Thursday, February 2, 2012

Shakespeare Apocrypha and Exotica

I recently came across a site with a reference to my 2006 paper linking Mucedorus with Guy of Warwick. The site is Sabrina Feldman's The Apocryphal William Shakespeare.

Feldman is an anti-Stratfordian who has proposed yet another candidate to add to the already staggeringly long list of people who were the ‘real’ Shakespeare: Thomas Sackville. It is bizarre how the most unlikely people get on this list, but not the candidate whose credentials dwarf all others: William Shakespeare from Stratford-Upon-Avon.

Unlike most anti-Stratfordians who allow the Stratford man no writing capabilities at all, Feldman is from the school of Shakespeare sceptics who give him some connection with the plays, but only a very mean one. Disgruntled by the notion that Shakespeare could actually have been human, made mistakes, wrote bad stuff as well as good, and even had some unlikeable personal characteristics, they prefer to imagine a neat binary situation where everything they like about Shakespeare was the work of the ‘Bard’, and everything they dislike was the work of someone else. The Bard is always a 'concealed' poet, and nearly always Sir Someone, Lord So and So, or, preferably, the Earl of Something or Other. In this case, Thomas Sackville (aka Baron Buckhurst) is the 'Bard', and William Shakespeare from Stratford-Upon-Avon is the 'someone else'.

Feldman’s twist on the usual scenario is to focus on the 'Shakespeare Apocrypha' (plays like Locrine, Fair Em, The London Prodigal etc, attributed at various times to Shakespeare, but not generally accepted as his), and on the ‘bad quartos’, supposed stolen or mangled versions of Shakespeare's acknowledged plays.  She thinks that William of Stratford, though not the actual Bard, was a "gifted poet who wrote in the Bard's style" and “wrote the apocryphal plays and bad quartos (in large part) while serving as a front man for the Bard”. Her revelation that William wrote the bad quartos is particularly surprising. You’d think the Bard might have told his front man to stop it.

Anyway, my interest in all this is really with how Feldman deals with my paper on Mucedorus, one of the plays included in the Shakespeare Apocrypha. The short answer is that she quotes the paper fairly, but, as you would expect, interprets differently the verbal links between Mucedorus and Guy of Warwick that I noted. Where I saw Sparrow's allusions as a satire on Shakespeare, she sees it through her Bard/William prism. Thus, she believes that 'William' wrote Mucedorus, and that Sparrow’s allusions to that play in Guy are a ridiculing of William’s less-than-Bardish writing style.

I can't think of much to say about this, other than there's no evidence for it, and no need for it. If we are unburdened by any psychological impulse to protect the ‘Bard’ against criticism by deflecting that criticism to a mythical ‘William’, there’s no need to doubt that Shakespeare was the object of ridicule in Guy. Whether or not he wrote Mucedorus is relatively unimportant. All that really counted was that an audience would recognise him, as the leading playwright of the company that played Mucedorus, in Sparrow’s satirical allusions. If Shakespeare did have a hand in Mucedorus, all the better, but it was not a necessary condition for the satire to have been effective.

[Addendum: One question I did not address in my 2006 paper - because I did not have any answer to it then - was why exactly the author of Guy chose Mucedorus as a vehicle for satirising Shakespeare. There were, after all, other plays indisputably by Shakespeare that he could have chosen. Since then, however, I have proposed that Guy was written in 1598, and I now suspect Mucedorus was chosen for reasons of timing more than anything else. The play was printed for the first time in 1598, and the likelihood is that the author of Guy chose it as a target because its first printing made it a topical item. Unfortunately, we do not know when exactly in 1598 Mucedorus was printed, so this can only be a guess.]