When did I become my parents?

Growing Old
I was driving down to Toronto, Saturday, listening to a CD with Tony Bennett, Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, and several other singers of my parents’ generation, singing along, and I wondered aloud, “When did I become my parents?”

When did I start buying and playing their music? When did I start choosing an Ella Fitzgerald or Louis Armstrong CD for a road trip instead of Bruce Springsteen or Blue Cheer?

When did I get so old? Who’s the old guy staring back at me from the mirror?

In the 1950s and 60s, when I was growing up, I would not have been caught dead choosing to listen to any music my parents liked (with perhaps the exception of Spike Jones). But it was their hifi set, and their record collection, so I listened to what they wanted to hear. Until bedtime, that is. Continue reading “When did I become my parents?”

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Midway in our Life’s Journey…

Too many books!So begins The Inferno, the first of the three books that comprise Dante’s magnificent and complex work, The Divine Comedy.* It’s a rich, complex and challenging read. I have to admit I have not read it all – all three books that is – but I have made a mighty effort to complete Inferno in several editions.

My problem is not comprehension, but rather distraction. Were this a desert isle, it would make it much easier to finish. I read like a jackdaw.

But back to Dante. The first lines (Canto I, trans. by John Ciardi, Norton edn.), continue:

Midway in our life’s journey, I went astray
from the straight road and woke to find myself
alone in a dark wood.

I was reading that opening again, this week, as I collected books from my shelves to donate to the local library. Powerful words. Don’t we all feel that doubt at some time in our lives, that nagging question whether we had made all the right choices, followed the right path? Don’t we all wonder what life would have been like if we made the other choice, took the other road, chose the other person?

And here I am with a book in my hand wondering what life would be like had I never opened it, never read it, never followed it down the path it led me to. What less would I have understood, what less would I have felt, what less would I have explored without it?

I can’t imagine a life without Dante. Without Shakespeare, Chaucer, T.S. Eliot, Shunryu Suzuki, Frank Herbert, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Dickens, Carl Sagan, Casanova, Dante, Machiavelli, Wallace Stevens, Arthur Conan Doyle, Bill Bryson… so many authors whose works have helped build my world view. Wouldn’t life be poorer without them?

Can I bear to part from them? Continue reading “Midway in our Life’s Journey…”

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Musing on Melville’s Poetry

Herman MelvilleI came across a poem last night that I had not read in the past (always a pleasant thing to discover something new in one of your books)*. It is by Herman Melville, an author I associate with novels and short stories rather than poetry. Yet he was surprisingly prolific as a poet, mostly in his later life.

Poem Hunter lists 93 of his poems on its site (on PDF here). He wrote many more, it seems – many of them naval or related to the sea, others about the Civil War – and the collected works can be found at the University of Virginia.

Here’s the poem that pleasantly surprised me by its complexity and modernity, given its 1888 publication. It’s called The Maldive Shark:

About the Shark, phlegmatical one,
Pale sot of the Maldive sea,
The sleek little pilot-fish, azure and slim,
How alert in attendance be.
From his saw-pit of mouth, from his charnel of maw,
They have nothing of harm to dread,
But liquidly glide on his ghastly flank
Or before his Gorgonian head;
Or lurk in the port of serrated teeth
In white triple tiers of glittering gates,
And there find a haven when peril’s abroad,
An asylum in jaws of the Fates!
They are friends; and friendly they guide him to prey,
Yet never partake of the treat —
Eyes and brains to the dotard lethargic and dull,
Pale ravener of horrible meat.

It’s hard, reading that, to remember Melville was a contemporary of Walt Whitman and that both of them published rather morally-laden socially instructive books of poetry about the Civil War almost simultaneously (Whitman’s Drum Taps in 1865, Melville’s Battle Pieces in 1866).

