I had the wonderful opportunity a few years ago to visit Shakespeare’s birthplace and grave in Stratford-Upon-Avon while abroad at Oxford, and boy, that was a really fun day. The museum and preservation of his estate was really amazing, and it was kind of surreal to be walking around the town — I even got to see Anne Hathaway’s cottage (and no, not the Anne Hathaway we know from the Princess Diaries movies, the one 400-something years ago that was married to Shakespeare).
I thought I’d take a moment to give an overview of the Bard’s life & career just to give better context on his plays and sonnets, and most importantly, address the elephant in the room: was Shakespeare really, you know, Shakespeare? And did he really write all of those plays?
Who is this dude?
William Shakespeare is an English playwright and poet from the late 16th and early 17th century (during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I and King James VI).
He was born in 1564 in Stratford-Upon-Avon (in that SUPER COOL house I’m standing in front of, pictured above!), and though we don’t know his exact birthday, we typically recognize it and celebrate it on April 23rd.
He attended grammar school at the King’s New School in this town — an important aspect of his childhood because this is where he got allllllll those influences and ideas for the plays he would write later on. Here, the boys studied Biblical texts, Ovid, Terence, Virgil, Horace, and learned how to speak Latin to each other. It’s probably no coincidence that all of these classical influences show up in his plays and sonnets.
When did he become a playwright?
So Shakespeare moved to London after marrying Anne Hathaway when he was 18 (and she was 26, so that age difference was a little bit ~scandalous~).
Shakespeare’s reputation as a successful playwright was established in London by 1592. It was during this time that Shakespeare wrote his earliest plays, including the Henry VI plays, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, and Titus Andronicus.
Later, Shakespeare and other actors who had previously belonged to different companies combined to form the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. This new theatre company was under the patronage of the Lord Chamberlain (AKA Royal Family), and Richard Burbage starred as its leading actor (the dude who played Romeo etc.)
This is where Shakespeare started raking in the dough, Shakespeare became a partner/shareholder of the group, and thus, made some serious $$$. And for almost twenty years William Shakespeare was its regular dramatist, producing on average two plays a year (damn).
So wait — did he actually write all those plays?
Ah, the elephant in the room. Yes, he actually wrote all of them. We neither have compelling nor conclusive evidence to suggest otherwise. Conspiracy theories might suggest this, but like all conspiracy theories they’re, well…conspiracies.
Think of it in the context of other conspiracy theories — was there a second gunman assassinating John F. Kennedy? Is Elvis alive and still kickin? The answer: wherever there is great fame and a kind of cult following and fascination, then inevitably, heresies, alternative views, conspiracy theories tend to arise. The moon landing was fake! Hillary Clinton and pizza-gate! Coronavirus is a HOAX!!! …You get the idea.
The fact of the matter is: the evidence we have on Shakespeare’s life is really kinda… boring. Just really, really straightforward. The thing about any kind of scholarship is that you begin with the evidence. And there is AMPLE evidence that William Shakespeare, a man from a simple background in Stratford-upon-Avon, became an actor, became a playwright, then eventually returned to Stratford and died. Whoop, there it is.
Here’s a couple pieces of strong evidence that we have that, in my opinion (as well as experts in this field), prove Shakespeare was exactly the playwright we know and love (I’ve hyperlinked these to external research and expertise in case you are interested….but if you want it all in one go, watch this interview)!
- The Bust in Stratford-Upon-Avon: The memorial statue erected by his family in Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon also demonstrates his status as a prosperous man of property as well as a famous poet.
- The First Folio: So, Shakespeare provoked a TON of envy and admiration from fellow writers, as we know from their surviving comments in print. Ben Jonson‘s tribute to him, printed in the First Folio, famously praised him as: “…..Soule of the Age! The applause! Delight! The wonder of our Stage… He was not of an age, but for all time!” To accentuate why this is important — he was BELOVED by the public and by his fellow writers during his career. Including the writers that are “speculated” to have “actually” written the plays.
- The Wits of Commonwealth: In a 1598 book called The Wits of Commonwealth, author Francis Meres praises Shakespeare, among other writers, for glorifying the “latin tongue” in his plays and sonnets. “Shakespeare, among the English, is the most excellent in both kinds for the stage”, both comedy and tragedy. This is praise by his colleagues DURING his lifetime and career as a playwright.
- His Coat of Arms: the defense of his coat of arms is riddled with references and evidence brought forth from his success as a playwright, as evidence to prove his family’s worthiness of a coat of arms.
- Property transactions: (the most boring evidence of all, but still just as important!)
Moreover, this conspiracy theory that ~ShaKeSpeArE wAsNt aCtUaLLy ShaKeSpeArE~ actually arose during the Victorian Era in England. That’s right, like…200 hundred of years after his death. Seems pretty late to start asking questions if you ask me.
What happened was: Delia Bacon, this eccentric old American lady (who later ended up in an asylum…oops) became fervently CONVINCED that Shakespeare didn’t write all of these plays. She thought it was that maybe Francis Bacon, a writer and politician, and Delia’s ancestor, who was actually Shakespeare. And she started finding all sorts of hidden “clues” that she claimed “proved” that Bacon was Shakespeare. Which, to me, just sounds like at a grab for famous attention for her own family. *sigh*
Well, this idea that Shakespeare didn’t write all of these plays spread like WILDFIRE in the 19th century. Then, a schoolteacher named Thomas Looney started fanning these flames, asking, how could this grammar schoolboy from the provinces have known so much about courts and aristocracy?
Which also totally rude. Looney should have known that the excellent grammar school education that was available to Shakespeare, along with other middle-class boys in Stratford, and how this education meant that Shakespeare really could become a sophisticated writer without going to university. And how did Shakespeare know about the life of the court? Because the acting companies were invited to perform at the court. That was the very rationale of having acting companies in the first place.
What this boils down to is CLASS. The idea that such a great mind could not have come from such a humble, unglamorous, rather boring background. Too bad we don’t have compelling evidence to prove their snobby opinion!