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Summing up Shakespeare in Three Simple Thoughts

My most recent Renaissance English History Podcast was a short intro into the life of Shakespeare, to celebrate the 400th anniversary of his death.  I had been extremely negligent in not talking about Shakespeare before.  It’s simply because my interests – which have driven the sporadic nature of my podcast up until recently – have never really centered around the Elizabethan theater.  When it comes to the arts, I’m much more devoted to music.

But now that I’m getting on a more regular podcast schedule, planning episodes in advance, and trying to create episodes that resonate with what’s going on the world, I have been opening myself up to different topics.  When I only did eight episodes a year, I wanted those episodes to be about what I was interested in, given that I would be researching them.  Now that I’m doing more like 26 episodes a year, I have more leeway to take on things that might interest me if I knew more about them, and that I know will be interesting to others as well.

And so I am in the midst of a group of three episodes on the Elizabethan theater with an episode on the history of the theater, then an introduction to Shakespeare, and then finally the one I’m working on now, the other figures in the theater at the time (Shakespeare wasn’t the only one writing plays in London in the 1590’s!).

I’ve read several books about Shakespeare through my life, and plugged through most of his plays.  There was a time when I did a play a week in an effort to be come a bit more cultured.  That lasted for about six months, and then I had a baby and it all went out the window.  I’m also a big fan of Christopher Moore’s hilarious reworkings of Shakespeare from different perspectives (and with much hilarity).

So with all of that said, here are three thoughts I have on Shakespeare, as we end this month in which we celebrated the 400th anniversary of him leaving this earthly plane.

  1.  He was a super private man.  This has led to all sorts of speculation as to who he was.  Whether he really was the William Shakespeare born in Stratford.  Whether he was a nobleman.  Whether he was really Christopher Marlowe, who had pretended to be dead in order to avoid authorities who wanted a piece of him.  Conspiracy theories abound, and while it’s possible that there is some truth to some of them (who among us is really who we seem to everyone in the world?  We all have some parts of us that may or may not be different identities than what the world sees) I do think the Shakespeare born in Stratford is the one who wrote the plays.  But damn, that Shakespeare was not one for blogging his life on WordPress.  Or tweeting.  Or really telling anyone anything about his life.There are a whole bunch of theories as to why this may be.  Perhaps he was a recusant Catholic.  Perhaps he hated his wife.  Perhaps he was having a lot of illicit affairs.  Who knows.  The only thing we know is that the most record Shakespeare left of his life was through his legal documents – and his plays.  And we just have to read them and harness as much information as we can from them, and be satisfied with that.  He wanted privacy.  So give him some privacy.
  2. The man didn’t seem to like women.  Or marriage.  None of the marriages in his plays are really a joining together of a couple based on mutual love and respect.  There may be that in the tragedies – but they all die at the end.  Romeo and Juliet, who are of course the greatest lovers in history, don’t ever get a chance to test how strong their relationship really is because they’re too busy dying.  In the comedies where couples do end up married, they do so after a lot of compromise.  The Shrew has to be tamed, for example.  A lot of scholars seem to believe that this is linked to Shakespeare’s own unhappy marriage.  Of course marriages in Elizabethan England weren’t meant to be the same sort of romantic institutions that they are now.  You didn’t necessarily expect to be romantically in love with your spouse; at least at first.  But what you did expect was a mutual respect on the part of both parties.  A good match, as it were.Shakespeare married his wife – who was much older than him – when she was 3 months pregnant.  It was a rushed marriage.  Basically, it seems that he got her pregnant, and then had to man up and deal with the consequences.  He spent most of his life away from her, living and working in London.  There is a lot of speculation around his bequest to her of the second-best bed.  But whichever way you slice it, it doesn’t seem like Shakespeare loved his wife romantically, or even really liked her all that much.  She was likely not as smart or well read as him.  She didn’t share his passion for theater.  They didn’t even really build a life together.  I feel bad for Shakespeare’s wife.  She had to live in his shadow, and likely never really got much from it.
  3. The Lost Years are lost.  There is a seven year period in Shakespeare’s life where he goes missing.  At the beginning of the period he is a 21 year old man in Stratford, married with three children.  By the end of the period he is a working actor writing plays in London.  How did he make it from one to the other?   Lots of people have theories.  He may have been a teacher.  Or been in the army.  But unless any other evidence ever turns up – which gets more and more unlikely as the years go on – we will never know.In the early years after his death when the first biographers were starting to write about him, no one thought to interview his daughter, who was still alive.  This is maddeningly frustrating, as she likely would have been able to shed some light not just on those lost years, but on who he was as a person.  But no one asked her.  One biographer had made a note to himself to go visit her, but he didn’t, and she died.  It’s a great shame that we will likely never know what happened during those pivotal years during which time Shakespeare truly became Shakespeare.

Listen to the podcast here, and tell me what you think in the comments!  Are you convinced he wasn’t really himself?  That he loved women?  That we know for sure he was teaching in a Catholic household during the lost years?  I want to know!  Leave a comment below and tell me what you think.