10.14.2011

Who Wrote Shakespeare's Plays?

You might see a movie trailer in which a dark and brooding nobleman thunders down to some conniving peasant, "You have no voice!" This nauseates me. As an archetype, an image, and a theory -- it literally nauseates me. Why? Because that artless peasant is William Shakespeare and the heroic, high-minded noble is the Earl of Oxford, the true genius behind the commoner's humble facade. To me, it's like saying the Beatles' hits were written not by some working-class kids from Liverpool, but by a wealthy Hollywood record producer. I just don't understand why anyone would go out of their way to believe the world is so ordinary.

To be fair, this isn't a post about the movie. I haven't seen it, and know very little about it. This post is about this curiously stubborn urge to somehow debunk the existence of William Shakespeare. The basic logic is that a man born to a middle-class family in rural Stratford lacks the worldliness or intellectual heft to produce Shakespeare's body of work, and that the true author must've been some educated aristocrat. But let's just put aside how mind-numbingly patronizing that sounds.

William Shakespeare was no aristocrat, but he wasn't born into poverty. He was an alderman's son. An introductory education was not beyond his middle-class reach. And most of what is crystal clear from the plays that bear his name is that the author was someone with a bead on popular tastes, an obsession with stories, a rich imagination, a healthy sense of humor, an uncommon grasp on the human condition, and a singular way with words -- absolutely none of which requires an expensive Oxford education.

Some say that the plays demonstrate a suspicious familiarity with noble lifestyle, but do they? How? Which bits? Yes, his stories feature characters of noble-birth, but surely we can postulate that commoners knew that such people existed. And it's not as if his dialogue or plots were otherwise preoccupied with the ephemeral details of the aristocratic life. Often, it was quite the opposite. What might not be obvious to the contemporary American reader is that the plays are full of period country affectations, so much so that his dialogue was actually attacked by some of his fellow playwrights (such as Cambridge-educated Robert Greene) for sounding too provincial.

This is the problem, we've gotten much too used to thinking of Shakespeare's plays as lofty, high-class theatre. Centuries ago, it was anything but. We are outside of the context. We shouldn't assume we get what they are right away. Because the truth is that these plays weren't remote, courtly meditations; they were raucously popular entertainments. As alien as it sounds to us, the Shakespearean cadence wasn't something the groundlings had any trouble following. It's not that everyone spoke like Hamlet. The plays didn't reflect the way Elizabethan people spoke any more than a contemporary box office blockbuster reflects the way we speak (we're never so fluid or coherent). The plays, like most drama, reflected the way the audience imagined they spoke.

The only reason we assume these works are the stuff of academia is because we only know them from academia. We don't immediately notice any of the humble flaws and brushstrokes. In A Winter's Tale, the author makes reference to the "coast of Bohemia," but Bohemia was a landlocked country. A curious mistake for a university-educated aristocrat to make. It's been said that these plays contain many references to the sea, indicating an aristocrat's tastes for travel. And yes, the sea is a fixture of the plays, but let's remember that it's portrayed as a wide and forbidding dominion of shipwrecks, gods, and magical storms. It's not the voice of someone who's spent much (if any) time at sea. It's the voice of someone who fears the sea. It's the voice of someone who's overheard inflated sailor stories in pubs. There's no real evidence that the plays' author was well-traveled. Again, Shakespeare was perfectly aware that Venice and Rome existed, but merely setting a story in Italy doesn't by itself scream that he must have been to Italy.

But he at least had to speak fluent Italian to adapt the Italian folktale of Romeo and Giuliette, right? Not really. Trashy Italian love stories were all the rage on the streets of London, and there were at least four versions of the Romeo and Juliet story in print before Shakespeare's play. Two of which were indeed in English. Likewise, stories of grand historical figures like Julius Caesar and Cleopatra were already pretty firmly rooted in the popular culture.

For me, the most important question is why. Why would anyone need to invent this cover? The usual answer involves some ambiguous claims about the dangerously subversive subtext in some of his plays. And yeah, there were poetic allusions to events of his time, but nothing that ever got Shakes in trouble. We have no record of the man ever being arrested. No one made an example of him. He wasn't exiled or executed. He had a full and respected career. His supposedly dangerous works were performed for the courts of Queen Elizabeth and King James, the most powerful offices in the land, without evidently raising any eyebrows. So what on earth was "the real author" so relentlessly wary of? What was he supposedly hiding from, for all of four decades?