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Appreciating B-Movies

Bubba Ho-TepIt drives Susan to distraction that I love B-flicks. She squirms and fidgets if I put one into the DVD player and can seldom sit through an entire movie. They get cut off mid-film, and saved for me some time in the vague future when I might have an evening alone to finish watching it and the others in the category.

Overacted, melodramatic, clumsily scripted, wooden dialogue, transparent effects, low budgets… what’s not to like? Okay, not all of them, but some fit that description. The range in B-flicks is great: from the truly abysmal to brilliancy (albeit usually unrecognized, otherwise it would be on the A list…).

Being in the B-list doesn’t mean it won’t have an appreciative audience, or achieve cult or popular status.

To me, the B-movie industry is often the most creative, most innovative and most entertaining, in part because it tries harder on a smaller budget. Having a big budget didn’t save Peter Jackson’s King Kong. Or Kevin Costner’s Waterworld.

True, a lot of B-films are knock-offs of A-list entries, and sometimes crude ones at best*, but I think of them like sports fans think of farm teams and junior leagues. These movies are where the greats learn their skills, develop their talents, and practice their art. A lot of talent emerged into greatness from training in the B-film league.

It’s also interesting – for me, anyway – to see how someone takes an idea that succeeded in another film, and turns it into their own adaptation. Nothing wrong with that – writers, playwrights, singers and artists have been cross-pollinating with other artists for millennia. Shakespeare and Chaucer did it. If it wasn’t for plagiarism, we wouldn’t have a lot of the great works of literature and art today.

Continue reading “Appreciating B-Movies”

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Little Dorrit: BBC Drama

Little Dorrit BBCWe just finished watching the 14-part BBC series of Little Dorrit. As usual with most BBC series, it was superbly cast, acted, paced and filmed. Each episode was a mere 30 minutes, and almost every one of them ended in a cliffhanger fashion that made you want to watch just one more.

You might not think of Charles Dickens that way, but much of what he wrote was for serial publication: in weekly or monthly magazines. To keep his audience hooked – and buying the magazines – he wrote cliffhangers. Not perhaps as gripping as, say, episodes of TV’s show 24, but his audience kept coming back for more.

Little Dorrit ran in 19 monthly issues, between December, 1855 and June, 1857.

Watching the series also made me want to read the book – I have read other of Dickens’ works, but not this one. Now, after watching, I can’t imagine why not. It’s a great story. I pulled it off my shelf and stared it this week.

Little Dorrit is both a social commentary and a complicated story. It has – as other Dickens’ novels have – a large cast of characters, often eccentric to the point of caricature. Mr. Barnacle of the Circumlocution Office, for example. His readers loved the characters, loved the caricatures, and understood the reality they thinly veiled.

Modern novels – your James Patterson, Dan Brown, Tom Clancy or Patricia Cornwell for example – are structured differently. The basic idea of a lot of popular fiction is to hit the readers over the head with a strong first page and drag them into the novel and the action right from the earliest lines.

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10,000 or 20,000 hours?

10,000-hour ruleMalcolm Gladwell introduced the concept of the “10,000-hour rule” in his 2008 book, Outliers. As Wikipedia describes it, “…the key to success in any field is, to a large extent, a matter of practicing a specific task for a total of around 10,000 hours.”*

Gladwell does not specifically say that 10,000 hours of practice or apprenticeship will make you an expert. Like most things on the internet, it has been altered in the transmission; dumbed down for the simplistic misquotes we love to pair with pictures of kittens or puppies on Facebook.

Rather what he said was that it will make you damned good. Way above the rest. A phenom, as Eric Dekkers said:

…he’s talking about those surprising success stories who stand head and shoulders above the elite performers in their industry. That one guy who is way better than the 31 other “best quarterbacks in the country.” That one woman who fearsomely dominates all other female tennis players in the world.

