Will the real William Shakespeare please stand up?

Who the hell was William Shakespeare? It’s a pertinent question, one that has its own body of scholarship and devotees.

On the surface there’s a quaint heresy to the question. Shakespeare, after all, is touted as the greatest writer of the English language, which worldwide is in fashion, at the moment. So why question his identity? Precisely because it ties back to his work, or perhaps his lack thereof.

I don’t know much of the whole affair, but the objections to Shakespeare as an author boil down to the following: that, rather than grow up in an environment conducive to poesy, Shakespeare grew up benighted, illiterate and unschooled; that his name was either a pseudonym or borrowed by the real author as a sort of shield or cover; that Shakespeare was really a shrewd businessman and tangential actor, not a genius; that the Shakespeare fanatics destroyed any evidence contradicting the Bardic legend; that his will wasn’t poetic enough to be the work of the greatest writer in the English language; that an anagram of “William Shakespeare” is “I am a weakish speller.”

As to who could fill the void, should Shakespeare ever be displaced, scholars and other interested parties have proffered a wide roster of alternatives. Some claim Shakespeare (as I will denote his body of work) was written by Francis Bacon, philosopher and father of the scientific method. Others claim it was some duke or another aristocrat.

Others proclaim fellow playwright Christopher Marlowe as the author of Shakespeare, despite the fact that Marlowe died before Shakespeare was ever even published. That just means, naturally, that he faked his death. My favorite theory, in the midst of all this, is the postmodern view that Shakespeare was actually J.D. Salinger.

Figures as diverse as Ralph Waldo Emerson, William James, Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, Orson Welles, Sigmund Freud and Charlie Chaplin have voiced doubts on Shakespeare’s validity. Others, like Charles Dickens and Henry James, were perturbed without outright denouncing him. James even wrote a short story about it, “The Birthplace.”

Nobody seems to deny Shakespeare’s work its supremacy. That’s the kicker. It’s not a question of whether Shakespeare’s plays are really “all that.” People mostly squabble over who deserves to have written Shakespeare if it wasn’t Shakespeare, and if it wasn’t Shakespeare…

In short, why bother about all this? To many people—even those who find Shakespeare’s works boring and inane, or over vaunted—it’s not a question worth asking. Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare, so it goes.

I take a multi-leveled approach to all this. On one level, I’m indifferent to the Shakespeare authorship debate. I could care less who wrote “Richard III” or “Hamlet” or “The Tempest,” and that’s not something I can say for any other author, save for those of antiquity. I care a great deal that Steinbeck wrote “East of Eden” and that Haruki Murakami wrote “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.”

On other levels, I’m an agnostic. The sad truth is much of the reality of Shakespeare is lost. There is scant documentary evidence of Shakespeare the artist, it seems. Further, an author’s memory is routinely expunged over time, as Shakespeare’s generation and its bookends die off, and there is no fresh testament to the person.

Of course, it must be asked what people would gain from knowing more about Shakespeare. If the Bard was upended, who could fill the myth? Who could fill it if the myth himself can’t seem to fill it? How desirable is the reality? “Humankind,” as T.S. Eliot says, after all, “cannot stand very much reality.”

Jorge Luis Borges takes that truth and applies it to Shakespeare in a short story called, “Shakespeare’s Memory.” The narrator is given Shakespeare’s memories at a conference, but it overwhelms him and he voluntarily gives it away on the telephone.

Much earlier, James explored the daunting reality of Shakespeare in “The Birthplace.” The main characters, the Gedges, are sent to curate the titular Stratford house and Mr. Gedge begins to doubt the myth. Nonetheless he decides to hold it up, either on artistic principle or in fear of being fired for bad-mouthing the Bard.

Perhaps the central paradox to all of this is how Shakespeare’s art relates to Shakespeare’s reality. Compared to the work, the lines, which are held as immortal, Shakespeare’s existence is composed of dead letters, as they probably should, considering Shakespeare is dead.

I write that without levity. I don’t have time to parse the whole affair, but I can say this: The relation between art and artist generally favors the art for longevity. As Shakespeare approaches 500 years in age, their importance and relevance come not from being written by a Shakespeare but by being Shakespeare per se. And for all the naysayers, at this point, there’s nothing to upend, save a ghost or spacious air.

Think you know the secret to the Bard’s true identity? Send all inquiries and insider info to sreichard@wisc.edu

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