“Done to death by slanderous tongue
Was the Hero that here lies”
Much Ado About Nothing (Act V, Scene III)
William Shakespeare and his plays are, in themselves, a paradox. In the fantastical literary works, we are given old stories, with quilled magic touched upon them. Yet when we delve past those wholesome words, and in trying to find the man behind the bard, the extremely fragmentary pieces of personality discovered only seem to compound and deepen the mystery, shrouding him evermore in darkness.
With only the finished product, we yearn for the thought process of Shakespeare, how he wrote what he did, we can reasonably ascertain why he wrote what he did if we look at the context of the world around him. He writes as any musician, artist or poet does today, with the audiences in his mind. The play ‘As You Like It’ is a good example of this, he says to his audience ‘Here, you love comedy so, then here it is, just as you like it’.
The gloriously romantic notion of him sitting alone at a desk, the cacophony of noise from a bustling Elizabethan London cascading through his window, as he scribbled away furiously with his ink stained fingers is… well, we have no idea if that is even true. Or indeed we have no idea if that’s false either. Thus it comes to various quarters using manipulative scholarship, removing the context from the narrative of his life, and replacing it with idealism and circumspect reasoning, and in this case, replacing Shakespeare altogether.
In Shakespeare Part two we will attempt to produce some linear understanding amid the chaos of wanton interpretation. Are the anti-Stratfordians really making ‘much ado about nothing?’
We delve straight into the very heart of the debate between the two armed camps of anti-Stratfordians and Stratfordians, the issue of the works being much too clever for a mere son of Stratford to have penned. Only a noble of high born blood could have possibly known of the intricate workings of court life, of the glamour and glitz of 16th century Italy, and other depths of human knowledge such as medicine, military affairs and antiquarian studies. It is true; the eloquence shown through the works belie the upbringing of William Shakespeare from Stratford. So, the question we must ask, is just how educated would Shakespeare have been?
The school records from the grammar school Shakespeare would have attended are long vanished (Bryson, 2006). This is a huge shame, as it could have told us unequivocally whether Shakespeare attended. Parts of history are lost to another world, and all we are left with are calculated assumptions based upon his father’s status at the time. We must also consider his father John Shakespeare’s role in the community that would have made his son not just eligible for education, but a compulsory matter of fact.
The school he would have attended was King’s New School, which was located in Guild Hall on Church Street in Stratford (Graham, 2003). The school is now a local landmark that still stands in Stratford, and is now named the King Edward VI Grammar school. It is even possible to see the very classroom of Shakespeare itself (if of course there are not classes taking place).
In the Tudor period, the school was open to any young male from the area, regardless of dubious intelligence or ability, just as long as they could read and write. We assume of course, that young Shakespeare could do both. An interesting fact is that King’s school was of a high standard of the time and graciously supported by the town (Bryson, 2006).
Boys in Elizabethan England were able to obtain a good education; beginning school around the age of seven, remaining there until they were about fourteen, where they would then go onto a University.
Shakespeare would have been fourteen in 1577, and this is the period in which his father suffered financial breakdown, thus Shakespeare was unable to attend university. To actually educate these young minds it was thought best to keep them at school for 11 hours or more, beginning at 6am. Schooling took place over a tedious 6 days a week. I dare say their school dinners were better though…
But, what was the syllabus like? Well, from what we know, it wouldn’t have been much like what we are used to today. They were treated to healthy dose of Classical studies and the art of Rhetoric, with the studying of works by Seneca, Cicero and Plautus.
This is of course in Latin too; Latin was the staple part of the education process. Ancient Greek classics would be studied… in Greek naturally. Aesop’s Fables would have certainly been a part of the curriculum (Graham, 2003) His awareness of tortoises and hares would have been astronomical of course, as well as the morality style of storytelling, which he does so well.
In effect, Shakespeare would have been armed to the teeth with the knowledge of the Classics and the Ancient World, and he would use this knowledge to great effect in his plays, combining this knowledge with his capacity for the knowledge of human character, from Icarus and his failed ambitions, to the tragic hero Aeneas and the founding of Rome.
