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My Name is Will, by Jess Winfield

Title: My Name is Will: A Novel of Sex, Drugs, and ShakespeareMyNameisWill
Author: Jess Winfield
Year of Publication: 2008
Length: 304 pages
Genre: historical fiction / modern fiction
New or Re-Read? New
Rating: 2 stars. Maybe.

I have conflicted feelings about this book. I wanted to like it, somewhat enjoyed half of it, and could’ve entirely done without the other half.

My Name is Will tells two stories in parallel. The William section, set in 1582, follows William Shakespeare through a tumultuous few months of his life, where he woos women, gets entangled in a Catholic conspiracy, becomes a man, and winds up accidentally married to Anne Hathaway. The Willie section of the book, set in the 1980s, follows a lackluster graduate student through a weekend where he tries to defend an indefensible thesis topic, bangs a lot of women, gets stoned a lot, and winds up accidentally smuggling drugs to a Renaissance faire.

The William section of the book is pretty fun — though a total fantasy hinging on a highly inventive narrative. But whatever, I can deal with that. The writing here occasionally soars, because Winfield has a good grip on rhetoric. For someone who knows what syllepsis looks like and can spot anthimeria at fifty paces, these chapters can be a real treat. Unfortunately, it can never sustain that high quality for very long. There are plenty of bits that drag. Winfield occasionally belabors his history to cram in the backstory that not everyone will have when it comes to Shakespeare’s life, conditions in mid-16th century Warwickshire, or the politics of Elizabeth’s reign. And then it sort of unravels at the end. Events collide into each other with bizarre pacing, and there are a few tangents that most definitely come out of nowhere.

The Willie section of the book… if that were all the book was, it would’ve been a DNF for me. I found Willie to be 3000% unsympathetic. I mean, really, I’m supposed to feel bad for this entitled, lazy-ass grad student, who can’t be bothered to finish the thesis and get the degree his father has paid his way for, because he’s too busy trying to figure out how to nail PhD candidates and spends all his father’s money on weed and mushrooms? Seriously? That is not a protagonist to me. That is someone I want to kick in the shins. I am thoroughly unimpressed by druggie culture, and even more unimpressed by crappy students who give academia a bad name. This made it impossible for me to connect with the character or to care about his story. I didn’t care if he managed to make his drug deal to get the money he so desperately needed because his father (sort of) (finally) cut him off, except insofar as I wanted the arrogant little snot to get arrested.

There were also times in both sections when it felt like Winfield was trying to be gritty for grittiness’s sake. I’m not someone who enjoys crudeness. I know some people appreciate that in their fiction, but I’m not one of them. I don’t need to be reminded every other page that people piss, shit, fart, and are full of pus. I just don’t. Maybe that makes me squeamish or something, but it just puts me off.

And then there were the female characters. Between both storylines, there was exactly one female character who had a purpose beyond being a receptacle for sperm — Shakespeare’s mother, Mary Arden. And we don’t even see that much from her until the last quarter of the book. Every other women in the book, no matter her station, her purported intellect, whatever, just seems to fall flat on her back with her legs spread for William or Willie. It’s beyond ridiculous. Willie’s section in particular is just the pornographic fantasy of an emotionally stunted twenty-something male. Lord knows I don’t mind sex in a book — as I’m sure y’all can tell from the number of romance novels I review — but in My Name is Will, it’s just pathetic and tawdry. I have exactly no interest in the erectile state of some spoiled, entitled loser, but by God will you hear about it in this book. Over and over and over again.

Overall, I think this book is a really big case of YMMV. I’m sure there are a lot of people who would find appeal in the very things that repelled me. The 1582 chapters kept me reading, but this book was very nearly something I could not even get through. There were a few worthwhile moments, and those, I imagine, will stick with me. But this is not one I’ll ever feel the compulsion to re-read.

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Shakespeare on Theatre, edited by Nick de Somogyi

Title: Shakespeare on TheatreShakespeareonTheatre
Author: Nick de Somogyi
Year of Publication: 2013
Length: 213 pages
Genre: nonfiction – history
New or Re-Read? new (review reposted from the ASC Education blog)
Rating: 3.25 stars

Shakespeare on Theatre is a good entry-level exploration of how Shakespeare’s plays comment on the conditions of Shakespeare’s theatrical world. From company structure to architecture, from prompters to casting, from prologues to epilogues, de Somogyi provides a compendium of Shakespeare’s commentaries on the theatre. What’s best about this, I think, is that de Somogyi shows that those references don’t only turn up in the expected places — the plays-within-plays in Hamlet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Love’s Labour’s Lost, the self-aware prologues of Henry V and Romeo and Juliet, the masque of The Tempest. Rather, the book also explores the subtler and smaller intra-theatrical instances. He reminds us of Cleopatra’s horror of watching a child actor “boy” her greatness on a rudimentary stage, of Macbeth’s metaphor of death as the ultimate exeunt omnes, of Margaret costuming the Duke of York with a paper crown.

