The Future of History

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Paradigms Lost

It's the cruellest month, according to T.S. Eliot.  For me, though, it's a month of teaching, talking and signing.

The big one will be Stratford Literary Festival, where I'm appearing on Tuesday 29 April.  Naturally, I've been giving some thought to what I'll talk about on that occasion.

All being well, I'll be showing a lovely, large, blown-up poster of the "Wadlow" portrait, around which I based my paper given at Goldsmiths, University of London, last month (see left: we made Page 2 of the South London Press).  That, in itself, will probably be pretty controversial - introducing a "new" portrait of Shakespeare to the town.

But there'll be more to the talk than a discussion of the portrait.  I'm currently inclined to talk about the pendulum of history, and the way that a false view of history is often maintained for political reasons.

There are two major periods I'm tempted to analyse.  I opened my book Who Killed William Shakespeare? with an examination of the second half of the 18th century and the process by which Shakespeare was quite deliberately forgotten.  Of course, Shakespeare wasn't forgotten - we've all heard of him - but who he was, that was forgotten.

I'll talk about Shakespeare's mulberry, which was chopped down by an intolerant clergyman, who then went on to demolish New Place, Shakespeare's grand home in Stratford.  I'll talk about the discovery of the Jesuit Testament of the Soul, which had been signed by Shakespeare's father, John, and hidden among the rafters of the Shakespeare Birthplace (the testament vanished from the study of the Shakespeare scholar, Edmond Malone, probably because it's existence was somewhat embarrassing).  I'll also talk about David Garrick's farcical "Shakespeare Jubilee" and its impact on our understanding of Shakespeare - more than anything, the Jubilee established Shakespeare as the national poet, the "Immortal Bard", while simultaneously cutting him off from his roots - and raise the matter of the Rev. James Wilmot, a vicar who retired to a village near Stratford and first put forward the silly theory that somebody other than Shakespeare must have written the plays.

So - between 1755 and 1785, the real Shakespeare was forgotten, and a national myth erected in his place.  But there's another period I find interesting.

One hundred years on from the time in which the real Shakespeare was determinedly forgotten, attempts were being made to establish who he really was.  The death mask, found in Germany, which Professor Richard Owen, superintendent of the Natural History Department of the British Museum, concluded was the model for the Shakespeare funerary monument in Stratford, was exhibited in the town as Shakespeare's Death Mask on the 300th anniversary of his birth.  The discovery of the death mask had prompted numerous scholars to call for Shakespeare's grave to be opened, and his skull extracted so that it could be compared with the death mask.

At the height of this furore, Rev. Charles Jones Langston published his story of How Shakespeare's Skull was Stolen and Found.  Found, that is, in the private family crypt beneath the Sheldon Chapel at Beoley Church, 12 miles from Stratford.

The powers that be in Stratford currently refuse to discuss the death mask or the skull and pour scorn on the very idea that either might have anything to do with Shakespeare.

However, there is no evidence that anyone connected with the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust has taken the trouble to investigate the death mask (now in Darmstadt Castle) or the skull at Beoley.  To put it simply, they're not remotely interested in the death mask or the skull.  And they don't want anyone else to be interested in them either.

Rev. Charles Jones Langston published the first half of his extraordinary account of How Shakespeare's Skull Was Stolen in October 1879.  That same year, the Comedie Francaise came to London, bringing with them a play entitled Davenant.  The play was based on the long running rumour that Sir William Davenant was Will Shakespeare's natural son.

I find it odd, looking back, to see that some of the finest minds throughout Europe were so concerned with exploring possibilities - that the death mask was Shakespeare's, that the rogue skull in the crypt at Beoley was Shakespeare's, that Davenant was Shakespeare's son - and were willing and eager to put those possibilities to the test, scientifically-speaking.  I'm currently researching Sir William Davenant for a new biography (it'll be published by The History Press in 2016) and have just received a copy of a short book published in 1905; based on a dissertation he had written, John David Ellis Williams' book is entitled Sir William Davenant's Relation to Shakespeare: With an Analysis of the Chief Characters of Davenant's Plays.

At around the same time as Ellis wrote his dissertation, other experts were carefully studying and measuring the Darmstadt death mask and comparing their measurements - broadly successfully - with those of the Shakespeare effigy in his Stratford funerary monument.

There's such a huge sense of a missed opportunity.  The second half of the nineteenth century appeared to be edging close to several breakthroughs: the formal identification of the death mask, the (re-)discovery of Shakespeare's skull, the true nature of the Shakespeare-Davenant connection (as late as 1913, Arthur Acheson was confidently identifying Sir William Davenant's mother, Jane, as the "Dark Lady" of the sonnets).  All of these developments could and should have transformed the way we think about William Shakespeare.

But they didn't.  Something went wrong, and I suspect that something was the Great War.  England, desperate to preserve its sense of self, abandoned all the new research (a lot of which was German) and reverted to its comfy, cosy national myths.  In other words, the national myth of William Shakespeare - a humble, Protestant lad, beloved of that wonderful monarch, Elizabeth I - was reinstated.  All the advances of the previous decades were swept aside.  We went back to the reactionary view of Shakespeare as the national poet of a Protestant constitutional monarchy.  This was the Whig historian's notion of Shakespeare, and it was utterly unrelated to Shakespeare the man.

We've been stuck with that false idea of Shakespeare ever since.  The propagandist myth of Shakespeare, which was formulated in the late-18th century with the intent of removing any trace or taint of Catholicism in Shakespeare's background, has continued to be taught as if it was historically accurate - nay, as if it is the only known version of the Shakespeare story.  It is this Whiggish myth that the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Stratford propagates with ruthless determination.

As if those great minds of the late-19th century had never even considered the death mask, the skull, or the likelihood that Sir William Davenant was Shakespeare's son.  No; all that must be forgotten.  We were making progress, until the reactionaries took control.  And now generations of children, the world over, are subjected to an irrelevant and misleading account of Shakespeare's life.

It is time to resume the brilliant work done by so many scholars in the second half of the nineteenth century, before the devastating tragedy of the First World War sent us all running back home to Mamma.

It is time to continue their efforts, to achieve the goals that they were making for, and to reveal the reality of Shakespeare and his world.

None of that will happen if the Shakespeare "experts" have their way.  But we owe it to Shakespeare, and to Stratford, and to every child who must encounter Shakespeare at school.  If we want to understand Shakespeare's words, we must understand his life.  And for that to happen, we must explode the asinine myth created in the late-18th century, and resurrected in the 20th century, and pick up where the genuine experts left off.

Now - how do we think a talk like that will go down in Stratford?

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