Why I Believe in Shakespeare

Antoni Cimolino gave the following lecture to McGill University’s Friends of the Library in Montreal on Monday, October 24, 2011.

In Roland Emmerich’s 1998 science-fiction movie Godzilla, a giant lizard—a mutation spawned by radiation from nuclear testing—emerges from the sea and sets about ravaging Manhattan.

In the same director’s 1996 movie Independence Day, alien spacecraft arrive in the skies and set about obliterating New York, Washington and Los Angeles, along with various other cities less resonant with American audiences.

I don’t recall Montreal being among their targets, or even Toronto. Certainly not Stratford, Ontario.

But now it’s our turn to run for cover—not just in our Stratford but also in the Warwickshire town for which ours was named—as another menacing shadow falls over us with the imminent release of Roland Emmerich’s latest thriller, Anonymous.

This time, the rampaging monster has neither talons, tail nor tentacles—nor does he have one iota of the talent that has been ascribed to him over the centuries.

But for centuries he has deceived the world.

The creature’s name is William Shakespeare—who, according to the movie, was the doltish, boastful and barely literate front man for the true author of the greatest plays the world has ever known: Edward de Vere, Seventeenth Earl of Oxford.

As scholar James Shapiro put it during a recent visit to Stratford, for those of us who have made Shakespeare central to our lives, Anonymous promises to be a disaster movie of a different kind.

The so-called Authorship Question—the idea that someone else wrote the plays of William Shakespeare—has been with us since the middle of the nineteenth century, with an astonishing variety of candidates being put forward as the man (and in at least one case, the woman) behind the mask.

Francis Bacon used to be quite widely known as the leading contender, but his candidacy has long since lapsed. Yet despite the best efforts of the Shakespeare Oxford Society, the name of his successor, de Vere, doesn’t seem to have lodged itself in the popular consciousness to quite the same extent.

That’s about to change, now that Anonymous is poised to do for Shakespeare scholarship what The Da Vinci Code did for the Catholic Church.

The idea that Edward de Vere wrote Shakespeare’s plays is now about to be disseminated to a mass audience, many of whom will no doubt assume that it is based on some kind of historical fact.

But much as that prospect depresses me, I haven’t come here today to argue with any Oxfordians who might be in my audience. That would be futile.

By its very nature, a conspiracy theory is hard to disprove, because, well, it’s a conspiracy. Of course there’s no hard evidence linking de Vere to the plays, because he covered it up. You can’t argue with that kind of thinking.

After all, it’s theoretically possible that a massive conspiracy took place to pass Shakespeare off as the author of the canon—just as it’s theoretically possible that flying saucers occasionally visit Earth to beam people out of their beds in the middle of the night, or that God created the illusion of evolution by planting freshly minted fossils around the planet at the same time he created Adam and Eve.

It’s possible. It just doesn’t seem terribly likely.

We cannot hope, by argument, to drive conspiracy theorists back to the planet they came from. The best we can do is hunker down in our respective trenches and lob rhetorical shells at each other.

Incoming Oxfordian ordnance generally includes this question:

How could a glover’s son who never went to university—“the Stratford man,” as they like to call him—possibly be the author of such sophisticated studies of power politics as the Roman plays and the English histories? Surely only someone with direct experience of the machinery of power could have written with such assurance on such topics?

Stratfordians’ retaliatory fire will begin with the indisputable point that Shakespeare, whoever he was, possessed an extraordinary creative intelligence. It is remarkable, but far from impossible, that a fluke of genetics could have given so extraordinary a gift to the son of a tradesman and a farmer’s daughter.

Leonardo Da Vinci, after all, was the bastard son of a legal notary and a peasant. Michelangelo was the son of a banker and minor government official.

And let’s not forget the engineer’s son who worked in a Swiss patent office and transformed our understanding of the universe: Albert Einstein.

And if an ambitious young man with such an extraordinary creative intelligence set out to succeed in the Elizabethan theatre—a popular entertainment industry that turned out plays about kings and emperors and Italian machiavels the way Hollywood today turns out movies about superheroes and alien invaders—might he not have made a point of reading up on such characters, even without the benefit of an Oxford education? (So to speak.)

Oxfordians point to the lack of documentary evidence connecting Shakespeare with the works—not counting, of course, his name on their title pages, since that would have been part of the conspiracy.

Where, they ask, are the letters, the journals, the commonplace book—anything at all to indicate that Shakespeare was anything more than a bit player and grubbing businessman who could barely scribble his own name?

Stratfordians patiently reply that documentary evidence was pretty scarce for any playwright in those days. We don’t have Ben Jonson’s diary either, or Christopher Marlowe’s correspondence, but that’s no reason to suppose that they were frauds.

