Shakespeare’s Self

1 venetian masks

I recently came across the theory that Christopher Marlowe wrote the plays of Shakespeare, after having faked his own death and seen ‘himself’ buried. This was a new theory to me, though apparently it’s been around for a while. Marlowe has joined the queue of authors supposed in modern times to have written Shakespeare’s plays, after Francis Bacon Lord Verulam and the Earl of Oxford and many others. I’m aware of these various theories, but I know nothing about them. If I state the obvious in what follows, I can only say it wasn’t obvious to me, because of my ignorance of the topic. Proposers of alternative authors seem to me to overlook that Shakespeare was a prominent and wealthy man, and became the most famous author of his times, before becoming involved with the production of plays. And that plays, and their authorship, were very different concepts to Elizabethans than they are today.

The other Shakespeares
Theories of authorship other than by Shakespeare were first propounded by Delia Bacon, a writer from Ohio USA, in 1845. She believed Francis Bacon Baron Verulam and Viscount St. Alban was the author of Shakespeare’s plays. In 1895 Wilbur G Ziegler, a lawyer from Ohio,  put forward the theory that the plays were written by Christopher Marlowe, who had faked his death and escaped plots of the Secret Service to kill him by fleeing to France. William Stanley sixth Earl of Derby was put forward as a candidate by Professor Abel Lefranc, a French literary historian, in 1918. John Thomas Looney, an English school teacher, put forward Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, as the true author, in a book published in 1920. Many other people have taken up these suggestions since, and many other candidates proposed. There are now a considerable number of websites devoted to the various proposals.

These theories all date from the time when Shakespeare first started to become accepted as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, of English dramatists, the dawn of what GB Shaw mocked as Bardology. It would be reasonable to see the alternative author theories themselves as the product of Bardology, a kind of reverse Bardology. Our high opinion of Shakespeare and his work is only 150 years old.

One problem with all these theories is that there is no evidence for any of them. Or rather, the evidence is subjective, apparent to each person who proposes a rival candidate, but not to many others. It is common to ‘prove’ alternative authorship by taking it for granted, as “everybody knew”. This of course is a logical fallacy.The evidence put forward depends on the supposition that the works of Shakespeare are full of autobiographical reference, to his travels, political and personal experiences, reading and other matters relating to his times. This idea conveniently ignores the fact  that Shakespeare was writing dramatic works. The other supposition often made by alternative author theorists is that the author inserted cryptic references revealing his true identity, and that these can be decoded to reveal that identity. The fact is no other author, especially a playwright, has ever been known to act in this way, and given that the bulk of the works were popular plays, spoken at a rate where analysis would have been impossible, the contention doesn’t seem very likely. Cryptanalysts who have examined the plays have not found any of the codes proposed by those looking for an alternative author. As well, there seems to be no convincing reason given why the true author would want to hide his authorship.

The reason no documentary evidence has survived for their theories, say the proposers of alternative authors, is that all the people who knew Shakespeare and the real author have combined to conceal the real situation of authorship. That’s a lot of people working together. About 1,500 in Stratford, and as many as 200,000 in London, the population of these towns in 1600. Most people in these two places would have heard of William Shakespeare, whoever he was. It seems unlikely so many could combine so efficiently, and not one spill the beans. The theories about Shakespeare’s ‘real’ authorship begin to look like conspiracy theories. That term began to be used about the same period that rival authors began to be put forward, and the two, rival authorship and conspiracy theory, could be related in some way. It seems some unease is felt by those with a rival author that William Shakespeare should be the accepted author of his works. This is an anxiety, and means that alternative author theories cannot be refuted. If they have their origin in a psychological state, then authorship is not the real subject they are about, but reassurance. The theories appear a little like detective stories, in which a puzzle is solved.

2 trifaccia dipinta mask

The trouble seems to be we have two alternative pictures of Shakespeare in our minds. On the one hand, he is the world’s greatest writer, with an unparalleled mastery of verse forms, and a profound insight into human nature. On the other hand, surviving records, such as legal papers, show him merely to have been a successful businessman involved with the trivia of his day to day obligations. How can one man be both these things? Something is wrong. The alternative author theories are one way to resolve the anomaly. There are in fact many examples of authors of genius who were astute businessmen, but that is no comfort to those seeking the ‘real’ William Shakespeare.

