It is always dangerous to take the Elizabethans at face value. The mentality that created their culture, evident as much in their politics as their art, was fantastical, ingenious, allegorical—witness Queen Elizabeth’s mystical and mystifying statecraft, enduringly evoked in Spenser’s Faerie Queene. The many portraits of Elizabeth that have survived bear witness to a deep and playful immersion in the world of symbolism and mythology; and what we might be tempted to call deceit in today’s politics, Elizabethans would have called enchantment. The queen’s extravagant courtship of foreign princes, for instance, though conducted in bad faith, was rehearsed and carried through with compelling diligence and betrayed a breathtaking belief in her own infallibility. But as with any production, a lot of unglamorous work went on behind the scenes. Polonius spying on Hamlet from behind the arras is a good example: hardly dignified employment for an exalted minister of state.
Elizabeth’s Lord Burghley was no different. Little wonder it is often difficult at this remove to determine what was real and what was not.
This mixture of the fantastic and the mundane led to a love of the grotesque and paradoxical, and encompassed a mischievous sense of humor. This was reflected both in the literature of the time (Bottom, Falstaff, Caliban), and in many of the paintings and portraits, nowhere more so than in the curious engraving by Martin Droeshout that appeared as the frontispiece to the First Folio of 1623 and has since become the iconic representation of the Bard, appearing on anything from bank cards to T-shirts. It is the most famous image of our most celebrated poet, and the first to be published. For those who never set eyes on the Bard during his lifetime, this would have been their first glimpse of the man.
It is illuminating to show such images to children, for rather than try to “make sense” of what they see, they let their intuition do the seeing. When I showed the Droeshout engraving to my eight-year-old son and asked him what he thought, he laughed and said it was a joke—which is exactly what it is. That absurd mask of a countenance (with the edge of a second face clearly visible behind it) hovering above the weird platter-like collar, not to mention the stiff sculpted hair framing the outsize egghead with its tablike ear and incongruous stubble—all contribute to a strong air of unreality. Nor does one have to look very carefully to see that the figure has two right eyes and two left arms. As an article in the Gentleman’s Tailor of April 1911 put it: “The tunic, coat, or whatever the garment may have been called at the time is so strangely illustrated that the right-hand side of the forepart is obviously the left-hand side of the back part, and so gives a harlequin appearance to the figure.”
There are many other anomalies in the portrait, but by no stretch of the imagination can these be labeled “errors” or the work of an inexperienced artist. The symbolism is clear: the face presented to the world is that of a left-handed (or spurious) author, while hidden behind him is the true or right-handed author. The two right eyes may be a pun on William of Stratford’s motto “Non sans droict” (“Not without right”). Looked at as a whole, the sitter is indeed presented in the guise of Harlequin (from the Italian commedia dell”arte), a masked servant in patched costume, celebrated for his gluttony and slow-wittedness. Yet the collar and rich-looking doublet bespeak a man of social standing, reinforcing the impression that this is a dual figure. Far from bemoaning the artist’s “errors,” one is inclined to praise the skill of his carefully elaborated design.
The Droeshout portrait of Shakespeare is abnormally large, and because of its size lacks the allegorical figures, symbols, and other icono-graphic details that usually surround such a portrait.1 The reason for the unusual scale is not hard to divine: the portrait needed to be sufficiently large for its anomalies to be detected and understood. In other words, the figure itself comprises the allegory. No further symbols were required.
What would wealthy, educated Jacobeans, the First Folio’s original readership, have made of it? My guess is that their reaction would have been similar to that of Sir George Greenwood, lawyer and Member of Parliament, who, writing three centuries later, declared: “I can never understand how any unprejudiced person, with a sense of humor, can look upon [the print] without being tempted to irreverent laughter.” This, surely, must have been the intention of those who sponsored and directed the publication, the Herbert brothers, Earls of Pembroke and Montgomery. They were part of the extended family of the true author, and knew that the only way to see the politically inflammatory works published was to conform to the official view of Shakespeare’s identity. But their adherence did not need to be slavish and literal; they could thumb their noses while appearing to toe the party line. Hence the Droeshout’s deliberate “blunders,” and the many ambiguities in the First Folio’s prefatory matter.
In an authoritarian age with little or no freedom of speech, writers resort to allegory as a means of disguising and revealing the truth. Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita (1938) is a good example from the Soviet era. Allegory literally means “speaking otherwise,” and its double meaning was beloved of the metaphorically-minded Elizabethans, addicted as they were to wordplay and visual puns. When Ben Jonson hailed Shakespeare as “Sweet Swan of Avon” in his prefatory verses to the First Folio, his readers would have picked up on the idea that the poet being praised was mute or had been silenced in some way—as in Sidney’s fable of the swan in the old Arcadia—no doubt because of his criticism or satire of others. “Art made tongue-tied by authority,” as Shakespeare has it in Sonnet 66.
What then of the front man, the Harlequin who for four centuries has protected the identity of the true author?
