Brush Up Your... Marlowe?

by Julia M. Klein
Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? / Shakespeare and the American Musical
By James Shapiro / Irene G. Dash
(Simon & Schuster, 339 pages, $26) / (Indiana University Press, 229 pages, $24.95)
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More problematic than Shapiro’s biographical leaps is his assertion that it is wrong to assume that Shakespeare’s psychology resembled ours, “that Shakespeare’s internal, emotional life was modern.” Evolutionary psychologists would certainly deny that a few hundred years have substantially altered human psychology.More to the point, why would Shakespeare’s plays have retained such currency and psychological impact if they were the product of a psyche alien from ours?

There is no question that Contested Will, which has already occasioned considerable debate, lands at a time of great popular interest in the subject. As Shapiro acknowledges, this is a cultural high-water mark for the presumed authorship of de Vere, a celebrated poet and playwright who would have been intimate with court manners and politics, and whose life story evokes incidents in Hamlet and the rest of the canon. The progenitor of the Oxford hypothesis was the Englishman J. T. Looney, whose 1920 book, “Shakespeare” Identified in Edward de Vere the Seventeenth Earl of Oxford, was embraced by Freud, among others. Shapiro reads it as “a product of Looney’s profound distaste for modernity,” but also calls it a “tour de force.”

The most fanciful versions of the Oxford hypothesis include assorted “Prince Tudor” theories, positing that de Vere was either Queen Elizabeth’s son or her lover or both, and sired her son, the Earl of Southampton. Oxford’s secret dramatic output supposedly represents an attempt to work through the resulting emotional turmoil. That de Vere died in 1604, before the later plays were produced, is seen as no obstacle, with his advocates suggesting he could have written them earlier. Various Supreme Court justices and the noted Shakespearean actors Derek Jacobi and Mark Rylance are among those who have signed on to the Earl’s authorship. Roland Emmerich is directing a movie, Anonymous, scheduled for release next year, that imagines Oxford as the true Shakespeare.

In support of the Stratford Shakespeare, Shapiro points to early printed texts of the plays that refer, mistakenly, to actors in Shakespeare’s company rather than characters, as well as a few recollections by Shakespeare’s contemporaries — convincing enough evidence, however scanty, to satisfy most readers. From a lay perspective, Shapiro’s most surprising revelation, though not news in academe, concerns how extensively Shakespeare, especially in his later years, collaborated with other playwrights. His coauthors apparently included George Wilkins (Pericles), Thomas Middleton (Timon of Athens), and John Fletcher (Henry the Eighth, The Two Noble Kinsmen, and a lost play, Cardenio). The results fell far short of Shakespeare’s best work, raising the question of why he felt impelled to seek out writing partners.

Shakespeare’s plays, by whatever author or combination of authors, have long served as an imaginative prod to other writers. Irene G. Dash ’72GSAS, a former Hunter College professor best known for her scholarship on Shakespeare’s women, has now turned her attention to the impact of his work on the American musical theater. Shakespeare and the American Musical hypothesizes that the challenges of adapting Shakespeare helped transform the musical, speeding its evolution into an “organic” entity in which song and dance advanced the plot, and spurring such innovations as the tragic musical (West Side Story) and rock musical (Your Own Thing, Two Gentlemen of Verona).

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