Shakespeare: the historians’ view

When did the actor, playwright and poet find fame? Was his marriage happy? How did he learn, write and die? And is there really any doubt that he was the author of the ‘Shakespeare’ plays? On the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, a panel of experts address the big questions about the life and work of England’s best-known scribe

This article was first published in the April 2016 issue of BBC History Magazine
The ‘Flower Portrait’ of Shakespeare is inscribed with the date 1609, though ana

The ‘Flower Portrait’ of Shakespeare is inscribed with the date 1609, though analysis by National Portrait Gallery experts published in 2005 indicated that it was painted as late as the 19th century. (© Bridgeman Art Library)

 

The panel

Michael Dobson is director of the Shakespeare Institute at the University of Birmingham, and co-editor of The Oxford Companion to Shakespeare (OUP, 2015)

Paul Edmondson is head of research and knowledge at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust and author of Shakespeare: Ideas in Profile (Profile Books, 2015)

Laurie Maguire is professor of English language and literature at Magdalen College, Oxford and co-author of 30 Great Myths About Shakespeare (Wiley –Blackwell, 2012)

René Weis is a Shakespeare expert based at University College London. He is the author of Shakespeare Revealed: A Biography (John Murray, 2007)


Why do we seem to know so little about Shakespeare’s private life?

Michael Dobson: I think ‘seem’ is the operative word here. In terms of his financial arrangements, provision for his family, baptism, marriage certificate, addresses, will, and other legal and economic matters, we know a great deal – far more than we know about most other people of the period. But we don’t have Shakespeare’s own musings about it because he isn’t an autobiographical writer: he leaves his characters free to be themselves instead of using them as vehicles for editorialising or navel-gazing.

René Weis: We know rather more about Shakespeare than is commonly assumed, and there is at least one piquant anecdote about his private life from the period. This is recorded by the lawyer and diarist John Manningham, who reports that Shakespeare and [Richard] Burbage vied for the favours of the same woman when Burbage was playing Richard III. Yet unlike Ben Jonson, who loves talking about himself, Shakespeare did not keep a commonplace book or diary – or at least none survives. 

 

How much did Shakespeare’s early life and schooling influence his writing?

Laurie Maguire: By coincidence, the ‘national curriculum’ of the 16th-century grammar school provided an ideal regime for training future dramatists. It focused on dialogues, debates, flexibility of phrasing, rhetoric, Roman comedy – you couldn’t find a better course in the materials and skills a playwright would need.

Paul Edmondson: Shakespeare was formed by Stratford-upon-Avon – its geography, customs, religious beliefs, economy and people. The classical, humanist education of the kind offered to the town’s boys by its grammar school is writ large in his work. Every time he alludes to the work of the Roman poet Ovid, for example, or shapes a powerful speech with rhetorical devices, he is to some extent recalling his school days and the culture that formed him. Though Warwickshire words appear in his works (for example, ‘batlet’ for a laundry-paddle, and ‘chimney-sweepers’ for the seeded heads of dandelions), he is primarily a showman, writing about kings and nobles; he set more than half of his plays overseas.

 

How happy was his marriage to Anne Hathaway?

PE: We know next to nothing about the Shakespeares’ marriage except that they had to marry in a hurry in November 1582 (he was only 18; she was 26 or 27 and already pregnant.) They had three children: Susanna (1583–1649), then twins Hamnet (1585–96) and Judith (1585–1662). The death of their only son aged 11 would have been very keenly felt: Elizabethans always longed for strong male heirs. New Place, the large, fine house that Shakespeare bought in 1597 (when he was only 33), was an impressive family home. Sonnet 145, probably his earliest surviving poem, seems to refer to Anne’s surname (‘hate away’ for Hathaway). He and his wife probably enjoyed making poetry as well as love together.

RW: People have worried away at his marriage because Anne was almost certainly older than Shakespeare, allegedly a siren vamp trapping the 18-year-old Will and becoming pregnant. They obtained a special wedding licence to ensure that their first child, Susanna, would be legitimate. Then there is the business of the ‘second-best bed’ of Shakespeare’s will, apparently the poet’s final repudiation of his wife. And the Sonnets – assuming they contain at least a trace of real life – may suggest that the poet was romantically, and adulterously, attracted to both a glamorous young man and another woman in London. 

