The Alexandrian

As the result of random conversational tangents, I found myself wandering through the Lost Play of Shakespeare as described on Wikipedia. This random intellectual sampling has reminded me of why I find so much of the scholarship surrounding Elizabethan theater so amusing.

For example, here’s a quote from the discussion of The Puritan:

The play clearly dates from the year 1606. The text contains an allusion to an almanac that specifies July 15 as a Tuesday, which was true only of 1606 in the first decade of the 17th century.

Stop for a moment and think about the bare thread of logic which is being employed here. Consider that other possibilities include: The author had an out of date almanac. The author made a mistake. The author just didn’t care and referred to July 15th as a Tuesday because he needed it to be a Tuesday or because “Tuesday” fit the scansion and “Saturday” didn’t.

Now, in this particular case, there is supplementary evidence which clearly suggests that the play was written at some point during the first decade of the 17th century (and no later than 1607 when it was published). My point is that, when trying to date the composition and performance of Elizabethan plays, scholars are working in a near-vacuum when it comes to reliable information. Thus they scramble for any potential tidbit of correlation like a desperate man trying to find a wisp of oxygen.

This is probably made all the worse because the field of Shakespearean scholarship has been so thoroughly masticated over the last four centuries that there is little room for fresh insight. In such an environment, the need to secure tenure creates a tendency for over-reaching convolutions and the resulting navel-gazing simply makes matters worse.

Here’s another example, this time from a discussion on the authorship of Sir Thomas More:

Consider one example of what attracted attention to the style of Hand D.

First, from Sir Thomas More, Addition IIc, 84-7:

For other ruffians, as their fancies wrought,
With self same hand, self reasons, and self right,
Would shark on you, and men like ravenous fishes
Would feed on one another.

Next, from Coriolanus, I,i,184-8:

What’s the matter?
What in these several places of the city
You cry against the noble Senate, who
(Under the gods) keep you in awe, which else
Would feed on one another?

These are two passages with completely different subjects, contents, and structure (one is a question and the other is a statement). But they have five words in common, and thus they are offered as “evidence” that Shakespeare must have written it. Using this type of “logic” one can demonstrate quite aptly that J.R.R. Tolkien is responsible for The Sword of Shannara, The Dark is Rising, and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.

It’s also entertaining to watch scholars try to “prove” authorship by comparing plot structures. As if the similarities between Lethal Weapon, 48 Hrs, and The Hard Way demonstrate that all buddy cop films were written by the same guy.

In general, when Shakespearean scholars say things like “clearly” or “obviously” what they really mean is “I have no evidence that this is true, and it’s not even particularly logical to think it the most likely explanation, but I’m hoping that you won’t notice”.

But this is likely to get me started on Hamlet. And we should be here all night if that were the case.

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