A substantial publishing industry is founded on the name and works of William Shakespeare and each year more pours from the press: new editions of the plays; re-examinations of the legal documents that survive mentioning his name; explanations about Elizabethan stagecraft and theatres; on and on it goes. Despite all this many people still have false ideas about the man and the works.
The evidence about Shakespeare is scarce (or abundant)
It is sometimes stated that we know very little about Shakespeare’s life, but you also come upon the opinion that we know more about the man than we do about our contemporary writers.
As it happens, both statements are true. No personal writings of Shakespeare exist, no letters or diaries, and the traditions about his life are mostly of dubious authenticity. Yet scholars have poured over surviving documents for generations and discovered quite a few referring to Shakespeare. These are mostly legal documents though. That Shakespeare was involved in legal disputes, signed a lease, bought a property and made a will tells us nothing personal about him. We know quite a bit about Shakespeare: but it’s not the stuff we really want to know.
Shakespeare was uneducated
There are still scholars (and others) who espouse Looney’s Oxford theory of Shakespeare’s works. John Thomas Looney published Shakespeare Identified in 1920, in which he posited that the author of Shakespeare’s works was really the Earl of Oxford, a highly educated and cosmopolitan peer who would more likely have had the opportunity to acquire the knowledge displayed in the plays than a humble glover’s son from Stratford. This was a popular theory, adopted by Sigmund Freud and many others, and it has stimulated some writers to put forward different, rival, candidates. Nobody has as yet suggested that Bacon’s Essays were really written by Shakespeare, but it could happen any day.
Although it doesn’t really need rebuttal, this theory assumes that aristocrats had a better education in Shakespeare’s day, and travelled more and further, than commoners. In fact, public education, although it did not embrace the sciences, was probably of a higher standard then in England than it has been since. And a feature of the society was the rise of an upwardly mobile middle class busily engaged in overseas trading (and privateering). For instance Marlowe both translated Ovid and travelled over Europe working as a Government informer. Although Stratford was no London, Shakespeare’s father was for a time one of the most important people in the town, and he and his family would have had plenty of opportunity to mix with court officials.
In Shakespeare’s time most middle and upper class males were given a basic education, which then was based on the medieval system. Students became fluent in Latin and Greek. They knew their classics in a much more thorough way that Classics students today at university. To understand Ben Jonson’s remark concerning Shakespeare’s “little Latin and less Greek” printed in the First Folio edition of Shakespeare’s plays we have to realise that the remark was more a boastful reference to Jonson’s own learning (compared to Shakespeare he was very fluent in both languages). All men who had been to school in Jonson’s time were fluent in Latin and Greek, but Jonson was a learned, self taught scholar and very proud, even arrogant, about it. Jonson was an assertive, pugnacious, generous and affectionate man: it must be remembered too that the jeer was made in a eulogy to Shakespeare’s memory by someone who was very fond of him.
Scholars have discovered references to more than 100 books in Shakespeare’s plays and poetry which would have been available for him to read in published form or manuscript. It comes as no surprise, but it looks as though Shakespeare had a powerful and inquisitive mind which he kept active throughout his life.
The debate brings up the question of the role of oral or spoken culture. This is an essential part of all our lives. Historians are forced to make their judgments without it, often relying exclusively on written documents. Rumours, allusions, scandals, gossip, prejudice, misunderstandings, myths and stories, moods and many other factors are left out of account, because their agents, by the time the historian comes along, are all dead.
Hypothesis: Shakespeare writes a play. A scholar finds an unpublished MS in the Library of the University of Lisbon, written in Portuguese at the start of the 16th century, which mirrors the plot of the play. The scholar speculates that perhaps Shakespeare understood Portuguese and travelled to that country, perhaps in one of the periods when we have no knowledge of his activities. Several such discoveries, and Shakespeare becomes formidably learned and travelled. That then gives ground for a Looney to find a solution by proposing a more likely alternative author, someone known to be formidably learned and travelled, such as the Earl of Oxford. This can happen only because scholars are comparing written text against written text.
Another hypotheses: suppose the MS in question is lent to an acquaintance of the author (common practice) who copies and translates it (say) into French. Suppose a friend of the translator reads the French version and recounts the story to someone in England. That someone (say) drops a reference to the story in the hearing of a writer of broadsheets who publishes the story as fact. One of Shakespeare’s players, also working as a writer for the company, reads the broadsheet and drafts a version for the stage which is eventually handed over to Shakespeare for revision.
Exeunt the impossibly learned Shakespeare, a scholar among scholars, and enter the canny and fluent playwright, able to take from sources at hand and produce good playable drama. We all, including Shakespeare, have a network, sometimes a very wide and complex one. But many of its components don’t survive. However, ignoring their existence falsifies the record.
Shakespeare didn’t write his plays
Why do we worry about the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays? The question never comes up with most other writers: Chaucer’s authorship of the Canterbury Tales isn’t challenged and Edgar Wallace has undisputed claim to over 100 thrillers. It is known that Elizabethan drama was a business which involved rewrites, revisions, collaborations, interpolations, rival versions and chance survival (versions sourced from actors’ memories, pirated versions etc). But theatre (and film) is collaborative media: anyone today who writes a play or screenplay sees something quite different emerge when the work is finally produced; and so it was in Shakespeare’s day. If he wrote “Perhaps to live – or die: that is the question”, and Burbage found that unconvincing and substituted “To be – or not to be…” on the first night, then that is normal for play production, and doesn’t diminish Shakespeare in the slightest.
