Six questions about Shakespeare

I’m reading a book by Kate Emery Pogue called Shakespeare’s Friends (Praeger, Westport CT, USA 2006), which gives brief lives of some 40 people who knew William Shakespeare well. The book is apparently one of a kind, Pogue says, as although the subject has been researched, these lives have not been gathered in one place before.

A review

The first thing that impressed me about Pogue’s book is how well written it is. I’ve read several books recently where the expertise of the author has been expressed in prose which eventually compels disinterest. Pogue is clear, doesn’t try to be clever, and offers a concise social, and it turns out, legal history of Shakespeare’s times as it affected his contemporaries and associates.

Pogue’s book is in two parts: friends in Stratford; and friends in London (including collaborators and patrons). Pogue singles out some of Shakespeare’s school friends at the Edward VI grammar school: Richard Quiney, Hamnet Sadler, Richard Tyler and Richard Field.

The Quiney family knew the Shakespeares over four generations; Adrian Quiney, Richard’s father, had served with John Shakespeare on the town Council. Richard, Quiney’s son, spent many years working on the Council, and paid for many years an annual visit to London, where he would probably have met with William. His son Thomas married Shakespeare’s daughter Judith, though apparently William did not approve of the match. Young Thomas was too like himself at age 18. Hamnet Sadler and his wife Judith lived two blocks away from the Shakespeares in Henley Street. Shakespeare must have been a close friend. He named his twins after these two, and they probably acted as godparents.

Richard Field lived only a block away from the Shakespeares. He was sent by his father to London as an apprentice printer, and when his master died married his employer’s wife and acquired a prosperous printery.  Here he printed fine and accurate texts of William’s two long narrative poems, a sign that William worked with the printer to ensure the texts were error free. Much later, in 1602, he was a neighbour of the Mountjoys in Silver Street, where Shakespeare lodged for a time, and could have introduced them to William. Richard Field would have been an important figure for Shakespeare when he came to London, his only familiar friend in the big, alarming city. Scholars have found that many of the books Field printed can be shown to have been read by Shakespeare, so we can imagine Shakespeare continuing his interrupted studies by borrowing many books from his friend’s shop.

The section on Stratford friends ends with brief biographies of Shakespeare’s doctor and son in law John Hall, and lawyer, Francis Collins.

Pogue is less successful establishing connections with aristocratic patrons of Shakespeare. Being a writer’s patron did not necessarily mean meeting that writer socially, though it could. Much of the connection Pogue explores between Shakespeare , the Earl of Southampton and Emilia Lanier for example is based on procedures such as taking a line from the sonnets referring to someone with black eyes (pupils), noting that Lanier would have had black eyes, and supposing the reference is to her. I’m sure there would have been others who would have qualified. And this from a volume of poems which we don’t even know for sure was entirely written by Shakespeare. Other unauthorised volumes had his name on the title page but included verse by others, so why not the sonnets?

Contemporary poets are covered better by Pogue. There is a lot to say about the relationship of Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe, the greatest poet of the Elizabethan age as Shakespeare was of the Jacobean age. Marlowe was most likely the reason Shakespeare wrote plays. He admired his work immensely, quoted him frequently, and his early plays follow Marlowe’s construction closely. He began his career as a dramatist as Marlowe’s helper, then apprentice. Other than this we can say nothing of what the two thought of each other. I think myself the contact must have been immensely important to both men. A genius is often alone: but to meet someone who can understand your achievement, match your creativity with their own, must be exhilarating.

This comment is also true of Shakespeare’s relationship with Ben Jonson, the companion of his middle and later years. Jonson had a personality in many ways incompatible with Shakespeare’s, who would have coped better with Marlowe’s skepticism and grandiloquence than with Jonson’s dogmatism and contentiousness. He would have listened to Jonson’s opinionated talk with some hidden boredom, been mildly irked by his condescension, and found his plays heavily written. Yet Jonson loved him, in his quarrelsome, patronising way. The two men would have recognised each other’s achievement, perhaps the only ones who could.

