Benson: There’s more to Shakespeare than his stories
We know so little of William Shakespeare’s life. We know that he was christened on April 26, 1564, and that his father, John Shakespeare, made gloves in Stratford and served as an alderman on the town council. We know that in November of 1582, when Will was 18, he married Anne Hathaway, then 26; and six months later Anne gave birth to a daughter, Susannah. In February of 1585, Anne gave birth to a set of twins, Hamnet and Judith.
We know that in 1592, Will was a noted London playwright, he purchased real estate in Stratford, that in 1610 he retired to his hometown, and that he died there on April 23, 1616, at the age of 52. We know that he wrote the plays attributed to him in the First Folio, although some dispute that. With those few facts, biographers are forced to improvise, causing one scholar to say, “Every Shakespeare biography is 5 percent fact and 95 percent conjecture.”
Two crucial questions: “What prompted Will to leave Stratford, and how did he succeed as a playwright in London?” Stephen Greenblatt, a Harvard professor, tried to answer those two questions in his 2004 book, “Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare.”
Greenblatt pointed out that in Will’s early 20s, he was a married man with three children and he might have worked in his father’s glove-making shop. “He had embraced ordinariness, or ordinariness had embraced him.”
The only issue that troubled him was the country’s religious quarrel, an issue that disturbed all the citizens of Warwickshire County then.
At the queen’s coronation in 1559, Elizabeth had proclaimed that England was no longer Catholic but Protestant. Pope Pius V responded by issuing an order to English Catholics “that they presume not to obey her, or her monitions, mandates and laws,” or they too would face excommunication. The pope indicated that he would not consider it a sin if an Englishman would assassinate the queen.
One Jesuit missionary in England, Edmund Campion, was caught, tortured and executed by disembowelment in 1581 for preaching Catholic doctrine and practicing the church’s rites in England. Greenblatt explained the possible effect upon Will.
“Even if he was altogether untouched by fantasies of martyrdom, even if he had plunged into the everyday concerns of a family man in a provincial town, Shakespeare could not have lived his life as if there were no questions about belief. No one with any capacity for thought at this moment could have done so.”
And yet, Shakespeare thrust aside that bitter religious fight, as well as his wife Anne, his three children, his hometown, his friends, his neighbors and his work in the glove shop, and left Stratford one day in the mid-1580s. Ordinariness would embrace him no longer. He may have joined a traveling troupe of actors that passed through Stratford but ended in London, the city that was “a fair all year.”
Greenblatt believes that upon Will’s arrival in London, he attended Christopher Marlowe’s play, Tamberlaine, as many in London did so at that time, causing Will’s eyes to open wide. This play, Greenblatt wrote, “from its effect upon Will’s early work, appears to have had upon him an intense, visceral, indeed life-transforming impact.”
Will would have listened to Marlowe’s 10-syllable blank verse: “Nature, that framed us of four elements, / Warring within our breasts for regiment, / Doth teach us all to have aspiring minds.” Will would adopt for himself with startling effect in his plays that same iambic pentameter blank verse.
Will would have watched in amazement as Marlowe’s plot in Tamburlaine unfolded, when “all the moral rules inculcated in schools and churches were suspended. The highest good was not the contemplation of God, but the possession of a crown. There is no moral restraint in the play. Instead, there is a restless, violent striving for supreme power.”
This was so unlike the morality plays or mystery plots that Will had watched in Stratford, when good men triumph, and evil is vanquished. Will may have said, “I’m not in Stratford anymore.”
Equipped with a powerful form of language suited to the stage, and a theme of ruthless ambition, Will would write his histories and tragedies, and so he “gave the world some of the most sublime and un-improvable hours of pleasure it has ever known.”
“What must it have been like when these plays were brand new. Imagine what it must have been like to watch Macbeth without knowing the outcome, to listen to Hamlet’s soliloquy for the first time, to witness Shakespeare speaking his own lines. There cannot have been, anywhere in history many more favored places than this.” wrote Bill Bryson wrote in his “Shakespeare: The World as Stage.”
We know so little of William Shakespeare’s life, and yet we have his plays, by far his best part.
Benson is a historian from Sterling, Colo., who writes a bi-weekly column for The Dickinson Press.