Is Shakespeare Dead?, by Mark Twain

Is Shakespeare Dead?

(from My Autobiography)

Scattered here and there through the stacks of unpublished manuscript which constitute this formidable Autobiography and Diary of mine, certain chapters will in some distant future be found which deal with “Claimants” — claimants historically notorious: Satan, Claimant; the Golden Calf, Claimant; the Veiled Prophet of Khorassan, Claimant; Louis XVII., Claimant; William Shakespeare, Claimant; Arthur Orton, Claimant; Mary Baker G. Eddy, Claimant — and the rest of them. Eminent Claimants, successful Claimants, defeated Claimants, royal Claimants, pleb Claimants, showy Claimants, shabby Claimants, revered Claimants, despised Claimants, twinkle star-like here and there and yonder through the mists of history and legend and tradition — and, oh, all the darling tribe are clothed in mystery and romance, and we read about them with deep interest and discuss them with loving sympathy or with rancorous resentment, according to which side we hitch ourselves to. It has always been so with the human race. There was never a Claimant that couldn’t get a hearing, nor one that couldn’t accumulate a rapturous following, no matter how flimsy and apparently unauthentic his claim might be. Arthur Orton’s claim that he was the lost Tichborne baronet come to life again was as flimsy as Mrs. Eddy’s that she wrote SCIENCE AND HEALTH from the direct dictation of the Deity; yet in England nearly forty years ago Orton had a huge army of devotees and incorrigible adherents, many of whom remained stubbornly unconvinced after their fat god had been proven an impostor and jailed as a perjurer, and today Mrs. Eddy’s following is not only immense, but is daily augmenting in numbers and enthusiasm. Orton had many fine and educated minds among his adherents, Mrs. Eddy has had the like among hers from the beginning. Her Church is as well equipped in those particulars as is any other Church. Claimants can always count upon a following, it doesn’t matter who they are, nor what they claim, nor whether they come with documents or without. It was always so. Down out of the long-vanished past, across the abyss of the ages, if you listen, you can still hear the believing multitudes shouting for Perkin Warbeck and Lambert Simnel.

A friend has sent me a new book, from England — THE SHAKESPEARE PROBLEM RESTATED— well restated and closely reasoned; and my fifty years’ interest in that matter — asleep for the last three years — is excited once more. It is an interest which was born of Delia Bacon’s book — away back in the ancient day — 1857, or maybe 1856. About a year later my pilot-master, Bixby, transferred me from his own steamboat to the PENNSYLVANIA, and placed me under the orders and instructions of George Ealer — dead now, these many, many years. I steered for him a good many months — as was the humble duty of the pilot-apprentice: stood a daylight watch and spun the wheel under the severe superintendence and correction of the master. He was a prime chess-player and an idolater of Shakespeare. He would play chess with anybody; even with me, and it cost his official dignity something to do that. Also — quite uninvited — he would read Shakespeare to me; not just casually, but by the hour, when it was his watch and I was steering. He read well, but not profitably for me, because he constantly injected commands into the text. That broke it all up, mixed it all up, tangled it all up — to that degree, in fact, that if we were in a risky and difficult piece of river an ignorant person couldn’t have told, sometimes, which observations were Shakespeare’s and which were Ealer’s. For instance:

What man dare, I dare!

Approach thou WHAT are you laying in the leads for? what a hell of an idea! like the rugged ease her off a little, ease her off! rugged Russian bear, the armed rhinoceros or the THERE she goes! meet her, meet her! didn’t you KNOW she’d smell the reef if you crowded in like that? Hyrcan tiger; take any ship but that and my firm nerves she’ll be in the WOODS the first you know! stop he starboard! come ahead strong on the larboard! back the starboard! . . . NOW then, you’re all right; come ahead on the starboard; straighten up and go ‘long, never tremble: or be alive again, and dare me to the desert DAMNATION can’t you keep away from that greasy water? pull her down! snatch her! snatch her baldheaded! with thy sword; if trembling I inhabit then, lay in the leads! — no, only with the starboard one, leave the other alone, protest me the baby of a girl. Hence horrible shadow! eight bells — that watchman’s asleep again, I reckon, go down and call Brown yourself, unreal mockery, hence!