Pogue’s book ends with a survey of Shakespeare’s collaborators and fellow actors, and of the wives he would have also known quite well. She notes how exceptional was the stability of the acting company Shakespeare belonged to, suggesting the compatibility of its members. Valuable indexes on what the plays have to say about friendship, on contemporary dramatists, and of references and sources conclude the book. I found it fascinating to read, and something to keep and refer to in the future.

And six questions

The book made me consider again some of the fascinating mysteries that surround Shakespeare, given we know so little about his personal life.

1. Portraits

There are well over 40 portraits of William Shakespeare, most of them painted from the artists’ imagination, some attempts at forgery, others wishful thinking on the part of scholars, but only three with any claim to approximate accuracy. What did he look like?

The Droeshout engraving, a frontispiece to the First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays of 1623, placed there by Hemminge and Condell who had gathered and edited the plays. These two men had worked with Shakespeare in his acting company for almost 25 years, and knew what he looked like. It’s not a Holbein portrait, not even very competent, but it satisfied them. It was seen also by Ben Jonson, a onetime drinking mate, who contributed a conventional laudatory verse on the portrait to the volume: he too must have thought it good enough. These men were not expecting photographic accuracy. They might have been satisfied even with a generic portrait.

The monumental sculpture on Shakespeare’s grave, made about 1620. This was seen by Shakespeare’s surviving family. They too were not expecting a realistic portrait, but it presumably was not too radical a departure from what they were used to seeing of his appearance. The sculpture is not detailed, as it was designed to be painted, and seen from a distance below. There have been several repaintings and restorations of the sculpture, each repainting altering the appearance of the portrait. Only the most general idea can be had from it of what Shakespeare looked like, but it is not incompatible with the appearance of the Droeshout engraving.

The Chandos portrait is said to have been painted by Richard Burbage, one of Shakespeare’s closest friends and colleagues in the King’s Men acting company. That seems unlikely according to scholars, but another account gives the artist as John Taylor, a colleague in the St Paul’s company, and the Burbage ascription may have come about because it was known to be painted by an artist and actor (both men painted). It has been dated to 1610. It shows a man who looks a lot like the Droeshout portrait, wearing a plain doublet and collar similar to that Ben Jonson was wearing when his portrait was painted, to be published in his Collected Works of 1617. The face is observant, sensitive and charming. Perhaps it was commissioned for a projected edition of plays to mark Shakespeare’s retirement from the theatre, which never came to fruition. The Chandos portrait subject also wears a single gold earring, a fashion popular at the time with courtiers (not apparently with middle class business men or players). Perhaps, if this is Shakespeare, he kept an earring he had worn when aspiring to be a court poet early in his career.

The Cobbe portrait has recently been claimed as an authentic portrait of Shakespeare. It shows a richly dressed courtier of a completely different appearance to the Droeshout engraving, with smaller eyes and a long narrow chin quite different to the rounded appearance of Shakespeare’s face in the other portraits. It bears the date 1610: Shakespeare would have been 46 years old at this time, a retired actor and investor living in Stratford, six years before his death and with no need to adopt a rich costume for court appearance. The subject of the Cobbe portrait is younger, and looks about 30. Had the picture been painted 20 years earlier, in 1590, when Shakespeare was 26, and had Shakespeare been set on a political career at court instead of a literary one, this might have more plausibility as a portrait of him. Unlike the other portraits, which show a bald Shakespeare, the Cobbe subject has a full head of hair. The richly embroidered collar he is wearing would be worth about £7,000 ($11,000) today, according to one estimate, and only an Elizabethan aristocrat would have been able to afford it. The real reason for ascribing the Cobbe portrait as that of Shakespeare I believe is that the provenance of the painting can be traced tenuously to a family connected with that of the Earl of Southampton, Shakespeare’s patron. I think some romantic scholars would secretly like to add substance to the projected love affair between the Shakespeare of the sonnets and Henry Wriothesley Earl of Southampton by imagining the Earl having a portrait painted of his love. Quite a lot of people are interested in finding Shakespeare a homosexual. Lack of evidence is never a barrier to speculation.

