare was [the plays’] author, I point to several kinds of evidence. The first is what early printed texts reveal; the second, what writers who knew Shakespeare said about him. Either of these, to my mind, suffices to confirm his authorship – and the stories they tell corroborate each other. All this is reinforced by additional evidence from the closing years of his career, when he began writing for a new kind of playhouse, in a different style, in active collaboration with other writers.

Shapiro then defends Shakespeare with a barrage of real, concrete evidence – text-based evidence including examples of speech prefixes, the process of printing plays, the relationship of typesetting to the variant spellings of Shakespeare’s name, his demonstrated familiarity with actors, and so forth. The proof of such deep association with the playing companies, the theatre building, and the workings of the shareholders effectively eradicates any validity to the presumption that the plays could have been written by someone who did not inhabit that world.

From Ben Jonson's epitaph to Shakespeare, in the preface of the 1623 First FolioShapiro also engages with the testimonies of so many of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, identifying the man from Stratford as the man who wrote the plays: George Buc, Master of the Revels; Robert Greene, vitriolic pamphleteer; Francis Meers, whose Palladis Tamia lists all of Shakespeare’s plays which had been acted by 1598; Gabriel Harvey, poetry critic; William Camden, historian; playwrights John Webster, Francis Beaumont, and Thomas Heywood — the list goes on and on, but the trump card is fellow playwright, rival, and friend, Ben Jonson, who “left the most personal and extensive tributes to Shakespeare. For many, his testimony alone resolves any doubts about Shakespeare’s authorship of the plays.” Consider me one of them. Even if we did not have the voluminous other evidence that we do have, Jonson alone would convince me. He comments both so prolifically and so personally on Shakespeare’s writing that I find it a violation of Occam’s Razor to imagine that he was either ignorant or part of a vast conspiracy – and knowing what I know about Jonson, I really can’t believe he could have kept a secret of that magnitude.

Finally, Shapiro draws a connection between Shakespeare’s plays and the playing spaces he wrote for, discussing how the space affected what kind of story Shakespeare could tell and how he could tell it, particularly thanks to a distinct change towards the end of his career:

We have also had drummed into us that he was Shakespeare of the Globe – though that playhouse was built only in the closing years of Elizabeth’s reign. Long forgotten are the other playing spaces in and around London in which he had built his reputation over the previous decade: the Theatre, the Curtain, Newington Butts, the Rose, Richmond, Whitehall, perhaps a brief stint at the Swan. … But had you asked anyone on the streets of London in the winter of 1610 where you could go to see Shakespeare’s latest play, there would have been only one answer: ‘Blackfriars.’ The Blackfriars Theatre means little today to most admirers of Shakespeare; so far as I know, only a single replica of it has ever been erected, in rural Virginia, which attracts both spectators and scholars. The story of the Blackfriars Theatre is also the story of the Jacobean Shakespeare, and of the particular challenges he faced toward the end of his playwriting career. And that, in turn, helps explain why only Shakespeare could have written his late plays that were staged there.

Shapiro’s recognition is apt and accurate, and that close relationship between writer and playing space is one we frequently refer to in our educational materials and workshops. A different kind of theatre demanded a different kind of plays, and Shakespeare’s latest works reflect that shift, making a reconstruction of the plays’ timeline to fit a 1604 death date absurd. I hope this spatial connection becomes a stronger part of the narrative of the “controversy” – perhaps it will help the Blackfriars Theatre and its descendent, our Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton, earn greater recognition as one of Shakespeare’s prominent theatrical homes.

The final chapter of Contested Will ought to hammer home, once and for all, that Shakespeare was Shakespeare, setting the matter entirely to rest. Except, as Shapiro ably points out, there is no arguing with a conspiracy theorist. Any evidence just gets twisted to support the idea of a vast cover-up. Nonetheless, Shapiro’s book is a veritable armory of weapons, both offensive and defensive, for the Shakespearean set. What’s more, he delivers all of his information with felicity and wit; the book is a wonderful read as well as an intellectual triumph. I highly recommend it to anyone with a dog in this fight, as it were, but also to anyone who is simply interested in writing and in how ideas about it have evolved over time. Shapiro provides us not only with a rousing defense of Shakespeare, but also a valuable peek through the veils of time, rolling back our assumptions and laying bare the reality, insofar as it is knowable.

