I mean, what interests me about it is how passionate people are about this and to what great lengths they will go to construct theories of conspiracy, of paranoia, of displacement, of masquerade -- all, incidentally, themes that happen within the Shakespeare plays. That they create narratives in which they believe quite passionately, and have gone to very great lengths in terms of excavations and explorations, in order to try to find the true Shakespeare -- as if, somehow, like finding the True Cross, finding some shred of clothing or handwriting would bring us any closer to an understanding of the phenomenon of the writing of the plays or of their cultural power.
So would you accept the label Stratfordian? Or do you really stay aloof from the debate? I mean, do you believe that the man from Stratford wrote the plays?
Why don't you ask me whether I care? Because I think that that may be more relevant here.
I'm very interested in the plays. I have given a great deal of my life, and very pleasurably and enthusiastically, to teaching these plays, to reading them, to watching them on the stage, to reading what other scholars have to say about them, and so forth. I think that they are inexhaustible, that these are extraordinary documents; that every time I read the plays, or one of these plays, every time I see a production -- whether it's an undergraduate production or professional production -- I learn something I didn't know about these texts and about how they function in performance. Every time I read a critic or a theorist, even people quite far away from the fold of Shakespeariana -- I mean somebody like Adorno, in his aesthetic theory, occasionally says something about Shakespeare amazingly compelling, precisely because he's looking out of the corner of his eyes at Shakespeare as a sort of evidence of something that he wants to claim, rather than looking at the plays directly.
So I'm deeply committed to these texts and to a study of these texts, and to the pleasure that they give. That's what I am.
Well, to put it another way, the question you posed at the very beginning of Shakespeare's Ghost Writers is, "What's at stake?" What is at stake here?
Right, right. Well, I think a great deal is at stake, in a funny way. A whole way of reading, or understanding the relationship of literature to life, is, in a way, at stake.
Let me backtrack. I know you know this old bromide, that the Homeric poems were written by Homer "or a poet of the same name." So the historical Homer was one notion -- and you can see this even with the work on the historical Jesus, that some people are not interested in Jesus, the man, that they would prefer to have the figure in the Gospels or the figure who has come down through religious history, and that they think that work on the historical Jesus actually undercuts to some extent their notion of what this central figure for Christianity is or does.
I mean, let's imagine that we knew who Shakespeare was, and that whoever this Shakespeare was, he was the person that we all agreed -- whoever "we" all are -- had written these plays.
As you know, one of the claims that people have made in trying to attribute authorship elsewhere is a claim of expertise. The plays seem very knowledgeable about the nobility and the aristocracy. Shakespeare was not a nobleman, so he couldn't have known these things, so he couldn't have written so intimately about and so accurately about the nobility. It must have been the Earl of Oxford. And again, as you know, what has been alleged is that it was unseemly for an aristocrat to write something as low as a play; it would be like writing a comic book or something like that. And so he had to hide behind Shakespeare, who was his beard, so to speak, in this regard. Or, the plays are very knowledgeable about the law and about politics, and Shakespeare was not a lawyer and he wasn't a politician. Francis Bacon was these things, and so Francis Bacon wrote the plays. So the claim sutures the expertise to things that are described -- either vocabularies or actions or characters in the plays.
Another whole line of thought has to do with biographical details. William Shakespeare of Stratford was the parent of twins. The plays contain twins, in fact a pair of male and female identical twins. Shakespeare had twin children: Hamnet and Judith. So his interest in twins from The Comedy of Errors to Twelfth Night, and to all the people who are described as twins, even though they might not be actually twins, must be biographical.
Shakespeare's relationship with his wife, Anne Hathaway, is one that people have loved to debate. He left her his "second-best bed." Does that mean that he didn't think very highly of her? Was the second-best bed, in fact, the connubial bed, the one they slept in? The best bed in the house was for guests, so this was actually an affectionate gesture? The discussion about the second-best bed is all kind of, as you can see, projection back into what we would like to think or not like to think about the relationship between Shakespeare and his wife. But the people who have looked at Lady MacBeth or other powerful, potentially aversive women in the plays, have said, "Ah ha! This is a biographical reminiscence of Shakespeare's contestatory relations with his wife, whom he left behind in Stratford."
The questions raised in the late plays about the marriages of children, one could say this is about King James and the dynastic marriages that he's arranging for his daughter. He loses a son; Shakespeare loses a son. Many people lost sons, and this was an era in which people died for a variety of reasons. But Shakespeare had a daughter; King James had a daughter. The daughter married; Susannah married Dr. Jonathan Hall. Were these plays, in which a Prospero worries about a proper husband for Miranda, or Leontes worries about a proper husband for Perdita, or whatever, are these plays about Shakespeare the father? King Lear, is this a play about Shakespeare the father?