However, the surviving records about Shakespeare are not all we know about Shakespeare. We know a whole lot more. But we don’t have evidence for it. It is all supposition, though reasonable supposition. In what follows I have added some of these suppositions to the record. I’m not a professional scholar, and don’t have to restrict myself to facts. So I have used my imagination as the alternative authors people have. My candidate is William Shakespeare, for the following reasons.

The wealthy Shakespeares of Stratford
The Shakespeares were a wealthy family, with connections and influence over a wide area in and around Stratford, and in London as well. This had not always been the case. William Shakespeare’s grandfather Richard had been a peasant working land owned by the Ardens in Snittersfield, Warwickshire in southern England. Like many peasants, he coveted land, and was able to buy tracts of it throughout his life, dying a comparatively wealthy man in 1561. William’s father John inherited some of this wealth, and augmented it by an advantageous marriage into the Arden family in 1557. The Ardens were land owning gentry in the neighbourhood of Wilmcote, a distinguished family who traced their origins back to the days of William the Conqueror. It is unlikely John Shakespeare would have been successful in his marriage suit unless he had had substantial assets. John had connections in the gloving and tanning industries, and he was successful in building these businesses to a very prosperous level. At some stage he began to speculate in wool. This was against the law, and John risked severe penalties, but he gives the impression on more than one occasion he thought little of government interference, and proceeded regardless. As a substantial and highly placed local resident John undertook many offices for the Stratford Town Council, filled them competently, and was eventually made what we would call today Mayor of Stratford in 1568.

Two things are asserted about John Shakespeare. That he was illiterate, and that, when William was about 12 years old, he suffered extreme financial loss, and retired to live in obscurity, while his son William went, or perhaps fled, to London. But John Shakespeare could not have carried out administrative work for the Stratford Council, liaised with the government in London, nor made international transactions for materials for his various businesses, had he been illiterate. There are examples of men known to be literate, whose letters survive, who also signed documents with their mark. This is what John Shakespeare did, the only evidence he could not write. In his day a signature was not used universally to ‘sign’ a document. John’s activities in business and government are an indication he was well educated and literate.

I also think that John’s apparent poverty from about 1576 was a paper loss, designed to avoid taxation and other unwelcome activities of the central government. John’s businesses included the unlawful one of wool speculation and later, perhaps, usury. The last thing he would have wanted was an investigation into his business affairs. He withdrew from civic affairs in 1586, and even incurred some heavy fines, but I think it likely he more or less fraudulently declared himself bankrupt, while retaining considerable assets. There is no known reason for his so called poverty, and a convenient bankruptcy to avoid government assessment and investigation would have left most of his assets untouched. William was later to show the same pattern as his father, refusing to pay taxes and eventually summonsed before a court. In 1595 John was granted the position of gentleman and a coat of arms, now entitled to prefix his name with Mister or the abbreviation Mr, which doesn’t sound like a privilege granted to a poor man. John must have been of independent means to support the rank of gentleman.

3 Interior family group

Far from a life of poverty, I think we should imagine William Shakespeare growing up in a privileged household, thronged with business associates, local and London officials, traders from many countries of Europe, and picking up all kinds of odd information, stories and books his fellow students had no opportunity to see and a few words of more than one foreign language, at least till 1576, during the most impressionable period of his life. The Shakespeare children, those who survived, would have been highly thought of in Stratford. There is evidence that so was John, long after his period of apparent poverty had begun. As a privileged child William and his brothers would have attended the local Grammar school, William during the years 1571-78. The Elizabethan grammar school system was an extremely good schooling method, one of the best of its day, though limited largely to Latin and scripture studies. Stratford was fortunate in its headmasters, graduates of Oxford in Shakespeare’s day, some were celebrated schoolmen. Although there are no surviving records, it would have been probable that Shakespeare attended the local school. It is possible his education was supplemented with private tuition.

