by Liam Scheff
Will Shaksper, or “Shakespeare” was, for all that historical records can tell us, a grain-merchant and businessman from a rural outpost and center for sheep slaughtering about 100 miles from London. He was not a poet or a writer; he certainly possessed no books or manuscripts of is great work. So, how did he manage to write the greatest works of literature in English? Answer: He didn’t.
In my book, “Official Stories,” I take apart our contemporary myths (our “official stories”), and even reach back into the 16th Century to visit the problem of Shake-speare. As originally published at The Truth Barrier, here are two brief excerpts from the chapter…
Shake-Speare, not Shakespeare
The Official Story: One man, William Shakespeare, a businessman, part-time actor and occasional theater manager, from the rural English town of Stratford-upon-Avon, also wrote the greatest works of prose in the English language.
The Lone Gunman: A book of poems published in 1609, before his death in 1616. But his plays were published only after his death as one body of work in 1623. The name appearing on that folio is “William Shakespeare,” but the name on the poems and other works is hyphenated – “William Shake-Speare.” His signature appears on only six surviving documents, but with significant variation in spelling.
The Magic Bullet: Genius, pure and unadulterated. Sure, he was a nobody from nowhere, but that’s just how genius works. He was touched by a divine spark and even if his life does not relate to his work, genius makes it so and is inexplicable.
Scratch 1: In the case of Shakespeare, the official story is, to quote Mark Twain, mostly plaster, hung over a few bones. Even the mainstream admits there is very little written about the man called Will Shakspeare, Shakspe or Shaksp?r (as he variously signed his name). This, to them, is not a problem to be solved, but a distraction to be ignored, in favor of admiring the works.
But ignoring their ignoring, let’s ask; what do we know about him from historical records? There is no record of his birth; the official date is a best guess. He was a butcher’s son from a rural town. He did marry a local woman, Anne Hathaway. They had three children, one died. He was an actor and businessman. He never left England and only traveled the 100 miles from his town of Stratford to London. There are minor notices of his work as an actor and as a businessman.
Beyond this rudimentary information, there is not much else on record; no schooling, no military service and no advanced education. There is nothing written about his life. And not because people weren’t writing then. So, what do we know and how do we know it?
The most important source of information about the man called Will Shaksper is a document he signed, which he dictated to his attorney. It relates directly to him, his major possessions, interests and relationships, as it sums up his entire life. It is his last will and testament. In the will he enumerates his belongings, carefully.
He was one of the wealthier men in his small town. He owned lands and properties, he had bought a share in two theaters. In addition to real estate, he had rings, a silver bowl and some furniture and he divided it all very neatly. He left his most important possessions – his books and manuscripts for his great works to…well, first, let’s admit that he might have been ungenerous in this regard. He left no books to his two daughters, or his granddaughter. Which seems awfully stingy. But, taking a deeper look – why would he have? They couldn’t read or write. His children and grandchild, like his parents, were illiterate. Which surprises a lot of people.
He bequeathed his great manuscripts for the 37 (or more) plays, 150 sonnets and 2 epic poems to…no one. Because he did not have a single manuscript, not one play, not even a piece of paper with a sketch or outline for a poem. No library filled with research materials – not one book of any kind. Nowhere in his possession was anything relating to the works of Shakespeare. Which might surprise you. It did me. But that’s the reality.
When he died, there was no state funeral. No one from the royal court came to pay their regards, no special mention was made in London in the papers or among fellow poets. And all of that is on the record.
Let’s Put On A Show
Here is the mystery. How did the greatest writer of the English language, who employed more than 31,000 words in his combined works, manage to create the “works of Shakespeare” without keeping any of them around? Without a rough draft? A collection of source material? Or, even a “to do” list? “To do: Write great play, epic poem and then 36 more.”
“Note to self from the desk of Will Shaksper. Idea for play: Two teenagers – Italian, from, oh, I don’t know. I’ve never been to Italy. No matter! Two young Italians fall in love. Their families hate each other, so the kids, oh…something happens. Come back to it. Make it poetically dazzling, but tragic!”
“Idea for play: A teenaged prince from…somewhere dark. Norway. No. Denmark! Yes! Well, maybe. I’ve never been there, but, no matter! The prince loses father to…clumsiness. No. Murder! Yes, murder. And he’s got a girlfriend. She’s really needy. He’s just not that into her. And…something happens. Come back to it. Make it tragic but brilliant!!”
No, not even a napkin with some hastily-written song lyrics. Despite an exhaustive hunt for the manuscripts in his town, in London and everywhere in between, they have not been found to exist.
Which leads the official storytellers to this bit of thinking: He must have been a genius and he must have learned it all in school. And never forgotten a lick. And went on to great individual studies and just thrown every book away as soon as he was done with it. Same with his writings. Read it, wrote it, burned it, buried it or lost it. Don’t need it! Genius!
