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Life Arts    H4'ed 8/20/20

All Is False

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Living near London back in 2001, several months before 9/11, I took my family on a driving tour to Northwest England, up to Windermere in the Lakes District. We spent a night in a quaint thatched cottage and drank deep wine by a smoky fire. We trod on trails, along with a multitude of others, along the lake Wordsworth was said to have wandered lonely as a cloud. On the drive home, we stopped at the Ruskin museum, and I, despite tired protests from the kids, went inside and considered the exhibits of his genius, and reveled in flashes of the cathedral moments Ruskin once inspired in me.

But the highlight of our trip, not so far from home, was stopping in at Stratford-on-Avon, birthplace and burial site of William Shakespeare. We strolled the streets, checked out Anne Hathaway's digs, and watched, inside Holy Trinity Church, as my young son slipped under a rope barrier and commenced a horrid iambic tap-dance on Shakespeare's grave, if it was Shakespeare's grave: a sign read his skull was missing, which made me picture some nob out there playing Alas, Poor Yorick with the Bard's head. I thought I recalled some cheekery out back in the yard, facing the Avon, another sign, near a pauper's grave, suggesting that Will had been given the ol' heave-ho - evicted -- into the lesser bric-a-brac of bones -- a la Mozart.

More recently, I've learned that a 'non-intrusive' radar scan has been done of his grave -- and that nothing's there under the slab my son had jigged on, not even iambic dust -- a whole TV special was done on the anniversary of his supposed mortal death 400 years earlier. Nobody really seems to know where his restless bones reside. Other scans have followed -- both science and psychological: An anthropologist thinks the Bard must have been smoking "compounds strange" when he wrote; some homosexuals require that the Bard be gay ("Google any famous name plus the word gay and you'll find that someone's beaten you to the speculative punch."!). More recently, it was "revealed" that the Bard's dirty secret was that he, if he even existed, was a gangster not to be trifled with. Agendas everywhere.

Postmodernism used to be fun. I felt privileged, as an undergrad, to be part of the carnival of delight that academic relativists brought to course methodology, freeing minds everywhere from the cultural battlefields where once they were mere Canon fodder in shoot-outs between Great Men too big to fail. Once unheard, unsung voices from the wilderness were emerged from a countercultural revolution -- black voices, feminist dialectics, multiculturalism up the ya-yoo, and new ways of seeing -- helpful critiques of the male gaze and reader-response theory -- all for the betterment of humankind. I loved the way Angela Carter made a basket case of the Big Bad Wolf. Who doesn't like claiming to have read Foucault? We hate torture, because it's not who we are, but academics spend all their time interrogating geniuses to get at their dirty little privileged secrets.

No canonized writer has suffered more up-digs over the centuries than the Bard. Was he really Christopher Marlowe (or versa visa)? Could a working-class kid really write about the Royals? Really? Did he rely too much on Plutarch when he penned Henry V? Shakespeare Analysis became a thatched-cottage industry. A lot of it legitimate scholarly interest. As Harold Bloom, and others, have pointed out, there was a "School of Resentment", overcompensatory in its nature, that rigorously stripped 'the Greats' of their excessive influence on culture, and became the new orthodoxy. But things really got going when the resentimentalists unloaded on Shakespeare and the Western Canon shot its last wad.

Speaking of cannons shooting worthy wads, the Globe Theatre burned down in 1613 during the premiere of Henry VIII -- originally known as All Is True -- after a cannon was fired marking the entrance of Henry VIII and a bit of wad landed on the thatched roof and started a fire that consumed the Globe. Shakespeare had begun collaborating with a writer named John Fletcher, accounting for the inconsistencies of language in the reading of Henry VIII.

Most recently, Smithsonian magazine reported on Petr Plecha'Ä a, a Czech Republican scientist, who took a special interest in identifying the separate threads of language between Fletcher and the Bard in All Is True, and, using artificial intelligence (AI), he was able to determine their separate voices. Kind of like an academic exercise in intertextuality. Except using a Support Vector Machine to scan and deconstruct the play instead of relying on scholarly conjecture. In essence, the AI performed a danse macabre across Shakespeare's grave and found two sets of bony algorithms. Hackles happened. I went to Plecha'Ä a's study and ran for my life when I seemed to be reading that Henry VIII aside, the SVM may have proven that Fletcher virtually wrote The Tempest alone. Gulp.

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John Kendall Hawkins is an American ex-pat freelance journalist and poet currently residing in Oceania.

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