Tag Archives: Mystery

How ‘Sherlock of the library’ cracked the case of Shakespeare’s identity | Culture | The Guardian

Literary detective Heather Wolfe reveals how her passion for manuscripts helped unravel mystery of who the bard really was


By Robert McCrum


Deep in the Folger Library, in Washington DC, Heather Wolfe says that studying Shakespeare makes an ideal preparation for the onset of Trump’s America. You can see her point: Shakespeare would have revelled in the mad excesses, the sinister vanities and the pervasive stench of cronyism and corruption surrounding the president-elect as America makes the painful transition from Barack Obama.

Dr Wolfe is a willowy, bright-eyed manuscript scholar, a paleographer specialising in Elizabethan England who in certain moods of candour might put you in mind of Portia or perhaps Cordelia. She’s also a Shakespeare detective who, last year, made the career-defining discovery that is going to transform our understanding of Shakespeare’s biography. In the simplest terms, Wolfe delivered the coup de grace to the wild-eyed army of conspiracy theorists, including Vanessa Redgrave and Derek Jacobi, who contest the authenticity, even the existence, of the playwright known to contemporaries as Master Will Shakespeare.

Wolfe is an accidental sleuth. Her scholar’s passion is as much for old manuscripts as for the obscurities surrounding our national poet. Project Dustbunny, for example, one of her initiatives at the Folger Shakespeare Library, has made some extraordinary discoveries based on microscopic fragments of hair and skin accumulated in the crevices and gutters of 17th-century books.

DNA forensics aside, Wolfe’s role as a curator at the Folger is to bring her expertise to bear on the tantalising mass of documents that survives from the late 16th century. And yet, despite a heap of legal, commercial and matrimonial evidence, Shakespeare the man continues to slip through scholars’ fingers. Four centuries after his death, apart from a handful of crabbed signatures, there is not one manuscript, letter or diary we can definitively attribute to the poet, sponsoring the pervasive air of mystery that surrounds his genius. Indeed, the most intimate surviving Shakespeare document remains that notorious will, in which he bequeathed his wife his “second best bed”.

Before Wolfe arrived on the scene, all that scholars could be certain about was that a man named Shaxpere, Shaxberd or Shakespear was born in Stratford in 1564, and that he was an actor whose name is printed in the collected edition of his work published in 1623. We also know that he married Anne Hathaway, and died in 1616, according to legend, on his birthday, St George’s Day. The so-called “Stratfordian” case for Shakespeare rested on these, and a few other facts, but basically, that was it.

Into this vacuum, a bizarre fraternity, including Mark Twain, Charlie Chaplin and Sigmund Freud, have projected a “Shakespeare” written by a more obviously accomplished writer: Edward de Vere (the 17th earl of Oxford), Sir Francis Bacon and the playwright Christopher Marlowe, to name the leading contenders in a field that includes Sir Walter Raleigh, and even Elizabeth, the Virgin Queen herself.

In the absence of reliable data, a mountain of speculation has morphed into the weirdest fantasy, notably the 2011 film, Anonymous. Wolfe has no time for this. Speaking exclusively for the first time to the Observer, she says: “Without the evidence for other contenders, it’s hard for me to engage with this line of inquiry.”

Wolfe’s appetite for manuscript corroboration has led her into many dusty corners of the Elizabethan archives. It was this research instinct that first led her to reopen the file on the coat of arms granted to Shakespeare’s father, the small-town glover, in 1596.

John Shakespeare, from Stratford-upon-Avon, was ambitious to rise in the world. He was certainly not the first Englishman keen to put his origins as a provincial tradesman behind him. Among his contemporaries in Stratford, he was a figure of fun for his social climbing. English class snobbery has a long pedigree. His son, who would continue the quest for official recognition after his father’s death, also attracted metropolitan disdain as “an upstart crow beautified with our feathers”. In 1601, after his father’s death, Shakespeare the upstart returned to the college of arms to renew the family application for a coat of arms. He had made a small fortune in the theatre, and was buying property in and around Stratford. Now he set out to consolidate his reputation as a “Gentleman”. Under the rules that governed life at the court of Elizabeth I, only the Queen’s heralds could grant this wish.

A much-reproduced sketch for a coat of arms crystallised Shakespeare’s hopes for legitimacy in the antique jargon of heraldry: “Gould, on a Bend Sables, a Speare of the first steeled argent. And for his Crest, a falcon, his winges displayed Argent, supporting a Speare Gould …” The needy applicant also attached a motto: Non Sanz Droit (“Not Without Right”). All this, and much more, is buried in the archives of the college of arms in London.

Wolfe’s fascination with Shakespeare’s quest for a family crest grew out of her immersion in the manners and customs of late Elizabethan England, in particular the College of Heralds. These court officials were required to administer the complex rituals governing the lives of the knights, barons and earls surrounding Queen Elizabeth.