Germaine Greer in a letter to the Guardian adds a dash of common sense to the portrait debate by mentioning that portraits of playwrights were not common, that there is no reason for a portrait of Shakespeare being commissioned until his First Folio was published, and that the rich costumes of the Cobbe portrait said to be of Shakespeare, and the one said to be of Christopher Marlowe, show them to be aristocrats of that time, who did commission portraits, and not that of playwrights (or, in Marlowe’s case, spies) who didn’t.

Despite this,, 40 unascribed, anonymous portraits of the 17th century have been identified as of Shakespeare. He is, after all, famous. He wasn’t then, of course, but we don’t stop to consider that. We would like to know what William Shakespeare looked like. It has no relevance to his published works, to his relationships or to his character, but despite the evidence from our own lives, we still think a portrait would tell us something. And then what would we do?

2. His family

William Shakespeare knew 24 near relatives, many of whom pre deceased him. There seems to be some evidence that the Shakespeares were a close knit family that stayed in touch. Yet Shakespeare has a reputation as a loner, because he lived so much in London, away from his family. To what extent was he a family man?

William’s grandfather Richard died three years before his birth, but his grandmother, Richard’s wife Abigail, when he was 31. His uncle Henry, their son, died when he was 32. This was the Snitterfield branch of the family. His father John died when he was 37, his mother Mary Arden when he was 44. His brother Gilbert when he was 48, his younger sister Anne when he was 15, his brother Richard when he was 49, and his brother Edmund when he was 43. All these were Stratford folk, though brothers Gilbert and Edmund worked in London, Edmund dying there. His sister Joan outlived him by 30 years, her husband William Hart died the same year he did, one of their children, Mary, when he was 43, the other three children outlived him. His daughter Susannah and her husband Dr John Hall, his executors, outlived him, as did their two children, and his daughter Judith, her husband Thomas Quiney and their three children. His son Hamnet died aged 11 when he was 32. His wife Anne Hathaway survived him by seven years.

Snitterfield is 5 km away from Stratford. London is 160 km away. Today it takes about 2 hours to drive the distance. In Shakespeare’s time, travelling by horse, it took between two and three days, staying overnight at an inn. Although a house in London would be necessary, it is quite plausible that Shakespeare travelled frequently between Stratford and London and spent long periods with his wife and family. There were periods when the theatres were closed or he was not involved in play production. The idea is often given that Shakespeare moved to London early in his career, stayed there until retiring at the end of his life then going back to Stratford. This is an unlikely scenario, given the seasonal nature of his employment and the many friends and family members he had in Stratford.

We know Shakespeare cared for his wife and daughters and their families and his sister Joan and her family because he provided for them in his will. We can guess of his grief about Hamnet’s death from passages in his plays. We know he mourned his brother Edmund’s death. There are anecdotes that report a close relationship between William and his brother Gilbert. Although we don’t know his relationship with his parents, he did obtain the family coat of arms for his father, which would have meant a great deal to John. Probably, in the crowded, sometimes lonely life in London, Shakespeare would have come to value his family even more than had he stayed at home. It’s often your family network you rely on but seldom acknowledge. Could this have been true of Shakespeare?

3. The plague

How did Shakespeare survive his dangerous times, when thousands didn’t? Throughout William Shakespeare’s entire life the bubonic plague made periodic ravages, killing thousands.

There were outbreaks in 1563, the year before his birth (80,000 dead); 1578-9, when he left school at age 14 to find full time work; 1582, the year he married Anne Hathaway at age 18; 1592-3, while he was writing his long narrative poems for the court, aged 28 (11,000 dead in London alone); 1603, aged 39 when he and his company were first patronised by the new king James I (33,000 dead in London alone);  and 1608, when he was 44 and about to retire to Stratford. Other diseases raged unchecked: syphilis or the pox; malaria or the ague; and typhus, called the fever.

Survivors of the two world wars of the 20th century would have known what this was like, as casualties were inflated after the conflicts through the effects of pandemics. Perhaps if we were more scared about nuclear contamination or pollution of the ecosphere we would have an idea today. Elizabethans didn’t know the diseases were spread by fleas, unprotected sex, mosquitoes or body lice and could be controlled by regular bathing and effective sanitation. They didn’t bathe, and threw their sewage into the streets, and lived in fear. Many saw the epidemics as acts of god, punishment for their sinful ways.

