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2013 Birthday Cake photo DSCF3323_zps20836d61.jpg

Master Shakespeare's 2013 Birthday Cake

A couple of weeks ago, thinking of Shakespeare’s April 23rd birthday and wondering what sort of cake to order this year, I became extremely cross. Not because of the Master himself, but because of the authorship conspiracy controversy. Unfortunately there exists a multitude of querulous persons who affirm that anyone, yes, anyone but Shakespeare wrote the plays, the sonnets, and the epic poems.

Why is Leonardo da Vinci not subjected to such treatment?

After all, Leonardo was the illegitimate son of an illiterate peasant woman and a notary public. How could he possibly have achieved anything but a rather ordinary olive harvest?

The article at the link states:

Da Vinci received no formal education beyond basic reading, writing and math, but his father appreciated his artistic talent and apprenticed him at around age 15 to the noted sculptor and painter Andrea del Verrocchio, of Florence.
Oh, no!  Leonardo da Vinci didn’t go to college!  How could he possibly have painted and sculpted so wonderfully?  It must have been Botticelli or Michelangelo—they must have been the artists who really created the paintings and sculpture. And Leo never attended architecture school nor earned a degree in engineering, so how could he have filled those notebooks with architectural and engineering drawings?  The notebooks must have been written by someone too high and mighty to have his name associated with such things, so he let da Vinci take the credit.

It all sounds patently ridiculous. Perhaps the reason that Shakespeare’s reputation is subjected to such contumely is that it’s simply easier to pick on someone who spoke English, and after all, London is only 3,465 miles from New York—much closer than Florence, Italy.

What is the basis of the anti-Stratfordians’ argument?  That Shakespeare was too uneducated, too much of a country bumpkin, to have written the plays.  He simply lent his name so the Earl of Southampton, who really wrote them, wouldn’t embarrass his family by being openly allied with the theatre.  (Wouldn’t embarrass his family?  Did Southampton not know that Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth liked plays and wanted to see plays?  And moreover, demanded that there be an entire play devoted to Falstaff, because that fictional rascal made her laugh?)

From Shakespeare Bites Back, a delightful e-book, comes the pointed reminder that Master Shakespeare’s life and works were not exactly “anonymous” to his contemporaries:

Then comes a mass of evidence from his contemporaries in works surviving either
in print or in manuscript. During his lifetime Shakespeare is frequently mentioned
by name as a writer, sometimes in general terms, at other times explicitly. He is
identified as the author of plays and poems by writers including Henry Willobie,
William Covell, Richard Barnfield, John Weever, Thomas Freeman, Anthony
Scoloker, and the anonymous author of the Parnassus plays (in which a character
wants a portrait of him as a pin-up: ‘O, sweet Master Shakespeare, I’ll have his
picture in my study at the court’, and also wishes to ‘worship sweet Master
Shakespeare, and to honour him will lay his Venus and Adonis under my pillow’).
Other writers who mention him include Henry Chettle, William Camden, William
Barksted, Leonard Digges, and the dramatist John Webster.
Very likely the real reason the authorship conspiracy argument exists is probably nothing more than sheer snobbery: this Stratford boy who made so very good didn’t go to college.

So what?  Genius cares not for family, fortune, education, or social position.  Genius bestows its gift where it will. Shakespeare was a genius.

It is said that a writer is “one on whom nothing is lost.”  London was, and is, a port. Ships came sailing into London in the 16th century; dock workers unloaded cargoes in London; sailors came swaggering into the pubs of Southwark. “We’ve just come from overseas,” they may have said. “Went up the coast of Italy and actually even traveled to Bohemia to deliver some goods.”

“Well met,” Shakespeare might have replied.  “I give you good evening.  Let me buy you a pint of the best ale. Landlord!”

Like all writers, Shakespeare would have loved stories. Not only did he read whatever books came his way, he also would have listened to many a traveler’s tale in many a London tap room. And that man, that writer, on whom nothing was lost, would have listened to tales about Italy, Bohemia, Denmark, and Greece.  “You went to Denmark?  What’s it like?  What kind of weather do they have, what kind of clothes do they wear, do they eat the same things we eat?”

Everything a writer reads, hears, observes, and breathes all goes into a kind of inner, invisible “well.” There it simmers away until the magic is summoned forth by the writer, who transforms it into a play, a sonnet, a short story, a blog. Everything a writer is becomes tangible in his or her work.  It is said that to write a book is to give oneself away in every line: that is entirely true. We can deduce an author’s personality, intelligence, even quirks or prejudices, from what he or she writes.

The greatest genius I’ve ever met, my late father Edward, grew up in the Depression with seven hungry siblings.  His formal education ended with the eighth grade, after which he was considered old enough to contribute to the family’s always-depleted exchequer. But the depth and range of his intellect and interests were staggering.  One day I’ll write a diary about the collection of poems, novels, essays, and excerpts he patiently typed night after night, and caused to be bound into three huge volumes called Landfalls. He did this because he knew he would be posted to Fort Sam Houston when we returned to the USA, and therefore deprived of access to his library. He was passionately interested in poetry, English literature, astronomy, philosophy, mathematics, modern history, linguistics, and art. Yet he was born into a family so poor that at mealtimes each child ate with his arms around his plate so the others couldn’t snatch his food. My father and his elder brother Eugene possessed one shirt between them; one day Eugene would wear the shirt to school, the next day Edward would wear it.

That’s why I find it easy to believe that genius can strike even in non-rich, non-university-educated families. I’ve known a couple of such geniuses. Both were born into poor or lower-middle class families. One did earn a bachelor’s degree, but that’s all. Yet he is one of the most imaginative novelists I’ve ever read and his science fiction awes me, even as it fills me with delight.

So let us agree that Master Shakespeare was a genius who wrote the plays, the sonnets, Venus and Adonis, and The Rape of Lucrece.  In the introduction to Isaac Asimov’s Guide to Shakespeare, Asimov says:

…we who speak English can read, in the original, the writings of William Shakespeare, a man who is certainly the supreme writer through all the history of English literature and who, in the opinion of many, is the greatest writer who ever lived—in any language.

Indeed, so important are Shakespeare’s works that only the Bible can compare with them in their influence upon our language and thought.  Shakespeare has said so many things so supremely well that we are forever finding ourselves thinking in his terms.  

Shakespeare has enriched our lives so profoundly that I cannot help but celebrate his birthday every year.  To me it is entirely normal to think of him at least once a day—if not of the man himself, then certainly lines from his plays or sonnets.  When I was still employed I used to celebrate The Birthday at the office, inviting my colleagues to the conference room to partake of cake and questioning.  “Have you done something Shakespeare-related for 10 consecutive minutes since last April 23rd?”  My colleagues considered me as mad as a hatter, but they obligingly attended—what the hell, it was better than working. The person who provided the most interesting answer to the question was awarded a prize.

Another important point raised by Shakespeare Bites Back is the following:

The Shakespeare Authorship Conspiracy Theory amounts to a gross act of
intellectual theft. It is neither more nor less than an on-going attempt to steal one
person’s reputation and achievements and give them to someone else. This adds a
profoundly moral dimension to the discussion which is usually ignored.
So let us agree with Ben Jonson that Master Shakespeare “was not of an age but for all time!”

And now, let’s party!  Have a slice of this delicious cake and a nice cup of tea to go with it. And will you please recite your favorite sonnet?  I’ll be interested to see whether your favorite is the same as mine.

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