Who Was Shakespeare?

By Rubinstein, William | History Today, August 2001 | Go to article overview

Who Was Shakespeare?


Rubinstein, William, History Today


William Rubinstein continues his survey of topics of enduring popular debate by examining the controversy surrounding the true identity of England's famous bard.

WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE MAY well have been the greatest man England has ever produced, but he is also one of the most elusive. Virtually everything known of the facts of his life seem to belie the transcendent genius of his plays and poems. His parents were illiterate; he grew up in a small provincial town in which lived no more than a handful of educated men. His schooling ended at thirteen. There is no evidence that he owned a book. No manuscript definitely known to be by him survives. There are only six copies of his apparent signature, all on legal documents, where the name may have been written by a lawyer or clerk. Of the seventy-five known contemporary documents in which Shakespeare is named, not one concerns his career as an author. Most are legal and financial documents which depict him as a particularly cold, rapacious, and successful local businessman and property developer.

Shakespeare's life between his marriage in 1582 to Anne Hathaway and his emergence as an actor and presumed writer nearly ten years later is a mystery period in which biographers have credited him with all manner of employment, as a law clerk, soldier, schoolmaster, traveller on the Continent, and so on, for which there is no evidence whatsoever. At the age of about forty-seven, after being at the centre of one of the world's greatest cultural renaissances for more than twenty years, he suddenly retired from London to Stratford, living there quietly until he died five years later.

Seven years after Shakespeare's death, in 1623, a huge memorial volume appeared, produced by several of his former theatrical associates, which contained nearly all of his plays (many printed in full for the first time). This First Folio does not mention or acknowledge his family in Stratford, although it seems inconceivable that they did not retain some effects left by him that would have been useful to the First Folio's editors. There is no evidence that any member of his family (or anyone else in Stratford) owned a copy; indeed, his two surviving daughters were illiterate.

Since Shakespeare's recognition in the late eighteenth century as the pre-eminent English national writer, hundreds of archivists, researchers, and historians have poured over thousands of contemporary manuscripts and published works in an effort to learn something -- anything -- about Shakespeare the man. Their efforts have been almost entirely in vain. During the twentieth century, only a handful of details emerged. In 1909 two American researchers, Charles and Hilda Wallace, trawling the Public Record Office, discovered the previously unknown Bellot-Mountjoy lawsuit at which Shakespeare testified. In 1931 Leslie Hotson, another American, discovered a curious, almost inexplicable, 1596 writ for the arrest of Shakespeare and two others issued by a criminal figure in Southwark. Potentially, perhaps the most important document uncovered, first noticed in the 1920s by Sir E.K. Chambers, the greatest modern scholar of Shakespeare's life, was the will of Alexander Hoghton of Lea, Lancashire, made in 1581, which left a small legacy to a `William Shake-shafte now dwelling with me', apparently as a tutor to his children. Many believe that Shakespeare was `Shake-shafte' and spent several years as a tutor in two wealthy Lancashire Catholic stately homes, those of the Hoghtons of Hoghton Tower and Sir Thomas Hesketh of Rufford. E.A.J. Honigmann, who has done most to popularise the `lost years in Lancashire' thesis, has discovered that there is a long-standing tradition in the Hoghton family that Shakespeare was employed in their home for two years in his youth. The Lancashire thesis has been adopted by many recent biographers. And some historians have speculated further that the young Shakespeare may have gone from one of the Lancashire households to London as a member of a players' company. …

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