It seems likely he would have spent the ten years 1580-90 working with his father John, the traditional place for the eldest son. John’s position was a peculiar one, and it is hard to reconstruct what he was doing. He was still a member of the Stratford Town Council and remained active in civic affairs to 1586. He was apparently out of business, but may have carried on as an (illegal) wool speculator, supplemented with (illegal) usury. If so he probably travelled frequently to France, and perhaps William with him.

William’s remaining time in Stratford before he left for London has to be pierced together from the dates registered in the records of Holy Trinity Church. In 1582 William married Anne Hathaway, and his daughter Susannah was born 1583, twins Hamnet and Judith in 1585 (Hamnet is an old English word for ‘home’, still used today for a small village and more familiar as the variant Hamlet, and the name celebrates Hamnet Sadler, an old family friend and the child’s godfather).

I think it likely it was at this period, aged 21, that William began to cherish literary ambitions. The news from London would have inspired him. In 1576 James Burbage had built The Theatre and founded the golden age of Elizabethan drama. In 1586 Sir Philip Sidney died heroically. In 1587 Tamburlaine was produced at the Rose, in 1588 Dr Faustus and in 1589 the Jew of Malta, and Elizabethan theatre reached its height. But it was poetry not plays that aroused William’s ambition, and three poets were his inspiration: Sidney, Spencer and Marlowe.

Fame and success in London
What John thought of a Shakespeare having literary ambitions we don’t know. He may have been financially secure enough and proud enough of his son’s abilities to make him a bequest and send him to London. Both John and William were upwardly mobile, and John may have been more concerned that William secure the family a coat of arms and gentleman status while in London, yet the move was made, probably with his blessing, about 1590, and probably intended at first as a brief stay. It may be William’s younger brother Gilbert went with him. By the mid 90s Gilbert was running a haberdashery in St Brides. William was 26, Gilbert 24.

It was about this time that, back in Stratford, William’s sister Joan married William Hart, a town hatter; she was 21. William’s brother Richard was 16, Edmund 10, his wife Anne 34, the children Susannah 7 and Hamnet and Judith 5. William’s parents John 59, and Mary 53, were still the active centre of the household, Anne occupied with her children, William’s brothers completing their schooling.

4 masque venise

William had a likely contact in London, the stationer Richard Field, with whom he had probably gone to school in Stratford. The Fields and the Shakespeares were close friends. Richard could inform anyone asking about William in his shop at S Pauls that William’s father was the big man at Stratford, and William influential at court. In Richard’s shop at St Pauls William would have met many an aspiring author, including the group of friends who were to be quite an influence on his writing career. One of these was Robert Greene, an eccentric, an Elizabethan punk, without the bovver boots but he had the attitude. Sporting an improbable long frizzy red beard and clothes of dilapidated magnificence, Greene was probably England’s first professional writer, living hand to mouth and always in debt. In the same group was Thomas Nashe, who happened to be a client of the Earl of Southampton, who was newly arrived at court that same year. The third writer was already a hero to Willam, Christopher Marlowe, whose plays and poetry were instrumental in inspiring him to write himself. It may have been through Nashe that William met Southampton. The disparaging reference to William in Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit of 1592, a kind of death’s bed repentance, refers to William ‘pretending’ to be a playwright, contributing some scenes to plays for Lord Strange’s men as did other playwrights. This just may be a satirical reference to Nashe’s introduction of William to Southampton as a would be court poet. This is what William was aiming for, entrance to court circles and prominence as a poet. He at this stage was emulating Sydney and Spencer.