Still, the concept and the generalization behind it have not gone unchallenged. As science writer David Bradley wrote for the BBC,

Scientifically speaking, 10,000 hours is not a precise figure but shorthand for “lots and lots of dedicated practice”. Even 10,000 hours of dedicated practice may not be enough to give you the skills of a virtuoso. But whether you dream of playing at the concert hall, wielding the guitar, or taking part on the running track, 10,000 hours is a good starting point. Double that and you may even be winning international competitions.

Bradley also notes that 10,000 is a lot of time doing repetitive practice:

To notch up 10,000 hours would require about 90 minutes of practice every day for 20 years. This might explain why the typical child learning the piano will never make it to concert level. Three hours a day gets you to that stage within a decade, so start at the age of ten and you’re done before you’re out of your teens.

Imagine you’re a 10-year old starting violin lessons. Your parents make you practice an hour every school day, but give you weekends and holidays off. You might be able to get in 195 days or practice a year. At that rate, it would take more than 51 years to reach Gladwell’s 10,000-hour “expert” level.

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Tom Swift and His Rocket Ship

Tom Swift and His Rocket ShipI was 8, maybe 9 years old, when my parents gave me a hardcover copy of Tom Swift and His Rocket Ship by Victor Appleton II. Probably a birthday or Xmas present. I can’t recall which. I just recall how excited I was when I read this book – my earliest experience of science fiction. I soon had a couple of dozen of the Tom Swift books in my collection.

My memory of Tom Swift (Jr) and that book came back today when I wandered into a garage sale on Cedar Street and found a copy of the same original edition (1954) of that title. Fifty cents bought all those memories for me.

I don’t know if kids today have such a series – I know about the fantasy, the magic, the vampires and werewolves in their modern books, but are there books with some science in them like we had in Tom Swift? Given the audience and the times, Tom Swift Jr. was remarkable sophisticated as far as science was concerned. It inspired a generation to pursue science as a career. Or at least a passion, as in my own case. Is there anything comparable?

Finding the book also bought me the opportunity to do some research into the books, the series and the author. According to Wikipedia,

Tom Swift Jr. is the central character in a series of 33 adventure novels for male adolescents, following in the tradition of the earlier Tom Swift (“Senior”) novels. The series was entitled The New Tom Swift Jr. Adventures… The covers were created by illustrator (J.) Graham Kaye. Covers in the later half of the series were mostly by Charles Brey. A total of 33 volumes were eventually published.
For the Tom Swift Jr. series the books were outlined mostly by Harriet (Stratemeyer) Adams, head of the Stratemeyer Syndicate, attributed to the pseudonymous Victor Appleton II, and published in hardcover by Grosset & Dunlap. Most of the books were written by James Duncan Lawrence, who had an interest in science and technology and was faithful to the canon of the previous Tom Swift series.

So there was no “Victor Appleton II.” I think I wrote a fan letter to him, in the late 1950s or early 60s. Never got a reply that I can recall. But it doesn’t matter. The tales helped inspire me to become a writer because I wanted to tell stories like those I read. Never did much in fiction, but the urge still boils and bubbles beneath the surface. They also encouraged me to study science.

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Snow White and the Huntsman reviewed

Snow WhiteTake one part Brothers Grimm and one part Malory’s Morte d’Artur, add a dash of Tolkein, a pinch of Joan of Arc, a sprinkling of Robin Hood and a sprig of English folklore; mix it in a bowl with copious CGI, great natural settings, remarkably good stage sets, and what do you have? The 2012 film, Snow White and the Huntsman.

The epic film (at least in the two-hour-eleven-minute extended version we watched last night) was an action-packed adventure that never made us feel it was dragging excessively.

Seems we and the critics disagree. I was impressed by the sets, by the stunning sites chosen for the outdoor segments, by the costumes and by generally very good CGI effects (aside from the mirror-oracle character which seemed unfinished).

It’s worth watching the bonus material to get some insight into how the sets and costumes were made and locations were chosen. A remarkable amount of work went into this movie.

Is it Snow White or something new, drawn from the legend but retold?

