I present for your edification and enjoyment, two chapters from Mark Twain’s short biography of one “Will Shaksper”, or William Shakespeare, the man from Stratford. Twain, nee Clemens, had some singular and small doubts about some of the more popular claims about this great writer (for example, that he was who he was claimed to be).
But, I’ll say no more, and let the great Mississippi Riverboat Pilot speak for himself.
Is Shakespeare Dead?
by Mark Twain
How curious and interesting is the parallel—as far as poverty of biographical details is concerned—between Satan and Shakespeare. It is wonderful, it is unique, it stands quite alone, there is nothing resembling it in history, nothing resembling it in romance, nothing approaching it even in tradition. How sublime is their position, and how over-topping, how sky-reaching, how supreme—the two Great Unknowns, the two Illustrious Conjecturabilities! They are the best-known unknown persons that have ever drawn breath upon the planet.
For the instruction of the ignorant I will make a list, now, of those details of Shakespeare’s history which are facts—verified facts, established facts, undisputed facts.
- He was born on the 23d of April, 1564.
- Of good farmer-class parents who could not read, could not write, could not sign their names.
- At Stratford, a small back settlement which in that day was shabby and unclean, and densely illiterate. Of the nineteen important men charged with the government of the town, thirteen had to “make their mark” in attesting important documents, because they could not write their names.
Of the first eighteen years of his life nothing is known. They are a blank.
On the 27th of November (1582) William Shakespeare took out a license to marry Anne Whateley.
Next day William Shakespeare took out a license to marry Anne Hathaway. She was eight years his senior.
William Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway. In a hurry. By grace of a reluctantly-granted dispensation there was but one publication of the banns.
Within six months the first child was born.
About two (blank) years followed, during which period nothing at all happened to Shakespeare, so far as anybody knows.
Then came twins—1585. February.
Two blank years follow.
Then—1587—he makes a ten-year visit to London, leaving the family behind.
Five blank years follow. During this period nothing happened to him, as far as anybody actually knows.
Then—1592—there is mention of him as an actor.
Next year—1593—his name appears in the official list of players.
Next year—1594—he played before the queen. A detail of no consequence: other obscurities did it every year of the forty-five of her reign. And remained obscure.
Three pretty full years follow. Full of play-acting. Then..
In 1597 he bought New Place, Stratford.
Thirteen or fourteen busy years follow; years in which he accumulated money, and also reputation as actor and manager.
Meantime his name, liberally and variously spelt, had become associated with a number of great plays and poems, as (ostensibly) author of the same.
Some of these, in these years and later, were pirated, but he made no protest. Then—1610-11—he returned to Stratford and settled down for good and all, and busied himself in lending money, trading in tithes, trading in land and houses; shirking a debt of forty-one shillings, borrowed by his wife during his long desertion of his family; suing debtors for shillings and coppers; being sued himself for shillings and coppers; and acting as confederate to a neighbor who tried to rob the town of its rights in a certain common, and did not succeed.
He lived five or six years—till 1616—in the joy of these elevated pursuits. Then he made a will, and signed each of its three pages with his name.
A thoroughgoing business man’s will. It named in minute detail every item of property he owned in the world—houses, lands, sword, silver-gilt bowl, and so on—all the way down to his “second-best bed” and its furniture.
It carefully and calculatingly distributed his riches among the members of his family, overlooking no individual of it. Not even his wife: the wife he had been enabled to marry in a hurry by urgent grace of a special dispensation before he was nineteen; the wife whom he had left husbandless so many years; the wife who had had to borrow forty-one shillings in her need, and which the lender was never able to collect of the prosperous husband, but died at last with the money still lacking. No, even this wife was remembered in Shakespeare’s will.
He left her that “second-best bed.”
And not another thing; not even a penny to bless her lucky widowhood with.
It was eminently and conspicuously a business man’s will, not a poet’s.
It mentioned not a single book.
Books were much more precious than swords and silver-gilt bowls and second-best beds in those days, and when a departing person owned one he gave it a high place in his will.
The will mentioned not a play, not a poem, not an unfinished literary work, not a scrap of manuscript of any kind.
Many poets have died poor, but this is the only one in history that has died this poor; the others all left literary remains behind. Also a book. Maybe two.
If Shakespeare had owned a dog—but we need not go into that: we know he would have mentioned it in his will. If a good dog, Susanna would have got it; if an inferior one his wife would have got a dower interest in it. I wish he had had a dog, just so we could see how painstakingly he would have divided that dog among the family, in his careful business way.
He signed the will in three places.
In earlier years he signed two other official documents.
These five signatures still exist.
There are no other specimens of his penmanship in existence. Not a line.
Was he prejudiced against the art?
His granddaughter, whom he loved, was eight years old when he died, yet she had had no teaching, he left no provision for her education although he was rich, and in her mature womanhood she couldn’t write and couldn’t tell her husband’s manuscript from anybody else’s—she thought it was Shakespeare’s.
