"I would we were all of one mind, and one mind good." --Cymbeline, V.iv.209-210. An English teacher's log. Slow down: Check it once in a while.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Holding the Line

If you don’t pay a monthly water bill to the City Treasurer, you may not know that the great bureaucracy constituting our city government is looking out for the common interest with regular reminders to monitor the amount of water we devote to landscape. (The City’s lack of care to limit property development to what our water resources can sustain is apparently an unrelated issue best kept from the attention of the rate-payers.)

In the lower right corner of each month’s water bill is a space reserved for notices relevant to our water use. For about three years, that space has been devoted to the same question, framed in several ways.

From October 2004 to April 2005, the space contained the following sentence:
“Fall is a good time to tune-up and turn down the irrigation.” This was followed by the offer of a free survey of one’s water usage, available to anyone calling the phone number provided.

Having taken that message to heart when it first appeared, I gave it little attention thereafter, cutting the Water Department some slack for the grammatically inappropriate hyphen. My bill for May 2005, however, in the same space contained the following revised version of the question: “How much water does your lawn, flowers and trees need?”

“Ha!” thought I. “Somebody’s going to get a wrist slapped for that one.” I confess to letting the subject slip out of my mind between water bills, but when the same sentence reappeared on the June bill, I decided to keep an eye on that corner to see how long it would take for someone to catch and correct the grammatical error. July? Nope, same sentence. August? Nope. When the sentence reappeared in September, I couldn’t take it any more.

I called the Water Department, probably in off hours, and left a message, no doubt sounding like an overwrought eccentric. But I didn’t care. I had right on my side and was determined to hold the line. Amazingly enough, on the October 2005 water bill the sentence stood corrected: “How much water do your lawn, flowers and trees need?” Hurray! Chalk one up for the squeaky wheel and extend our lease on the English language!

The Water Department ran along grammatically in its bureaucratic groove, winter, spring, summer, and fall, with neither false hyphen nor agreement error in sight—until June 2007, when suddenly, there it was again: “How much water does your lawn, flowers and trees need?”

The error’s reappearance could not have been the result of the fresh copy of a newcomer. Everything else in that corner space was identical. No—someone had looked at the correct sentence, decided that it sounded wrong, and silently (as editors say) emended it, no doubt feeling “There, that sounds better; I’ve done a good deed today.”

No more second or third chances now. I gave the Water Department only one. When the bill came for July?—“does.” So I called. But this time I held the line (in the other sense) in order to speak to a customer service representative. When she heard my English teacher’s hysteria—“Here we English teachers are doing our best to teach our students grammar, and there you are sending out millions of ungrammatical water bills, setting a terrible example to any customers who happen to be paying attention, not to mention any of their children who might want to practice their reading on the monthly water bill, just as if grammar didn’t matter; how do you expect us to take the trouble to conserve water when you won’t even take the trouble to conserve the language? etc.”—she behaved with exemplary patience and offered me the direct phone number of the Water Department’s Supervising Public Information Officer.

I call, leave an equally passionate message, and—wonder of wonders!—he calls me back. Not only that, he sustains my objection and reports that he has given order that no water bill blurbs will henceforth go to press without being read and approved by himself. “We all need an editor,” he says. I agree, without adding that some need more editor than others. But I am confident that the friendly and obviously intelligent Supervising Public Information Officer is more than capable of correcting “does” to “do” when the subject of the sentence is plural, even in a direct question where normal word order is inverted.

Why am I telling you this? Not only because at times I feel like the only squeaky wheel in the city and want company. Not only because the Supervising Public Information Officer of the Water Department deserves credit. I want to illustrate the necessity and the possibility of holding the line.

“Holding the line” this time means taking a stand for grammar and civilization, even when the scale seems daunting. It’s not really cities we are up against, or even water departments. They are abstractions—real, but not to be conversed with. Actually we are up against potentially reasonable supervisors of imperfectly educated clerks who may respond well to reason and truth if they can be reached.

I know that the Water Department’s Supervising Public Information Officer is a public servant and ultimately answerable to the people, and no doubt he is paid partly for dealing with cranks like me. It might have gone harder with AT&T or Microsoft. Still, we have to hold the line (in both senses). Why? Because either lawn, flowers, and trees does need water, or they do.

If they does, then it’s good-bye to precise human discourse, the medium of communication about anything significant to the naturally social beings we are. It is by nature that animals preserve the grammars of their own forms of communication. But the nature of human beings is that we must hold the line by choice. And if we fail to do so, not only education, literature, and politics are at risk: Whom does us think am going to get them its water?

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Who Wrote the Works of Shakespeare?

Short answer: William Shakespeare

Longer answer: All the evidence historians use to discern truth points to the conclusion that the plays we ascribe to William Shakespeare were written by William Shakespeare of Statford-upon-Avon, who lived between 1564 and 1616. Arguments to the contrary are made for reasons of either prejudice or envy.


Beginning in the late eighteenth century, certain academic rationalists embraced the idea that William Shakespeare, who had not gone to university at Oxford or Cambridge as they had, could therefore not have known enough to write the works ascribed to him. They did not want to feel that their own superior education was rendered nugatory by the fact that the greatest poetic genius of all time was a country bumpkin who had not studied at the university.

(They were later countered by anti-rationalist Romantics who turned Shakespeare into an idol of “natural genius,” as if he had sprung full-blown from the Stratford sheep cotes knowing the whole nature of man. Also silly, but at least they believed Shakespeare was Shakespeare.)

