Puzzling Shakespeare: Still Relevant After All These Years

Posted By on December 22, 2013

Published over twenty-five years ago in 1988, Leah Marcus’ Puzzling Shakespeare remains among the most important books written by an orthodox Shakespearean scholar in response to such radical manifestations of “post-Stratfordian” skepticism as Charlton Ogburn’s The Mysterious William Shakespeare: The Myth & the Reality (1984), the book which not only undoubtedly inspired the dust jacket iconography of Marcus’ book but influenced much of its theoretical orientation as well.

Puzzling Shakespeare is a wide-ranging book. In this review I will focus almost exclusively on the part of the book which, to me, is most interesting and most historically important: chapter 1 (1-50), “Localization,” which primarily treats Patterson’s analysis of the 1623 Shakespeare first folio. Parts of this review were previously published in the Shakespeare Oxford Society Newsletter, but the review has been revised and updated to reflect a context of 2013.

Despite the author’s hostility towards a heresy which her distinguished career in literary studies had not fully prepared her to comprehend, the book constitutes a seminal contribution to the history of Shakespearean scholarship, whose full implications are only now, in the 21st century, becoming apparent to literary historians.

Thus, while many academic books tackle ephemeral subjects, Marcus’ analysis of the first folio materials in the first chapter of her book has become more, not less, significant as the years pass by and orthodoxy continues to fail to grapple in an honest manner with the evidence she presents.

The unacknowledged keyword in Marcus’ discourse is “doubt.” She bravely sets forth to tame the history of doubt articulated by Ogburn — without, incidentally, acknowledging or drawing the question into focus – in order to draw it within the orbit of a conventional cultural criticism.

However, the doubts Marcus inherits from Ogburn have an uncanny knack for stinging her when she’s not looking. Consequently, the book is a curious blend of Stratfordian polemic against the “wildly disrupting” antics of the Oxfordians and a sophisticated analyses of the semiotics of the 1623 first folio, and the concept more generally of “local” reading, which goes very far towards destroying the premises that Marcus set out to defend.

Stratfordians, as Ogburn argues, “have no case if they do not take the first folio at face value” and “grant it the claim of authenticity” (1984 222). In Marcus’ book, for the first time in many decades, an orthodox critic takes up the theoretical enigma of the First Folio. Although her intentions are orthodox beyond reproach, Puzzling Shakespeare (1988) is the first book by anyone to begin the job of contextualizing the bizarre semiotics of the folio in a properly historical and comparative light.

Doubts about the folio often begin and end with the obvious – the perversely uncoordinated Droeshout engraving of the alleged author. Indeed, long before Marcus the Droeshout’s reputation was already so damaged that a popular joke among the 18th century Encyclopediasts, according to former Boston Globe staffer Patricia Smith, was that somebody should apply Occam’s razor to the bard’s hirsute cheeks.

“Damn the original portrait,” declared the art historian Gainsborough, “I never saw a stupider face. It is impossible that such a mind and such rare talent should shine with such a face and such a pair of eyes.”

Bardographer Ivor Brown compared it unfavorably with the Stratford monument depicting a “‘puddin-headed’ William who could never have written anything except a note of hand to buy malt.” And even Samuel Schoenbaum cannot distract himself long enough to avoid admitting that the “Droeshout’s deficiencies are, alas, only too gross” (Ogburn 222-23).

It turns out, as Marcus shows, that within the Renaissance tradition of prefatory materials the engraving looks even more bizarre than it does to the untutored modern reader. In each case, comparison serves rather to enhance than suppress the impression that there is “something fishy” about the first folio.

Read in conjunction with editor Jonson’s accompanying poem, the Droeshout begins to appear like a droll joke on orthodox pretensions to understand the author; compared to Droeshout’s other prefatory material, the Folio looks more, not less, bizarre; compared to the typical prefatory materials of the period, it assumes — says Marcus — an “iconoclastic,” “Protestant,” and “rhetorically turbulent” character.

But it is Marcus’s analysis of how the engraving and the Jonson poem function as parts of the folio ensemble which is most provocative from an Oxfordian perspective. Gainesborough and other critics, suggests, Marcus, “blame the picture for a broader discomfort arising out of the endlessly circulating interplay among all elements of the title page–the portrait, the words above, the poem” (20).

These elements, furthermore, seem to have been designed to set the Shakespeare Folio apart from other books by deliberating cultivating an atmosphere of discordance and mystery which “sets readers off on a treasure hunt for the author” (19). The engraving itself, wholly lacking in the ornamental features and trimming oval customarily employed in such book designs, affects “a slightly unfinished look…[offering] no particularizing details-only the raw directness of the image, as if to say that in this case no artifice is necessary: this is the Man Himself “(18).

