The Future of History

Thursday, 21 April 2016

Then They Fight You

A lovely morning in Oxford, on Tuesday.  I was there to be filmed by Alex Iszatt for a That's Oxfordshire piece on Oxford's community Freeview channel.

Alex interviewed me in the courtyard between what used to be the Davenants' Taverne on Cornmarket and the Cross Inn next door (seen here in an old photo).  I spoke about Sir William Davenant, and why I'd written my book about him.  No one, I pointed out, had ever taken the trouble to ask whether or not the rumours surrounding Davenant's paternity - was he the product of a liaison between William Shakespeare and Jane, the comely mistress of the Taverne? - might be true, so I had done so.

We then went for a walk around Oxford, Alex filming me as we wandered past Christ Church and back up to Lincoln College, where Davenant studied as a young man, before he moved to London.

The piece goes out this Friday and will then be put up on YouTube.  I'll do my best to remember to post the link.

I got back home to hear that there will be some sort of review or mention of my book, Shakespeare's Bastard, in the Oxford Times this week.  So - today, Oxford; tomorrow, the world!

Still, there had to be a backlash, didn't there?  And it came this morning, in the form of a piece in the Spectator.

I'm not all that familiar with the Spectator, but apparently the magazine has a regular column referred to as "The Heckler".  It would seem to be a slightly schizophrenic column.  Only last May, Lloyd Evans, writing as "The Heckler", decreed that "Shakespeare's duds should be struck from the canon".  Lloyd Evans professed to "love Shakespeare.  But when he pulls on his wellies and hikes into the forest I yearn for the exit."  Consequently, Evans felt, "Winter's Tale, Twelfth Night, As You Like It, even Midsummer Night's Dream deserve to sink".

Evidently, by writing about the Woodland he came from, the old Forest of Arden with which he so identified, being half-Arden himself, Shakespeare let himself down.

Well, this week's "Heckler" column comes to us courtesy of Kate Maltby, who frets that "the Shakespeare anniversary has stripped the Bard of his beauty".  I give you her opening paragraph:

"The feeding frenzy over the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare's death has reached its peak.  Recently we've had Shakespeare's complete works performed through the puppetry of kitchenware.  On books pages, you can read about everything from Edward Wilson-Lee's Shakespeare in Swahililand (surprisingly beguiling) to Simon Andrew Stirling's Shakespeare's Bastard: The Life of Sir William Davenant (he wasn't)."

Now, grateful as I am for the name check, I can only assume that Kate Maltby, or someone she knows, was actually present at the conception of Sir William Davenant and therefore capable of signing an affidavit stating that John and Jane Davenant were exclusively concerned in the act.  Failing that, only a DNA test could say for certain whether or not Sir William was a little closer to Shakespeare than a mere "godson", as Oxford remembered him.

Ah, but I forget.  The fact that no one had previously looked into the possibility that Davenant was (as he apparently claimed to be) Shakespeare's son is ipso facto proof that "he wasn't".  The very avoidance of an investigation is evidence of there being no need for an investigation.  We shouldn't consider the possibility because nobody else has.

Perhaps, if Kate Maltby had read my book, she'd have noticed that I tackle this argument in my opening pages.  For years, it was widely rumoured - and seemingly accepted - that Sir William Davenant was Shakespeare's illegitimate son.  A close examination of his life and career certainly suggests that Davenant modelled himself on his celebrated godfather, and almost certainly believed - or liked to believe - that he was the bastard son of Shakespeare.

And didn't Shakespeare use the word "godson" just once in all of his known works - in King Lear, a play obsessed with bastards, illegitimacy, adultery and female sexuality, which was written at about the same time as William Davenant was born?

Why bother with any of this, though, when all one has to do is ignore it?  Just because one pesky author dared to ask "Might Davenant have been Shakespeare's son?" and set out to explore the possibility, doesn't mean we have to take a look at his results.  Those who have never asked themselves the question or looked into the possibility have been saying for years that Davenant wasn't Shakespeare's son (the absence of any evidence to support this statement being irrelevant, apparently) and, hey, why break with tradition?

Kate Maltby's full piece can be read here.  I found it slightly odd, in that it seemed to be saying that we can only preserve the "beauty" of Shakespeare if we try not to think of him as a real person.  In fact, let's forget that he ever existed and just concentrate on the plays (presumably, if Lloyd Evans has anything to do with it, not those Shakespeare plays which involve trees).

The upshot being that even to commemorate the 400th anniversary of his death is an act of cultural desecration, almost as bad as wondering if our second-ever poet laureate was telling the truth about his relationship to his godfather.

Of course, what Kate Maltby is really calling for is a kind of censorship.  It's an old trick: if we ignore Shakespeare and just concentrate on the words he left behind, we can construe those words in pretty much any way we choose.  We can tell other people what we want them to believe about Shakespeare (who didn't really exist, other than as a sort of disembodied quill).  We can continue to cover up what was going on in England when he was writing his masterpieces.

There is one aspect of Maltby's piece I agree with: I've long argued that what the major Shakespeare organisations are flogging is a brand.  Not Shakespeare per se, but an unhistorical idea of what they want Shakespeare to have been.  And in recent months we have seen the extraordinary lengths to which organisations will go to protect and preserve their rather false image of Shakespeare.  It's a cash cow, no doubt, and the tourists seem to love it.  But it's not Shakespeare.

However, Kate Maltby's solution is even more alarming (though not quite as alarming as "The Heckler's" previous call to expunge Shakespeare's more arboreal works).  It's also regressive.  For years, scholars tried to argue that Shakespeare's writings were no guide whatsoever to what he might have thought or believed.  As arguments go, that one is utter nonsense.  Dramatists write in character, but they draw their inspiration from the world around them, and everything that happens in their work is coloured by their outlook, their perspective.

So, once again, it's back to the Dark Ages.  The scientific investigation of Shakespeare's skull was smothered, and now we're told - on no authority whatsoever - that Davenant "wasn't" Shakespeare's bastard.

Long live the Shakespeare who never was!

Or, better still, let's do what nobody seems prepared to tolerate, these days: ask questions, do some research, and little by little feel our way towards an understanding of the man who wrote those glorious works.  There's little if any reward in this, but it's better than claiming to admire the "beauty" of the Bard while trying not to know anything about him.

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