Except the education Shakespeare was subjected to would not have included the other things he speaks so much of in his plays, such as mathematics or geography and indeed, love. These weren’t considered entirely necessary for one’s education. Effectively, wherever Shakespeare managed to obtain this knowledge, it wasn’t from his school. (Bryson, 2006)
Much is made of the theory of Shakespeare’s works being written by a noble. So much so in fact, this whole piece is based upon this foundation idea. Whoever it was who wrote the plays, it is claimed, had knowledge on a vast amount of subjects, principally the knowledge of geography and politics.
Shakespeare was not of noble birth, he was therefore unable to have such knowledge at his disposal. Thus it is argued that only a noble with money and breeding could have gained these insights. On the one hand the notion of a very educated hand behind the pen is extremely evident; in the plays are mentioned one hundred and eighty different types of plant, and over 200 legal terms.
Which one is sure, is rather a large number. But when you couple this with the Age of Exploration occurring at the same time, it is by no means impossible that these ideas and knowledge would have experienced a diffusion around London, all it needed was a pricked ear and the right dose of imagination and you have the perception of deep knowledge.
Plus Shakespeare could evidently read, there was literature available as to these subjects. Again, we just don’t know if Shakespeare had partaken in any light reading on botany.
However, where the Anti-Stratfordians draw most of their ammunition is Shakespeare’s knowledge of geography. He describes places and cultural curiosities that must have only come from first-hand experience, like, say a noble would have had.
Yet there are mistakes to be found that seem to contradict this theory. Mistakes that evidently would have arisen from listening to tales of these places, rather than actually seeing them with one’s own eyes, as are purported. Shakespeare’s biggest irony is his knowledge of the one place he writes so much of: Italy. In ‘The Taming of The Shrew’ he puts a man who makes sails in the city of Bergamo, which is a city very far inland, and as such unable to support any kind of seafaring economy. He is armed with a casual shrugging off attitude towards facts.
Again in ‘The Tempest’ and ‘The Two Gentleman of Verona’ he has two characters set sail immediately from Milan and of course, Verona, which is a hard two days travel to the nearest sea. Although they could have used the river to the sea, Shakespeare makes no mention of it. These are not easy mistakes to make if one is acquainted with the area. In the case of Edward De Vere, whom I touched upon in Part I as a candidate, he reputedly spent much time in Italy, and spoke a good degree of Italian, so very tantalising, yet so far. As De Vere, never would have made those mistakes, the shame enough would be unbearable.
To accuse Shakespeare of being not worldly enough is selective scholarship. As what he is most famous for, and where his true genius lies, is in the nature of people, of emotion, and in the evocation of love and loss, intrigue and despair. These are things not taught in school, Elizabethan or otherwise. Shakespeare does not portray intelligence as an academic; he produces an assimilation of knowledge that can be acquired from just speaking and listening. Shakespeare writes as an observer, rather than a protagonist. And as men of Elizabethan London spent most of their time frequenting taverns and ale houses, it is not wholly unremarkable that he may have picked up these snippets of knowledge.
Shakespeare was a true wordsmith, he was florid and verbose, and sometimes it is even traceable when he gets carried away with a speech or a eulogy. If he was anymore learned, I dare say he would become a little insufferable to read. He was a writer that just loved his language; ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ for example contains no prefix of social commentary or psychology. It is a man who has a talent for words, and he is expressing them for the pleasure of himself, the audience, and of course, the pleasure of his purse.
If a noble had written these plays, it would have been almost compulsory to let their intellect burst through the page, to show off learning and education. Ben Johnson, arguably Shakespeare’s most talented contemporary, shows off his knowledge to such an extent it is almost dripping from every word. Take for example this passage from ‘Catiline’:
‘Dost thou not feel me, Rome? not yet! is night So heavy on thee, and my weight so light? Can Sylla’s ghost arise within thy walls, Less threatening than an earthquake, the quick falls Of thee and thine? Shake not the frighted heads Of thy steep towers, or shrink to their first beds? Or as their ruin the large Tyber fills, Make that swell up, and drown thy seven proud hills?…’ (B.Johnson: ‘Catiline’)
His words are laced with meaning and intelligence. A style unlike Shakespeare’s when writing on a similar subject. He concentrates more on delivery and dramatics:
‘And in their steads do ravens, crows and kites,
Fly o’er our heads and downward look on us,
As we were sickly prey: their shadows seem
A canopy most fatal, under which
Our army lies, ready to give up the ghost.’