I don't know why we have no letters in Shakespeare's own handwriting, but is it really so strange to suggest he simply didn't write home much? Are handwritten 16th century documents so bloody common in modern day flea markets? Either way, people obviously knew this man. He had fans. He had a family. He had a hometown. He has birth records. He has a grave. He had a professional reputation. He had rivals and critics. He was a busy man. The life of a working playwright wasn't some cloistered existence. He worked in the theatre. He revised scenes. He gave the performers their lines. Actors John Heminges and Henry Condell worked with Shakespeare for two decades, and published his first folio with this dedication: "to keepe the memory of so worthy a Friend, & Fellow aliue, as was our Shakespeare, by humble offer of his playes." Ben Jonson (another playwright with no university education) calls Shakespeare a personal friend in his private journals. Who was he lying to, in his own journal? And why?

So let's review what we know. We know that a "William Shakespeare" was at least credited as being the author of several plays. We have no evidence this was seen as an implausible feat by anyone who saw the plays or knew the man. We have no evidence his social background and education stirred any suspicions whatsoever. We have no evidence his plays were conspicuously difficult for uneducated audiences to follow. In his own lifetime, in the white hot epicenter of this supposed conspiracy, not one soul in all the world ever thought to ask who wrote Shakespeare's plays. Not one single soul in forty years. By all accounts, they all fully believed they knew.

So, when I hear this theory that a person (or persons), for some unspecified reason, contrived a massive conspiracy to write over a hundred poems and dozens of well-admired plays under the name of a man who was more or less perfectly capable of doing it himself, I have trouble grasping the point. You see, to my admittedly biased thinking, you do not just shred a writer's credit on a lark.


- Travis

[via mobile device]

5.25.2011

Goodnight, Spirit

A Martian sunset photographed by the Spirit rover.
After months of silence from the Spirit rover, NASA has officially admitted the robot's demise.

The Spirit rover was designed to work for three months...

She explored the red planet for six years.

Spirit was built in Pasadena, not at all far from where I sit right now. Finally she rests, quietly gathering the dust of another world; her home planet, a pale blue star in the evening sky.

Spirit turns her eyes towards home and snaps a picture of Earth (as seen in the Martian sky).

5.23.2011

Yes, Our Era is Unique --

-- but so is every other era.

For as long as human civilization has existed, there have always been too many volcanos and earthquakes and floods. There's never been a perfectly acceptable amount of disaster or tragedy. There's always too much crime. There's always too much injustice. There's always too much poverty. There are always too many maniacs, despots, and crooked politicians.

There's always bad art and graphic pornography. There are always dumb love songs and bloody stories. There's always sexy dancing and violent games. There's always some new gadget that scares and baffles the old timers. There's always someone remembering the good ol' days and wondering what the world is coming to.

There's always some ancient inscription and a prophet who "knows what it means." There's always someone yelling about hellfire and brimstone. The signs and omens are always "urgent." The astrological alignments are always "significant." The final showdown between good and evil is always "the day after tomorrow."

For millennia, there have always been people expecting the one and only doomsday to strike at any minute, and they have always been wrong.

5.18.2011

Twenty Light-Years Away




This GIF is a scale model that illustrates (in real time) the time it takes light to cross the distance between Earth and the Moon (about 1.26 seconds). I'm sure I've posted it before, but it's such a neat illustration of the fact that light does have a speed -- something to remember when reading about the recent hubbub surrounding a planet called Gliese 581 d.

Gliese 581 d is a planet orbiting a small red star in the Libra constellation. Picture a warm, wet world under a dusky red sun. It might have monsoons. It might even have oceans. Scientists are calling Gliese 581 d the most habitable of any exoplanet yet discovered. And (as many reporters seem keen to add) it's just 20 light-years away...

Only 20 light-years? That's not so bad. In a galaxy that's almost a hundred thousand light-years across, 20 light-years is practically right next door... Right?

Well let's remember that a "light-year" is the distance light travels in a year. And let's also remember that humans can't travel at the speed of light. We can't even come remotely close.

Apollo 10 set the speed record for any manned vehicle at 24,791 mph.

