April 23 2016 is the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. Books have rolled off the presses over the last decade, exploring every possible aspect of his life. They include “In search of Shakespeare”, “Shakespeare’s Wife”, “Shakespeare the Player”, “The Lodger”, “Shakespeare Revealed”, “Soul of the Age”, “Contested Will” – and these are just the ones I bought.
I assume that, like every right-thinking person, Shakespeare wrote his plays. If you are in doubt, how is it possible that the playwright Ben Johnson (who was envious of Shakespeare but full of admiration too) wrote the elegy to the first Folio of 1623 if he did not believe Shakespeare was the author. (Notice that virtually all the contenders of authorship are of a higher social class than middle-class Shakespeare, which incidentally says a lot about the class views of their proponents.)
Many real biographical questions exist. When did Shakespeare reach London? Was it 1590 (the once normally accepted year) or a bit earlier 1588, or a lot earlier, 1582 when he was a late teenager and married that year. What was his first play? Was it Henry the Sixth, part 2 or part 3? Or The Comedy of Errors or, outside the Canon, (a list of writings accepted as genuine) Edmund Ironside, or Locrine? How many plays did he write? Was it 38, as in the first Folio? Pericles was left out, so 39? Add Edward the Third which the Royal Shakespeare Company now accepts and the Arden Edition too = 40. Did he add the other plays Sir Thomas More – certainly one speech, and in his own hand?
Did he collaborate? Well, certainly he did after The Tempest – with Rye’s own John Fletcher. The story goes that Shakespeare wanted to retire in Stratford and Beaumont (John Fletcher’s normal collaborator) had just married an heiress who had a view on playwright. So, Fletcher became the King’s Men’s Chief writer. Was there a problem? Anyhow, back comes our Will to collaborate with John Fletcher on three plays – Two Noble Kinsmen (not in the Canon), Henry the Eighth, (in the Canon), and Cardenio which is lost – or is it? Is it substantially Double Falsehood, a play which has been recently published in the Arden edition and is now thought to contain more 17th century language than 18th, it having been produced under that title in 1727.
Did Shakespeare ever visit Rye? Strangely, yes. Maybe in 1593 and again in 1596 when plague caused the closure of the playhouses, but also in 1597 – not for reason of the plague but because his Company had to leave London as two authors (the aforementioned Johnson and Nashe) had written a ‘seditious’ play and were in gaol. Again playhouses were closed. The Company visited Rye and Dover, then Marlborough, Bath and Bristol. What did they put on in Rye? We don’t know but the answer may be in the Lewes Records Office.
So many questions, so much uncertainty. Who was the Dark Lady of the Sonnets? (Emilia Bassano is the favourite). Did Shakespeare travel abroad? How often did he return to Stratford? After all, he had three children. How often did Queen Elizabeth see the plays?
Speculation galore! What is not speculative is his position in the world literature. He is right up there in the top few as a poet-dramatist. If you have read to the end of these ramblings, reward yourself by reading/seeing one of these plays you have not read/seen so far.
HAPPY FOURTH CENTENARY, WILL