Well, in a way. We know a lot about Mr. Shaksperes 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 (15721637) 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 Shakespeares work amounted to a few pearls on a dunghill.
Reading David Riggss fine life of Jonson recently, I was impressed: Its exactly the kind of thorough biography scholars have always tried in vain to write about the Stratford gent. Jonsons 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 Jonsons little son Benjamin died at age seven, Jonson wrote a touching poem about him. Two lines of it run: Rest in soft peace, and, askd, 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 Hamnets 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 poets 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 wouldnt 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; its agonizing. It may cause you to question divine justice, like Jobs wife: Curse God, and die. If the Bard had been Hamnets 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. Shaksperes Stratford neighbors, Hamnet and Judith Sadler.
Mr. Shaksperes 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 isnt mentioned at all. Nor is the poet Michael Drayton, another supposed friend, who lived near Stratford.
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. Shaksperes authorship, we neednt 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 didnt do it in immortal poetry.
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