In 1590 the young Earl of Southampton had just been presented at court and was forming a circle of clients whose work he would patronise. Shakespeare’s introduction by Nashe, if it was so, came at just the right moment. What was exceptional in this case is that the two men seemed to have found each other compatible, and Shakespeare was soon not just a client, but a member of Southampton’s circle, and may have been presented at court in his entourage. Perhaps that is where Elizabeth first met him, and remembered him in 1596 when she was said to have requested a play showing Falstaff in love. If William had intended to find a courtly patron in London he must have arrived with enough funds to make a good showing. A nobleman would never have associated with a poverty stricken hack. A wealthy provincial gentleman was another matter. Attendance at court was, however, beyond William’s means. It required dress of such magnificence that only aristocrats could afford it. Clothing was made from valuable silks and velvets, elaborately cut to show costly undergarments, surmounted by elaborate lace ruffs at collar and cuff, and precious stones and pearls sewn on the material. An aristocrat’s dress would have fed a tradesman’s family for a year. Maybe this is where the story of Southampton giving an extravagant present to William fits in: money or clothing to dress in a way to honour the Earl before the Queen.

William had bought with him from Stratford just the material to impress the Earl and the Court. Two long narrative poems which he had probably begun in the mid 80s. Both were based on stories from Ovid, but William would not have studied Ovid at school. He was probably inspired by translations from Ovid by Arthur Golding, and perhaps Christopher Marlowe’s version of the Amores showed him also what was possible. The two poems are not favourite reading matter today, but they matched the interests of their time exactly. The first of these poems was Venus and Adonis, and in the long exchanges between the two, Shakespeare has much to say on the nature of love. The poem would have passed around Southampton’s circle from as early as 1590, and made him well known and highly esteemed in that courtly circle. When it was finally issued in book form in 1593, by William’s friend the stationer Richard Field, it was a best seller, and Shakespeare’s name was made. The boy from Stratford had hit the big time. Copies sold quickly, and readership far exceeded copies sold, as books were lent freely, and read aloud to an audience. There were editions all through the rest of William’s lifetime, 1594, 1595, 1596, 1599 (two), 1602 (four) and 1617, with five more up to 1640. The cover/title page has the name of the poem and publisher’s imprint and date, but on the first page is the author’s, linked in homage to the Earl, in language usual for a commoner, but not for any of the aristocratic rival contenders for writing Shakespeare’s work. It was a dream come true for Shakespeare. All at once he was one of the best known writers in London, and word would have sped back to Stratford.

5 Elizabeth 1 as judi dench

In that year William would have first come across three influential works. Thomas Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy, the biggest hit of both the Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre and a new benchmark in dramatic construction and powerful manipulation of the audience’s feelings. Sidney’s Astrophel and Stella poems. And one of his favourite poems, Marlowe’s Hero and Leander, the only poem quoted by Shakespeare in any of his works. And he would have heard then that Marlowe had been murdered. If the lines in Twelfth Night are to be taken to be about Marlowe, William paid no credence to the story of a tavern brawl.

William capitalised on his success as an author with The Rape of Lucrece, another story from Ovid. The Rape was issued in 1594 but may have been in circulation in the Earl’s circle earlier, perhaps from 1592. There were eight editions in Shakespeare’s lifetime, so this learned work was not as popular as the previous poem, though it still qualifies as a best seller. There are signs in the dedication to Southampton that this poem, or topic, was written or developed at the request of Southampton. Interestingly, as the Earl was to be swept eventually into the Earl of Essex’s incompetent insurrection against Elizabeth, the poem celebrates regicide and the birth of the Roman Republic. With typical Shakespearean balance, it also shows the troubles that arise in a state where a virgin is treated disrespectfully. For her people, Elizabeth was the Virgin Queen, and Essex was to treat her most disrespectfully. The source, as in Venus and Adonis, may have been the Golding translation of Ovid. The title page of later editions bears the subscription ‘by Mr William Shakespeare’, emphasising William’s newly acquired rank, but the first edition, like the Venus, is identified as Shakespeare’s through the dedication to Southampton.