Going on the offensive, the Stratfordian side will point out that several of the plays date from after 1604, and that Edward de Vere would therefore have had difficulty writing them—being, as he was, dead.

In particular, both Macbeth and The Tempest contain references to events after de Vere’s demise.

Oxfordians counter that dating the plays is tricky, that de Vere could have stockpiled works to be released after his death, and that those troublesome topical references could easily refer to other events.

These are some of the points I might bring up if I were going to argue the case. But I’m not. I come not to bury Oxford but simply to assert my faith in Shakespeare. For this controversy is, finally, all about a matter of faith. And why do I place my faith in the Stratford man? Because that’s the way it feels to me.

There’s a famous story about Samuel Johnson, told by his biographer, James Boswell.

As Boswell describes it, Johnson was fulminating against the “ingenious sophistry” of the philosopher Bishop George Berkely, who insisted that nothing in our universe is materially real; that everything we perceive is just an idea in our minds.

“I observed,” wrote Boswell, “that though we are satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it. I never shall forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it—‘I refute it thus.’ ”

Of course, by kicking the stone Johnson refuted nothing. The stone, along with the sensation of kicking it, could quite possibly be just an illusion. We could all be living in the Matrix.

But I’m with Johnson. No, I can’t prove Shakespeare was Shakespeare any more than I can prove that I’m really here in this room and that we’re not just having a detailed and convincing collective hallucination.

I’m simply here to kick stones: to tell you what Shakespeare feels like to me.

My relationship with Shakespeare began in earnest at the age of sixteen, when I paid my first visit to Stratford with a couple of friends. We went to a matinée performance of Love’s Labour’s Lost. By the time we came out, my life had changed.

Love’s Labour’s Lost is full of sophisticated wit: wordplay, classical allusions, jokes that rely on some knowledge of Latin—just the sort of clever stuff you might expect a university-educated court insider to come up with.

But that’s not really why I fell in love with it. Its appeal to me was something far more elemental: a story about four young men, in thrall to their hormones, who make a rash vow of abstinence and then find they can’t live up to it.

As a Catholic teenager, I could relate to that.

And then at the end of the play, as all the couples pair off, comes that sombre memento mori: the news that the Princess’s father has died. In the midst of life we are in death.

Young as I was, that stunning juxtaposition of these two primal parts of the human psyche, Eros and Thanatos, had a huge effect on me. And as I looked around, I saw that the same effect had been wrought on all the other people in the audience as well.

For me it was a moment of epiphany: the discovery that theatre could connect me with the rest of humanity by awakening primal emotions. From that point on, I knew I wanted to make this my career.

In the years since, I have played Shakespearean roles and I have directed Shakespeare plays. As an interpretive artist, it has been my job to inhabit these works in a way that the ordinary reader doesn’t.

Bringing these plays to the stage requires more than academic-style intellectual scrutiny. Yes, you have to understand what every word means, every nuance and ambiguity of every line. But to translate those words into action on a stage also requires a different, more intuitive, set of skills. You have to feel your way into the world of the play. You have to figure what kind of journey the characters are going on.

And this has to be an emotional understanding, not just an intellectual one. You have to know the play in your body and your heart, as well as in your mind.

You have to become intimate with the text on every possible level—and the sheer physicality of speaking the words aloud, of making the action unfold on a stage, heightens that intimacy in a way that no amount of reading or study can match.

You can also, of course, enjoy something of that intimacy as an audience member, when a production works on you the way that Love’s Labour’s Lost did on me back in 1979.

My own intimate experiences with Shakespeare don’t suggest to me that he was preoccupied with the specific details of a nobleman’s life or with the minor intricacies of court politics. I don’t see the kind of direct correlations that some people allege: the private code that would make sense only if the author were a court insider writing for others in the know.

For instance, I don’t see Hamlet as autobiographical. Polonius has a line in that play about “falling out at tennis.” Aha, Oxfordians exclaim: this looks like a sly reference by de Vere to his quarrel with Sir Phillip Sidney at the Greenwich tennis court in 1579.

So Hamlet, “the glass of fashion and the mould of form,” must be de Vere himself, and Ophelia is his wife, Anne Cecil. And Polonius must be de Vere’s send-up of his father-in-law, William Cecil, the first Baron Burghley.

This kind of point-by-point association seems to me to diminish Shakespeare as an artist, to reduce him to an ingenious crafter of romans à clef, or whatever the theatrical equivalent is called. Shakespeare’s vision seems to me to be far more elemental than that.

When I look at Hamlet, I don’t see a kind of Sardi’s caricature gallery of Elizabethan court figures. I see an exploration of mortality: that grim inevitability that simultaneously terrifies and fascinates us.

