All Hallow’s Eve is upon us again, and as a holiday particular concerned with roleplay and performance it certainly falls within Joseph Roach’s recognition of “social drama,” briefly those public performances in which we as a society engage in order to define, solidify, and if necessary amend our sense of ourselves as a community. And, like almost all such events in our culture, it is absolutely riddled with a level of amnesia that would be astonishing if it wasn’t so omnipresent. It is hardly occult knowledge that Halloween was originally an autumn festival practiced by Celts, called Samhain (“summer’s end”). This festival appears to have had a somewhat spooky tone to it, which included playing pranks, dressing up to scare people, and carving turnips to resemble folks who had passed. It also seems to have encompassed a traditional begging ritual, in which the poor members of the community would go door-to-door to accept gifts to see them through the coming winter (they did this at Christmas, also, when they would sing songs in exchange for gifts – this was called wassailing). According to what we might deduce from the 10th century writings of Irish monks, the Christian missionaries in Ireland centuries earlier appear to have worked to co-opt Samhain into a Catholic hegemony of rituals. Ireland was declared Christian in the 7th century, and the Church invested the religious holiday “All Hallows Day” (or “All Saint’s Day”) in the 9th – to take place the day after Samhain. Some authorities suggest that this was part of the ongoing attempt by the Church ease the process of converting Europe by making an effort to merge with, rather than eliminate, local pagan customs – this missionary strategy appears also in the history of Christmas, and is fairly explicitly laid out in Beowulf. Perhaps because of its pagan roots, it was able to survive the anti-Catholic purges of the 15th century. In fact, the Bard makes a reference to it in his 1593 Two Gentlemen of Verona, wherein a character is accused of “puling like a beggar at Hallowmas” (II, i). Whether you want to take the position that the Church is sanctifying the pagan rituals, or vice versa, the preponderance of evidence is pretty clear – holidays like this represent occasions when two cultures knead and bleed into one another. This is a fascinating process, always – it is perverse, bizarrely expedient, weirdly pragmatic, and usually desperate to cover its own tracks so as to eliminate its hybrid origins. But, alas, this process, Roach has demonstrated, never works – the threads of the true origins are woven into the fabric of the new event, and they tend to fray and show up at the most inopportune moments, requiring ever more revision and whitewashing.
Thankfully, this observation does little to complicate the performative observance of this festival by the vast majority of people, who think of it as an opportunity for carnivalesque release, a little vacation into what Arthur Sullivan called “topsy-turvydom,” and a little no-rules quality time with the kinder. Unfortunately it also does little to deter those in our society who seek to quash this kind of performance; those who fear the pernicious influence of paganism in what some think is a perpetual American war against Christianity. Thus, the proliferation of “Hell Houses,” a sort of alternate to a traditional “Haunted House,” where patrons are marched through a hall of horrors depicting scenes of botched abortions, drunk-driving disasters, people dying of AIDS, rapes, and school killings. Clearly the effort here is to divorce Halloween from its pagan, and celebratory, roots by creating a sort of four-dimensional performance-sermon, scaring us all straight. But, of course, such a performance is just as problematic as an unconscious one. Both involve a semi-conscious erasure of part of the whole shebang. Culture just doesn’t work like that – it’s a far more chaotic, multi-headed process.
Which brings me, rather circuitously I admit, to my main point. Part of the seasonal festivities includes the release of the new film Anonymous, which according to its promotional text is a “movie that explores the theory that Shakespeare never wrote a single word.”
Oh, lord, again? Seriously?
Sometime in the 19th century, some scholars who attended Oxford, started up a campaign to divorce Shakespeare from the authorship of the plays of Shakespeare, and instead crown Edward de Vere, earl of, astonishingly, Oxford, as the Immortal Bard. Their claims largely rotated around a notion that someone who did not have access to the highest level of education (for instance, that available at Oxford) could not possibly have written such terrific plays. Therefore, the Earl wrote the plays and used Shakespeare as a sort of patsy to get the works published. The Earl didn’t want to publish his plays because noblemen didn’t do such low-class things as write plays.
|Fig 1. Another alternate authorship theory.|
Okay, so, here’s the thing – where I come from, a THEORY requires EVIDENCE. The evidence that asserts Shakespeare as the author of the plays is, I admit, murky – all we have is that Shakespeare was identified as the author of the plays at the time, and was rewarded materially for his contributions to English culture by the monarchy. We don’t know very much about Shakespeare. However, we do know that lots of famous playwrights of the day did not have a formal education. And we do know a LOT about Edward de Vere, including the fact that he was a prolific playwright all on his own, noble restrictions notwithstanding. So although the evidence that Shakespeare authored his plays is really no stronger than, say, the evidence that Caryl Churchill is writing her plays, the evidence against the Oxford “theory” and the other alternative authorship “theories” is actually pretty solid, except, of course, for the Klingon theory [Fig. 1].
However, let us be careful not to be like the Hell Housers and miss the big picture. First of all, theatre is a collaborative art. Shakespeare was a man of the theatre, truly, and probably worked out a lot of stuff in rehearsal. We know he wrote specifically for particular actors, that his work was very topical and dramaturgically rich, and that he was able to take advantage of improvements in stage technology. It seems very possible that Shakespeare would have collaborated with other folks in his circle – Kit Marlowe, Emilia Bassanos, Ben Jonson, even Edward de Vere. Why not? All playwrights do this. The virtue of the alternative theories of the authorship of Shakespeare is that, if we are open to them, they knock us out of our complacency about Shakespeare, and, let’s be honest, our worship of him. Considering Shakespeare’s sexuality, for instance, helps liberate our ability to see the homoeroticism in the plays – we don’t have to conclude that he was gay to gain the benefits of that observation. Considering his past, his birth, his education, his religious affiliation – these can be very fruitful for our ability to read him, even if we don’t come to any particular conclusions. Anything that gets us thinking in multiple ways about important moments in our history, considering alternatives, testing our conclusions, shaking our convictions, is good. We don’t have to agree with them – but it’s good practice for us to really investigate them periodically. This is a mental practice that Lessing would later call fermenta cogitiationis: brewing thought.
Personally, my favorite take on this is in Stoppard’s Shakespeare in Love, when Viola asks Will “are you the author of the plays of William Shakespeare?” and Will replies, “I am.” I saw that movie in the theatre with a bunch of fellow PhD students, and we laughed ourselves sick – what a brilliant answer! So yeah, I’m going to see this movie, and I’m going to laugh and celebrate how the spooky monsters from our shared history find such weird ways to surface and trouble us in the present, and what is more Halloweeny than that?