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.