Shaking spears at each other

To question, or not to question. That is to be…

A recent conversation at LiveJournal prompted me to revisit the whole ‘authorship of Shakespeare’s works’ malarkey. As I commented there, I had always been firmly convinced that the Man from Stratford wrote the plays, and found things such as Baconian ciphers preposterous (in fact, I even found one of the typical ones worked just as well with bits of Waiting for Godot...) – but seeing Mark Rylance’s play ‘The BIG Secret Live—I am Shakespeare’ made me much more doubtful. Such is the power of drama, eh?

Anyway, I’ve spent some time reading the (often venemous) claims of the Stratfordians vs the Anti-Stratfordians, if only to get my head round the actual evidence and what seems to make most sense. I find it hard to find unbiased summaries of the arguments, so I’ll at least attempt something like that here, albeit very briefly. I recommend this page at for the Stratfordian arguments (HT to Colonel Maxim) and this free, new PDF ebook from (despite it’s occasionally ad hominem approach – “Anti-Shakespearians … hardly smile, perhaps a characteristic of an obsessive mind.”). For the other camp, the only major work that isn’t trying to advocate for a specific alternative author is Diane Price’s Shakespeare’s Unorthox Biography – a useful page listing her 10 key criteria for what makes Shakespeare a biographical oddity also contains responses and counter-responses, which begin to sound like Woody Allen’s Gossage and Vardebedian. Another Anti-Stratfordian has posted a very useful chronology listing documents which reference ‘both’ the Man from Stratford and the Writer of the Works.

Aaaanyway. As far as I can see the main anti-Stratfordian points are:

  1. There is no  evidence of WS’s education (but of course absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, and at most one can simply say this supports neither camp’s argument)
  2. There is no direct literary correspondence with WS during his lifetime
  3. There is no direct evidence that WS was ever paid to write or that he received patronage (despite his requests of the Earl of Southampton)
  4. There are no extant manuscripts in WS’s hand (other than six shakey – hurr – instances of his signature, three on his will; and a much-argued-about Thomas More manuscript)
  5. There is no direct proof of his authorship during his lifetime.

The Anti-Stratfordians also like making a big deal over most legal (non-literary) documents spelling his name Shaxper, or Shackspeare, or various others without the middle ‘e’, while almost all of his works are attributed to ‘Shakespeare’ or ‘Shake-speare’ and similar variants. I don’t find this compelling either way as there are always counter-examples. I’m also ignoring the fact that WS’s will makes no mention of books or other literary matters, as this doesn’t prove anything one way or the other.

Back in the folds of academe, the Stratfordian case is supported thus:

  1. There was an actor called WS in the company that also performed the plays of ‘William Shakespeare’.
  2. The actor was also the WS from Stratford-upon-Avon. The chap from Stratford also had shares in the Globe Theatre.
  3. There is an abundance of evidence in the First Folio (from 1623, seven years after the death of the Stratford chap) that the playwright was the same man as the chap from the Midlands.

These three points are problems if you hold that:

  1. There could have been a conspiracy by actors and writers in the company to pretend the Stratford actor was also a gifted writer
  2. An interlineation in the Stratford man’s will giving money to two fellow actors was added later by someone else
  3. The only evidence during WS’s actual lifetime is circumstantial (true enough) and that a conspiracy (see 1) saw to it that the First Folio was a cover-up.

Mark Rylance, Derek Jacobi and others are behind a ‘Declaration of Reasonable Doubt’ about the author’s identity. I think in a very pedantic sense it is possible to say that it is possible to doubt that the man from Stratford wrote the plays, based on the admittedly unusually patchy documentary record. So they’re right there is ‘room for doubt’. But ‘how much room?’ is maybe the real issue.

Ultimately it all seems to boil down to two alternatives, and which one you find more palatable or least strange:

  1. A lack of direct evidence during the Stratford man’s lifetime for his authorship of the works
  2. A conspiracy of numerous writers and actors to maintain the cipher of ‘William Shakespeare’ as a cover for a person or persons unknown.

But as Charlie Brooker brilliantly expounded, all conspiracy theories rely on a triumph of paperwork over human reliability.

I’ve tried to be fair to both sides here, but I have to say I’m now back in the Midlands, as although (1) is at times troubling, and makes Shakespeare forever a man of mystery to some degree at least, (2) is just silly. I think. Probably.