This is not why I read literature. I think it would be interesting to discover, as it's easier to do with authors who have written more recently, what the relation of the fictions in an author's work is to his or her own biographical circumstances, or education, or reading, or politics. But I don't go to literature for the message, for the historical event that is now allegorized in MacBeth or King Lear or whatever. For me, the power of these works lies in their delineation of character, the extraordinary language, the way in which there seems to be a conversation from play to play, and so forth. And so for me, the totality here is the collection of the plays, rather than any imagined or verifiable human being whose personal data might play into our understanding of this.
Now, I'm a scholar, a critic, or whatever you want to call me, but this is an attitude that's been held by a lot of creative writers too. Dickens, I remember, says, "The life of Shakespeare is a fine mystery, and I tremble every day lest something should turn up" -- that is, he preferred the mystery to knowing anything about Shakespeare, the man.
So what you're saying, then, is that what's at stake is our very relationship to the art itself?
Yeah. What's at stake in the controversy are, among other things, a lot of vested interests -- I mean, the tourism interest, tourism in Stratford would disappear if the author were Oxford -- but what's at stake more seriously, maybe, for somebody interested in literary study, is why we study literature. What is the power of the work of art? What's the relationship of plays and playing to life?
Again, all these things are thematized within the Shakespeare plays. All the critical questions that we might ask about the authorship controversy -- questions of usurpation and pretense and the false allegation of parenthood and so forth -- all these things are thematized within the plays.
Let me come back to this idea of the "Shakespeare industry." As we know, there's not only the traditional Stratfordian Shakespeare industry, but there's also a bit of a cottage industry surrounding the authorship question. It seems to me -- and I know this has been going on for 150 years, at least -- but do you see the authorship question as somehow representative of our moment? Is it symptomatic of something in our culture today, especially, or do you think it's timeless?
Well, no, I mean, timeless is just kind of a euphemism for recurrently timely, I think. And I think that it does coincide with our time. We are in a celebrity culture, we're in a kind of mental fast-food culture, a kind of soundbite culture. And one of the things about the Oxfordians, for example -- and I wouldn't call it a cottage industry so much as a palace industry, maybe, in this case -- is that there is a descendent of the Earl of Oxford. He is alive and well and on the lecture circuit. So you can go to a lecture by Shakespeare by paying your money and going to a lecture by de Vere. And he's an extremely well-spoken, amiable man who also happens to be a British nobleman. This desire to touch Shakespeare, to be in the room with him, to know him, to have sat at his feet, to have that numinous, exhilarating experience -- which I think scholars in their heart of hearts sort of want and don't want at the same time, that fans do and don't want it -- you can have that experience with Oxford, but you can't have it with a descendent of Shakespeare, at least at the present time. And, you know, for Americans, an Englishman, an English lord, still has a certain kind of cachet, it has a certain kind of star quality attached to it. So I think it is part of our celebrity culture a little bit, and a desire to transcend time, to sort of come face-to-face with Shakespeare.
Because again, the cultural effect of these plays and the phenomenon of Shakespeare himself, and the face of Shakespeare on t-shirts and coins and so forth, is such that Shakespeare always seems to be a contemporary, to use Jan Kott's famous phrase from that book of the '60s, Shakespeare Our Contemporary. There is that desire to have him both close at hand and also somehow mystically far away: Shakespeare not our contemporary, and Shakespeare our contemporary at the same time.
And the phenomenon that so many 19th and early 20th-century poets and playwrights and critics had in dealing with Hamlet, where they kept discovering that they were Hamlet. Goethe diagnoses Hamlet as having the same kinds of impulses that he has, and so forth. The Hamlet mirroring effect, the holding up the mirror to nature and finding yourself there, is to a certain extent what people have done in a broader range with Shakespeare: that Shakespeare is everywhere in our culture, and he somehow seems to be mirroring us. And I noticed this in looking at my New York Times the other day and seeing an ad for BMW, where the top line was, "Parking is such sweet sorrow." In smaller print it said, "The Bard had a word for it," or something. Shakespeare's all over popular culture. He's not thought of as too high-brow to be an author that we can all quote.
It seems to me there's also some connection here between the authorship question and our current vogue for biography, and a preference for the biography, for the life, over the works of art themselves.
