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Bibliolatry: opinions from a very
No. 15:  

Puppet Nature

Shakespeare: Who Was He?
Shakespeare: Who Was He?
by Richard F. Whalen

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Primary Colors
Primary Colors
by Anonymous

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About the Author
About the Author
by John Colapinto
The Talented Mr. Ripley
The Talented Mr. Ripley
by Patricia Highsmith

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Why was everyone so shocked last week to learn that Sesame Street's Bert is an Islamic extremist? The rumor that he is evil has been circulating for years. And frankly, even a moderately attentive observer of human (or puppet) nature knows that, as far as people are concerned, what you see is rarely what you get.

Shakespeare himself hinted as much when he wrote: "All the world's a stage / And all the men and women merely players." And frankly, the big phony would have known. There's a mountain of evidence to suggest that the greatest literary figure in Western history was something of a player himself. That in fact, the man that history claims wrote Hamlet and King Lear was a setup, a decoy to deflect attention from the real author.

The "authorship question" has haunted Shakespeare for hundreds of years. Such distinguished minds as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, Henry James, and Mark Twain felt that it was simply not plausible that the man from Stratford could have written the most sublime poetry in Western history. According to the actual historical evidence, Will Shakspere (as he spelled his name) was about as literary as Mike Tyson. However, until relatively recently the subject was merely an excuse for armchair speculation.

In the early decades of the twentieth century, though, an English schoolmaster named J. Thomas Looney decided to submit the puzzle to modern, scientific methods of problem solving. He tackled the mystery like a homicide detective hunting a killer. He dissected the plays for clues about the social origins, education, personality, and literary style of their author. He then methodically searched the record for a historical figure who fit his hypothetical profile.

Looney's methods would be mirrored about eighty years later when the media became obsessed with finding out who actually wrote the sensational Primary Colors. The novel's history is well known. Whoever wrote the book chose to hide their identity, simply listing their name as "Anonymous." It was a brilliant publicity stunt. The novel, an insider's look at Bill Clinton's 1992 primary campaign (thinly disguised as the campaign of one Jack Stanton), is actually a fine piece of work. In fact, it's been called one of the best political novels of the twentieth century. But if it weren't for the fact that no one knew who had actually written it — was it one of Clinton's top advisors, slyly stabbing him in the back? — the novel might have done moderately well before settling into a comfortable spot on the remainder tables. Instead, it became an international bestseller.

Anonymous may have intended to give his novel an air of intrigue, but he probably didn't expect the media to put so much energy into finding out his identity. Soon after the novel was published, the bloodhounds were unleashed — the hunt for the identity of Anonymous was on. To begin, whoever wrote Primary Colors clearly had firsthand knowledge of the Clinton campaign, so the lineup was narrowed down to those who had spent time with Clinton during the period portrayed in the book. The author was also clearly a seasoned writer, which narrowed the field down even further. But when scholars began to analyze the text for linguistic patterns — a sort of literary fingerprint — and computer specialists began to send the text through textual matching programs, Anonymous began to feel the bloodhounds' breath. And in fact, suspicions did begin to focus on one writer, a Newsweek columnist named Joe Klein, who had reported on the 1992 presidential primary. Klein denied the allegations vociferously.

Looney's methods in hunting for the "real Shakespeare" were very similar. After employing modern techniques of historical, social, and literary research, our schoolmaster did find someone who fit — almost perfectly — his profile for the author of the works of Shakespeare: Edward de Vere, the Seventeenth Earl of Oxford.

Edward de Vere not only had the education, the social position, the firsthand knowledge of British nobility, the love of falconry, the experience in Italy, and most of the the other attributes Looney deduced Shakespeare should have, he was also well-known as a supremely talented playwright — though, no plays have been discovered under his name. And the lyric poetry he left in his name bears a striking similarity to the poetry of the Bard.

Since Looney published his findings in 1920, support has only grown for his assertion that the Earl of Oxford was the real Shakespeare. Of course, so has the controversy he started, and the cries of apostasy he inspired. Unfortunately, there will likely never be a smoking gun proving without doubt who wrote the works of Shakespeare. For readers interested in the (nearly overwhelming) evidence, though, I would suggest Richard Whalen's Shakespeare: Who Was He?, which gives a concise, entertaining overview of the subject. (For true enthusiasts, Charlton Ogburn's exhaustive 900 page Mysterious William Shakespeare: The Myth and the Reality is definitive, if difficult to find.)