The effects of plague were horrible, disgusting, painful, and death was rapid. Anybody who had seen a plague victim would never forget it. Shakespeare’s mother, a brother and two sisters all died in plague years, and most likely of the plague. He may have been present at at least the death of a brother and a sister. He may himself have caught the plague in a mild form and developed antibodies.

One cannot say of course what effect this might have had on Shakespeare. I think myself it would have made him, as he was prone, careful, but also fatalistic (god’s will must be done), and opportunistic (take what today offers, we might not be here tomorrow). For Shakespeare, death was always just around the corner. This awareness may explain some of his movements, as he could have been travelling away from outbreaks of disease. As well, Shakespeare knew people who had been murdered, died from the effects of torture, and who had been executed (Marlowe, Kyd and Essex at least). This would have made him circumspect. We are all affected by our environment, and this was part of Shakespeare’s. Why wouldn’t he have been affected?

4. Catholicism

Was Shakespeare a Catholic, an outlawed faith declared traitorous by the Protestant Queen Elizabeth? There are signs that many people were during Shakespeare’s life, including his father John. But they were in no active sense traitors.

In 1531, when John Shakespeare, William’s father, was born, England was part of the Catholic Church, a European wide organisation which believed itself a supra national power, supreme over all temporal authority, which had existed for longer than the state of England had existed. But three years later King Henry VIII asked the Pope, head of the Catholic Church, for a divorce from his first wife Catherine of Aragon and was refused. He responded by passing the Act of Supremacy through Parliament, which maintained that he was the supreme head of the church. Now such questions were to be referred to him: of course he then granted himself a divorce. Henry’s request was not unusual for a monarch with a succession problem to solve. The Church’s refusal may have been a gambit to secure some desired gain from England. Henry’s response was unexpected, from someone who had been granted the title of Defender of the Faith.

The dispute and its resolution probably seemed of little relevance to the people of England. Their form of worship, and the doctrines that supported it, had been established for centuries, and they went on worshipping in the traditional way, not paying much heed to the rhetoric of kings and popes.

During the reign of Henry’s son Edward VI, 1547-1553, when John Shakespeare was aged 16-22, a new factor entered the equation, one that did involve the people of England. This was the introduction of Protestantism, a reform movement from Europe that was highly critical of Catholic Church doctrines and ceremonies. Architect of the changes was Thomas Cranmer Archbishop of Canterbury. Edward himself, who was aged 9 to 15 during his reign, was under Cranmer’s influence.

During the regency of Edward’s uncle the Duke of Somerset the barons fought among themselves for power and influence, there was agrarian unrest, and the people were compelled to renounce the Catholic Mass and attend instead at services held in English. This reform was upheld at Edward’s death, and the succession passed to the Protestant Queen Jane, who reigned for only nine days before being deposed by a Catholic faction, who crowned Henry VIII’s daughter Mary Queen. John Shakespeare was 22 at this time. It seems likely he objected to the Protestant reforms, a change from above which did not agree with most English people except small groups of sectarians.

Although both Jane and Mary were made Queen through the machinations of groups of nobles plotting for power, there was wide spread popularity for Mary. She proclaimed a return to the traditional Catholic practices of her father’s day, and this seemed to be a popular choice. What the unrest did highlight though was a gradual weakening in the position of the monarchy, from the absolute power held by Henry VIII, to power shared with dominant groups of nobles in the reigns of Edward, Jane, Mary and even Elizabeth. Both Mary and Elizabeth had to fight hard to maintain their position against the strength and influence of their aristocratic supporters. Both proved willing to use repressive measures to do so. For both Queens, the issue of religion represented an area of instability in their hold on power, and both made religious loyalty, to Catholicism or Protestantism, a matter of patriotism, and dissent a matter of treason.

