Mythmaking about William Shakespeare is so common that it even has a name, “Bardolatry.” And it has been that way for centuries: The actor David Garrick’s 1769 “Shakespeare Jubilee” laid the foundation for the modern notion that Shakespeare was the greatest English writer of any age. In his own day, however, Shakespeare was simply considered among the greatest writers of his generation. Because we so highly value our estimations of Shakespeare’s talents, we tend to make up myths about his life and work to justify them. Yet dispelling these myths, as the more historically minded scholarship of the past 35 years has tried to do, does not mean diminishing Shakespeare and our appreciation of him. Rather, it opens new ways to understand his works and their relationship to the culture that gave rise to them.
1. Shakespeare did not write Shakespeare’s plays.
Roland Emmerich’s 2011 film “Anonymous,” which dramatizes the theory that the Earl of Oxford (Edward de Vere) was the author of Shakespeare’s works, has given fresh life to this stubborn myth. Even celebrated Shakespearean actor Derek Jacobi has fallen prey to it: “I believe the man from Stratford-upon-Avon, known as Shakespeare,” Jacobi has said, “became the frontman for . . . the 17th Earl of Oxford.”
Shakespeare, however, was a well-known playwright, actor and theater co-owner. Tales of such an elaborate conspiracy — which would involve countless actors, writers, printers, publishers, servants and neighbors — surely would have surfaced in the 200 years before 1805, when James Cowell supposedly recorded his doubts in a manuscript called “Some reflections on the life of William Shakespeare.” In fact, James Shapiro has recently argued that Cowell’s account was itself a forgery produced sometime after the 1840s. Then-new discoveries, including records that Shakespeare hoarded grain during famine while others starved, proved unsavory to Victorians who venerated the nobility they saw in his work. So they decided to find another, more noble, author.
In fact, almost all Shakespeare denial is rooted in the belief that the greatness of the works is not reflected in what we know of the man. This idea relies on the fallacy that we can ascertain the truth of a person’s character from the fictions he or she creates, an idea as unreliable now as it was in the Victorian age (or, for that matter, in Shakespeare’s). It is far more likely that the many contemporaneous references to Shakespeare, like that of Francis Meres in 1598, mean what they say: that William Shakespeare, stage actor, theater owner and, yes, barley hoarder, was a widely recognized and admired writer.
2. Shakespeare had a uniquely huge vocabulary.
One of the most oft-repeated observations about what made Shakespeare great is that he possessed an extraordinary vocabulary and a unique facility for coining words. Estimates of Shakespeare’s vocabulary range from 20,000 to 30,000 words, depending on how they are counted (larger estimates tend to count singular and plural forms of words separately). Until quite recently, even brilliant and influential scholars such as Stanley Wells accepted this myth. “Shakespeare’s works use an exceptionally large vocabulary,” Wells wrote in 2003, and “many of these words were new to the language.”
This may sound like a lot, but claims of “exceptionality” require context — exceptional compared to what or whom? Hugh Craig, a Shakespearean scholar with expertise in statistics, recently published an essay that analyzes Shakespeare’s works and those of his peers to compare how large most Renaissance playwrights’ vocabularies were and how many words they invented. Shakespeare’s relative vocabulary size came out exactly in the middle — with John Webster at the top and Shakespeare ensconced between Robert Greene and John Lyly. Similarly, compared to Ben Jonson and Thomas Middleton — the only authors whose surviving corpus approaches Shakespeare’s in size — Shakespeare was perfectly average in the rate at which he coined words. It turns out that the Bard’s reputation for staggering linguistic variety and ingenuity rests on the great number of his plays that survive today — almost double that of any other playwright of the time. For that, thank the groundbreaking collection of his dramatic works, known as the First Folio, posthumously compiled in 1623 by his former colleagues and fellow actors John Heminges and Henry Condell.
3. Shakespeare was uneducated.
The First Folio contains a prefatory poem by Jonson, Shakespeare’s creative and commercial rival. Jonson assures the dead playwright that his artistic reputation is secure, “though thou hadst small Latin and less Greek.” This comment, along with the fact that Shakespeare did not attend university, has been read as implying that Shakespeare was either a brilliant autodidact or a well-known fraud. He was neither. Yet the idea that Shakespeare had “little or no education” is endlessly repeated by doubters of his authorship, and he is included in Wikipedia’s list of notable autodidacts.
To Jonson, a renowned neoclassicist, Shakespeare’s Latin may have seemed small, but that doesn’t mean he was poorly educated. If his education was like those of similar socioeconomic status, Shakespeare probably attended the king’s Free Grammar School at Stratford. Sadly, the school’s records did not survive, but based on the records of similar schools, Shakespeare would have studied Latin grammar, rhetoric and literature, Renaissance humanist textbooks and classical Latin texts by Cicero, Ovid, Seneca and Virgil, among others. He probably would have been required to speak Latin in class, and to translate Latin texts into English and then back into Latin. Shakespeare’s plays, particularly “Love’s Labor’s Lost” and “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” dramatize the life and lessons of the Elizabethan grammar school classroom, and his work throughout shows an awareness of its curriculum.
4. Shakespeare was a solitary artist.
We generally talk about Shakespeare as a lone figure (certainly this is how we anthologize him), even one with a divine singularity, as in Harold Bloom’s influential argument that Shakespeare “invented [the concept of] the human as we know it.”
Yet scholars have long recognized that collaboration was the rule in the early modern theater, rather than the exception. Indeed, Jonathan Hope’s linguistic analysis of the plays suggests that Shakespeare collaborated with at least three dramatists — John Fletcher, Thomas Middleton and George Wilkins — on at least four works: “Henry VIII” (or “All Is True”); “The Two Noble Kinsmen”; “Timon of Athens”; and “Pericles, Prince of Tyre.” A 17th-century publishing archive also records Shakespeare as collaborating with Fletcher on the lost play “Cardenio,” based on the famous Spanish novel “Don Quixote,” by Miguel de Cervantes. On the basis of stylistic and handwriting analysis, many scholars also believe that Shakespeare contributed a few pages to another play, “Sir Thomas More,” which survives in a manuscript owned by the British Library. Additionally, as Simon Palfrey and Tiffany Stern have argued, dramatic scripts were revised piecemeal, based on each actor’s individual “part” — literally a part of the script. The final product therefore would have been a collaboration between author, actor and other professionals involved in the theatrical production.
5. Shakespeare’s love poetry was written about a woman.
The Oscar-winning film “Shakespeare in Love” portrays Shakespeare sending an aristocratic woman florid sonnets to proclaim his love and admiration. As Valerie Traub has pointed out, however, the movie overlooks the fact that the first 126 of Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets were probably addressed to a male beloved, “Mr. W.H.,” whom the 1609 first edition names as “the onlie begetter of these insuing sonnets.” Among these poems are some of the most famously romantic lines in English literature, including, “Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments,” and, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”
Interestingly, the Renaissance didn’t attach the same stigma to male-male attraction that later generations would. In an influential essay, Margreta de Grazia went so far as to argue that the original “scandal” of Shakespeare’s sonnets was the 28 poems addressed to the unnamed woman traditionally called the “Dark Lady.” Her darker skin, de Grazia said, would have been a far greater barrier to a socially acceptable romance than Mr. W.H.’s gender. Whether or not one accepts this hierarchy of scandals, Shakespeare’s poetry evinces a pleasure in and comfort with male same-sex erotics that exceeds that of much of his later audience.