The cult of Shakespeare is one of the weirdest and most persistent in literature. This spring, Arthur Phillips and Stephen Marche each published books on the obsession. Phillips’s novel The Tragedy of Arthur portrays the son of a con man who attempts to establish whether a quarto of a lost Shakespeare play—reproduced in stunning convincingness in the book—was actually written by Shakespeare. Stephen Marche’s How Shakespeare Changed Everything confronts the various ways that Shakespeare has affected everything, from sex to the English language, the assassination of Lincoln, and the mania for skulls on clothing. They discussed their various journeys into the heart of this cult by e-mail.
Recently a South African archeologist named Francis Thackeray—which to me sounds like the most made-up real name ever—proposed digging up Shakespeare’s body so he could tell whether Shakespeare smoked pot. Two questions occured to me when the story emerged: Why the hell do people keep wanting to dig up Shakespeare? And isn’t there something better we could do with his body than tell whether he smoked pot?
Let’s just stipulate that he did smoke pot. Constantly. Now what? What does that tell us about his working habits? About his daily life? What does that tell us about the plays, poems, et cetera? About Elizabethan theatrical life? Nothing. All it does is make it easier for some despairing high school teachers to feel like they can now “connect” with their kids.
I know. I sort of feel that way at every biographical revelation about Shakespeare. If he was a pot smoker, does that explain how he wrote “Light thickens, and the crows make way to the rooky wood”? I know many, many pot smokers. They do not remind me of Shakespeare. But I felt that way even with Greenblatt’s Will in the World. Lets give him a title: “Catholic.” So what? If he was a Catholic he was just about the most unusual Catholic who ever lived. People seem to want to reduce him, to avoid the mystery of him.