For that, I went back to the original story last night (actually one with copious sidebar notes), after the movie.*

The Brothers Grimm collected many variants of the tale during their years, and tended to both blend them together into one version for their books,and to alter their substance to suit their particular social, religious and cultural views (for example, in many original versions of the Snow White and other tales, the villain is the mother, but the Grimms changed this almost universally to an evil stepmother, thus altering the psychology of the story).

Movie posterThe movie (plot here) has at its core the Grimms’ basic tale (not, thankfully, the Disney cartoon version which has become iconic for so many people), although not quite as grisly as the Grimms’ (in which the wicked queen demands the huntsman return with Snow White’s liver and lungs so she can eat them). But it ventures into other paths, some for poetic licence (to develop, for example, the romantic interest), others to extend the action and create some opportunity for the action and battle scenes.

In the original tale, Snow White is seven years old. There is no real indication of the passage of significant time in the story, although she weds at the end, so one has to assume at least that many years have gone by (men and women often married young in medieval times). In the movie, the the gap is filled in by Snow White’s imprisonment where she grows up (and gets makeup, apparently).

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Shakespeare’s Lost Plays

Double FalsehoodShakespeare’s canon, as it is known today, is incomplete. The Bard is known to have written several plays that were not, for various reasons, included in the First Folio printed shortly after his death.

Other plays, several included in the third folio, were attributed to Shakespeare after that publication, but most are known not to have been written by him, and have since been rejected (called the Shakespeare Apocrypha).

Some, like Pericles, have be given grudging acceptance in the modern canon. Many modern scholars accept Pericles as a collaboration between Shakespeare and a lesser talent (George Wilkins is suggested), but some are willing to accept it as entirely by Shakespeare’s hand.

Other texts have crept into the canon as scholars assess and reassess contemporary works. Two Noble Kinsmen is now accorded a place in most collections as a collaboration between Shakespeare and John Fletcher. Edward III, published anonymously in 1596, has won considerable support as an early Shakespearean history, and appears in many modern collections.

Edmund IronsideAnd still others remain contentious. Eric Sams argued well (at least I thought so) for Edmund Ironside as an early Shakespearean history, and his book about the play created a small tempest in academia. Sams’ claim was rejected by some scholars simply because he was not a Shakespeare academic, but rather a talented musicologist.

You can read an analysis of the play and Sams’ claims for authorship here, (a good overview, although the writer incorrectly assumes Shakespeare was really Edward de Vere).

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The Pulp Renaissance

Burroughs novelIn the late 1950s, I came across a copy (1912; an original edition, I believe) of Edgar Rice Burrough’s first published novel, Tarzan, The Ape Man, on my parent’s bookshelf in the basement. A forgotten book, one my father had likely brought with him from England when he immigrated here in 1947, something from his own boyhood. It sat beside old volumes of the Boy’s Own Annual and other English books. Of course I had to open it and read it.

From the very start, I was fascinated by it, by the adventure, by the sheer fantasy of it all. It was, as I recall more than 50 years later, the first ‘adult’ novel I ever read.* It was also the only such book on the shelf – among the various textbooks, Agatha Christie mysteries, and a few odds end ends. Only Tarzan, among them, held my attention.

In the early 1960s, I discovered science fiction. I used to wait in the local library for my father to pick me up after work (my mother was in hospital for a couple of years), and the library was a safe, welcoming place, albeit the Bendale branch was small. I was precocious and bored; and the children’s section was too small to contain my restless intelligence. I soon graduated from the children’s section to adult books in my impatience. I read voraciously.

Top of the list of fiction I read then were novels by writers like Andre Norton, Ben Bova, Chad Oliver, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Arthur C Clarke, Theodore Sturgeon, L. Sprague de Camp, Robert Heinlein, John Wyndham, James Blish, John W. Campbell, Fritz Leiber, Poul Anderson, Philip K. Dick, Frank Herbert, Lester del Rey, Jack Vance, Brian W. Aldiss and many others. By the time I reached my teens I had read hundreds of scifi and fantasy novels. A lot of ‘space opera’ among them.**

About the same time, in the early half of the 1960s, paperback publishers like Bantam and Ace started reprinting the pulp stories of the pre-war years. While some kids collected baseball and hockey cards, I collected paperback book series.