(Originally posted at the American Shakespeare Center Education Blog).

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Pagan Holiday: On the Trail of Ancient Roman Tourists, by Tony Perrottet

Title: Pagan Holiday: On the Trail of Ancient Roman Tourists
Author: Tony Perrottet
Year of Publication: 2002
Length: 416 pages
Genre: nonfiction – history, travel
New or Re-Read?: New!
Rating: 4.5 stars

This is not the sort of book I typically read, but I’m so, so glad I took a chance on this one. It’s completely delightful — Perrottet has a wonderfully accessible tone, and he melds history and the present day together in a fascinating weave.

Tony Perrottet, a travel journalist and lifelong lover of the classics, decides to go on one last final adventure when his girlfriend falls unexpectedly pregnant. He had, previously, always avoided the Mediterrannean as overcrowded and overhyped — but then he hit on the idea to embrace the mania and follow the trail of the first generation of international tourists. The book opens with a magnificent description of the unveiling of Agrippa’s world map, an enormous marble creation which displayed, for the first time, the world as they knew it in all its glory. Europe, Asia, and Africa, from Britain to India, Germany to the cataracts of the Nile, all laid out in a public gallery for first century Romans to peruse at their leisure. Even more importantly, at least for purposes of tourism, it showed the roads and shipping lanes which connected the empire. Suddenly, everything seemed so close — and so off they took, in droves. Perrottet arranged his journey, pregnant girlfriend in tow, to mirror theirs: starting in Rome, then south to the Bay of Naples, the peninsula to Brundisium and thence to Greece, to chart all the sites of the once-great empire, then island-hopping across the Aegean, travel by land up the coast of Asia Minor to Troy, then down to Egypt for Alexandrian indulgence and a Nile cruise.

Throughout the book, Perrottet hops back and forth between the experience of the ancients and his own. He tells us what excited first-century Romans, where they partied and where they studied. In so many ways, you can see how little has changed: they have the same complaints about greedy hoteliers and foreign food, road conditions and overpriced souvenirs, they seek out the best wine and the finest dining, they carve their initials on monuments — all motions that tourists today still go through in their millions. The priorities of the ancients don’t always align with ours, and what the sites meant to them was different, thanks to religious and cultural drift, but still — the humanity of them shines through across two thousand years of history. More than anything, Perrottet brings that commonality across.

The section on Rome was particularly fun for me, because I’ve been almost everywhere he mentioned. I went to Italy with a school group when I was 16, and while I wish I’d been older, to better appreciate it all, it’s still vivid in my memory. The Forum Romanum, the Coliseum, the coast at Baiae, the isle of Capri, the sandy streets (and looming mafia presence) of Pompeii, the tightly-reined terror of Naples. I have my own torturous tale, of thinking I was in for a day of shopping and then finding myself having to trek three miles uphill to Tiberius’s villa at the absolute highest point on Capri. I know what those places look and sound and smell like, and so this section of the book was a wonderfully nostalgic trip for me. And yet, there was still new information for me, both from the historical and the modern perspective. Pagan Holiday provides some delightfully salacious details that high-school students don’t get told when visiting sites, particularly in regard to the carnal indulgences of Baiae. Perrottet also actually stayed in Naples, where as we were herded carefully in and out, and the characters inhabiting that degenerated city that he draws for the reader are unforgettable. By and large, though, we walked a lot of the same steps, and it made me miss Italy terribly.

The rest of Perrottet’s journey, though, was unfamiliar territory to me. Perrottet makes Greece sound both like a great experience and like a significant challenge. I imagine it’s a lot more of the latter now than it was ten years ago, when he wrote this book, and, thanks to the Greek economic instability, it’s likely to stay that way for a while longer. But still, Perrottet finds the ancients awakened for him across the country, from the erudition of Athens to the bizarre ways in which the Spartan military legacy has lived on in Mani, from the ghosts of athletes at Olympus to the wilderness of Arcadia.

Of all the places Perrottet discusses, he most put a fire in me to visit Ephesus and its environs in Turkey, which he describes as a better-preserved, more lively, and less aggressive version of what you’ll find in Greece. He also states that Turkey is better traveled by land than by sea, which is encouraging for this hydrophobe. I had no idea that Ephesus was nearly equivalent to Pompeii as an archaeological site:

Nowhere else is the ancient Roman world so vivid, the intervening centuries so transparent; nowhere in Greece or Italy makes it so shockingly clear that the past actually happened. You couldn’t just see the ancients enjoying their holiday pleasures; you could hear and smell them.