An adjunct to the court, the College of Heralds was not exempt from its own secret feuds. In 1602, the internecine rivalry between Sir William Dethick, the Garter King of Arms, and another herald, Ralph Brooke, burst into the open when Brooke released a list of 23 “mean persons” whose applications for crests (he claimed) had been wrongfully preferred by Dethick. When “Shakespeare the Player” found himself on this list, his campaign for social advancement seemed in jeopardy. A bitter row broke out at court between two factions. Shakespeare himself became an object of ridicule. Another rival, Ben Jonson, in his satire Every Man out of his Humour, poked fun at him as a rustic buffoon who pays £30 for a ridiculous coat of arms with the humiliating motto “Not Without Mustard”.

It’s at this point in the story that Wolfe discovered “the smoking gun”. In the Brooke-Dethick feud, it becomes clear that “Shakespeare, Gent. from Stratford” and “Shakespeare the Player” are the same man. In other words, “the man from Stratford” is indeed the playwright. Crucially, in the long-running “authorship” debate, this has been a fiercely contested point. But Wolfe’s research nails any lingering ambiguity in which the Shakespeare deniers can take refuge.

Wolfe is circumspect about making extravagant claims. Speaking carefully, she says that her manuscript discoveries fill in gaps, illuminating Shakespeare’s character. “They point to someone actively involved in defining and defending his legacy in 1602, shortly after his father’s death.”

For Wolfe, it’s Shakespeare the man who breaks cover here. “He’s defending his legacy not only as a playwright but, most importantly to him, as a gentleman.” The derogatory references to arms belonging to “Shakespeare ye player”, she says, show that “he’s playing the same game as everyone else in the period, purchasing land in Stratford to support his case to ‘ancient’ gentility, rather than through his astonishing professional success”.

James Shapiro, bestselling author of 1599, who is persuaded by Wolfe’s discoveries, compares her to “a Sherlock Holmes of the archives”. Shapiro says that Wolfe “has had the intellectual independence to see what others have overlooked, the skills to make sense of what she has stumbled upon and the modesty not to trumpet the larger implications of those finds. But make no mistake: they are enormously consequential.”

For Shapiro, Wolfe’s work suggests future breakthroughs. “I doubt that these are the last archival treasures she will unearth. Her recent finds sharpen our sense of Shakespeare’s dogged pursuit of upward mobility. And it is one more nail in the coffin of those who can’t bring themselves to acknowledge that the glover’s son from Stratford was also the successful man of the theatre who left us so many extraordinary plays.”

Wolfe says she looks forward to “poking about” in the archives, and is convinced that Shakespeare’s identity no longer needs re-confirmation. “There is such a wealth of evidence out there that he’s the playwright.” She adds: “I’m sure there’s more untapped material waiting to be uncovered. Additional finds will certainly help us understand his life – as much as we can understand anyone’s life from 400 years ago.”

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cARtOONSdAY: “cASE lOGIC 24: tHE Nd”

At least the commas and periods were in their right places.

At least the commas and periods were in their right places.

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Sadly, he found they wouldn't even refill his doughnut bag.

Sadly, he found they wouldn’t even refill his doughnut bag.

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And causing the pages to stick shut. Period.

And causing the pages to stick shut. Period.

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"Oh NO!" the head comma said, realizing this was a turning point.

“Oh NO!” the head comma said, realizing this was a turning point.

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Dashiell Hammett: a hero for our time – San Francisco Chronicle

Source: Dashiell Hammett: a hero for our time – San Francisco Chronicle

Every Christmas season, my family indulges in the same movie-watching rituals as we trim the tree and string necklaces of twinkling lights around the living room. These movies serve as a comforting backdrop to our yuletide routines. Some of our favorite seasonal films are relative obscurities like “The Family Man” (2000), starring Nicolas Cage, Téa Leoni and Don Cheadle. But we also search out classics, including movies that seemingly have nothing to do with the holiday season. Inevitably, we end up watching at least one of the old “Thin Man” features, that durable Dashiell Hammett detective series starring the most adorable and effervescent married couple in cinematic history, Nick and Nora Charles (William Powell and Myrna Loy).
Why does “The Thin Man” series beckon us this time of year? Maybe it’s the lovely, icy clatter of a holiday martini shaker, that merry clinking sound Nora used to call Nick home to their New York hotel suite when he was relaxing far away in Central Park with their toddler. “Nicky,” the bibulous detective tells Junior, “something tells me that something important is happening somewhere and I think we should be there.”

