Shakespeare’s plays and poems tell us who we are. But who is he?
The question has haunted great minds – from Mark Twain to Sigmund Freud – and today it haunts Shakespeareans from actor Mark Rylance to director Deborah Warner.
Even in his lifetime there was something baffling about Shakespeare: the obscure origins, the effortless achievement. For envious contemporaries he was an imposter, ‘an upstart crow’ beautified with ‘our’ feathers. Later generations went further. The humble life records of the man called Shakespeare could not account for the universal prodigy ‘Shakespeare’. For the anti-Stratfordians, as they came to be known, a better explanation than ‘genius’ was needed.
All we know for certain is that William Shakespear (or Shaksper or Shaxberd) was born in Stratford in 1564, that he was an actor whose name was printed, with the names of fellow actors, in the collected edition of his plays in 1623. We know that he married Anne Hathaway and died in 1616, perhaps on his birthday, St George’s Day – and that he left an enigmatic will.
The ‘Stratfordian’ case for Enigmatic Will rests on evidence, however threadbare, and on the works themselves: written unmistakably by a living breathing native of Warwickshire, whose arch-rival Ben Jonson called him ‘the Swan of Avon’. What more do we need?
For anti-Stratfordians the evidence is a vacuum, and ‘the man from Stratford’ did not write a single play or poem. They argue for a more plausible Shakespeare, and have at different times proposed a host of likely contenders, including Sir Francis Bacon and Christopher Marlowe. Are they any closer to a solution?
In this debate, celebrated Stratfordian Jonathan Bate and anti-Stratfordian Alexander Waugh fought over the most beguiling and unputdownable literary mystery of them all.