Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The Shakespeare Code: Part II

As I mentioned in “Part I” of this blog, I have recently stumbled into a slew of Shakespearean authorship theories, uncovering all sorts of speculative connections between Shakespeare and myriad secret societies, individuals, locations, etc. – “some serious and some fictional.” Since my previous blog explored the “serious” side of things, this one shall turn to the fictional. Of course, the amount of fiction out there about Shakespeare – the man and the myth – is vast, and I only have time to write one small entry. The book I read, which was also my introduction to modern Shakespeare-centric fiction, was Harvard professor Jennifer Lee Carrell’s Interred with their Bones. First, however, a warning: If this book happens to be on your “to read” list, proceed no further, as here be spoilers!

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Written in the distinctive and oft-copied vein of The Da Vinci Code, Carrell’s book has all the requisite elements of Dan Brown’s thriller. It begins with the death of a scholarly mentor-figure who leaves behind a tantalizingly vague clue, sending the protagonist off on a race to uncover a trail of historical hints which could, in turn, lead to the revelation of a massive historic cover-up. Enter a relative (well, sort of, in Carrell’s case) of the deceased to assist the protagonist. Furthermore, the protagonist is affiliated with Harvard. There’s also a mysterious assassin. There’s a dogged policeman. There’s even the older Sir So-And-So figure, with a deep love and/or scary obsession for the subject matter who turns out to be a double-crosser. Now, I freely admit that I am a fan of Dan Brown. I do think it’s a mistake to take his fictional stories as gospel (so to speak), but I think he writes frothy and entertaining tales for the history buff. Personally, I wasn’t thrilled with Carrell’s writing style, nor with her heroine, the terminally underdeveloped and perpetually personality-less Kate Stanley. This blog post, however, is not meant to be my own review of Carrell’s book itself, but rather a rumination on the impetus behind it. The review on the invaluable website Mr. William Shakespeare and the Internet pretty well encapsulates my own feelings (except for the part about Carrell being a better writer than Brown, with which I would respectfully disagree).

Fiction is certainly an interesting, and I would say more appropriate, vehicle for putting forth theories on the “Shakespeare authorship question,” and Carrell’s contribution makes an appealing companion study piece to Amundsen’s Organisten. Like Amundsen in real life, Carrell’s characters are after Shakespeare’s lost manuscripts; in this case, the once documented but now lost Cardenio. Given my recent discoveries in this area, I was rather hoping the story would build up to a dramatic conclusion on Oak Island – but, alas, it was not to be. It goes almost everywhere else, though, from England to ghost towns of the American southwest to Washington, DC to Spain and back again. Along the way, Kate Stanley and co. find long lost letters in secret compartments, ciphers embedded in old texts, and manuscripts hidden in desert caves, among other adventures. Also like Amundsen, Carrell touches on the figure of Francis Bacon. In Carrell’s world, however, Bacon is only one part of a so-called “chimerical beast” – an entire committee of Shakespeares who pool their talents to create the plays. This tag-team of writers includes all the big candidates who have been put forth over the centuries: Bacon; Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford; William Stanley, Earl of Derby; Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke; and the actor William Shakespeare himself.

Shakespeare + Bacon + de Vere + Stanley + Sidney =
William Shakespeare, famous playwright?

On a personal level, Carrell describes herself as “happily agnostic” in regard to the Shakespeare dilemma, but she also admits to having a distinct Stratfordian leaning. This confession, at least, makes me appreciate the fact that she’s not taking herself too seriously throughout Interred with their Bones; it’s meant to be fun, not fanaticism, and she’s not pushing an agenda. On her official website, Carrell calls the historical figures featured in her work “fantasias upon fact.” Indeed, one particularly interesting section of the site is devoted to “Fact and Fiction” and provides a thorough compendium of knowledge relating to the theories set forth in her story, including a great collection of links.

Without doubt, William Shakespeare of Stratford has had some famous doubters throughout history. And I don’t mean just Peter Amundsen. Henry James, Mark Twain, Sigmund Freud, and even the renowned modern Shakespearean actor Sir Derek Jacobi are counted among his non-believers. One of the most recent anti-Stratfordians to come out of the woodwork, however, is film director Roland Emmerich, whose upcoming movie Anonymous is a vehicle for his own, ahem, informed opinion. Thus, it seems only fitting that this film be the topic of the final part of my “Shakespeare Code” trilogy.

Natalie A.

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