What we Talk About When we Talk About ‘Shakespeare’: the Man and the Myth

Who or what are we referring to when we refer to ‘Shakespeare’? 

Although the answer to this question may seem obvious, very little is absolutely known about the bard’s life. According to his contemporary, the Cambridge graduate and fellow playwright Robert Greene, Shakespeare was an ‘upstart crow’: a boastful, bombastic thief of ideas with delusions of grandeur in regard to social mobility. Although Greene was among the first to write about Shakespeare and offer literary critique, he was certainly far from the last. If Greene found it strange that the public enjoyed viewing Shakespeare’s plays, he would have found it wondrous strange indeed that they are continuing to do so over four hundred years after he dismissed Shakespeare’s literary credentials. 

Although he intended to besmirch Shakespeare’s name, Robert Greene’s insult does reflect the facts known about the bard. Shakespeare certainly was an upwardly mobile ‘upstart’. He was born in Stratford Upon Avon to Mary and John Shakespeare: the daughter of a farmer and a merchant with financial difficulties. He attended one of Stratford’s ‘petty’ schools until he was fourteen. It is unclear when his proclivity for poetry started. When he was eighteen, Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway. Anne was the daughter of a farmer and nearly ten years his senior. Following an unaccounted for period known as the ‘Lost Years’, Shakespeare moved to London. The move to London was likely driven by a desire to build a career in theatre. However, the extent of Shakespeare’s personal ambition in regard to fame and fortune is impossible to say. Many of his stories, including Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet, were either inspired by or based on stories that already existed. This begs the question of whether or not it is right to fully credit Shakespeare with the creation of plays such as Romeo and Juliet rather than acknowledging that the stories have undergone many interpretations. Should our understanding of Shakespearean’s identity and works be similar to our understanding of Homer’s identity and poems? It has also been speculated that Shakespeare did not write his plays in isolation. The true influence of others is impossible to gage.

When the plague forced theatres in London to close, Shakespeare wrote poetry. A number of his poems, including the erotic Venus and Adonis, were dedicated to Henry Wriothesley, Third Earl of Southampton. The poem details Venus’ attempted seduction of the beautiful young man Adonis. While we can be certain that the Earl of Southampton was Shakespeare’s patron, whether or not he was also a paramour remains unknown. A portrait of the Earl uncovered in 2002, known as the ‘Cobbe portrait’, perhaps depicts the Earl dressed in women’s attire. Considering the legal ramifications of such a relationship in Elizabethan England, we should be grateful that the details of their connection has remained a mystery, perhaps sparing Shakespeare and the Earl from a savage legal system.

Shakespeare’s immense success afforded him wealth in his own lifetime. Seven years after his death, John Heminge and Henry Condell published the first ever folio of Shakespeare’s plays. We will never know if the 37 plays and 154 sonnets are complete. Perhaps pages or entire works have been lost, either accidentally or deliberately. And surely, after nearly a decade had passed between the bard’s death and the publication of his work, theatrical revisions must have been made for the stage. Although the works attributed to Shakespeare are incredible, it’s not impossible to imagine that actors and directors made their own tweaks of well-trodden scripts. Are all of the words we read and savour truly the work of Shakespeare’s pen, or should we credit Heminge and Condell as potential co-writers or at least editors? 

Although Shakespeare’s works are put upon a literary pedestal in the 21st century, theatre-goers were not always kind about his plays. Titus Andronicus, and a number of other works, were not well reviewed. However, it would be rare for anybody to so brazenly cast aside the merits of a Shakespeare play in the 21st century. Were Renaissance theatre-goers more discerning than contemporary viewers? Have we been blinded by the name and legend of Shakespeare? Or do we realise something about his works that was not evident during the Elizabethan era?

Where the facts pertaining to Shakespeare’s life have been found wanting, romantic theories have flooded to fill the gaps. From Tom Stoppard’s Shakespeare in Love, which is essentially a retelling of Romeo and Juliet featuring the bard, to theories about a life on the run during the ‘Lost Years’, all manner of tales have been conjured in an attempt to answer what can never be answered. What do we talk about when we talk about Shakespeare? Are we truly referring to the man, or are we considering the actors he worked with, the muses he may have had, the stories that he recreated, the edits that may have been made and the change in public admiration? 

Ambiguity characterises Shakespeare’s writing. Does his ambiguous life contribute directly to this appeal? Perhaps the great unknowns enable readers and audiences alike to dissolve entirely into the fantasy of his stories without concerning themselves with the details of the writer’s personal life. It doesn’t prevent Shakespeare’s stories from being about him. But it does prevent it from being bound only to the bard. They are about him, but they are also about me and you. They were written by the man, the men and the myth in ambiguity that makes the plays and poems both time bound and timeless.

3 thoughts on “What we Talk About When we Talk About ‘Shakespeare’: the Man and the Myth

  1. I think we always have to be careful with biographic approaches to literature, especially so for Shakespeare’s plays. Because we know so little about his life and even less about his personality.

    I think today Shakespeare has become synonymous with high culture. His plays are on top of the canon because they’ve been deemed timeless at some point (which they of course are) However, what most people tend to forget is that Shakespeare wasn’t considered ‘elistist’ during his lifetime. This was a label given to him only after his death. So I think it’s in fact right to speak of the ‘myth’ of Shakespeare because most of what we talk about when we talk about Shakespeare is really constructed.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi, thank you for your thoughts. I agree – I think that there is also a misunderstanding that the speaker in a text and the author’s personal opinion are one and the same. I find it quite frustrating that he is viewed as ‘elite’ and to be enjoyed by the few – quite the opposite!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Great point! Shakespeare has been accorded myth-like status over the years, and I think that does play into the decision not to mention his collaborators, because they don’t easily fit into the myth. It becomes even more troublesome for people who think someone else was Shakespeare to admit collaboration, because you can’t really explain how or why Oxford would be writing with someone like George Peele.

    Liked by 1 person

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