He certainly was a good reader, and splendidly thrilling and stormy and tragic, but it was a damage to me, because I have never since been able to read Shakespeare in a calm and sane way. I cannot rid it of his explosive interlardings, they break in everywhere with their irrelevant, “What in hell are you up to NOW! pull her down! more! MORE! — there now, steady as you go,” and the other disorganizing interruptions that were always leaping from his mouth. When I read Shakespeare now I can hear them as plainly as I did in that long-departed time — fifty-one years ago. I never regarded Ealer’s readings as educational. Indeed, they were a detriment to me.

His contributions to the text seldom improved it, but barring that detail he was a good reader; I can say that much for him. He did not use the book, and did not need to; he knew his Shakespeare as well as Euclid ever knew his multiplication table.

Did he have something to say — this Shakespeare-adoring Mississippi pilot — anent Delia Bacon’s book?

Yes. And he said it; said it all the time, for months — in the morning watch, the middle watch, and dog watch; and probably kept it going in his sleep. He bought the literature of the dispute as fast as it appeared, and we discussed it all through thirteen hundred miles of river four times traversed in every thirty-five days — the time required by that swift boat to achieve two round trips. We discussed, and discussed, and discussed, and disputed and disputed and disputed; at any rate, HE did, and I got in a word now and then when he slipped a cog and there was a vacancy. He did his arguing with heat, with energy, with violence; and I did mine with the reverse and moderation of a subordinate who does not like to be flung out of a pilot-house and is perched forty feet above the water. He was fiercely loyal to Shakespeare and cordially scornful of Bacon and of all the pretensions of the Baconians. So was I— at first. And at first he was glad that that was my attitude. There were even indications that he admired it; indications dimmed, it is true, by the distance that lay between the lofty boss-pilotical altitude and my lowly one, yet perceptible to me; perceptible, and translatable into a compliment — compliment coming down from about the snow-line and not well thawed in the transit, and not likely to set anything afire, not even a cub-pilot’s self-conceit; still a detectable complement, and precious.

Naturally it flattered me into being more loyal to Shakespeare — if possible — than I was before, and more prejudiced against Bacon — if possible — that I was before. And so we discussed and discussed, both on the same side, and were happy. For a while. Only for a while. Only for a very little while, a very, very, very little while. Then the atmosphere began to change; began to cool off.

A brighter person would have seen what the trouble was, earlier than I did, perhaps, but I saw it early enough for all practical purposes. You see, he was of an argumentative disposition. Therefore it took him but a little time to get tired of arguing with a person who agreed with everything he said and consequently never furnished him a provocative to flare up and show what he could do when it came to clear, cold, hard, rose-cut, hundred-faceted, diamond-flashing REASONING. That was his name for it. It has been applied since, with complacency, as many as several times, in the Bacon–Shakespeare scuffle. On the Shakespeare side.

Then the thing happened which has happened to more persons than to me when principle and personal interest found themselves in opposition to each other and a choice had to be made: I let principle go, and went over to the other side. Not the entire way, but far enough to answer the requirements of the case. That is to say, I took this attitude — to wit, I only BELIEVED Bacon wrote Shakespeare, whereas I KNEW Shakespeare didn’t. Ealer was satisfied with that, and the war broke loose. Study, practice, experience in handling my end of the matter presently enabled me to take my new position almost seriously; a little bit later, utterly seriously; a little later still, lovingly, gratefully, devotedly; finally: fiercely, rabidly, uncompromisingly. After that I was welded to my faith, I was theoretically ready to die for it, and I looked down with compassion not unmixed with scorn upon everybody else’s faith that didn’t tally with mine. That faith, imposed upon me by self-interest in that ancient day, remains my faith today, and in it I find comfort, solace, peace, and never-failing joy. You see how curiously theological it is. The “rice Christian” of the Orient goes through the very same steps, when he is after rice and the missionary is after HIM; he goes for rice, and remains to worship.

Ealer did a lot of our “reasoning” — not to say substantially all of it. The slaves of his cult have a passion for calling it by that large name. We others do not call our inductions and deductions and reductions by any name at all. They show for themselves what they are, and we can with tranquil confidence leave the world to ennoble them with a title of its own choosing.

Now and then when Ealer had to stop to cough, I pulled my induction-talents together and hove the controversial lead myself: always getting eight feet, eight and a half, often nine, sometimes even quarter-less-twain — as I believed; but always “no bottom,” as HE said.

