Shakespeare in the Limelight: Who Was He and What Did He Look Like?
by Gerit Quealy
“He was not for an age but for all time,” declared Ben Jonson in the dedication to the 1623 First Folio of the plays of William Shakespeare. Part two of findingDulcinea’s Shakespeare series examines the man behind the work and the persistent "Authorship Question."
Much has been written under the guise of biography about William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon. It’s especially surprising when you consider that few facts actually exist about his personal life. But that hasn’t seemed to stop countless biographers from having another go at it. Even Shakespeare’s wife, about whom there exists even less information, warrants her own 416-page book.
“Look, not on his picture but his book.” Again Ben Jonson gives us good advice, because there is, in fact, no authenticated image of William Shakespeare; not the most recognizable Droeshout engraving on the First Folio, nor the ubiquitously tampered-with Chandos portrait. None can lay claim to being an authentic image of the poet. That hasn't stopped several people from attempting such authentication, however.
The actual details about William Shakespeare's life that we do know would take up little more than a leaflet: baptized on April 26, 1564, in Stratford parish church; banns of marriage registered in 1582; baptism of his children; some lawsuits, loans, payments and real estate deals; the burial record of April 25, 1616, and the infamous will. There was one letter written to him, but never sent, by Richard Quiney, a fellow Stratford citizen. The rest is silence.
Not really. The first line of Stephen Greenblatt’s 2004 book, “Will in the World,” begins, “Let us imagine …” and that’s what he and other biographers before and after him have done for hundreds and hundreds of pages. Shakespeare has become a kind of blank slate upon which people have projected their images of what the personality of the poet/playwright should be. Over the centuries, that slate has turned to granite. The possibility that he may have gone to the Stratford grammar school has evolved into not only his undoubted attendance, but also that the education there at the time was the equivalent of Oxford and Cambridge combined. “Gentle Shakespeare” who, according to John Milton, warbled his woodnotes wild through Elysian fields, was a natural genius, and that’s enough to go on.
It’s not enough, not really. That’s why there’s an Authorship Question: a hot debate between Stratfordians—those who unequivocally believe that William of Stratford is the sole author of the works—and others who propose alternative candidates. The Question arose from the apparent discrepancy between the man’s life and his work. Not only do the Shakespeare works exhibit broad knowledge of the works of classical authors, law and medicine—some of them not yet translated into English at that time—but also an intimacy with foreign lands and their customs, court life and so on.
Such doubt about Shakespeare’s authorship and the animosity the question generates has led to a petition of doubt, simply saying that the question should be a reasonable avenue of inquiry to look into the possibility that someone other than the Stratford man wrote the plays. The list of signatories, which includes some famous names, continues to grow.