Ron Rosenbaum over at Slate weighs in on the Cobbe portrait today (“Should We Care What Shakespeare Did in Bed?”), and winds up talking about Hamlet and Ophelia. His segue is sex, going from some recent commentaries about how great it is that the Cobbe portrait gives us a “sexy” looking Shakespeare right into the very heart of Shakespeare —Hamlet.

First, he handles Portrait-gate in short order:

What is remarkable about the fight over this “new” portrait—and it is,
indeed, developing into a scholarly shootout—is that one of the leading
eminences of British academic Shakespeare, Stanley Wells, general
editor of the Oxford Shakespeare series, has lent his name to the
venture. It was Wells who spearheaded a press conference unveiling the
“Cobbe portrait” as the centerpiece of the upcoming exhibition, which
is somewhat grandly called “Shakespeare Found.” His support is
especially surprising given how quickly and credibly other scholars,
such as Oxford’s Katherine Duncan-Jones, have presented evidence that
the portrait isn’t of Shakespeare at all but rather of a Jacobean
contemporary, Sir Thomas Overbury. (Duncan-Jones’ piece on this subject in the Times Literary Supplement
is worth clicking on because it presents a portrait that is indubitably
Overbury and it looks exactly like the one Wells claims to be of
Shakespeare.)

He then goes on to note:

The whole contretemps reminds me of the recent debate about whether
Shakespeare wrote the “Funeral Elegy,” a wretched, mind-numbingly
sententious, and witless 600-line poem found in a manuscript that had
long been gathering dust in an Oxford library. As I recounted in my
book The Shakespeare Wars,
the false (and eventually discredited) claim about the ludicrous elegy
was nonetheless a serious matter: If that dreadful work had survived
persistent jeers from outsiders such as myself, and definitive
debunking by scholars such as Gilles Monsarrat and Brian Vickers, and
been taken for authentic, it might have forced us to re-evaluate,
through the prism of its rebarbative verse, everything we thought we
knew about Shakespeare’s attitudes toward life, death, and mortality.
We would have had to take the text especially seriously, in fact,
because the claim was that it had been written by Shakespeare in 1612,
four years before his death, and that he was writing in his own
voice—eulogizing a friend—and thus not speaking through a character
whose clumsy words could be excused or explained by dramatic irony or
some other literary device.


Hear, hear, we say! Funeral Elegy was an authorship-driven story of about ten years ago, and as Brian Vickers noted in taking it down —as he had to note, by the way— it was an Oxfordian (RIchard Kennedy of Oregon) who played a key role in demonstrating that Elegy was most likely by John Ford.

Then Ron goes on to the big issue:

There is so little established certainty about Shakespeare’s personal
traits that it is almost always a reductive and foolish thing to try to
read his work through urban legends about his life, or his life through
his work.

Right. Tell that to all the recent biographers/commentators (Greenblatt, Holden, Shapiro, Bate, et al.) who are doing just that —discussing his life through his works— as, of course, they must. Got to head off that incredibly interesting and downright seductive Oxford story … somehow, someway. And what else is there but the works if one is going to talk about “Shakespeare” this or “Shakespeare” that?

It is when he gets to Hamlet that Rosenbaum opens wide
the door to some authorship commentary, whether he knows it or not
(and, for the record, Rosenbaum is one of those who has nothing but
contempt for anti-Stratfordians). He quotes a passage from Stanley Wells (of portrait fame), asking whether we know if Hamlet slept with Ophelia, and whether knowing it matters:

But look at the different Hamlets one gets—the different
Shakespeares one gets—depending on how one understands the
relationships between Gertrude and Claudius, and Hamlet and Ophelia.
Was Shakespeare’s vision in his plays misogynist, one that saw women as
weak and unprincipled, subject to the whims of desire, abandoning
fidelity for the lure of a hottie or someone royally powerful?

He continues:

And why is it so difficult to find any certainty about these questions
in the text? Is the ambiguity part of a deliberate design in which
Shakespeare prompts us to ask these questions while deliberately
withholding the answers? The play, after all, begins with an
unanswerable question: “Who’s there?” Who indeed is out there in the
darkness of the universe that surrounds the battlements of Elsinore
castle? All the questions of the play can be seen as variations on that
initial question. Who are these women actually, who’s there beneath the
artifice and costume that Hamlet denounces in that misogynist attack on
Ophelia—and women in general—for using makeup and (my favorite sign
that Hamlet’s view of women is a bit deranged) giving nicknames to pets?

But how Hamlet judges the queen, his mother, and how we judge Hamlet’s
judgment of her (and women in general) may depend on how we answer
Stanley Wells’ question: Did Hamlet sleep with Ophelia? 

Then, finally, Rosenbaum manages both to make and to miss the point in one breath:

I think the important thing here is that—after centuries of
argument and pettifoggery—there is no “correct” answer to these
questions about who slept with whom and when.
And why is that? Because
Shakespeare either couldn’t make up his mind himself or—more likely—had
a preference for indeterminacy, for open-endedness (no pun, etc.), for
the possibility of both answers being true or at least intriguing, in
which the conclusion one comes to says more about the observer than
about the indeterminable “facts” of the case.

Now, what really interests me at this point is that Ron has hit on two arguments that I have been making for years whenever I discuss the authorship with anyone —namely, 1) that there is a correct answer out there somewhere to many of these Shakespeare questions (but you need the right author!), and 2) that in this instance of the Hamlet-Ophelia situation in Hamlet, that answer turns out to be exactly what Ron posits ….that Shakespeare couldn’t make up his mind —but for very good (and well documented) reasons,

I will continue this point in a few days, and I hope visitors here will return to see what I mean about a “correct” answer and how such unwitting Stratfordian diehards as Ron Rosenbaum continue to mislead so many readers with their own certainities.

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