In 1909, Mark Twain summed up the problems with the life of the man in a bit of true satire called “Is Shakespeare Dead,” which I can only recommend as required reading. I’ll paraphrase.
The man called Shakespeare was born near or around April 23, 1564 in a back-water rural town called Stratford-upon-Avon. It was not known for anything and was not a center of anything, least of all learning, as most of the inhabitants, on record, could not sign their names. It was what you’d expect of a rural town of poor farmers in 1500s England. Cows, pigs, sheep and chickens. Or, I take it back; It was well-known as a center for sheep slaughtering.
He would have had the strong rural accent of Warwickshire, which would have marked him throughout his life, unless he worked very hard to correct it to a more sophisticated London accent.
His father was a butcher and it is assumed that young Will slaughtered calves. Assumed but not known, because there is no record of it. There is no record of him going to school or working or doing anything, until he was 18, when he took out a marriage license to marry Anne Whately. On the next day, he took out a license to marry Anne Hathaway. (Maybe he had trouble with spelling).
She was eight years older than he was, bore him 3 children, whom he did not teach to read or write. His first daughter arrived six months after the wedding, which just goes to show you that love and marriage really do go together like a horse and carriage.
He spent most of the next two decades away from his family, in London. He appeared as an actor in some plays, then as a theater manager. He bought a property in Stratford, but remained in London. He once played in a cast that performed for the Queen. Which must have been a grand occasion. But apparently not something he felt compelled to write about, anywhere.
From about 1597 to 1610, he is listed as an actor and theater manager. At the same time, his name, spelled in a variety of ways, but never as we spell it today, becomes associated with various plays now ascribed to “Shakespeare.” Some of these plays were performed under other names, as well – stolen – without protest from the actor.
After this period in London, during which he apparently abandoned his family, he returned to Stratford, where he finished his life as a pecuniary businessman. His wife had to borrow forty-one shillings during his long absence; Will Shaksper refused to pay it back. There is a record of small legal suits; he sued and was sued by locals for reimbursement of small loans. That was his business: Money-lending, buying and selling properties and apparently, grain.
He wrote a will, signing it in three places. Twice as Shakspere and once as Shakspeare. These are among six surviving signatures which account for the entirety of work penned by his hand. The signatures are diverse in form and almost always spell the name differently. “Shakp, Shaksp?, Shaksp?r, Shakspere.”
And then he died, having accounted for and divided all of his belongings: His properties, rings, a sword, a gilded silver bowl and his “second best bed,” which he left to his wife. (Was she his second best wife? He was gone a long time). He never paid her debt, by the way.
And in the one four-line poem he probably could have spoken, if not written, which is inscribed on his tomb, he warned grave-robbers that they would be cursed if they moved his bones. Which seems a little trite, coming from the man who wrote the works of Shakespeare.
Scratch 4: The counterargument. This is not the man who wrote the plays, poems and sonnets. The author was someone far more interesting, whose biography tells us about the works of Shakespeare. Someone with the learning, wit, intellect, legal, military and courtly experience, travel history, grasp of languages living and dead; someone with court access, unparalleled education and an acute knowledge of suffering.
The question arises, why didn’t this genius write the plays in his own name?
Answer: Because he didn’t want to be dead.
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Gifted, Hard-Working and Pained
If you’re wondering why this matters, I’ll give you my argument. It matters because children are lied to on a daily basis. They are told that some boob magically became the most important genius of his age and any other, not by working or by studying or living or trying or striving or learning – but by pure genius. He didn’t need the time to write, nor the means, nor the paper, books, nor God forbid, discipline. No, it was just a big cosmic “whoops!”
And so, we’re telling children, in essence – don’t worry about it. You’ll never get there. Don’t try too hard, because really, genius is inexplicable. Shakespeare? Just a Genius. Like Mozart or Beethoven.
But stop right there. Mozart and Beethoven were extremely gifted, but they were schooled, nearly tortured with learning, from their near-infancy, made to repeat and repeat and repeat and repeat – and repeat their lessons for their demanding and punitive fathers. They were trotted around Europe to every court and competition; they were musicians in the public record from childhood. Yes, they were gifted; that’s where it starts. But that gift was developed, extraordinarily, by practice and study of all that had come before. Of all of the musical arts of their age, of every instrument, of every form, of every bit of composition that existed. It wasn’t bestowed upon them fully-formed. They learned.
They sweat blood for their work. And all of that is held in the historical record. There are biographies, stories, notes and records of their interactions and relationships; of bills, paid and unpaid; of their success, failure, love and heartbreak. Because they actually lived and created the work that is attributed to them.
Unlike Shakespeare. Who was a front for a man who could not show his face.
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Read more “Official Stories,” the book that takes on 10 myths of our time, from CIA to JFK and 9/11, Vaccination and HIV, to Big Bang and beyond…