De Somogyi also does well to expand his explorations and include  examples from other playwrights, many of them more overt in their self-referential moments, such as Ben Jonson’s various admonishments to the audience, or the appearance of actors Burbage, Condell, and Lowin as themselves at the top of Marston’s The Malcontent. The book includes snippets of poetry and of polemics both pro- and anti-theatrical, giving a broader view of the role of playhouse culture in 16th- and 17th-century London. Throughout, de Somogyi connects the conventions of Shakespeare’s theatrical world to examples of how those conditions have changed — or stayed similar — through to the modern age. It’s also pleasing that he typically off-sets terms like “metatheatrical” or “fourth wall” with quotation marks in recognition of the fact that those concepts, while common to theatre today, would have been alien to Shakespeare’s company and their audience.

Curiously, he seems less interested in that interplay when it comes to characters who “perform,” unless they do so explicitly. In The Taming of the Shrew, for example, he devotes considerable attention to the frame story involving Sly and the Players, but none at all to Petruchio’s various performances within the text. Nor does he consider the theatricality inherent in kings speaking to royal courts or to the commons. The deposition scene in Richard II, the fraught peacemaking of King John and King Philip, Richard III’s pretended reluctance to assume authority — these would all seem to be fruitful for what they have to say about the intertwining and overlapping of performing on the stage and performing in life (and about the blending and manipulation of on-stage and off-stage audiences), yet de Somogyi does not plumb them for their potential.

The overall effect of the book is to remind the audience that, as de Somogyi points out explicitly more than once, a playwriting was “a functional craft”. Shakespeare on Theatre goes a long way towards de-mystifying the idea of theatre as sacrosanct art. Modern culture tends to designate it as an emotional enterprise, but the early modern reality was much different. The book peels back the romantic notions and exposes the business of theatre — and demonstrates clearly that Shakespeare was a man who knew the practical aspects both on the production and the financial sides.

The book’s main flaw, in my opinion, is its freedom of conjecture. De Somogyi does not often enough qualify his pronouncements on Shakespeare’s life with the necessary disclaimers. I worry that someone approaching this book with a less solid grounding in the subject matter might take his narrative constructions as true biography. It’s even more concerning that this trend begins on the very first page of the introduction to the book. De Somogyi begins with the admirable opening statement that Shakespeare “was a working man of the theatre to his core,” but from there slides effortlessly into an imagined sequence of events — a lovely fantasy, of a “stage-struck boy” eventually “talent-spotted by a later touring troupe” who grew from an actor with “precociously impressive skills as a textual fixer” into the greatest playwright of the age. There are perhaps even some probabilities mixed in with the inventions, but they are still only conjectures, not evidenced facts. De Somogyi seems to assert things as truth that we cannot know for sure. More imaginative declarations of this type take place throughout the book, along with other generalizations about early modern theatre that I feel could have used some end-noted explanations.

With that caveat, however, I can generally recommend this book as a solid introduction to the interwoven dialogue between play, playing, and playhouses. Devoted scholars aren’t likely to find anything new here, but the book is accessibly written and a comfortable first step for someone who might then move on to deeper examinations like Gurr, Stern, or McDonald. It also might serve as an interesting source of monologue material for auditioning actors. Many of de Somogyi’s selections are the appropriate length, but a different variety than typical guides provide.

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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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The Bookman’s Tale, by Charlie Lovett

BookmansTale

Title: The Bookman’s Tale
Author: Charlie Lovett
Year of Publication: 2013
Length: 352 pages
Genre: historical mystery
New or Re-Read? New
Rating: 4.25 stars

The Bookman’s Tale is the story of Peter, an antiquarian bookseller who, in the midst of grieving for his recently-departed wife, finds what appears to be a Victorian-era watercolor of her, pressed inside an old copy of Edmond Malone’s An Inquiry into the Authenticity of Certain Miscellaneous Papers (the book exposing William Henry Ireland’s forgeries of Shakespearean manuscripts). Though he knows the painting can’t possibly be of his wife, he feels compelled to find out the identity of both painter and subject. Hunting down this information leads him to stumble across an early edition of Robert Greene’s Pandosto, the source material for The Winter’s Tale. While this would be an extraordinary find on its own, what makes this particular book even more astonishing is the marginalia: a series of notes apparently written by Shakespeare as he composed his play. Peter thinks that he may have realized his life-long dream to find evidence proving once and for all that Shakespeare wrote the plays attributed to him, but he knows enough of the history of forgeries to be wary of deception, and so he sets out on a quest to determine the book’s authenticity. He’s not the only one on the trail, however, and people with a lot to lose if Pandosto proves authentic are willing to kill to preserve its secrets.

