The real Shakespeare…

July 3, 2010

Shall we ever be satisfied in our search for the Bard?

18,000+ results on Google were produced by my use of the exact phrase “real Shakespeare”. 18,000. While I recognize that the academic field of Elizabethan drama both is crowded and fraught, there are not that many bits of scholarship roaming around, begging to reexamine the author’s identity for, let’s be honest, a rather (wondrous, yet still very) small set of work. I suppose tracing these thousands of leads would be a revelation in comprehending the necessity of identification. But I have neither the patience nor the nerd-power required of such a task. Instead, and wisely I might add, I found that a great many of the source pages of these words (“real”/”Shakespeare”) shared a great deal in common. Ready for it?;; Authorial agency (or perhaps conspiracy would be better) is big business!

Coerced pen names, the scandal of noble obligations, the intriguing figures assigned authorship of the entirety of The Western (English) Canon. It has all the intrigue you’d expect of daytime soaps, sounding more like a lesbianic lovechild of Jackie Collins’ and Philippa Gregory’s novels than the conspicuously-coiffed image WE ALL KNOW TO BE THE TRUE BARD! [Those who know the field of Shakespeare portraiture I hope will appreciate that my carelessness in that last sentence is not out of malice or non-familiarity with them. To be clear, I am entranced thoroughly by the Cobbe, hate the Chandos, and have mixed feelings about the engraved Droeshout, in spite of Johnson’s claim that it looked about right.]

Who is the "real" Shakespeare?

Though it seems the Shakespeare we (actually do seem to) know wasn’t always so plain. That image-ideal we have stocked in our head has shifted since the turn of the 19th century, when perhaps the distinctions between the Bard and the bogus were slightly blurred. Smithsonian Magazine (which I have previously praised here heavily and will continue to do) has recently released a piece on a full-fledged Shakespeare hoax, which began in 1795. Quite an interesting story actually and one that I had never before heard. [Read the full article here].

Oddly enough, the story surrounding this centuries-old canard appears similarly soaked in soap-opera melodrama. Apparently, a young William-Henry Ireland, seeing his father’s obsession with the Bard’s masterpieces and history, set out to “discover” some previously undocumented pieces of Shakespeare memorabilia. In the playwright’s own hand. Let’s try to understand the thought process happening here with some examples.

  • His father, Samuel, reportedly possessed a “silver-trimmed goblet carved from the wood of a mulberry tree that Shakespeare was said to have planted in Stratford-upon-Avon.”
  • His father and his mistress, William-Henry’s mother, whom acted as a live-in housekeeper named Mrs. Freeman in the household, denied that William was their child.
  • William-Henry was not the sharpest quill in the drawer.

Hence the daddy-drama begins.

“In a burst of manic energy in 1795, the young law clerk produced a torrent of Shakespearean fabrications: letters, poetry, drawings and, most daring of all, a play longer than most of the Bard’s known works. The forgeries were hastily done and forensically implausible, but most of the people who inspected them were blind to their flaws. Francis Webb, secretary of the College of Heralds—an organization known for its expertise in old documents—declared that the newly discovered play was obviously the work of William Shakespeare. “It either comes from his pen,” he wrote, “or from Heaven.”

Aside from the scant physical evidence, what could convince these experts of the authenticity of the documents? A good discovery story, of course. “He said he had found the deed while rummaging in an old trunk belonging to a Mr. H., a wealthy gentleman friend who wished to remain anonymous. Mr. H., he added, had no interest in old documents and told him to keep whatever he fancied.” How, um, convincing, I think.

Compiling more and more documents in Shakespeare’s own hand was time consuming, so he ambitiously promised his father a new play never before seen but recently found in the trunk. So, naturally, he saved time:

“The young man wrote the play on ordinary paper in his own handwriting, explaining that it was a transcript of what Shakespeare had written. The supposed original document he produced later on, when he had time to inscribe it on antique paper in a flowery hand.”

Really, late 18th century antiquarians? Really? One man, whose theatre would eventually mount the newly rummaged play, wisely observed that no one could doubt the authenticity of the items when they looked so ancient, despite his doubts about the play’s writing style.

But, as in every story, the truth will out. The production of Shakespeare’s new play was a massive failure. And William-Henry was glad of it, so he could admit to his father that it was his imbecile of a son who had concocted the whole hoax. Expect a happy ending, do you? Well, not in this soap. Samuel Ireland never gave up belief that the items his son produced were authentic…or never to his son, at least. So W.H. moved out and sent his father a long letter, saying that if he thought the papers’ author were capable in any way of matching Shakespeare’s genius, “I Sir YOUR SON am that person.”  Gross.

You know, the combination of academia and pop-culture (think: Harold Bloom) is repulsive…unless it is the History & Discovery Channels, which I adore. I think this story functions more as the latter, thankfully.


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