Saturday, March 6, 2010

Was Shakespeare Shakespeare?

There's a newish book out in Germany by a literary scholar named Kurt Kreiler who claims that Shakespeare's plays were in fact written by Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford (book on here).

It's an old theory and one which, as far as I can tell, is not taken very seriously in the English-speaking world (but it's new here). It seems doubtful to me that an aristocrat with the responsibilities that de Vere had could have turned out the sheer mass of material that Shakespeare did. Not to mention: Whoever wrote those plays understood his paying audience well, and I suspect de Vere knew more about this aristocratic fellows than he did about a general theater audience.

But more interesting to me was the elan with which some Germans jumped on the issue. That goes for Kreiler too: Why should a German, whose Literary God is officially Goethe, invest so much passion into "debunking" Shakespeare (the book is 600 pages). Many people are skeptical, of course, but the newspapers are taking it very seriously, and some, like Spiegel, are praising it as hugely important, a breakthrough. An acquaintance of mine who studied the classics at university in the forties triumphantly crowed: "Shakespeare is yesterday! Long live de Vere!"

I began to wonder if there is a cultural component to this Shakespeare/de Vere question: Maybe de Vere simply fits German assumptions about literature better than Shakespeare.

Here's my insta-theory:

Germans prefer de Vere because:

- They believe in hierarchy: Someone born or educated at the top is more likely to create great art than someone born at the bottom. There is some merit to this: Aristocrats have better education and more leisure time. But Germans in general tend to trust people more coming from within the system than people coming from without. A system they can understand and trust; all else is chaos.

- They also believe in the non-commericality of literature. Great literature, they think, cannot be commercial - money dirties art. If de Vere wrote the plays, he didn't do it for the money. He didn't need money - he did it for art. That is pure in German eyes. To write for money, as Shakespeare did, is to be hack; it's hard for Germans to accept that great art can be created for money.

Anglo-Americans prefer Shakespeare because:

- They (and especially Americans) distrust the political heirarchy and romanticize the outsider, the little guy who makes good. You can see signs of this in the Magna Charter, in the various Glorious Revolutions, in the various starts and stops of English democracy, also in the economy: Adam Smith distrusted the ability of politicians to make better decisions than the little guy - in Germany it's the opposite. Compare Smith to Marx, who distrusted the little man to do anything right and demanded that the political hierarchy make all economic decisions. The idea that a guy out of no where with no family and no class could be a super-genius appeals to the English-speaking world.

- Also, Anglo-Americans have a different relationship to money. Sure, the English aristocracy were afraid of the idea of free trade as much as the German aristocracy was, but the idea that the little guy could make good financially was, in England and especially in America, a positive thing, while in Germany it is seen with a certain amount of mistrust: The "rags to riches" story is considered a fraud and the rich are seen to have done something immoral to get where they are. For Anglo-Americans, it is positive to make money off art (no one begrudges James Cameron his millions), and art that makes money is still art. The idea of a little guy making good on the London stage and retiring a rich guy to Stratford-upon-Avon is, for us, a heroic and reassuring story. For many Germans, Shakespeare's wealth detracts from the majesty of his art.

And then, of course, there's simple patriotism in general. Even Germans accept Shakespeare as the world's Nr. 1 literary genius and see their beloved Goethe as, unfortunately, Nr. 2. So anything that cuts Shakespeare down a notch (even though the de Vere theory doesn't detract from the genius of the work) gives them a certain satisfaction.

MORE: As coincidence would have it, more just came in on this issue. Two Americans have published books on the issue. One is about the De Vere theory (including an incestuous affair with Queen Elizabeth) and the other is a history of the various theories about the "true" identity of the author of Shakespeare's plays, not just the de Vere theory. Here's the review in the New York Times.