Tuesday, October 11, 2011

We're doomed: authorship question edition

Ads have started popping up on campus for Anonymous, a new movie advancing the stupid idea at the Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, who died ten years before Shakespeare died, is the real author of Shakespeare's plays.

The authorship question has always struck me as the most pointless species of coffee-shop bullshit, given that there's no reason to think Shakespeare didn't write those plays. No reason, that is, except chauvinism: the belief that only a member of the genetic aristocracy could possibly write fine plays.

As it happens, I just read Bill Bryson's Shakespeare book last month. The final chapter is devoted to this trumped-up controversy, which he entertains and dismisses more concisely than I ever could. His discussion culminates on page 195:
[It] is possible, with a kind of selective squinting, to endow the alternative claimants [the Earl of Oxford, the Earl of Derby, Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe, and others] with the necessary time, talent, and motive for anonymity to write the plays of William Shakespeare. But what no one has ever produced is the tiniest particle of evidence to suggest that they actually did so. These people must have been incredibly gifted-- to create, in their spare time, the greatest literature ever produced in English, in a voice patently not their own, in a manner so cunning that they fooled virtually everyone during their own lifetimes and for four hundred years afterward. The Earl of Oxford, better still, additionally anticipated his own death and left a stock of work sufficient to keep the supply of new plays flowing at the same rate until Shakespeare himself was ready to die a decade or so later. Now that is genius!
What is it about the allure of conspiracy theories that makes otherwise smart people stupid?

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Misguided perfectionism in R.U.R.

I'm most of the way through Capek's R.U.R., the play that coined the word "Robot." My favorite part, so far (and by far) is the long comic prologue, which occurs ten years before the main action of the play.

Among other things, it's a funny and vivid illustration of one kind of worry about perfectionist moral theories-- that is, theories that hold that we have a moral obligation to develop or perfect our human natures. A lot turns on understanding what our natures are, and the implications of perfectionist theories, if we're off target in our sketch of human perfection, can be menacing. Thus the following conversation, which conflates "ideal human" and "ideal worker" to funny and terrifying effect (p 17-18 in my Penguin Classics edition). Helena Glory is a visitor at the robot factory. Everyone else supervises some aspect of the factory's work.
HELENA: Why do you make [robots] then?
BUSMAN: Hahaha, that's a good one! Why do we make Robots!
FABRY: For work, Miss. One Robot can do the work of two-and-a-half human laborers. The human machine, Miss Glory, was hopelessly imperfect. It needed to be done away with once and for all.
BUSMAN: It was too costly.
FABRY: It was less than efficient. It couldn't keep up with modern technology. And in the second place it's great progress that... pardon.
FABRY: Forgive me. It's great progress to give birth by machine. It's faster and more convenient. Any acceleration constitutes progress, Miss Glory. Nature had no understanding of the modern rate of work. From a technical standpoint the whole of childhood is pure nonsense. Simply wasted time. An untenable waste of time. And in the third place--
HELENA: Oh, stop!
I just love the line, "From a technical standpoint, the whole of childhood is pure nonsense." So true.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

To be or not to be, I there's the point

I've been reading Bill Bryson's Shakespeare: The World As Stage. He includes this version of the opening of Hamlet's soliloquy from one of the "bad quartos," an early, published version of Hamlet presumably transcribed from the memory of someone involved in the production (p 160 in Bryson).

To be, or not to be, I there's the point,
To Die, to sleepe, is that all? I all.:
No, to sleepe, to dreame, I marry there it goes,
For in that dreame of death, when wee awake,
And borne before an everlasting Judge,
From whence no passenger ever returned...

This is funny, but interesting too. We're familiar with tons and tons of phrases from the first half of the Hamlet soliloquy:

- slings and arrows
- outrageous fortune
- sea of troubles
- thousand natural shocks
- to sleep, perchance to dream
- what dreams may come
- shuffled off this mortal coil

None of those stuck in the transcriber's mind. The thing that seems to have made the biggest impression is the ratio-like series, "to die, to sleep, to sleep, to dream." Seems like a great illustration of 1) the fallibility of memory 2) the importance of word-choice 3) the fact that there is no audience but individuals with idiosyncratic psychological makeups.

The Bryson book has been a pleasure to read, though it was marketed to far too big an audience. It has nothing to say about the plays. Bryson seems totally uninterested in them. It has little to say about Shakespeare-- we hardly know anything. But it is a collection of interesting and often funny anecdotes of Shakespeare's day and subsequent Shakespeare scholarship. It's an easy way to satisfy a curiosity for historical context.

Basically, if you're looking for a book to help you get into Shakespeare, this isn't it. If you already like Shakespeare, but don't know anything beyond the text of the plays, then this provides some quick and fun context.