Thursday, December 14, 2006

Chronicling Shakespeare

Toward the end of her persuasive Manifesto for Literary Studies, as part of her argument for the distinctiveness of literature as literature, apart from (while deeply invested in) history and culture, Marjorie Garber turns to Shakespeare. For the proposition that it doesn't matter who he really was, she quotes Emerson, the great Romantic:

Can any biography shed light on the localities into which the Midsummer Night's Dream admits me? Did Shakespeare confide to any notary or parish recorder, sacristan, or surrogate, in Stratford, the genesis of that delicate creation? The forest of Arden, the noble air of Scone Castle, the moonlight of Portia's villa, "the antres vast and desarts idle" of Othello's captivity--where is the third cousin, or grand-nephew, the chancellor's file of accounts, or priavte letter, that has kept one word of those transcendent secrets?

To which Garber adds, "Not knowing Shakespeare's history is what gives Emerson his Shakespeare."

Not everyone is so quick to agree. There are those who think, for example, that Hamlet would be better understood, perhaps as Freudian drama, if we knew something about the author's relationship with his own father. In my experience, though, it's not the English professors who worry so much about who the man was: it's professionals of a more fact-based turn of mind, say lawyers.

Almost twenty years ago, in September 1987, a three-judge panel of the United States Supreme Court heard the case of de Vere v. Shakespeare--the challenger being Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, considered the most credible of the many contenders to the name. Successfully defending Shakespeare before Justices Brennan, Blackmun, and Stevens was a bright young law professor named James Boyle, whose talents I've recently noted.

Asked whether it had been a tough case, Justice Brennan said (as reported in the New York Times) it had been "an impossible one." But, he added, at least no one had declared "All's well that ends well."

Despite the unanimous ruling from the Court, Boyle has not been able to lay the question to rest in his own mind. He has written The Shakespeare Chronicles, a comic novel about an English professor possessed by the quest for the real Shakespeare. Like many a novel in the picaresque tradition, it is being published serially--on his web site. Or you can buy the whole thing in hardback or as an ebook.

In connection with the novel, Boyle has made a portion of his Supreme Court argument available on YouTube. The final exchange with Justice Stevens is easily worth five minutes of your time.

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