When Shakespeare died in Stratford it was not an event. It made no more stir in England than the death of any other forgotten theatre-actor would have made. Nobody came down from London; there were no lamenting poems, no eulogies, no national tears—there was merely silence, and nothing more.
A striking contrast with what happened when Ben Jonson, and Francis Bacon, and Spenser, and Raleigh and the other distinguished literary folk of Shakespeare’s time passed from life! No praiseful voice was lifted for the lost Bard of Avon; even Ben Jonson waited seven years before he lifted his.
- So far as anybody actually knows and can prove, Shakespeare of Stratford-on-Avon never wrote a play in his life.
- So far as anybody knows and can prove, he never wrote a letter to anybody in his life.
- So far as any one knows, he received only one letter during his life.
- So far as any one knows and can prove, Shakespeare of Stratford wrote only one poem during his life. This one is authentic. He did write that one—a fact which stands undisputed; he wrote the whole of it; he wrote the whole of it out of his own head. He commanded that this work of art be engraved upon his tomb, and he was obeyed. There it abides to this day. This is it:
Good friend for Iesus sake forbeare
To digg the dust encloased heare:
Blest be ye man yt spares thes stones
And curst be he yt moves my bones.
In the list as above set down, will be found every positively known fact of Shakespeare’s life, lean and meagre as the invoice is. Beyond these details we know not a thing about him. All the rest of his vast history, as furnished by the biographers, is built up, course upon course, of guesses, inferences, theories, conjectures—an Eiffel Tower of artificialities rising sky-high from a very flat and very thin foundation of inconsequential facts.
The historians “suppose” that Shakespeare attended the Free School in Stratford from the time he was seven years old till he was thirteen. There is no evidence in existence that he ever went to school at all.
The historians “infer” that he got his Latin in that school—the school which they “suppose” he attended.
They “suppose” his father’s declining fortunes made it necessary for him to leave the school they supposed he attended, and get to work and help support his parents and their ten children. But there is no evidence that he ever entered or retired from the school they suppose he attended.
They “suppose” he assisted his father in the butchering business; and that, being only a boy, he didn’t have to do full-grown butchering, but only slaughtered calves. Also, that whenever he killed a calf he made a high-flown speech over it.
This supposition rests upon the testimony of a man who wasn’t there at the time; a man who got it from a man who could have been there, but did not say whether he was or not; and neither of them thought to mention it for decades, and decades, and decades, and two more decades after Shakespeare’s death (until old age and mental decay had refreshed and vivified their memories).
They hadn’t two facts in stock about the long-dead distinguished citizen, but only just the one: he slaughtered calves and broke into oratory while he was at it. Curious.
They had only one fact, yet the distinguished citizen had spent twenty-six years in that little town—just half his lifetime. However, rightly viewed, it was the most important fact, indeed almost the only important fact, of Shakespeare’s life in Stratford. Rightly viewed.
For experience is an author’s most valuable asset; experience is the thing that puts the muscle and the breath and the warm blood into the book he writes. Rightly viewed, calf-butchering accounts for Titus Andronicus, the only play—ain’t it?—that the Stratford Shakespeare ever wrote; and yet it is the only one everybody tries to chouse him out of, the Baconians included.
The historians find themselves “justified in believing” that the young Shakespeare poached upon Sir Thomas Lucy’s deer preserves and got haled before that magistrate for it. But there is no shred of respectworthy evidence that anything of the kind happened.
The historians, having argued the thing that might have happened into the thing that did happen, found no trouble in turning Sir Thomas Lucy into Mr. Justice Shallow. They have long ago convinced the world—on surmise and without trustworthy evidence—that Shallow is Sir Thomas.
The next addition to the young Shakespeare’s Stratford history comes easy. The historian builds it out of the surmised deer-stealing, and the surmised trial before the magistrate, and the surmised vengeance-prompted satire upon the magistrate in the play: result, the young Shakespeare was a wild, wild, wild, oh such a wild young scamp, and that gratuitous slander is established for all time!
It is the very way Professor Osborn and I built the colossal skeleton brontosaur that stands fifty-seven feet long and sixteen feet high in the Natural History Museum, the awe and admiration of all the world, the stateliest skeleton that exists on the planet.
We had nine bones, and we built the rest of him out of plaster of Paris. We ran short of plaster of Paris, or we’d have built a brontosaur that could sit down beside the Stratford Shakespeare and none but an expert could tell which was biggest or contained the most plaster.
Shakespeare pronounced Venus and Adonis “the first heir of his invention,” apparently implying that it was his first effort at literary composition. He should not have said it. It has been an embarrassment to his historians these many, many years.
They have to make him write that graceful and polished and flawless and beautiful poem before he escaped from Stratford and his family—1586 or ’87—age, twenty-two, or along there; because within the next five years he wrote five great plays, and could not have found time to write another line.
