30 Great Myths About Shakespeare by Laurie Maguire and Emma Smith

Gary Day reviews stories about the great playwright’s life - fact or fiction?

March 7, 2013

Apparently there are only 30 great myths about Shakespeare. It doesn’t seem that many for a great man. A great man ought to have a great number of myths, and 30 is not a great number. In fact 30 is not even a good number. On reaching 21, a friend of mine shuddered and said: “Next stop 30.” That was many years ago. He is 60 now. That’s how bad a number 30 is. It’s halfway to 60. And who wants to be 60? Shakespeare didn’t. He checked out at 52.

Or so he thought. In fact he remains imprisoned in the publishing industry and blown with restless violence round about the pedant academy. Did you know that Hamlet generates one scholarly article or book a week? That is one of the facts in the book of great myths about Shakespeare. There are lots of facts in this book; indeed, there are more facts than myths. Perhaps it should have been called Lots of Facts About Shakespeare, but that’s not a very catchy title.

Was Shakespeare any good at titles? They were more functional than fanciful. King Lear. The Merchant of Venice. Twelfth Night. I have seen titles of academic papers that were more eye-catching than these. How about this one for an article on D.H. Lawrence: “Is fighting with your girlfriend like fighting the Germans?” If a mere lecturer can come up with that sort of thing, then why can’t Shakespeare? Because he wasn’t any good at titles, that’s why. How come that myth is not in the book? It would have increased the number to 31. If we all pitch in, I am sure we can get up to at least a hundred myths by Shakespeare’s birthday on 23 April, although the exact date may be a bit of a myth.

Did you know that Hamlet generates one scholarly article or book a week? That is one of the facts in the book of great myths

Which prompts the question, what is a myth? Luckily for us, Laurie Maguire and Emma Smith are on hand to answer. Myths “are not historically accurate”, they tell us. Well, you never know; someone might have thought they were. “Myths explain things we don’t know.” Hmm. Not quite sure how that relates to Myth 19: “If Shakespeare were writing now, he’d be writing for Hollywood.” Maybe that myth is related to another meaning of the term, that it is an expression of “often unexamined beliefs about art, authorship and cultural value”.

The most prominent sense of myth in the book is “a popular conception of a person or thing which exaggerates or idealises the truth”, always assuming we know what the truth is in the first place. Which we don’t. Indeed, it’s because we know so little about Shakespeare’s life, except for what a lot of boring legal documents tell us, that he is the subject of so much speculation. Oh, by the way, he did not poach deer nor did he hate his wife, a myth that arose because he left her his second-best bed. But such suppositions are hardly myth, more like gossip.

Myth is more powerful than truth. As Maxwell Scott says at the end of the 1962 film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, “when the legend becomes fact, print the legend”. The authors have set about reversing this dictum with mixed results. Some myths are destabilised, some survive more or less unscathed, and some remain deeply ambiguous. The value of this little book lies in its ceaseless exploration, which brings us back to the place where we started, knowing the myths for the first time. It’s all good fun, just so long as we remember that the play’s the thing.

30 Great Myths About Shakespeare

By Laurie Maguire and Emma Smith
Wiley-Blackwell, 224pp, £50.00 and £14.99
ISBN 9780470658505 and 8512
Published 14 December 2012

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