Evidence vs Story

Does the truth matter? Most of us would instinctively answer yes. But does it matter more than established belief, long-standing tradition, or a good story? Have you heard the one about William Shakespeare? How he had to give up his place at the King’s New Grammar School after his father fell into debt? How he left Stratford-upon-Avon after being caught poaching deer in Charlecote Park? Or how he got his start holding horses outside a London theatre?  We do not have sufficient primary source evidence to support any of these stories as true.  Two of them were circulating by the early 18th century.  The other was constructed by certain biographers (and dismantled by others).  We don’t actually know whether Shakespeare attended Stratford’s grammar school at all, for though it is reasonable to assume that he did, there are no records.  If the truth matters, it is worth noting what is evidenced, and what we have only assumed.

‘Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it’, said Jonathan Swift.[1] Shakespeare has become a near-mythical figure, and so much has been invented to fill the chasm of his meagre biography that many things invented and hung upon that idol are now repeated as fact.  What do we actually know about Shakespeare? Can we at least say, for example, that he wrote the famous balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet?  Published anonymously seven years after his death, the play did at least appear in the 1623 First Folio as one of Mr William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories & Tragedies. But the play didn’t mention a balcony. Romeo courted Juliet at her window until David Garrick introduced a balcony to the scene in the middle of the 18th century.  The word ‘balcony’ didn’t even appear in the English language, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, until two years after William Shakespeare’s death.

Those curious to find out what we really know about Shakespeare – what can be supported by solid evidence rather than speculation – find many aspects of the ‘Shakespeare’ they have imagined begin to vanish.  At this point, one might be tempted to look away. What none of us want to be left with, when contemplating the world’s most famous author, is a void.  Nevertheless, there are fascinating facts to be discovered. Let us consider the following multiple-choice question. Which of these is true?

  1. Shakespeare’s Macbeth was partly written by Thomas Middleton.
  2. Shakespeare’s youngest daughter Judith couldn’t write her own name.
  3. Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus contains a ‘Yo Mama’ joke.
  4. There is a spelling mistake on Shakespeare’s funeral monument.

Whichever one you picked, you are correct.  The ‘Yo Mama’ joke is purely here (and indeed in the play) for entertainment, and is worth sharing.

Demetrius: Villain, what hast thou done?

Aaron:        That which thou canst not undo.

Chiron:       Thou hast undone our mother.

Aaron:        Villain, I have done thy mother.

But the other items have implications for our understanding of Shakespeare, and raise a number of questions.  How did Macbeth, such a central and canonical play, come to contain lines from Middleton’s The Witch?  And upon what grounds are Shakespearean scholars arguing that at least nine ‘Shakespeare’ plays, a quarter of the canon, were at least partially written by somebody else?  What might explain why the youngest daughter of Shakespeare, whose strong and literate women included even servant women and shepherdesses writing letters, was unable to sign her name?   As for the spelling mistake on Shakespeare’s funeral monument (sieh for sith [since]), it pales into insignificance against the strong probability that the face most often represented as Shakespeare’s these days belongs to the poisoned courtier Sir Thomas Overbury.  But surprisingly, the two things are related. These interesting nuggets are the foundations of this website.  If you are curious to know more about the author of Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet, and you don’t mind a few myths being unravelled in the process, then this website is for you.  This – the search for the truth – was where I began.

Ever since school, Shakespeare (as a subject) had felt about as engaging as the repetitive drone of the whole class reading Julius Caesar aloud. Shakespeare biographies told me nothing, recycling the same unsatisfactory facts in a scaffolding of assertion.  Those reassurances that Shakespeare ‘must have’ done this and ‘might have’ done that brought me no closer to the keen intelligence that crafted the words ‘Cowards die many times before their deaths; the valiant never taste of death but once’.  Then I stumbled across something which made Shakespeare both fascinating and fresh again. All it took was to become more flexible in the way I thought about Shakespeare; to be open to the possibility that we might have the wrong idea about him.  If you are the curious type, perhaps you will enjoy exploring this subject as much as I have.  It is something of a detective story, and though I cannot promise you the neat denouement of a whodunit, there are certainly some twists and delights along the way.  The trail begins in the late sixteenth century with some obscure and anonymous Elizabethan plays, and with a subject that has been widely disparaged by our most respected Shakespearean scholars.  That subject is known as the Shakespeare authorship question.

[1] Swift ‘The Examiner’ No XIV, 9 November 1710. A proverbial version of this sentiment has been around ever since, for most of those 300 years involving lacing boots or shoes until a more modern version (usually misattributed to either Mark Twain or Winston Churchill) introduced pants: ‘A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on’.

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