Shakespeare: man behind the mask

Andrew Kenny.

Andrew Kenny.

On 23 April 1616, William Shakespeare died in Stratford.

His plays are the world’s greatest literature. So why did nobody in England, in a golden age of literature, pay any attention to his death?

The obvious answer is that people knew that Shakespeare, the man, did not write the plays – or anything else, since he was probably illiterate. Little is known of the real man. He was born in 1564, married in 1582 and died in 1616.

He was a money-lender, property dealer and corn merchant. It seems he was a rough oke. He did some acting in London and had interests in the theatre. The only remnants of his handwriting are six clumsy signatures.

He didn’t educate his daughters. He left no books in his will. There is no evidence he attended Stratford Grammar School or had any formal learning. Contemporary literary figures left voluminous evidence of their art.

He left none. In those turbulent times, playwriting was not only vulgar, but dangerous. Plays about scheming monarchs, which included Shakespeare’s, might be considered treasonous to the existing sovereign. No man of high office in court would want to be identified as a playwright. Francis Bacon was the greatest intellect of the time.

His belief that science should be proceeded by observation, not dogma, gave birth to the modern age. He was a scholar of the highest renown and a literary master. He was almost certainly the author of some, if not all, of “Shakespeare’s” plays.

His scholarship, knowledge of classical and modern languages and his experiences in travelling abroad correlate well with the plays. But Bacon served in the politics and law of both Elizabeth and James. He couldn’t have admitted to authorship of these plays.

So he hid behind a tough, unschooled front man, who no doubt took a cut of the proceeds. In the 1623 portfolio of the plays, there appears the famous Droeshout portrait of Shakespeare.

It is odd. The head is too big for the body. The face appears to be a mask. The tunic and ruff are wrong. A joke? Next to it is Ben Jonson’s teasing verse, which ends: “Reader, look, not on his Picture, but his Book.”

None of this matters. What matters are the plays themselves, of incomparable literary genius. But it is fun to try to unravel an enigma about an illiterate corn merchant who died 400 years ago next Saturday.


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