Queen Mary reigned from 1553 to 1558. John Shakespeare was 22 to 27. Restitution of Catholicism was important to Mary personally, for it asserted the legality of Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon, and her own legitimate birth (she had been officially, like Elizabeth, declared a bastard as Henry changed wives). However she lost support when she married Philip of Spain. This act made Philip King of England, and aroused fears that England would become merely a province of the Hapsburg Empire. Patriots united with Protestants in opposing the match, and religion and politics became even more confusedly mingled.

From 1555 to 1558 Mary instigated a persecution of Protestants  that saw almost 300 eminent church leaders burnt at the stake. The persecution was extremely unpopular, and lost Mary much of her support among the people. Most people wished to follow their traditional religious customs, not engage in bitter theological disputes and see their opponents murdered.

When Mary died she was succeeded by her half sister Elizabeth, who reigned 1558-1603, 45 years. Elizabeth was a committed Protestant, who sought to rally the country behind her, but continued Mary’s policy of religious persecution, in her case against Catholics, though not in the extreme form Mary had followed. She fined religious dissenters. Elizabeth utilised Mary’s unpopular marriage by categorising Spain as the national enemy. She was the Head of the Church of England as well as Queen of England, and all English people had to acknowledge the national church, or be punished as a traitor. In 1570 the Pope had declared her not Queen, and authorised Catholics in England to depose and punish her, but the threat proved an empty one. Despite her popularity, Elizabeth’s reign was insecure, an adroit balancing act calling for constant diplomacy, astute self promotion, and intrigue, repression and at times cruelty.

When John Shakespeare died in 1601 he was nominally a Protestant as legally required. He was probably secretly a Catholic, as a leaflet pledging support for Catholicism was found in his house at Henley Street Stratford. However he was not a traitor, merely one who harked back to the ‘good old days’ as many did, days in which he was also successful and prosperous. All that could have happened was that he accepted a leaflet from a Catholic propagandist. He was undoubtedly sympathetic, but no more than that. There is no surviving indication of William’s religious beliefs. Perhaps he had none. The impression I get is that he was non committal about most things. That was why he was liked so much by so many people. He agreed with everyone, forced his views on no one. But he did live in a world where expressing the wrong religious beliefs could get you killed. Was discretion the better part of valour?

5. His investments

.Shakespeare was a great poet and dramatist, but he was also a shrewd businessman. Does that make him less inspired as a poet?

John Shakespeare, William’s father, seems to have been an ambitious and aggressive businessman. He enlarged the land holdings inherited from his father Richard, began life as a glover, made an advantageous marriage with the daughter of local gentry, and became heavily involved on the Stratford Council, where he made many useful business contacts. At some stage he used accumulated cash to engage in the forbidden practice of usury, and also became a middleman in the wool trade, buying and selling in a way which raised the cost of wool to an exorbitant level but which reaped huge rewards to speculators such as he. Throughout, he kept a large circle of friends and supporters, and was probably a persuasive and charming friend and acquaintance. When the government finally cracked down on his illegal activities (engaged in surreptitiously by many others as well) John was caught unprepared, and despite the long term support of his friends on the town Council, was eventually left without any source of income, any way to pay his debts, and no future but to start from the bottom and try to work his way up again.

William was John’s eldest son. He would have listened in his formative years to John talking of his schemes, and when he was older, been made a confidant of John’s troubles and reversals. The result of this influence seems to have made William what we might call ‘careful’ with his money. Throughout his life he was consistently pursued for payment of back taxes, and involved in suits regarding small debts.

Some time in 1576 John failed financially, and the affluent life the Shakespeares had attained ceased to be. (Coincidentally, it was the same year that James Burbage built The Theatre in London, and founded the great age of Elizabethan theatre which was to run through the next reign of James I until theatres were closed by the Puritans in 1642). William, who may have been helping in the family glove business, was eventually forced to leave school in 1578, aged 14, to help support the family. He probably worked full time as a glover. Scholars have inferred from references in the plays that Shakespeare read widely, and retained much of what he read in his memory all his life. As a grammar school student he would have learned by rote a great deal of Latin literature, and this too he seems to have retained. It’s probable that Shakespeare enjoyed school, and was not happy at having to leave to earn a living for himself and the family. Perhaps that was why he behaved badly by making a local girl pregnant, marrying at 18, and adding two more mouths to feed at the Shakespeare table.

