Bryson’s Folly – 2

Bill Bryson writes in his book about “Shakespeare” that we know very little about him but the same goes for other writers of the period.   He cites two examples, Thomas Dekker and Ben Jonson.  He writes of Dekker that “we know little of his life other than that he was born in London, wrote prolifically, and was often in debt.”

But the real point at issue is that none of the records in the life of William Shakspere of Stratford-upon-Avon have anything to do with writing or literature or acting or the theatre.  For Dekker, however, we do have entries in Henslowe’s diary about payments as a writer for the theatre; and we even have a letter from Dekker to the actor Edward Alleyn.  Here’s a photo of that letter as reprinted in Diana Price’s book Shakespeare’s Unorthodox Biography, p, 122:


(Dekker wrote the letter in 1616 from King’s Bench prison; Ms. Price reprinted the letter courtesy of The Cleveland Public Library.)

If scholars had anything like this single document for William Shakspere of Stratford, showing him in personal correspondence with someone in the theatrical life of London, the skepticism about his authorship of the Bard’s works would certainly be reduced; moreover, such a letter would be touted to the heavens in each and every “biography” of the Bard.  But no such letter exists for him.

“Huge gaps exist for nearly all figures from the period,” Bryson writes, but some gaps are more gaping than others.  For Shakspere of Stratford we have six shaky signatures, as though he had never created one that was distinctly his own (as most others did at the time), and no correspondence of any kind with anyone, much less someone involved in literature and drama.

It takes some doing, some real effort, to ignore and try to get around the fatal gaps in the Stratford man’s documentary record, but the affable Bryson decided to “go with the pack,” as they say; so he trots out that tired old song that we know more about Shakespeare than about nearly every other writer of the period.  That, plainly enough, is bunk.

And Ben Jonson is the other writer cited?  Bill, are you kidding?  Do you really want to put Shakspere’s factual biography side by side with Jonson’s?  Do you really want to compare the hard evidence in their lives that they were writers?  Out of a hundred points for the latter, Jonson gets 100 and Shakspere gets zero.

More later!

Published in: Uncategorized on February 1, 2009 at 9:59 pm  Leave a Comment  

The Man Who Wrote Shakespeare

The title of this very short blog is the title of a poem on the Web by Michael J. Farrand at:

(It’s on the Blogroll here.)

It has lots of stanzas, beginning with this one:

First let us expose this whole Stratford ruse
The man christened as William Shaksper
He emerged from skullduggery to choose
An unknown illiterate impostor
For Queen Elizabeth to make appear
As the man who wrote “William Shakespeare”.

There you go, there’s the gist of it, and I guarantee you that one day students will look back at all the “biographies” of Shakespeare — all filled with fiction to fill in the blanks — and wonder how it took us so long to raise our hands and shout that the Emperor has no clothes.

Well, the Shakespeare myth has been a kind of religious belief.  It certainly can’t be based on the evidence — unless you want to keep telling us that the name “William Shakespeare” is listed as the author of Hamlet, so the case for William Shakspere of Stratford is proved.  Anyway, yes, a religious belief; and therefore disagreeing with it can make us feel guilty.  Saying that the Bard was “someone else” is tantamount to saying God doesn’t exist — and here comes the lightning bolt!

Holding onto the myth has been a tradition, which means it’s been a habit, and with time it becomes increasingly difficult to stop.  But I tell you, the students of the future — perhaps the near future — will look back at us and laugh their heads off.

But hey, we’re all victims of rigid thinking, no matter how liberated any of us may feel.  We have ingrained, deeply held points of view, and when one of them is challenged we, too, can be all too ready to defend it regardless of its merit.  I have often found myself saying, “Well, the Stratfordians have no corner on narrow-mindedness.  The Oxfordians are no different!”