I want that memory in my life. And, like Perrottet, I would love the chance to visit the anticlimactic ruins of Troy. His description of how Troy was already a tourist trap in the first century is pretty fascinating, since, of course, Troy was already 1200 years in the past for them. The Romans had a passion for all things Trojan, thanks to their cultural myth of being descended from Aeneas and other heroes who escaped the Fall. Perrottet connects their obsession with their fallen heroes to a story from World War II: not far from the site of Troy was where the battle of Gallipolli took place, a disastrous endeavour with heavy losses on both sides. In one of the book’s more poignant sections, Perrottet visits this site, finding on its memorial the name of an uncle of his who died there. He walks this recent battlefield, to which he has a personal connection, with Homer’s words ringing in his head.

I think my patience, much like Perrottet’s girlfriend’s, would have worn out somewhere in Egypt (even without the pregnancy factoring in). Of everywhere the author described, the process of traveling seemed least pleasant there — even worse than the terrible weather in Asia Minor and the desperately frenetic attitude of Greece — and I can only imagine it’s gotten worse in the intervening decade, given the current political circumstances in Egypt. I know they’re trying to lure tourists back in with assurances of safety and luxury, but frankly, I’m not buying it.

Part of it comes from having heard horror stories from a friend whose tour guide literally abandoned her group in the desert. That seems, from Perrottet’s descriptions, to be in-line with what tourists can expect throughout the country. I also was astonished to learn that, even a decade before the Arab Spring, terrorist attacks were so common in Middle Egypt that they shut down cruises on the Nile and that trains routinely expected to be shot at on the way to Luxor. I am curious, though, about how the Alexandrian scuba-recovery project is going, if any progress has been made on that front in ten years. And still, no matter the current climate, there is something tremendously compelling about the oldest extant places in the Western World. I remember, on a much smaller scale, visiting the Etruscan burial mounds in Italy, three thousand years old, and being completely bowled over by the age of them. To stand in the middle of something so profoundly ancient is an astonishment to the senses, almost incomprehensible. Egypt is another couple thousand years removed from the present than the Etruscan complexes are. Seeing those sites must be absolutely tremendous.

Perhaps the best part of the Egypt section is the tale of Perrottet’s very own personal mummy’s curse. After he literally pokes the mummy of Pharaoh Thutmose III — under invitation, by the way, of the curator — a series of disasters provokes a side-quest, to appease the ancient ruler’s spirit. I really enjoyed the way Perrottet wove this story in; it doesn’t overwhelm the narration, but the thread is there, and it mixes an appropriately ancient air of superstition in with the all-too-cynical mundanity of modern travel concerns.

I should very much like to read more travelogues of this kind in general and from Perrottet in particular. I appreciate how much detail Perrottet put in and how devoted he was to making sure his research was solid. I liked that he told us where his stories came from (and I now really want to find the account of Germanicus’s grand tour, that ended in his untimely death). And yet he never loses sight of his own stories, his own experience, and his own take on things. His insights are wonderful, personable, and often quite touching, yet always with a wry sense of humour attached as well. At the end of his trip, cruising down the Nile and suffering from archaeological oversaturation, he reflects:

…we decided to skip a few land visits. All we wanted to do was wallow in the pool and stare at the riverbank. I felt a little ashamed of this philistine behavior, until I read that Julius Caesar and Cleopatra had enjoyed the same sort of trip. Caesar was exhausted after years of battle. Cleopatra was heavily pregnant with his son. Of course, Julius had just conquered the entire known world. But apart from that minor detail, the parallel seemed fairly apt.

I recommend this book to any travel junkies or classical enthusiasts — there’s plenty here for both sets, and if you exist in the overlapping portion of that diagram, you’ll be in literary heaven. If I ever have the money (and the regions are ever completely safe to travel in again), I would love to re-create this same journey. It sounds like a blast.

