1. What Authorship Question: Homer, Who, Shakespeare?

In my previous post I posed the question, could a computer differentiate between episodes of Dr Who that were under the artisitic guidance of Russell T. Davies and those of his successor, Steven Moffat. Supposedly a computer can recognize the hand of Shakepeare in Early Modern Literature. Actually, faith in such programs is so fervent that they are being used to pinpoint exactly which bits of Shakespeare, Shakespeare actually wrote and which bits belong in the chops of a horse.

Now, if you were writing this post and I was reading it, my immediate reaction would be that TV and Early Modern Playscripts use different storytelling techniques. That TV guides the majority of the viewer’s responses to a text through its clever use of mise-en-scene, editing, casting, and special effects. A playscript is a raw thing, yet to be basted and baked on a stage. The theatre’s audience, more difficult to lead. Computers can count words, their forms and usage in early modern texts: what are they to measure in an episode of Dr Who? An impossible comparison.

What if the arena were to be circumscribed? Could an essential parameter box in the ring? Could we take this parameter to be the writer’s underlying world view? To my mind there is an issue with counting words and their usage: the writer as an artist. The writer may have a preferred style, but doesn’t it change at all over the course of their writing careers? Doesn’t style develop over time? over experimentation? over admiration of others’ works? over response to their own? What of vaulting a mindblock or orchestrating a conceit?

Shakespeare isn’t the earliest writer to have his penmanship questioned. Homer shares the stigma with him. Homer has left two great epics, The Illiad and The Odyssey. Like Shakespeare, there is little of his life on historical record. We dont know the year or circumstances of the creation of either of his works. They are so different in style and content that it is believed that they must have been written at the beginning and the end of his career if he were to have written both of them. This begs the question, where are his transitional works?

Statue of Homer in Munich

Statue of Homer in Munich

While The Illiad is a concentrated recount of the skirmishes of the last battle of the Trojan War, the Odyssey is a narrative of Oysseas (Ulysses) ten year-long journey home. Immediately we see a different approach to the treatment of the passage of time between the texts – one is broad ranging the other, very particular. In The Illiad, Homer identifies the players in the war through their families, allegiances, achievements and relationships to a particular god. The gods themselves are part of his narrative. No warrior is a statistic. No warrior fights alone. There is a sense that this history is told to honour the generals, the soldiers, their families, their communities and their gods. A pious reverence pervades the text. Those who will read him, will honour his gods and the gods will hear them.

The Odyssey is a different kind of yarn, spun and pulled out over the course of ten years. It could easily be retitled, Odysseas’ Seafaring Advenures. Unlike The Illiad, it focusses on one protagonist. This is Odysseas tale. It’s an ancient melodrama, romance, and thriller. But not a history. Odysseas is clearly the hero. The goddess Athena takes a personal interest in his domestic situation and his return home. She serves him. The goddess serves the mortal! Not to say she was a serving woman but this is not a war of nations.

There is a more light-hearted approach to The Odyssey. The family histories and relationships of the characters sailing with Odysseas are not given. The story is meant to move forward sprightly, and it does. It can be suspenceful and is engaging.The story of Odysseas’ journey is almost a story within a story. Yes, Calypso tells the tale but within the story of Telemachus and Penelope (his son and his wife respectively), the wanderings of our hero are a play within a play. There is a huge leap in innovation where storytelling is concerned.

Most importantly, the mindset, the attitude of the writer of The Illiad is very different to the attitude of the writer of The Odyssey, when it comes to the sanctity of life. There is a concern for the soldiers and a weight over their loss in one and a feeling that the sailors are mere pawns in the world of a good story in the other. In one, there is a sense of a battle veteran writing, in the other a good imagination. Were they from the same pen?

Statue of Homer, Munich

Photo credit: Source / CC BY-SA

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