It’s hard for us today to understand why a writer would wish to hide his identity. We live in a society where, to get ahead in life, one must become known to as many people as possible. We go to particular colleges where we can meet the right people, we “network,” we get on websites like Facebook and Myspace, we are fascinated by celebrities; magazines and television people make their livings reporting on their lives and showing pictures of their faces.
This is one reason why so many Americans, young ones in particular, are focused on achieving fame. In a world where there are so many people, such quick turnovers, such constant movement, changes in personnel, entire companies relocating over vast distances, even to foreign countries, a trend that’s been spreading and expanding for generations, more and more there seems to be no other way to feel important or needed than to become world famous, or at least as famous as possible. For this reason we have a hard time understanding why someone would actually not want to become famous. In a world where fame seems necessary to establish identity, it seems unnatural that a writer would want to hide his identity to the point where it could get permanently lost.
We need to keep in mind how very small were the communities involved in this question. If we don’t we’re in danger of being so blinded by today’s world-view that much of what this story is about won’t make sense. Where today we have thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of publishers and published writers, hundreds perhaps thousands of would-be playwrights, far more than any one person can know personally or even that they exist, Elizabethan readers could count the published writers of that time, those they could identify, on the fingers of one hand.
While today we see the world more as an ocean of vast if vague possibilities, dotted here and there by islands of what is known, all of it subject to change, most Elizabethans still saw themselves as members of a handful of small overlapping communities that saw only occasional changes. Think in terms of a small town, where changes to the population occur only through childbirth, death, and the occasional newcomer out to find better work or escaping from trouble somewhere else. Think in terms of a high school where no one ever graduates, where the football captain and the homecoming queen take those roles with them into old age.
This stable universe was changing; economic pressures and other factors made it seem to many at that time that there was far less stability than their fathers had known, but seen from today’s perspective, it was stable to a degree that most of us no longer expect or even understand. Unconsciously we always have the sense that there are many unknown people out there just beyond the perimeter of our consciousness. If we are uncomfortable with the people around us, we can make changes, get divorced, move to a different neighborhood, get a different job. Their options were far fewer. Basically they were stuck with each other.
They were also stuck with themselves, that is, everyone they knew knew everything there was to know about them, about their family history, for good or ill, ugly rumors, misbehaviors, plus their own feelings of guilt and oppression. Until we understand this we won’t understand what the Revels meant to them, those annual moments of emotional release, of social reversal when they could hide their burdensome identities and play at being the Hobby Horse or the Green Man. Until we understand this we won’t understand what the birth of the London Stage meant to the Elizabethans.
So please try to keep in mind that this story calls for a cast of tens––not thousands, not even hundreds. There may still be an unknown figure here and there that time will reveal, but for the most part, be assured that every role in this scenario was played by someone well known to the others, and probably well known to history as well. This in itself should suggest at least one reason for their need for secrecy. With this and with every other factor, think small town, think small town high school.
The other major factor to keep in mind is dates. The series of events I propose is based primarily on a time structure of dates that unfold within the reality of the small size of the educated Elizabethan arts community and the necessary conclusion to be drawn from that fact, which is that they all knew each other very well. Everything good, everything bad. With this comes some understanding of the author’s power and consequently his need for secrecy. He was the Hobby Horse of his community, their Martin Mar-Authority figure. He was their Green Man.