Archive | April, 2008

PULP Authority: Shakespeare & Joyce

8 Apr

Where Shakespeare wrote symphonies of words, Joyce was the avant-garde jazz musician improvising on his main themes.

Or, Shaksper. Or Shake-speare. Or Shakspear. Like most real people now hidden behind the more Pulp icon, the Stratfordian is rather hard to pin down. The authority debate surrounding his work has been around almost as long as the various Folios of his plays, sonnets and longer poems, but a definitive answer as to his authority, though certainly not impossible, remains unlikely. Whether or not you want to argue that the plays were the work of Sir Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe (reportedly dead more than 20 years before Shakespeare) or the Earl of Oxford, amongst other contenders, it seems that our fascination with the genius of the plays will not abate even if we do determine that William was not the sole author, or the author at all.

In the world of Pulp, questions of authority run wild even when we are sure who the author is. Pulp is a cut-up world of reference, inference and ill-defined boundaries between originality and appropriation: a world post-Shakespeare, where—for all his gifts to the English language, we are not even sure that he was who he was; post-Warhol, where the invocation of popular icons and methods of communication is high-art; post-Joyce, where any attempt at communicating is necessarily infused with references built on the linguistic past. Taking Joyce at his own word, as much as this quotation applies to his novel Finnegans Wake, so it could well be thrown back in reference to Shakespeare:

One great part of every human existence is passed in a state which cannot be rendered sensible by the use of wideawake language, cutanddry grammar and goahead plot.

Wisdom holds that, to comprehend modern English fully, one must have a good working knowledge of two things: the King James translation of the Bible and the works of William Shakespeare. The King James introduces and employs a vocabulary of around 5,000 words; Shakespeare, 30,000. We now use tropes, axioms, and neologisms stemming from both texts every day, but in Elizabethan England it was certainly the case that—without standard grammar or spelling usages and still without a large bedrock of language—Shakespeare would have been unable to avoid creating new words and new phrases both to keep his plays interesting and to be able to express the sentiments he wished.

Joyce could only embark on such a reference-loaded, anti-grammatical style in Ulysses (1922) or Finnegans Wake (1939) by building his references on the shoulders of (earlier) giants such as Hamlet or The Odyssey. Not sated with the standard linguistic worldview, and with a background of hundreds of years of literature, Joyce could invent; where Shakespeare wrote symphonies of words, Joyce was the avant-garde jazz musician improvising on his main themes. When lost in the ‘goahead’ modern narrative, turning to the Bard rooted a 20th Century author in what he was trying to achieve:

Shakespeare is the happy hunting ground of all minds that have lost their balance.

But Shakespeare (or more precisely, his work) embodies the Pulp archetype in more ways than Joyce. Joyce wrote for himself as much as anyone else, wryly claiming that

I’ve put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that’s the only way of ensuring one’s immortality.

But filling the Globe was a matter of economics as much as artistic merit. Plays were mass entertainment for the uneducated rabble (to which Shakespeare himself most likely belonged), appealing to inherent human emotions and instincts to attract the audience he and his Company needed to stay in business.

So why does the ongoing authorship debate actually matter? On a purely factual level, we know very little for certain about Shakespeare’s person or life—to paraphrase Mark Twain, what little we do know would fit on one side of a sheet of note paper—and there is ample circumstantial evidence to support claims against his (sole) authority. The numerous spellings of his name (“Shake-speare” at a time when pseudonyms were many and often hyphenated), the fact that he wrote such words and plays without any official education, that he could so accurately portray nobility with no prior knowledge of nobles’ lives, that he referenced none of his work in his will.

But we prefer our Pulp icons intact and mysterious whether real (Andy Warhol) or fictional (Philip Marlowe); the romanticism of the lone genius who gave much to the English language is undeniable. Shakespeare willfully and openly appropriated many plots and characters from earlier works, such as earlier versions of Othello, Macbeth and the lives of figures presented in his histories; but his additions are perhaps more notable: Iago is entirely a Shakespearean invention, and Lady Macbeth is certainly much more central to his plot.

Just as romantic a Pulp icon he might be, were it the case that “William Shakespeare” had actually been a pseudonym for a number of playwrights and authors working collaboratively, or an entirely different author altogether. A ‘late’ work, Macbeth (1603-6) is certainly much shorter than any other tragedy (possibly due to missing sections of the manuscripts) and contains passages—predominantly those spoken by Hecate and the Witches—which were almost certainly not Shakespearean but came from contemporary Thomas Middleton, who also seems to have adapted the current version of Measure for Measure. Thus such famous lines as “By the pricking of my thumbs/ Something wicked this way comes” or “When shall we three meet again/ In thunder, lightning or in rain” may not, in fact, be from the Bard’s quill.

Other plays have switched authorship over years of criticism and research. Titus Andronicus (between 1584 & 1590s) is the first tragedy attributed to the elusive playwright, but it does not fit smoothly into Shakespeare’s canon. Included in the first Folio, its authority is often questioned in light of its proximity to the language and style of George Peele; it is also exceeding bloody and much crueler than later works, featuring murder, rape, (self-)mutilation, and the famous baking of two brothers which are then baked into and served to their mother. As an early foray into the inherent violence and sadism of the human psyche, whether or not this is one of the Bard’s plays is mostly irrelevant—it is part of our reciprocally Pulp myth of “Shakespeare”, fitting into our reconstructed cut-up timeline of his life and work.

Authority is a slippery subject. To indulge in fancy, if William Shakespeare were transplanted into a modern literary landscape he would likely own a copyright to a large percentage of the English language but have much less incentive to be such a creative force as his Elizabethan counterpart; no doubt he would not have mass audiences and a Royal compulsion to write a new play at such regular intervals. But the author is irrelevant since, as Joyce told us, “keep(ing) the professors busy for centuries” ensures literary immortality, especially if the subject of study is as inscrutable as Shakespeare. Or Shaxper. Or Shakspere.

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