What are we to think about Shakespeare? Is he who he said he was, who Ben Jonson and the academics say he was, or was he someone else? Have we been diddled by Jonson all these centuries, and if so, why? And does it really matter?
Maybe it doesn’t matter, but then what does? Does it matter who won Olympic gold this year, or who gets appointed to the Supreme Court? How many people care about these things? What percentage of the population gives a damn about almost any question you can think of, including who killed Jack Kennedy?
It’s said that when George Mallory was asked why he wanted to climb Mt. Everest, he replied, “Because it’s there”––actually another authorship question since some think that a journalist made it up, but no matter who actually said it, it’s a good answer and it works for Shakespeare too. For Shakespeare looms as large in the history of English letters as Everest looms on the Himalayan horizon. Why do we want to know the answer to the question of who actually created the language we speak? Because it’s there.
Why “the big picture”?
If we knew who wrote the works we wouldn’t need anything but a little background along the edges, but not knowing, not knowing for sure, we must go to the background, for the truth leaves clues wherever it occurs. As I got deeper into the story it began to expand, from the works themselves to the life of the supposed author to the lives of other English authors and their works, both those with writer’s biographies and those without, to the lives of the patrons and of the Queen they served, their politics, alliances, relationships and beliefs.
It spread to the story of the Continental poets and playwrights, to the history of the Reformation and beyond that of the European Renaissance. From the works it spread to their sources (which, it turned out, were often in languages other than English), to the kind of education available to the writers, to the ancient and Continental works that inspired them, and on to the realities of literature itself, how it gets created and by what kind of artist. And finally to questions of freedom of speech and freedom of enterprise. A big picture indeed.
Ultimately we’ll never be able to tell Shakespeare’s story in a convincing way without telling the whole story, if only in bits and pieces, from the historical and psychological angles as well as the literary. Not only will the big picture bring illumination to the history of the period, it may help to bring understanding to something that’s in danger of being lost, the important and true purposes of Art, the nature of artists––as different from other human creatures as are butterflies from bees.
To put it as simply as possible, Shakespeare’s identity got hidden because he was so closely involved with the history of his time and with its movers and shakers, those in a position to hide the things they wanted hidden, that his identity became one of those things.