On April 26, 1564, one Gulielmus Shakspere was baptized at Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon. Born to illiterate parents (his father, John, signed with a mark), he was the third of eight children, all strangers to literacy. Nothing is known of Gulielmus’s childhood or possible schooling, though there is a legend that he was apprenticed to his father at age thirteen as a butcher and glover. No entry or attendance records survive for the Stratford grammar school, and no master there left an account of this budding literary genius. In November 1582, aged eighteen, he married Anne Hathaway, who was pregnant with their first child, Susanna, born the following May. Twins, Hamnet and Judith, named for their neighbors Hamnet and Judith Sadler, followed in 1585. As far as we know, his children were never taught to read or write. There are no further records of him until 1592, when it is recorded in London that “Willelmus Shack-spere” made a loan of 7 to one John Clayton. Three years later, in March 1595, “William Shakespeare” together with William Kempe and Richard Burbage, “servants to the Lord Chamberlain,” received “20 for theatrical performances at court the previous December. It is not certain that this “William Shakespeare” is the same “Willelmus Shackspere” who lent 7 to John Clayton. The following year his son Hamnet died in Stratford, aged eleven.
In 1597—and again in 1598 and 1599—”William Shackspere” is listed as a tax defaulter in Bishopsgate, possibly because he had already moved back to Stratford. Sure enough, that same year (1597) “Willielmin Shakespeare” purchases New Place, a large property in his hometown, and pursues his application for a coat of arms. Although various documents between 1599 and 1608 record the involvement of one William Shakespeare with the Globe, both as a shareholder and as a member of the King’s Men, most of the records for the last twenty years of his life place William Shakespere as a landowner and dealer in bagged commodities in his native Stratford. He was also a litigant in several lawsuits to recover minor debts. When he died in April 1616, no books or manuscripts were listed in his will—an anomaly for an educated man of the time—and his death went unremarked even by his fellow writers. (We are told that when the Shakespearean actor Richard Burbage died in 1619, the whole of London was in mourning.) No letters, diaries, or memos in his hand have ever come to light; all that we have are six signatures, all spelled differently, three of which appear on his will. This in essence is the documented life of the man believed to be the greatest poet in the English language, perhaps in any language, who added more than 3,000 words to our vocabulary, left no corner of the human soul unillumined, and whom Jonson apostrophized as “the Soul of the Age.”
As for the works he is supposed to have written, which were published from 1593 onward, they are sophisticated, politically explosive court dramas that evince a deep knowledge of the law, philosophy, languages (including Latin, Greek, French, and Italian), European geography and culture, ancient and modern history, mathematics, cosmology, the fine arts, music, medicine, horticulture, heraldry, court manners, and aristocratic pastimes such as hunting, falconry, bowls, and royal tennis. Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that Shakespeare was a polymath on the scale of Leonardo da Vinci. When Venus and Adonis, Shakespeare’s first published work, appeared in 1593, it delighted the young men and women of the court with its polished Ovidian references and wittily salacious language, as well as its daring satire of Elizabeth (the mortal Venus). At the time, with the works appearing either anonymously or with the name “William Shake-speare” on the title page, no one would have associated the plays or poems with a man like William Shakspere of Stratford. After all, how did a country lad who lived four days’ hard riding from London come to be obsessed with the throne and royal succession?
The educated elite who bought the plays from the London booksellers would have recognized them as court plays written by an insider, who was deeply versed in English history and European culture as well as the customs and manners of royal courts, both at home and on the Continent. For those at court, his identity was an open secret, which remained concealed from the public at large, rather like Roosevelt’s polio during the war, which never leaked into the press but was common knowledge among White House staff. The people at court also knew that this was an author who did not scruple to speak of state affairs in his works; hence it was in their interest to protect the secret—that way, they shielded their insular world from the scrutiny of outsiders. Exposing the author would have meant exposing his satires of them and their queen.
King James I died within eighteen months of publication of the First Folio, and the issue of the author’s identity remained off limits during the reign of his son Charles I. Not only were the offspring of statesmen lampooned in Shakespeare’s plays now in positions of power and influence, but the works gave notice of Tudor heirs yet living. Moreover, the Puritans were rapidly gaining stature, and London was no longer the fertile ground for plays and masques it had once been. The Shakespeare taboo still held, as the anonymously published Wit’s Recreation of 1640 boldly implied: “Shakes-speare, we must be silent in our praise,/’Cause our encomiums will but blast thy bays.” Soon the Civil War was raging, and the theaters were closed altogether during the interregnum. The Restoration, when it finally came, saw a new type of court comedy in vogue, and Shakespeare, often poorly adapted, was dinned out by the heroic tragedies of Dryden and Sir Robert Howard. Though The Winter’s Tale was played at court before Charles I in 1634, the next recorded performance was not until 1741, 107 years later.
Few realize that William of Stratford’s authorship is an eighteenth-century phenomenon. Although John Aubrey had gathered some gossipy notes about the Stratford man in the early 1680s (first published in 1813 as part of his Brief Lives), it was not until Nicholas Rowe prefixed his 1709 edition of the Shakespeare works with a short biography of the Stratford man that a fledgling identity emerged. Nevertheless, there had been little advance on Aubrey in the intervening thirty years, and Rowe’s life of Shakespeare, which according to Dr. Jonson was only “such as tradition, then almost expiring, could supply,” is as flawed and hypothetical as its more florid predecessor.
