“No problem can be solved from the same level that created it.”
The answer to the Shakespeare enigma lies in four background areas: history, biography, psychology, and the works themselves. History provides the general background along with facts like dates and locations; biography provides facts about individuals; and psychology provides understanding of how humans behave, in this case, artists and their cohorts. The works of any artist should clearly reflect all three of these. If they don’t, something is amiss.
Since the problem with Shakespeare is the fact that his biography doesn’t match the nature of his works, it isn’t much of a stretch to guess that the author simply used a different name, a ruse that was hardly new in his day. On the other hand, that the name actually belonged to a real person is something unique in literary history, though it does provide what appears to be at least one similar situation, namely the suspicion, relayed by Suetonius, that the playwright Terence was actually a standin for the great Roman general Scipio Africanus and/or his friend Laelius, and for the same reasons, including the perceived impropriety of great peers creating entertainment. (Smith’s library held a number of books that dealt with the famous Scipio Africanus including Suetonius and Valerius Maximus.)
History hasn’t been much help with the Shakespeare mystery, largely because so much is missing from the period, not just material that would relate to the Stage and those who wrote for it, but documentation of all kinds. Whole collections of papers vanished with the deaths of their collectors, most notably those of Sir Francis Walsingham, the Secretary of State who created the first royal acting company, and those of the Earl of Leicester, the first important patron of the Court Stage. How much of this was due to the caution of the times, how much to happenstance, and how much to intentional obfuscation by persons in a position to influence the record are questions that need to be pursued. If I can’t provide a solid answer, perhaps someday someone will––someone in a better position to examine original documents.
Shakespeare and the Reformation
Among the problems that authorship scholars face when we seek answers in the history of the period is the tendency by English historians to smooth over the bloody truth about the Reformation. When is it ever noted by literary historians that Shakespeare and his contemporaries were producing entertainment during one of the most turbulent and repressive periods in English history? Sure, events like the cutting off of John Stubb’s hand for writing a tract against the Queen’s marriage, or the imprisonment of Ben Jonson for his contribution to The Isle of Dogs are reported, but without any conclusions drawn. Most significant, the entrapment, brutal torture and even more brutal execution of the brilliant writer and scholar Edmund Campion by William Cecil is ignored by his biographers who parrot their own versions of the disclaimer made long ago by John Strype, that Cecil was “a plain dealing man and of no turnings and windings” (82). Had that truly have been the case he would not have lasted in power for 40 years as is obvious he did.
Shakespeare is examined by both historians and his biographers as an isolated phenomenon, connected to his contempories only by the slenderest of threads and almost totally unconnected to the turbulent historical events of his time. On the literary side, his clear connection to the European Renaissance may be mentioned in passing, though the major ramifications of this on his style and purpose are never explored, while the fact that he was a product of the English Reformation, perhaps the most significant era in English history since the Norman invasion, is totally ignored. If you doubt this, type “Shakespeare and the Reformation” into Google. What comes up? One of my articles!
Before we can understand why the primary creator of the language we speak today found it necessary to hide his identity behind that of a harmless provincial, we need to examine the history of this period in a clearer if harsher light. I believe we’ll discover that this author had a very good and rational reason for hiding his identity, one that went way beyond courtly tradition or his own personal thirst for privacy.