The Future of History

Thursday, 10 November 2011

The Road Less Travelled

It is a problem which affects both Arthur and William Shakespeare.  Let's call it the "Don't Look There!" syndrome.

One way of imagining how this problem works is to compare it with a police investigation.  There undoubtedly was a time when certain detectives, faced with the task of solving a crime, would make up their minds who did it and then go flat out to convict on the basis of their assumptions and/or prejudice.  This led to countless miscarriages of justice, of course.  Basically, if you take that approach then you are obliged to ignore all evidence which disproves your theory and, where necessary, cover it up.

This happens all the time in Arthurian studies.  The debate goes round and round in circles until somebody raises a question along the lines of, "You know, after x-number of years looking into Arthur, I've begun to wonder whether he might not have been northern, perhaps even Scottish?"  This triggers a mini frenzy of condemnation ("No, of course he couldn't have been northern, let alone Scottish; we've looked into it time and time again and there's simply no evidence whatsoever to suggest that he was!!!")  And then the discussion returns to "We don't know who he was, he must have been in the south, or maybe Roman, or maybe he didn't exist, we just don't know!"

As you can imagine, that means that the discussion goes nowhere.  The Arthurian thought-police have ruled out any inquiries focussing on the North or Scotland, so we're stuck with a resounding "We don't know!"  For the record, evidence that they really have looked into the possibility of Arthur having been northern or Scottish is practically non-existent.  Like the detective who made his mind up right at the start of the investigation, they simply have no intention of examining any historical candidates - including the first Arthur on record - because that would spoil the game.  Better to cling to the (hugely unlikely) possibility that a Roman-ish Arthur will suddenly turn up in southern Britain than to admit that he might have been - urgh! - a Scot!

Shakespeare has suffered from the same narrow focus.  A new Shakespeare biography seems to come out every year - perhaps more often than that even.  I say a "new" biography, when what I mean is that somebody has taken the opportunity of slightly rearranging what everybody else has said on the subject.  But the Smithsonian magazine blog has come up with an interesting, if rather long, piece about one of the lesser-written-about facts of Shakespeare's life:

The fact that Will Shakespeare was the subject of a legal document known as a "surety of the peace" is not exactly news, and it certainly didn't make him a "gangster", as the blogpost likes to suggest.  But it is a nugget of Shakespearean history which most biographers avoid, principally because we don't really know what was going on and the idea that somebody took out legal protection against Shakespeare and a few others "for fear of death, and so forth" doesn't really square with our image of cosy Mr Shakespeare, gent.

The blog piece does have a point, though.  So many biographies, but so few facts.

Well, as the Arthur book - now beautifully titled THE KING ARTHUR CONSPIRACY - How a Scottish Prince Became a Mythical Hero - winds its way towards the printing presses, I have been gravitating towards my next project, which, as you might have gathered by now, will concern Mr William Shakespeare.  And I'm seriously inclined to concentrate on a host of facts and anecdotes which are kept as far away from the standard Shakespeare biography as possible.

After all, I have the experience of my Arthur research to guide me.  If I'd listened to the vast majority of Arthur experts, I'd have stayed staring into space hoping that one day somebody would find an Arthur who never existed (Roman background, English mannerisms, busy in the south).  But I went where they told me not to go - "No, no, we've looked, there's nothing there!" - and found out so much about the historical Arthur that I had to decide what merited going into a 125,000 word book and what would have to be left out.

In other words, I left the path, went where I was told not to go, and found more, much more, than I was looking for.

The same, I suspect, will happen with Shakespeare.  Read the usual biographical stuff and you'll end up absolutely none the wiser.  I should know - I've read dozens, and none of them told me anything particularly useful or interesting about our national poet.

But I happen to know that there is an awful lot of stuff which has been swept under the carpet by these people (look back a few posts and you'll find out that the first woman to whom Shakespeare was betrothed - Anne Whately - really did exist; you won't find that in any of the biographies).  Some of it is fantastic stuff, like the story of Shakespeare's skull, and the work done by German forensic scientists on his death-mask, and why his mulberry tree was chopped down by a fanatical parson (who then completely destroyed Shakespeare's house), and how the "lost" play of Cardenio probably led to his murder after a "merry meeting" with two of his fellow poets.

Only by following those leads which the Arthur experts insist don't exist was it possible for me to find Arthur (and his comrades).  Only by following those leads which the Shakespeare experts ignore will it be possible to get to grips with the man and his works.

And then we can start to make up for yet another historical miscarriage of justice.

No comments:

Post a Comment