Or maybe it’s the witty banter and teasing sexuality between Nick and Nora that every sophisticated relationship should aspire to. Nick (trying to divert his wife from an uncomfortably racy subject): “Did I ever tell you that you’re the most fascinating woman on this side of the Rockies?” Nora (signaling she’s no prude): “Wait till you see me on the other side.”
Or it could be the San Francisco aura that drifts through the “Thin Man” films, especially my favorite, “After the Thin Man” (1936), which is set in the city and features locations like the Coit Tower lawn, doubling as the grounds of the Charleses’ Telegraph Hill mansion. Foggy nights in San Francisco are still suffused with a Hammett-like mystery. And there is no better place to conjure the spirit of the founder of the hard-boiled mystery genre than John’s Grill on Ellis Street, where Hammett hero Sam Spade grabbed a quick meal of chops, baked potato and sliced tomato in “The Maltese Falcon.” Hammett himself pounded out his pulp masterpieces on his Underwood typewriter in his apartment nearby, at 891 Post St., after his TB-wracked lungs made it impossible for him to continue his career as a Pinkerton Agency gumshoe.

There is no better way to celebrate the holidays in San Francisco than taking a break from the tyranny of shopping at the legendary downtown grill, presided over by John Konstin, the city’s most charming Greek (besides Art Agnos). A recent lunch hour there was populated by the usual mix of jailhouse lawyers, newshounds, colorful barflies, and SFPD detectives with legendary names – including Lt. Dave Falzon and retired homicide inspector John Cleary Jr. In other words, old San Francisco at its best.

And there is no better lunch companion for such an occasion than fedora-wearing, dapper Eddie Muller — the “Czar of Noir” whose classic cinema festival at the Castro Theatre each January brings together a wildly diverse pageant of filmgoers, from schlumpy and frighteningly obsessive cineastes to elegantly dressed lounge-room lizards and femme fatales who have stepped right out of their own torrid dream. Muller is also a growing presence on the Turner Classic Movies channel, as the film noir host for the brilliantly curated network.

Muller has a familial affinity for the world of Hammett. His late father was the boxing reporter for the San Francisco Examiner for a half-century, a respected fixture in a demimonde filled with the palookas, promoters, and gangsters — the same types Nick and Nora liked to pal around with. And we both share an affection for the prototypical, if opposite, Hammett screen heroines, Loy and Mary Astor.

Astor was the sad-eyed, seductive screen siren who costarred with Bogart in “The Maltese Falcon” (and with my father, Lyle, in such lesser 1930s offerings as “Return of the Terror,” “Red Hot Tires” and “Trapped by Television,” a B-movie thriller that foresaw the scary aspects of the coming medium). Astor was a sexually liberated woman of her day; her erotic self-confidence surges through her performance as the masterfully manipulative Brigid O’Shaughnessy in the Hammett classic.

In 1936, Astor found herself on the pyre in the hottest Hollywood sex scandal of its day, when her estranged husband exposed her “Purple Diary” to the press — a lusty account of her sexual exploits, including the grades she assigned to her lovers’ performances. Playwright George S. Kaufman scored the highest, with Astor extolling his prowess. “Fits me perfectly,” she wrote. “Many exquisite moments … twenty — count them, diary, twenty … I don’t see how he does it … he’s perfect.”

Astor — whose Purple Diary is the subject of two recent books, including a sensually illustrated chronicle by the artist Edward Sorel — got Muller and me talking about Hammett and his view of women. “In some ways, the male-female dynamic is the most interesting thing about Hammett’s work,” said Muller, between sips from his Manhattan. “There’s an emotional complexity and tension that separates it from other detective fiction.” In his own life, Hammett cut himself off from his father and brother at a young age, but remained close to his mother and sister. His own formidable drinking and sparring partner, the writer Lillian Hellman, was the inspiration for Nora Charles.

“He was a tall, slim, well-dressed ladies’ man, who carried with him a sense of damage that women found attractive,” continued Muller. “His drinking, his illness. He made binge drinking heroic because he was so frail. Women would marvel at him — it’s 4 a.m. and he’s still going.”

Hammett had another kind of fortitude as well. A lifelong man of the Left, he was dragged before a federal tribunal during the Cold War and asked to reveal the names of those who had contributed to a bail fund he had overseen for jailed Communist Party leaders. He refused. Ratting on friends was not the kind of thing that the creator of Sam Spade would do. He was sentenced to six months in federal prison for contempt of court, and when he was released in December 1951, his health was more ruined than ever. In 1953, he was summoned again by the witch-hunters, this time by Sen. Joe McCarthy and his sidekick, the reptilian Roy Cohn — one of Donald Trump’s mentors. Again Hammett refused to cooperate. He was blacklisted by Hollywood and went broke. But he was unbroken.

As Trump adviser Newt Gingrich floats the idea of reviving the notorious House Un-American Activities Committee, it’s a good time for us to recall Hammett’s heroism. “People should read his testimony and look at the pictures of him as he underwent the inquisition; it’s so inspiring,” said Muller. “He was just so cool and unshakable. His attitude was like, ‘Do your worst, you can’t even make me angry.’ He was one of his own heroes come to life.”

San Francisco Chronicle columnist David Talbot appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Email: dtalbot@sfchronicle.com

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"You'll look funny at the bottom of a question mark," Gumshoe said.

“You’ll look funny at the bottom of a question mark,” Gumshoe said.

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