(Julius Caesar, 5, 1)
Johnson, it is also reputed, intellectually scoffed at Shakespeare’s ‘The Winter’s Tale’ because Shakespeare set it in Bohemia, a place Shakespeare had just made up. Not the done thing it seems for an intelligent mind to partake in, all that whimsical imagination and such.
Shakespeare’s true knowledge resides in the little things. These are surprising too, especially if you support the notion of Shakespeare being a fraud and a noble having written them. They show a high proportionate of things only a ‘provincial’ would have known.
Shakespeare evokes powerful imagery of rural life, in fact not just rural life, but of his own indigenous area of Warwickshire to be precise. Two lines from the poem ‘Cymbeline’:
‘Golden lads and girls all must,
As chimney sweepers, come to dust’
At first glance this shares nothing in regards to information. However when one couples these lines with the knowledge that in sixteenth century Warwickshire, a ‘golden lad’ is an expression to describe a flowering dandelion. And a dandelion that was about to spread its essence was known as a, you guessed it, a chimney sweep. (Bate, 1997)
This, one would certainly ascertain would not be knowledge known to any self-respecting noble. Besides, even if it was a noble who wrote it, who actually is more likely to have written it? My money would be on the man from Stratford.
Not only this, Shakespeare has rural knowledge bursting through his rhetoric. Specifically, as his father was a leather worker. He presents solid knowledge of tanning in his plays. Things like ‘skin bowgets’ and ‘neats oil’ things that are of conversational nature between tanners. And of which a man with Shakespeare’s background would have only been too aware of.
In ‘Henry IV’ Shakespeare has Sir John Falstaff bragging that: ‘I could have crept into any aldermans thumb-ring’. The question can be raised as to who is more likely to insert such an image, a noble or a man whose father was an alderman himself?
Admittedly this is selective scholarship on my part, but by no means less than others. It can serve to show that for every piece of evidence to defame Shakespeare, another two or three can be found to place him back on his pedestal. It is easy to discover evidence when one look’s for it, and when one has a context to put it into, thus one can have the illusion of proof. Whereas what one does acquire, is merely the proof of illusion.
The most damning evidence against the anti-Stratfordians is the unequivocal fact that nobody at all in Shakespeare’s own lifetime ever once questioned the veracity of his authorship. Men that would have known him, spoken to him, heard his works in person and even seen Shakespeare act his parts himself.
None of these men ever rose but an eyebrow in question. Although one or two did manage to snort pompous derision in his direction, as we shall see.
When the actors told of the admiration they had of Shakespeare and his ability to not cross out or ‘blot’ a single line he had written (incidentally, it is something that the majestic composer Amadeus Mozart is also accredited with) Ben Johnson famously replied: ‘Ah would he had blotted a thousand!’ Johnson spoke at length about Shakespeare, his eulogy written in 1618 and placed at the beginning of the First Folio can almost put no doubt as to the admiration of Shakespeare and his work:
‘To the Memory of My Beloved, the Author, Mr. William Shakespeare’
‘Soul of the age!
The applause, delight, the wonder of our stage!
My Shakespeare, rise; I will not lodge thee by
Chaucer or Spenser, or bid Beaumont lie
A little further, to make thee a room;
Thou art a monument, without a tomb,
And art alive still, while thy book doth live,
And we have wits to read, and praise to give’
Johnson would have known Shakespeare, spoken to him, maybe even argued with him about their respective works, and maybe, to partake in a little romanticism, even exchanged ideas. But not once does Johnson ever give any inclination as to any doubt about Shakespeare. So even if Shakespeare was a fake, to fool a playwright such as Ben Johnson, Shakespeare would have had to be able to talk the talk, as well as having a well-cut jib.