Soon all of the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs were available in print, and I bought every one, building a library of his works (which I still have, mostly complete, although I may be missing a few of his western titles). I avidly read his Barsoom and Pellucidar series, finding them far more entertaining than the many Tarzan novels (which I collected and read, anyway). Given that the first Barsoom novel was written in 1912, it certainly has had staying power.

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Plato, Music and Misquotes

WikipediaI spent a pleasant morning, Saturday, browsing through the works of Plato, hunting for the source of a quotation I saw on Facebook, today.* I did several textual searches for words, phrases and quotes on sites that offer his collected works, along with other works by classical authors.

Now I must admit that in my reading, I have not read everything Plato wrote. I’ve read several dialogues, and then mostly pieces from his works. Reading the entire Republic has, sadly, defeated me, but I have it available for another try when I retire.

Despite my unfamiliarity with his full canon, when I saw this quotation today, I knew it could not be from Plato:

“Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and life to everything.”

And while the sentiment is good, the flowery quote wasn’t by the Greek philosopher.

I took some time to look at what the various “quotation” sites offer as words from Plato, related especially to music.** Here is another quote commonly, but erroneously, attributed to Plato online (and available on T-shirt, mugs, etc.):

Music is a moral law. It gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, a charm to sadness, and life to everything. It is the essence of order, and leads to all that is good, just and beautiful, of which it is the invisible, but nevertheless dazzling, passionate, and eternal form.

This one is actually listed in  the Wordsworth Dictionary of Musical Quotations (1991, p. 45; proof that the printed word is not free of such mistakes), but is is incorrect as others before me have also found. Not even the Quote Investigator has tackled this quote and found the source, but it isn’t from Plato.

Here are more lines attributed to Plato on various sites***:

Music and rhythm find their way into the secret places of the soul.

“Philosophy is the highest music.

“What a poor appearance the tales of poets make when stripped of the colors which music puts upon them, and recited in simple prose.

“Music is the movement of sound to reach the soul for the education of its virtue.

“Musical innovation is full of danger to the State, for when modes of music change, the laws of the State always change with them.

“Give me the music of a nation; I will change a nation’s mind.

“If you want to measure the spiritual depth of society, make sure to mark it’s music.

“Every heart sings a song, incomplete, until another heart whispers back. Those who wish to sing always find a song. At the touch of a lover, everyone becomes a poet.”

Now while most are misattributions, others may be paraphrases or even differences in translation. I decided to check through the collected works of Plato (online at MIT and the Perseus Digital Library)

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The Missing Lines

Mesopotamian tabletThe National Museum of Iraq – known originally as the Baghdad Archaeological Museum – once housed some of the oldest works of literature in the world. Treasures from the origins of civilization, from the cities of Sumeria, Babylon, Assyria were on display*.

In 2003, when the Americans invaded**, a battle was fought between US and Iraqi forces at the museum. The Iraqi troops fled, and looters came in. According to Wikipedia:

According to museum officials the looters concentrated on the heart of the exhibition: “the Warka Vase, a Sumerian alabaster piece more than 5,000 years old; a bronze Uruk statue from the Akkadian period, also 5,000 years old, which weighs 660 pounds; and the headless statue of Entemena. The Harp of Ur was torn apart by looters who removed its gold inlay.”[4] Among the stolen artifacts is the Bassetki Statue made out of bronze, a life-size statue of a young man, originally found in the village Basitke in the northern part of Iraq, an Acadian piece that goes back to 2300 B.C. and the stone statue of King Schalmanezer, from the eighth century B.C.
In addition, the museum’s aboveground storage rooms were looted; the exterior steel doors showed no signs of forced entry. Approximately 3,100 excavation site pieces (jars, vessels, pottery shards, etc.) were stolen, of which over 3,000 have been recovered. The thefts did not appear to be discriminating; for example, an entire shelf of fakes was stolen, while an adjacent shelf of much greater value was undisturbed.
The third occurrence of theft was in the underground storage rooms, where evidence pointed to an inside job. The thieves attempted to steal the most easily transportable objects, which had been intentionally stored in the most remote location possible. Of the four rooms, the only portion disturbed was a single corner in the furthest room, where cabinets contained 100 small boxes containing cylinder seals, beads, and jewelry. Evidence indicated that the thieves possessed keys to the cabinets but dropped them in the dark. Instead, they stole 10,000 small objects that were lying in plastic boxes on the floor. Of them, nearly 2,500 have been recovered.
One of the most valuable artifacts looted was a headless stone statue of the Sumerian king Entemena of Lagash. The Entemena statue, “estimated to be 4,400 years old, is the first significant artifact returned from the United States and by far the most important piece found outside Iraq. American officials declined to discuss how they recovered the statue.” The statue of the king, located in the center of the museum’s second-floor Sumerian Hall, weighs hundreds of pounds, making it the heaviest piece stolen from the museum – the looters “probably rolled or slid it down marble stairs to remove it, smashing the steps and damaging other artifacts.” It was recovered in the United States with the help of Hicham Aboutaam, an art dealer in New York.

The looting was severe enough to spawn several books and magazine articles (also here and here). The museum is still rebuilding and not open to the public, a decade later.

One of the side effects of the war was to end international archeological research into the region. And while we wait to see if the country ever settles so it becomes safe enough to resume such activities, looters continue to steal everything they can, including from archeological sites.

The Museum reported that many of its cuneiform tablets were looted, although some were later recovered. Those tablets contain some of the oldest writing in the world, among them the epic of Gilgamesh (the tablet shown in the image above, is the 11th tablet in the epic, from the library of Ashurbanipal (Assyrian King 669-631 BCE), now in the British Museum).

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Profundity

In 1923, William Carlos Williams wrote one of the most profound poems in the English language: The Red Wheelbarrow. It reads like a Japanese Zen haiku:

so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens.

Wikipedia tells us that the poem’s title is not its original, but rather one applied by its readers. The poem was first published in anthology titled Spring and All. The poem itself was simply titled “XXII,” indicating its place in the collection.

Referring to the poem as “The Red Wheelbarrow” has been frowned upon by some critics, including Neil Easterbrook, who said that such reference gives the text “a specifically different frame” than that which Williams originally intended. The poem is removed from its place in the anthology and thus takes on a different meaning.

This I think is overly critical. The name isn’t the poem. It’s simply a mnemonic to help us remember.

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April, the cruellest month

Jackie Chan's movie 1911April, wrote T.S. Eliot in his remarkable poem, The Waste Land, is the “cruellest month.”* And not merely because of the inclement and unsettling weather that seems to mix winter with spring in unpredictable doses. Nor for the necessity of filing one’s taxes before month end, always a painful chore.

I started thinking about April while watching the movie, 1911, about the Chinese uprising against the Qing Dynasty, in 1911 (saw it this weekend). Fascinating period of Chinese history that led to the first republic under Sun Yat Sen, but, I wondered, was it so interesting elsewhere? Yes, it seems so.

April is a month rich in history, with memorable events, births and deaths galore. Memorable, however, is not always pleasant, of course.

April comes from the Latin Aprilis, a word of uncertain origin. For those who know the “ides of March” from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, you may be surprised to discover that the ides didn’t always fall on the 15th day of the month. In April, it falls on the 13th. The Roman calendar was a complex thing.

