Monthly Archives: February, 2013

An interview with my mentor: Professor Sallie DelVecchio (Part 1 of 2)

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“Shakespeare” cake, created by Karen Anderson for our “Intro. to Shakespeare” class party.

I credit my mentor, Sallie DelVecchio, Associate Professor of English at Middlesex County College, for introducing me to the Shakespeare Authorship Question (SAQ).  Her informative lectures transported me from our NJ classroom back in time to the intrigue of Elizabethan England.

Last week I had the pleasure of meeting up with my dear friend for lunch.  We chatted about her unique style of teaching Shakespeare, and she agreed to answer the following questions for my blog.

Deb FadeHow were you first introduced to the SAQ?

Prof. DelVecchio:  In college, my professor said that some people don’t believe that Shakespeare was Shakespeare, that some believe he was “even a woman.”  She went on to say that no “real scholar” would believe such a thing, and that was the end of the SAQ in her class.  However, since I like mysteries, I never forgot that there IS a question, and later, when I started teaching my Introduction to Shakespeare course, I decided to give it a closer look.  Someone once said there’s no subject so dangerous it can’t at least be discussed, so I started reading about it so that I could introduce that discussion in class.

Deb Fade: Why do you feel the SAQ is relevant when teaching Shakespeare?

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Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford

Prof. DelVecchio:  If Stratford (William Shaksper of Stratford) did not write the works, then we need to see what’s in the works that caused the true author to hide his/her identity.  If Stratford wrote the works, the Court gossip is just that—gossip.  But if Oxford (Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford) or some other noble wrote them, then we get a real look at the movers and shakers of Elizabeth’s Court, and we can almost feel that we know Elizabeth and Cecil and all the players of the day.

Deb Fade:  How do your students react when you first tell them that the “Stratford Man” may not be author of the famous canon? 

Prof. DelVecchio:  Well, Debbie, as you know, I introduce the SAQ as just that—a question.  I get incredulous looks, usually.  I’ve had a couple of students say that there IS no question and that it’s obvious that the Stratford man wrote the works.  By the end of the semester, those students always acknowledge that there IS a question.  I’m not here to preach.  I just want my students to know that there is a question; how they proceed from there depends on their overall interest in the works.

Deb FadeBy the way, what are your favorite plays and sonnets?

I most enjoy teaching Macbeth, Hamlet, King Lear, The Merchant of Venice, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

The long poem, Venus and Adonis, 423px-Venus_and_Adonis_quartochronicles, according to many scholars, an affair between an aging Elizabeth and a younger nobleman, possibly even the aforementioned 17th Earl of Oxford.   I like that.

My favorite sonnet:  (#130) “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun.”

(Check back on Friday, March 1, for Part 2!)

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What fuels Iago’s hatred of Othello?

I am studying the play Othello, for the very first time, in my Shakespeare class.  Since this is my first encounter with the famous play, I want to steep myself in the drama of it all.  So, in addition to reading the play, I watched the 1995 film version (starring Laurence Fishburne as Othello and Kenneth Branagh as Iago) which, by the way,  I highly recommend. 280px-Othelloiagomovie

Simultaneously, I’m reading The Shakespeare Guide to Italy: Retracing the Bard’s Unknown Travels by Richard Paul Roe to enlighten me even further.  Roe’s book is revolutionary because it challenges the traditional belief, held by orthodox Shakespearean scholars, that there are many inaccuracies in the details of the plays set in Italy.

In his book, Roe visits the actual geographical locations of scenes from Othello, Romeo and Juliet, The Merchant of Venice, and The Tempest, in addition to the other “Italian Plays.”  He demonstrates through the evidence of recent archaeological discoveries, and his own extensive research, that the Bard actually did know his way around sixteenth century Italy.

Anyway, in our last class discussion, we fleshed out the villainous character of Iago.  Our professor had us list specific character traits and show examples, as well as discuss what motives Iago had, real or imagined, for orchestrating the demise of Othello, the “Moor of Venice.”  We covered attributes from calculated to manipulative.  R UMAX     SuperVista S-12  V1.9As far as motives, we acknowledged Iago’s anger at being passed over for the lieutenant’s position which was awarded, instead, to Cassio.  Obviously, racism was another topic we discussed in depth.

However, one motive we did not discuss was something that smacked me in the head as I read Roe’s book this afternoon: “Iago” is a name of Spanish origin.  Roe points out that “Iago, as a sixteenth-century Spaniard conditioned by his country’s history, would automatically nurture a hatred for any Moor” (161). 

Indeed, the Spaniards’ conflict with the Muslims goes way, way back to the early eighth century when North African Moors conquered the Iberian Peninsula.  reconquista2Over the centuries, Christian kingdoms reclaimed this land.

By 1492, the marriage of King Ferdinand II of Aragon and Queen Isabella of Castile, and the joining of their military forces, expelled the Muslims from their last stronghold in the Iberian Peninsula: Granada, south of present-day Spain.

Now take a look at Act II Scene 3 (line 144 in The Norton Shakespeare: Tragedies) when upon hearing the ringing of a bell, Iago questions:  “Who’s that which rings the bell?  Diablo, ho!”  

7961857-fuoco-diavolo-faccia-su-sfondo-neroIf he was a Venetian, wouldn’t he have spoken the Italian version: “diavolo?”

Yet, traditional academics still assume that Iago is a Venetian.  In his critical essay, “Othello and the ‘plain face’ of Racism,” Martin Orkin writes:  “And Desdemona, also like Iago a Venetian…” (170).  Apparently, he didn’t pick up on the textual evidence explored by Richard Paul Roe.

