As a rule, I like to stay away from the infamous “authorship debate,” which suggests that someone else wrote the plays that we attribute to William Shakespeare. My first justification for maintaining this distance is that we’re completely lacking in evidence that would support an absolutely inarguable truth on either side, but I generally pooh-pooh the issue because nothing is going to change the fact that the plays are here today. A rose by any other name would smell as sweet, so I prefer to focus on the sweetness than what’s in a name.
That being said, I was enjoying a millionth re-watch of Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet last night and it re-affirmed my prejudiced-but-eternally-unproven belief that the glove-maker’s boy from Stratford-upon-Avon wrote these amazing plays.
I know that some might laugh at how many times I’ll re-read a play or even re-watch a single production, but it’s amazing what you remember – those big lines – “To thine own self be true,” “Frailty, thy name is woman,” and the iconic “Alas, Poor Yorick!” – and what you overlook in anticipation of those parts, getting ready to lip-sync along with the production (oh please, like you haven’t taken joy in going along with the “To be or not to be” soliloquy, so proud to have retained it verbatim from high-school memorization assignments!). It’s what we overlook that I’d like to look at today, showing how these seemingly insignificant parts might reveal deeper truths.
Let’s start with the first instance, looking at what Polonius says only a couple lines before this usually awkward courtier profoundly urges Laertes: “To thine own self be true.” Polonius, like any parent, is giving his son some last-minute advice before his return to school in Paris:
Costly thy habit as thy purse can buy,
But not express’d in fancy; rich, not gaudy;
For the apparel oft proclaims the man,
And they in France of the best rank and station
Are of a most select and generous chief in that.
Talk to the hand: Early Modern gloves
So Polonius likes to look good. Not surprising, and not surprising that he wants his son to preserve the family reputation abroad. Polonius speaks in aphorisms that could easily be Hallmark-card wisdom today, and although I like to think of Shakespeare as one of the greatest writers of all time, these suggestions could have even been proverbial back then. But when I think of “the apparel oft proclaims the man,” I am genuinely struck by how appropriate those words are today, and am just waiting for some French fashion house to snatch it up for their SS 2012 campaign.
You know who else might have used that line as a selling-tool? Perhaps a glover in the London suburbs. Shakespeare’s father was a tradesman, not a member of the landed gentry, and I think that line offers a perfect defense of his family business. The rich had to look presentable, as fashion statements in the royal court did say something about one’s character – and whose responsibility was it to ensure that when someone talked to the hand, that hand looked damn good? Papa Shakespeare.
Moving along, the line “Frailty, thy name is woman” and I have a relationship, but to sum it up in Facebook terms: “it’s complicated.” I don’t know if Shakespeare realized that he was a writer, as fellow playwright Ben Jonson put it, “not of an age but for all time,” but that quote has given my gender a bad name for centuries! That being said, there are times when I believe it. But enough about me – let’s look at what prompted Hamlet to utter such harsh words:
Frailty, thy name is woman!—
A little month, or ere those shoes were old
With which she follow’d my poor father’s body,
Like Niobe, all tears…
Interesting…we have another shout-out to the fashion world. Here, Hamlet’s thinking about the shoes that his mother Gertrude is wearing in the present (sometimes depicted as her wedding to her former brother-in-law, Claudius) and remembers when she wore them for her father’s funeral. He notes that the shoes have barely gotten any wear between the time she walked behind her first husband’s funeral procession to the time she walked down the aisle beside her second.
The thing with Shakespeare, though, is that even these tiny details, these seemingly insignificant idiosyncratic turns of phrase, are telling. Who else would think about the quality of women’s shoes? A male university student? He’d probably rather concern himself with exams or his girlfriend, the fair Ophelia. And I get it, he’s lost his father and is mourning, but do you really think he’d remember his mother’s mourning shoes, probably hidden under petticoats? Doubtful. But who would care? Someone who’s probably well versed in the ways of fashion, in the fine crafting required of leather accoutrements: a glove-maker’s son, William Shakespeare.
Last, but certainly not the final word on the matter, let’s have a look at Shakespeare’s renowned gravedigger scene. Before I grew into my bardolatry as I know it today, I would sit in the theatre restlessly, waiting one, two, three hours to see Hamlet hold up that skull – so iconic – but really, it had no meaning to me back then. Now, I have a far greater understanding about mortality in general and have developed an even creepier fascination with the morbid, in particular. That being said, I probably wouldn’t wander around graveyards (one ramble through an Edinburgh cemetery to find the resting place of the original Tom Riddle, excluded). Hamlet did, and after starting up a banter with his local gravedigger, Hamlet asks the following question:
How long will a man lie i’ the earth ere he rot?
The Gravedigger responds:
I’ faith, if he be not rotten before he die–as we have many pocky cor[p]ses now-a-days, that will scarce hold the laying in–he will last you some eight year or nine year: a tanner will last you nine year.
Why he more than another?
Why, sir, his hide is so tanned with his trade, that he will keep out water a great while; and your water is a sore decayer of your whoreson dead body.
So once again, we see this concern with trade, an understanding of the finer details of leather-working that a member of the landed gentry probably wouldn’t have concerned himself with in his daily life, let alone deem worthy enough to write about in a script that would reach thousands of viewers. But a glove-maker’s son seems a bit more feasible — whether the gravedigger’s projections were accurate or not, it’s definitely the kind of morbid joke that would probably come out in the drunken table talk of … a glove-maker.
That’s all for now, folks! Let me know what you think – comment below!