I got the best of him only once. I prepared myself. I wrote out a passage from Shakespeare — it may have been the very one I quoted awhile ago, I don’t remember — and riddled it with his wild steamboatful interlardings. When an unrisky opportunity offered, one lovely summer day, when we had sounded and buoyed a tangled patch of crossings known as Hell’s Half Acre, and were aboard again and he had sneaked the PENNSYLVANIA triumphantly through it without once scraping sand, and the A. T. LACEY had followed in our wake and got stuck, and he was feeling good, I showed it to him. It amused him. I asked him to fire it off — READ it; read it, I diplomatically added, as only HE could read dramatic poetry. The compliment touched him where he lived. He did read it; read it with surpassing fire and spirit; read it as it will never be read again; for HE know how to put the right music into those thunderous interlardings and make them seem a part of the text, make them sound as if they were bursting from Shakespeare’s own soul, each one of them a golden inspiration and not to be left out without damage to the massed and magnificent whole.

I waited a week, to let the incident fade; waited longer; waited until he brought up for reasonings and vituperation my pet position, my pet argument, the one which I was fondest of, the one which I prized far above all others in my ammunition-wagon — to wit, that Shakespeare couldn’t have written Shakespeare’s words, for the reason that the man who wrote them was limitlessly familiar with the laws, and the law-courts, and law-proceedings, and lawyer-talk, and lawyer-ways — and if Shakespeare was possessed of the infinitely divided star-dust that constituted this vast wealth, HOW did he get it, and WHERE and WHEN?

“From books.”

From books! That was always the idea. I answered as my readings of the champions of my side of the great controversy had taught me to answer: that a man can’t handle glibly and easily and comfortably and successfully the argot of a trade at which he has not personally served. He will make mistakes; he will not, and cannot, get the trade-phrasings precisely and exactly right; and the moment he departs, by even a shade, from a common trade-form, the reader who has served that trade will know the writer HASN’T. Ealer would not be convinced; he said a man could learn how to correctly handle the subtleties and mysteries and free-masonries of ANY trade by careful reading and studying. But when I got him to read again the passage from Shakespeare with the interlardings, he perceived, himself, that books couldn’t teach a student a bewildering multitude of pilot-phrases so thoroughly and perfectly that he could talk them off in book and play or conversation and make no mistake that a pilot would not immediately discover. It was a triumph for me. He was silent awhile, and I knew what was happening — he was losing his temper. And I knew he would presently close the session with the same old argument that was always his stay and his support in time of need; the same old argument, the one I couldn’t answer, because I dasn’t — the argument that I was an ass, and better shut up. He delivered it, and I obeyed.

O dear, how long ago it was — how pathetically long ago! And here am I, old, forsaken, forlorn, and alone, arranging to get that argument out of somebody again.

When a man has a passion for Shakespeare, it goes without saying that he keeps company with other standard authors. Ealer always had several high-class books in the pilot-house, and he read the same ones over and over again, and did not care to change to newer and fresher ones. He played well on the flute, and greatly enjoyed hearing himself play. So did I. He had a notion that a flute would keep its health better if you took it apart when it was not standing a watch; and so, when it was not on duty it took its rest, disjointed, on the compass-shelf under the breastboard. When the PENNSYLVANIA blew up and became a drifting rack-heap freighted with wounded and dying poor souls (my young brother Henry among them), pilot Brown had the watch below, and was probably asleep and never knew what killed him; but Ealer escaped unhurt. He and his pilot-house were shot up into the air; then they fell, and Ealer sank through the ragged cavern where the hurricane-deck and the boiler-deck had been, and landed in a nest of ruins on the main deck, on top of one of the unexploded boilers, where he lay prone in a fog of scald and deadly steam. But not for long. He did not lose his head — long familiarity with danger had taught him to keep it, in any and all emergencies. He held his coat-lapels to his nose with one hand, to keep out the steam, and scrabbled around with the other till he found the joints of his flute, then he took measures to save himself alive, and was successful. I was not on board. I had been put ashore in New Orleans by Captain Klinenfelter. The reason — however, I have told all about it in the book called OLD TIMES ON THE MISSISSIPPI, and it isn’t important, anyway, it is so long ago.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/t/twain/mark/is_shakespeare_dead/chapter1.html

Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 20:05