Monday, August 26, 2013

Prove It!

This was sometime a paradox, but now the time gives it proof.
Hamlet, III.1
The Spanish Tragedy by Thomas Kyd is not performed much but is often taught as an important precursor to Shakespeare’s work. Most certainly, Shakespeare knew the play and, seemingly, cribbed numerous bits from it when he created Hamlet.  Such as:
·         A frame created by regional warfare;
·         A vengeful ghost;
·         A play-within-a-play device used to root out a murderer;
·         A character named “Horatio” who is the best pal of the King’s nephew;
·         A female character driven mad by the violence unfolding among her loved ones;
·         Lots of dead and mutilated bodies on stage by the final scene.
More recently, scholars have been working hard on the opposite angle: that Shakespeare really wrote some key passages in Kyd’s play.  Poor schmoe Kyd. The guy has only one surviving play that is considered worthy of attention, and they want to give part of the credit to Shakespeare, who already has a string of masterworks associated with his name.
This new scholarship, which seeks to demonstrate that stuff attributed to Kyd was really written by Shakespeare, was recently discussed in The New York Times. The “proof” is two-fold.  One scholar has used elaborate computer-aided analysis to make the case, while another has cited Shakespeare’s messy handwriting as his source of proof.  This second guy, Douglas Bruster at The University of Texas, has inventoried a set of spelling patterns and textual “corruptions” found in what is described as a fragment of Shakespeare’s handwriting. The article does not say what that fragment is. But, apparently, Bruster used the patterns he detected in this fragment to try to explain a particular speech in Kyd’s play—including suggesting that the guy at the print shop just couldn’t read Shakespeare’s lousy penmanship, which is why some of Kyd’s lines do not quite make sense. Very interesting, very scientific, very methodical.
What struck me, though, upon reading the article about this recent scholarship, is that, by article’s end, I found myself less inclined to accept the thesis than before I’d read about this seemingly methodical approach. Isn’t that odd? How is it that an able description of someone’s meticulous, dispassionate proof pushed me towards, rather than away from, skepticism about Shakespeare having written part of Kyd’s play?
With mere anecdotal evidence, which true scientists loath, I would have had little difficulty accepting the possibility that Shakespeare deserved some credit for Kyd’s work as it has come down to us.  Back in ye olde Elizabethan times, theater was highly collaborative.  Productions were pulled together quickly.  The text wasn’t supreme, the performance, an inherently ephemeral thing, was. So, sure, it isn’t hard to imagine theater managers and actors contributing lines, and one playwright tweaking another playwright’s work, as everyone worked frantically to get a multi-hour piece ready for public consumption, sometimes in a matter of days. And if you have ever been part of giving birth to a brand new play (or perhaps even a legal brief) this collaborative phenomenon would seem almost self-evident.
But why do I find the anecdotal explanation more compelling than the more precise handwriting-analysis argument?
Well, the very precision of the argument got me focused on the evidence: the handwriting.  As far as I know, the only samples of Shakespeare’s handwriting that we have that people agree really can be attributed to him are a few signatures and the words “by me” followed by a signature on his last will, which someone else wrote out for him.  There are no scraps of literary work except some speculation about a few lines that some (very few) people think Shakespeare might have contributed to a play (Sir Thomas Moore) that most people have never heard of.  The focus on Shakespeare’s handwriting as a source of proof exposes larger problems—like some serious concern about the man’s basic literacy and his rather small-minded obsession with property rights (since all he seemed to sign were legal documents).  Having been asked to focus my attention on that specific source of proof, I suddenly felt more doubtful about a thesis than if I had been offered a common-sense story about the conventions of the day.
Weird, huh?
Well, I am thinking that my reaction may not be entirely idiosyncratic.  Others out there in the world may be similarly inclined to test the foundations of a theory that seems to have been proven up with solid, sensible building blocks rather than fanciful speculation. And my contrarian reaction to this seemingly sensible proof might also be shared. At the very least, this train of thought might lead to insights about making more effective legal arguments. 
Legal arguments are never convincing unless they are tethered to both concrete facts and acceptable legal authorities.  The most accessible legal arguments are those that involve case comparisons—showing precisely how key facts in a precedential case are like facts in a current legal matter or showing how those key facts are quite different from the present matter.  In making these comparisons/distinctions, you always have to be mindful of the ultimate result as well as the details:  Do the holdings/outcomes in the older cases that are most like yours align with the result you want?  And in reading these older cases, are you left feeling that justice was ultimately done or that the court was stretching to reach a result for reasons that are not entirely clear from the face of the decision?  How can you make sure, in offering your proof, that the decision-maker charged with considering your legal matter will not feel that they are being asking to stretch to reach a result? How can you make them feel instead that your argument fits in nicely with all known aspects of the established legal landscape?
Something about this difficult balancing act—finding a way to use proof that is both precisely and impressionistically compelling—is really tough.  Something about this business of analyzing Shakespeare’s handwriting to “prove” that he wrote some of Kyd’s poetry offers a helpful analogy—if only I could prove it! In any event, “there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”  [Hamlet, I.5]   

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