Friday, April 23, 2010

The Mysterious Mr. Shakespeare

by G.M. Malliet

April 23. On this date, in 1616, William Shakespeare died. The story goes that he stayed out drinking late with friends, caught some sort of cold, and died not long after, having first found the strength to write a will that has puzzled scholars for ages, leaving his wife the "second-best bed."

It is less certain when he was born, record-keeping being a bit spotty back then, but April 23 (1564) is often used as the date for his birth as well. There's a nice symmetry to that idea, because April 23 is St. George's Day in England. (That would be St. George of dragon-slaying fame.)

Shakespeare was only 52 when he died.

He was, of course, arguably the world's greatest playwright, ever, but it is his sonnets that got me hooked, way back in the days of an English course I took in college (we didn't really go into Shakespeare much in high school, for some reason, so I was a very late starter here).

But those sonnets, and the mystery behind them: Wow. I probably shouldn't admit this, but it was the not knowing for whom or why they were written that hooked this aspiring writer at the time--less so, initially, than the words. It was the mystery surrounding these matchless creations that led me to the soaring beauty of the words themselves.

Here are the broad outlines of the questions concerning the provenance of the most debated, discussed, and written-about poems in history:

  • The overriding question is, are the sonnets autobiographical? (Answer: Of course they are. We just don't know which parts are autobiographical. That's why it's called poetic license.)
  • To whom are they addressed? The first 126 sonnets in the sequence are addressed to a young man of a higher social station than the poet. The rest are addressed to a "dark lady" whom the poet desires, then reviles, then really reviles. A couple of the other sonnets--we just don't know. They may not even belong to the sequence.
  • A related question to the above: Who inspired the sonnets, paid for them, or otherwise saw them through the birthing process? This question is impossible to answer (although that has prevented no scholar from trying) since the dedication to the sonnets as they were printed is a large part of what has fueled the centuries-long debate. The dedication reads:



This spawns a whole sub-raft of questions:

  • What's a begetter? (This always makes me think of the old Bill Cosby line, where Noah asks God, after listening to the meticulous instructions for building an ark, "What's a cubit?"
  • Who is Mr. W.H. (Arguments that the initials got reversed here, and Henry Wriothesley (the Earl of Southampton) is the intended begetter, don't entirely convince everyone, including, for what it's worth, me.)
  • Who was T.T.?
  • What's with all the punctuation?
  • WISHETH. THE.WELL-WISHING. ADVENTURER.IN.SETTING.FORTH. (What in the world does this mean?)
  • When were the sonnets written? (We don't know. Maybe in the 1590s. They were published in 1609, and that is all that is certain of the dates.)
  • How does Anne Hathaway fit into all of this?

A large part of this debate, which cannot be separated from the story told by the sonnets, has to do with Shakespeare's sexual orientation. The teacher of the course that got me hooked on the sonnets summed it up this way (I think she was quoting someone): "He was either heterosexual, homosexual, or bisexual." You can read the sonnets a million times and come up with no better answer than that.

(I'm not even getting into the discussion of whether Shakespeare was really Shakespeare, but that he was the man from Stratford is the simplest explanation, after all.)

A recently discovered portrait of Henry Wriothesley apparently dressed as a woman has only fueled the debate, which truly never seems to end. That line about the "second-best bed" didn't help matters.

Who the dark lady was, we will probably never know. Finding proof of that would be the holy grail for Shakespearean scholars--or a play written in his own hand.

It really is a mystery.


Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Whoever he was, he was a genius! Great tweeting...
Mystery Writing is Murder

Sue Ann Jaffarian said...

Re the "second best bed" - my gut tells me his wife was having an affair and that was his way of zinging her. After all, he did have a wicked sense of humor.

Cricket McRae said...

Great post -- so much fascinating information. I don't recall seeing that mysterious dedication before, probably because I was more interested in the plays.

So ... who got the best bed?

Hearth Cricket

G.M. Malliet said...

No one knows, Cricket. That one phrase has stirred more controversy...

& Sue Ann - part of the trouble is no one can picture gentle Shakespeare zinging his wife like that. Some have tried to claim she may have especially asked to be left that particular bed, etc. But all in all, it is hard to explain away.

Keith Raffel said...

Gin, a great setting for a historical mystery by an Agatha Award winner. Sign me up for Copy #1.