Shakspere's Skull and Falstaff's Nose: A Fancy in Three Acts (1889)
Charles Ebenezer Moyse (Belgrave Titmarsh)
Shakspere's Skull and Falstaff's Nose: A Fancy in Three Acts, by Charles Ebeneezer Moyse, was published in London, England, under the pseudonym Belgrave Titmarsh in 1889. Moyse was born in Torquay, Devonshire, England, in 1852, and graduated from the University of London in 1874. He came to Canada in 1878 when he was appointed Professor of History and Associate Professor of English at McGill University, Montreal. In 1879 he was appointed Molson Professor of English Literature at McGill. A well-known venue at McGill University, Moyse Hall, bears his name.
Shakspere's Skull and Falstaff's Nose: A Fancy in Three Acts is a sophisticated satire on "academic fanaticism" in Shakespearean scholarship at the end of the nineteenth century (Wagner 32). One aspect of this fanaticism is the so-called "authorship controversy." Since the late eighteenth century, various attempts have been made to prove that Shakespeare did not write the Shakespearean oeuvre. Francis Bacon (1561-1626) was the first person put forth as the "real Shakespeare," and is still the most popular alternate choice. In the nineteenth century, it was argued that Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593) was the true author of Shakespeare's works, in spite of the facts that Marlowe's death in 1593 was well-documented and pre-dated most of the plays.
Moyse's protagonist is named Dryasdustus, a play on Marlowe's character Doctor Faustus, who is preparing to tell the world his discovery that he himself is the true author of Shakespeare's work. He has also hired a doctor to dig up the grave of Shakespeare in Stratford. When the doctor returns with a skull, this leads to a parody of Hamlet's famous soliloquy by Dryasdustus.
The grave-digging incident also plays on the claim that Shakespeare wrote his own epitaph at Holy Trinity Church in Stratford:
GOOD FREND FOR
IESVS SAKE FORBEARE,
TO DIGG THE DVST
BLESSED BE YE MAN YT
SPARES THES STONES,
AND CVRST BE HE YT
MOVES MY BONES
Central to the play's thematics is a satire of the Shakespearean authentic, how lunatic scholarship allows the spurious possession of Shakespeare's writings, to the point that Dryasdustus stands convinced of his own authorship of Shakespeare. The attempt to possess Shakespeare is metaphorized in Dryasdustus's attempt to rob Shakespeare's grave of its skull only to discover that the body-snatchers he has employed to do this "didn't get to the bottom of the grave" (60). As with other moments in the play, the attempt to essentialize Shakespeare, either in scholarly writing or in the materiality of uncertain relics, is exposed as absurd.
When Dryasdustus, now on the lam for the robbery of Shakespeare's grave, encounters another Shakespearean (2 nd Gentleman), the talk turns to how Shakespeare is transposed and adapted in the name of egomaniacal, literary careerism:
Then I made the acquaintance of a so-called True Shakperian [sic] scholar, who told me I had been utterly misled [about what Shakespeare truly wrote]. He hacked Shakspere in his own style, and presented me with a still bulkier volume of plays [than a preceding critic who has done the same], even more obscure, which he had published, and in which he had caused the portions he was positive were Shakespeare's to be printed in italics likewise. (57-58) [indent]
This second gentleman determines to write "a True Shakespearian book" (58) on two subjects:
one, to present to the world for the first time the real face of Shakspere by blending, according to a modern process, all the representations of Shakspere in stone or on canvas that have come down to us; the other, to write what my True Shaksperian mind conceived to be the real key to Falstaff's character––his nose. I chose the latter, buried myself in literary rubbish, became disgusted, unlike a True Shaksperian, and resolved to return to mental health. (ibid.) [indent]
In Moyse's spoof Shakespeare figures as an endlessly plastic material in the service of ludicrous ends, forever adaptable in the name of truth. That the spoof was published in 1889 in London, ten years after Moyse had become a professor of English at McGill University, hints, however obliquely, at relations of colonial servitude to, and independence from, Shakespearean authority that the play addresses from its uniquely hybridized, Canadian perspective.