April is the month to remember battles. Just to name a few: Culloden (Apr 16, 1746, when the Jacobite rebellion was broken), Vimy Ridge (9-12, 1917, famous to Canadians, so many of whom died there), Lexington and Concord (Apr 19, 1775, starting the American Revolution), Mollwitz (10 Apr, 1741 – the first battle Frederick II ever fought), Okinawa (began 1 Apr, 1945, the beginning of the end of the WWII in the Pacific), Tobruk (11 Apr-27 Nov, 1941), Berlin (20 Apr- 2 May, 1945, the beginning of the end of WWII in Europe), 2nd Ypres (started 22 Apr, 1915), Fort Sumter (Apr 12–14, 1861, beginning the American Civil War), Shiloh (April 6/7, 1862), Mapiu (5 Apr, 1818 – 1818 – decisive battle of the Chilean War of Independence),  Guernica (Apr 26, 1937 – the town was attacked by German warplanes during the Spanish Civil War; the planes then machine-gunned fleeing civilians), the Falklands (Apr 2, 1982 troops from Argentina invaded and occupied the British colony, beginning the short Falklands War).

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Enter Christopher Marlowe – Again

Back in the late 1990s, I wrote an essay about the “controversy” over who actually wrote the works of Shakespeare. I wrote, then,

Not everyone agrees that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare. The challenge to his authorship isn’t new: for the last three centuries it’s been the most popular whodunit of literature: trying to uncover the true identity of the author of the world’s greatest dramas and comedies. I can’t think of another author of note in the world who is considered not to have written the works under which his or her name is penned. Even Shakespeare’s many contemporaries are considered the author of the works under their names – Jonson, Marlowe, Fletcher, for example. But not Bill the Bard.

I don’t think of it as a controversy as much as a conspiracy theory, since, like UFOs and chemtrails, it doesn’t get any significant traction in academia. The dating of a particular play, or even if it belongs in the canon, may be controversial, but not conspiratorial.

However, it’s one of the oldest conspiracy theories, at least in the literary world (Atlantis, the Noachian flood, and Freemasonry may be older, but not literary). And I have to admit to still enjoying reading about it. This old conspiracy still has legs. Plus, it has generated serious, intellectual and scholarly debate for centuries.* It’s even become a meme, thanks to the internet.

History PlayA couple of years ago, in my endless search for books on the Bard, I picked up History Play, by Rodney Bolt (Perennial, New York, USA, 2005). I only started to read it last week. Bolt revives an old idea: that Christopher Marlowe, contemporary playwright, was the actual author of the plays attributed to William Shakespeare.

Like that of the contemporary favourite among literary conspiracy theorists, Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, Marlowe’s life presents a significant challenge to explain in terms of the theory: Marlowe was murdered in 1593.

That’s twenty years before the last known works by Shakespeare were penned (Henry VIII, and Two Noble Kinsmen). de Vere, at least, died in 1604, more than a decade after Marlowe, so his supporters have a shorter time to cover.

The “solutions” for this rather uncomfortable historical fact are either that the person in question didn’t really die, but rather went into hiding and continued to write, or that he (or she in the case of those who attribute the plays to Elizabeth I) wrote them all before, and they were released sporadically after that death.

For Marlowe, it was even more inconvenient to “die” at age 29. Considering he was in university until 1587, that doesn’t leave a lot of time to write the 36-plus plays and numerous poems attributed to Shakespeare. Unless, of course, we was really alive all this time, as Bolt suggests.

Bolt overcomes this significant problem in grand fashion: Marlowe faked his own death and fled to the continent with a copy of Hollinshead’s Chronicles in his chest (Chronicles was, of course, one of Shakespeare’s prime sources). The book is full of Elizabethan spy stories – if nothing else it’s wildly entertaining.

Marlowe has been presented as the actual author of the Bard’s works since at least 1819 (this article dates it to 1895). While it’s accepted that Marlowe influenced Shakespeare, his death usually involves some rather fantastic explanation to make him stand up among the other conspirators.

