Shakespeare and the Battle of Memes

A Rubens painting of a scene from "Titus Andronicus." Did Shakespeare write the play to head off the competition?

A Rubens painting of a scene from “Titus Andronicus.” Did Shakespeare write the play to head off the competition?

My favorite Hamlet quote is “…there is nothing either good or bad except thinking makes it so.” How true that is – I chuckle at Nabokov’s 1956 afterword to Lolita, in which he describes themes that “are utterly taboo as far as most American publishers are concerned,” including “a Negro-White marriage which is a complete and glorious success resulting in lots of children and grandchildren; and the total atheist who lives a happy and useful life, and dies in his sleep at the age of 106.” Fifty-seven years on, today’s dynamic culture (namely, Western Culture) would treat such themes as “bad” not on moral grounds, but because they’re boring.

I’ve begun to apply Hamlet’s insight to my own thinking. For instance, just what makes a “good” explanation good, and a “bad” explanation bad?  Why do I care? That explanation begins in 1995.

My father died while I was going through a divorce. The pain peaked at the funeral as I sat in the front row and the preacher lauded my parents’ long marriage then, looking in my direction, chided those who “crumple up marriages like paper and toss them into the garbage.” During that awful time, I took solace in a book called “The Physics of Immortality” by Frank Tipler, a physicist at Tulane University. His book impressed me, and I arranged to meet him in New Orleans.

“How do you deal with religious fundamentalists who dislike your book?” I asked him.

“Oh, I don’t even try talking with those people.”

It was easy to understand why. Tipler’s book, which includes a 100-page long “Appendix for Scientists,” argues that our descendants in the far, far future – and I mean really far, like a trillion years from now – will resurrect every human being that ever lived and (bonus!) their pets along with them. This allowed me to finally let go any thought of one day freeze-drying Sebastian and Viola. I also found it easier to follow John Lennon’s instructions to “imagine there’s no heaven,” since Tipler’s theory does not mean that heaven will never exist, it just doesn’t exist yet. Ditto for God. For Tipler, heaven is a technical problem that will only take a bit longer to solve than, say, world hunger.

Tipler’s far future sounds fantastic, sure, but who in 1956, or even 1995, could have imagined being able one day to order an IPOD from Amazon.com over the Internet that a robotic drone can deliver to you in an hour? Not even Ray Bradbury, I bet.

A lot of people, of course, howled at Tipler’s ideas. But one who didn’t was David Deutsch, the British physicist and pioneer of quantum computing. Deutsch found merit in Tipler’s cosmology that predicted the eventual collapse of the universe into a Big Crunch, which would allow its inhabitants to create a computer that resurrects everyone and their cats, dogs, and parakeets. Years later, Deutsch saw the evidence that our universe will expand forever and never collapse. He now rejects Tipler’s predictions, but circa 1995, he was on board the train to what Tipler called “The Omega Point.” So was I.

I’ve kept track about what Deutsch is up to. He gives great TED talks. His 2011 book, The Beginning of Infinity analyzes the difference between good and bad explanations. With Hamlet’s line in mind, I began applying Deutsch’s analysis to Shakespeare, or more precisely, the Shakespeare authorship debate, which is a battle of memes.

A meme, a word created by Richard Dawkins, signifies a unit of culture and, like a gene, it can be replicated and passed on from one person to another. An example of a successful meme is the Beatles song Yesterday, which cover artists have replicated thousands of times.

Deutsch describes a “memeplex” as a group of related memes that facilitate each other’s replication. The Shakespeare “memeplex” would be the collection of Shakespeare-related memes – the name ‘William Shakespeare,’ his poems and plays, individual characters, and all those words and phrases created by Shakespeare which have been repeated billions of times, such as “bedroom” and “I have not slept one wink” – which go together when I forget my Melatonin.