Address to Burns

It’s Burns Night tonight. I’ve dredged this up from my files for 2002:

Address to Burns

Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face
Great poet o’the chieftain race
Aboon them a’ ye tak your place:
Wordsworth, Shak’speare, Scott.
Yon Sassenachs cannae cut your pace –
Ah love them no’ a jot.

In Alloway ye wis a bairn
Your pa a gairdner in Ayr’n
Ye met your first love there:
Nelly wis her name.
Tae paper thus ye put your pen
Tae give her fame.

Ye exercised your hurdies well
Intae your welcome airms there fell
Muckle lassies in your spell:
Eight bastards sired.
An’ then ye married: jist as well –
Ye must hae been tired!

And so ye clapped your pen once mair
Intae your walie nieve, and there
Wis wroght sic vairses fair
As ony man could mak –
Sae far aboon the skinkin’ ware
O’Coleridge and Blake.

An’ yet, as every rustic must
Or noble aye, ye came tae dust
An’ six feet under ye wis trussed
Frae your feet tae your heid.
But as I’m English, I’m not fussed:
Your doggerel is ‘deid’.

Burns? Pah! In England we should celebrate Browning night on 7th May!

The patron saint of procrastinators

A single blog post by one person I admire greatly, John Crowley, about another, Coleridge, has brought back in a rush all the haphazard things I love about the latter (and it turns out I’ve written briefly about them both before here). Crowley quotes some of this passage:

You have not above 300 volumes to write before you come to it— & as you write perhaps a volume once in ten years, you have ample Time, my dear Fellow!— Never be ashamed of scheming — you can’t think of living less than 4000 years, & that would nearly suffice for your present schemes—/To Be sure, if they go on in the same Ratio to the Performance, there is a small difficulty arises/but never mind! look at the bright side always— & die in a Dream!

The “dear fellow” he is talking to is of course himself, mocking his own tendency to scribble endless ideas for books and other projects in his notebooks – something I can relate to dearly.

Here’s another quote from the same year, 1804, collected in Anima Poetae:

This evening, and indeed all this day, I ought to have been reading and filling the margins of Malthus. I had begun and found it pleasant. Why did I neglect it? Because I ought not to have done this. The same applies to the reading and writing of letters, essays, etc. Surely this is well worth a serious analysis, that, by understanding, I may attempt to heal it. For it is a deep and wide disease in my moral nature, at once elm- and-oak-rooted. Is it love of liberty, of spontaneity, or what? These all express, but do not explain, the fact… From infancy up to manhood, under parents, schoolmasters, inspectors, etc., our pleasures and pleasant self-chosen pursuits (self-chosen because pleasant, and not originally pleasant because self-chosen) have been forcibly interrupted, and dull, unintelligible rudiments or painful tasks imposed upon us instead. Now all duty is felt as a command…

A time will come when passiveness will attain the dignity of worthy activity, when men shall be as proud within themselves of having remained in a state of deep tranquil emotion, whether in reading or in hearing or in looking, as they now are in having figured away for an hour…

His defensive stance on being allowed to dream is the tip maybe of an iceberg of agonies about his lack of output – but he still managed to outcreate most people, and much as some (far from all!) of his poetry is fantastic, I think it’s his prose which should be his lasting monument. He almost created a genre by himself – fragmentary reflections, allusions, digressions (all of which were what attracted him to Borges).

Some day I’d like to collect his thoughts of this kind into a ‘defence of dreaming’… But I probably won’t. And maybe that’s the point.

The warp (stop all the clocks)

has already broken the news (and spoilered my anecdote!), but I’m going to drone at you anyway…

The world won’t be the same without Ken Campbell’s drawling of the words ‘glossolalia’, ‘Neville Plashwit’ and ‘gastromancy’, and walking his dogs on the Walthamstow marshes.

Permit me to trot out a personal memory: and I were chatting to Ken (for it is he) in the bar before a show a few years ago and I speculated whether any of the material was the same as in the last show of his I’d seen. He replied in his remarkable nasal way: “As Newton said about Jesus, he was made of different stuff.”

As he said it, he was pathetically counting out dozens of pennies to see if he had enough for a drink, so I stepped in and got him one. It was, beloved readers, a coke. Ned Sherrin and Alan Coren never told stories like this, eh?

I can still remember some of Macbeth in Vanuatu pidgin thanks to Ken, and that’s a life skill to treasure – though remembers more than I do.