The argument is generally that a “lout” like William Shakespeare had neither the education nor experience to write about such a wide range of topics as he did. Only a nobleman like de Vere and Bacon had that background. Marlowe, despite being raised in a middle-class background similar to Shakespeare’s (Marlowe\s father was a cobbler) had better tutelage and Cambridge schooling. As it says on Shakespeare-Oxford.com:***

1) It is highly unlikely that Shakespeare’s works could have been composed by the person to whom they are traditionally assigned.

2) The qualifications necessary for the true author of these works are more adequately realized in the person of Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, than in the many other candidates proposed in the last two hundred years.

So how did Shakespeare’s name get put on them? The real, noble authors would lose face if they were identified as the authors, so they used a minor actor as their mouthpiece.** Wikipedia notes:

Reasons proposed for the use of “Shakespeare” as a pseudonym vary, usually depending upon the social status of the candidate. Aristocrats such as Derby and Oxford supposedly used pseudonyms because of a prevailing “stigma of print”, a social convention that putatively restricted their literary works to private and courtly audiences—as opposed to commercial endeavours—at the risk of social disgrace if violated. In the case of commoners, the reason was to avoid prosecution by the authorities: Bacon to avoid the consequences of advocating a more republican form of government, and Marlowe to avoid imprisonment or worse after faking his death and fleeing the country.

Savage ChickensThat argument, however, doesn’t hold a lot of water since many nobles in the Elizabethan era wrote plays and poems openly, including de Vere.

It all hinges on how you perceive talent and genius. There’s a certain snobbishness in believing that one needs noble birth and university degrees to have the talent to be creative and artistic. Yet every notion we have of genius says that it belongs to individuals regardless of background, upbringing and formal education.

The argument against Shakespeare as the author overlooks simple plagiarism, too. Shakespeare’s sources are well known, and it’s clear that he lifted many of his plots, characters and settings from the works of others, even some of the dialogue. His genius lay in how he assembled them into his plays.

In Shakespeare, Invention of the Human, Harold Bloom writes:

You cannot reduce Shakespeare to any single power, of all his myriad gifts, and assert that he matters most because of that one glory. yet all his endowments issue from his extraordinary intelligence, which for comprehensiveness is unmatched, and not just among the greatest writers. The true Bardolatry stems from this recognition.

Personally, I find all of the arguments against Shakespeare flimsy and contrived.  Most of the arguments in favour of alternative authors depend on a lot of circumstantial evidence,  “what-if” suppositions, and interpretations of internal “evidence” in the plays.****

The conspiracy looks for answers in the shadows and ignores those in common sight. And simply because 400-plus-year-old records are incomplete or were kept in ways different from our practices today doesn’t mean anything is wrong.

But back to Bolt. His tale is fascinating reading, and he makes it clear his belief in Marlowe’s authorship is absolute. Quotes from the plays are identified as Marlowe’s work from the first pages. Yet Bolt pulls back in his afterword and teases us by saying it is all the “purest conjecture.” Despite this, and despite the trips along what is clearly leaps of intellectual faith, what Bolt offers is entertaining and well researched, and in the end a rewarding read.

If only all conspiracy theories were so much fun to read.

~~~~~

* In his book, Contested Will, James Shapiro identifies at least 50 persons have been put forward as potential authors of the Shakespearean canon, since the notion of alternate authorship was first raised, in 1785. Wikipedia includes other dates for doubters.

** I’ve heard similar conspiracies about local blogs.

*** The site also boasts an “honor role” of skeptics who doubted Shakespeare as the author. However, simply because others believe in it, does not make it true, regardless of the perceived eminence of the skeptic. Just because some doctors smoke does not make the practice healthy or sanitary, no matter how good they are as surgeons. I cannot see any names of literary scholars or historians on the list, but there are a lot of actors.

**** I’m seldom convinced by interpretations by critics, historians and scholars that try to tell me what the author intended, thought, believed, or felt. Only the author can do that. Interpretations too often assume that what is written is not what was meant.

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