It is a marvelous irony that the univerities who now claim all authority over Shakespeare spent the first three centuries assiduously ignoring him. As the respected Shakespeare scholar Frederick Boas tells us (Shakespeare and the Universities, 1923), during this time neither Oxford nor Cambridge showed the slightest interest in the man or his work. According to Boas: “for generations the predominant attitude of the University authorities towards Shakespeare and other professional actors and their plays was one of hostility or contempt.”
The old universities are deeply conservative in nature, adhering to traditions that go back to their origins in the Middle Ages. When changes do come they are often more apparent than real, resting on a hidden bedrock of long-forgotten mores and prejudices. Until the 19th century, although Latin plays by Plautus and Terence had long been performed and studied, plays in “the vernacular” (English) were looked down upon. In Shakespeare’s time, plays in the vernacular were performed in Cambridge and Oxford at halls in town, not at the universities, and when students were caught attending them, they were punished. In fact, players were routinely paid by the universities to not perform, to––as one 16th-century paybook entry put it––“depart with their plays without further troubling the university”!
When the great Shakespeare scholar Edmund Malone bequeathed his collection of works by and about Shakespeare to Oxford University in 1821, they paid no attention. No doubt we should be grateful that they didn’t sell it “for a song,” as the Bodleian sold its single copy of the First Folio as soon as it got a copy of the Third Folio (it never bothered to get a copy of the Second Folio). It was not until 1863 that scholars from one of the universities (Cambridge) began publishing the first university-sanctioned series of his works. It wasn’t until 1886 that the great Shakespearean actor Henry Irving was invited by an Oxford professor to speak to a university audience about the Bard, though neither he nor any of his fellows had yet been allowed to perform Shakespeare on campus. Why then should we be surprised that it’s taking so long for the universities to admit that they’ve been hornswoggled into giving the wrong man credit for the plays?
If we feel frustrated, think how 18th century writers like Pope and Johnson and 19th century actors like Garrick and Kean must have felt by the academic stone wall they faced on the question of Shakespeare’s value? It was popular interest in the plays, finally republished by Malone in the original unbowdlerized form in 1790, initiated by poets, performed by actors, and produced by impresarios, that finally cracked through the academic wall. Spurred by the surge of pride in English history and literature that attended the growth of the Empire, the British made an icon of the shadowy figure who, more than any other single individual in their history, created the language they spoke at home and in Parliament, read in the newspapers, heard on the stage and wove into poetry, the language that within another hundred years would spread to become the lingua franca of the entire world.
They made him an icon, but they still knew nothing about the man himself. It seems there was next to nothing written about him by his contemporaries, no literary letters to or from this most peerless and, according to Ben Jonson, prolific of writers. Nobody in his home town seemed to remember anything about him, certainly nothing that connected him with the London Stage. No anecdotes about him or his family had been passed down through the generations that connected him in any real way with a career in literature and the theater. There was no evidence that the man whose plays had entertained England’s greatest Queen had ever met her, or even that he himself had ever appeared at Court.
In fact, the few anecdotes that had surfaced about William of Stratford tended, if anything, to suggest a rather unsavory character, one with a reputation for hoarding grain in time of famine, for cheating on his taxes and dunning his neighbors for small loans. His one friend seemed to be the local loan shark. No local documentation mentioned his writing, while, apart from the dedicatory poems that prefaced his collected works in 1623, those that dealt with Shakespeare the poet never said anything about Stratford. Embarrassed, his biographers ignored the anomalies, attributing them to the normal attrition of Time, and began the tradition of inventing a biography out of anecdotes, conjectures, and a large dose of local color, a practice that continues to this day.
In fact, the universities of the 19th century were, if anything, relieved that so little was discovered. There was that awkward business of the Sonnets, 126 passionate poems addressed to a youth, possible evidence of “disorderly love.” Tch tch. The less said the better. During the most homophobic period in human history (Crompton), the English universities planted a hedge between the works and the biography of Shakespeare which they have steadfastly nurtured ever since.
But leading 19th-century poets, playwrights, theater impresarios and psychologists, men and women with real experience of writing, the entertainment industry, and the human psyche, refused to accept the Stratford biography. Many of them asked the right questions, but when some began promoting the wrong answer, the authorship question itself suffered. Francis Bacon was a great figure in English literature, and the questions his supporters have asked about his career continue to call for an answer, but Bacon’s voice is not the voice of Romeo, Hamlet or Lear. Shared tropes, shared viewpoints, suggest acquaintance, shared sources, shared educations, perhaps friendship, even partnership––not identity.
Not until 1920 was the first truly viable candidate revealed, discovered in the pages of an anthology of English poetry by an English schoolmaster with the unfortunate name of Looney. No wonder it was so hard to find Shakespeare. He had been hidden, effectively and on purpose, either by himself or by members of his community who were experts at hiding things. But why? The man who eventually published his work under the charming pun name “Will Shake-spear,” shook his spear in the most dynamic arena that was available to him at the time, the public Stage, but the question remains, for what causes did he “shake” that “spear”?
It’s hard for the modern mind to grasp the power of the Stage in 16-century England. From our point in time, it can only be seen in the negative, through the diatribes directed against it by moralists and Puritans and by the frequent efforts by the City and the Crown to control it by means of one ordinance after another. (E.K. Chambers devotes an entire section of his four-volume work on the Elizabethan Stage to these “Documents of Control.”) The stage was the TV, the movies, the internet, the CDs and video games of its day. Not until the invention of the radio three and a half centuries later would human communications take a quantum leap like that of the commercial Stage in London in the 1580s. It took a hundred years for the printing press to change the culture. It took a mere decade for the commercial stage to move from holidays-only to daily performances, from the courtyards of inns and the halls of the wealthy to half-a-dozen public theaters going all week long––with thousands seated at every performance.
We speak of “the Media” today, by which we mean a combination of newspapers, magazines, television, film, and the internet. In Shakespeare’s day the commercial stage alone was the Media, the brand new Fourth Estate that was rapidly growing to match in power the often termed three estates of government: Executive, Legislative and Judicial. [The medieval Three represent a class division: the Nobility, the Church, and the Commons.] Newspapers did not yet exist. Pamphlets, the first peeps of what would someday be magazines, were confined to the still small percentage of the population that could read. Plays, on the other hand, were for anyone who could afford the price of a penny.
It didn’t take an education to see and to understand a play. Shakespeare wasn’t writing for posterity, at least, not at the beginning. He was writing to make things happen. But what things? The purposeful disassociation between the works and their creator and our confusion over when the plays were written, rewritten, and how much and by whom they were edited, has left us with only the vaguest idea of what his contemporaries might have seen and heard as a subtext when they went to a Shakespeare play on a given occasion. Almost every writer who commented on the Stage during that era spoke of issues “fashioned forth darkly” in plays, poems and pamphlets. “Darkly” meant “covertly.”
Issues of politics, religion, social commentary and character assassination were cloaked in analogies and metaphors so that they might slip past the censor, the Court-appointed Master of the Revels. What issues were these? The answer lies in the history of the times. Isn’t it time we put two and two (the plays and the history of their time) together and came up with the truth?