Twitter is something of a vast wasteland, mirages of connection popping up in the “@Mentions” tab only to be revealed as (in my case) yet another scam-bot saying, “Writers Needed.” We needn’t mention more of @CharlieSheen than his crazy, crazy name. But since getting back on Twitter a few months ago I’ve been heartened by the number of Shakespeareans who post funny, insightful things about our shared intellectual obsession in 140 characters or less (I curate a partial list of – count ’em – 36 Shakespeare nerds here). Lately I’ve been particularly encouraged by Rebecca May, a college student who is hacking her way through all of Shakespeare in 2011 and writing about her responses (as of right now she’s in Act 3, Scene 7 of Richard III). And I’ll admit I like reading posts by Stanley Wells, Chairman of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, and Grace Ioppolo, a leading expert on how Shakespeare wrote and revised his work, not only for their warm, unpretentious voices but because it means they waste time just like mere mortals like me.
Today I was reminded of the value of Twitter as a source for wonderful reading material – far more surprising than an RSS reader you yourself have set up, infinitely less mundane than Facebook status updates – when D.C.’s Folger Shakespeare Library posted a link to an obituary in The Washington Post of Irvin Matus, an independent scholar whose unconventional life nearly merits the adjective “picaresque.” (Just look it up.) First, cheers to Matt Schudel for writing maybe the least formulaic obit I’ve ever read, one that really does justice to this colorful character about whom I’d never heard before. With only a high school diploma, Matus spent a life researching Shakespeare, shuttling back and forth from the Library of Congress to the Folger, writing two-well regarded books without holding a regular job and, for a time, being homeless. The intellectual battle of his life, the subject of his books, was to prove that Shakespeare did write his work, not the Earl of Oxford, or Christopher Marlowe, or Francis Bacon, or Donald Duck, or whoever. Since arguments against Shakespeare’s authorship are frequently based on the classist fallacy that someone without a college education from a rural backwater could not have acquired the breadth of education that informs his plays, defending Shakespeare must have felt personal to Matus. In his recent, very approachable guide to the 300 year-old authorship debate, Contested Will, James Shapiro refers to Matus’s Shakespeare, In Fact as one of “the strongest arguments in favor of Shakespeare’s authorship” and – even better – ultimately sides with him, too.
But it is rare, at least nowadays, that a scholar’s life is as interesting as his work, and Matus’s certainly is that. It’s worth reading the whole thing through, but these are my favorite bits:
He seldom had a paying job – mostly out of stubborn pride – choosing instead to spend the past 25 years as an independent scholar of the life and works of William Shakespeare. He showed up each day at the Library of Congress or Folger Shakespeare Library to conduct his research, then slipped away in the evening to cadge food from Capitol Hill cocktail receptions, striding in as if he were a congressman.
Whether from inner confidence or an oversized chip on his shoulder, he steadfastly refused to conform to the standards of the workaday world. “Get a 9-to-5 job?” he mused when asked by People magazine in 1989. “No way. When you have a mind like mine, such a wonderful mind, well, to have it virtually imprisoned in the boring, trivial and mundane would be torture.”
Mr. Matus continued to visit the Library of Congress two or three times a week until last year. When Metro fares went up, he could afford to make only one trip a week. “He was living that close to the bone,” Mann said. “But he did every day what he wanted to do.”
And, most importantly, from Thomas Mann, a reference librarian at the Library of Congress and a longtime friend:
“For him, Shakespeare was an avenue of insight into life. It wasn’t an academic exercise.”
This is the approach to Shakespeare, to a reading life at all really, I admire in people like Irvin Matus, or Stanley Wells, or some of the other Shakespeareans I’ve met through Twitter and elsewhere. There is valuable subtext in the story of Irvin Matus’s life for the importance of libraries, which allow the underprivileged free access to books, even priceless ones from the seventeenth century, and for libraries’ purely utilitarian value as a warm, safe place for the homeless to spend the day reading or just warm and safe. As a great BBC article from yesterday (which, again, I found via the lovely Early Modern scholar @DaintyBallerina) points out, we underestimate the intellectual lives of the homeless, and the help that books might bring to them. Reading groups for homeless people at libraries and support centers can provide the escape from everyday life we all need and, even more, help change their lives for the better. One homeless man said of his reading group at Manchester Central Library, “A lot of homeless people have to go to some effort to keep away from drink and drugs, or people who are involved in drink and drugs, so it was also setting a social norm, if you like – there is more to life.”
“More to life,” “an avenue of insight into life” – these are the legacy of Irvin Matus, and the institutions that kept his intellectual life warm. The title above is from The Tempest Act 1, Scene 2, and it’s a fitting (not to mention beautiful) memorial for a Shakespearean:
Full fathom five thy father lies,
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes;
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell.
Hark, now I hear them – Ding dong, bell.