The war that rages in the vast territory of Shakespeare is one between two, and in many ways opposite, Shakespeare memeplexes, each of which attempts to explain who Shakespeare, the man, actually was. Stratfordianism holds that a commoner with the first name William, and who signed his last name as Shakspere – the same way it appears in his birth, marriage, and funeral records – was the poet-playwright, William Shakespeare. Oxfordianism holds that Edward de Vere, a high nobleman in Queen Elizabeth’s court, wrote under the name William Shakespeare, which appeared in print as Shake-speare, the hyphen signaling that it was a pseudonym.

So after reading Deutsch on good and bad explanations, I was filled with excitement, to use another word created by Shakespeare, and anxious to put the Shakespeare memeplexes to the physicist’s simple test: a bad explanation is one that is easy to vary while still accounting for what it purports to account for, while a good explanation is one that is hard to vary.

Deutsch gives the example of the Greek myth that explains winter. In that myth, Hades, god of the underworld, kidnaps and rapes Persephone, whose mother, Demeter, negotiates the terms of her daughter’s release. Persephone must marry Hades and return annually for a conjugal visit. Each year, when that time comes, Demeter becomes sad and makes the world cold.

Though the myth explains winter, Deutsch calls it a bad explanation because all its details are easy to vary with the same result. A Nordic myth, for instance, explains winter in terms of the fortunes of Feyr, the god of spring. The world is warm when he’s winning, cold when he’s losing. But Deutsch’s words here are better than mine:

The reason those myths are so easily variable is that their details are barely connected to the details of the phenomenon…Whenever a wide range of variant theories can account equally well for the phenomenon they are trying to explain, there is no reason to prefer one of them over the others, so advocating a particular one in preference to the others is irrational…That freedom to make drastic changes in those mythical explanations of seasons is the fundamental flaw in them.

The true explanation of seasons is based on the tilt of Earth’s axis of rotation relative to the plane of its orbit around the sun. It is a good explanation – hard to vary – because all of its details play a functional role.

All of this got me to asking, why did Shakespeare write Titus Andronicus? Are there better ways of spending my time? Probably.

It’s impossible to know what motivated Shakespeare to write Titus Andronicus. Trying to establish a person’s intent about anything is fraught with risk, even if you ask her why she ordered the crunchy grasshopper carrot cake and she happily tells you why. There’s only one person who can read your mind, and it’s not me. So the attempt to divine Shakespeare’s motives for writing Titus Andronicus – especially since nobody can ask him, given his death either in 1604 or 1616, depending on which Shakespeare memeplex you prefer – is a little like trying to understand why prehistoric cave dwellers in southern France painted pictures on their living room walls during their spare time.

Still, we can’t resist.

Stratfordians and Oxfordians give competing explanations for what prompted Shakespeare to write his first tragedy. The two camps loathe each other. Stratfordians launch ad hominem attacks against Oxfordians who, in turn, accuse Stratfordians of intellectual dishonesty.

Theatre critic J. Kelly Nestruck recently lambasted two Canadian universities for participating in a conference exploring Oxfordianism, publicly chastising York University Professor Don Rubin, an Oxfordian who teaches a course on the authorship question, for his “fringe views.” Oxfordians charge Stratfordians with a bias fed by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust and piles of money: millions of tourists have streamed through Stratford-upon-Avon to see where “William Shakespeare” was born, which Oxfordians equate with trekking to the North Pole to see where Santa Claus works.

Just think what would happen to Amazon.com’s sales if there were no Santa Claus – not even the myth – and how it would change the very idea of Christmas. Well, it would turn retail sales into a bloody disaster, which brings us back to Titus Andronicus.

In the Stratfordian memeplex, Shakespeare wrote his gory story of murder and mutilation, packed full with references to Ovid and Seneca, to match what others were writing at the time and showcase his learning. In 1949, Margaret Chute wrote this about Titus Andronicus: “Shakespeare was trying to write a ‘noble Roman history’ and conform to the best standards of the classical drama as they were understood in his day.” Fifteen years later, A.L. Rowse, in his biography of Shakespeare, explained that while Shakespeare was writing the play, “…his mind was filled with memories of his school-work…Titus is a well-constructed play on a tight and somewhat rigid scheme, for the craftsman is imitating someone else.”