After that, the fastest manmade object ever is the Helios 2 probe. It clocked in around 157,000 mph.

Crazy fast stuff, right? But here's the kicker -- the speed of light is nearly 300 million meters a second. That's many times faster than the fastest thing humans have ever built. Ever.

Science fiction has relentlessly demystified the humbling distance of the light-year. We've all seen countless fictional spaceships zipping about from planet to planet with little more than the push of a button.

But sadly, this is the real world, and we don't have hyperdrives or warp drives or jumpdrives or stargates. What we have are rockets. Sure we've toyed with stuff like solar sails or ion engines, but nothing outside the plain Newtonian physics of just basically booking it from A to B as fast as possible. In that context, nothing outruns light, and crossing a 20 light-year distance means at least 20 years in a vacuum-sealed space capsule (and probably quite a bit longer).

Not that I believe opening a wormhole or bending spacetime are ultimately impossible goals, but they are goals well outside NASA's current budgetary restrictions. In a world wherein politically ambitious deficit hawks circle hungrily over every mundane space probe NASA proposes, defying the laws of physics is simply not on the table. (It's not even scheduled to be considered to be on the table.) In the here and now, 20 light-years may as well be a hundred million.

There's only so much ordinary people like you and me can do about all that, but it ain't nothing. Write your president. Write your congressperson. Tell them to make science a priority. Tell them to go to Mars and to keep going. Write tweets. Write blogs. Write stories. Write movies. Talk about it. Be your future's own evangelist. Dream big. Because big dreams cast long long shadows. Longer than light-years.

Look up tonight. Somewhere up in that huge night sky, there are unseen oceans shimmering under alien suns. You want to see them? Make someone else want it too.

5.12.2011

Wait... Doomed? Or Not Doomed?

It occurs to me that I may have appeared to contradict myself. Are we an imperiled people living in the shadow of a brooding volcano? Or is doomsday bullshit?

All of the above... Let me put it like this:

Massive cataclysms do happen. They just do. Mankind will likely confront one at some point in the future. But the odds that *your* lifetime happens to coincide with the sort of fiery Roland Emmerich catastrophe that strikes once every few hundred million years are unspeakably slim.

In short, fret for humanity, sure, but don't cash out your retirement fund.

- Travis

[via mobile device]

5.09.2011

An Islander's Dilemma

Picture an isolated tribe living on some unknown South Pacific island in the shadow of an idly smoking volcano. Before airplanes or transoceanic voyages, this island is all they know. Generations upon generations are born and die here. They don't fear the smoking mountain because it's never overtly threatened them. Yet as old as the tribe is, they are young by the mountain's standards. They are but a single tick of its geological clock.

Some in the tribe dream of leaving that island, but the prevailing wisdom is that the timber is needed to build homes, not boats. They feel they can't indulge the yearning to venture beyond the horizon until they've sorted out how to best live on their island. Nevertheless, no matter how responsibly they farm their land or how egalitarian their values become, the tribe's fate is tethered to the imbecilic whims of that mountain. It isn't alive. It has no soul. It has no sense of justice. It is simply a bubbling cauldron of liquid rock; arbitrary and indifferent. And in the instant it explodes, nothing this tribe has done will matter.

So the tremors begin, and inevitably they grow stronger day by day as that column of smoke turns a brutal shade of black. Fear grips the islanders. But it's too late now to build boats. Even if it wasn't, they have no place to go. They've been content to allow the sea to be a menacing expanse that confines them. When the eruption strikes, everything they are and everything they wanted to be burns in a scalding avalanche of vaporized rock. The richness of their heritage; the promise of their future; it's simply snuffed out as if they never existed at all.

And it would be a shame that they'd never spread off that island, not only because their culture would have endured, but also because the memory of their homeland would have endured. The songs of their tree frogs would have endured. The colors of their flowers would have endured. It would be shame because they'd yearned to explore and had been perfectly capable of following that wanderlust. It would be a shame because the things they might have seen beyond the horizon would have stirred their soul.