It’s something many teenagers brood on, and when I was a teen myself, Hamlet was my constant study. Now that I’m older and the father of teens myself, Hamlet strikes me as a tiresome whiner. I find myself thinking: Claudius isn’t all that bad. He does have a lot to put up with. And thus the whirligig of time brings in his revenges.

But still, the play is brilliant—and not because it captures William Cecil to a “T” but because it takes us on an extraordinary journey round the outskirts of that undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveller returns.

This is not to say, obviously, that Shakespeare didn’t write about court politics; just that he didn’t do it in such a nudge-nudge, wink-wink, aren’t-I-clever kind of way. He did it with startling directness.

Think of the strawberry scene in Richard III: that sudden chilling revelation of the psychopath behind the charm. People who live in police states understand that scene all too well—and Shakespeare lived in a police state. He knew what that felt like. He was very careful to set his stories in the past or in other countries, in order to keep himself out of jail.

So did the playwright put anything of himself into his plays? I think he did, though I know many scholars would take issue with that suggestion.

I don’t believe he crammed his works with arcane allusions to himself and his friends (or enemies). But I do get from these plays some idea of their author’s preoccupations—ones that don’t seem to me to be in any way incompatible with the man from Stratford.

Let me offer an analogy. I’ve never heard anyone argue that the writer and TV producer David Chase couldn’t possibly have created The Sopranos because only someone who’d been high up in the New Jersey Mafia could have written so compellingly about it. Yet Chase did put something of himself into his creation: he has acknowledged that the character of Livia Soprano was inspired by his own mother.

Artists can create amazingly convincing worlds from imagination. Particulars of such worlds can come from research: reading books and talking to people. But the larger emotional terrain of an imagined world comes from a deeper place, and may well be shaped by relationships and events in the artist’s own life.

Events such as the loss of a sibling, or of a child. Shakespeare lost his sister Anne when he was 14 years old. In 1585, he became the parent of twins, Judith and Hamnet; eleven years later, Hamnet died.

Now, it would be a mistake to conclude that Shakespeare was inspired by the death of his son to write a play with an almost identical name; we know that a prototype version of Hamlet, probably by Thomas Kyd, existed in the 1580s and that Shakespeare simply took it over and reworked it. And the story’s origins go back as far as the ninth century. So this was hardly a case of cause and effect.

Yet I cannot believe that Shakespeare failed to notice the coincidence of name. Is it possible that this accidental resonance had no effect on him as he was writing Hamlet, made no contribution to a play that is essentially a grim rhapsody on the theme of death?

Twins feature in two of Shakespeare’s plays, The Comedy of Errors, written before Hamnet’s death, and Twelfth Night, written after.

In both cases, Shakespeare inherited the twins from his sources. Yet again, it hardly seems likely that he wouldn’t have recognized the parallel with his own circumstances—that he wouldn’t have put two and two together, as it were.

In Twelfth Night, each twin believes the other drowned, while Olivia is in a state of obsessive mourning for a dead sibling. Part of the action of the play, its emotional journey, concerns Olivia’s emergence from her excessive grief to fall in love with . . . well, as we all know, it’s a bit complicated who she falls in love with. But it’s interesting that the man she ends up with is another woman’s brother who has, in a sense, returned from the dead.

The reunion between Viola and her twin, Sebastian , can be one of the most poignant moments in all of Shakespeare, and it’s not the only example. Pericles, Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale, The Tempest: all involve family reunions, reconciliation, acceptance, forgiveness. Loss figures in them all; and in them all, though wounds are healed, some scars remain. Do we detect some wish fulfilment on the part of the author?

Shakespeare had two daughters, and relationships between fathers and daughters are among the most emotionally fraught in the plays. Lear and his daughters. Titus and Lavinia. Polonius and Ophelia. Cymbeline and Imogen. Prospero and Miranda.

Those of us who have daughters know how sweet they can be, and how, at other times, they can be . . . well, challenging. And it seems to me that there is a real examination in Shakespeare of the vicissitudes of the father-daughter relationship.

These and other features in the emotional terrain of the plays—for instance, Constance’s extraordinarily precise and detailed expression of grief for her son in King John—seem to me to accord perfectly with the life experience of a young man who lost a sister, a father who lost a son who was a twin, and a husband who spent years in self-imposed exile from his family.

Oxfordians sometimes point to Shakespeare’s business dealings in later life, which don’t always show him in a hugely favourable light, adducing these as evidence that he clearly did not have the largesse of spirit that seems to inform the plays.