Absolutely. I think that's very striking. I notice how many biographies are being published and are in the bookstores and are on the best-seller lists, and so forth. And we're in a moment sort of like the end of the 19th century. There are many pages in each of these biographies -- they're big books, by and large. And some of these are biographies of authors or statesmen, and some of them are biographies of artists or politicians. But a biography is the sort of good read that people look for, I think. And the minutiae, the detail, of many of these biographies are not thematic -- they're not making an interpretation of the life, so much as tracing down, producing a tremendous amount of research, a number of factoids about individual lives.
You know, Keats said that "Shakespeare lived a life of allegory, and his works are the comments on it" -- he didn't want to know so much about the biography of Shakespeare. But I think we actually do want to know these details, as if they would tell us something about the origin of the work of art, as if somehow the biography would disclose something about that magical art of poem making or play writing or novel writing, or whatever. In literary studies, there's a kind of triangle, or triad, and emphasis goes from one to another: it's either the author, the work, or the reader or audience. And with the study of any period or any author or set of authors, you can follow as trends go from the one to the next. People are very interested in who went to Shakespeare's plays, did he play for high audiences or low audiences, were there women in the audience, and so forth. There's a lot of work on that, there's a lot of work on the works, and there's increasing interest in trying to find out what was Shakespeare's family religion, for example? Was there Catholicism in his family, as there seems to have been? How does this affect how he writes within the plays? Again, what were his relations with his wife, with his children? How were his economic successes bodied forth in the plays? Are we getting thinly veiled portraits of individuals in these plays, or members of his acting company?
I think this is all fascinating. I'm not sorry that people work on these things. I think it's really very, very interesting. I read these things when they come out. But ultimately, the plays are more powerful and more communicative than any biographical or historical facts that might surround them.
If we had our choice of the life or the work -- if we had our choice of the historical surround or the work -- you know, we don't go to the plays of Shakespeare for their ethical lessons, though they contain them. But it's a rather long way around to sit through a three-hour play in order to learn a moral lesson or an ethical lesson or a lesson in humility or humanity, or whatever it might be. And the other thing that I try always to point out when I'm teaching Shakespeare is that these are plays -- they are not novels or lyric poems. It is very hard to find the true voice of Shakespeare within them. The opinions -- the ethical and philosophical opinions that we find in these plays -- are not only embodied in the so-called main character. Hamlet is not really just about Hamlet's own ideas, but about the political and ethical ideas voiced by Fortinbras or by Polonius or by Ophelia or Gertrude.
And in fact, whenever there are the most resounding passages of what look like political philosophy or ethics in Shakespeare, you often find that they're actually quotations from, or paraphrases of, contemporary works by philosophers or political theorists that are actually held up to something like critique or scrutiny within the plays. Jaque's famous speech on the seven ages of man -- the "All the world's a stage" speech -- is a clichà© in Shakespeare's time. He puts it in the mouth of one of his most charming but also ridiculous and pedantic characters. He contradicts it immediately by what happens next in the play, when an old man who is drooling and at the end of his life and having lost his senses appears, but actually appears to give a lot of wisdom. And this is much more characteristic of how Shakespeare the playwright functions. These great philosophical set pieces are always countered by something that happens, often very immediately afterward in the action, to undercut as well as to support these great, resounding ideas. So when we take Shakespeare as our philosopher or our moralist or our theologian, we're really quoting him out of context rather than looking at the plays as theatrical dynamics.
And in terms of Shakespeare as a playwright, and Shakespeare the man of the theater, I know that you and others, including Jonathan Bate, emphasize the need to understand the actual context, the milieu of production from which these plays come -- that they are very much products of the Elizabethan theater, and how play writing, in much the same way that film writing is today, was very collaborative.
Now, that gets into the notion of authorship, and of individual genius.
Yes, it does. The notion of authorship and originality, in our modern sense, is largely a creation of 18th-century thought and of copyright. Often, when Shakespeare's plays, or plays by his contemporaries, are published in his period -- not in the great folio edition published after his death by his members of his company, but during his lifetime -- the author's name might not appear upon the front page at all. The book seller's name would be there. This was not an intellectual property in the same way that we now think of works of creative writing as being. It's much more like Hollywood script writing. They're playing a number of different plays a day -- they're rehearsing in the morning and performing in the afternoon -- and they've got to get a scene done.
It's like what's also happening in the same period in artists' studios: that Van Dyke will do the hand in the Reubens studio because he's very good at hands, and Reubens will do the body, and somebody else may do the background or the dog at the foot, or whatever it is.
