JoyceGroup Santa Fe will be launching into the ninth chapter of Ulysses this week, which takes for its Homeric counterpart the ‘Scylla and Charybdis’ dilemma: Odysseus must choose between two impossible paths, Scylla (a vicious six-headed monster sure to devour his crew) on the one hand, and Charybdis (a massive whirlpool sure to destroy his fleet) on the other.
Treacherous waters indeed, and no fitter metaphor for a discussion of the authorship of Shakespeare’s works. If you thought the Joyce Wars were bad, just start speculating on the Shakespeare authorship issue in mixed company. I’ve seen people shout, pound tables, even storm out of rooms when this topic is broached. The great Peter Brook himself recently described any and all alternative authorship theories as “completely idiotic,” adding that such theorizing is solely motivated by the selfish desire for academic prestige in a soon-to-be-deflated but presently burgeoning scholastic industry.
With surprisingly little variation, Brook’s is by far the most common argument against alternate Shakespeare claimancy, and in my opinion, it skirts dangerously close to the ad hominem fallacy. What difference does it make that a theorist might be motivated by self-advancement? Show me the evidence; that’s where I’ll be convinced, one way or the other. I would much rather hear a theory on how the man: William Shakespeare – through his own ruminations, motivations and struggles – came about writing any given work.
Well as it turns out, Stephen Dedalus (autobiographical counterpart of James Joyce) lays his own authorship theory (that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare) before a small audience of elite members of the Dublin intelligentsia in the ‘Scylla and Charybdis’ chapter. Given what he has to work with, Stephen’s portrait is astonishingly vivid. Just consider: virtually no documentation of the life of Shakespeare the man exists; other lives contemporary to his own were much better chronicled – Edward DeVere, Francis Bacon, Mary Sidney, etc. – and so provide much more grist to the adventurous theorist. By contrast, Shakespeare’s biography is woefully patchy, and Stephen’s plaster is at times so thin that he himself admits when cornered that he doesn’t actually believe his own argument. But by the end of Stephen’s dissertation, a far greater purpose has been served: William Shakespeare has become nearly as real a character in the novel as Leopold Bloom himself. Using what very little documentation exists on Shakespeare (his last will and testament, his appearance on the Globe stage as Hamlet’s ghost, his son’s death, etc) Stephen manages to construct a gripping portrait of the artist – a writer who has worked the detritus of his utterly chaotic and grief-ridden life into one of the all-time greatest bildungsroman portraits in English literature: Hamlet.
You might very well see in this portrait the echoes of another writer, and you wouldn’t be mistaken. James Joyce had his virtues, but humility was certainly not one of them. He knew perfectly well that he was onto something big with his Shakespearean reconstruction – much more than mere authorship theory or semi-oblique self-portraiture. By creating in the imagined person of William Shakespeare an echo/reflection of himself (i.e. a man with an intense investment in his personal integrity as well as deep-set insecurities), Joyce created something with which we can all potentially identify – not just some floating head in a ruffled collar and dorky hairdo that we all bow down to as some kind of iconic “genius.” It is no mistake that Stephen’s portrait of Shakespeare (cuckold, son-less father) has as much in common with Leopold Bloom as it does with Stephen himself.
So then we have the following amalgam which, if taken out of the above context, is of course mere cinematic goofiness:
(Stephen and Bloom gaze in the mirror. The face of William Shakespeare, beardless, appears there, rigid in facial paralysis, crowned by the reflection of the reindeer antlered hatrack in the hall.)
This kind of stuff happens all the time in Finnegans Wake. Character identities become so fluid as to literally shift from persona to persona without any apparent justification. In the above passage, Stephen and Bloom amalgamate to become Shakespeare, and in the passage from Finnegans Wake which JoyceGroup Santa Fe is presently working on, Sir Tristan and St. Patrick amalgamate to become Anna Livia Plurabelle.
Or perhaps Shakespeare splits in two to become Bloom and Stephen, and Anna Livia gives birth to twins – I’m happy to go in either direction. That’s what happens with continuous exposure to Joyce, particularly the Wake. The mind elasticizes. After 20+ years of working on this stuff, I’ve come to a place where I generally welcome all theories – especially if they can help me to connect to the text I’m trying to understand. The price may very well be credibility: As anyone who dares to venture beyond Shakespeare’s authority must face Peter Brook’s vicious rebuke, so too must Stephen face universal dismissal as a crackpot at the end of “Scylla and Charybdis.” But the reward – flexibility of mind and spirit – is pretty invaluable. So if you happen to be an Oxfordian, a Baconian, a Sidneyite, or even a Shakespearean, you have nothing to fear from me.
Just keep yourself pliable, and let’s theorize.