The One and Only

William Shakespeare
William Shakespeare; drawing by David Levine

“Others abide our question,” Matthew Arnold famously declared of Shakespeare in 1844, “Thou art free./We ask and ask—Thou smilest and art still,/ Out-topping knowledge.” Biographers, he suggested, might as well interrogate Mont Blanc about its personal history and opinions. Yet the interrogations continue. Indeed, they seem alarmingly on the increase. Since 1996, every year has seen the publication of at least one and sometimes several large-scale new attempts not only to chronicle the life of the glover’s son from rural Warwickshire who became England’s greatest poet and dramatist, but to reach out beyond the few stark and largely enigmatic facts to uncover his personality and private beliefs. The year 2005 alone saw no fewer than four of them.

To these must be added unremitting efforts by the anti-Stratfordians to demonstrate that an impartial scrutiny of the career of Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, or some other aristocrat—Sir Henry Neville and Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke, have joined the usual list of suspects within recent months1—reveals him or her to be the true but craftily hidden author of plays and poems supposedly incomprehensible as the work of a lowly provincial grammar school boy turned professional actor: a man so callous and grossly insensitive that in his last will and testament, he left his wife of thirty-four years nothing but the Stratford household’s “second-best bed.”

That long-since-vanished bed provides as good an example as any of the uncertainties among which Shakespeare’s biographers grope. Was this odd bequest perhaps not insulting at all but a tender singling out of the marital bed, as opposed to the less personal one reserved for guests? (Even though Shakespeare, most of whose adult life was spent in London, can only occasionally have shared it with the wife he left behind in the country.) In any case, was not the former Anne Hathaway legally entitled to the income from one third of her late husband’s quite substantial estate? Was the second-best bed specified only because it had belonged originally to the Hathaways in Shottery, and so should remain in the family? But then, why was this single reference to Anne an apparent afterthought, belatedly inserted in the will, and then without the usual formulaic “beloved wife”? Had he come to dislike her?

Biographers come up with one answer or another according to individual bias—just as they do when it comes to the thorny question of whether Shakespeare’s sonnets were published with or without his consent in 1609, the authenticity of their sequential ordering, when they were written, and whether the young man addressed in them is the Earl of Southampton, the Earl of Pembroke (or perhaps both), the “rival poet” Marlowe or Chapman, the “dark lady” Emilia Lanier, Mary Fitton, or… While still others insist that these are all inappropriate speculations about brilliant literary exercises, poems neither personal nor autobiographical in the least.

Shakespeare’s biographers have…

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