LM: They were hardly a power couple, and it seems they may not have been a happy couple. Though Shakespeare returned to Stratford annually, and retired there, there’s evidence that he kept his wife short of money during his absences in London. I am very persuaded by Shakespeare expert Katherine Duncan-Jones’s interpretation of events following the death of the Shakespeares’ son, Hamnet, in 1596. Most couples would have attempted to conceive another heir; Duncan-Jones thinks that they did not do so because conjugal relations had long ceased.


This drawing, made in 1708 and probably traced from a 16th-century original, is the only surviving image that may depict Anne Hathaway. (© Alamy)

 

What do you think Shakespeare was doing during his so-called ‘lost years’ of 1578–82 and 1585–92?

RW: There is no colourable evidence to place Shakespeare anywhere other than in Stratford-upon-Avon before 1592, when he was accused of plagiarism by a jealous rival in London. The antiquary John Aubrey reported that Shakespeare “in his younger years” had been “a schoolmaster in the country”, while at the same time noting that acting and poetry were in Shakespeare’s blood and that he probably fetched up in London as a jobbing actor at the age of 18. None of this is as plausible as him staying put as a glover in the family business until he had to leave Warwickshire.

PE: I don’t believe in the ‘lost years’; the phrase is nothing more than a biographical construct. Typical lives in Shakespeare’s time contain many gaps. From around 1578, Shakespeare may have started his apprenticeship, as most boys of his age and class did. He should have taken up his trade when he came of age in 1585, but his prospects changed with his much-too-early marriage. For the next 10 years he was making his way in the world as a freelancer, and finding his feet – perhaps helping out at the Stratford grammar school, assisting with his father’s wool-dealing, and starting to visit London.

 

How and why did Shakespeare choose to become an actor and writer?

MD: We don’t know – again, because he wrote plays rather than memoirs. We do know, though, how he became famous. At a key early stage in his career as an actor and scriptwriter, the London playhouses were closed during an outbreak of plague. With financial support from the Earl of Southampton, Shakespeare published a narrative poem, Venus and Adonis (1593). It isn’t his best-known work today, but it was easily his most popular printed work in his own time. 

An elegant, compassionate but very funny piece of literary soft pornography – mostly consisting of the goddess Venus’s successive panting, voluptuous but futile rhetorical attempts to persuade the sulky youth Adonis to have sex with her – it made Shakespeare’s name overnight. He quickly followed it up with the tragic poem The Rape of Lucrece (1594), and when the theatres reopened he was no longer just one more freelance hack but an established author. As a result, he was able to become a shareholder in the pre-eminent theatre company of the time, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. As a manager as well as an actor and a playwright he was able to exert artistic control over the development of his dramatic talent as could no other theatrical writer of his time. 

PE: Shakespeare probably started acting when he was very young because he realised he was good at it. He was just five when Stratford-upon-Avon first welcomed professional actors to perform there, visits authorised by his father, who was then bailiff. To act is to imagine, and Shakespeare’s young imagination seems also to have seized the opportunities for freedom that creative writing provides. When he started working in London, he probably began by frequenting the fashionable playhouses, and started to act and write professionally with friends he made there.

LM: Does one ‘choose’ such things? Shakespeare was fascinated by identity, the power of imagination to transform selves and worlds. Drama is a natural home for such explorations.

 

What do we know of Shakespeare’s process when writing his plays?

RW: The plays may hold universal appeal but they were conceived and written for money over a period of  around 20 years, from c1590 to 1613. In contemporary texts based on Shakespeare’s manuscripts, the name of the actor playing a particular role is sometimes given instead of the part, showing quite how familiar Shakespeare was with the rest of his company. He also used sources extensively. Whole passages of Henry V and Antony and Cleopatra were demonstrably written with Holinshed and Plutarch open on his desk. Increasingly, scholars believe that Shakespeare wrote most of his post-1597 plays at New Place in Stratford.

MD: We have no eyewitness reports of his methods, other than the tribute to his fluency made by his fellow-actors Heminge and Condell in their preface to the First Folio. It’s worth pointing out, though, that unlike many other playwrights of the time, who usually worked in collaboration, Shakespeare did both the breaking down of his stories into scenes and the writing of the dialogue. His plays vary in terms of the pre-planning involved: some, like Romeo and Juliet and Much Ado About Nothing, follow a minutely worked-out timetable of events, whereas for others – such as Hamlet and As You Like It – Shakespeare seems to have had a well-known story open in front of him and improvised his own theatrical variation on it as he went along.

 

Many people assert that Shakespeare didn’t write the plays attributed to him. Is there any substance to this claim?