If the so-called “experts” continue to assume that Shakespeare never set foot outside of England, they are short-changing us in their teachings.  Why not show us the evidence, rather than just feeding us a bunch of assumptions, and let us decide?

Thanks to my extracurricular research, I understand more clearly the magnitude of Iago’s hatred of Othello.  This is just one example of why I continue to question the traditional views of Shakespeare’s canon.

A Small Rewrite

Live Shakespeare sketch called ‘A Small Rewrite’ made for Comic Relief (1989), with Hugh Laurie (aka “House”) as Shakespeare and Rowan Atkinson (aka “Mr. Bean”) as the editor.

What is the Shakespeare Authorship Question?

Mark Rylance, a Shakespearean actor for over 30 years, describes the Shakespeare Authorship Question (SAQ) as such:

“The majority of people agree that it was the actor from Stratford who wrote the plays and poems attributed to Shakespeare. But also, the majority of people have not looked very closely into the history. For many years, some people have doubted, from what we know of the actor’s life, that he would have been able to write the plays and poems, and may therefore have served as a ‘front’ for a hidden author, or collaborated more extensively than we imagine. Suggestions of other authors and doubt actually begins during Shakespeare’s life.”

A few of these authorship contenders are:

              Edward de Vere                    Christopher Marlowe                   Francis Bacon

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Before I write another word, I must warn you: you are embarking upon a very, VERY controversial topic!  So if you have a suit of armor hiding in your attic, now’s the time to dust it off and gear up.  Orthodox Shakespearean scholars rarely acknowledge the existence of an authorship question, and stand behind the established story about the man from Stratford-upon-Avon.  Therefore, questioning those who’ve been indoctrinated might get you labeled as either (A) a nutcase, or (B) an elitist.

Nothing could have prepared me for the personal attacks I received when I typed my first comments on the debate blog which had been set up by Sony Pictures in the summer of 2011 to promote their upcoming movie Anonymous.

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Here is what I posted on August 16, 2011:

I CANNOT wait to see this film! Since I’ve been reading more and more about Edward de Vere (aka the 17th Earl of Oxford), Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets have sprung to life. I think that whichever side of the great debate you are on, the more you know about the life and times of these men and their connection to Queen Liz, the greater your appreciation and understanding of the literature. I thank my English professor for introducing me to the Oxfordian theory even though she is a Stratfordian at heart. “Anonymous” should, at the very least, bring Oxford out from behind the curtain and into that spotlight he’s been denied for so long. “…for truth is truth though never so old, and time cannot make that false which was once true.” (E. de Vere)

Pretty non-threatening, right?  Well here is the sort of response it produced from Stratfordians:

  • “most people who believe Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare are elitists who also like Ayn Rand and vote GOP”
  • “what authorship problem? It’s a fringe minority of nut cases who think there’s a ‘problem'”

Unfortunately, most of the Stratfordians who responded to my comment failed to address my main point (the sentence in bold type) choosing, instead, to behave as if I’d just told them there was no such thing as Santa Claus.

But those who choose to voice their doubts are not alone.  Here are the names of some very famous people who share the belief that someone other than the man from Stratford authored the celebrated literary canon:

Mark Twain, Henry James, Walt Whitman, Charles Dickens, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Orson Welles, Charlie Chaplin, William James, and Sigmund Freud.

OK, on second thought, go ahead and call me an elitist!  If these are some of the famous doubters, I’m in good company.

For those of us who dare to admit our doubt publicly, we can add our names to the Declaration of Reasonable DoubtTo learn more and see the complete list of signatories, click on the following link:  https://doubtaboutwill.org/declaration

Who was Shakespeare?

Have you ever rolled your eyes or groaned when your teacher or professor announced that you will be reading a Shakespearean play?  Well, I did.  And I was a “non-traditional student” (i.e. I began college in my forties!) who also happened to be an English major.  Like it or not, I’d had to confront my fears and take that “Intro to Shakespeare” class my adviser recommended.

On the first day of class, my professor asked this question:

“What do you know about Shakespeare, the writer?”

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This portrait of William Shakespeare, looking like a Renaissance rock star, came to mind.  I assumed that this was the face of the man who wrote those famous 37 plays and 154 sonnets, so I was shocked to learn that there were people out there who believed that he was not the true author but rather an imposter.

No manuscripts in this man’s handwriting exist and the printed works attributed to William Shakespeare were published years after his death.  All we’ve got are six signatures: three found on business transactions and the other three found on the pages of his will.  (image to the left)shakespeare_signatures_labelled1

As time went on, I began to wonder:  Is there sufficient evidence to prove that the glove-maker’s son turned actor/landowner/grain merchant from Stratford-upon-Avon, who never mentioned a manuscript or poem in his will, and didn’t even bequeath a single book to his descendants, was the writer?  Or could the plays and sonnets have been written by someone else, perhaps a nobleman who used the pseudonym “Shake-speare” to conceal his true identity and place in the Elizabethan court?

By the semester’s end, I had launched myself on a literary expedition into the history and intrigue surrounding Queen Elizabeth and the members of her royal court.  Who were the key players in the politics of Shakespeare’s time?  I needed to learn more because Shakespeare, whoever he was, was certainly obsessed with writing about matters regarding the throne.

If you’ve also been bitten by the Shakespeare bug, and are just as curious as I am, then join me on an inquisitive journey into the mysterious and controversial world of the Shakespeare Authorship Question!

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