Shakespeare was not willing to settle down to 12 hours of hard manual labour every day to put bread on the table. He had served himself too many responsibilities. He seems to have been spoiled by his family’s early affluence, and the learning he had absorbed. His imagination had run wild at hearing the plays of the sensational, glamorous new star of the theatre, Christopher Marlowe, the most popular playwright of the late 80s, performed by the travelling groups of actors that frequently visited Stratford. Shakespeare may have run away, on the excuse of looking for work further afield, as a clerk or schoolmaster where he could use his learning. Or, just possibly, he may have persuaded his father to stake him, for a season, in an attempt to carve a career as a writer in London. I can imaging John being willing to give what cash he had to his son rather than pass it on to the creditors, for whom it would not be enough.

So round about 1588, the year of the Armada and of great national pride, Shakespeare made his bid as a writer in the big city. In London he found more heroes to emulate. In 1589 Spenser’s Fairie Queen began to circulate and be talked about, and the next year Sydney’s Astrophil and Stella. The trinity of Marlowe, Sydney and Spenser were widely admired. Shakespeare found work as a patcher of plays, collaborating with others in the mass production of plays for an audience with a voracious appetite for the new entertainment. Patriotic drama was sure of an audience after the defeat of the Spanish threat, and Shakespeare obliged by helping on some hugely popular history plays, perhaps even working alongside Marlowe. Payment was minimal, but it kept him alive while he worked on his masterpiece, which he called Venus and Adonis. His Stratford friend the printer Richard Field had recently published a book by Robert Greene, whose patron was a young nobleman called Henry Wriothesley, soon to become Earl of Southampton. Perhaps the Earl would agree to patronise Shakespeare’s effort. It was a long shot, but Shakespeare had written shrewdly. His poem was just the sort of erotic yet learned piece to appeal to a young nobleman out to make a reputation, yet not adverse to shocking staid members of the older generation.

Southampton accepted the role of patron. Shakespeare’s poem was a critical and popular success, a best seller, and inspired a just as successful sequel, The Rape of Lucrece. Shakespeare moved into the Earl’s circle, meeting other artists he supported, such as the Italian John Florio. A dangerous intimacy developed with the Earl, and a private sonnet sequence reveals how glamoured then disillusioned Shakespeare was with the daring, hard hearted and sterile court life. William had moved into circles undreamed of by his ambitious father. He was not making any money, certainly not enough to restore the family fortunes, but he had prospects.

It was not to last. A sign of the times was the murder of Marlowe in 1593. Marlowe was also a double agent in the government’s espionage operation against Catholic Spain, and he became an embarrassment to the Elizabethan Secret Service, to be put out of the way and silenced. Marlowe was one of Shakespeare’s idols, and this must have been shocking news for him to hear. All through the 90s the great Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, had pursued his arrogant way with Queen Elizabeth. Essex, once the favourite, had continually defied the Queen, and was to attempt a rebellion in 1601 which cost him his life. Southampton was a passionate adherent of Essex, and Shakespeare, as Southampton’s client, risked involvement in treasonous activities. He was cautious by temperament, and saw the writing on the wall long before Southampton, who almost lost his life in the harsh repression after Essex’s rebellion.

As it happened, Shakespeare had a place to go. His previous work in the theatre had bought him to the attention of the Burbage family, James, and his sons Richard and Cuthbert. Probably the plays Shakespeare wrote prior to the closing of the theatres in 1592 as a deterrent to the spreading of the plague were collaborative efforts, as this was the norm of play production at the time. But actors and writers alike had noticed his talent. In 1594, when the theatres opened again, Shakespeare heard that Burbage and others were contemplating forming a new company, on a shareholder basis. He proved himself then truly the son of his father. It was another long shot, but somehow Shakespeare raised £50, perhaps a payment from Southampton he had hoarded, and proposed himself as a sharer in the new company. It was a momentous decision, and the soundest investment he ever made. He was determined to make a go of it. If he failed, the alternative was a dull, poverty stricken, laborious life in Stratford.

