on 6 April 2016
I give Keir Cutler two stars, one for writing a book at all and one for including footnotes.
It's short enough be called a pamphlet rather than a book, but he still has space for an anecdote about how he put his young nephew up to a bit of mischief. He was to go through all the traditional biographies collecting examples of those qualifying phrases used by scholars in discussing Shakespeare's schooldays, like "almost certainly", "most likely", "it is safe to believe", and the good old double-negative "we have no reason not to assume", and present them to his English teacher as an illustration of how much fiction there is in the great author's biography.
The records of pupils passing through the Stratford grammar school are "lost", according to Cutler, though others might say they never existed in the first place and went on not existing until the nineteenth century. They are also lost, or never existed in the first place, at Westminster School, but we think Ben Jonson went there because he said so himself. Shakespeare neglected to do the same, and so Cutler turns absence of evidence into evidence of absence (as one does), and emerges with a fact: "Shaksper" never went to school and was illiterate. QED.
What I was hoping was that the boy's teacher would say, "Good work, Bill/Tim/Mike, but you've only done half a job. We cannot know if Shakespeare was an exception unless we know the norm. Playwrights who went to Oxford or Cambridge have evidence of education, because they kept records. But many didn't go to university, and you must compare like with like. So look into Chettle, Munday, Dekker, Heywood, Drayton, and the rest of the playwrighting crew, and see what evidence there is that they ever went to school. Then we'd know whether Shakespeare's case was an unusual one or not. It could be a long task, so why don't you give half of it to your uncle, since it was his idea?"
Sadly, that didn't happen. But Cutler is nothing if not consistent. Having given his nephew half a task, he gives the same to himself. This book is half a book, not in the sense of being (in Kindle) only 47 pages long - in that sense it's a lot less than half a book - but in the sense of doing half the job that would be required.
"There are no surviving writings in William Shaksper's own hand. No plays, no poems, no diaries, and most significantly, no letters."
How normal is that? He doesn't say, and I've no idea whether he has even looked into it. But that would be the other half of the job.
"There is not a single specific reference from William Shaksper's lifetime, 1564-1616, that identifies the man from Stratford as the writer of either plays or poems."
Off the top of my head, I can think of only one writer who could pass that test. Thomas Nashe's Have With You to Saffron Walden tells me where Gabriel Harvey comes from. The title leads us straight to his parish. But I don't know of any others who could pass, not even Nashe himself. Does Cutler know any? Could he list them?
"Shaksper of Stratford's relatives and neighbors never mentioned Shaksper was famous or a writer, nor are there any indications his heirs demanded or received payments for his supposed investments in the theater or for any works unpublished at the time of his death."
This seems to cast doubt on his reality, not just as a writer, but as a businessman. I suppose the next step is to say he never existed at all. But, again, no contrasting examples to set against Shakespeare. No cases offered of other playwrights' families doing what he describes. There is only one instance where he shows even a glimmer of an idea that a comparison of Shakespeare with his contemporaries is an essential part of any investigation into his credibility:
"Nobody came down from London; there were no lamenting poems or eulogies, no national tears - there was merely silence. A striking contrast with what happened when Ben Jonson, and Francis Bacon, and Spenser, and Raleigh, and the other distinguished literary folk of Shakespeare's time passed from life"
Well, good (or good, apart from his ignoring Basse's elegy and John Taylor's passing tribute). A striking contrast is exactly what we should be looking for. But you have to compare like with like. Three of the four names mentioned are courtiers, fringe aristocracy, the kind of people most likely to attract flattering eulogies. And only one of the four is a playwright. I would be more interested in the unnamed "other distinguished literary folk", men of the theatre, such as Marlowe, Greene, Kyd, Peele, Chettle, Munday, Dekker, Heywood, Middleton, Lyly, Webster, Drayton, Beaumont, Fletcher, Massingham. I'd like to see their eulogies, if he can find them.
Still, the notion of comparison with others is at least lurking somewhere in that quote. But I neglected to say that it's a quote he's lifted from Mark Twain, so it wasn't his notion in the first place. Twain - who also does half a job - is evidently the model for Cutler, who seems to have taken everything from him except his satirical skill. Cutler is a stand-up comedian by his own account, but it looks like he wrote this sitting down.
Some passages only leave you shaking your head:
"Many plays, not credited to William Shakespeare today, appeared under the nom-de-plume "Shake-spear" back then, including Sir John Oldcastle, A Yorkshire Tragedy, The London Prodigal, The Second Maiden's Tragedy, Fair Em - The Miller's Daughter of Manchester, Mucedorus, The Merry Devil of Edmonton, and The Puritan Widow."
It's a rare statement that contains eight misses and no hits. Not one of those plays ever appeared under the name "Shake-spear".
And some passages are so obscure you can't even guess what he means:
"There are also many poems misattributed to William Shakespeare such as The Passionate Pilgrim, published in 1599 with the title page attributing it to Shakespeare. Since these plays and poems are not believed to have been written by the mythical William Shakespeare, clearly at least one other writer was using the pen-name 'Shake-spear'."
Clearly, you say? How does an unauthorised collection of poems with "Shakespeare" on the title page point to the existence of a different writer calling himself "Shake-spear"? Are they doppelgängers?
Seven of Cutler's forty-seven precious pages describe how the Stratford corporation has exploited Shakespeare's fame, and no less than three of those are devoted to the mulberry tree he supposedly planted, as if that pestiferous tree might be bagged and tagged as evidence. But how any of this bears on the question whether the citizen of that town did or didn't write his plays is a mystery to me. Still, with only forty pages left, it might explain why there isn't room in his book for even a single Shakespeare quote. Is this a record?
Cutler thinks the authorship debate should be introduced in schools, and I think it should too - eventually. My own position is that there is enough vacant space in the Stratford man's record to invite discussion at least. But how are we going to do it? Should we put the sort of case to a class that he puts to us? Question time could be awkward, because there's always that kid at the back...
"You say there are only six signatures, and he never spelt his name 'Shakespeare'?"
"How many are there for Marlowe?"
"And how did he spell it?"
Silence. Some other kid joins in.
"Any manuscripts for Marlowe, or Marley?"
"Yes! There's a fragment of The Massacre at Paris. It might be in his hand... or it might not. Can't tell."
"You could compare it with the writing in his letters."
"Uh...he didn't leave any."
"Diary? Notebook? Anything in his hand?"
A third kid-
"You sure Marlowe wrote his plays? Maybe he was Marley's front-man"
Snorts of laughter. A fourth kid-
"What about that Jonson dude? He was the main man after Shakespeare. Are there any manuscripts for him?"
"Sure. The Masque of Queens."
"A court play."
"Cool. Any for the public stage?"
"Not as such."
"What about Beaumont?"
"Not as such."
"Nothing has turned up."
"Middleton? Webster? Chettle? Kyd? Dekker? Munday?"
"None have been found. There is one for Massingham, though."
"Just one? Great."
More snorts of laughter. The first kid again -
"Hey, man, how do you know any of these guys wrote their plays? Why are you picking on Shakespeare?"
"Because, almost certainly, most likely, it is safe to believe, we have no reason not to assume, they wrote their plays. But Shaksper didn't. See, he was illiterate. He held the horses."
Finally another kid, silent until now ( I hope it isn't Keir Cutler's nephew)-
"Is there such a thing as grown-up anti-Stratfordianism? I mean, like, we're over twelve."
"Look, sonny, are you trying to yank my wizzle? Cos if you are..."
No, I think we should wait a while before putting it on the curriculum. The professors have only had 150 years to get their story straight.