It’s certainly true that, as an artist, the playwright shows remarkable, even radical, empathy. Look at The Merchant of Venice and compare it to the caricature Christopher Marlowe presents in The Jew of Malta. Shakespeare penetrates unerringly to the heart of Shylock and awakens our sympathy for him even as we deplore the revenge he proposes to take.

But artistic empathy doesn’t necessarily translate into personal generosity of spirit. It’s a fallacy to suppose that great artists must also be unusually nice people. Size of talent is not necessarily an indication of size of heart. And no, I’m not naming any names

In any case, the Shakespeare I know doesn’t seem to place much faith in grand liberal ideals. Expressions of them in his plays are quite rare, and are often belied by events. People do reach out to help others in the plays, but it’s generally out of a sense of friendship or community. It’s a one-to-one kind of impulse; it doesn’t spring from a larger philosophical idea about generosity toward others.

I’ve directed Coriolanus, and in that play I can absolutely see the hand of a small-c conservative, a businessman jealously guarding his interests. That play makes quite a compelling case for self-reliance. If you didn’t work for the grain being stored up by the state, if you didn’t put yourself on the line for the state when it went to war, why do you see it as your right to share in that store?

And in making the case for Shylock, Shakespeare also makes the case for moneylending. So I don’t find it impossible at all to reconcile the artist who wrote “Hath not a Jew eyes?” with the smug, self-satisfied burgher whose effigy presides over Shakespeare’s funerary monument in the church at Stratford-upon-Avon.

There is so much we don’t know about Shakespeare, which is why he offers such scope for fantasies about false identities. We don’t know what he really felt about his absence from his family. Did he miss them all those years, or was he happy to escape?

And how did they feel about him? When he finally returned to Stratford, did Anne Hathaway throw plates at his head, or did they tumble joyfully into the second-best bed? How did he get on with his surviving children? And when he looked back at his life and career, did he have any regrets?

At the moment, I’m preparing to direct Cymbeline in 2012, the Stratford Shakespeare Festival’s sixtieth season. This, of course, is one of the late romances, those magical plays about loss and reunion that Shakespeare wrote at the end of his career.

And it feels to me like a kind of wondrous rewriting of the end of life by a man perhaps wishing that things could have been different in his own life.

At the beginning of the play, King Cymbeline is coming apart. We sense he once was happy, but now, with the loss of his first wife, with the loss of his two sons, and with a second wife who is plotting against him, he’s bitter and no longer interested in ruling.

As the play proceeds, he regains much of what he has been lost and in so doing relearns how to be king. He is reunited with the daughter he repudiated. He welcomes into his bosom the son-in-law he initially spurned. He gets back his two lost boys. And his nasty second wife dies. Dysfunction in the family is set right, along with the dysfunction in the state—for which family is always a metaphor in Shakespeare.

I don’t know if this in any way reflects William Shakespeare looking back over his career as king of the comedians—and the tragedians, and the historians—and thinking, “Well, it was great, but I wish I could have spent more time with my family.”

But it so happens that I’m approaching this play at a certain point in my own emotional journey. My wife and I are now empty-nesters: our children have left home, one to university, the other to school in Italy.

So I’m very aware right now of the theme of separation from the family that you love. And in this play, I seem to hear Shakespeare speaking to me, saying, “I know. I know what it’s like.”

Entirely subjective, I know. But as a director, it’s my job to try to capture the essence of the play as I see it. And in staging Cymbeline, I won’t be guided by the spirit of an aristocratic amateur who allegedly, in addition to writing the world’s greatest body of dramatic literature, also managed to pull off the world’s greatest literary hoax.

I’ll be putting my faith in the man from Stratford, who rose from inauspicious beginnings to bestride the theatrical world like a colossus, and whose journey to success came at a price the extent of which we can only guess at from the words he wrote for others to speak.

In a sense, that movie’s title, Anonymous, gets it right. Whoever he was, Shakespeare will always remain anonymous to us, a man we know only through the teeming world that sprang from his imagination. His life is largely a mystery, and to me that fits just fine with the mystery of his genius.

There’s quotation that appears on the Shakespeare Oxford Society’s website that seems to me to inadvertently undermine the very claim it intends to make. It says this:

“Those who believe de Vere was Shakespeare must accept an improbable hoax, a conspiracy of silence involving, among others, Queen Elizabeth herself. Those who side with the Stratford man must believe in miracles.”

Well, okay. If that’s what it takes, then yes, I believe in miracles.

The champions of Edward de Vere, it seems, prefer a world without miracles. Confronted with the eternally fascinating enigma behind these extraordinary plays, they choose to believe what is merely improbable.

They are welcome to their un-miraculous Shakespeare. I know who mine is, and I believe in him with all my heart.

Thank you.


2 thoughts on “Why I Believe in Shakespeare

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