Ha!  This will not warm the hearts of my friends in the Oxfordian movement building the case for Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford as the man who used “Shakespeare” as a pen name.  But I’m serious — we, too, can be just as rigid and narrow-minded as anyone else.   And I include myself!  In the end it’s up to each of us to make an honest inward assessment of the degree to which we’re willing to look for, and find, and embrace, the truth.

Cheers from Hank

Published in: Uncategorized on February 1, 2009 at 4:26 pm  Comments (2)  

Bryson’s Folly – 1

Looking through Bill Bryson’s book Shakespeare: The World as Stage, published in 2007, I couldn’t help wondering how he managed to get through writing it without recognizing his own contradictory statements and outright falsehoods, not to mention his snide, snickering dissimulation.  For example, he opens his ninth and final chapter, Claimants, exclaiming, “There is an extraordinary – seemingly an insatiable – urge on the part of quite a number of people to believe that the plays of William Shakespeare were written by someone other than William Shakespeare.”

Okay, hold on, sir!  First of all, Bill, the folks with this “insatiable urge” happen to be people with insatiable curiosity — something you should admire and applaud rather than deride.  These people, who happen to love Shakespeare, are curious about his character as a person and about his life. Such open-minded, adventurous spirit is something you might want to encourage, especially in young people, in students; you don’t want to stifle such curiosity, do you?

But more important is that you know darn well, Mr. Bryson, that you’re begging the question — assuming the truth of the very point being challenged! As you certainly know, quite a number of people believe that these plays such as Love’s Labour’s Lost and Hamlet and King Lear were written by someone using “William Shakespeare” as a pen name!

And these same people can see no good reason to believe that William Shakspere of Stratford upon Avon was that someone.  Yes, the name “Shakespeare” was printed on the narrative poems and plays, but never during the Stratford man’s lifetime was he ever connected to that name or was that name ever connected to him. Up to his death in 1616 (and for years afterward) he can be identified only as a businessman — money lender, grain dealer, property buyer — and never, not once, identified as a writer.

So these genuinely curious folks don’t believe that William Shakespeare was “someone other than William Shakespeare” — that’s a tiresome joke; but they do question whether the true writer was the guy who’s been accepted by tradition.  Accepted blindly.  If that tradition had never existed and you were given all the known facts about the Stratford man, all the evidence related to his life, you would never decide he must have been one of the greatest literary artists and intellects in the history of humankind.

Bryson appears to use a tactic of conceding points only to come right back and press a buzzer – zap! – indicating that none of them makes a difference, that they can be just swept off the table.  For example, he mentions that all the records involving the Stratford man consist of “baptismal records, title deeds, tax certificates, marriage bonds, writs of attachment, court records” and so on.

“In consequence,” he  writes, “there remains an enormous amount that we don’t know about William Shakespeare … We don’t know if he ever left England.  We don’t know who his principal companions were or how he amused himself … We have no record at all of his whereabouts for the eight critical years when he left his wife and three young children in Stratford and became, with almost impossible swiftness, a successful playwright in London.”

Shakespeare, Bryson admits, “is a kind of literary equivalent of an electron – forever there and not there … In fact it cannot be emphasized too strenuously that there is nothing – not a scrap, not a mote – that gives any certain insight into Shakespeare’s feelings or beliefs as a private person.  We can know only what came out of his work…”  (Emphases added.)

Wow.  Right on!  And now here comes the buzzer.  Suddenly Bryson quotes an archivist who repeats a falsehood that has been uttered over and over for generations:

“In fact we know more about Shakespeare than about almost any other dramatist of his age.”


No, no, no, that’s not true, sir, no we don’t!  I refer you to Shakespeare’s Unorthodox Biography by Diana Price, published in 2001, wherein she demolishes that oft-repeated nonsense.  The truth is that, so long as we believe in the myth of the Stratford man, we shall continue to know less about Shakespeare than about any other dramatist of his age.

We’ve just begun to walk this path.  Yes, we’ll get back to other orthodox scholars (such as James Shapiro) in due time…

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