Why Is So Little Known About Shakespeare’s Life?

alex atkins bookshelf literatureAlthough he is considered the greatest dramatist in English literature, little is truly known about William Shakespeare (1564-1616). Like some of the most famous characters in his plays, he remains “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma” — to borrow Winston Churchill phrase [Churchill was actually referring to Russia in 1939, after they had signed the Nazi-Soviet Pact, at the beginning of WWI]. The scholars at the Folger Shakespeare Library describe the challenges that biographers and scholars face when writing about Shakespeare: “Since William Shakespeare lived more than 400 years ago, and many records from that time are lost or never existed in the first place, we don’t know everything about his life… We do know that Shakespeare’s life revolved around two locations: Stratford and London. He grew up, had a family, and bought property in Stratford, but he worked in London, the center of English theater. As an actor, a playwright, and a partner in a leading acting company, he became both prosperous and well-known. Even without knowing everything about his life, fans of Shakespeare have imagined and reimagined him according to their own tastes.” In his seminal work, The Facts About Shakespeare (1913), William Neilson adds this context: “In the time of Shakespeare, the fashion of writing lives of men of letters had not yet arisen. The art of biography could hardly be said to be even in its infancy, for the most notable early examples [Wolsey; Sir Thomas More]… are far from what the present age regards as scientific biography. The preservation of official records makes it possible for the modern scholar to reconstruct with considerable fullness the careers of public men; but in the case of Shakespeare, as of others of his profession, we must needs be content with a few scrappy documents, supplemented by oral traditions of varying degrees of authenticity.”

Despite this lack of biographical information, hundreds of biographies have been written about Shakespeare which are based on inferences gleaned from his body of work (“decoding” his plays), contemporary images (illustrations, maps, portraits), and his actual history (limited to about 60-70 actual facts that can be verified by documentary evidence, such as church records, parish records, court cases, wills, memoirs, letters, written accounts and anecdotes). It is from these “scrappy documents” that allows biographers to reimagine the Swan of Avon.

One of those reimagined biographies is by British novelist Anthony Burgess, best known for his violent dystopian novel Clockwork Orange, who published his speculative biography (or biographical novel) of Shakespeare in 1970. In the book’s foreward, Burgess writes: “I know that, as the materials available for a Shakespeare biography are very scanty, it is customary to make up the weight with what Dr Johnson would have termed encomiastic rhapsodies, but we are all tired of being asked to admire Shakespeare’s way with vowels or run-on lines or to thrill at the modernity of his philosophy or the profundity of his knowledge of the human heart… What I claim here is the right of every Shakespeare-lover who has ever lived to paint his own portrait of the man… Given the choice between two discoveries — that of an unknown play by Shakespeare and that of one of Will’s laundry lists — we would all plump for the dirty washing every time. That Shakespeare persists in presenting so shadowy a figure… is one of our reasons for pursuing him.”

Like Burgess, Isaac Asimov, the American writer best known for his popular science-fiction novels, was fascinated by the life and works of Shakespeare. Asimov was an amazingly prolific writer, having published more than 500 books during his career. One of those was Asimov’s Guide to Shakespeare, published in 1978 (and republished several times thereafter) that explores Shakespeare’s 38 plays scene-by-scene including their historical, geographical, and mythological contexts; it also provides insights into the two narrative poems. In a later reference work, Asimov addressed the dearth of information about Shakespeare’s life: “It wasn’t until the Restoration [the Restoration of the Stuart monarchy, when King Charles II returned from an exile in continental Europe in 1660], which began nearly half a century after Shakespeare’s death, that anyone began to write about the bard. Biographically, it was too late; Shakespeare’s colleagues and acquaintances were dead, and the conditions under which he had worked were completely different. In addition, the world’s most distinguished playwright left no words about himself.” And that is perhaps the greatest irony in English literature: that the greatest writer who left the world such timeless and influential dramas, using language with such beauty, power, and eloquence, never left a single word about himself.

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For further reading:
Shakespeare by Anthony Burgess
The Facts About Shakespeare by William Neilson
Outlines of the Life of Shakespeare by J. O. Halliwell-Phillipps
William Shakespeare: A Study of Facts and Problems (Volume 1-2) by E. K. Chambers
Asimov’s Guide to Shakespeare by Isaac Asimov

Isaac Asimov’s Book of Facts by Isaac Asimov
The Truth About William Shakespeare: Fact, Fiction and Modern Biographies by David Ellis

Nine Lives of William Shakespeare by Graham Hoderness
Shakespeare Survey (Volume 70): Creating Shakespeare edited by Peter Holland