But the idea is not necessarily that this canvas or this play is coming forward as the work of an individual, but rather it is a play performed by the King's men in front of So-and-So on such-and-such a date. The play speaks for itself; it doesn't speak for any author. Shakespeare made his money by being a theater manager, by being connected with a very successful company, a company that owned a number of theaters during their time, that would earn the patronage of the King. And his celebrity, and the reason that he was able to go back to Stratford and buy the second biggest house in town -- that house called New Place -- was because a lot of people went to the theater; not because he was a famous author on the talk-show circuit.
And this notion of authorship, and that the work must or should or does disclose some things about the true feelings of the author, this comes out of Romanticism. This is really a notion that gains speed in the Romantic period. The idea of the author as the possessor of his or her work, that's a very belated notion with respect to Shakespeare.
It's almost as though the real miracle, or mystery, in all of this is that a single authorial genius -- if you don't mind me using the term -- does emerge out of that context.
Yes, exactly. But it's what we call a back formation: it happened afterward and is displaced forward onto the man of Stratford, or whoever it is. You could look at Garrick's Shakespeare Jubilee [in 1769] as the moment when Shakespeare became a cultural hero in Britain, when Garrick himself, a great Shakespearian actor, posed for a statue of Shakespeare, Garrick playing Shakespeare. The phenomenon that we now call Bardolotry really begins from that moment -- from a moment more than a hundred years after.
The Shakespeare "industry," so-called, or Shakespeare-as-a-household-word, this is something that happens much later, after the plays are codified. You know, people have said Shakespeare's an 18th-century author because it was 18th-century editors who edited the plays into the form in which we, most of us, read them most of the time. And there's now a whole process of unediting Shakespeare going on, in which there's an attempt to kind of strip away those normalizations and editorial choices that were made by 18th-century people trying to deduce the "real" Shakespeare, what Shakespeare "must have meant," "wanted to say," "really thought," would have thought if he hadn't been a prisoner of his more "barbaric" age.
The Shakespeare that we have inherited is a Shakespeare that has been pinched and pounded and shaped by the tastes of all of the reading publics from his time to ours. And no wonder he looks like us. We're constantly remodeling him so that he always is contemporary with us.
But do you see a kind of individual, authorial voice speaking in the plays at all?
In reading and teaching these plays, and writing about them, in directing them occasionally, I find correspondences in language, in character, in action, in phrase, in theme, from one play to another, from plays written in the early years to plays written in the later years. I see a character emerging over time, changing his or her name, but appearing in a number of different plays. I find phrases, expressions, points of view, that carry through from one play to another. So you could say that this is more like a kind of ethnography or anthropology, a kind of entering into the world of the plays and finding correspondences. Insofar as there is a true or detectable voice for me, it comes through those correspondences from play to play.
And if I come upon some knotty moment in some play where I'm unsure as to how best to interpret it, one thing that I will do is try to think about echoes from other plays or other situations that seem analogous to this, to try to contextualize that figure, that moment, or that voice or that phrase, in the light of other things that have happened in others of these plays. So it's not that there's nothing that could be called Shakespearian, but for me that experience of the Shakespearian comes from the familiarity with all of the plays and with their conversations with one another.
In Shakespeare's Ghost Writers, you say that "a great deal seems invested in not finding the answer" as to who wrote the plays.
I still believe that.
Can you explain what you mean by that?
Well, Shakespeare seems to be a figure who transcends the possibility of authorship -- again, that's something that Emerson says; it's not an original thought with me. But to have Shakespeare turn out to be an ordinary person with a stomach ache or a bad marriage or budget problems, or something like that, would be to bring him down to human scale. And there's almost a kind of secular religion of Shakespeare that wants to quote these texts as if they were a kind of Bible of human nature, and that wants to understand Shakespeare as -- you know, the famous portrait of Shakespeare with the high forehead, as if he were a mind, as if he were an intelligence, looking into our pettier lives and understanding them beyond some way that we could.
If Shakespeare's brought down to size, in a way, to scale, and is made to be subject to the ordinary pressures of his time, or of any time, then we lose that sense of the all-seeing, all-knowing, all-powerful Shakespeare, about which, again, poets have written from Matthew Arnold's sonnet on: that desire to imagine that Shakespeare knows us better than we know ourselves. And that kind of numinousness, and that kind of transcendence, is not commensurate with any too-intimate knowledge. So in order to keep the ideal of Shakespeare as the playwright beyond play writing -- the author beyond authorship, the poet who knows us all -- we need, in a way, not to know him. The best way to know him is, in a way, not to know him.