Posted By Roger Stritmatter on June 15, 2011
“Shakespeare lived a life of allegory. His works are comments on it.”
These words by John Keats, perhaps the greatest English poet after Shakespeare, distill the essence of authentic Shakespearean biography — as distinct from the seemingly never-ending parade of sham biographies inflicted year after year on an unsuspecting public.
In 21st century literary circles it is no longer fashionable to speak of essences. But this book does have an essence – even, especially, a quintessence – that fifth part of what is essential, the constituting DNA of life, from which everything that is worth saying owes its genesis and germination.
In 16th century alchemy and neo-Platonism — the philosophy of Shakespeare’s own age — the quintessence of a substance could be separated from impurities by chemical means through distillation to reveal the concealed but “divine signatures impressed on earthly things by the Creator for their proper use” (Debus 4).
Shakespeare lived a life of allegory.
His works – down to the tiniest particles of meaning, the letters that make up words, like sequences of amino acids on the double helix of life – are comments on it. Macbeth felt that life was a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing, but Macbeth is not Shakespeare; in Shakespeare every dust mote signifies, every exclamation echoes to the reverberate hills. He signed his works.
The only unanswered question is: are we human enough to hear?
There is an old tradition, going back even before Keats, that Shakespeare was a magician.
He was. But like Prospero in the concluding scene of his Tempest, he was a magician caged within the confines of his own magic, shipwrecked and alone, unable to remove the spell of his own devising, but left to solicit forgiveness and redemption from comprehending readers.
Divided within himself, he transformed his own alienation into the wellspring of his art. On the one hand, he followed the admonition to self-sacrifice so explicitly inscribed in Matthew 6.1-4, underlined in his Geneva Bible: “when you give your alms, do not blow your trumpet in the marketplace.” But, he was also, in the prophetic words of Walt Whitman, a “wolfish Earl” one of those with a “towering spirit of ruthless and gigantic caste, with its own peculiar air and arrogance.” Could he follow Christ’s path?
We will probably never know when he marked those verses in his Geneva Bible; that he did so is beyond dispute, just as it is beyond dispute that his contemporaries regarded those verses as the spiritual justification for completion of great works in secret, read them as Christ’s injunction to anonymity (See Stritmatter, 2001, 23-30, 217).
If you are an average literate reader of the 21st century you are now experiencing doubt.
Chances are, you have been told that it is ridiculous to think that Shakespeare was anyone but Shakespeare. You thought that Bill Bryson, Stephen Greenblatt, and James Shapiro had laid all this nonsense to rest. You may even have heard Birthplace Trust Fund promoter Stanley Wells declare that “Shakespeare of Stratford wins the debate.”
You do not, yet, count yourself among the “unsatisfied,” do not feel compelled to share Henry James’ conviction that Shakespeare is “the biggest and most successful fraud ever practiced on a patient world.”
Stay with me for a moment longer.
Try an experiment. Imagine, if you can (even against your “better judgment” if you must) that what the Oxfordians have said is true. Imagine that “Shakespeare,” aka Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford (1550-1604), following the admonition of Matt. 6.1-4 (among other reasons), hid himself and allowed his works to appear under the “noted weed” (Sonnet 76) of a pseudonym and a literary “front.”
What kind of psychology does that dilemma produce? If you were that man, how would you feel, what would you do?
Something there is, says Robert Frost, that does not love a wall.
And something there is in “Shakespeare” that does not want to be concealed, a part that wants, nay yearns to be known, a small still voice inside that protests with every fiber of his literary being against the “loss of his good name”:
And this desire, to be known by the reader, is the secret spring of the Shakespearean vernacular, the language and mythos Shakespeare created for himself, about himself.
Green begins from a puzzle left us by Shakespeare. Noticing that the bard at least three times, in three different plays (Titus Andronicus, 4; I Henry IV, 2; Merry Wives, 4) alludes to the same page and passage in Lily’s Latin Grammar, perhaps the most generally known book (except the Bible) in early modern England, Green wonders, why?
Was the bard trying to tell us something, using Lily as his trusted confidante?
If so, was there some method to his madness? Had he some precedent or guide?
What might we find, on that thrice-marked page of Lily’s grammar, that he wanted us to know?
Perhaps – Green does not say this herself but it seems to me a reasonable speculation – the bard was following a clue from his favorite source, the book to which, above all others save the Bible, he turned over and over for wisdom and literary sustenance: Ovid.
