1564 - 1616

It is strange that William Shakespeare’s very detailed will lists no books or manuscripts as part of his estate. It is remarkable that not one of England’s poet-dramatists, on the death of Shakespeare, wrote a single line lamenting his passing or praising his literary talents. Perhaps more disquieting still is the man’s epitaph, apparently written by him, if we are to take its words literally.

It reads (modern spelling):

Good friend for Jesus’ sake forbear
To dig the dust enclosèd here.
Blessed be the man that spares these stones
And cursed be he that moves my bones.

Was this embarrassing doggerel written by the author of Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear?

For more than two centuries, the authorship of the Shakespeare canon has been vigorously debated. Sigmund Freud, Henry James, Charles Dickens, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Mark Twain, and Benjamin Disraeli are among those who wrote of their doubts that the man from Stratford was the immortal Bard.

A sample of their comments:

"I no longer believe that William Shakespeare the actor from Stratford was the author of the works that have been ascribed to him." ~ Sigmund Freud

"I am . . . haunted by the conviction that the divine William is the biggest and most successful fraud ever practiced on a patient world. ~Henry James It is a great comfort . . . that so little is known concerning the poet. The life of William Shakespeare is a fine mystery and I tremble every day lest something should turn up." ~ Charles Dickens

"Other admirable men have led lives in some sort of keeping with their thought, but this man was in wide contrast." ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

What do we really know about William Shakespeare?

Where did he become fluent in French, Italian, Latin, and Greek, the languages that provide the untranslated source material for the plays? At the village school—assuming he attended—he would have learned only “small Latin and less Greek.”

The most bizarre factor is that there is no documented evidence that William Shakespeare was a writer. We know he was an actor and a shareholder of the Globe Theatre, but there is no evidence he was ever paid as a writer, no record in which he is personally referred to as a writer, no original manuscript has been found, nothing in his handwriting has been found except six signatures on legal correspondence (all spelled differently), and there is no recognition from any patron.

Shakespeare’s plays represent the pinnacle of Renaissance art, the culmination of rhetoric, poetry, painting, and science. Never having become a member of Gray’s Inn or attended Cambridge or Oxford, how did the man from Stratford gain the knowledge the plays reveal of the law and medicine? Never having been at sea, how did he gain the knowledge the plays reveal of navigation? Never having traveled to Italy, how did he gain the firsthand experience of Renaissance Italy the plays so clearly reveal? Perhaps William Shakspere of Stratford-upon-Avon did not possess the learning these plays exhibit, but others of his time did...