MD: There isn’t a serious dispute about whether Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare’s plays, any more than there is a serious dispute about whether Nasa really managed to land astronauts on the moon. Since the mid-19th century there have been various evidence-free conspiracy theories – some attributing the plays to aristocrats who were dead before many of the plays were even written. But since everybody in Elizabethan and Jacobean England who said anything on the subject said that Shakespeare’s plays and poems were written by the famous and well-documented William Shakespeare of Stratford, and since absolutely nobody said they weren’t, I’m inclined to go along with the unanimous testimony of the contemporary eyewitnesses. 

LM: Such claims fail to understand how the creative imagination actually works. Some argue that someone who wasn’t a lawyer could not write about the law (therefore Shakespeare was Bacon), that someone who wasn’t an aristocrat could not write about the court (therefore Shakespeare was the Earl of Oxford). Shakespeare wrote sensitively about women – does that mean he was really a female?


An illustration of a 16th-century grammar school, similar to that attended by Shakespeare. “You couldn’t find a better course in the materials and skills a playwright would need,” says Laurie Maguire. (© Topfoto)

 

How famous was Shakespeare in his own lifetime?

LM: He was famous for his non-dramatic poems. His theatre company, the King’s Men, was famous for its plays, and so was he – but probably not more than other major writers who also wrote for the King’s Men, such as Middleton, Jonson or, later, Fletcher.

RW: By 1597, roughly the period of the Henry IV plays, he was wealthy enough to buy one of the largest private manor houses within the jurisdiction of Stratford. Ben Jonson did not praise easily but, in his paean to Shakespeare in the First Folio, he elevated his friend to the status of mythic genius, ranking him above his English peers and next to the great classical dramatists. He claimed that the “sweet swan of Avon”, the “star of poets”, was “not of an age but for all time”. 

 

What do you think was the most likely cause of Shakespeare’s death?

RW: Typhoid. In 1662 the Reverend John Ward reported that Shakespeare had died of a ‘fever’ contracted while carousing with Drayton and Jonson. Ward must have known Shakespeare’s younger daughter Judith, who lived near him and died in 1662; he alludes to her in his diary. So his reference to ‘fever’ may not only reflect local lore but may derive from Judith Shakespeare-Quiney herself. We know from Shakespeare’s son-in-law John Hall that typhoid, known then as the ‘new fever’ or the ‘spotted fever’, was particularly virulent in Warwickshire in 1615–16. 

 

Does the picture ‘discovered’ last year and announced in Country Life really depict Shakespeare?

MD: I am serenely confident that it does not. There is no sensible reason for believing that, early in Shakespeare’s career, he was having his portrait drawn with vegetables to ornament the title page of a gardening manual. It’s just some ingenious wishful thinking.

 

Why do you think Shakespeare’s plays are still so admired today?

LM: The plays are untypical of the time in their depiction of psychological aspects. Middleton and Jonson dramatised types and caricatures but Shakespeare always tried to see beyond the stereotype. This is the heart of Shylock’s anguished speech in which he asks to be seen as a human, not merely pigeonholed as a Jew: “If you prick us, do we not bleed?” Shakespeare’s plays show people – people falling in love, having children, trying to make a go of a situation. These are transhistorical and transcultural concerns – the human heart doesn’t change.

RW: Shakespeare’s plays live and breathe theatre and dramatic timing. They burst at the seams with rhetorical energy. Some of the magnetism of Shakespeare derives from his extraordinary language. Part of this is due to the pervasive influence of the English Bible and the way the greatest moral and spiritual questions were, for the first time, posed in the vernacular. Hamlet, for example, resonates with biblical lines and dilemmas. Shakespeare’s metaphors and similes rarely cease to jolt us by their aptness and by the novel perspectives they afford on familiar human experiences.

 

Is it accurate to describe Shakespeare as England’s greatest literary figure?

MD: Yes – though I think it would be parochial to do so, and above all else Shakespeare’s writings aren’t parochial. He belongs to the world.

LM: It is tricky to speak of art in absolutes, but it is true to say that Shakespeare’s plays have been performed in a great many countries in most centuries – that sounds like greatness to me! The enthusiastic reception of Shakespeare’s Globe’s production of Hamlet (which visited every country in the world 2014–16) illustrates this point perfectly.

PE: That would be to insult many other great English writers. Shakespeare is one of the greatest who happens to have become an international currency through the endless translatability of his writing. He is also one of the handful of humans whose names have become a sort of shorthand for the phenomenon of genius itself.  

We use cookies to improve your experience of our website. Cookies perform functions like recognising you each time you visit and delivering advertising messages that are relevant to you. Read more here