Perhaps the bard was imitating a motif which Leonard Barkan –former Bliss Snyder Professor of English and Art History at Northwestern University and now Chair of the Department of Comparative Literature at Princeton — identifies as the connecting link between Shakespeare and Ovid,
the first signal that Shakespeare knew his Ovid at first hand, and that he read The Metamorphoses with a deliberate and original purpose.
This “first signal” and connecting link, says Barkan, is the myth of Philomela,[i] the natural “point of entry to the powerful relation between [the] two geniuses,” Ovid and Shakespeare.
In that Ovidian myth, the rapist Tereus cuts out his victim’s tongue to prevent her from naming him; the inventive Philomela, tongueless, instead weaves a tapestry to identify and accuse him.
In so doing she supplies a model for the literary figure, well known to modern literary critics but first named by Ovid, in another passage[ii] of his Metamorphoses, of intertextuality. Intertextuality is the study of the conversations which literary texts have with one another — for example the way Shakespeare makes deliberate use of such Bible passages as Ezekiel 16.49 in order to supply a context and commentary for Hamlet or Joyce’s Ulysses retells The Odyssey.
In his comparative analysis of Titus Andronicus and the Philomela motif, Barkan notes that both stories involve “escalating efforts to stifle communication” and he argues that “The [Philomela] story attracts Shakespeare because it is centrally concerned with communication.”[iii]
Concluding that this Ovidian motif forms the deepest and most potent strata of Shakespeare’s involvement with Ovid, Barkan leads us directly to the center of our shared question:
Titus takes us back to the darkest side of Ovid’s poem…[but]….it is not lessons in perversity that Ovid offers Shakespeare – there are many other classical sources for that – but a series of paradigms for the act of communication. Many of the great figures of Ovid’s poem define themselves by their struggle to invent new languages….Narcissus, [like Philomela], must discover a language of paradox that suits his situation….Shakespeare appears to be still struggling [in Lucrece and Cymbeline] with the problems of Philomela, the juxtaposition of mutilation and communication.[iv]
“Inventing new languages?”
Appropriating “a series of paradigms for the act of communication” in order to “struggle with….the juxtaposition of mutilation and communication”?
Surely this is not the Shakespeare you studied in 9th grade.
We may wonder: just as Shakespeare’s characters are forced by circumstance to follow Ovid’s exemplars to “define themselves by their struggle to invent new languages” and “discover a language of paradox that suits their situations,” is Shakespeare himself following the same Ovidian template? Could such a communicative strategy be the concealed key to otherwise obscure passages or subterranean connections to third party texts like Lily’s Grammar?
Let us see.
Here is the first passage, from I Henry IV, alluding to Lily’s discussion of nouns:
Figure Four shows a detail of the passage from which the line “homo is a common name to all men” is drawn:
In Merry Wives of Windsor in Act 4, scene 1 the bard also draws from the same page while Sir Hugh Evans tutors “William” during his Latin lesson. Evans introduces the lesson by asking, “How many numbers is in nouns?” The answer is found in Lily’s discussion of nouns: “in nouns be two numbers,” immediately following the above excerpt.
Neophytes may have some difficulty appreciating how funny this is, but it is, in fact, hilarious: William is getting his Latin lesson from the page in Lily, used to illustrate the definition of a “noune substantive,” which announces the name of the real author. In renaissance philosophy, a substantive is distinguished from an accident — it describes a real thing, while an accident is merely a quality of a thing and has no independent existence. Reading Lily and Merry Wives together, we might say that the message is that William is an unlettered accident — an adjective — of Edward.
The jest may even remind some of Thomas Nashe’s remark to Gabriel Harvey to watch out for de Vere: “he may be a little man, but he hath one of the best wits in England.”
Under the revivifying influence of the bard’s literary magic, Lily’s book is filled with a new signifying presence, speaking what cannot be said in propria persona.
It is the first grammar lesson for a post-Stratfordian epistemology, a strand from the double helix: Eduardus is my propre name.
[i] The Gods Made Flesh: Metamorphosis and the Pursuit of Paganism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986), 247.
[ii] Ovid, Meta. VI: 127-28.
[iii] Barkan, 245; my emphasis.
[iv] Barkan, 247, 249; my emphasis.