Wednesday, March 6, 2013

39. Tragedy

“I fear there is some dark ending to our quest”
“The Adventure of the Missing Three-Quarter”

One might surmise that one of the larger, if perhaps more diffuse, influences on both Conan Doyle’s writing and, specifically, the Holmes canon would be the works of William Shakespeare. While Holmes’s use of direct quotes from the Bard are to be found in “The Adventure of the Abbey Grange” and “His Last Bow,” a thoroughgoing examination of the relationship between Conan Doyle and Shakespeare would encompass a much more in depth and wide-ranging study, involving plot, pacing, dialogue and character.

An entertaining examination of the relationship between the two authors can be found in Shakespeare scholar and noted Sherlockian Robert F. Fleissner’s 2003 book Shakespearean and Other Literary Investigations with the Master Sleuth (and Conan Doyle): Homing in on Holmes. Other scholars have pointed to a Shakespearean influence in Conan Doyle’s works outside of the Holmes canon. In the 1900’s, Conan Doyle had taken several lecturing engagements throughout England, on a variety of literary, historical, and social topics. As noted in a letter to his mother dated 1910, later collected in Lellenberg, Stashower, and Foley’s 2007 Arthur Conan Doyle: A Life in Letters, one of his topics was Shakespeare. That the author would feel comfort in discussing Shakespeare’s works shows, at a minimum, a marked familiarity and critical engagement with the Bard's corpus. There can be no doubt, then, that Conan Doyle's researches would eventually find their way into his fictional output, and the Holmes stories of this period were no exception.

“The Adventure of the Missing Three-Quarter” is just such an example. A missing persons mystery structured in a way in which the reader is introduced to the aspects of the case gradually, along with Holmes and Watson, the layers of intrigue and their respective reveals begin to take on portentousness not dissimilar to those of Shakespeare’s more popular tragedies, such as Romeo and Juliet (1597) and Antony and Cleopatra (1623). As exemplified by the quote above, Holmes himself comments on the tragic circumstances of the case, a Friar Laurence adrift among his star-crossed quarry. To say more would risk revealing the mystery at the heart of the “Missing Three-Quarter,” but suffice it to say that Conan Doyle’s sense of the tragic finds, in its climax, a distinctively Shakespearean tone.

Also of note during this period is Conan Doyle’s poem “Shakespeare’s Expostulation,” collected in 1911 in Songs of the Road addressing the controversial debate over attribution of authorship of the plays. In the voice of the Bard from beyond the grave, after addressing each of the contenders for authorship by name, Conan Doyle concludes his poem, declaiming:

      I pray you look
     On my presentment, as it reaches you.
     My features shall be sponsors for my fame;
     My brow shall speak when Shakespeare's
          voice is dumb,
                       And be his warrant in an age to come.

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