29 August 2005

The Forty-Sixth Psalm

In the early part of the twentieth century, among a certain type of individuals with too much time on their hands, there arose a theory that Shakespeare was, at least in part, one of the translators of the King James Version. The basis for this "claim" was that the forty-sixth word from the beginning of the Forty-Sixth Psalm is "shake," while the forty-sixth word from the end is "spear."

<SARCASM> Yeah, I'm convinced. </SARCASM>1

From which we turn to an "essay" in the NYT on creating Shakespeare's identity, and find:

"Shakespeare" by Another Name has problems, too. Mr. Anderson seems willing to go along with questionable traditional arguments if they can easily be turned into arguments for his case. For instance, he wholly accepts Sir Thomas More as de Vere's — not only the parts of Scene 6 that traditional scholars claim for Shakespeare, but the entire play. Most of the manuscript is in the handwriting of Anthony Munday, an author of the period who for a time, Mr. Anderson says, was de Vere's secretary. De Vere, like the play's hero, had firsthand experience as a prisoner in the Tower of London, where, Mr. Anderson supposes, he might well have written the play.

William Niederkorn, "The Shakespeare Code, and Other Fanciful Ideas From the Traditional Camp" (30 Aug 2005) (typography corrected).

The real question, though, is not who Shakespeare "really was," but whether it really matters. Those who would ascribe authorship to one or another candidate (including Will Shakespeare himself) delude themselves that it really makes much, if any, difference to the richness of the plays and sonnets themselves. After all, we really don't have the kind of documentation of the "lives" of these candidates that we assume might exist on the basis of more-modern examples. Eric Blair is an excellent example.2 By early 1943, I don't think there was an Eric Blair any longer—only the literary persona he invented. He even began signing cheques "George Orwell," let a flat in that name, and wrote to even longstanding acquaintances that way. The key point, though, is that it doesn't matter. Although the text on the page is not all that we must consider, it is the beginning point, whether in literary or legal interpretation. Whether we need go to other sources depends at least on the text itself, and how we understand it. Very seldom, though, will the "actual" identity of the author matter to understanding even nuances in a written work; the "public" identity of the author is probably good enough. And when it is unlikely that we would have the detail to which we have become accustomed to try to distinguish between the "actual" and "public" identities, one must question the value of the inquiry—because, if it wouldn't make a difference, we don't need to go there.3

  1. Sadly, this isn't that different from some arguments that I've seen regarding constitutional interpretation. And I don't mean just the "tax nuts," either.
  2. I researched his life pretty thoroughly during the mid-1980s; if I didn't manage to read everything then known and available that he had written, I came darned close.
  3. As a refugee from theory-heavy literary scholarship, I sneeze in the general direction of those who would assert otherwise and challenge them to a battle of books, not unlike that which occurred in St. James's Library this Friday last.