From the early 90s Shakespeare had been emulating Sidney by circulating sonnets, and a number of these must date to the period of the two narrative poems. Sonnets were a brief craze of the time, and the rhyme scheme, though fixed as we know it, was susceptible to variation. The model was often based on Greek pastoral, as in Sidney’s group, and celebrates the love between a shepherd or goatherd and his love, a very much idealised figure. There is often a rival for his love. This was just a convention of the form, handed down from antiquity, and a sign of the respect felt for poets like Theocritos (there is a prose romance by Longus which typifies the theme). The subject matter of Shakespeare’s Sonnets may refer to these conventions, for they refer to a lady lured away by a false friend. The poems do seem very personal, and might tell us something about Shakespeare if we could be more certain he was the author of them all. The poems were collected and published in 1609 together with another collection called A Lover’s Complaint, with a title page ascribing the poems to William Shakespeare. As the Sonnet collection was apparently an unauthorised one, we have no idea if there were other Sonnets unavailable to the Mr W.H. who procured them, or if the published poems are all by Shakespeare, though some most likely are. The Lover’s Complaint probably isn’t by Shakespeare. William’s name on the title page in this case is just a cashing in on his name. The people would buy anything by this stage labelled with the famous name of Shakespeare. From 1594 references start to be made to William Shakespeare by authors of the time. In almost all cases, although some refer to plays, they are thinking of the famous author of Venus and Adonis.

It is perhaps noteworthy that editions of Titus Andronicus, Henry VI 2 and 3, Edward III, Romeo and Juliet, Richard II and III, Henry IV 1 and 2 and Henry V were published 1594-1600 and no mention was made of the famous William Shakespeare on the title pages. Shakespeare as play author makes his first appearance with the publication in 1598 of Love’s Labour’s Lost, which specifically mentioned on the title page that this was an edition William had newly corrected and augmented. In other words, the original was, like nearly all plays, anonymous, and William had refurbished it for publication. From 1600 to 1609 Shakespeare was mentioned on the title page as author of The Merchant of Venice, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Much Ado About Nothing, the miscellany Love’s Martyr (The Phoenix and the Turtle), The Merry Wives of Windsor, Hamlet, King Lear, Troilus and Cressida and Pericles Prince of Tyre. Perhaps he was the author, and wanted to be known as such. Perhaps the publisher slipped in his name as an inducement to buy without his knowledge. But at least this is a testimony to his fame. Among the courtiers of Elizabeth, the authors of all kinds in London, the booksellers, and even the play going public, his was a famous name. The Stratford townspeople must have been proud of him, not surprised at all when he took possession of New Place in 1598.

William’s involvement with the courtly circle of Southampton and his career as a court poet was a short lived one. After 1594 he seems to have decided on a completely different career. Perhaps he learned some unsavoury news about Marlowe’s murder. Perhaps he saw that Essex and Southampton were drifting inexorably towards treason. Or perhaps he had a more personal reason, the sense of betrayal discernible in some of the Sonnets. He had money to invest, knew many people in the theatrical world, and now he had withdrawn from Southampton’s circle, had time to devote to a new venture. He was to show enormous care in the venture, one sign, it is said, of genius (one recalls the production scripts carefully re-written so that Condell and Heminge saw scarcely a blot). In 1594 he put some of his money into the formation of a new acting company, became a shareholder, and active in the production of plays. He, together with the other members, was producer, director, actor, and uniquely, writer, or re-writer.

6 Seraph Kegal Dazed and Intelechy

Shakespeare had a successful period as best selling poet 1590 to 1594, then as writer, producer and actor in plays. In the period 1594 to 1608 he wrote and produced most of the famous plays that bear his name, and was regarded as an exceptionally competent man in his field. His father had died 1601 aged 70. His mother died 1608 aged 71. About this time William returned to Stratford and gave up active participation in the Chamberlains/Kings Men, though he was occasionally called on for a contribution to a play. He died at Stratford of a fever, aged only 52, leaving thousands to explain his remarkable career. For most of his contemporaries he was always the brilliant author of Venus and Adonis.

