Among great writers in the English language, there’s no competition for #1.
You might debate second place.
But no one even comes close to Shakespeare.
There are THOUSANDS of words that appear **for the first time in written English** in Shakespeare’s poems and plays.
Who does that?
The plays and poems themselves are rich almost beyond description. Over 400 years after they were written, they remain among the most popular works in film, on stage, and text.
Yet very little is known about Shakespeare himself.
And what we do know is…weird.
According to the few records that exist, Shakespeare was an ordinary guy from rural England. He was born, went to school through about 5th grade, worked, married, acquired a bit of property, was involved in a few petty lawsuits, and died.
For an average Englishman, that’s no big deal.
For the greatest playwright of all time?
It feels odd.
If “Shakespeare” was an ordinary, even boring, person, where did these jaw-dropping poems and plays come from?
Did he just imagine it all?
What’s more, many of the plays are set in palaces, with the main characters being royalty, aristocracy, and their attendants. How would an ordinary country man have gained such insight and understanding of the inner life of the nobility?
We can’t write what we don’t know
Suppose we believe that “William Shakespeare of Stratford-on-Avon, the glover’s son, the country boy from the middle of nowhere, is in fact the author of the plays of William Shakespeare.”
Logically, it follows then anyone can write about anything.
A writer doesn’t need experience. He or she can just imagine things, then write about them.
And not just that – he or she can be **the best of all time** despite his or her lack of training.
Based on pure imagination.
But other artists don’t have that experience.
Quite the opposite, in fact.
“No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.” ― Robert Frost
“Somewhere I had come up with the notion that one’s personal life had nothing to do with fiction, when the truth, as everyone knows, is nearly the direct opposite.” ―Thomas Pynchon
“How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live.” ― Henry David Thoreau
Thoreau, Pynchon, and Frost may not be the greatest of all time, but they’re no lightweights.
They speak from experience.
So is “Shakespeare” the exception to all this?
Or is something else going on?
A backstory to match the story
The strongest case for alternative authorship asserts that “William Shakespeare” was in fact the pen name of Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford.
A number of 1000+ page books have been published with this thesis. While there’s no direct proof, there’s plenty of circumstantial evidence to ponder.
To take a trivial example: Edward de Vere’s nickname as a teenager was “Shakes-Speare.”
Here’s a paragraph from his Wikipedia biography:
De Vere was a champion jouster and travelled widely throughout Italy and France. He was among the first to compose love poetry at the Elizabethan court, and he was praised as a playwright, though none of the plays known as his survive. A stream of dedications praised de Vere for his generous patronage of literary, religious, musical, and medical works, and he patronised both adult and boy acting companies, as well as musicians, tumblers, acrobats and performing animals.
One of the more interesting theories about de Vere is that he had a child with Queen Elizabeth – out of wedlock, of course, as the “Virgin Queen” never married. If this is correct, Edward de Vere must spent his life tormented by the knowledge his son would have been heir to the throne, if only he’d married the queen before sleeping with her.
His life went downhill from there.
He fell out of favour with the Queen in the early 1580s and was exiled from court after impregnating one of her maids of honour, Anne Vavasour, which instigated violent street brawls between de Vere’s retainers and her uncles. De Vere was reconciled to the Queen in 1583, but all opportunities for advancement had been lost. In 1586, the Queen granted de Vere a £1,000 annuity to relieve his financial distress caused by his extravagance and selling off his income-producing lands for ready money. After his wife’s death, he married Elizabeth Trentham, one of the Queen’s maids of honour, with whom he had an heir, Henry de Vere. He died in 1604, having spent the entirety of his inherited estates.
Pretty interesting story though.
Plenty of comedy and tragedy in that guy’s life.
Makes you wonder…
What’s at stake
Can anybody write about anything?
Or can we only write what we know?
To quote Hamlet: That is the question.
If true, the standard William Shakespeare story “is proof that you can reach the pinnacle of human achievement without enormous inherited wealth and privilege.You can come from nowhere and still write something that people will love and study and invent conspiracy theories over 400 years after your death.”
I do not agree that Shakespeare’s work represents “the pinnacle of human achievement.” But that’s beside the point.
The real issue is this:
Can we write what we don’t know? And if so, can we do it better than anyone else, ever?
Can a writer create something out of nothing?
Or can we only write what we DO know?
Does a writer have to lead a rich life – emotionally, experientially, intellectually, spiritually – in order to express richness in language?
I wasn’t there
I’m convinced Edward de Vere was “Shakespeare.”
But I wasn’t there. I don’t know for sure.
It feels right though.
I believe backstory is more important than story. In other words, an artist’s life must be richer than his or her work.
Edward de Vere’s life seems wilder than any of Shakespeare’s plays.
Everything I see in the plays and poems, I see in his life.
In my opinion, the standard William Shakespeare biography has led generations of writers and readers astray, by propping up the idea that anyone can do anything, that talent can come from nowhere, that something can come out of nothing.
We humans cannot create out of nothing.
Creatio ex nihilo is God’s domain.
Shakespeare died just before the time A Light that Would Blind the World begins. I’m reading/rereading the plays and sonnets to get a feel for the voice of the English at that time.