The Reactionary Utopian
                   September 13, 2005

by Joe Sobran

     Biographers of Shakespeare -- or the Stratford 
gentleman who has been mistaken for him, anyway -- 
typically try to refute doubts of his authorship by 
assuring us that "we know more about Shakespeare than 
about any other playwright of his time except Ben 

     Well, in a way. We know a lot about Mr. Shakspere's 
personal life, his family, his business dealings; we just 
have no real proof that he was a writer.

     The comparison with Ben Jonson is instructive by 
contrast. Jonson (1572-1637) is often ranked beside the 
Bard as the second-greatest dramatist of the age. In 
fact, during the seventeenth century and after, he was 
widely considered the greatest, a model of classical 
"Art," whereas Shakespeare, the poet of "Nature," was 
sometimes disparaged as somewhat uncouth. Voltaire 
sneered that Shakespeare's work amounted to "a few pearls 
on a dunghill."

     Reading David Riggs's fine life of Jonson recently, 
I was impressed: It's exactly the kind of thorough 
biography scholars have always tried in vain to write 
about the Stratford gent. Jonson's huge, combative 
personality bursts out on every page -- his friendships, 
his feuds, his sorrows, his opinions, his political 
alliances, and of course his literary achievements.

     Jonson is so vivid a character that a "Jonson 
authorship question" is simply impossible. Nobody can 
doubt that he wrote the works ascribed to him.

     When Jonson's little son Benjamin died at age seven, 
Jonson wrote a touching poem about him. Two lines of it 
run: "Rest in soft peace, and, ask'd, say here doth lie / 
Ben Jonson his best piece of poetry."

     In 1596 Mr. Shakspere lost his only son, Hamnet, who 
died at the age of eleven. The biographers pass over this 
crushing event quickly, but it must have been the 
cruelest experience of his life; every parent can 
understand. Watching your child buried is something you 
never forget.

     Yet "Shakespeare" never wrote about Hamnet's death. 
Here is a real mystery the scholars neither explain nor 
even notice. Yet it demands our attention as a baffling 
gap in the great poet's work.

     Many of the Sonnets urge a young man to beget a son; 
their theme is that fatherhood is a means of 
self-perpetuation and defeating death. Is it humanly 
possible that if the poet had seen his own small son 
buried, he would have failed to express his grief in his 
most personal verses, which bewail so many lesser griefs? 
He promises to immortalize the name of his young friend; 
why wouldn't he do as much for his own boy?

     To my mind this alone makes it very hard to believe 
that Mr. Shakspere could have been "Shakespeare," our 
most eloquent poet of love. The deaths of our parents are 
sad occasions, but even from childhood we expect to 
outlive them in the course of nature. But the death of 
your child is more than sad; it's agonizing. It may cause 
you to question divine justice, like Job's wife: "Curse 
God, and die." If the Bard had been Hamnet's father, 
surely he would have written lines about the boy that 
would still bring us to tears.

     Some biographers speculate that Hamlet, in the play, 
is somehow based on Hamnet. But Hamnet and his twin 
sister Judith were named after two of Mr. Shakspere's 
Stratford neighbors, Hamnet and Judith Sadler.

     Mr. Shakspere's will, written shortly before his 
death in 1616, fails to give any indication that he had 
ever been a writer, or that he expected to be remembered 
for having written the greatest plays and poems of the 
age. It leaves small bequests to several of his friends 
in Stratford and "fellows" in the theater, but no fellow 
writers. Later legends would link him closely to Jonson, 
but Ben isn't mentioned at all. Nor is the poet Michael 
Drayton, another supposed friend, who lived near 

     Posthumous legends, some promoted by Jonson himself, 
would link "Shakespeare" and Jonson as friendly rivals. 
One of these stories said the Bard had died of "an ague" 
after drinking "too hard" with Jonson and Drayton.

     In doubting Mr. Shakspere's authorship, we needn't 
belittle him as a "country bumpkin"; we can grant him the 
dignity of a separate existence, a life lived on its own 
modest terms, with its own implicit tragedies. We can try 
to view him with sympathy and imagination rather than 
contempt. And I think we can assume he mourned Hamnet; he 
just didn't do it in immortal poetry.


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