Saturday, April 2, 2016

The Right Ordinary Bill Shakespeare

The twenty-third of April, 2016, will mark the four-hundredth anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare, judged to be the greatest writer in the English-language, one of the greatest ever.  

Recently, the Daily Telegraph published a new portrait of the Bard by Geoffrey Tristram, which purports to be as “authentic” an image as possible of Shakespeare, who in turn is described as being like “a chap down the pub.” (below)

Daily Telegraph, Geoffrey Tristram.

I think a large part of the fascination with Shakespeare lies in the fact that the details of his life are so obscure. As Bill Bryson writes in his very slim biography Shakespeare: The World as Stage, “After four hundred years of dedicated hunting, researchers have found about a hundred documents relating to William Shakespeare and his immediate family-baptismal records, title deeds, tax certificates, marriage bonds, writs of attachment, court records (many court records – it was a litigious age), and so on.” (Atlas Books, Harper/Collins, 2007, page 7). 

In fact, practically everything written about him is conjecture, supposition and outright fantasy. 

There has even been for many decades an ongoing debate as to whether William Shakespeare actually wrote the plays and poems that are credited to his name. 

The most popular candidate as the “real” author of Twelfth Night, Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet and the rest of the Shakespearean corpus, is Edward de Vere, the seventeen Earl of Oxford (amongst other candidates are Sir Francis Bacon, the Sixth Earl of Derby and Shakespeare’s fellow playwright Christopher Marlowe). 

Another more recent line of speculation focuses not on authorship, but religion: the historian Michael Wood, in his In Search of Shakespeare miniseries, argues that the playwright was a secret Catholic. 

This is, argues Wood, because the practice of the “old religion” in Elizabethan England would, if revealed, land the adherent in serious trouble, up to and including torturous and capital punishments.  

But according to Bryson, it is unremarkable that so little of Shakespeare’s life is known, given that this was true of practically everyone in the poet’s lifetime, including his fellow playwrights (Marlowe, Kyd, Jonson and so on), excepting for royals and very powerful nobles. 

Given the obscurity of Shakespeare as a person and publican, it is necessary to examine in detail his background, the details of the historical times in which he lived, for to speculate as to how he might have got on in life. 

This was the procedure of the historian Peter Ackroyd’s Shakespeare: The Biography (London, Chatto and Windus, 2005), and I think Ackroyd captures perhaps the truest picture of the Bard of Stratford as any yet achieved. 

Various portraits of William Shakespeare.

Ackroyd does briefly discuss, but gives no particular credence to the notion that Shakespeare illegally practised Catholicism. 

Considering that evidence marshalled by Ackroyd about what kind of man Shakespeare was, I had the thought that if, somehow, people came to know the “real” Shakespeare (as for example, through the miraculous authentication of a diary or personal letters), it would be a disappointment. 

His name became, in his time, quite famous, and yet few seemed to have been interested in who he was personally. When he died in 1616 in Stratford, no one but friends, associates and family attended his services — quite unlike Jonson and other literary greats of the time. 

The adjective that his contemporaries attached to the Bard was “sweet”, characteristic both of his words and his temperament. Beyond that, not much else, even though he mixed with men of words his entire life, and at a time when the concept of privacy scarcely existed at all. 

According to Ackroyd, there is but one record extant of Shakespeare addressing himself in the personal pronoun. It comes from testimony that Shakespeare gave as a witness in a civil-case over a dowry. As Ackroyd notes, the language Shakespeare uses is completely unremarkable for an educated man of his time. 

Shakespeare’s personal obscurity, the cause of so much intrigue and speculation, may be because he was not very remarkable at all. His “absence” is so persistent, simply because he may have been persistently absent, hunched over a desk in candlelight, furiously writing out words that only came to him in concentration and solitude. Yet, as an individual social actor Shakespeare was the epitome of petit-bourgeois (whatever his aspirations toward gentility). 

He parleyed a relatively modest income as a playwright and actor into a healthy nest-egg, cannily buying and selling land and assets (including a share in the theatrical company he worked with), and even being accused of illegal hoarding during times of shortage. 

At his death, he owned one of the largest houses in Stratford, and bequeathed healthy sums to his elder daughter. It seems that, in Elizabethan times, sobriety and responsibility had not yet become opponents of the highest creativity. 

Part of the mystery of Shakespeare rests in the fact, during his lifetime, there were not yet newspapers. There were, in fact, unbound, semi-periodical documents that ultimately gave rise to what became the daily newspaper, by the opening of the seventeenth century. But the first English-language daily (which was in fact published in Amsterdam) did not appear until four years after Shakespeare died in 1616. 

If newspapers existed then, and had reported if not on the details of Shakespeare’s private life, then about his work as a public man, it would have provided illumination to contemporaries, and to later generations, as to exactly what he was doing and when. Newspapers chronicle public events and activities, just as diaries record private actions and thoughts. 

The distinction isn’t so clear-cut, however, given that private diarists often comment on public events, and before the electric telegraph at least, daily newspapers consisted of correspondence sent from eyewitnesses to the scenes of important events (hence the synonym for “reporter”: “correspondent”). 

It was at one time at least, commonplace for newspapers to be named the Journal, and in French, dailies are referred to as journales (just as a more synonym for reporter is“journalist”). In this respect, the daily newspaper succeeded such documents as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle or the Domesday book (and their equivalents in other languages) in providing a chronological record of society.   

As with personal diaries, newspapers didn’t have to tell the truth, or at least, the whole truth, in order for readers to gain an understanding of the chronology of the life of the diarist, or of the city or society documented. 

The oral literature of modern times.

But because this institution had not yet appeared when Shakespeare was alive (or at least, not in the English language, though German and Dutch dailies were started in the early seventeenth century), we don’t even know where he actually was during his lifetime, except for one or two instances. 

Neither do we know when exactly, or in what order, any of his plays were first performed. In the presence of newspapers, we might have knowledge, indirectly no doubt, of these key facts. 

We would in any case have a more comprehensive view of Shakespeare’s life, enough perhaps that it would be impossible for anyone to argue that he didn’t actually compose the works that bear his name. It is interesting that while the periodical (which is to say, “the press”) is the ultimate form of the printing press, it really didn’t come into existence until more than a century following the invention of movable type itself. 

During this period, the printing press was treated mainly as a great enhancement of the medieval use of manuscript, which was to preserve the writings of the past, in book form. Unbound documents certainly did have an immediate impact upon discourse. It was only that such printed media didn’t take periodical form until the seventeenth century.

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