August 31, 2006
Returning with my family from our book club’s annual Shakespeare pilgrimage in Spring Green, Wis., I hear the minivan radio mocking me. A commercial for Arlington Park suggests Shakespeare plays are tedious, girly and “sucketh,” and that we’d all have a better time at the horse track instead.
Watching diminutive men in pastel, silk pajamas whip horses? Sorry, I’d rather see guys in tights and women with cleavage engage in witty repartee and sword fights.
Even George W. Bush, in an interview with NBC’s Brian Williams, noted that during his vacation in Crawford, he “read three Shakespeares.”
William Shakespeare is the greatest writer ever. Shakespeare is a genius. Shakespeare’s works are… Mostly written by flamboyant courtier and poet/jousting champ Edward de Vere, argues William Farina, 50, a suburban real estate executive and “Shakespeare hobbyist” who has authored a book titled De Vere as Shakespeare: An Oxfordian Reading of the Canon.
“The traditional biography of William Shakespeare is widely viewed as the greatest ‘poor boy makes good’ story ever told,” writes Farina, who was in high school when he learned the story of how the son of illiterate laborers grew up to be the great playwright.
His teacher said “the only people who doubt Shakespeare’s identity are snobs,” Farina says. “And that’s what I believed for 30 years.”
Then Farina researched the question and became convinced something was rotten.
“I ended up writing a book at the instigation of my wife,” says Farina, who is married to Marion Buckley, an appellate defense attorney and fellow Shakespeare fan. “She suggested I write it to get it out of my system.”
The debate has created discontent for many writers. A century ago, Mark Twain was pushing the theory that someone other than Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare’s works. But true believers did, and still do, fervently embrace the legend of Shakespeare as unlikely genius.
“To my astonishment, I found there are a growing number of academics who do take it seriously,” says Farina, who, with his wife, used to run the Chicago Oxford Society, which boasted about 40 members and featured speakers about all things Shakespeare.
Right about here is where somebody sitting trackside at Arlington park is shouting, “Who cares who wrote ‘to be or not to be’ when I’m trying to decide whether to bet on horse 1-A or not 1-A?”
“It may be a small problem in today’s troubled world, but it goes right to the heart of western culture,” Farina counters. “To know more about a writer’s life is to have a greater appreciation for the writer’s work.”
Batavia’s Toni Hix has read, acted in and directed Shakespearean plays since her undergraduate days at Northern Illinois University.
“It matters to scholars, because that’s what their job is. But it doesn’t matter to me,” Hix says. “To me, the work is what matters.”
The play’s the thing as well for Julane Sullivan, founder of Batavia’s Shakespeare on Clark.
“They are timeless. They are genius. And quite frankly, I don’t really care who wrote them. The work is just fabulous,” says Sullivan, who has staged Shakespeare performances with kids as young as 8.
De Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, has “a lot more credibility,” says Jim Hirsch, executive director and founder of the Elk Grove Center of the Performing Arts, which just finished its 13th annual Shakespeare Summer’s End Festival. If forced, he’d say Farina is right about de Vere being the main author of Shakespeare’s works.
“But very few people ask me, and I never, ever, ever think about it unless people do,” Hirsch says. “It doesn’t really matter. What you love about the plays is they are so beautiful.”
While the debate won’t end with Farina’s book, the author has moved on to a biography of Ulysses S. Grant. “He went from being a complete nobody to arguably the most powerful person in the country,” says Farina, who adds that “all of my ancestors fought in the Confederate army against Grant.”
As for his Shakespeare tempest, all’s well that ends well.
“One of the windfalls of the whole process is that I enjoy Shakespeare more than ever,” says Farina. Debate isn’t bad.
“We could do a lot worse,” Farina concludes. “People could stop reading and enjoying Shakespeare altogether.”
In which case, they might find themselves at Arlington Park, willing to give anything to find a horse that could win a race. Or, as de Vere might have said, “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!”