The Scholar’s Golem


I’m back! Saturday I finished and turned in the last paper for my last class. What a relief! I now hold, for better or worse, a master’s degree in Humanities. It was a tough road, one I’d gladly take again but am very grateful the journey has ended. A new one begins. Now I can truly call myself a scholar.

For my Twitter followers who may wonder why I call myself @armchairscholar it’s because I got my degree online from The University of N. Carolina at Greensboro (go Spartans!). It is play on the old term for those who sat home and read scholarly works.

So, now that I’m a scholar, let’s talk about them. More specifically, let’s talk about Shakespearean scholars.

Matthew Lyons, a wonderful historian posed an interesting question on a blog post titled, Who’s to blame for the Shakespeare authorship controversy? The post argues that Shakespearean scholars who use conjecture as their basis of fact are not better than the anti-Stratfordians who use similar methods when arguing their points. Both sides of the authorship controversy plea special knowledge and insight into the truth, yet in doing so offer little more than speculation and well argued guesswork.

It’s a great post and gets right to the heart of the matter with Desmond McCarthy’s wonderful quote about Shakespearean biography:

Trying to discern Shakespeare’s personality, McCarthy said, is like looking at a portrait set behind darkened glass in a gallery. At first the portrait seems flat and lifeless. But the more intently you regard it, the more the sitter’s features seem to come to life: eyes at first dull now spark and gleam; the solid brushstrokes around the jaw soften, melt to flesh; the mouth parts, as if exhaling a long-held breath. Only then do you realize that it is, in fact, your own face you are admiring, reflected in the glass.

See, this is the problem with many Shakespearean scholars. They are intent on breathing life into the man but only end up with a Golem: a soulless creature that is alive through the scholar’s own written word. This Golem ends up behaving in ways in which scholars envision him and we are no closer to knowing the real man, despite the many words written about him.

You would think, after so much time and effort there would be no stone left unturned in the archeological digs for Shakespeare’s life, but you would be wrong.

Terri Bourus, an associate drama teacher (yes a drama teacher, no less) has written a book titled, “Young Shakespeare’s young Hamlet” in which she tries to solve the “mystery” surrounding the first printed version of Hamlet. While her argument for a young Shakespeare writing and then re-writing Hamlet as he aged, may have merit, but her excitement over her ability to “to discuss the personal relationship between Shakespeare and his friend and longtime colleague Richard Burbage” is suspect. How did Bourus come to such a conclusion? What, did she find that others had not?

Not much according the reviews (and there are not much in the way of reviews). Once again we have someone who has dazzled a few with a circular argument; the times and plays inform us about Shakespeare, who in turn, informs us about the plays. All this from her conclusion that the printers were key to learning about Shakespeare.

After all, without the printing houses, we would not have Shakespeare’s plays today,” Bourus said. “Shakespeare’s plays come down to us, not only on the stage, but primarily from the page.” Who can argue with that logic?

Scholars are supposed to come up with facts. Oh how I wish Bourus had come up with facts! Letters, diary entries, anything that proved a young Shakespeare first worked on Hamlet; proof of knowledge about the personal relationship between Shakespeare and Burbage. But alas, she has not. All we have is her personal Golem and more fodder for the anti-Stratfordians.