Monday, 12 October 2009

How well do you know Shakespeare?

Having just reread Bill Bryson’s excellent Shakespeare I wanted to share some of the rather wonderful things this book brought to light about what we know and what we perceive about the Great Bard - William Shakespeare.
We all know who he is , we all know he is regarded as the greatest ever English language playwright, we would even be able to recognize him by his portrait almost instantly.
These are things we take for granted but as Mister Bryson points out when describing why his book is so thin:
“…to see how much of Shakespeare we can really know, from the record. Which is one reason, why (the book) is so slender”

There hangs a portrait of a man in The National Portrait Gallery of London, no one knows who painted it and its providence can only be traced back to 1747. It has been retouched over time and so ill treated that much of the detail is gone.
Scholars have presumed it is William Shakespeare because of the style it is painted in and the fashion of the clothes. It could be said it looks like a portrait of William Shakespeare, and so it should it one of the three likeness of him that all are taken from.
In fact of the other two one is a statue that was white washed thus removing all its painted on detail. This is at the place of his burial at Holy Trinity Church in
Stratford-upon-Avon and was commissioned seven years after his death; this is also the year the third portrait was made – engraved in brass – for the cover of the famous First Folio, the first collection of Shakespeare’s works. This brass etching wasn’t done from a sitting (as the statue) because Shakespeare was dead seven years before it’s commission, and is considered even by the methods of the day to be a very mediocre piece of work.

Shakespeare left the world nearly a million words of text with his collective works but only fourteen words in his own hand- his name signed six times on various legal documents and the words “by me” on his will.
No original manuscripts survive of his plays, sonnets or poems. The First Folio was constructed by two of his former colleagues and good friends who interviewed actors and friends who had played the roles.
Of the six signatures not one is spelt the same way and the only one not recorded is the one spelling that everyone knows and is now the acceptable spelling used to this day.
The fact is we know little or nothing about this man who left the world so much.
So over the years as more and more written pieces are released on the great man, some are nothing more than critical works on critical works by people who have used conjecture rather than fact to state theories, it is probably best not to judge the personality that wrote the works on just the words because that would be inaccurate and just plain wrong. The facts are we know nothing at all about the man , let alone what he may have looked like.
There are close to 5000 books published just on the subject that Shakespeare didn’t actually write his plays at all.
It is paradoxical that nearly any one above year eight at school could recognize a likeness of Shakespeare the instant they saw one but of the three surviving likeness two are pretty dodgy works by artists working years after his death and the third a rather more compelling picture of a man that may or may not be someone else all together.
He is at once the best known and least known figures in history.

1 comment:

Adelaide Dupont said...

Wow. This is only the second week I've been following your blog.

It was said in the supplementary material to Helen Keller's The story of my life that one of her professors said:

'There are three things we know about Shakespeare. He was born, he married and he died.'

Later on she got into the Baconian controversy with Mark Twain, or rather, he warned her off it.

And Keller replied, 'Well, he seems to have done the essential things.'

Good to see you're looking at the Bryson version of Shakespeare. That's all we can get: a version or an interpretation. It's good to know we all start on the same playing field.

(And probably not so good to know that many academics are not so humble. That is another tale for another day. Humility has only rarely been a characteristic of academics).