Good William Hunting

If there’s at least one thing we are fairly confident about in William Shakespeare’s hazy biography, it is the date of  his birth.  The parish register of Holy Trinity Church at Stratford-upon-Avon in Warwickshire shows that he was baptized there on April 26, 1564.  Since baptisms in 16th Century England were traditionally celebrated three days following birth, we have come to accept that Shakespeare was born on  April 23rd of that year.

After this, things start to get murky.  We know nothing of his youth and education, what he read or his relationship with a father who was engaged in various forms of trade and seems, despite being elected an alderman and bailiff  ( the mid-16th Century equivalent of a mayor) to have had fluctuations in prosperity.   The next mention in the official record is of his marriage to Anne Hathaway at the age of 18 and the birth of his three children in the 1580s.  But what Shakespeare was actually doing during this decade, we know nothing.

His first appearance in London is only recorded in a sarcastic note penned by the playwright Richard Greene.  From then on we have little to munch on regarding Shakespeare’s private life, even if there exist official documents notarizing his land purchases and the performance of his plays.  We have his date of death and a will – a long document, signed in a shaky hand.  But little else remains of the flesh and blood man.

The dearth of  information on Shakespeare the man has mystified scholars for years.  It has plunged  biographers, academics, amateur historians and would be literary sleuths into an endless struggle over the question: Who was William Shakespeare?

Well since at least the 1850s it has been argued by a legion of skeptics that whoever was born in Stratford in April 1564 and died there 52 years later, was not the author of  the greatest works in English literature.   It  has been suggested, by no greater literary eminences than Mark Twain, Henry James,  Helen Keller and Sigmud Freud  –  among many lesser lights –  that the author of such soaring masterpieces as Othello, Macbeth, King Lear and Hamlet must have been a man of great distinction, well traveled, schooled in many languages and close to the  Elizabethan and Jacobean Courts.  Twain, whose own authorial canon was drawn from the well spring of his own experiences, maintained the literary theory that all fiction is in essence autobiography.  And if this is the case, William Shakespeare of  the obscure village of Stratford, could not have been the same man who penned the immortal lines of a Hamlet or the soliloquies of  a King Lear.

If not William Shakespeare, then who?

This has been the literary community’s holy grail for centuries and the search has settled on two main contenders – the polymath and supreme Man of Letters, Francis Bacon or Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of  Oxford.  I am not going to go into the extensive arguments made for either man , only to contend that, to our knowledge, Bacon did not write plays and that his published poetry was inferior in quality to that of Shakespeare’s.  The other contender – de Vere,  who died in 1604, (which would put him beyond the capacity to have penned King Lear, Macbeth and The Tempest) was reputedly a playwright and poet of high distinction, but since nothing in his own hand  has survived, we have had no opportunity to compare his skills with that of the much maligned glover’s son in distant Stratford.

There might be good reason to shake one’s head in disbelief at the level of sophistication required to write the Shakespearean canon.  As an enthusiast for Shakespearean drama since my early teens, the question that I have often asked is not whether Shakespeare could have written his own plays, but whether any human could have  done so?  So deep are their understanding of human nature, so filled with pathos and majesty of poetic expression, so given to consistency of character development and  brimming with vim and vitality (so that  the same characters appear to virtually lift off the page)  – that they leave flapping  in the dust any other playwright of his own time  –  or of any other time.  The endurance of the plays and the survival of their often archaic language  into our our day, offers the sneaking suspicion that the Shakespearean pen was guided by the light of Divine inspiration.

This is perhaps where all the Shakespearean skeptics have gone so wrong.   What they fail to account for is the power of the human imagination, which was perhaps perfected in the person of a low born boy from the West of England.   They fail to appreciate that even a child living  in the hovels of Calcutta, the barrios of Rio de Janiero or the windswept deserts of the Sahara, might have the capacity to stare out a window and dream of things he has never seen or experienced before.   That such imagination can lift him on a journey of exploration and provide him  with the power to shape in his own mind characters, conversations and scenes which he had never previously even contemplated, is beyond the ken of  their understanding.

We know nothing of William Shakespeare’s boyhood.   But is it not possible that a young, lonely boy spent his days day dreaming about kings and princes, fairies and goblins, castle moats and palace intrigues while playing in nearby fields and  forests  – and, with the support of parents lovingly aware of their son’s interests and gifts, provided  him with any book they could find to feed his insatiable need for detail and information?

Anyone who has written fiction and has had supportive parents, knows this experience.   The gift of William Shakespeare was that he took historical and mythical characters, drawn from books and pamphlets he might have read as a child  and molded them through an extraordinarily powerful imagination and a mature, refined intellect, into real life.  The skeptics, in the end, for want of documentary proof of Shakespeare’s exceptionalism, support the idea of the perpetration of the greatest hoax in literary history because they cannot accept  the reality of this genius.

Maybe he was indeed a fluke of history – given exactly the right time and environment for his genius to flourish.   Maybe these circumstances only converge once every 500 or 1,000 years.   Yet I firmly believe that there are or will be other young William Shakespeares, gazing at a cobblestone road or the sky from a bedroom window and dreaming  of distant lands and of people whom they may never meet, but seem to already know.   All they might need is a pen, paper and enough adult awareness to recognize the breadth of a child’s imagination and the power of their insight to shape and change the world.