Did Shakespeare foresee the rising popularity of the drama when he joined what were to become the Lord Chamberlain’s Men in 1594? Actors had been regarded earlier as little better than rogues and vagabonds, and their performances little more than opportunities for thieves and prostitutes to ply their trades. Fines and fulminations were their lot, and consequently they sought the protection of noblemen, who arranged entertainments for the court. And the court liked watching plays. All of a sudden they couldn’t get enough of this form of entertainment, and the people followed the trend. It was a blood and thunder pastime, and the so called tragedy of revenge was all the rage. Tragedies, where all the protagonists were murdered, were popular, and comedies, where there was much bawdy wit about sex, were equally so. This was no high art as practised by Aeschylus or Terence. It was as low brow as you could get.

Shakespeare was one of eight sharers who resolved to take advantage of the boom. Quite suddenly they found themselves in a successful position. Their patron became Lord Chamberlain. The Queen became a big fan of their work. Much of the opposition died, first Marlow, then Kyd, then Peele, leaving the field of play writing to be dominated by the growing talents of Shakespeare. Richard Burbage developed into one of the greatest actors of his age. And the company as a whole contained the period’s most accomplished actors, including the legendary comedian Will Kempe. The company had hit after hit, and court engagement after lucrative court engagement. The shareholders (not the playwright) were all making fortunes.

On 11 August 1596 Shakespeare’s attention was drawn back tragically to Stratford. His son Hamnet died, perhaps of the plague, aged eleven. On the 4 May 1597 Shakespeare made his first investment in Stratford property, buying New Place, a large house with 10 fireplaces (and more rooms than that), garden and two orchards. He paid £60, though that may have been only a part payment.

In 1598 the company shareholders became co-owners of a theatre they called the Globe. The Burbage brothers owned half the shares, and Shakespeare, Hemminges, Augustine Phillips and Thomas Pope the remainder. Not only were they in a lucrative business, but there were no middlemen to detour the profits. And now they shared the house receipts as well.

The extent of the profits can be seen by Shakespeare’s next investment, the purchase of 127 acres of land at Stratford, for which he paid £320 on 1 May 1602. Later that year he bought another property at Stratford. On 24 July 1605 he purchased the lease on tithes of four parishes including Stratford. It cost him £440, and was a valuable investment with a high yield. In 1608 the company purchased a 21 year lease on what was to become the Blackfriars Theatre, an enclosed theatre.

In 1609 came the unauthorised publication of Shakespeare’s sonnets. The following year Shakespeare left London, retiring to Stratford to enjoy his accumulated property, yet still active in the theatre as a shareholder and as a collaborator in the writing of plays. In 1613 Shakespeare paid £140 to purchase the Blackfriars Gatehouse. On 23 April 1616 Shakespeare died in Stratford of unknown causes, having enjoyed his retirement for only five years. The bulk of his wealth he left to his firstborn, almost illegitimate daughter Susannah.

Shakespeare seemed a true son of his father John: his priorities were capital investment, land purchase, and prosperous respectability in his home town. He hoarded his pennies, accumulated substantial savings, invested wisely. He avoided the municipal activities his father undertook. Did his youthful passion for Marlowe, Sydney and Spenser, his ambitions as a court poet, all die with the disillusionment he experienced and expressed in his sonnets? Were the exuberant lyricism of his early romance plays, the profound meditations of his mature tragedies, mere throwaway lines which he didn’t value as much as the money he made as a entrepreneur?

6. Ascription of his writings

Why are Shakespeare’s works so often attributed to another writer?

The works of Shakespeare first published consist of the following 26 titles. Only the first two were published by Shakespeare himself. The others were unauthorised printings of plays, plays released by his company for publication and titles from an unknown source, the most famous being of the Sonnets, “the onlie begetter Mr W. H.”. Many were not credited to Shakespeare, others falsely so. The most authentic copies of the plays were those of the posthumous First Folio of 1623, which included nine plays from Shakespeare’s fair papers or foul papers ie original manuscripts, and 14 texts from his company’s holdings. As Shakespeare wrote, alone or in collaboration, 38 plays, and only kept copies of nine, it has been conjectured they were not of very great value to him. Perhaps it only meant that the plays were not his property, but his company’s property.