Shakespeare had his share of criticism though. The most famous of these is a remark about him by one Robert Greene in 1592, in the early years of Shakespeare’s fame. In his work ‘Groatswoth of Witte’ he wrote this immortal passage:
‘for there is an upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his Tygers hart wrapt in a Players hyde, supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blanke verse as the best of you: and beeing an absolute Johannes fac totum, is in his owne conceit the onely Shake-scene in a countrey.’
He calls ‘Shake-scene’ an ‘upstart crow’. And his line ‘Tygers hart wrapt in a Players hyde’ is a clear reference to Shakespeare’s ‘Henry VI’, Act III: “O tiger’s heart wrapped in a woman’s hide”. It is unknown what is actually meant by this scathing attack. But the very fact that Greene, who was a minor playwright and a pamphleteer, with a University education at no less than Oxford, would deem Shakespeare worthy of note in any manner. This is very worthy of note, as it shows that Shakespeare was a known playwright by this date, and his talents as such were highly regarded enough to be put down. In addition a ‘Johannes fac totem’ that Greene mentions is loosely translated as ‘Jack of all trades’ supporting Shakespeare as an actor and a playwright. And finally, his plays are famous enough for lines to be quoted, or in this case, even parodied.
To conclude, Shakespeare is mentioned in accounts from the Jacobean period especially. In the ‘Master of Revels Accounts’ of 1604/1605, Shakespeare is mentioned as author of no less than seven plays performed before the king. He is formally identified on the cover of sonnets and on the dedications, works such as ‘Venus and Adonis’ quite literally have his name on them.
The views expressed against William Shakespeare are colourful, imaginative, and at once wonderfully intriguing. But they lack something the Stratfordians have an abundance of: evidence. Why is it so difficult to believe a minor man could have the genius to pen these words? I have read many comments (far too many) stating this simple line ‘They just can’t be written by him’.
The human race longs to find mystery where there are only darker shades of grey. William Shakespeare is a man who is hidden behind the shadow of history, as are billions of others, yet what we must truly recognise is the simple fact that his plays did survive, his sonnets did endure. As a man he is only partially seen and never observed.
The air of mystery will always surround William Shakespeare; but the true mystery should be who he was as a man, not what he did as a writer.
‘Ambition should be made of sterner stuff’
Julius Caesar, ACT 3, Scene 2.
Note: To the player that helped truly set the scene, thanks go to you. -
Bednarz, James P. Shakespeare and the Poets’ War. New York: Columbia University Press, 2001.
Nicholl, Charles, ‘Lodger: Shakespeare on Silver Street’, Penguin Group, 2008.
Starkey, D, ‘Elizabeth’, 2001, London.
Graham, G, ‘Shakespeare: A Crash Course’, 2003, St Helens.
Schoenbaum, S, ‘Shakespeare’s Lives’, 1991, Clarendon.
Nelson, AH, ‘Monstrous Adversary: The Life of Edward De Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford’, 2003
Liverpool University Press, Liverpool.
Grillo, EM, ‘Shakespeare and Italy’, 1949, Haskell House, NY (USA)
http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2011/nov/04/anonymous-shakespeare-film-roland-emmerich. Shakespearean historian and author James Shapiro’s article and responses: ‘Shakespeare – a fraud? Anonymous is ridiculous’. Accessed: January 2012
Edward De Vere’s surviving works can be found here: http://www.shakespeare-oxford.com/?p=125 accessed: December 2011.
And Shakespeare’s works can be found here: http://www.william-shakespeare.info/william-shakespeare-poem-the-rape-of-lucrece.htm Accessed: December/January 2011/12.
Lee, C, ‘1603’, 2003, Review Publishing, London.
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Shapiro, J, 2006, ‘1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare’, Fabber & Fabber, London.
Rosenbaum, R, 2006, ‘The Shakespeare Wars: Clashing Scholars, Public Fiascoes, Palace Coups’, Random House, NY (USA)