Actually, I’ve also stalked him along Green Lanes with another friend, but that’s another story.

I guess we’ll never get the History of Comedy Part Two now. Sniff.

Maybe if I keep working on my already prodigious eyebrows I can do the tribute act some day.

The music of the warming spheres

So, when I was coaxed out of the house last night, little did I know I’d end up discussing Borat with climate change guru Mark Lynas in a village pub.

It was after a talk he gave in the same village hall (Ramsden) where I went to a previous talk on climate change (which I wrote about here and here). Lynas is an excellent speaker and very accomplished at effortlessly marshalling bucketloads of data, as well as fielding complex questions without pause. He provides an admirably sane view of the whole issue, very much from the perspective of a scientist rather than a campaigner. My only worry is that he is over-optimistic about human psychology, ie a reliance on co-operation between nations (though I don’t really doubt that his solutions are at least possible). To me the issue smacks heavily of the prisoner’s dilemma, and the evidence from studies of that doesn’t suggest co-operation is a likely strategy for people in a world where fighting habitually takes precedence over common sense.

He’s also an entertainingly sarcastic sod, and it was fun talking with him. (I’ve only just discovered he was two years below me at Edinburgh, too). My lingering memory of the evening – other than the talk itself – is of the crazy, beer-filled notion of turning his book Six Degrees (a documentary version is being broadcast by National Geographic next week) into a musical. I can’t help thinking about it. It’s horrible, but it could almost work. Mark, get your people to talk to my people. Or, better, get them to sing.

Epi phenomena – do doo de do do

So, I’ve finally finished Hofstadter’s I am a Strange Loop. I is a strange loop. I am a strange loop.

This is something of an achievement for me as it’s the first time I’ve actually read all of one of his books – I’ve read most of Gödel Escher Bach, Metamagical Themas and Le Ton Beau de Marot, but never quite all of ’em. Anyway, that’s enough italics for now.

It’s a funny sort of book – essentially it rehashes the core argument of GEB, and forms a defence of epiphenomenalism, which is not exactly a new position nowadays (and GEB itself was written in the late 70s). It’s as much an ‘intellectual autobiography’ as anything, bringing in many personal tales, particularly the death of his wife, albeit with a big and slightly confusing chunk in the middle about Gödel’s revolutionary overturning of Bertrand Russell’s endeavours to bolster the foundations of mathematics. DRH makes the same points over and over again, sometimes superfluously: that we work at the abstract level of patterns and defining physical phenomena in terms of tiny little particles is no hope in our quest to understand ourselves – but that ‘we’ emerge from those nonetheless; and that consciousness is a ‘strange loop’ of self-reference inevitable when a pattern-obsessed organism has a sufficiently broad range of categories identifiable by it.

Although this is far from as dazzling a book as GEB, and is really an oldish man now saying ‘yes, but you weren’t listening the first time’, the way he tells things – anecdotes, analogies, allegories – is what makes him so much more interesting than most ‘philosophers’. (Though next time the publishers really ought to stop him thinking he can design the book as well – the pictures in here are pretty bad.)

Let’s hope he doesn’t get interviewed by Jim Naughtie, though, who was bumbling his way through whether a restored Cutty Sark is still the real one this morning…

Stripped of charm

Genealogy is always a double-edged sword. Within minutes of being entertained to find that one set of my great-great-great-grandparents ran a canalside pub in Middlesex… I discovered that it’s now a strip joint next to an industrial estate.

Clare as mud

Last year I observed that I don’t often read the same author one book after another – the exception was Iain Sinclair (see here and here). He’s the exception again. Hot on the heels of Edge of the Orison I’ve felt compelled to read Rodinsky’s Room (co-written with Rachel Lichtenstein).

The first follows John Clare’s ‘journey out of Essex’ – ie his fugue from an asylum at High Beach in 1841, walking penniless, driven by lost (and unregainable) love, the 80 miles to his village north of Peterborough. I can’t remember feeling so inspired and gripped by a book in recent times, such that I’ve fixed anyone who’ll listen (or won’t) with an ancient mariner’s stare and proceeded to prate about it. Sinclair’s form, for me at least, gets ever better with each new non-fiction book he writes – while his fiction (though I probably will tackle Dining on Stones when I have the stomach) gets more unwieldy and unfathomable.