Changing ideas of the plays
We tend to think of Shakespeare as predominately the writer of plays, but he wasn’t. He was a brilliantly successful court poet, then a theatre manager and investor. In 1594 he must have thought his career as a poet was in ruins. He was a great lyrical poet, with two acclaimed poems to his name, yet self barred from continuing that career. The writing of plays was not a career. It was necessary for the success of his new venture, which became the Lord Chamberlains Men and eventually the Kings Men, the most successful acting company of its times. The plays were not the path to literary glory. They were written anonymously, collaboratively, and were owned, with props and costumes, by the members of the company in common. Playwrights, until the career of Ben Jonson, were anonymous. At first, as he had when he arrived in London, Shakespeare used his literary ability to revive old plays, rewriting them with collaborators and, increasingly as the time went on, alone. Untangling the provenance of Elizabethan plays is a complex job. Plays existed in many versions, usually older ones and rewrites of these. The titles were not fixed, and the same play might be referred to under one title on its licence entry with the Master of the Revels, another in references made by authors of the time, and yet another on the title page when printed. At the same time, plays of the same title could refer to completely different works. In addition, plays were written by playwrights, teams of playwrights, assembled fraudulently by publishers, or actors, and revised by other authors. Nobody really cared who the author was. The great majority of them have not survived.

We know how plays were written in Elizabethan and Jacobean times because a notebook of Philip Henslowe who owned the Rose theatre has survived. Plays were written by teams of writers, like TV scripts are today. This was because a very high production rate was called for. Plays were rarely acted more than one or twice, ‘old’ plays were discarded as out-of-date or quaint. Playwrights were paid a pittance to write a play, and generally had only a day or two to do it. When they finished it became the property of the theatre management. The works were anonymous. It was rare indeed for a playwright’s name to be on the play. Nobody knew, or cared, who the author was. The owner was the one who put on the play, and the place was the advertised matter. You went to see the new play at the Globe or the Theatre, called, for example and in numerous approximations, the fight between Lancaster and York, King Harry, and dozens of other names. It wasn’t a published work. It had no author. It was at the Globe, and so was owned by Burbage. That was all that was known. And if it was good.

For many, perhaps more than half, of Shakespeare’s plays, there was more than one author. This was usual. It was the way things were done. No-one was writing literature, or wanting to sell the book. It was rare for there to be an audience for the book.

Exceptionally, in Shakespeare’s case, John Heminge and Henry Condell, colleagues who decided to honour this old friend after his death by bringing out a collected edition of his play, published the First Folio edition of them in 1623. We have only their word he was the author of the plays included, and no idea of what they meant by ‘author’: revisor, main collaborator, author of a version made specially for publication, producer and director of anonymous work or any other way the term could be used at the time. The state of the texts published in the First Folio edition of the plays seven years after Shakespeare died show that book to have been compiled from various sources, many of them corrupt, ‘unofficial’ copies of the plays. No play in the First Folio can be said to have been derived from an author’s copy. Every one is corrupt, contains some garbled matter, has hundreds of typographical mistakes, and some include alternative passages. The edition is a feat of compilation, and yet a highly inaccurate rendition of what the plays might once have been.

7 Shakespeare in mask

The theatres were closed in 1642, 26 years after Shakespeare’s death, by the Puritans. The drama was sinful, and worse, illegal. When Charles II ascended the throne at the Restoration, theatre thrived again. But contemporary playwrights looked at the plays of Shakespeare and were appalled at how bad they were. During the Restoration period Shakespeare was considered a very inferior writer. His plays were re-written for performance by proper poets like Pope and Dryden, who cut, added material, changed the plot, and generally tried to make Shakespeare conform to the ideals of Augustan literature. It was not until the work of Samuel Johnson as editor and David Garrick as actor that people started to realise the excellence of Shakespeare’s plays. But even then, he was an author who had to be defended from disparagement. The Shakespeare most commonly seen by audiences in the period 1640- to 1800 was Dryden’s, who gave King Lear, for example, a happy ending, making it technically a comedy.

By the mid 19th century the idea of ‘author’ and of ‘published work’ were very different to what they were in Elizabethan and Jacobean times and the two different concepts should not be confused. In the mid nineteenth century it became possible for the first time to think of Shakespeare as a great poet and playwright. And to say, how could Shakespeare write material as good as this?