One can imagine William entering London after days of riding on horseback from Stratford. He heads straight for The Mermaid Tavern and finds Christopher Marlowe at the bar. The two playwrights throw back sherry-sack and talk shop.

“So, Willie,” says Marlowe, “I wager you can’t come up with a conceit the groundlings could love more than The Spanish Tragedy.”

“Bet I can.”

“Bet you can’t.”

“Bet I can.”

“Bet you can’t.”

And so forth. This “To Prove Himself” explanation of why Shakespeare wrote Titus Andronicus is easy to vary. Take Marlowe out of the picture and put William back in Stratford. Unlike most boys, he loved school and has stayed in touch with his teachers.

“Thanks for stopping by the old schoolhouse, Willie.”

“Nice to see you again, professor.”

“I caught Comedy of Errors when I was in London. Loved it – ever think about doing something a little different, old chap? You know, challenge yourself and give tragedy a go, along the lines of Seneca, for instance, with a good dose of Ovid?”

“What a wonderful idea.”

And so on. Or leave the other adults out of it and replace them with Willie’s first daughter, Susannah, who would have been around twelve at the time. Her father, being the intellectual, decides she must see more of the world, so he takes her to London. One afternoon, as they exit The Globe theatre, she says to him:

“O, I just loved The Spanish Tragedy, father. Why can’t you write a play like it?”

“Well…”

You could probably come up with a few of your own variations of this “To Prove Himself” explanation, or a few hundred. All you have to do is imagine – it’s easy if you try – which is why the “To Prove Himself” explanation is a bad one based on Deutsch’s definition.

It’s a different story when you enter the Oxfordian memeplex and assume that William Shakespeare was Edward de Vere’s pseudonym. Mark Anderson, one of de Vere’s recent biographers, explains that banishment plays an important role in the latter half of Titus Andronicus, which corresponds to “the shame and scandal” of de Vere’s exile from Queen Elizabeth’s court. Charles Beauclerk has a similar explanation, showing how the play reflects the disempowerment and brutal silencing of political adversaries. In short, de Vere alias Shakespeare wrote Titus to express his feelings about things that actually happened to him.

This “It Happened to Him” explanation is based on known facts about de Vere’s life and is thus difficult to vary. But the point here is not necessarily to come up with the singularly correct explanation for something, but to compare explanations in analytical terms of “good” or “bad,” which means that some explanations will be “better” than others.

The “It Happened to Him” explanation by itself does not prove that de Vere was Shakespeare, nor does the “To Prove Himself” explanation prove that William of Stratford was the great poet-playwright. But the first explanation happens to be the better one for why Shakespeare wrote Titus Andronicus, in my neither good nor bad opinion.

Maybe my mind will change at the Omega Point, when I can ask him.

In the Shakespeare Authorship Debate, Stratfordians Should Drop the “Conspiracy” Charge

250px-Edward-de-Vere-1575

Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford. Is he the subject of some “conspiracy theory”? The answer is no.

Those who defend the grain dealer from Stratford as the man who wrote Shakespeare – the so-called “Stratfordians” – have several labels for opposing schools of thought. One of them is “conspiracy theory.”

They should drop that label.

The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, a strong proponent of the Stratfordian point of view, states on its website:

“The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust has fired up a campaign to tackle head-on the conspiracy theories that William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon was not the true author of the plays which bear his name.” […] The authorship conspiracy is much ado about nothing.”

In protest to the 2011 film Anonymous, which depicts Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, as the true William Shakespeare, the Trust orchestrated a “cover-up” campaign to shroud signs bearing the Bard’s name. The Trust explained:

“The cover-up is part of a campaign by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust to tackle the film’s conspiracy theory that William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon was a barely literate front man for the Earl of Oxford.”

However, in the context of the Shakespeare authorship debate, the “conspiracy theory” label is misplaced, except perhaps in a colloquial sense.

