Barry Baldwin ~ The Old Bills

Reprinted with kind permission of Barry Baldwin himself, who years ago had to endure yours truly as a student. Errors in transcription naturally accrue to the latter.

(Or, Who What? – to adapt Lenin’s (a good classicist) famous question.

Jerry Glover’s admirably even-handed investigation (FT280:32–37] of the Shakespeare question has its classical equivalents. First though, two sources that may swing the balance back towards the Stratfordians.

Robert Greene’s A Groatsworth of Wit (1592) fires this critical shaft: “There is an upstart crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his tiger’s heart wrapt in a player’s hide, supposes that lie is well able to bumbast out a blank verse as the best of you and being an absolute Johannes factotum, is in his own conceit the only Shakescene in a country.”

Apart from the obvious onomastic pun, Greene closely parodies the line “A tiger’s heart wrapped in a woman’s hide” (Henry VI, Part 3, Act 1, Scene 4). This shows that Shakespeare under his own name was making theatrical waves at the time.

John Aubrey (1626–97) was born only a decade after Bill’s death. His Brief Lives includes Shakespeare. Apart from biographical details, Aubrey opines: “He began early to make essayes at Dramatique Poetry… his plays took well… his Comoedies will remain witt, as long as the English language is understood.” Aubrey cites Midsomer Night’s Dreame (sic – not to be confused with Midsomer Murders) and Much Ado… by title, also quoting Ben Jonson’s riposte to Bill’s claim “Never blotted out a line” – “I wish he had blotted-out a thousand.”

Whether Aubrey’s omission of the tragedies from his compliment (Shakespeare’s universalism is favourably compared to the particularity of our present writers”) suggests doubts about their authenticity is impossible to say.

Another candidate for authorship máy here emerge. Aubrey’s Life of Sir William Davenant says he and Shakespeare were close friends, that Davenant himself wrote plays and poems and boasted in his cups that “he writt with the very spirit of Shakespeare, and seemed contented enough to be called his son.”

The ancients also played this game. Lucian’s sci-fi hero (True Story, bk2 ch20) chats with Homer (roughly equivalent to a Greek Shakespeare) about authorship of the Iliad and Odyssey, clearly a joking allusion to contemporary scholarly disputes.

I subjoin Samuel Butler’s notion that the Odyssey was written by a woman, an idea taken up (predictably) in Robert Graves’s novel Homer’s Daughter.

Contrariwise, Byzantine Marcellinus’s biography of Thucydides (ch43) dismisses the suggestion that book 8 of Thucydides’s History was penned by his daughter because any such intellectual feat was beyond a woman’s power – don’t hit me, ladies, I didn’t say that!

Marcellinus also ridicules the idea that Xenophon wrote it, just as moderns deny him authorship of a fifth-century pamphlet going under the name “The Old Oligarch’.

Ancient lists of play titles by Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides always vary, imply ing ancient quarrels over attributions. Many moderns deny Aeschylus the Prometheus Bound and Euripides the Rhesus.

The Historia Augusta (a title invented by Renaissance scholar Casaubon), a collection of Roman imperial biographies, is a notorious battleground. It purports to be the joint work of six (to us) utterly unknown writers – such teamwork was almost unknown in antiquity in the late third/early fourth centuries. Nowadays, most (a few hold-outs subsist) attribute it to an individual hoaxer (the thing abounds in historical and literary fabrications) writing a century or so later (cf. the many books and articles by Ronald Syme).

Oddest of all, beginning with Voltaire, there have been half-a-dozen attempts to prove Tacitus’s historical works forgeries, usually foisting them on to the Italian scholar Poggio Bracciolini, importing Arabic influence for good/bad measure. Most hilarious offenders were John William Ross (1878) and Pierre Hochart (1890) – full details in the online article “Tacitus and his Manuscripts”, based on the work of John Bircher-classicist Revilo P Oliver (note his palindromic moniker). I’ve never met or read anyone who believed this stuff, but out there on the Internet there’s bound to be someone…

“Or even Shakespeare, with all his inartistry, did not lug in King Lear to make Hamlet complete” – Fort, Books, p110

Classical Corner 143: Fortean Times 281 (November, 2011), p. 19.

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