Friday, April 01, 2011

Shakespeare: Upstart Crow to Sweet Swan: The Evolution of His Image: 1592-1623 (Arden Shakespeare Library) by Katherine Duncan-Jones.

Ask any musician, author, artist or producer of a television science fiction franchise and they’ll tell you that some of their biggest fans are also their harshest critics who'll venerate them in the best of times but topple them when the work falls below expected standards, able to even more viciously highlight the flaws because of their volumous background knowledge. As Katherine Duncan-Jones’s enthralling page turner proves, this is not a new phenomena and even though Shakespeare has now risen to become a literary messiah, during his own lifetime, the man was just as much part of the theatrical rivalry that threaded throughout his peer group and beyond as some of the lesser known figures. As she says he had a “huge fan club” “out there”.

A prime example is John Weever, the poet and antiquary who on the one hand wrote sonnets venerating Shakespeare’s literary output but on the other heavily criticised his portrayal of Sir John Oldcastle (or Falstaff as the character’s name was later changed to after objections from the real person’s family and supporters). Duncan-Jones suggests Weever’s “responses to Shakespeare’s writings appear conflicted”. But his behaviour is entirely “fannish” in the modern sense, especially considering he also created Faunus and Melliflora, a lengthy poetic homage to Shakespeare’s own Venus and Adonis. The internet is now littered with similar endeavours. The book even includes an engraved portrait of Weever with his hand wresting on a skull.

By those standards, Henry Chettle could be considered an “uberfan”. Playwright and printer, Chettle was the alleged author of the “upstart crow” passage from Robert Greene's Groats-Worth of Wit (and the author provides ample evidence). He would go on to produce unauthorised copies of the plays, sometimes inserting his own passages (to the horror of later critics), like the (to quote Duncan-Jones) “charming scene 9, mostly in rhyming couplets, in which the lovers meet and plight their troth in Friar Lawrence’s cell”, before still later attaining a-list status by gaining Shakespeare’s aid in writing Sir Thomas More. Fans of television science fiction franchises will see some obvious parallels in Chettle’s rise.

The achievement of Duncan-Jones’s book is in choosing to focus on these lesser known figures and glancing at the “upstart crow” from their point of view rather than simply as supporting characters in the greater narrative of Shakespeare’s life. While her motive is to tease out parcels of information about his life story that have previously been overlooked, there are no biographies of Weaver available at Amazon, Bill Bryson isn’t beavering away on couple of hundred pages charting Chettle’s existence. The light shines on Shakespeare so brightly now that unlike similar literary figures the shadow he casts is long enough to blot out almost everyone else. Chettle rarely rates a few mentions in a typical biography of the bard.

To be fair to Bryson, Ackroyd et al, they’re working also within in a relatively populist field whereas, as part of the Arden series, Duncan-Jones’s is a very scholarly endevour. As the author warns in the preface, “some of this material is explored in rather minute detail, since it has not been much explored before” and a plentitude of research has clearly been undertaken, with allusions to historical events and other texts wrung out of single lines. The prologue spends twenty-six pages scrutinising an anecdote about a young boy killing a calf, arguing that it may be about young Shakespeare by amongst other effects listing all of the allusions to butchery in the plays. This is an intimidatingly dense text.

But what your left with is the sense that somehow Shakespeare was an even more complex figure than many writers give him credit for. Duncan-Jones convincingly demonstrates, even through the words of his critics, that far from simply writing the plays with acting as a sideline (simply?), an image that still persists, the “sweet swan” was as central a part of the performance end of the company as Burbage or Kemp and may even have played Prospero in the premiere performance of The Tempest, giving his final lines extra poignancy. That’s why it was the initial play in the first folio: it was the work that was still close to the public conscience at the time of his death. Even in 1623, publishers understood the importance of fan service.

Shakespeare: Upstart Crow to Sweet Swan: The Evolution of His Image: 1592-1623 (Arden Shakespeare Library) by Katherine Duncan-Jones is published by Methuen Drama. £55.00 hardback. ISBN: 9781408130148. Review copy supplied.

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