Black’s Law Dictionary defines “conspiracy” as follows:

“A combination or confederacy between two or more persons formed for the purpose of committing, by their joint efforts, some unlawful or criminal act, or some act which is lawful in itself, but becomes unlawful when done by the concerted act of the conspirators, or for the purpose of using some criminal or unlawful means to the commission of an act not in itself unlawful.”

As far as I know, it’s not a crime for an author to write under a pseudonym. During Elizabethan times, a nobleman writing plays for the public stage under his real name would have been frowned upon by his family and peers. Even now, just think how Prince Harry’s royal grandmother would react after reading a saucy “The Lass of Las Vegas” that he’d written under his real name. The prince might find himself a step closer to the throne.

Moreover, if “Oxfordians” have it right, the powers-that-be during Elizabethan times would have required Oxford to use a nom de plume, given some of the political messages conveyed by the plays.

Scholars, for instance, believe that Shakespeare based the character Polonious, the meddling, long-winded royal advisor in Hamlet, on Queen Elizabeth’s close confidant, Lord Burghley, and in the same play modeled the incestuous Queen Gertrude, who’s complicit in robbing Hamlet of the throne, after Elizabeth herself. The evil protagonist in Richard III is seen as mirroring Burghley’s son, Robert Cecil, who succeeded him as the Queen’s Secretary.

Burghley was Oxford’s father-in-law, Cecil his brother-in-law.

Charles Beauclerk’s “Shakespeare’s Lost Kingdom” cites more examples of how Shakespeare’s plays can be seen as political dramas reflecting contemporary events in Queen Elizabeth’s court.

Oxford’s family, not to mention the Queen, thus would have good reason to want Oxford to use a pseudonym (“William Shakespeare”) and for everyone to stay silent about it. Given England’s accepted form of totalitarian rule at the time, few, if any of the cognazanti – probably not even Oxford/Shakespeare himself – would view the imposition of such silence as something unlawful, let alone as a “crime.” Ditto for the grain dealer acting as Oxford’s front man.

No crime, no unlawful means or purpose, no conspiracy, no “conspiracy theory.”

What Stratfordians really mean to say is that Oxfordians propose that there was a cover-up to hide Shakespeare’s true identity, which – forgive me for wanting to attach correct meanings to words – is different from a “conspiracy.” Only the act of concealing or hiding something in needed for a cover-up. Unlike conspiracy, no criminality or unlawful purpose is necessary. A pseudonym, by definition, is a type of cover-up.

Cover-up, yes. Conspiracy, no. Stratfordians should drop the “conspiracy” charge against their opponents.

Shakespeare’s Henry the Fifth: Was He Also Henry the Ninth?

henry-de-vere-and-southampton-1621-two-most-noble-henries

Two Henries: in this early 17th century woodcut, Henry Wriothesely, the 3rd Earl of Southampton is on the right. Southampton was General of the Horse in Ireland. His companion is Henry de Vere, the 18th Earl of Oxford.

I recently enjoyed the Folger Theatre’s fine production of Shakespeare’s Henry V starring Zach Appelman as the King. Appelman’s amazing performance makes me think he’s our next great Shakespearian actor, joining the ranks of Olivier, Gieguld, and Branagh.

I read Henry V before watching Appelman conduct his tour de force on the imaginary battlefields of 15th century France.

For me, each new reading of a Shakespeare play is like listening to a Mozart or Beethoven symphony: something new always emerges, some quality or insight about a character not captured before, a phrase that strikes me (“Every subject’s duty is the king’s; but every subject’s soul is his own”), or fresh appreciation for the breadth of the author’s word craft which, in Henry V, he extends à la langue français.

This time I discovered something that perhaps heretofore has gone unnoticed: it’s possible that Henry V was promoting a candidate to succeed Queen Elizabeth I to the English throne at the end of the 16th century.

