Rethinking Shakespeare

By Posner, Michael | Queen's Quarterly, Summer 2008 | Go to article overview

Rethinking Shakespeare


Posner, Michael, Queen's Quarterly


All great truths begin as blasphemies

GEORGE BERNARD SHAW

Let's start with a not-so-trivial trivia question: apart from the fact that they were all venerable, intelligent men, what did Sigmund Freud, Charles Dickens, Henry and William James, Ralph Waldo Emerson, John Galsworthy, Sir Tyrone Guthrie, Mark Twain, Orson Welles, and Walt Whitman have in common? The answer may surprise: not one of them believed that William Shakespeare, a mere country boy from Stratford-upon-Avon, could possibly have written the works attributed to him.

THEIR REASONS were diverse, but Freud, Dickens, and a great many others were united in their conviction that whatever else he might have been--grain merchant, moneylender, landowner, actor--the glove-maker's son from Warwickshire was incapable of producing 38 transcendent histories, comedies, and tragedies, as well the famous 154 sonnets. In their judgment, the likelihood that the single greatest canon of Western literature was written by a man with a grade six education, a man who signed his surname six different ways, all illegibly, is precisely nil. For them, the Shakespeare legacy is therefore a colossal hoax, and the estimated 100,000 pilgrims who annually trek to his gravesite, and the millions more who pay homage to his memory, are its unwitting victims. As Henry James put it in his Letters: "I am...haunted by the conviction that the divine William is the biggest and most successful fraud ever practised on a patient world."

The empirical, verifiable facts of Shakespeare's life would not fill more than a few pages. In its lack of relevance to the life he is presumed to have led, the nature of what we do know is almost embarrassing. We know, for example, that he sold a load of stone to one Mr Chamberlin on 1 December 1598 for ten pence. We know that he acted in two of Ben Jonson's plays (and was booed off the stage in one of them), owned shares of the Globe Theatre and the Blackfriars Gatehouse, sued various people for petty sums, and bought land in Stratford. Could "what a piece of work is man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties" have sprung from such a crass, mercantilist mind?

BUT IF "Shaksper" (as he was known in Stratford) was not Shakespeare (as we known him in print), and if he did not write the plays, then who, precisely, did? That question may well encapsulate the literary mystery of all time. Although a billion-dollar industry is now predicated on the assumption that the Bard of Avon is deserving of the title, a subsidiary enterprise has sprouted up, dedicated to finding the genuine author.

In November 1922, a group of sceptics gathered in the London borough of Hackney to hold the inaugural meeting of the Shakespeare Fellowship. That organization has since evolved into the Shakespeare Authorship Trust, but its mission remains unchanged: "To seek, and if possible establish, the truth concerning the authorship of Shakespeare's plays and poems." The debate has percolated through the years, pitting resolute Stratfordians--convinced that Shakespeare is the one true Bard, responsible in critic Harold Bloom's memorable phrase for nothing less than "the invention of the human"--against the determined naysayers.

Controversy continues to rage. Only a year ago, two distinguished British actors, Derek Jacobi and Mark Rylance, issued a "declaration of reasonable doubt," again questioning why a man Samuel Johnson called "the poet of nature" would leave a last will and testament that made not a single mention of anything he wrote or book that he owned--books being valuable commodities in seventeenth-century England. Since its promulgation, their declaration has been signed online by more than 1,300 people, including 200 academics.

How, they ask, did Shakespeare acquire his knowledge of foreign languages, which the plays' author clearly demonstrates? Where did he develop, seemingly overnight, a mastery of the Elizabethan worlds of law, the court, mathematics, heraldry, medicine, horticulture, astronomy, and the military--to which he had no known exposure? …

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