The Real William Shakespeare?

In this post, I present a video with accompanying text asking if Shakespeare really wrote the plays and poetry he is famous for. I also revisit the difficulties frustrating scholar’s attempts to discover who William Shakespeare really was. Finally, I’ll suggest another reason he may have wanted to keep his private life hidden from public view.

YouTube video version of this blog post.

Who Was The Real William Shakespeare?

Much is often made about how little we truly know about William Shakespeare’s life. Scholars lament that we do not know when he was actually born or how he was educated. Neither do we know what his home life was really like. Even more disturbing are the seven missing years before his sudden emergence as an established London playwright and actor in 1592.

Image of Shakespeare with question mark over face
Did Shakespeare Really Write His Plays?

Did The Real William Shakespeare Actually Write Anything?

Scholars cite these information gaps as proof of Shakespeare’s mysterious back story. Some, the anti-Stratfordians, insist the obscure son of a Stratford glover could never have written the 37 plays, 2 narrative poems, and 152 sonnets attributed to him. How, they claim, could such an uneducated commoner from a rural community 100 miles away from London be the real creator of Hamlet, Julius Caesar, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream?

Other Suggested Authors

Image of Sir Francis Bacon
“Sir Francis Bacon” Drebbel, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

For these critics only one explanation is possible. The magnificent plays and poetry were not written by William Shakespeare. Someone else must be responsible. The man from Stratford merely agreed to lend his name to another’s work. Proper elitist contenders include Francis Bacon, William De Vere, and even Christopher Marlowe.

Records For The Real William Shakespeare Do Exist

Image of Shakespeare's Baptism Record
Parish Register of Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon, 1558-1776, entry for April 26, 1564 Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, Stratford-upon-Avon, UK

Still, I would argue Shakespeare’s identity is far more straightforward than it first appears. Given when he lived, the available public records for him and his family are remarkably clear.

It’s true we do not know the specific day he was born. We do, however, have the record of his baptism at the local parish. Public records also exist for his marriage, his children’s baptisms, and key property purchases. Hard information about his parents, siblings, and the life and world in which he lived are also covered.

History’s Best Known Elizabethan Playwright

Image of William Shakespeare book cover by A. L. Rowse
“William Shakespeare” by A. L. Rowse
Available from Amazon Books

Historian, A. L. Rowse, insists we know more about Shakespeare’s early life than we do about any other Elizabethan playwright except, perhaps, for Christopher Marlowe. In contrast, such documentation for Ben Jonson is comparably sparse and largely anecdotal.

Ironically, it’s not Shakespeare’s background information that’s lacking. It’s his time outside the theatre in London. In fact, such speculation tells us more about the intellectual and cultural biases of the researchers than it does about the Bard’s reluctance to reveal his personal story.

Reinventing The Bard

Despite the best efforts of establishment scholars to brand England’s greatest poet as a post-reformation proto-enlightenment visionary or more recent attempts by postmodern social justice scholars to reinvent the Bard as a gay, feminist, anti-colonial, new age, environmentalist hipster, Shakespeare seems resolute in his desire to keep his public and private lives separate.

Image of Shakepeare's Hamlet with knife through the head.
Postmodern “Suicide Hamlet” Image by KlausHaussman from Pixabay

Avoiding Public Scrutiny

Conversely, Ben Jonson’s lifestyle seemed specifically designed for public consumption. Likewise, Christopher Marlowe’s nefarious dealings and unsavory associations led to an early and violent death. By contrast, William Shakespeare avoided public scrutiny of his private life to an extraordinary degree. In fact, we know less about Shakespeare’s life outside the theatre in London than we do about his upbringing in Stratford.

A Catholic Sympathizer In Protestant England

Image of Hadley Meares from Voyagela.com
“Hadley Meares” Image from http://voyagela.com/interview/meet-hadley-meares-hadley-mearess-los-angeles/

Hadley Meares, writing for Biography, suggests that Shakespeare “appears to have kept his professional life in London and his home life as a prosperous landowner in Stratford radically separate.” “This secretive attitude,” she offers, “may have been because much of his family were known Catholic sympathizers and chose to live quietly in Protestant Elizabethan England.”

The Quest For “The Real William Shakespeare”

Shakespeare scholar, Joseph Pierce agrees, claiming:

Much of the mystery surrounding Shakespeare is linked to the age in which he lived. It was an age in which a large and alienated section of the population was considered outlaws by the state. In Elizabethan and Jacobean England it was a criminal offense to practice or propagate the Catholic religion, an offense that, for priests, was punishable by death. It is for this reason that England’s greatest poet remains largely unknown. He is unknown, first of all, because he sought to keep his religious life unknown, as far as possible, from the authorities. He is also unknown because later generations of Englishmen erected a myth in the nation’s likeness, ignoring or smothering the Bard’s “treacherous” popery in the interests of a nationally acceptable patriotic iconography.

Image of Shakespeare biographer Joseph Pearce
Joseph Pearce Author of The Quest For Shakespeare Image from https://jpearce.co

In other words, suggests Pierce, “[William Shakespeare] became the posthumous victim of “patriotic correctness.”

Shakespeare’s Writing Was “Catholic.”

Certainly not all Shakespeare scholars accept Pearce’s explanation. Still, it does align quite well with my own experience teaching Shakespeare to undergraduates. In lecturing on Hamlet, I discovered numerous Catholic references and symbols that had to be explained to non-Catholic students.

Avoiding Religious Persecution

In the end, we must ask ourselves which explanation makes more sense regarding the missing details of Shakespeare’ s life. Were his plays and poetry really written secretly by another? Perhaps the historical gaps we see are not part of some dark conspiracy after all. Perhaps the Bard intentionally isolated his private life from his professional persona to avoid religious persecution. Given this understanding, William Shakespeare’s life is not that difficult to comprehend.

Hiding In Public View

He avoided public scandal and personal entanglements in order to protect his privacy and that of his family. He left no private correspondence, because such material is dangerous to one who wishes to avoid scrutiny. That he may have taken great pains to remove his personal presence from public view is not remarkable. That he was able to do so as a popular figure living literally in front of an audience certainly is.

Image of Elizabethan actors on sttage before an audience.
Imaginary View of an Elizabethan Stage C. Walter Hodges, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

If you like this content, check out my YouTube channel or subscribe to my newsletter to stay informed about future posts. For more on Shakespeare’s life, have a look at my William Shakespeare Biography page.

References Cited:

Pearce, J. (2016, August 12). Shakespeare: A Life Clouded in Mystery. The Imaginative Conservative. https://theimaginativeconservative.org/2016/08/shakespeare-life-clouded-mystery.html
Meares, H. (2021, February 6). Why is William Shakespeare’s Life Considered a Mystery? Biography. https://www.biography.com/news/william-shakespeare-life-mystery
Rowse, A. L. (1994). Shakespeare’s supposed `lost’ years. Contemporary Review, 264(1537), 94. https://ezproxy.sckans.edu/login?url=https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=f5h&AN=9410214103&site=eds-live&scope=site

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