The Chorus, at the beginning of Act V of the play, describes throngs of English citizens welcoming back Henry (“Harry”) who’s returned victorious from France. The Chorus compares this homecoming to one Caesar received:

“The mayor and all his brethren in best sort,
Like to the senators of the antique Rome,
With the plebeians swarming at their heels,
Go forth and fetch their conquering Caesar in:
As, by a lower but loving likelihood,
Were now the general of our gracious empress,
As in good time he may, from Ireland coming,
Bringing rebellion broached on his sword,
How many would the peaceful city quit,
To welcome him! much more, and much more cause,
Did they this Harry.”

Scholars have long agreed that the Chorus’s speech is a contemporary reference to the campaign of Robert Devereaux, the 2nd Earl of Essex, to quash rebels in Ireland, which dates the play to around 1599. In the above-quoted text, Essex would be the “general,” and Queen Elizabeth I “our gracious empress.”

I’ll come back to the Chorus’s speech. For now it can be observed that Elizabeth in 1599 had about four years to live, with her succession undecided.

To say it was difficult to discuss who should be England’s next ruler while Elizabeth was still living is an understatement. Under the treason statute at the time, it was a crime punishable by death to suggest that anyone else should be the reigning monarch.

If someone wanted to promote a candidate for King without being hanged or beheaded, then subtlety and plausible deniability, expressed through words and phrases with double meanings, would be the order of the day.

Of course, the double entendre was something Shakespeare was very good at.

We know that Shakespeare had a special relationship with one particular courtier in Queen Elizabeth’s court: Henry Wriothesely, the 3rd Earl of Southampton.

Shakespeare dedicated two long poems, Venus and Adonis, and The Rape of Lucrece, to Southampton. Several biographers of Southampton (including Constance C. Stopes and A.L. Rowse) agree that Southampton is the Fair Youth (or “lovely boy”) in Shakespeare’s Sonnets.

These circumstances show that Shakespeare held Southampton very dear and would have been highly interested in his future.

As mentioned above, the Chorus’s speech in Act V contains a contemporary reference to the Earl of Essex’s military campaign in Ireland. Southampton accompanied Essex on that campaign, a fact that leads to the “new” thing I noticed.

The line, “the general of our gracious empress,” has long been thought of referring to Essex and the Queen. On the other hand, Southampton’s title in Ireland also was “general” – General of the Horse. That the Chorus is referring to Southampton in the speech rather than to Essex is further supported by the last three lines:

How many would the peaceful city quit,
To welcome him! much more, and much more cause,
Did they this Harry (my empahsis).

Admittedly, one can interpret the word “this” different ways, but my point is that the “him” in the second line could refer to another “Harry,” i.e., the “general” Henry, the Earl of Southampton, whom Shakespeare is comparing to “this” Harry, i.e., Henry V.

Under this interpretation, the Chorus is expressing the hope that Southampton returns victorious from Ireland to the same type of welcome that Henry V received when he returned from France.

And then there’s the Chorus’s speech that begins Act II, which describes the traitors’ plot to kill Henry V:

And by their hands this grace of kings must die,
If hell and treason hold their promises,
Ere he take ship for France, and in Southampton.

The first meaning of “Southampton” is the city from which Henry V embarked for France. However, I believe it would have been difficult for the audience – at least for any courtier – listening to the play in 1599 not to think of Henry, Earl of Southampton as well.

Moreover, there is a logical interpretation attaching this second (or double) meaning to “Southampton” in the speech quoted above.

For “this grace of kings” to die “in Southampton” would mean that it must first be living there, and if the audience considered “Southampton” in the sense of the earl, it could interpret the Chorus’s statement as meaning that “this grace of kings” lives in Henry Wriothesely who, if he were to ascend to the throne, would be crowned Henry the Ninth.

If you think my argument is a stretch, you’re right, it is. But given the treason statutes, in a sense it has to be. Shakespeare would have had to be cryptic if he were advertising Henry Wriothesely as a candidate for the throne.

If Shakespeare was suggesting that the “grace of kings” resided in Southampton, the “general” he hoped would return from Ireland to be greeted like a King, what possible claim could Southampton have had for the throne?