This is a good question. There is a good answer to it. We don’t know. And we can’t know. We cannot as yet explain genius. As for the ‘answer’, that the plays were written by someone else, one could very well ask the same question. How could Francis Bacon or Christopher Marlowe write material as good as this? As miraculous, stupendous and unprecedented is the fact that Christopher Marlowe wrote his own plays. We don’t know how he did and never will (perhaps somebody else did -just joking). In other words, a valid question, but not a valid answer. The answer that someone else wrote the plays and poems of Shakespeare is anachronistic. It makes the presumption that modern ideas about authorship and publishing were pretty much the same in Elizabethan and Jacobean times as today. This is not so.

Another way to look at what has happened to Shakespeare’s work since his death is to see it as the result of two traditions.

One is the tradition of text. The author writes a text, and scholars try to explain the text. Some scholars try to reconstruct what the author Shakespeare may actually have written, free the text from false obscurities caused by garbled editions and clarify contemporary references and language. Other scholars try to explain the perceived ‘greatness’ of the text by ascribing authorship to another author more likely in their opinion to write ‘great’ work.

The other is the tradition of performance. It has been felt by many actors and producers that Shakespeare’s plays ‘work’ in the theatre. They engage and involve and move audiences. Some audiences need to have irrelevancies and obscurities removed from the performances, and past productions have been ruthless in changing performance matter and presentation to retain high impact with audiences. Hence Dryden’s happy ending to Lear. Hence Hamlet in modern dress, or with the actors nude. Hence performances for the deaf, and so on. In this tradition the author takes second place to what happens in the theatre during the performance. This is even more so in films made from the plays. As in all drama, the producer, director, actors and the theatre itself have as much to do with the play and its impact as the author.

Many people would think this tradition of performance is more important than the tradition of authorship, of ‘greatness’. The great author reeks of the 19th century, of writers like Carlyle. The idea that someone, anyone, Shakespeare or another, wrote the plays is also anachronistic. We don’t know what the original, performed, text of the plays was like because nobody thought it was worth preserving at the time. Even Condell and Hemings failed to present a reliable text. We also don’t know exactly who wrote the plays.

Although it’s taken us 250 years to realise that the plays are great literature, we have also realised that the work itself is in many ways a reconstruction of something that has vanished. It’s the greatness not of a great author but of a damaged Greek statue of ancient times. And it seems most likely many authors were involved in the work’s composition.

Shakespeare was no obscure glover’s son from a provincial town as often suggested by those with an alternative author in mind. He was the best known writer of his time. Because of his fame as a poet some of his fans dug a little deeper and discovered he had written plays for Burbage, and when they wrote about him, as for example Francis Meres did, they included these references, which would not have been generally known. But, as often happens, Shakespeare’s fame attracted ascription of unknown work. He was known, but many plays were of unknown authorship, so it was easy to say they were all written by Shakespeare. We will probably never know exactly what he did or did not write. It should be remembered that for Shakespeare, or Richard Burbage and many of the Kings Men, it didn’t matter at all.

So the existence of a great body of work, written by a great author, is to a certain extent, an illusion. The transference of this illusory great work to another author to explain its greatness, as the alternative authors do, is a simplification of a complex situation, and merely extends the illusion. The attempt is an exercise in 19th century hero worship, surprising in modern fans of the work. But unsurprising in another way, as the dominant art form of today is fantasy.

Much more profitable to go see one of the plays.

©2013 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.


5 thoughts on “Shakespeare’s Self

  1. You say Shakespeare was a “court poet,” but there is no record of such a person ever being in court. And commoners were not allowed in court. Of course the plays and poems were indeed written by a court poet, so you are correct in spite of yourself.

    1. The King’s Men were commoners, yet they performed at court. There is a record of them being awarded a length of cloth, William Shakespeare named among them, to attend the coronation of James as Grooms of the Chamber.

  2. Seems like for you “the play’s the thing”. Yet the Da Vinci code approach is valid for those who prefer detective stories. Just as long as nobody thinks that approach is history. It is not, it’s historical fiction.

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