This is our situation here on Earth. This is the context of manned spaceflight. Beyond all the questions of cost and ethics is a very simple concern -- If the day comes when you hear of a massive asteroid barreling down on your home planet, would you rather not be on it? Does mankind have anything you'd choose to save from that catastrophe? Is your species still growing up, or is it finished? Because we live in a capricious universe. As long as we confine ourselves to this lonely island, we could end poverty, reverse global warming, and become something deserving of survival only to be summarily obliterated by a lump of cosmic iron. I promise you, inertia will eventually destroy us, whether we deserve it or not.

We should indeed live in a way that recognizes the marvel of a world we inhabit, but we shouldn't assume that doing so fully exempts us from profound risk. On at least five separate occasions, even in the absence of smog and nuclear weapons, more than half the life on Earth has been wiped out by some random extinction event. These events may be as extravagant as a comet the size of a mountain or as tedious as a global drought. But they do happen. Life can be robust, no doubt, and it is certainly not unacquainted with the risks and sometimes disastrous perils of a single-world existence. But to the best of our knowledge, never before has evolution endowed a single species with the means and the inclination to grow beyond those risks. Never before has a species imagined itself on other worlds, or been so physiologically and intellectually capable of carrying the legacy of Earth into the cosmos, and we have no special reason to think there will ever be another.

We have been travelers for longer than we've been human, literally. The only reason we've survived long enough to set foot on the Moon is because we were never content to stay in one place. It wasn't the Almighty who exiled Adam and Eve from Eden. It was their own relentless curiosity. Because some organisms prowl and hunt. Some graze. Some drift on the wind. And some sink roots deep into the ground. But Man, he is a wandering dreamer of dreams and asker of questions, for better or worse. He is a voyager.

Dinosauroid Poetry

You go back in time to the Jurassic and step on a shrew and you return to the modern age only to find that dinosaurs, not humans, have evolved into a majestic civilization. They have cities and language and art. They have religion and science. The letters in their books may be different; the music they play may sound exotic, but the whole thing is nevertheless tantalizingly familiar. Because in the absence of humans, these industrious reptiles have developed a society.

It's an occasional trope of science fiction -- you venture into the far future or to a parallel reality or under the sea only to find that some non-human species has evolved an entire human-like civilization. In these stories, Earth seems to be almost crawling with heretofore unknown peoples and races. I'm as big a fan of this sort of thing as anyone, but it derives from one mercilessly stubborn misunderstanding of evolution -- that it has a purpose, a goal, and that the goal is to eventually become civilization.

But get back in your time machine and jump back to the halfway point of Earth's history, about 2.3 billion years ago. You don't see forests. You don't see giant lizards. You see an apparently barren world. Evidence of life is subtle. Here, at the halfway mark of natural history, the only organisms on the entire planet are microbial -- bacterial mats, perhaps algae. And it has been this way for most of the entire first half of our planet's history. In another two billion years, the first multicellular animals will begin to appear, but for now, all is hauntingly quiet.

Consider this for a moment, really consider it -- a full three quarters of Earth's history saw no creature bigger than a protozoa. Neither tower nor tree rose up from the desolate expanses of bare rock. No ships nor sharks crossed the empty seas. No sunsets were witnessed. No songs were sung. No stories were told. No shred of civilization, nor any indication that there ever would be. For over three billion years, three times as long as the entire history of all animal life, bacteria was by far the most complex organism on the planet. That is, to say the very least, an astonishingly stable ecosystem.

It is sometimes said that we are unwilling to be accept the fragility of our human civilization, but I don't think that's the case. Often, we are too willing to accept it. We either believe the show ends with us, or we believe the event of our extinction will be followed by some new non-human civilization evolving to replace us, and perhaps even accomplishing all the things we couldn't. We aren't quite so obsessed with our own inevitability, but we do like to think music and art and poetry and philosophy are inevitable; that if it wasn't us who created the things we value, it would at least be something a lot like us. The notion that our stories and ideas are fragile is perhaps even more terrifying than the notion that we are fragile. To think that we are but a fleeting blur of activity bookended by eons of wilderness chills us to the bone.

And it should. It should terrify us. We are too willing to lay down and wait for an end to swallow us up. To value anything we've done -- sonnets or ballads -- is to value us. If we are endeared to an ode on the beauty of an ancient forest, then our duty is not only to nature, but to the heart that aches to describe it. We should behave as if we understand that the very best of what we are can indeed be lost and forgotten along with the worst, because when it comes to creatures so complex, it would seem Mother Earth creates no species twice.