Where there’s a Will or the Shakespeare who dun-nit

Where there’s a Will or who really wrote Shakespeare?

St George’s Day in 1616 was an historic day. On the feast of England’s patron saint in Stratford-upon-Avon one of its (and England’s) most notable sons died.

William Shakespeare passed from this life to his eternal reward in the town where he had been born in 1564. The glover’s son whose father fell from grace into bankruptcy avoided following in his father’s shoes. Money and respectability seem to figure high in Shakespeare’s life – although it is a dangerous business to form a character from the accidental survival of odd documents. Moreover, there’s probably no one who makes it to the top in Tudor England for whom money and gentility were not aspirationally important – think of Bess of Hardwicke.

William Shakespeare was respectable to his end – he died a gentleman with his own coat of arms. This is the Shakespeare almost immediately was eulogised as England’s bard – by another well known playwright who knew Shakespeare – Ben Jonson –  who famously called him the sweet swan of Avon. Despite what many may now choose to believe no one then doubted this Shakespeare was the same man who wrote the plays, sonnets and long epic poems for which he is rightly lauded.

Indeed the debate about authorship came late to the Shakespeare banquet – being served-up as a dainty intellectual dish for connoisseurs only in the nineteenth century. Since those improbable beginnings it has grown into a full blown industry. It is the very acme of conspiracy theories. Today it is up there with the proponents of Intelligent Design fighting for a respectable place in the academic world. And as with Intelligent Design it is really a matter of mind over matter since its proponents have already made up their minds before they consider the absurdity of their conjecture.This – like the da Vinci Code – is is a world of ciphers in hidden passages leading to no certain conclusion. It is to historicity as Indiana Jones is to archaeology.

Into this teaming ferment of nonsense posing as sense we have the added distraction of Shakespeare’s last published work. Shakespeare’s will has landed the dramatist into further hot water. It today remains one of his most controversial of all the things he wrote. I refer of course to the infamous bequest to his wife. In his will the bard of Avon left her his second best bed.This has often been presented as a snub – it may have been but most likely the best bed was reserved for guests and the second best bed was indeed the marriage bed. It may well have been a warm gesture to a warm marriage rather than the cold shoulder to a cold one as some have understandably but mistakenly supposed.

The last will usefully confirms even to doubters that at least there was a Shakespeare who lived and died in Stratford. The signature on the will tells us something more. It is in a hand that is remarkably similar to the writing that has been found in parts of the play Thomas More – a play now partly attributed to Shakespeare. This same hand that signed the will penned a series of short soliloquies and brief scenes in this less known history play – which, as well as looking to historians as if written by this Shakespeare, sound remarkably like they have been penned by the other Shakespeare – the one we are told wrote the famous plays – the one person who it is not disputed composed much of what is termed the main canon of thirty odd plays – the man who is author of Henry IV, Julius Caesar, Hamlet, King Lear, Merchant of Venice, Winter’s Tale and As You like It to name but a few obvious plays.

Literary scholarship – which has done so very much to deepen and round our understanding both of composition and method – has added and taken plays from that canon. There are plays, like Edward III, parts of which scholars now identify as Shakespeare having a hand in; and others like Henry VIII and Two Noble Kinsmen where we know for example Shakespeare corroborated with another playwright – in this case with Fletcher. Textual analysis has also deepened our understanding not only of words and classical allusions in the plays and poetry but in identifying for examples how the use of doubles (characters playing more than one part) was accommodated in the text. Thus, the order of scenes and soliloquies was as often the result of a practical need of the players to change their costume as they moved seamlessly from one role to another as much as result of the inspiration of the artistic muse. Who ever wrote these plays knew an awful lot about the business of the stage. And it is undisputed even amongst the Baconites and Oxfordians that the historical Will Shakespeare of Stratford was a player in the London theatre. This Shakespeare was a master of his trade even if he was thought of as a Jack of all Trades by some more experienced writers at the beginning of his career.

Yes, there again we have the allusion to Shakespeare being a bit of a scene-stealer. Well, is that altogether surprising? An actor needs to have an ego – the strutting world of drama is not a place for the self-effacing.  This derisory comment was made early in the 1590’s when Shakespeare was writing his very first plays. He may well have been a jobbing dramatist as much as a jobbing actor. Those who believe some one else wrote Shakespeare see this early review of his prose and poetry as a conclusive sign that there was something afoot or someone else used Shakespeare as the true bard’s beard. This of course somewhat misunderstands how early Renaissance dramatists worked.

Elizabethan dramatists followed the collective practices of medieval playwrights and those of the royal revels and other aristocratic household players. Shakespeare himself gives us something of an bird’s eye view of this world and its rivalries and ambitions in the play set within the play in Hamlet.The Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre was also a bustling marketplace. In competition for audiences its entertainments were churned out one after another; each following the fickle tastes of the day; each re-telling familiar stories in its own way. Just like there may be many versions of the pantomime story – many Cinderellas or Sleeping Beauties or Dick Wittingtons – so there were many versions of dramatic moments from history or many stage settings of stories culled from the classical repertoire retold in new words. Here again we have an illustration penned by Shakespeare himself when Bottom and the amateur troop in Midsummer Night’s Dream seek to entertain their monarchs is with an unintentionally hilarious play based on Ovid’s Pyramus and Thisbē (Metamorphoses).