The book moves along three separate but interrelated storylines: the first set in 1995, when Peter finds the copy of Pandosto and goes on his quest; the second set in the 1980s, when Peter begins his career in rare books at college, and which also charts his relationship with Amanda from their first meeting to its tragic end; and the third spanning from 1592 through the 1870s, tracking the transmission of one copy of Pandosto through time and through the exchange of many hands. The historical plotline delves into the world of playmaking and printing in the 16th and 17th centuries, showing what a cutthroat business it really could be, driven by rivalries, egos, and personal vendettas. Of the three storylines, the least relevant to the driving plot is the 1980s thread — but that is the storyline which gives this book its heart. It’s what makes you care about Peter, and it’s what makes you feel that his quest matters not only scholastically, but personally as well. It also provides a lot of the connective tissue which ultimately ties the loose ends of the story together, because the reader gets to see Peter learn his trade as well as learn to come out of his shell and engage with Amanda’s family and friends.

I received this book from the publisher, in exchange for a review, and I will freely admit that I had a lot of reservations — and I will just as freely admit that they were all, thankfully, rendered irrelevant. I worried this would be yet another Da Vinci Code knockoff, and while I have nothing against that genre of book in general, the quality can be alarmingly varied. I worried it would have an anti-Stratfordian bent, because I have learned to be leery when I see phrases like “prove the truth about Shakespeare’s identity” on book jackets (as turned out to be the problem with Interred with Their Bones). I worried that the dead-wife angle would make it too maudlin, too Gothic for my personal tastes (as was my trouble with the well-written but not-to-my-preference The Thirteenth Tale). I’m very happy to say that, as it turns out, I had nothing to fear on all three counts.

The biggest problem, I think, is that the summary really doesn’t do the book justice. For one thing, it makes it sound like the book is a lot more about the painting and the Victorian angle, when the far greater focus is on textual transmission and the development of the Shakespeare brand through the centuries. It’s also not nearly as mournful in tone as the jacket makes it out to be, nor is the vaguely paranormal element the jacket hints at as prevalent. Peter is a strong protagonist without needing to be an action hero, and I appreciate him for that. He is, definitely, a scholar and a bookseller, and at no point during the story does he morph into a super-spy or an Indiana Jones. He remains what he is, using his intelligence, his inquisitive nature, and his training in the field of early modern publishing to hunt down the mystery. I also appreciated that Lovett could give us an introverted protagonist with social anxiety problems and still have him be a strong character. Peter struggles a lot, both early in the 1980s storyline and in the 1995 storyline, with social interaction, but the reader gets to see him learn how to deal with that. He finds his safe spaces and safe people. Unfortunately, since Amanda was the one who drew him out to begin with, after her death, he retreats from the world and isolates himself entirely — so a lot of the story isn’t just his quest to find the truth behind Pandosto, it’s about him finding closure with her death and learning to be that more-adjusted version of himself again, even without her. It’s a deeper and more emotionally satisfying angle than I was expecting the book to have, and it strengthens the narrative.

I only have a few minor complaints, most of which didn’t really impede my enjoyment of the book: Some of the twists and turns are a little predictable, but that doesn’t bother me much. After all, as Shakespeare so often reminds us, knowing the plot isn’t the same as knowing the story. The Bookman’s Tale is less a fast-paced thriller and more a historical-psychological exploration with a dash of mystery, and I appreciate that Lovett didn’t seem to feel much need to hammer it into another form. The threat of danger towards the end is the only place it gets a little Da Vinci Code-y, but even there, The Bookman’s Tale strains plausibility far less than other books in this genre. There were only a few details throughout which I found far-fetched, such as a professor of Shakespeare at an esteemed university never having heard of Q1 Hamlet (but perhaps, in the 1980s, that could have been true? I don’t know). The secondary romantic interest felt a little tacked-on and unnecessary. The book definitely would have worked just as well without that aspect, but Lovett also isn’t too heavy-handed about it, so it’s easy to ignore.

