There’s not much to go on. A few documents, a handful of publications, some court proceedings. Our total harvest is six signatures, and the name isn’t spelt the same way twice. And yet out of those few straws we have built our conviction that we know the man called William Shakespeare (or, if we were to take his word for it, Shakspere).
Here are the facts. Trinity Church, Stratford upon Avon, has a baptismal register which was compiled in about 1600, transcribing records from earlier registers, that has an entry for 26th April 1564 for the baptism of ‘Guilielmus filius Johannes Shakespeare’. The episcopal register for Worcester has an entry for 27 November 1582 recording a marriage licence for Wm Shaxpere and Annam Whateley. The next day, William Shagspere and Anne Hathwey were married. The couple had three children: Susanna, baptised 26 May 1583, and twins Hamnet and Judith, baptised 2 February 1585. At the end of 1592, an actor and playwright in London makes some catty remarks about ‘the only Shake-scene’, suggesting that our man was making a name in the theatre. In 1593, William Shakespeare publishes Venus and Adonis. Over the next twenty years, there are spasmodic records enabling us to see him working and living in London while building up a property portfolio back in Stratford (where, incidentally, he gets done for hoarding and for moving the boundary stones between his fields and a neighbour’s). The registers for Trinity Church in Stratford record the burial of Will Shakespeare, gent, on 25 April 1616. Oh, yes, and then there’s that will (as in Last Will and Testament: don’t worry, Shakespeare spent his professional life making puns about his name).
This is as good a place as any to state firmly that the various conspiracy theories that the plays and poems of William Shakespeare were written by the Earl of Oxford/Francis Bacon/Christopher Marlowe/Elizabeth I/Winnie-the-Pooh (all actual candidates hotly supported, sometimes by people who otherwise come across as quite well-balanced. Alright, maybe not Winnie-the-Pooh; but it can only be a matter of time) are all nonsense. Bunkum. Rubbish. Ludicrous. The theories principally stem from the unattractively snobbish belief that a glover’s son (or possibly a butcher’s son – I did warn you we don’t know much) from the Midlands couldn’t possibly have written – well, the stuff we call Shakespeare.
So what sort of a fist have people made of writing Shakespeare’s story? Well, the tendency has been to flesh out those meagre facts with lots of information about everyday life in Elizabethan and Jacobean England and with accounts of what we know about the practice of theatre. If non-fiction, the result can be a history of a place and time which is more or less successfully draped around the central, rather vague, figure of Shakespeare. For my money, the best recent stab at this has been Bill Bryson’s. Charles Nicholl takes a more focused approach in his highly readable quite scholarly account of Shakespeare’s domestic life in London, The Lodger: Shakespeare on Silver Street, which uses documentary evidence to reconstruct Shakespeare’s business concerns and social world. It’s a thought-provoking reminder that this was a real person who ate and slept and shopped and had friends and neighbours. Will in the World is another winner, largely because Stephen Greenblatt wrote it: Greenblatt is one of the most engaging, vivid and articulate of Shakespearean scholars and couldn’t be dull if he tried.
What of fiction? George Bernard Shaw (and we must talk one day about writers who get saddled, by themselves, their parents or, even more bafflingly, by posterity, with a range of names) dashed off a one-act play called The Dark Lady of the Sonnets, which is a hoot, playing on the tiresomely concrete insistence that all poetry must be autobiographical and that therefore Shakespeare’s sonnets are no more than an embarrassingly public series of love letters. I have to say that I’ve never quite understood why, according to this annoying theory, he is allowed to have had no trouble imagining, say, a tenth-century Scottish king or a couple of Veronese teenagers, but can only be plonkingly recording his own amours in the sonnets.
Caryl Brahms and Ned Sherrin got together to write No Bed for Bacon, a gloriously enjoyable comic romp which bears an astonishing resemblance to Tom Stoppard’s script for Shakespeare in Love a generation later. Sherrin, ever the gentleman, must have been amused by the coincidence. Anthony Burgess took time off from writing A Clockwork Orange to come up with both Nothing Like the Sun (which is fun but complex and elliptical to the point of archness) and Shakespeare, a ‘speculative biography’: I’m not sure the absence of either would make this week’s bookshelf feel too hauntingly empty.
I owe discovering Jude Morgan’s The Secret Life of William Shakespeare to the Anarchist Librarian of Hexham. It had been shelved as detective fiction, where it caught my eye and persuaded me to pick it up, thinking it as interesting an angle in the increasingly crowded field of detective-fiction-with-an-historical-setting as any. In fact, it isn’t a crime story. What it is – and I say this as someone with reservations about Shakespeare ‘biographising’ so deep they would fit snugly in the Mariana Trench – is a triumph. It is completely, compellingly, poetically believable. Read it. Tell me if you don’t find yourself thinking, ‘yup: this is him alright.’ And then – of course – go back and read the poems and the plays. As someone said to me only yesterday when I bought a cup of coffee, but this time meaningfully, enjoy.