An Irishman's Diary
A THING CALLED “World Book and Copyright Day” happened yesterday, largely unnoticed in these parts. The Unesco-sponsored event occurs annually on April 23rd: in part because that was the date in 1616 when the world’s greatest playwright – Shakespeare and the first modern novelist – Cervantes – both died.
So poignant is the coincidence, it seems churlish to point out that Cervantes expired on the Gregorian calendar’s version of April 23rd, whereas Shakespeare lingered 10 days longer before departing on the Julian one, still used in England. But then again, this is a minor inconvenience compared with a theory long mooted and now regaining ground: that the man who died in Stratford in 1616 was not a playwright at all.
Chief among the doubters is a critically-acclaimed Hamlet and the former artistic director of the Globe Theatre, Mark Rylance, who this week again voiced his scepticism about the issue and reiterated a call for more investigation.
In fact, Rylance is a patron of the Shakespeare Authorship Coalition which, two years ago, made a public declaration of doubt on the Bard’s identity and has now accumulated 1,400 signatures in a campaign towards a fairly modesty end: merely persuading academia of the question’s legitimacy.
Whatever its legitimacy, the question is not new. Remarking on the lack of evidence about Shakespeare’s life, even in his time, Charles Dickens wrote: “It is a great comfort, to my way of thinking, that so little is known concerning the poet. The life of Shakespeare is a fine mystery and I tremble every day lest something turn up.” He needn’t have worried. A century and a half later, very little else has turned up. And a cornerstone of the sceptics’ argument is that such detail as does exist tends to undermine the argument that the man in Stratford was the real Shakespeare.
“Of a few great writers, like Homer, we know nothing at all,” says the SAC declaration. “But there is only one great writer about whom the more we learn, the less he appears to have been a writer.” A key point for the doubters is that “Shakspere” (a common spelling of his name and used to distinguish the historical person from the author) never claimed to have written the plays attributed to him, or indeed made any overt reference to being a writer. Not even in his famous will: which, by the way, is one of a number of documents suggesting he had difficulty signing his own name.
His death appears to have been unrecorded in English literary circles.
And the main assertion of his authorship of the Shakespearean canon came seven years later, when Ben Jonson and others eulogised the “Sweet Swan of Avon”. Even allowing for writers’ traditional reluctance to speak well of each other when mutually alive, Jonson’s silence prior to 1616 is odd.
The sceptics marvel that the aforementioned swan divided his most productive years between Stratford and London, “a situation conducive to correspondence”. Yet not a single letter – not to mention a play or a poem – in his handwriting has ever been found.
On top of which is the mystery of how a man of Shakspere’s humble origins researched his plays, mostly set among the aristocracy and suggesting “extensive knowledge of law, philosophy, classical literature, ancient and modern history, mathematics, astronomy, art, music, medicine, horticulture, heraldry, military and naval terminology and tactics; etiquette and manners of the nobility; English, French and Italian court life; Italy; and aristocratic pastimes such as falconry, equestrian sports and royal tennis”, without ever mixing in such circles, travelling abroad, or leaving any evidence indicating his possession of a library.
Along with the signatures collected, SAC has claimed posthumous support from the likes of Charlie Chaplin, who wrote: “In the work of the greatest geniuses, humble beginnings will reveal themselves somewhere, but one cannot trace the slightest sign of them in Shakespeare [. . .] I am not concerned with who wrote the works [. . .] but I can hardly think it was the Stratford boy.” Sigmund Freud was more definite, stating: “I no longer believe that William Shakespeare the actor from Stratford was the author of the works that have been ascribed to him”. Henry James was troubled: “I am [. . .] haunted by the conviction that the divine William is the biggest and most successful fraud ever practised on a patient world.” Mark Twain wondered about the dog that didn’t bark: “Isn’t it odd, when you think of it, that you may list all of the celebrated Englishmen, Irishmen, Scotchmen [. . .] clear back to the first Tudors – a list of five hundred names, shall we say? – and you can [. . .] learn the particulars of the lives of every one of them [except] the most famous, the most renowned – by far the most illustrious of them all – Shakespeare!”
And in more recent times – 1962 anyway – Hugh R Trevor-Roper, Oxford Professor of history, found Shakespeare’s elusiveness “exasperating” to the point where it stretched credibility: “After all, he lived in the full daylight of the English Renaissance in the well documented reigns of Queen Elizabeth and King James I and [. . .] since his death has been subjected to the greatest battery of organised research that has ever been directed upon a single person. And yet the greatest of all Englishmen, after this tremendous inquisition, still remains so close to a mystery that even his identity can still be doubted.”