Much ado about the man from Stratford

June 22, 2007

People have funny ideas about Shakespeare. In Chicago recently I chatted to a lady who asked me what I did and where I worked. I told her I work in Stratford-upon-Avon as a Shakespeare scholar. “Oh yes, Shakespeare,” she said. “He was born in Venice, wasn’t he?”

Although my book Is It True What They Say about Shakespeare? seeks to face some of the myths and legends that have accrued around the name, the idea that he came from Venice is not among them. Broadly, I divide the subject into stories about his life, his death and his writings. Sex inevitably raises its fascinating head. There is no doubt that he was an early developer. I have recently learnt that he was one of only three Stratford men between 1570 and 1630 to marry before the age of 20 — the average age for first marriage was 26 — and the only one of these whose bride was pregnant. This was at a time when sex before marriage was not merely frowned upon but could be punished even if the couple subsequently married.

Did his precocious appetite lead him into promiscuity in later life? An anecdote recorded by the lawyer John Manningham as early as 1602, recounting how the actor Richard Burbage made an assignation under the pseudonym Richard III only to be anticipated by Shakespeare with the quip that William the Conqueror came before Richard III, suggests he may have done so. The Sonnets , too — if indeed they are autobiographical — with their reference to “the trophies of my lovers gone” and the self-disgust about his experiences with the so-called dark lady — indicate a man of wide sexual experience.

Did this stretch as far as gay relationships? The Sonnets indicate deep sympathy with the love of man for man, and he certainly dedicated his narrative poems, the sexily witty Venus and Adonis (1593) and The Rape of Lucrece (1594) — described by Katherine Duncan-Jones as “the only joke-free zone” in his writings — to the androgynously beautiful Earl of Southampton, ten years his junior, who was later reported to have snogged one of his captains in the Irish campaign. So this may be true. But Hildegard Hammerschmidt Hummel, a prolific creator of Shakespearian myths and legend, has also suggested that Shakespeare had an affair with Southampton’s wife, Elizabeth Vernon, and fathered her daughter. The girl was an ancestor of Diana, Princess of Wales, so the interesting corollary is that the Princes William and Harry descend from Shakespeare. Sadly this seems unlikely.

How did he die? An early report suggests that he contracted a fever after a drinking bout with his fellow poets Michael Drayton and Ben Jonson. This could be true, though the idea that he was a toper contradicts John Aubrey’s statement that he “was not a company keeper” and that when invited to be de­bauched he pleaded illness — “Sorry boys, I can’t come to the tavern tonight, I’ve a head­ache.” The report of a fever has been elaborated into the idea that he died of typhoid.

More sensationally, Duncan-Jones, in her adversarial study Ungentle Shakespeare , posits undocumented visits to a brothel kept by his collaborator George Wilkins that re­sulted in his contracting syphilis. This idea was picturesquely elaborated in William Boyd’s BBC television film A Waste of Shame , on which Duncan-Jones served as ad­viser and in which we saw Shakespeare sweating it out in a mercury bath. The evidence is, to put it mildly, slender. But this theory is not as absurd as one advanced in 2005 by American pathologists that he was murdered by his son-in-law John Hall. Hall was a distinguished physician, and there is no shred of evidence that he killed, or might have wished to kill, his father-in-law.

A few years after Shakespeare died, a monument was erected in Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon, bearing in­scrip­tions comparing the man of Stratford to great figures of antiquity — Nestor, Virgil and Socrates — and praising him as a writer. In the past few months in The Times Literary Supplement , Brian Vickers has subscribed to and elaborated the theory that the monument originally represented Shakespeare’s father and was modified to look like his son. Understandably, this revelation has been greeted with stunned silence.

Then there are the works. Every so often a new one is suggested. For a few years A Funeral Elegy , published in 1612, was touted as Shakespeare’s and is even included in three American editions of the Complete Works , but claims for it have now been withdrawn. A play called Edmond Ironside came and went. Edward III — boring though it is — is taken more seriously, at least as a collaboration. And I still think he could have written the ingenious lyric Shall I die? attributed to him by one 17th-century scribe.

There have been outright forgeries. Late in the 18th century Samuel Ireland, an artist and antiquarian, visited Stratford in the hope of finding relics, only to be fobbed off with a cock-and-bull story that precious manuscripts had recently been destroyed in order to make room for a bevy of young partridges. Ireland’s son, William Henry, determined to assuage his father’s disappointment, came up with a wonderful series of documents including letters from Elizabeth I to Shakespeare, from Shakespeare to Anne Hathaway (accompanied by a lock of her hair), sanitised versions of Hamlet and King Lear , and a new portrait. For a while these and many more delights were taken seriously. James Boswell paid tribute to them, kissing the relics and declaring that he could die happy now that he had seen them. Three months later, he did.

It defies belief that anyone could ever have supposed Shakespeare capable of writing such twaddle as:

Is there inne heavenne aught more rare
Thanne thou sweete nymphe of Avon fayre
Is there onne Earthe a Manne more trewe
Thanne Willy Shakspeare is toe you.


But eminent authorities swallowed Ireland’s fakes whole. Before long Edmond Malone exposed them, though William Henry’s father continued to be loyal to him.

The daftest ideas, however, are those concerned with authorship. Of course I address questions such as whether he could have been well educated enough to have written his works, and whether he ever travelled abroad. And of course some plays are collaborative. But what I insist on above all is that before saying he could not have written his works, and trying to suggest who did, you first need to disprove the evidence for him. And that evidence is incontrovertible.

But the disbelievers are impervious to reason. When you try to argue, the light of fanaticism comes into their eyes. Like the old chap who came to see me once to show me a portrait of the Elizabethan Earl of Rutland holding a copy of Hamlet . I was agog to see it. When he produced a photograph of the painting and pointed to where the book should have been, there was simply
no book in the painting. An embarrassed conversation ensued, in the course of which it emerged that my visitor thought he was the Earl incarnated. If that were so, I have shaken hands with the author of Shakespeare’s works. As the gentleman departed he revealed that he had written a musical based on his theory. So far as I know, it awaits performance.

Stanley Wells was director of the Shakespeare Institute, Birmingham University, from 1988-97,
and is now emeritus professor of Shakespeare studies. Is It True What They Say about Shakespeare? is published by Long Barn Books.

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