The Enigma of William Shakespeare
BY AWAKE! CORRESPONDENT IN BRITAIN
WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE is generally acclaimed as the foremost playwright in history. The New Encyclopædia Britannica states that he is “considered by many to be the greatest dramatist of all time. His plays . . . are today performed more often and in more countries than those of any other playwright.” They have been translated into more than 70 languages.
Regarding the authorship of the large body of work that is credited to him, The World Book Encyclopedia says: “No important Shakespearean scholar doubts that Shakespeare wrote the plays and poems.” However, others dispute this. Why?
Born in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1564, Shakespeare died there 52 years later, in 1616. Countless volumes have been produced about him—many after years of patient research—in an effort to resolve the one basic, tantalizing question, Did William Shakespeare write the literary works that bear his name?
Shakespeare’s plays draw on an extraordinary wealth of secular experience. For example, he had a grasp of the law and made impressive use of legal language and precedents. In 1860, in Medical Knowledge of Shakespeare, Sir John Bucknill indicated that Shakespeare’s knowledge of medicine was deep. The same can be said of his comprehension of hunting, falconry, and other sports, as well as royal court etiquette. He was, says Shakespeare historian John Michell, “the writer who knew everything.”
Shipwrecks are featured five times in Shakespearean plays, and the way in which nautical terms are employed suggests that the writer was an experienced seaman. Did Shakespeare travel abroad? Was he pressed into naval service? Did he take part in the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588? Either would give credence to Shakespeare’s authorship, but no supportive evidence can be produced. The situation is similar in his mastery of military matters and the language of foot soldiers.
Bible quotations are prominent in his works. He could have learned them from his mother, but there is no proof that she was literate. His knowledge of the Bible leads to the question of Shakespeare’s education.
A Man of Letters?
William’s father, John, was a glover, dealt in wool, and was possibly a butcher. He was a respected citizen, although illiterate. There are no pupil lists for the Stratford grammar school, but most authorities today feel that young William attended. Years later, William’s friend the playwright Ben Jonson credited him with “small Latin, and less Greek,” which may imply that William’s education was rudimentary.
Yet, the writer of the plays had a firm grasp of the classics of Greece and Rome along with the literature—and possibly the languages—of France, Italy, and Spain. He also had an extensive vocabulary. A well-educated citizen today seldom uses more than about 4,000 words in conversation. John Milton, the 17th-century English poet, employed 8,000 or so in his works. But one authority credits Shakespeare with a vocabulary of no less than 21,000 words!
Books and Manuscripts
All of Shakespeare’s belongings were carefully listed on his three-page will, without any mention of books or manuscripts. Were they left to Susanna, his elder daughter? If so, they would surely have been distributed among her descendants. Intrigued by this mystery, an 18th-century cleric checked all the private libraries within a 50-mile radius of Stratford-upon-Avon without discovering a single volume that had belonged to Shakespeare.
The manuscripts of the plays pose an even greater problem—no originals are known to have survived. Thirty-six plays were published in the First Folio edition in 1623, seven years after Shakespeare’s death. During his lifetime numerous pirated editions appeared, yet Shakespeare, an astute businessman, took no legal action to prevent their publication.
To London—And Fame
Troupes of wandering actors were a regular feature of Elizabethan times, and some visited Stratford-upon-Avon in 1587. If Shakespeare joined them, he would have been in London by autumn of that year. We know that he became a member of London’s leading theater company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, later known as the King’s Men. From the time he reached the capital, his fortunes changed. Over the years, he acquired properties in London and Stratford-upon-Avon. But there is no clear account of his actions from 1583 to 1592—the vital “missing years.”
The Globe theater was built in Southwark in 1599. Before then, plays bearing Shakespeare’s name were known in London, yet he never became prominent as their author. At his death there was no great funeral, although there were for other playwrights, such as Ben Jonson and Francis Beaumont, who were both buried, with much ceremony, in London’s Westminster Abbey.
Was the name Shakespeare used to conceal the name of the true author or even authors? People have suggested over 60 possibilities. These include playwright Christopher Marlowe* and such unexpected names as Cardinal Wolsey, Sir Walter Raleigh, and even Queen Elizabeth I. Which ones do theorists claim merit the most consideration?
The first candidate is Francis Bacon, educated at Cambridge University. Three years older than Shakespeare, he became a prominent lawyer and royal court official and was responsible for many literary works. The theory that ascribes Shakespeare’s works to Bacon was first put forward in 1769 but was ignored for nearly 80 years. In 1885 the Bacon Society was formed to promote the cause, and many facts have been brought forth to back the claim. For example, Bacon lived some 20 miles north of London near St. Albans, a town named 15 times in the works of Shakespeare—yet Shakespeare’s hometown, Stratford-upon-Avon, is never mentioned.
Roger Manners, fifth Earl of Rutland, and William Stanley, sixth Earl of Derby, both have their supporters. They had good educations and wide experience in court life. But why would either hide his work? Professor P. S. Porohovshikov, contending in 1939 for Rutland’s claim, said: “His first compositions were printed anonymously, the others under a pen-name simply because it was not the right thing for a peer to write for the common playhouses.”
Some suggest that Shakespeare’s plays were the product of a consortium of writers, each adding his expertise. On the other hand, as a skilled actor, did Shakespeare edit and prepare the plays of others for the stage? It was said of him that he never ‘blotted out a line’ in his manuscripts. This could be true if he were editing, with slight adjustments, the scripts of other playwrights that were presented to him.
What is a foremost reason why some doubt that Shakespeare was the author? The World Book Encyclopedia notes that people “refused to believe an actor from Stratford-upon-Avon could have written them. Shakespeare’s commonplace country background did not fit their image of the genius who wrote the plays.” It adds that almost all the others who have been proposed as authors “were members of the nobility or upper class.” Thus, many who doubt that Shakespeare was the author believe that “only an educated, sophisticated man of high social standing could have written the plays.” But, as noted earlier in this article, many Shakespearean authorities believe that Shakespeare did the writing.
Will this controversy be resolved anytime soon? It is not likely. Unless fresh evidence comes to light in the form of original manuscripts or facts to fill in his missing years, William Shakespeare, “this supreme verbal genius,” will remain a fascinating enigma.
Christopher Marlowe’s influence is apparent in early Shakespearean plays, but he died in London in 1593 at the age of 29. Some have suggested that his reported murder in a tavern brawl was a cover-up and that he went to Italy, where he continued his writing. There is no record of his funeral or burial.
[Box on page 24]
Literacy and the Name
William Shakespeare possibly penned his signature six times on four documents that have survived. His name is only partly legible, and its spelling is inconsistent. Some authorities suggest that lawyers may have signed Shakespeare’s will on his behalf, which, for some, raises the touchy question, Was William Shakespeare literate? No manuscripts exist that were written by him. His daughter Susanna could sign her name, but there is no evidence that she could do more than that. Shakespeare’s other daughter, Judith, who was close to her father, signed by means of a mark. She was illiterate. Nobody knows why Shakespeare failed to ensure that his children could enjoy the priceless benefits of literature.
[Pictures on page 23]
Early portraits of Shakespeare, though it is not certain what he looked like
Encyclopædia Britannica/11th Edition (1911)