There’s nothing like the reporting of a sensational new scholarly discovery in the national press to make me feel that my natural environment may be in a 1950s Oxbridge common room, grumbling over the port, rather than maintaining this pretence that I am some sort of engaged, public-facing, anti-elitist academic. This morning it’s the greatest development in literary studies for centuries, with the alleged identification of a new portrait of William Shakespeare that will undoubtedly transform our understanding of all his plays (not quite sure how the presence of a snake’s-head fritillary is supposed to influence the interpretation of Hamlet, but then I’m not a literary scholar). It’s all too reminiscent of the fuss over the discovery of the actual bones of Richard III, which demanded the re-writing of pretty well the whole of English history (and doubtless is part of the unique traditions that show we should leave the EU forthwith), where I found myself quite out of step with the majority in my bemusement at the idea that this had any historical significance whatsoever (but that did generate the highest viewing figures on this blog ever, and almost led to an invitation to speak on BBC Radio Bristol on the occasion of the re-interment, so it’s tempting to try to repeat the experiment: Whoop-de-doo!).
The underlying pattern is all too familiar: to get any attention, it has to be personalised,with a lead character drawn from the limited repertoire of historical figures whom journalists think their audience will have heard of (Caesar, Cleopatra, Boudicca, Shakespeare, Hitler et al) or at any rate associated with them (Roman skulls from Boudicca’s revolt!),it has to be suitably dramatic or capable of being dramatised (Earliest known portrait! Yes he was hunchbacked!), it has to involve either new evidence or a radical new technique or preferably both, and it has to provide the appearance of closure (Now we can see the Real Shakespeare/Richard/Caesar, and can resolve all those arguments that developed only because we didn’t have this concrete evidence!). It’s a view of history – and, apparently, also literary studies – that is not only wholly focused on a small number of Heroic Individuals responsible for everything that was ever noteworthy, but also regards debate and uncertainty as a problem to be overcome as quickly as possible rather than as its lifeblood. No nuance, doubt or overt politics welcome here.
That’s just the way things are, and it’s easy enough to understand – but clearly it demands a more focused approach to my research and career development than I have hitherto practised. Clearly economic history is a non-starter, with the complete absence of exciting individuals doing dramatic things, and while some of my work on the history of ideas has involved iconic figures like Marx and Nietzsche, new interpretations of their uses of classical ideas and conception of modernity are unlikely to produce the sorts of personal revelations that are called for. Thucydides seems to be my best bet, for the name recognition alone… Got it! I know we don’t have a lot of women’s writing from classical Greece, but surely Sappho’s language has been researched thoroughly enough to identify some distinctive patterns? All I need is some sort of algorithm that can be applied to the syntax and vocabulary choices of Book 8 of Thucydides, to demonstrate it was, as one ancient rumour recorded in a biography of dubious authority suggested, actually written by his daughter. Yes! You read it here first. Whaddya mean that’s not good enough to get me on telly..?