It is usually difficult to determine who was the author of an Elizabethan play (for a start about 90% of the drama hasn’t survived) – except in the case of Shakespeare and Johnson, whose works were published in a collected edition, then somewhat unusual. The plays weren’t ‘composed’ in the sense we think of (which really stems from the time of the Romantic movement in English literature). In Shakespeare’s time Bacon composed his works, Oxford his, and Shakespeare his Venus and Adonis and Rape of Lucrece. But the plays were made differently. Shakespeare took a story from one source, copied an entire play, added material from other sources, dropped in some topical references, perhaps adopted suggestions made by Burbage or some of the star actors. Then the work was adapted in rehearsal and performance, bits left out, or added. All plays were censored by the Government who often demanded deletion of controversial material. The script was often a truncated one, stock in trade jealously guarded which might in some cases consist more of prompts and stage directions than poetry. Published versions were often taken from what actors could remember, accurate for their lines, not so much for other parts. The fact that the result of all this was often great literature has seemed something that needed explanation.
Shakespeare seems to have been highly esteemed by many people. Aside from his patronage from the Earl of Southampton, many contemporaries knew him and paid tribute in their writings to his personal and professional attainments. He was one of the most admired writers of his day. And his colleagues thought enough of him to painstakingly collect, collate and edit his plays, and publish them in a collected edition, something not done at that time with plays. This would also have involved a financial sacrifice on the part of his company, as once published the plays could be copied by other companies. It seems that Shakespeare’s death was considered the end of an era by many of those who knew him. Authors who want to ascribe the plays to Oxford or Bacon have to ignore all this.
Shakespeare was unhappily married
Shakespeare married Ann Hathaway or Ann Whateley (such was the spelling of the time that both names could quite easily be versions of the same name). She was older than Shakespeare, and he left her in Stratford and lived much of the time in London. His will leaves her his second best bed. This has been used to draw a picture of the couple’s relationship that variously include: the seduction of an inexperienced teenager by a designing, perhaps pregnant, woman; a facade of the homosexual Shakespeare to disguise his gayness; using a vulnerable woman and her property to finance a move from Stratford; doing a favour for a nobleman and accepting a pregnant ex-mistress as his wife and being repaid with much needed patronage in London. All these have one thing in common: we have no evidence for any such conclusions. We can’t take them too seriously. Whole books have been written on the identity of the dark lady mentioned in the sonnets for instance, who may well be merely a literary convention. And the second best bed belonged to the couple. It was the one Ann and William slept in. The best bed was reserved for visitors. Quite a bit of time in Shakespeare’s life is unaccounted for, and for all we know he could have spent it in Stratford surrounded by his family. Whether he was happy or unhappy in his marriage we don’t know but his treatment of his wife was normal for the period.
Shakespeare is the greatest English dramatist
Well, he is, but he wasn’t always. We have to be careful of that word ‘great’, it’s like embalming fluid. In his lifetime Shakespeare was a good playwright, someone you could depend on to write lines that were good to play and that went down well with the crowd. Something like an Elizabethan Andrew Lloyd Webber. He managed to be popular with patrons, fellow shareholders and actors, and audiences, and stayed popular with them for quite a long time. But, like every other writer, his work is uneven. Look, and you can find passages that are forced, mechanical, boring or just meaningless. Admittedly this is not always Shakespeare’s fault. The text of some plays is corrupt. We don’t understand slang and references to contemporary events which are scattered throughout all the plays and reading footnotes as we go destroys the impact of the play. Elizabethan and Jacobean humour is very different to ours. Topical references were sometimes made in a kind of code which was probably made clear by the way the lines were delivered.
Shakespeare’s text isn’t sacred, and in some cases I think he needs to be translated, just as Chaucer is. Not many people want to admit it, but theatre is an ephemeral art. The Shakespeare whom his contemporaries loved is gone for ever. Baz Luhrmann’s MTV Romeo is fading at the edges. The only relevant Shakespeare is the contemporary one, and Shakespeare is a good dramatist (as distinct from a good writer) because his plays have been capable of re-invention for such a long period.
Books about Shakespeare abound but there are surprisingly few good ones: I mean ones that shed light on his life and times in an engaging way. One of my favourites is Peter Quennel’s Shakespeare (1963). Encyclopedic, intuitive, suggestive, memorable, it deals with life, work, times and critics in a masterly way. Quennel also points out the extraordinary shortness of the golden age of Elizabethan drama. It lasted from 1592 till 1642, 50 years. An absorbing exposition of contemporary evidence is contained in Charles Nicholl’s The Lodger: Shakespeare on Silver Street (2007). Towards the end of his life Shakespeare was called as a witness in a breach of promise suit, and Nicholl’s book extracts an extraordinary amount of information from his deposition to the court.
The case of Christopher Marlowe is also touched on in Quennell’s book. We’ll probably never know why he was framed by the government’s secret service then murdered by their agents. The murder was a shocking act, as he was one of the most famous and popular playwrights of that time even though his career had lasted only six years. Coincidentally Charles Nicholl has also written a study of Marlowe’s murder, which for all its erudition reads like a detective story. The Reckoning (1992/2002) casts aside the veil to reveal the secret theatre of Elizabethan espionage and the fragility and insecurity of Elizabeth’s reign. A comparison of these two men, Marlowe and Shakespeare, reveals more about them both than any surviving evidence does.
©2009 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.