I can cheerfully recommend The Bookman’s Tale as a great summer read for any Shakespeare enthusiast, but particularly, I think, for the sort who has a real interest in the early modern world of playmaking and printing. There’s more substance here than to your typical novel of this sort, and a lot more “Easter eggs” slipped in for the benefit of readers-in-the-know. I think those of a scholarly bent will appreciate the attention to detail which Lovett gives the history of textual transmission. The sections set during Shakespeare’s lifetime are full of wonderful details, intriguing cameos, and cheeky off-hand references. Lovett clearly knows his stuff when it comes to the playhouses and the print culture of early modern England. The Bookman’s Tale would actually be a great companion book to Shapiro’s Contested Will, in some ways, because it takes a fictionalized look at the true history of how Shakespeare mania grew over the centuries into a force which spawned forgeries and erroneous theories. It just released this week, so pick it up at your local bricks-and-mortar or on Amazon.

Cross-posted, with some additions and adjustments, from the American Shakespeare Center Education Blog.

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Interred with Their Bones, by Jennifer Lee Carrell

Title: Interred with Their Bones
Author: Jennifer Lee Carrell
Year of Publication: 2007
Length: 416 pages
Genre: thriller
New or Re-Read?: New
Rating: 2.5 stars

Interred with Their Bones is a Shakespearean twist on The Da Vinci Code, and if you approach the book with that firmly in mind, you’ll probably find some enjoyment in it. It is, however, one of those books where you can only apply but so much logic to it before the entire structure collapses under the weight of sensibility.

The book’s plot structure follows a little too neatly in the Da Vinci path, involving many of the same character tropes and narrative devices. We open, after a brief and vague historical flashback, with Kate Stanley, director of the Globe’s Hamlet, meeting for the first time in years with her estranged and eccentric mentor, Roz Howard. (If you’re enough of an early modern history geek to be quirking an eyebrow at those names, rest assured: yes, everyone in the book labors under similarly referential nomenclature). Roz has some terrible secret to impart and a quest to set Kate on, but before she can reveal the details of either, she is found dead in the aftermath of a fire (not, as the book jacket would have you believe, at the Globe itself, but in an auxiliary building). Kate feels obligated to pick up Roz’s trail of bread crumbs. As she follows them, more dead bodies start piling up around her, and she ends up fleeing with the police on her trail, a device which feels even more strange in this book than it does in The Da Vinci Code. Kate has no real reason to distrust the police, no reason not to clear herself from culpability before embarking on her quest, and so her actions just seem bizarre and inexplicable. It gives the drama of the plotline a false echo, and it’s just one of the threads that a reader has to avoid plucking at in order to avoid a total collapse of the narrative. Still, with thrillers, you do sometimes have to make plausibility allowances, so this element may not prove troublesome to all readers.

Part of what hindered my enjoyment of this book, which I could otherwise have consumed as mere Da Vinci Code-esque fluff, is that I resent, as a scholar, how much this book not only entertains anti-Stratfordian opinions, but implies that very serious people in the Shakespearean world would hold those opinions. (Hint: They don’t. Some actors and directors, shamefully, but no scholar worth his or her salt gives the authorship “controversy” any credence because it doesn’t deserve any). I started to recoil as soon as Carrell broached the topic, and eventually, that aversion colored my reading of the text pretty strongly. I now know how art historians and theologians alike must feel about Dan Brown.

Despite the pitfalls of the exploration of the “controversy,” the book is actually at its best when traipsing through historical possibilities — the inventions linking Cardenio to Catholic plots via Cervantes and Jesuits are reasonably entertaining and provide some profitable fodder for exploration. I could cheerfully entertain all of that, if not for the editorial commentary suggesting that any of it might be true. The jet-setting aspect of the book, volleying from London to Harvard to the Southwest to Spain (and ricocheting back and forth between some of those a few times) is a fun diversion, and Carrell does an admirable job of painting her landscapes.