To keep pace with popular demand jobbing writers probably worked on bits and pieces of any numbers of plays in repertoire. They would write in new scenes as rehearsal or first performance or practicality of doubling or availability of talent required.  This may seem shocking to our modern Romantic sensibility – where we conceive a play will be a single artistic expression of the writer. But these haphazard pressures stimulated great writers and inspired their writing. It also stimulated the duller work of unremarkable writers much of which is lost. This practice was found again in the baroque and classical period when there were many jobbing composers in royal and aristocratic courts. Above all we should recall that the early movies; early radio and early television were similar marketplaces which called forth all sorts of talent who worked together to compose a entertainment.

This practice continues on in many of the best loved American and British TV soaps and TV comedies which often have a group of writers – one or two who are often more prominent – who work together to write to the perceived strengths of the actors in the series.

Great opera was written in the same teeming manner and in the nineteenth century composers shamelessly plagiarized their own works to provide music for a new opera for another opera house. Most of the overtures to the Gilbert and Sullivan operas were put together by juniors in the employ of Sullivan and Richard D’Oyly Carte. Mozart’s pupil Sussmayer was asked to finish his Requiem. Artistic pupils often helped with orchestration and copying – learning their parts by assisting a principal composer.

The Romantic notion of great men having a singular vision and a sole part in producing great art is compelling but ultimately false. The exceptions such as Wagner, Berlioz and Britten are notable for being exceptional. Certainly in the tumult of Elizabethan  and Jacobean theatre great dramatists tower over the collective but the patchwork of different hands in the texts of plays should not surprise us. Rather we should think of these companies as the nursery of the stars – not unalike the studio system that helped create Hollywood in the early twentieth century.

There are two recurring themes fueling the theorists who pose the question – who really wrote Shakespeare? First, a supposition that as there is scant historical evidence for and about the prominent player and playwright from Stratford in contemporary sources that he must be bogus; and secondly, there is the Victorian class snobbery that a man of such a lowly station could hardly write such the plays.

I am not a professional student of the late sixteenth century but there are plenty of references to be found to Shakespeare in printed sources. We know quite a lot about Will Shakespeare. The fact is late Elizabethan records are much fuller and cover a much wider canvass than those I know for the mid Tudor monarchs and their courtiers – let alone their dramatists and poets.

And we may as well lay to rest the silly notion that a Shakespeare could not known much about how great courts and houses worked. He was part of the greatest of all houses since he was licensed by the Lord Chamberlain and his company were indeed first the lord Chamberlain’s men and later the kings’ men. They played at court. They knew the officers of the revels.They would have been familiar with all the public ritual of great household. Shakespeare additionally himself certainly had a close intimate relationship with the earl of Southampton’s household – whether or not there was a sexual liaison is speculative – but Shakespeare was clearly in the employ of the earl and would have been attendant in his privy chamber as his poet. It may well have inspired the opening scene in Twelfth Night – with Orsino in his private chamber being consoled with a song  – if music be the food of love , play on…

Finally, Shakespeare’s grammar school education would easily have equipped him for his intellectual part.This was the school system that gave us Wolsey; Cranmer; Cromwell; Gardiner; More; Fisher; William Cecil and on to name but a few. Its humanist curriculum was commonplace of the educated elite. We have noted above for example Ovid. Passages from the works of the great Roman poet were construed and formed a shared cultural lingua franca. Take for example – the great description of the arrival of Cleopatra’s barge at Tarsus – which marks the start of her liaison with Mark Anthony – it’s given to Enobarbus in Antony and Cleopatra. It strikes us a remarkable – it would have struck the educated in Shakespeare’s audience as familiar too – as a clever reworking of Ovid’s quite similar description, purple sails and all. That does not demean the art or artistry it merely points to the fact that these were famous passages any with a grammar school education would have known and perhaps loved.

Shakespeare is special – we interestingly use the quasi religious word canon for his works.

This is the term theologians use for the collection of laws of the church; writings of great philosophers like Aquinas and Scotus and the long, central, prayer said in Mass (or Holy Communion) which includes the elevation is also called the canon.

Shakespeare’s works from early on held a special place. He wasn’t modest about them in any event. His plays have been widely read and widely performed through his lifetime and beyond. The plays have inspired politicians from the elder Pitt to Lincoln; from Lloyd george, Woodrow Wilson and include John F Kennedy and obviously Churchill –  as well as priests, popes, and actors as well as writers. They are undoubtedly works of genius. They are largely the work of one man. We need not elevate his chalice of words into the sacred but nor should we reduce the elements of his genius to the dross of fools gold.

Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare – the swan of Avon swam the channel of words and meter to give us the glory that we rightly treasure. The rest is sound and fury signifying nothing…


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