One Response to Good William Hunting

  1. Chris Kaiser says:

    Hi Avi, thanks for this discussion on the Shakespeare authorship question. I’m not an expert, but I have had an interest in this topic every since I had asked a question as an undergrad. The question dealt with the meaning of a particular passage in a Shakespeare play. The teacher said that she didn’t know what it meant, and that there are many things we don’t know about the plays. I was dumbstruck because intuitively I felt that this man bled his life and soul into his works and that if we know the man we know his work and vice versa. Shortly after that class, I found the underground movement that espouses the man from Stratford didn’t write the plays.

    One thing that I would quibble about regarding your point of view above is that you state some of the plays were written after de Vere’s death and that “fact” proves he cannot be the author. But the dating of the plays has problems. First, the mainstream Stratfordians have carefully dated the plays to reflect the known dates of William of Stratford’s life in London. In other words, they filled in the blanks to suit their chronological needs. So, relying on those dates to prove William of Stratford was the author is rather circuitous. Second, some research suggests that the events in so-called later plays that signify an origin later than 1604 can be traced to events and/or sources before 1604, which leaves open the dating of plays to suit Edward de Vere as the author.

    Is it possible that imagination can be the sole driver that manifested in the Shakespeare canon? Yes. The problem is there is no evidence at all that William of Stratford was a writer. There is no evidence from contemporaries that he was a gifted genius. The reference you cite from Robert Greene — the “upstart crow” reference — has been suggested and fairly well proven — to my satisfaction – that Greene was referring to an actor/manager, not a playwright. See works by Stephanie Hughes. Hughes also writes convincingly that “Robert Greene” was another pseudonym for Edward de Vere, which gives de Vere a nice long apprenticeship as a working writer during the early beginnings of the English Renaissance.

    I have found Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Outliers” to be very instructive regarding what we like to call natural genius. Gladwell cites person after person who actually had at least a ten-year apprenticeship before they became proficient in their respective fields. These include The Beatles, Bill Gates and other lesser known names. The magic number is ten years that one must devote to one’s craft before he or she becomes an overnight success. In some cases, the apprenticeship is not a deliberate well-defined period, but more of happenstance. In the case of the Beatles, they just happened to get some gigs in Hamburg and were able to play long days (up to 15-18 hours a day) before crowds honing their craft. In the case of Bill Gates, he actually got “computer” time while in early high school.

    It’s obvious why Stratfordians want to disconnect the plays from any autobiographical interpretation, and use pure imaginative genius to explain them. Because there is no evidence that the man had a literary career. Even when William of Stratford died, no one in Stratford, according to the records, batted an eyelash. There was no outpouring of testimonials for this naturally gifted genius as there were such outpourings for lesser talents of the day.

    I also suggest reading Waugaman et al Scandinavian Psychoanalytic Review (2009)32,105-115 and Waugaman Brief Chronicles Vol. I (2009) 34-48. Waugaman explores the psychology of creativity. He suggests we do a disservice to many, including Shakespeare, by relying on pure genius to illustrate the process of creativity. These two sources I cite by no means close the book on the authorship question, but they do address a fundamental tenet of the authorship question: Was Shakespeare’s genius “natural” or a product of his learning and life? This debate should be more than a polarized discussion of he said/she said. It should be more than a discussion of the psychology of doubters, as Shipiro has fashioned. It should be one that is rich in new ideas, new scholarship from various domains of thinking, and it should be, more importantly, allowed.

    The actual playwriting mechanics of many of the plays is shaky at best, in terms of plot and structure. There is no doubt that Shakespeare’s poetry towers over his contemporaries, as does his connection with the psychology of human desires and foibles. There also have been many books written documenting the actual intelligence of the plays in terms of astronomy, medicine, botany, law, geography, language and linguistics, religion and contemporary events. Imagination is one thing, but nuanced knowledge of seemingly insignificant and irrelevant information – in the context of the plays, in the ability to move the dramatic action forward or further define a character – is another thing. Shakespeare’s plays and poems are filled with the author’s knowledge of the world around him. The plays stand the test of time partly because the man did not seemingly write from a didactic position. He seems to have written from a human interest position, from a position of wanting to entertain and inform and have fun with his contemporaries, at least in the early comedies, and regarding the tragedies, again from a position of deep deep feeling. Yet, his plays are filled with nuanced knowledge that seems to call for, at the very least, a widely read man and one who talked frequently with others who were widely read.

    Could William of Stratford have been widely read and have an incredible imagination? Yes. But there is no evidence. To me, one of the most damning pieces of evidence against the man is the illiteracy in his family. Both parents were illiterate, as were both his daughters. Could the man who penned the Shakespeare canon have raised his children to be illiterate? Yes, but it seems highly unlikely.

    As you say, the evidence we have to go on is sparse. But I would suggest that you can read more about natural genius and about Edward de Vere to inform your opinion further.

    Chris Kaiser

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