It is sorely embarrassing. If he began to slaughter calves, and poach deer, and rollick around, and learn English, at the earliest likely moment—say at thirteen, when he was supposably wrenched from that school where he was supposably storing up Latin for future literary use—he had his youthful hands full, and much more than full.
He must have had to put aside his Warwickshire dialect, which wouldn’t be understood in London, and study English very hard. Very hard indeed; incredibly hard, almost, if the result of that labor was to be the smooth and rounded and flexible and letter-perfect English of the Venus and Adonis in the space of ten years; and at the same time learn great and fine and unsurpassable literary form.
However, it is “conjectured” that he accomplished all this and more, much more:
- Learned law and its intricacies; and the complex procedure of the law courts; and all about soldiering, and sailoring, and the manners and customs and ways of royal courts and aristocratic society;
- and likewise accumulated in his one head every kind of knowledge the learned then possessed, and every kind of humble knowledge possessed by the lowly and the ignorant;
- and added thereto a wider and more intimate knowledge of the world’s great literatures, ancient and modern, than was possessed by any other man of his time—for he was going to make brilliant and easy and admiration-compelling use of these splendid treasures the moment he got to London.
And according to the surmisers, that is what he did. Yes, although there was no one in Stratford able to teach him these things, and no library in the little village to dig them out of. His father could not read, and even the surmisers surmise that he did not keep a library.
It is surmised by the biographers that the young Shakespeare got his vast knowledge of the law and his familiar and accurate acquaintance with the manners and customs and shop-talk of lawyers through being for a time the clerk of a Stratford court; just as a bright lad like me, reared in a village on the banks of the Mississippi, might become perfect in knowledge of the Behring Strait whale-fishery and the shop-talk of the veteran exercisers of that adventure-bristling trade through catching catfish with a “trot-line” Sundays.
But the surmise is damaged by the fact that there is no evidence—and not even tradition—that the young Shakespeare was ever clerk of a law court.
It is further surmised that the young Shakespeare accumulated his law-treasures in the first years of his sojourn in London, through “amusing himself” by learning book-law in his garret and by picking up lawyer-talk and the rest of it through loitering about the law-courts and listening.
But it is only surmise; there is no evidence that he ever did either of those things. They are merely a couple of chunks of plaster of Paris.
There is a legend that he got his bread and butter by holding horses in front of the London theatres, mornings and afternoons. Maybe he did. If he did, it seriously shortened his law-study hours and his recreation-time in the courts. In those very days he was writing great plays, and needed all the time he could get.
The horse-holding legend ought to be strangled; it too formidably increases the historian’s difficulty in accounting for the young Shakespeare’s erudition—an erudition which he was acquiring, hunk by hunk and chunk by chunk every day in those strenuous times, and emptying each day’s catch into next day’s imperishable drama.
He had to acquire a knowledge of war at the same time; and a knowledge of soldier-people and sailor-people and their ways and talk; also a knowledge of some foreign lands and their languages: for he was daily emptying fluent streams of these various knowledges, too, into his dramas. How did he acquire these rich assets?
In the usual way: by surmise. It is surmised that he travelled in Italy and Germany and around, and qualified himself to put their scenic and social aspects upon paper; that he perfected himself in French, Italian and Spanish on the road; that he went in Leicester’s expedition to the Low Countries, as soldier or sutler or something, for several months or years—or whatever length of time a surmiser needs in his business—and thus became familiar with soldiership and soldier-ways and soldier-talk, and generalship and general-ways and general-talk, and seamanship and sailor-ways and sailor-talk.
Maybe he did all these things, but I would like to know who held the horses in the meantime; and who studied the books in the garret; and who frollicked in the law-courts for recreation. Also, who did the call-boying and the play-acting.
For he became a call-boy; and as early as ’93 he became a “vagabond”—the law’s ungentle term for an unlisted actor; and in ’94 a “regular” and properly and officially listed member of that (in those days) lightly-valued and not much respected profession.
Right soon thereafter he became a stockholder in two theatres, and manager of them. Thenceforward he was a busy and flourishing business man, and was raking in money with both hands for twenty years.
Then in a noble frenzy of poetic inspiration he wrote his one poem—his only poem, his darling—and laid him down and died:
Good friend for Iesus sake forbeare
To digg the dust encloased heare:
Blest be ye man yt spares thes stones
And curst be he yt moves my bones.
He was probably dead when he wrote it. Still, this is only conjecture. We have only circumstantial evidence. Internal evidence.
Shall I set down the rest of the Conjectures which constitute the giant Biography of William Shakespeare? It would strain the Unabridged Dictionary to hold them. He is a Brontosaur: nine bones and six hundred barrels of plaster of Paris.
– Mark Twain, 1909, “Is Shakespeare Dead?”