Jonson’s poem on the facing page, however, tells another story. The poem “undermines the visual power of the portrait by insisting on it as something constructed and `put’ there” (18). The net effect of engraving and poem, argues Marcus, is to set in motion a competition between poem and portrait in which the two elements are “vying for the reader’s attention” (19).

Furthermore the poem — in its emphasis on the artificial and unreal nature of the engraving and its explicit warning to “look not on his picture but his book” — is “in the precise sense of the term, iconoclastic” (19) — that is to say, it literally attacks the credibility of the portrait it effects to accompany. In Marcus’ analysis, then, the Folio frontispiece functions

like a veil covering the book’s contents and preserving it from vulgar eyes: Only those learned enough to “read” the book’s visual schematization on the title page had earned the right to enter the text itself. (21)

This “veiling” of the book’s text, moreover, has an immediate implication with respect to the enigma of authorship. The juxtaposition of Droeshout and Jonson poem, writes Marcus, disorients and disrupts the very perceptions it invokes. The folio

makes high claims for “The AUTHOR” while simultaneously dispersing authorial identity; so that “Mr. William Shakespeare” becomes almost an abstraction, a generic category, while remaining an unstable composite. Given the rhetorical turbulence of the volume’s introductory materials, constructing Shakespeare requires almost a leap of faith, like Jonson’s, and depends upon the suppression of a host of particulars that recede into indeterminacy when an attempt is made to pin them down. (25)

Marcus’ point, if this reader understands her properly, is that the editorial transformation of the author “Shakespeare” into an “abstraction” and a “generic category,” is intimately tied to the “veiling” of meaning which the folio effects to accomplish. It is not just that old “honest Ben” — as Jonson, tongue firmly planted in his cheek, liked to be remembered — preferred his authors on the half-shell. Somehow the meaning of Shakespeare’s text, or possibly the range of relevant interpretation, is bound up with the veiling of author’s identity. Marcus calls it a “powerful inducement against [the] localization” of meaning — but misses the obvious point that Jonson may be making a plea for a relocalization of meaning veiled by the folio’s pretenses.

Marcus does recognize, however, that far from supplying material for a life of Shakespeare, the folio purposefully renders him abstract and generic. Jonson calls Shakespeare a “monument without a tomb;” the folio, argues Marcus is paradoxically a book without an author — or rather, a book which feigns to represent an author and at the same time instructs the reader that he is a ruse, a smokescreen, a hoaxing understudy for somebody concealed under the grotesque exterior of the Droeshout’s hydrocephalus cranium.

So, while effecting to dispel the anxiety the folio will generate in a sophisticated reader, Marcus ends up on the same treadmill as every other Stratfordian apologist. She sets up all the theoretical landmarks for a post-Stratfordian exegesis of the folio’s rhetorical function as an “engineered artifact” (to use Ogburn’s terminology) in the “imaginative conspiracy” (to use Supreme Court Justice J.P. Stevens’ terminology) – but having caught a glimpse of what lies ahead, she turns tail and races in the opposite direction, leaving a host of troublesome questions scurrying behind her in the dust like abandoned children.

In her more candid moments, Marcus admits to sharing the orthodox nostalgia for endless revisionism which instantiates and motivates the Stratford ideology. The virtue of Stratfordianism, for the Shakespeare Industry, is that it legitimates an endless play of compensatory theorizing. Unlimited by the specter of an authentic authorial presence supplying an “objective correlative” — the thing T.S. Elliot insisted was lacking in orthodox accounts of Hamlet — anything goes: anything, at least, which doesn’t endanger the sacred assumption of Stratfordian authorship.

“We seem to want to keep a thing called Shakespeare,” admits Marcus, “if only to guarantee the authenticity of our own revisionist enterprise” (36). The admission puts a finger on the button of the motives which provoke the intense irrationality of orthodox reactions to new Oxfordian evidence and old (but unread) Oxfordian reasoning: it is not the authenticity of Shakespeare so much as the authenticity of themselves, which is somehow felt to be attacked and undermined by anti-Stratfordians.

Whatever the cause, Marcus spares no opportunity to vent her scorn against Oxfordians. She indicts them of “wildly disrupt(ing) the efforts of Shakespearean historicism” through their “devastatingly unconscious parody of traditional historical methodology.” Their “fringe movement…has dogged topical approaches to Shakespeare like a dark shadow” and “has been more corrosive than we have been willing to admit” (35).

Only an eternal Stratfordian vigilance against crackpots like Looney can protect scholarship from the “marauding inroads of irresponsible interpretation” or the “perils of ungoverned topical interpretation, in which meaning is shifting and transient, at the mercy of the whim or vices of a mercurial audience” (30).