1593 Venus and Adonis

1594 The Rape of Lucrece

1594 Titus Andronicus

1594 Henry VI Part 2

1595 Henry VI Part 3

1597 Richard III

1597 Romeo and Juliet

1597 Richard II

1598 Love’s Labour’s Lost

1598 Henry IV Part 1

1599 The Passionate Pilgrim (Shakespeare and others)

1600 A Midsummer’s Night Dream

1600 The Merchant of Venice

1600 Henry IV Part 2

1600 Much Ado About Nothing

1600 Henry V

1601 The Phoenix and the Turtle (in Robert Chester’s Love’s Martyr)

1602 Merry Wives of Windsor

1603 Hamlet

1608 King Lear

1609 The Sonnets and A Lover’s Complaint

1609 Troilus and Cressida

1609 Pericles

1622 Othello

1623 Comedies Histories and Tragedies

In assessing who wrote Shakespeare’s works we only know (because he told us) he wrote the first two titles listed. The unauthorised titles, and other works rejected by scholars, were uncredited, or utilised his name as a selling point, as he came to be the best known Jacobean poet as far as the general public was concerned. Some were largely created by an actor in a production of the play who could remember his own part and made up as best he could the other parts. Condell and Heminges, the editors of the First Folio, were reliable as to what titles Shakespeare wrote, but would not of course have known his preferred text, or the degree to which some plays were collaborative.

So the works prove elusive: Shakespeare himself didn’t publish anything except the first two narrative poems. Condell and Heminges didn’t know definitely what text he would have preferred. What should have happened was that when Shakespeare decided to leave London and retire to Stratford in 1610 he should have edited the plays and poems he wanted to be known by as his collected works, and prefaced it with the newly painted Chandos portrait. It would have been a lot simpler for posterity.

It has been conjectured by some that Shakespeare did not write his works, but they were the production of another writer who for some reason wished to give the credit for them to Shakespeare. Candidates for this generous writer include Marlowe, Francis Bacon and the Earl of Oxford. These theories are based on the following assumptions:

1. The plays are not of value as poetry or drama but as sources of information on cultural and historical matters;

2. Works of art do not express truths about human nature but are sources of personal biographical information.

I think these two assumptions can be challenged. Looked at too closely, any text can be made, by some method, to mean anything the reader wants it to. There are absolutely no exceptions to this observation.

Logically speaking, the arguments of the alternative authorship of Shakespeare’s works can be extended to the alternative authors themselves. Who really wrote their works? In fact, it can be extended to all authors. Who really wrote the works of any author? Is anybody ever really whom we think they are? The speculation goes beyond Shakespeare criticism, and could keep all the world’s critics in employment for centuries sorting out who really wrote what. By employing the same grounds of criticism, we could prove the works of Shakespeare don’t really exist, but that we have created them, we are the alternative author. There is a certain amount of truth in this statement, but we shouldn’t take it too far. Those busy little people on Alpha Centauri may have sent Shakespeare’s works telepathically to Earth, and they may contain coded information that would enable humans to construct viable space craft. It’s perfectly possible, once you admit the premises of the alternative author theorists. Those who see an alternative author behind Shakespeare are reading a different author than I am. When we read an author, it is our concern to read what he wrote, not use him as a whipping boy to explore our fantasies and theories. Making up evidence automatically disqualifies anybody as a scholar, no matter who they are.

If there is any value in Shakespeare’s works, it is not given by his learning, let alone a secret meaning encoded in the text as the alternative author theory sometimes posits. The value rests in something we only have vague words for, such as ‘genius’, ‘inspiration’, ‘beauty’. We have no idea where it comes from, how it is created, where or why it enters the work we are reading or viewing. We can’t explain Shakespeare’s genius, or anyone’s genius. It certainly is not a question of learning, as anyone who has experience of academics or teachers will verify. Even if Oxford or Bacon were proved the author, we would still have the same question unanswered. How did they create such work?

©2012 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.


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