But poor Anonymous didn't have the benefits of a 400 year time lapse to blur the record, and he was finally forced to reveal his identity. When a manuscript of Primary Colors was discovered with handwritten corrections, the bloodhounds realized they had found their smoking gun. The document was given to a handwriting expert who confirmed that Joe Klein was in fact Anonymous. With his back against the wall, Klein finally admitted that he was, in fact, the author of Primary Colors.

He clearly didn't want to. Klein had lied about it publicly — "I did not sleep with..." Excuse me, I mean, "I did not write that book." — which severely damaged his credibility as a journalist. Poor thing. It must be stressful to accept the fame, adulation, and money that dog a critically acclaimed, bestselling novelist.

It was all a bit weird. Klein's reaction seemed backwards. If we are all players on the world's stage, isn't it the general practice to try to nab the best parts? In trying to deflect attention from their talents, aren't Edward de Vere and Joe Klein moving in the wrong direction?

Maybe they should re-watch All About Eve. There's that scene where conniving Eve Harrington calls Karen Richards into the bathroom. Eve leads Karen to believe that she wants to apologize for her bad behavior, but instead threatens to destroy Karen's closest friendship if she doesn't promise to help Eve get the lead part in her husband's play. Karen expressed shock that Eve would "do all that just for a part in a play?" But Eve, fangs now comfortably bared, is nonplused: "I'd do much more for a part that good." (Is there a clue here to Winona Rider's success?)

Where Shakespeare and Klein went to great lengths to avoid a leading role, the usual human impulse is to go to great lengths to secure one. A perfect counterpoint to Joe Klein is Cal Cunningham, the protagonist in John Colapinto's marvelous first novel, About the Author.

Cal wants desperately to become a successful writer. Fortunately, right about the time he realizes that he, in fact, has no talent, his dull roommate is killed in a freak accident. Oh, and there's the problem of a manuscript left by the roommate, which just happens to be a brilliant novel based on Cal's pathetic life. Since no one knew the roommate was writing a novel, Cal steals the manuscript and poses himself as the author.

Sure the setup sounds a bit cozy. But in Colapinto's hands, this pat plot comes to life. Naturally, someone knows of Cal's theft, someone who is willing to keep quiet as long as the checks keep hitting the mailslot. If Alfred Hitchcock had collaborated with Gene Wilder they might have come up with a story like About the Author, which is both a gripping suspense thriller and a wicked satire of the publishing industry. Clearly Cal's fate is sealed the moment he decides to steal the manuscript — crime doesn't pay, right? — but as Colapinto drives his reader to distraction as Cal inches inexorably toward his downfall, he also entertains with sly literary allusions and the most hilarious supporting cast of the year. In particular, Cal's manic agent Blackie Yaeger is priceless.

But if About the Author is a comedy where everyone gets their comeuppance, Patricia Highsmith's Talented Mr. Ripley is a nightmare where no one gets what they deserve. In Highsmith's noir masterpiece, a young American named Tom Ripley accepts a job from Herbert Greenleaf, whose son, Dickie, went to Italy on vacation but bought a house and never returned. Tom's task is to visit Dickie and convince him to come back to the States.

Soon enough, though, the two have become friends, and Ripley no longer intends to send Dickie home. In fact, Ripley has soon developed an obsession for his more sophisticated friend, which begins to make Dickie uncomfortable. When it becomes clear to Ripley that the friendship is in jeopardy, he becomes desperate to preserve his connection to Dickie. So he kills him, steals his passport and a few personal effects, and assumes his identity. Now Ripley isn't just friends with Dickie; he is Dickie.

In recent years, Patricia Highsmith has begun to receive the recognition she deserves as a master of macabre psychology. And Tom Ripley is her creepiest creation. What makes him so disturbing is the fact that Highsmith is able to make her psychotic hero not only so believable, or so sympathetic, but that she made him so recognizable. Who is comfortable realizing that our common humanity binds us to even the most depraved criminal?

Which brings us back to Bert. Who knows what has motivated Ernie's monobrow friend to relinquish his position of privilege and respect for a life on the fringe. But there is nothing more human than wanting to switch roles from time to time, or more common than pretending to be someone you are not. Jack Kerouac may have become an alcoholic conservative, Elizabeth Taylor may have traded in her Edith Head's for spandex, Moses may have traded in the ten commandments for a six shooter (and who knows what secrets Tom Cruise might one day reveal to the world), but don't worry. It's only normal.


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