On March 25, 1616, William Shakespeare summoned his lawyer and amended his will. After making several changes, he then signed with a palsied hand, concluding: “And do revoke all former wills, and publish this to be my last will and testament.” Less than a month later, he was dead.
Spring was underway in the Warwickshire countryside, yet the crowd of friends gathered round the dying Shakespeare must have worn somber faces, the kind that sees an old friend leaving for good and knows it.
His life slipped away 388 April’s ago this weekend, on his 52nd birthday. Four centuries later, his cast of characters–unparalleled in the Western Canon–live on. As Harold Bloom put it, the personalities that strut across Shakespeare’s stage “are free artists of themselves.” Their inwardness, their mutability, their frightening potency with word and gesture, still bestride the world of drama. Even post-modern performances cannot completely dim their artistry.
Yet Shakespeare’s personal life, ironically, has proved maddenly elusive. Bloom suggests that the energy most people spend creating a persona for themselves, Shakespeare poured into his plays. The satisfactions after imagining a Macbeth or a Hamlet surely must have been extraordinary. Maybe sitting down to pint of ale, or tending one’s investments might have been a comfortable change of pace; working on an image of oneself as a touchy genius would simply be besides the point.
But the plays and their poetry? How could their author be so, well, ordinary? We should remember that our age of celebrity is often in full flight away from the ordinary, the everyday, and, certainly, the traditional. The adoring details we seek about the famous reveal our faith that success, wealth, and unique genius are what make life worth living. A vicarious experience of them is better than nothing, our culture seems to suggest.
It wasn’t always like this. In his recent biography of Shakespeare, Park Honan shows how the literary culture of Shakespeare’s time valued not the new, but the old, and above all, the traditional. In its veneration of the classics, in the close-knit group of reparatory acting companies that survived only by cooperative effort, and in Stratford where local traditions were at the center of civic life, the ordinary was esteemed far beyond anything we see today.
The circular arguments of the alternative authorship theories revert inevitably to the man from Stratford as a blind, a front for the real genius. Shakespeare’s stunning lack of personality must be a mask. Revealing this disguise is the heroic task of the anti-Stratfordians. Their grail is finding Shakespeare in the life of someone else, anyone else, so long as he fits the mold they have fashioned for celebrity and genius. The flight from everydayness is complete when the world renounces Stratford and embraces Oxford or Bacon or Derby. Or does it begin all over again?
These wits seek to sever the Stratford writer from the cold facts of his will that grants John Hemminges, Richard Burbage, and Henry Condell money to buy rings by which to remember their friend and fellow actor. Hemminges and Condell returned the favor by editing the first collected works of Shakespeare seven years after his death. With no evidence of fraud forthcoming, the will and the First Folio (as the first edition is now called) stand as an unassailable link between the Warwickshire country boy and the best dramas ever written in English.
To argue that Strakespeare was simply an actor posing as the author of the plays completely misunderstands the social nature of drama. Watching one rehearsal of a professional acting company should forever dispel this claim. What would poor Shakespeare do when the play needed directing from the real author, call Oxford or Bacon on his cell phone?
There are puzzles in the will, speaking to family loss and sorrow. Shakespeare’s daughter Judith did marry Thomas Quiney, a man who previously impregnated another woman who later died in childbirth. This apparently caused the poet to revise his will less than a month before his death in order to make sure his future son-in-law could not lay hands on a penny of his estate.
There is, as well, the famous matter of the second-best bed left to his wife, Anne. Sir Ian McCellen and others have suggested the poet had little regard for marriage in general and his wife in particular from this evidence, alongside the testimony of such happy couples as the Macbeths and the cross-gendering romantics that leap out of his comedies. Little mind that the best bed may have been reserved for the frequent guests that we know stayed at Shakespeare’s home. The absence of books mentioned in the will has also given rise to those who imagine that this–plus a shaky signature–point to illiteracy on Shakespeare’s part, and conspiracy on practically everyone else’s.
Author Joe Sobran has expressed shock that the bard did not sprinkle his will with metaphors out of Hamlet. Sobran seems to argue that if Shakespeare did not write his will, he was probably illiterate. If he did write it, he probably was not the playwright. Again, a flight from the ordinary, with a rhetorical fallacy thrown in. Though it must be admitted that the will does indeed reveal a practical grain dealer, whose preoccupation with land and furniture rubs the creative temperament raw.
And so, many Aprils ago, Shakespeare left one stage only to inhabit another. The relatively meager evidentiary trail left by his life torments those who believe genius a product only of universities and good breeding, the cultivated egos of the elite. Charleton Ogburn and his ilk go to their graves haunted not by Othello and Ophelia but by paltry documents charging “the Stratford man” with such middle-class pursuits as tax evasion. But in the theater, Shakespeare stands alone, a symphony of voices uttering the most moving and lyrical words in our language. More than a ghost haunting the relics of a cultural apex, he is a reflection of all that we want and fear ourselves to be.
–Michael J. Ortiz is the author of the forthcoming children’s novel, Swan Town: The Secret Journal of Susanna Shakespeare (HarperCollins).