In addition to arrogance, the prejudice against the non-academic Shakespeare showed ignorance:

First, because during Shakespeare’s life, what was studied at Oxford and Cambridge was principally law—majors in English literature, history, mathematics, biology, botany, French, psychology, sociology, agriculture, marketing, international relations, and creative writing were not yet available; and

Second, because during Shakespeare’s youth the education of intelligent and promising boys in local grammar schools in England, set up on the principles of Erasmus and Thomas More, was extremely thorough: Already versed in the catechism (fundamentals of Christian faith), boys studied grammar, logic, rhetoric, epistles, orations, poetry and versification, moral history, and moral philosophy—all in Latin—and read Tully, Cicero, Quintilian, Ovid, Virgil, Horace, Juvenal, Persius, Lucan, Martial, Catullus, Seneca, Erasmus, and others—also all in Latin; by about age 14 or 15 they were studying Greek grammar—in Latin—and beginning to translate into Latin passages in the Greek New Testament. In short, by the time a boy finished grammar school, he had been exposed to more classical language and literature than any but the most accomplished graduate students of those subjects today, and he could thereafter build with further reading upon a broad and deep foundation of learning.

Given that education, any boy with Shakespeare’s particular gifts of intelligence, memory, imagination, insight, verbal skill, and sublime ear could have written his works. By the same token, no boy without those gifts, however steeped in the legal studies of the universities of the time, could possibly have written a word of them.

The prejudice against Shakespeare for being a commoner is even less respectable. Certain aristocrats and their descendants have believed that only an aristocrat could have written Shakespeare’s plays. Who else would understand so well what went on at court? they argue. Well, anyone with Shakespeare’s particular gifts of intelligence, memory, imagination, insight, verbal skill, sublime ear, and a grammar-school education who had ever been to court—that’s who. Inheritors of the values of the American Revolution above all should not be taken in by the flimsy arguments of the aristocracy snobs, against whom the equally empty counter-argument might be leveled: What aristocrat would have known such details as Shakespeare did of the lives of seamen, ostlers, shepherds, grammar school pedants, and Bedlam beggars? Shakespeare, who was Shakespeare, knew both court and countryside.


Here is the real culprit. It is perfectly clear that whoever wrote the plays ascribed to Shakespeare was the greatest dramatic and poetic genius of the English language. But some people don’t like that fact. They feel that the uniqueness of Shakespeare’s greatness demeans them; therefore it embarrasses them, and so annoys them. They conceive an impulse to take Shakespeare down a peg. So they sift through his works and the dusty documents of history looking for shreds of evidence that might knock Shakespeare’s reputation into a cocked hat. It is a classic case of envy at work.

It is a fact of human nature that anyone who looks for such evidence out of envy will surely believe he has found it, and will soon feel compelled to persuade others of the validity of his findings. The irony is that rarely do any two envy-driven scholars agree on who did write Shakespeare’s works. They have provided the world with specious arguments for ascribing the works to at least fifty different people, ranging from Queen Elizabeth to a secret society of occultists. A short glance at the internet will yield, from among fifty or more, a list including

Francis Bacon
Christopher Marlowe
William Stanley, 6th Earl of Derby
Roger Manners, 5th Earl of Rutland
his wife Elizabeth, daughter of Sir Philip Sidney
her aunt Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke
Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford
Sir Henry Neville, Elizabethan diplomat
Sir Edward Dyer, poet
William Nugent, Irish rebel
St. Edmund Campion, Catholic martyr
Queen Elizabeth I
King James I
Miguel de Cervantes, author of Don Quixote
a secret society of hermetic anchemist Rosicrucians
an imaginary Arab named Shaykh Zubair (whose name was obviously corrupted later)
every other known playwright, poet, and prose writer of the Elizabethan/Jacobean age.

A wit once remarked, “If Bacon wrote Shakespeare, who wrote Bacon?” It is a wonderful question because it expresses the truth that every writer writes with the signature of his own character and imagination. No two authorial styles, just like no two handwritings, are or can be alike. The same person could not have written both the works ascribed to Shakespeare and the works by which he himself or she herself is known. We could equally say, if Queen Elizabeth I wrote Shakespeare, who wrote the Queen’s words? If Marlowe wrote Shakespeare, who wrote Marlowe? And so on. Only ignorance about quality and style in literary works could allow anyone to believe such fantasies.

Still less is it believable that the works could have been written by a group, as one may gather from reading any report produced by a committee. Committee writing dissolves individual style, sometimes sublimely, as in the King James translation of the Bible, but nonetheless thoroughly. The Declaration of Independence was amended, we know, but its every sentence bears the stamp of the mind and style of Thomas Jefferson, and students of American history and of Jefferson can see it perfectly clearly. Similarly, every line of Shakespeare reveals his unique imaginative and verbal genius. Shakespeare transcends his own personality to achieve Olympian universality, but he does so through a unique ability to incarnate meaning in particulars that never has been and never will be seen in the work of a committee.

There’s an old Jewish joke: “If I were Rothschild,” said the schoolteacher of Chelm, “I’d be richer than Rothschild.” “Why?” “I’d do a little teaching on the side.” And so with the ascribing business. Prove that you know who “really” wrote Shakespeare and voila—you are better than Shakespeare (having done a little sleuthing on the side).

It is nothing but envy. Note it well.

There is no credible evidence that anyone other than Shakespeare wrote the works ascribed to him, and there is plenty of evidence that Shakespeare did. But whoever the author was, his works provide some of the greatest emotional, intellectual, moral, and spiritual experiences ever evoked by words. It is not the author’s name but his works that matter. Read them and give thanks.