Wednesday, December 14, 2011

a book too far

Sitting around at Moe's yesterday were some copies of a new book, The Shakespeare Guide to Italy by Richard Paul Roe. This is not a neutral guide to Italian references in Shakespeare, but an Oxfordian rant.

Shakespeare's knowledge of Italy has long been a favorite topic of Oxfordian authorship theorists, as Oxford is known to have visited Italy, and William Shakespeare the actor isn't. (Actually, there's an unknown period in his life during which he might have visited Italy, or done many other things we know nothing about.)

This has always seemed to me to be a futile line of reasoning, because the Italy in Shakespeare's Italian plays has always struck me as superficial. My crack is that the plays show that the author had been no nearer Italy than a map, and not a very good one.

Roe disagrees. His thesis is that the Italian plays show a deep familiarity with both the geography and social customs of late 16th century Italy. To argue his point, Roe employs some impressively tenuous lines of reasoning. I've read a lot of Tolkien source criticism, so it takes some doing to impress me with the tenuousness of your reasoning. As a lawyer (which he is) arguing a case, Roe weaves improbably artful interpretations on plain or even clumsy wording, for instance claiming that Shylock's passing reference to his "Jewish gabardine" proves that the author of Shakespeare knew exactly what Venetian Jews wore, while brushing off the errors or gaping lacks of knowledge which he acknowledges exist in the same source.

The book as a whole is the most extended exercise I've read in seeing Jesus in a tortilla.

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