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The Mystery of Shakespeare

book recommendations Feb 15, 2021

Very little is known about the life and career of Gillaime Shakspar-- later dubiously presumed to be the playwright, William Shakespeare. Apparently, he was born into a tradesman's family in Stratford-upon-Avon on this day in 1564. When he was eighteen, he married Anne Hathaway, who was ten years his senior. The couple had a baby girl named Susanna six months later on May 26, 1583. In 1585 the birth of fraternal twins, Hamnet and Judith, completed the new family. But shortly afterward, Shakspar left Stratford and moved to London, leaving his family behind.

No one knows quite what Shakspar did for a living before he arrived in London. We do know that he established himself in the London theater by 1592. He had become an actor with London's most prestigious theatrical troupe, the Lord Chamberlain's Men, headquartered in the first professional theater building built since the fall of the Roman Empire. It was called, simply, the Theater.

There is no evidence that Shakspar was ever actually literate--there are no extant manuscripts of his writing and the only evidence we have of his hand are two barely legible "X-marks-the-spot" signatures. He had no formal education, owned no books, never traveled abroad as far as we know, and never claimed authorship of the works attributed to him. His parents were illiterate, his wife was illiterate, and his children were illiterate--hardly what you might expect from the undisputed "single greatest author of English prose."

Shakspar died in Stratford on April 23, 1616. During his lifetime, the only written documents that can be directly tied to him are a few real estate transactions, a will (which mentions no papers, books, desks, pens, manuscripts, notes, or literary properties), and a citation from the city of Stratford for having a dung hill that exceeded the limits of health and propriety. He left no male heirs to continue his name. His only son, Hamnet, had died at age eleven. Susanna and Judith both married, but Susanna's only child, Elizabeth was Shakspar’s last direct descendant. She died childless in 1670.

In 1623, seven years after his death, two of Shakspar’s former colleagues in the theater published thirty-six plays and attributed them to him. This is what scholars refer to as the First Folio. Though the plays evidence vast education, intimate familiarity with life in the court, and wide travel experience in the great cities of Europe, the Stratfordian authorship seems to have been accepted early on. In a prefatory poem, Ben Jonson even praised his old carousing friend as "the wonder of our stage."

Through the centuries, doubts about the Stratfordian authorship of the Shakespearean canon have produced innumerable alternate theories about who the actual author was—some have suggested the Earl of Oxford, or Francis Bacon, or even Queen Elizabeth. While it is likely that Shakspar was incapable of producing such masterpieces as Hamlet, King Lear, Henry V, Othello, Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, Midsummer Night’s Dream, Much Ado About Nothing, Richard II, Comedy of Errors, and The Taming of the Shrew--to say nothing of the magisterial Sonnets--it is just as likely that no one will ever be able to find convincing proof that any of the other possible authors wrote them either.

It will likely remain one of history’s great enigmas.

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