Another sixty years would pass before the Stratford myth was well and truly launched, with the actor David Garrick’s extravagant jubilee celebrations on the banks of the Avon in 1769, fully 155 years after the Stratford man’s death. Both actor and playwright, Garrick saw his own reflection in the Shakespearean mirror and became an enthusiastic advocate of the putative actor-manager’s authorship. Significantly, the eighteenth-century swing toward the cult of “Avonian Willy” coincided with an upsurge in English patriotism and imperialism, and Shakespeare was commissioned to do duty as the national poet of England. Yet the paucity of biographical detail for the great poet-dramatist, indeed his persistent and baffling anonymity, led to a spate of forgeries, first from William Henry Ireland in the 1790s, followed in the nineteenth century by the altogether more insidious and plausible fictions of the Shakespeare scholar John Payne Collier.3 The desire to bring the Stratford grain dealer into some sort of harmony with the polymath of the plays was understandably pressing.
It was during this scramble to make sense of the curious disparity between the man and his works that the “Shakespeare authorship question” emerged full-fledged in the mid-nineteenth century. As if in anticipation of the coming inquisition, Charles Dickens had written to the lawyer and antiquarian William Sandys in 1847: “It is a great comfort, to my thinking, that so little is known concerning the poet. It is a fine mystery; and I tremble every day lest something should come out.”
Although new lives of Shakespeare of Stratford continue to pour forth from the presses each year, one always comes away with a strong feeling that the man himself has eluded the best efforts of his biographers to capture him. There may be insightful passages about his works and whole chapters on the institutions and characters of Elizabethan London, including Shakespeare’s hell-raising contemporaries Robert Greene, Thomas Nashe, and Ben Jonson, but the man himself is little more than an enigmatic smile melting into the horizon.
Still less do these biographies manage to connect the man to the body of literature associated with his name. In attempting to explain the dynamics of metaphor to a friend, the Russian poet Boris Pasternak took a box of matches and a pen from his desk and, placing them side by side, asked him to watch them interact. But the works of William Shake-speare have been placed side by side with the life of Gulielmus Shakspere of Stratford for nearly four centuries now, and no interaction has taken place; no dynamic current connects the two. In a letter to Nathaniel Holmes in 1866, Dr. W. H. Furness, editor of the New Variorum Shakespeare, wrote: “I am one of the many who have never been able to bring the life of William Shakespeare and the plays of Shakespeare within planetary distance of each other. Are there any two things in the world more incongruous?” This incongruity is the primary reason that biographies of Shakespeare fail as biographies, even if they succeed as engaging portraits of Elizabethan theater life or the age in general. Nothing in the life of William Shakspere of Stratford illuminates the works he is supposed to have written. Thus the plays themselves are reduced to works of fantasy rather than masterpieces of the imagination. As far as Shakespearean biography goes, we have reached a dead end.
Shakespeare’s biographers fail to connect the life and the plays convincingly, not simply because they have the wrong man, but because they fail to recognize the identity crisis that is at the heart of Shakespeare’s creativity. This omission keeps them sealed off from the core or creative soul of the author. As a result, Shakespeare remains to all intents and purposes anonymous, a mere cipher for the critical theories of the scholars. Like Banquo’s ghost, he sits at the head of the table in awful silence.
Far better to acknowledge, indeed to celebrate, this crisis—this anonymity—as an intrinsic element of Shakespeare’s greatness than to avoid it, for not only could it hold an important clue to the meaning of his works, but it may even have been part of his artistic method. What is certain is that Shakespeare’s self-concealment kept him growing as an artist throughout his life, free from the limiting pressures of public opinion. (It is surely significant that the greatest of writers has the ghostliest of identities.) The little that we know of Shakspere of Stratford is probably all we shall ever know, for 200 years of the most intensive research has yielded almost nothing. Though a player in the Shakespeare controversy, he is not the author. In using him as the gateway to the works, we run the risk of restricting our understanding; but if we take the authorship question itself as our portal and see it as an outgrowth of the author’s own identity crisis, we can enter an interpretative space that is both creative and illuminating.
Whatever view one takes of Shakespeare’s true identity—and no fewer than sixty candidates have been advanced in the past 150 years, five in the last five years alone—no one can deny that mistaken identity, concealed identity, loss of identity, and enforced anonymity are major themes in the works of this most celebrated poet-dramatist. Nor are these themes arbitrary or academic; rather, they bear the stamp and anxiety of actual experience. His contemporaries, too, were confronted with a mystery, and their cryptic accounts of him invite speculation about his identity.
If we allow Shakespeare to reveal himself to us through his principal themes, which build up a picture of his psychology, we see an author obsessed with his own frail sense of identity, which leads him from self-aggrandizing visions to outright renunciation; one who, in the end, subsumes himself in his works, the plays becoming the embodiment of his identity: his corpus.
Shakespeare himself, it seems, wanted to engage us in the question of his identity; in other words, he helped create what has come to be known as the Shakespeare authorship question. If we ignore this reality, we miss many of the essential elements of his art, leaving his message buried in the sands of time.