Rather than gush about the man, as I'm prone to do, I thought instead I'd share a related account:
I've written before about the controversy surrounding the authorship of Shakespeare's plays. Some scholars, as well as a handful of famous authors, don't believe a man with illiterate parents, who married an illiterate wife, and who apparently raised illiterate children, could have written thirty seven plays and 154 sonnets. The son of illiterates could not have mastered the largest vocabulary of any writer of his age, could not have knowledge of life in Padua, Venice, or Verona, could not have adopted French and Latin words for use in his plays. The man never left England for goodness sake!
The fault there, methinks, is with people confusing illiterate with stupid. Not the same, especially for the 16th century. His mother, for example, was known to be highly intelligent. Who knows what rich conversations took place in the man's presence, what stories influenced his imagination growing up, or what courtly books he borrowed from his benefactors? No one alive, that's who.
One of the pieces of evidence skeptics point to when trying to discredit Shakespeare is that there are NO surviving original copies of his work. None of the handwritten first drafts, also known as foul papers, exist today. The only verified papers tied to Shakespeare so far are six signatures found on official government documents. Aha! No originals means he didn't write the plays! It's a conspiracy!
|One of six examples of Shakespeare's signature|
But…when Shakespeare (or Christopher Marlowe, or Ben Jonson, or any of the other playwrights of the time) wrote a new play, they wrote the same kind of messy first drafts you and I write (but with a quill and ink).
|Foul sheet from Christopher Marlowe|
Naturally, these were not presentable for general consumption. Writers at the time would often hire a scrivener to make a "fair" or clean copy of their work. These clean copies, perhaps after many revisions, would then be distributed to the playhouse for production. It was very common for the author's original copies to be discarded at this time, and few from any author of the Elizabethan era survive today. The famous first folio, published in 1623, was made by referring to "fair" copies of Shakespeare's plays, many written by the scribe Ralph Crane.
Imagine the furor it would cause, however, if an original work or document written by Shakespeare DID surface. Funny enough, in 1795, during a high point of Shakespeare's resurrected popularity, that's exactly what happened.
Samuel Ireland was an 18th century author, engraver, and Shakespeare enthusiast. His son, nineteen year old William Henry, was a disappointment seeking his father's approval. In a desperate attempt to gain his father's respect and attention, William Henry did the unthinkable. Using his experience as a law clerk, he forged letters, poems, and a play, and then declared they were the lost original works of William Shakespeare! The boy claimed the papers had been found in a forgotten trunk belonging to a "chance acquaintance" who wished to remain anonymous.
Unfortunately, many people believed the hoax, including his father and several prominent citizens of London. For a year the father and son were the cause célèbre of literary society. Grown men kissed the pages written in Shakespeare's own hand and wept. But, as these things usually go, the works were eventually outed as forgeries by two of the most respected Shakespeare historians of the time. The Irelands were discredited and publicly shamed, but only after the boy's play had been produced and panned (though die-hard Shakespeare lovers declared it brilliant!).
Because of his age and the fact that he did not profit materially from the initial hoax, William Henry was not prosecuted in court for the forgeries. He also showed little remorse. Instead, he seemed to glory in his escapade, having fooled half of London into believing his work was that of William Shakespeare. In true celebrity fashion, he lived off the notoriety the rest of his life.*
You can read the entire story of this Shakespearean forgery at Smithsonian.com.
But enough about that mewling rough-hewn ratsbane!
Cheers to the real Shakespeare. I thank you, sir, from the bottom of my heart for your beautiful, inspiring words. Happy Birthday!
|William Shakespeare (1564 - 1616)|
Had you heard that story before? Have any favorite Shakespeare quotes or plays?
*Author commentary: Cheeky little bastard!