The Clare book is self-indulgent at times, especially with a fruitless quest revolving around his wife’s genealogy, but I loved it throughout nonetheless – the usual blend of coruscating sideswipes at modern blandness, fused with elegiac tones and swathed in his psychogeographic obsession with making connections: Sinclair is the real Dirk Gently.

I’m still in media res with the Rodinsky book – more on that some time soon.

I was there

A trip to the Design Museum, for the splendid You Are Here exhibition. A festival for geekish poring. Along with the inevitable Tube map delights, highlights for me included:
– Adrian Frutiger’s Symbols and Signs – Explorations foldout chart
– The works of Richard Saul Wurman, Otto Neurath (hurrah! my old chum Basic English) and Annegrete Moelhave
– John Adams’ 1679 map of road distances between UK towns and villages
– Joseph Priestley’s invention of “charts of biography”
– the unlabelled maps comparing metro networks across the world

Much Googling to be done, frankly, and much else of interest besides, but:
(a) no catalogue!!
(b) as J pointed out, er, didn’t the design of the exhibition (not to mention the dreadful Design Museum website as H has already observed) somewhat let down the premise. A major missed opportunity, given that the structure of the exhibition itself was so blurred.

I also discovered the works of Edward Tufte, which I shall be tracking down, especially his essay about PowerPoint being the death of reason, a long-cherished philosophy of mine.

Yes yes, I kneau that

On Friday, I finally got to see The Life and Death of Peter Sellers.

If you don’t know, I’m a Peter Sellers nut, and probably have about 15 of his films on video or DVD (plenty more to go…), plus lots of audio. I openly acknowledge that (a) a huge percentage of his output, or his directors’ output perhaps, was dreck (b) he was a complete shit of a person. But.

In many ways it’s a good film, though by no means a great one. Good things, of course, include a very plucky performance by Geoffrey Rush, and a great supporting cast, and some game quirks such as the bits where various people in Sellers’ life transmute into Rush (an attempt to capture the spirit of all those films where Sellers, and Alec Guinness (his hero) before him, played numerous roles) and talk to camera. But.

Rush frequently captures the mannerisms of Sellers well, and if you squint, you can see the man. He also has a good pop at some silly voices, but at heart I think he’s the wrong man for this job (who the right man is, I don’t know, or modesty forbids ho ho). His normal voice, for one thing, is far too deep and growly – Sellers had a very hard voice to capture, and distinctive largely for its nondescript quality (with an affected twang of the d?racin?), in the same way that the ‘ordinary’ voice of someone like Rory Bremner is, well, ordinary. I could never quite let go of it being Rush, alas (plus no amount of prosthesis can disguise Rush’s glaciated face).

And the mugging to camera – why? If you’re going to have an element like that in your film, surely the point is to ‘stylise’ the subject’s life in some way, with some ‘theory’ to interpret their behaviour. No such theory was ever offered, really, even in the relationship with his mother Peg, which was only sketched with the broadest brush. Sellers’ family music hall background was ignored.

It seems the whole aim of this film (it must have been secretly backed by bitter Blake Edwards) was simply to say ‘Peter Sellers was a complete shit’. It’s absolutely true that he treated everyone in his life badly in one way or another, but the film never attempts to engage in any depth with why this might be, and the idea of him as a ‘child-man’ is nodded at without any sense of making it a real way to think of him. As ever, the real Peter Sellers remains elusive.

What saddens me most, really, is that for all its accuracy in biography and the extreme and appalling moments of selfishness in his life, the film fails to capture the positive side of him at all. It showed audiences smiling happily at his performances, but failed to make its own audience smile as they could have done. There is no sense in which this film is a celebration of Sellers’ remarkable talent.

So, er, anyway. I think it *is* a good film, but clearly created in a spirit of loathing for its subject. Contrast Man in the Moon, another biopic of an intensely irritating, selfish and demanding comedian, which nevertheless makes you go away with sympathy and a smile.

But for general readers, the entertainment lay in the fact that the sound went two-thirds of the way through watching it, in Oxford’s remarkable Ultimate Picture Palace, closely followed by the picture, leaving 12 people (count ’em) looking around the auditorium, at each other, and at glimpses of a white haired old gent in the projection room, somewhat baffled. The owner of the cinema has completely disappeared. I took the opportunity to annoy H with a couple of public Clouseau gags, and shone my bike light up at the projection room. Eventually the owner appeared and the film was rewound to the wrong place, then back to the right place for us to watch loads of it again, and eventually we got to see all of it, if not quite in the order intended. Marvellous.