Such narrative moments, haunted by the specter of “irresponsible,” “ungoverned,” “transient and shifting” interpretations, are a tip-off to the psychological and ethical issues which are ultimately at stake in the authorship controversy. Like many earnest and well-intentioned critics of her generation, Marcus seems to need to believe that she is on the side of the oppressed “discontents” of civilization. Hence her book is in part an apology for, and endorsement of, “local reading” – the kind of reading at which Oxfordians, who at least know in what sector of the universe the author lived, have been all too sophisticated at generating and advancing.

In this respect, Puzzling Shakespeare represents a flanking maneuver by a Stratfordian industry preying on the idealism of 1960’s generation of “tenured radicals;” the focus on the “topical” is a veil to disguise the psychological plausibility of the Oxfordian case, which stands in such stark and unforgiving contrast to the almost total failure of Stratfordian psychology to make significant contributions to Shakespeare scholarship (because authors inevitably depart from the wrong set of minimal biographical facts and inevitably fail to achieve Elliot’s “objective correlative”).

As the Oxfordians might see it, however, Marcus’ rattling the banners of liberation contains an unacknowledged paradox which haunts the rhetoric of her book. As Warren Hope (PhD, English) would have it in his brilliant The Shakespeare Controversy: An Analysis of the Claimants to Authorship, and Their Champions and Detractors (1992, 2009) Marcus is merely defending the entrenched citadel of “professional bureaucrats, servants of the state’s cultural apparatus, who inform the people of the currently fashionable brand of truth by asserting it repeatedly, and at great length”(6).

And in the final analysis, it seems that Marcus actually believes – unconsciously at least – Hope’s analysis: reading between the lines, it is clear that her position of power-knowledge is situated right at the imaginative cusp of empire.

Caught between the Scylla of a politically incorrect universalism and the Charybdis of the Oxfordian abyss, Marcus’ rhetoric deliberates by chasing its own tail until it finally disappears into the babbling vortex of Ben Jonson’s “complicity in the humanist enterprise” — a retrojection of contemporary values and needs (above all, the urgent professional need for Stratfordians to believe that Jonson was conspiring “with us” and not “agin us”) which is a doubtful substitute for the kind of self-critical appraisal called for by Richmond Crinkley in his 1985 Shakespeare Quarterly review of Ogburn’s book.

Admittedly, it is only an academic ideal that controversial ideas should be discussed with moderation and tolerance and that orthodox powers are on their honor to offer a fair and accurate representation of alternate theories so that students can exercise their own independent faculties of investigation and argument rather than merely bowing down in awe before the nearest sacred cow with tenure. But the prerequisite to presenting an alternative is knowing what it says.

As Crinkley wrote in his review, Ogburn “chronicles a sorry record of abuse from the orthodox [Stratfordians], much of it direct at assertions never made, positions never held, opinions never expressed.”

Clearly, Marcus has learned something from Crinkley’s abrasive critique of orthodox habits of misrepresentation. She’s learned where to place the footnotes to create the illusion that she has read the Oxfordians and is giving them a fair shake. But this is no more than an intellectual shell game. “If the intellectual standards of Shakespeare scholarship quoted in such embarrassing abundance by Ogburn are representative,” wrote Crinkley, “then it is not just authorship about which we have to be worried.”

Crinkley, of course, was right. There is a fundamental ethical problem at stake in this conflict, and that ethical problem is aptly suggested in Marcus’ reference to Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents. Marcus is haunted by the specter of father Freud himself: Of all the sins of the Oxfordians, the seduction of Freud is, according to Dr. Marcus, the most unforgivable:

This fringe movement, which has dogged topical approaches to Shakespeare like a dark shadow, has been more corrosive than we have been willing to admit (it convinced Sigmund Freud, for example), and has had the effect, along with the first folio itself, of casting a faint yet lingering odor of inauthenticity over all Shakespearean historicism. (35)

Perhaps the fall of Freud, when all is said and done, is merely a minor parentheses in a much more encompassing nightmare vision. As Harold Bloom would have it in his Western Canon, Oxfordian huns and vandals are poised to sweep through the lacerated gates of civilization, with legions of topical berserkers, anarcho-feminists, epistemologists and sheep dogs in tow.

In the final analysis, the psychology of the Stratfordian ideology is not difficult to diagnose. It is a politics of envy — proceeding from the psychological need to trim Shakespeare down to mortal size, paradoxically, by deifying him, in the words of the late Samuel Schoenbaum, as an “incomprehensible genius.”

