Why was William Shakespeare so hard to pin down?


CULTURE SHOCK:Shakespeare leaves us as audiences gripped not by the enigma of his personality but by the enigma of human life

TOMMY FLOWERS COULDN’T possibly have designed and built the world’s first electronic computer. He was an uncouth plebeian, the son of a bricklayer.

He spoke with an awfully common Cockney accent. He didn’t go to a proper university, such as Oxford or Cambridge, but took night classes in mechanical engineering. He worked for the post office, for God’s sake. How could such a man possibly have the vision, the intellectual grandeur, to conceive of something so innovative and so complex? And besides, if he was this great genius, how come we know so little about him? My belief is that the computer was really invented by a man of the right breeding and social standing, Sir Bertie Wooster.

Tommy Flowers is not a bad analogue for William Shakespeare. The Cockney bricklayer’s son did in fact create the first programmable electronic computer, the Colossus machine that was vital to the successful British code-breaking operation at Bletchley Park during the second World War.

Shakespeare, the provincial glover’s son, did indeed write the plays and sonnets that are preserved in his name and that contain linguistic and conceptual innovations that are no less radical. Flowers, like Shakespeare, lived an obscure life. Anyone who thinks it unlikely that we could know so little about a writer from the 17th century might note that Flowers is unknown to the vast majority of contemporary computer users and that his work remained entirely secret until the early 1970s. And Flowers’s achievements, like Shakespeare’s, stand as a rebuke to those who believe that only the children of the elite can hit the heights of civilisation.

There is no need to dwell here on the plain silliness of the theory, enacted in Roland Emmerich’s movie thriller Anonymous, that the plays of Shakespeare were written by the Edward de Vere, the 17th earl of Oxford. Anyone whose interest has been piqued by the movie should do themselves a favour and read James Shapiro’s masterful (and delightfully entertaining) Contested Will. What is worth considering, though, is the persistence of the search for an alternative Shakespeare. The sheer stupidity of the Oxford theory – the inconvenient fact that he died before 10 of the plays were written, the obvious mediocrity of Oxford’s own poems, the origins of the theory in the imagination of the aptly named Thomas Looney – raises the question of why it persists.

There is, of course, the entertainment value of conspiracy theories: Shakespeare’s vast corpus of 900,000 words is a gigantic playground for hunters after secret patterns, buried hints and curious clues. And there is the snobbery: England’s great culture hero ought not to be a middle-class nobody. But there is something more interesting, too. The conspiracy theories are a bad response to a real sensation: the feeling you get with Shakespeare that he is almost unbearably elusive. When you look for the solid personality behind the plays, it is not there.

This is not really a biographical question. Much is made of the paucity of documentary evidence about the man, but actually, by 16th- and 17th-century standards, he is a reasonably well-attested figure. He was, moreover, sufficiently famous by 1599 for publishers to make a killing on an unauthorised edition of some of his private sonnets – the book became a bestseller thanks to its attribution to “W Shakespeare”. But if the existence of Shakespeare as a solid biographical figure is firmly established, that very certainty highlights the enormous uncertainty at the core of his work: what did he think? Was he gay or straight? Was he conservative or radical? Was he – by far the most important question of the day – Catholic or Protestant? And yet the mysteriousness of Shakespeare is surely no mystery. The idea that we should be able to discern from so many well-wrought words a public personality, an ideology, a set of social and political connections, is based on a misunderstanding. There is a notion that Shakespeare is the zenith of something called “the Elizabethan world view”, a harmonious and settled national ideology presided over by Good Queen Bess. In fact, what Shakespeare was part of was a paranoid and embattled police state.

The public world in which he writes is shaped by war in Ireland, the threat of Spanish invasion, the dynastic uncertainties created by a virgin queen and continuing religious strife. The state to which he belongs has developed a highly effective intelligence service, able not just to spy on conspiracies but to provoke them. It is vicious and dangerous.

Shakespeare’s two most important predecessors died violently at the hands of the state: Thomas Kyd as a result of torture; Christopher Marlowe stabbed in the eye by government agents.

Being elusive in this environment was not a bad idea. Especially if, as we know to have been the case with Shakespeare, you have connections to Catholicism. The notion that he was actually a Catholic takes us back to conspiracy theories, but he certainly knew Catholics very well, among them his own father and his mother’s cousin Edward Arden, who was hanged as a papist conspirator in 1583. Shakespeare is much better understood by an analogy with artists in, say, Stalin’s Russia than with writers in modern democracies.

His peculiar genius, though, was to turn evasiveness into an aesthetic principle. The reluctance to express religious opinions, for example, leads to a wonderful tolerance. With the exception of Puritanism (which is explicitly lampooned in Twelfth Night), people of many religions are afforded human dignity in his plays, from the pagans Lear and Cleopatra to the Jew Shylock, the Catholic Friar Laurence and the Lutheran Hamlet.

And it is this same fluidity that accounts for Shakespeare’s great theatricality. He stands back from his characters and allows them to make themselves up from moment to moment. He insists on nothing, explains nothing, concludes nothing. He leaves us as audiences gripped not by the enigma of his personality but by the enigma of human life. As Bernard Shaw remarked, Shakespeare didn’t write the plays, it was another fellow called Shakespeare. And that other fellow made, from the circumstances of fear and danger, an art that retains its power because we can never pin it down.