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Cleopatra: A Life, by Stacy Schiff

Title: Cleopatra: A Life
Author: Stacy Schiff
Year of Publication: 2010
Length: 400 pages
Genre: biography
New or Re-Read? New!
Rating: 4 stars

This is a very strong biography, and Schiff does an admirable job rescuing Cleopatra’s reputation from the vagaries of history. Her story as the world commonly knows it is one of erasure and revision. The men who wrote her earliest biographies were not only men but her enemies, Romans eager to blame her for the downfall of the Republic.

Unfortunately, just due to the fragmented nature of the historical record, that means Schiff does spend a lot of time defining her subject in the negative — talking about Cleopatra by talking about who and what Cleopatra wasn’t. And that does become tedious in places. I can’t blame Schiff for this — it’s the nature of the beast, and as someone who spends most of her life with her head in the 16th century, I know how many frustrations there are when it comes to trying to circle in on what the truth might’ve been. It does, however, make for a bit of roundabout reading. She also has to spend a lot of time on Caesar and Antony’s lives, despite her frequent assertions that Cleopatra wasn’t defined solely by her relationships with them. I don’t know that there’s a way around that — her readers need to know the political entanglements of the time, and those entanglements were largely engineered by those specific men — but it is a bit of an odd juxtaposition with her intended goal.

I like the book best when it’s extrapolating Cleopatra’s probable life based on what we do know about the culture of the time, about Alexandria, about other leaders of her ilk. Those are the passages that come most to life and which show Cleopatra nearer to who she probably was: a clever, resourceful woman holding onto her survival — and that of her country — with both hands. Schiff spends considerable time on Cleopatra’s likely education, on the social culture of Alexandria, and on the conflicts between the native Egyptians and the Greek immigrants. That structure created a fascinating dichotomy both within Alexandria and between Alexandria and the rest of Greece; I enjoyed learning more about how Cleopatra, grateful to the native Egyptians from her period of exile, worked further towards ingratiating herself towards them and towards improving their lives than had previous Ptolemies. She learned their language, adopted their religion, took part in their rituals, all to a far greater degree than anyone else in her dynasty had. It made her unpopular with the Alexandrians — a new level of political turmoil to add to the swirling charybdis Cleopatra had to negotiate — but it gave her a lot of support in other ways and from other quadrants.

Another fascinating political narrative is that of the East. So often, Rome in this period overshadows the history of what was going on elsewhere, which is a shame, because the machinations of Parthians, Armenians, Anatolians, Judaeans, Nabataeans, and other peoples of Mesopotamia, the Arabian peninsula, and the eastern Mediterranean are well-worth consideration. Cleopatra’s ongoing feud with Herod — as well as the complex and murderous dynamics of his family, to which Schiff devotes some time — is a narrative all in itself, and one which directly refutes claims that Cleopatra seduced every man who dropped into her path.

I also like this book because of the ways in which it remains so relevant. The shaming of women’s sexuality, the body-policing, the castigation of an independent woman, the naked fear of a woman in power — these things still resonate so clearly. The vitriolic criticisms of Cicero would not be out of place in conservative mouths today. As Schiff deftly notes:

It has always been preferable to attribute a woman’s success to her beauty rather than to her brains, to reduce her to the sum of her sex life. Against a powerful enchantress there is no contest. Against a woman who ensnares a man in the coils of her serpentine intelligence — her ropes of pearls — there should, at least, be some kind of antidote. Cleopatra unsettles more as sage than as seductress; it is less threatening to believe her threateningly attractive than fatally intelligent.

This is still true. So much about modern culture imbues women with the idea that they are only worth as much as their body, that their sexuality and ability to bear children defines them — the source of all virtue and all vice, depending on how it’s used. And, of course, men get to decide whether you’ve used it properly or not, now as then; modern women are subject to the same binary judgment as Cleopatra was, cast as the vile, ambitious seductress opposite proper, devoted, modest Octavia. In that way, this book is importantly feminist; we need more of this version of history in the world.

I’ve seen a lot of criticism about this book being dry and boring — and, well, it is a non-fictionalized history. There’s a lot of difference between this book and, say, Hand of Isis, Lily of the Nile, or even the particularly dense Masters of Rome series. But one should not be judged by the other’s standards. Cleopatra: A Life is a bit dry in some places, perhaps, but definitely not boring. It is a comprehensive and engaging biography which clears away the accumulated detritus of centuries’ worth of defamation. Well worth the read.

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