One of the critical failings in this book, unfortunately, lies in its protagonist and narrator. Carrell presents Kate as though she is some big up-and-comer in the Shakespearean field, a director that a Patrick Stewart/Ian McKellan type would refer to as “that brilliant American child.” Kate, of course, demurs from this description in , but the whole thing smacks of Informed Ability. Kate is a brilliant scholar and director because Carrell tells us that she is. This trait in of itself wouldn’t be so bad, except that, for such a prodigy, Kate has some pretty glaring gaps in her knowledge — and one of them is the fundamental underpinning of the mystery, the fact that Shakespeare wrote a lost play entitled Cardenio. The first-person narrative also hampers the book, partially because Kate’s head is not quite an interesting enough place to spend four hundred pages in, partially because it accentuates that gulf between her reputation and what she actually knows. First-person narration creates a trap for a writer: if the audience needs to know something, either the narrator knows it and tells it, which can come off as preachy, or the narrator doesn’t know and has to find out in order for the audience to find out, even if it’s something the narrator should already know — or shouldn’t need quite as much hand-holding to figure out. Interred with Their Bones manages to fall into both pits multiple times at different points in the story.

Interred with Their Bones was adequate entertainment for lying on a beach. If you’re in a place where your mind can let go and indulge freely in a suspense romp, then by all means, pick this up. The pace clips along well enough to keep a reader engaged, and if the plot turns are occasionally too predictable, sometimes that’s what you’re looking for out of light summer reading. If you’re looking for heavier fare or superlative writing, though, you may want to look elsewhere, as this book doesn’t hold up well under even light scrutiny. Apparently there’s a sequel. Might I read it? Sure, if someone handed it to me free of charge, and I had some time to kill. Unfortunately, that level of engagement and investment is all that Carrell’s writing warrants.

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I, Iago, by Nicole Galland

Title: I, Iago
Author: Nicole Galland
Year of Publication: 2012
Length: 370 pages
Genre: historical fiction
New or Re-Read?: New
Rating: 4 stars

I, Iago skillfully retells Shakespeare’s Othello as the Tragedy of Iago, following the famous villain through the course of his career and explaining just how he came to be the mastermind orchestrating the downfall of a proud general and all those connected to him. In doing so, Galland fills in some of the gaps of Shakespeare’s narrative, showing us how Iago came to be who he is and chronicling the circumstances that change him from a loyal friend and subordinate to a scheming, vindictive meddler.

The book divides into “Before” and “After,” meaning before and after the point where the play Othello begins, and each half is quite interesting in its own way. In “Before,” we get the development of Iago as a person. Galland’s research serves her well here — early modern Venice springs to life in vivid detail, particularly with regards to its military and political matters. We meet Iago as a young man, and he explains that he has always been known as “honest Iago” — not a compliment in Venice, where the ability to quibble, to flatter, and to evade has far more value than blunt truth. Iago lacks subtlety, always speaking his mind, and taking decisive action rather than weighing the consequences beforehand. He is boyhood friends with Roderigo, though he disdain’s the other boy’s weakness and lack of gumption; they grow apart as they grow older, with Roderigo following his family’s mercantile endeavors. Though Iago has scholarly leanings, his family’s prerogative forces him into the military, where he excels, first in the artillery, then in the army. Along the way, he woos and wins Emilia, the only woman he’s ever met with whom he can tolerate much conversation, and their marriage is a blissfully happy one. When Iago meets Othello, there is instant camaraderie; they meet at a masked ball during Carnival, and the circumstances echo their characters. Neither man can hide what he is, though Othello more obviously, thanks to his skin tone. Iago, on the other hand, suffers that inability in his character. Throughout the book, we see him incapable of wearing a mask, both literally and figuratively — in every Carnival scene, he ends up discarding his vizor, and his ungoverned tongue and open expression display his blunt opinions at every turn. The two men sense a commonality between them, a lack of patience with the artifice and genteel dishonesty of Venice. Iago comes to think so highly of Othello that there’s nothing he wouldn’t do for him, including helping to conceal his epileptic fits from the Venetian Senate. He follows Othello to war, to disastrous ruin on Rhodes, and to the altogether different battleground of patrician dinner tables and courtly galas. There, in the household of Brabantio, Othello meets his undoing: a girl named Desdemona, enraptured with the idea of him. Iago counsels him against the courtship, explaining that no Venetian patrician would ever let his daughter marry outside of that narrow caste; Othello pretends to give up the infatuation, but in fact corresponds with Desdemona in secret and eventually planning an elopement — and since Othello has little more talent for deceit than Iago, Iago has little trouble uncovering the scheme.

In the “After” section, we watch this character, whom Galland has rendered quite likeable, fall. Othello betrays Iago’s trust, giving a coveted lieutenancy to the less-qualified Michele Cassio as a reward for assisting in his covert courtship of Desdemona. Emilia is, to Iago’s eyes, inexplicably supportive of the deceitful romance, and therefore complicit. Feeling wounded and discarded by those he most loved and trusted, Iago’s bitter hurt prompts his plans for revenge.