Perhaps, to our surprise, Stratfordianism is little different, in its essential essentialism, than the original “imaginative conspiracy” of the Tudor Crown to place the real author of the plays in the dark. Just as war is said to be an extension of diplomacy by other means, the Stratfordian ideology is an extension of Tudor policy under another name, an extension inspired by motives that become more and more prosaic, comical, and unconscious as the controversy proceeds towards the inevitable denouement of the lie.

Already the first of the tenured professoriate have started belatedly to follow in father Freud’s heretical footsteps, at last beginning to grasp the actual cultural and psychological dynamics of the controversy and to withdraw their intellectual capital from the Stratfordian bureaucracy, leaving orthodox rhetoricians with less and less of a herd to fall back upon for safety when the tough questions begin to be posed.

The retreat is visible on the title pages of leading editions of the collected works starting as early as the 1990s. David Bevington’s 1995 fourth edition (1995) of the collected works tosses the Droeshout engraving which adorns the cover of the 3rd (1980) edition, in favor of the Schneemaker statue erected under the patronage of Pope and his friends in Poet’s corner at Westminster Abbey in 1740. The 1996 Riverside opted for a reprint of the eerily de Vere-like Staunton portrait owned by the Folger.

The real author’s own relationship to the Tudor crown, historically and psychologically, was far more complicated and contradictory than an oversimplified Freudian model will allow. He may well have been the most self-censored author in the history of art, and it was his highly conscious wrestling with the moral problems of knowledge and representation which he transformed into the cultural capital of his work. As Charlton Ogburn says in the Frontline Documentary, the bard compensated for the loss of his literal kingdom – the political power and prestige inherited in the de Vere dynasty — by recreating a kingdom of the imagination.

As he says in Rape of Lucrece,

Time’s Glory is to calm contending kings
To unmask falsehood, and bring truth to light.

Somewhat against the conscious judgment of the author, this book is a highly recommended contribution to that historic project. It can be read and appreciated by any student of the Shakespearean works interested in understanding their historical origins and genesis.

If you enjoyed this review, please like it on Amazon.

About the author

Roger Stritmatter is a native liberal humorist who lives in Baltimore, Maryland. Contrary to rumor, he does not live on North Avenue. He does, however, work on North Avenue. A pacifist by inclination, one of his heroes is John Brown. But he thinks that Fredrick Douglass, another of his heroes, made the right decision. Stritmatter's primary areas of interest include the nature of paradigm shifts, the history of ideas, forensic literary studies, MS studies, renaissance literature, and the history of the Shakespearean question, the latter a field in which he has published extensively.


2 Responses to “Puzzling Shakespeare: Still Relevant After All These Years”

  1. John Lavendoski says:

    Well writ, Doctor !!! Well writ….

    Many gems in here, but my favorite is this:

    “In her more candid moments, Marcus admits to sharing the orthodox nostalgia for endless revisionism which instantiates and motivates the Stratford ideology. The virtue of Stratfordianism, for the Shakespeare Industry, is that it legitimates an endless play of compensatory theorizing. Unlimited by the specter of an authentic authorial presence supplying an “objective correlative” — the thing T.S. Elliot insisted was lacking in orthodox accounts of Hamlet — anything goes: anything, at least, which doesn’t endanger the sacred assumption of Stratfordian authorship.”

    I write in a more straightforward vernacular…and have thus put that same thought this way in the past:

    The orthodox Shakespeare is the ultimate “empty suit”…one gloriously free from any annoying “distractions” to the Stratfordians preferred academic endeavors…distractions such as a genuine human presence….an actual human personality…or even a single human life experience which has any relation to the canonical works themselves. This is a happy situation for orthodox academics, who are thus free from almost all restraints is their research choices. They can stuff that empty suit with all of their own half-baked theories, logical leaps of faith and outright fantasies as there can be no “wrong notion” about an author when there is no author actually “there” to begin with !!!

    How sweet is THAT ??!!!??

    Put another way, as Stratfordia has designed / engineered Shakespeare, he is the ultimate blank canvas on which to project their OWN fantasy lives. Hell, he’s BETTER than a blank canvas…he’s a virtual Etch-A-Sketch on which they can scribble their pet theories, as well as revise, redraw and even erase them at will….with no theory ever subject to so pedestrian a fate as being “disproved” by any other academic.

    As one Early Modern professor friend of mine once said to me in a moment of rare and total candor: “Why would I ever want to talk about the actual author in class ?? It would just create a big distraction from the interpretations that I want to teach. Who needs that ??”

    • Roger Stritmatter says:

      Thanks John. Excellent paraphrase in a more relaxed register! Oops, even that sounds academic. Well, sorry…..He’s the ultimate empty suit. That’s better. : )

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