Recent scholarship addresses that very question. If you’re interested, I suggest you check out the work of Hank Whittemore and Charles Beauclerk.

Shakespeare Matters: “The Rape of Lucrece”

Many people don’t know it, but William Shakespeare first achieved fame as a poet.

His long narrative poem Venus and Adonis was published in 1593, followed a year later by a second one, The Rape of Lucrece.

Shakespeare dedicated both poems to Henry Wriothesely, the 3rd Earl of Southampton, a young, popular nobleman in the court of Queen Elizabeth I. Southampton is widely viewed as the Fair Youth adored in Shakespeare’s Sonnets.

“What I have done is yours, what I have to do is yours; being part in all I have, devoted yours,” Shakespeare wrote to Southampton in the dedication of Lucrece.

Renowned American stage actress Katherine Cornell (1893-1974) starred in “Lucrece” on Broadway in 1932. Her performance put her on the cover of Time Magazine.

While Venus and Adonis tells an amusing story of seduction, Lucrece presents the grim tale of Lucrece’s rape by Sextus Tarquinius, the lust-driven son of the reigning Roman king, and her subsequent feelings of shame and self-blame that lead to suicide. Her death causes the ouster of the Tarquins from power in Rome, after which the “state government changed from kings to consuls.”

In a 1964 biography of Shakespeare, A.L. Rowse writes of Lucrece, “There is clearly a deepening experience behind this poem, a greater knowledge of the shadowy side of life, the exploration of sin and remorse, the full realization of consequences, as always with [Shakespeare].” David Bevington, in his 1997 introduction to the poem, says that “Shakespeare’s real interest is not in the characters themselves so much as in the social ramifications of their actions.”

Drawing parallels in the poem to the abduction of Helen and the Trojan War, Shakespeare’s Lucrece shows how outrageous behavior that’s unbecoming of nobility makes not only for personal tragedy, but also takes down the royal powers that be.

Charles Beauclerk, author of Shakespeare’s Lost Kingdom, extends this idea, arguing that Lucrece represents Queen Elizabeth I, the mythical Virgin Queen who, in truth, was anything but chaste.

“[T]he piercing of the virgin’s veil or exposure of the queen as a whore – symbolized by the rape of Lucrece – could lead to the end of Elizabeth’s reign, even to the end of monarchy itself,” writes Beauclerk.

It’s a startling interpretation, but then again Shakespeare most often wrote about nobility, particularly the English nobility in his numerous history plays. A poem dedicated to a nobleman that attempts to symbolize Queen Elizabeth through the veil of verse seems an undertaking befitting of Shakespeare, an artist who liked to take risks. One shouldn’t forget the trouble his Richard II  stirred when it was publicly performed — with the incendiary scene of the King’s deposition — on the eve of the Essex Rebellion against Queen Elizabeth.

Taffety Punk Theater Company is performing Shakespeare’s Lucrece as a “concert poem” at the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop in Washington, D.C. (metro: Eastern Market) through October 6.

I caught the opening show last night and recommend seeing this creative melding of Shakespeare and rock music. You’ll need to act quickly, there’s just five more performances.

Backed by original music performed by Marcus Kyd on guitar (Kyd also directed), Kimberly Gilbert on bass, and Dan Crane on drums, Tonya Beckman is an engaging narrator of Lucrece. Joel David Santner is compelling as the rapist Tarquin, and the physical struggle between him and Lucrece, played by Gilbert, is skillfully handled by the actors as they stay in synch with the part-dialogue, part-narration story-telling.  Katie Murphy dances gracefully as “Lucrece’s shadow” under the choreography of Erin Mitchell.

Gilbert is outstanding as Lucrece. I found her singing quite moving (“In vain I rail at Opportunity/At Time, at Tarquin, and uncheerful Night”). Like the notes of her bass guitar, Gilbert’s words don’t miss a beat.

Taffety Punk is to be applauded for their bold yet faithful adaptation of Lucrece and infusing Shakespeare with new energy. I hope the company continues on their unique path.

William Shakespeare, rock thee on!