Like most people, I’ve spent a good portion of my life looking for answers but lately I have become more intrigued by questions. Maybe it’s that I’ve seen too many answers go unfulfilled, glib responses to serious inquiries that went nowhere. By the time we determine that the answer is hollow the perpetrator is long gone and there is no one to blame but ourselves for believing in the first place.
This came to me the other day while I was reading the current issue of Harper’s in which eight authors argue the question of Shakespeare’s true identity. Four of them claim that the Shakespeare masterpieces could not possibly have been written by humble Will Shakespeare of Stratford-on Avon, who was born the son of a local grain merchant and who died relatively poor and unknown.
They make a forceful case, as do the four authors who argue that there is ample evidence that Master Shakespeare most certainly wrote those 27 plays.
The arguments on both sides look convincing. On the one hand, we learn that our friend Will grew up in fairly modest surroundings in a small burg some two hours’ ride from London. How could this man write expertly about intrigues that took place in foreign courts and publish his works in three foreign languages? Quite a stretch for anyone’s imagination.
Very few authentic, signed writings of Shakespeare survive to this day. Only six of his signatures have been authenticated and they are, what one author describes as, “quavering and ill-written.” Will’s wife and daughter could not even sign their own name (they used an “X”). Could the world’s greatest literary genius not even have sent his own daughter to grammar school?
Then there is the name conflict. Will’s last name was Shakespeare, while the playwright signed his name “Shake-speare,” a name that some say is a reference to the mythological patron of theater arts, who carried a spear in her right hand.
In Shakespeare’s will he leaves a bowl to one person, a sword to another, but nowhere is there any mention of a single manuscript of any kind, not even a measly sonnet or two.
A monument erected 20 years after his death in a Stratford church depicts him — not with the things you would expect from a playwright (pen and paper, a stage, a theater ) — but holding a bag of some kind. One magazine writer wonders whether, in fact, the great Will Shakspere might have been, like his father, a local grain dealer.
In the 16th century it was common for highly educated noblemen to publish novels and plays under a clever pseudonym, so many researchers are now convinced that Shakespeare’s plays were really written by Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford. “Oxford,” as he is known, was in Italy at the same time that “Romeo and Juliet” was set in that country and had traveled extensively in Denmark, where “Hamlet” is set. There is plenty of additional evidence to support the Oxford theory.
On the other side, there is evidence that Will Shakspere did indeed write the greatest plays of all time, the strongest of which is an epitaph penned by Dr. Johnson. If Dr. Johnson considered the Stratford bard worth an epitaph it has the ring of authenticity.
As I read through these articles I was more and more intrigued, as though reading one of history’s great mysteries, one alluring in itself and perhaps not even worthy of a solution. As Charles Dickens once said, “The true identity of William Shakespeare may be one of the greatest mysteries of all time. I find myself in daily dread that I will wake someday and learn the truth.”
After all, what is a mystery but a call to intrigue? A magician who has enthralled his audience knows that to reveal his illusion brings his art to the level of science, and takes the mystery out of his act.
So I’m looking forward to exploring more of life’s questions, not just the ones about William Shakespeare’s identity. It is the questions that enhance life’s mysteries. No doubt the answers will appear in due time.