by Jonathan Bate
"After God," proclaimed the French novelist
Alexandre Dumas, "Shakespeare has
created most." "Fantastic!" said Hollywood
mogul Samuel Goldwyn on first leafing
through the collected works: "And it was all
written with a feather!"
So who was William Shakespeare? He was born in
Stratford-upon-Avon in 1564. He went to London, became
an actor and wrote about 40 plays, two long poems and
154 sonnets. He returned to Stratford and died in 1616, on
or around his 52nd birthday. Is that all? How could a
mere grammar schoolboy from rural Warwickshire have
known enough about courts and kings to write Hamlet
and Lear, about Italy to have written The Merchant of
Venice, about war to have written Henry V? Where did he
get his vast vocabulary and his knowledge of the law?
Aren't the surviving documents about his life
mysteriously silent about his plays?
It happens every time a Shakespeare scholar reveals
his profession in a taxi cab: "Shakespeare expert, are
you, guv? Tell me something now—did he write all
those plays himself?"
The doubting began two and a half centuries after
Shakespeare's death, with an American lady called
Delia Bacon. She proposed that the plays were really
written by...the philosopher and lawyer Sir Francis
Bacon, a proper scholar and courtier. But the
unfortunate Delia couldn't find any evidence, so she
attempted to dig up Shakespeare's grave in the hope of
finding a secret message from Sir Francis. Not long
after, her family reported with regret that she had been
"removed to an excellent private asylum at Henley-in-Arden—in the forest of Arden"—eight miles from
Stratford, as it happens.
Then along came an Edwardian schoolmaster with a
new theory: Shakespeare's plays were really written by
Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford. That the Earl
was an enthusiastic and sometimes violent pederast is
not necessarily an impediment to his candidacy. A little
local difficulty comes with his death in 1604, before half
the plays were written. He would also have had some
difficulty collaborating with the actors during the long
period when he was in exile abroad for having
committed the unpardonable offence of farting in front
of Queen Elizabeth. The schoolmaster's name? J Thomas Looney.
But there's no shortage of other candidates: 8th Lord
Mountjoy, 7th Earl of Shrewsbury, 6th Earl of Derby,
5th Earl of Rutland, 2nd Earl of Essex, Sir Walter
Raleigh, the Countess of Pembroke, Queen Elizabeth I
and King James I. These names seem to have
something in common. It all boils down to snobbery,
the conviction that such high genius could not have
come from a lowly place. Americans, including Mark
Twain of all people, have often taken this line,
which is curious in a country where it's
supposed to be possible to go from a log cabin
to the White House.
Conspiracy theorists dismiss the man from
Stratford as an imposter. They suppose that he was
an illiterate actor mouthing some greater man's
words. But they cannot explain away the facts.
In his will, Master William Shakespeare of
Stratford-upon-Avon left legacies to his fellow-
actors John Hemmings and Henry Condell. They
in turn edited the First Folio of his collected
works, referring there to his writing techniques
and their close friendship with him. The First
Folio also includes poems by Ben Jonson
attesting to the authentic likeness of the
engraving of Shakespeare on the title-page, to
Shakespeare's authorship of the plays and to his
coming from Stratford ("Sweet swan of Avon",
Jonson calls him). Shakespeare acted in
Jonson's plays, which often quote from his work.
In both his notebook and his conversations with
the Scottish poet Drummond of Hawthornden,
Jonson also spoke about Shakespeare as a
writer (sometimes critically!). Many other
contemporaries also referred to Shakespeare as
a poet and playwright. They range from Sir
George Buc, Master of the Revels at court, to
other dramatists such as Francis Beaumont and
Thomas Heywood, to Leonard Digges, a family
friend of Shakespeare's who was also a writer
himself. Shakespeare's monument in Holy Trinity
Church refers to his literary greatness. It was
seen by a visiting poet soon after his death,
negating the claim of some conspiracy theorists
that it was altered at a later date.
How did a man who did not go to university
write such 'learned' plays? They are actually
much less learned than the plays of his
contemporaries George Chapman and Ben
Jonson, neither of whom went to university. The
simple fact is that the education in Latin
language and literature that Shakespeare got at
the Stratford grammar school puts our modern
curriculum to shame.
How did he know about courts, how to see into
the minds of dukes and kings? Through his
reading and through witnessing the court by
acting there. Payments to him for writing plays
for court performance survive in the chamber
accounts of the royal household. Better
questions would be: how could anyone but a
glover's son have put in his plays so much
accurate technical detail about leather
manufacture and the process of glove-making?
And how could anyone but a professional actor
have filled his plays with inside information about
the nitty-gritty of making theatre?
Plays are not autobiographical confessions.
Shakespeare did not fill his works with portraits of
his acquaintances (though he occasionally makes
joking references to members of his own acting
company and to friends such as his schoolmate
Richard Field, who became the publisher of his
first printed work). What we can unearth in the
plays is better described as the experiential DNA
of the author. A life split between country and city,
Stratford and London; a grammar school
education (the bright but cheeky schoolboy called
William in The Merry Wives of Windsor might just
be a witty self-portrait); a precocious and varied
love life; the direct experience of witnessing
recruiting officers mustering for the militia in rural
Warwickshire and Gloucestershire; some basic
legal language learned from a life of litigation;
above all, a constant awareness that all the world's
a stage, all the men and women merely players.
The seven ages of man are at one and the same
time the seven ages of Everyman and of that
unique genius named William Shakespeare.
Disappointing as it is to acknowledge, the mighty
dramatist was provincial and middle-class, and his
life was distinctly uneventful. His rival Christopher
Marlowe moved in a world of espionage, thuggery,
buggery and skulduggery. His collaborator George
Wilkins had a second career as a brothel-keeper
with a history of beating up the girls who worked
for him. And as for Ben Jonson, who was both a
friend and a rival: he fought in the Dutch wars,
killed a fellow actor in a street brawl and was
thrown into prison for writing subversive plays.
Will Shakespeare was neither a fabulous aristocrat
nor a flamboyant gay double agent. He was a
grammar school boy from an obscure town in
middle England, whose main concern was to keep
out of trouble and to better himself and his family.
He came from a perfectly unremarkable
background. That's the most remarkable thing of all.
Maybe it was because Shakespeare was a nobody
that he could become everybody. He speaks to
every nation in every age because he understood
what it is to be human. He didn't lead the life of
the pampered aristocracy. He was a working
craftsman who had to make his daily living and to
face the problems that we all face every day. His
life was ordinary—it was his mind that was
extraordinary. His imagination leapt to every
corner of the earth and every age of history,
through fantasy and dream, yet it was always
rooted in the real.
He shows us what it is to be human. But what was
it like being Shakespeare? That is the question we
ask in our play.
Explore Being Shakespeare