I call this book the Tragedy of Iago because it tracks his rise and at least partially self-constructed fall in a way that renders him both likeable and pitiable. Galland makes a wise choice, spending the first half of the book on events we never see in the play, because it gives the character a more solid background, particularly in regard to his relationship with Othello. In Shakespeare’s play, the audience hears of their association and implied friendship, but we never truly get to see it; we know from the start that Iago is working to ill ends, because he tells the audience so in barest terms. In I, Iago, the friendship is palpable, heart-warming — and so Othello’s betrayal of Iago has a real emotional effect. When Othello begins to shut Iago out in favor of Cassio, the reader is privilege to Iago’s pain and bewilderment. We also get new motivation for Iago’s actions — jealousy and revenge play their parts, and no mistake, and Iago freely admits that he wants to hurt his friend for hurting him, to disgrace the usurper Cassio, and to remove Desdemona from the picture (though he does not intend to do so through her death). That isn’t the total of what’s going on in Iago’s head, however; when he sees how easily Othello can be roused to dangerous passions, he starts to harbour deep concerns about the general’s ability to serve in the position of honour and responsibility with which the Venetian Senate has placed him. He worries, too, about Othello’s judgment; a man who will pass over more qualified men in order to hand positions to panderers, after all, demonstrates an ethical lapse. Iago never claims to be operating only for the common good, in removing a potentially dangerous commander from his post — but since that lines up neatly with his desire for revenge, why not work for both?

The dual nature of the tragedy is most obvious in the moment when things spin past Iago’s ability to control them. His words have an effect far greater than he expected, as Othello proves so easily inflamed where his wife is concerned.  The subtler tragedy is that turning Iago from honesty to deceit. He has to learn that trait, a talent foreign to him from birth, and it’s terrible to see him do so — to see a good man corrupted by an unfair world. Iago becomes almost drunk on it, overindulging, swept up by his newfound power, pushing limits to see how far he can take his lies before they become too improbable — and astonished when that barrier never seems to impede him. He learns deceit from those who deceived him, and since we have the juxtaposition of his stalwart honesty in the “Before” section, the transformation is all the more calamitous.

The book is best when it’s not trying to out-clever itself. The moments where I grimaced were when Galland was cramming in bits from other Shakespeare plays that didn’t quite belong — having Iago banter with whores and his military comrades by using lines from Measure for Measure and As You Like It, much of his courtship with Emilia coming straight out of Much Ado about Nothing— because they were jarring, discordant. The tenor was so different from the story she’d been telling that it seemed an odd digression. Initially, this made me nervous for the second half of the book, which covers the plot of Othello, but Galland actually handled the dialogue there quite smoothly. We hit the major points and get the biggest quotes without much interference, but most of the conversations are taken out of verse and into more natural prose in a way that doesn’t seem forced or awkward. The story does rather hurtle itself through the climax and denouement, however, and while that is perhaps appropriate, given how circumstances spiral out of Iago’s control, I could have done with a little more fulfillment, since we had so much build-up to the crucial moments.

This book leaves me wanting the story from yet more angles — Emilia’s, for instance. We only ever see her through Iago’s eyes, and though it’s clear she’s an intelligent and independent woman, she remains only an object throughout this novel. Because everything is first-person narrative, we lose her in the moments when Iago’s not there — which are some of her finest moments in the play. We never really get to know what she’s thinking, and as Iago begins on his plot of vengeance, he distances himself from her, both because he wants to protect her and because he no longer quite trusts her — which has the effect of removing her from the reader as well as from himself. This book is definitely the story of men; Emilia and Desdemona are intriguing, but peripheral, and since Iago never understands either of them, the reader doesn’t get that opportunity, either.

Overall, I, Iago is an entertaining and thoughtful adaptation of Shakespeare’s Othello. The prose is well-constructed, the historical research thorough, and the characters well-drawn. Galland explores the story from an intriguing angle and creates a more three-dimensional world, situating Venice and its characters in the larger world. Whereas Shakespeare narrows in, focusing his scope tighter and tighter until it fits in a single bedroom, Galland allows us to see how this tragedy ripples outward. I think most Shakespeare enthusiasts will find a lot to like about this book, and if there are also some points to criticize — well, most of us enjoy that, too. Galland deserves commendation for getting me interested in this story when Othello is definitely among my least-favourite of Shakespeare’s plays; she tells a compelling tale, and it’s definitely worth a read.

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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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