My Cousin Will - 400 Years Later Questions Remain

My cousin Will’s death occurred 400 years ago this week.  Like many of my relatives, Will’s life has been controversial.  There are doubters that say Will was not capable of producing the work that he did in his lifetime.  He’s been called an imposter, a sham and a fraud.  There’s even a website, Doubts About Will, where one may sign a declaration that contests Will’s achievement. 

You may have guessed I’m talking about my cousin, William Shakespeare.  He's my 13th cousin 17 times removed.  His ability to write the works that are credited to him has been disputed for years.  I believe that Will was responsible for the work that bears his name today.  Here’s why:

Although there are some renowned individuals who are doubters I am not swayed by their views.  Just because someone is an outstanding writers, thinkers, actors, directors or statesmen does not mean they are correct.  Think of our Founding Fathers who viewed equality as not including women and people of color. 

One of my favorite authors, Mark Twain, is a doubter but I believe his reasoning is false.  Twain bases his doubt on the fact that not much is known about Shakespeare’s life.  That is not true.  Although there may not be many records left from his life time that is not surprising given the time that has elapsed since his death.  Throw in war, fires, mold, and so on and it's miraculous anything is left.  Twain also questioned how Will could be knowledgeable about the law but wasn't a a barrister.  In Huckleberry Finn, Twain’s character, Jim, is a person of color.  Saying Will couldn’t have knowledge of the law is equated to Twain not being able to write about Jim since Twain was Caucasian.  Twain had no personal knowledge of living life in the skin of a black man so should we then believe that some other individual besides Twain wrote Jim’s story?  I think not.  Twain also wrongly believed that if Will was really born in the small town of  Snitterfield the town would have capitalized on Will’s fame as Hannibal, Missouri did while Twain was alive.  Since that didn’t occur, Twain believes that the Will from Snitterfield couldn’t possibly have authored the works.  A lot changed in the 200+ years between Will’s life and Twain’s, not to mention the cultural differences between Great Britain and the U.S. Twain's reasoning is not logical.

Doubters do not believe that someone of such humble social status could possibly be a gifted writer.  The son of a glover from a small village is not thought to be able to produce the works that he did.  As an educator, I disagree.  Brooks-Gunn and Duncan (1997) concluded that "It is not yet possible to make conclusive statements regarding the size of the effects of poverty on children's long-term cognitive development."[1]  Leonardo da Vinci was considered a genius and yet, he was an underprivileged child.  His parents were unmarried and due to his social status, he was not permitted to attend the schools that his half siblings did.  Geniuses are born across all social economic levels.  No one doubts Leonardo and this is no reason to doubt Will.

Doubters mention that Will had "lost years" as there are gaps in knowledge of what transpired in his life between leaving his village and arriving in London.  Leonardo da Vinci had similar gaps; the History Channel believes aliens were involved with Leonardo.  I lean towards the theory he traveled and so did Will.  One can pick up much from observing the world around them and that's my explanation for how both geniuses gained their diverse cultural knowledge.

Doubters claim that there must be numerous men named Shakespeare since the surname was spelled in various ways on surviving documents.  Doubters must not have any experience with genealogy!  I do not have one census record from 1840-1940 that spells my maiden name the same and that is in a much more recent time period than when Will lived.  There was no common spelling; the first known published dictionary in England was in 1538 by Sir Thomas Elyot and for the record, this was the original title:  The Dictionary of syr Thomas Eliot knyght.  Notice the words I bolded.   See my point?! 

Perhaps there were a number of men named Shakespeare at the time Will lived.  A genealogist is able to separate the identities of those men.  Certainly there is no 100% guarantee but I would think if there were two or five or ten William Shakespeares living in Snitterfield at the same time an examination and analysis could narrow down which Will belonged to which parent and was the writer. I suspect there was only one, using spelling variations.

The Doubters question why the works purportedly written by Will were not attributed to him until seven years after his death.  They point out that is not only unusual but unheard of in the literary world. 

I’m not surprised there was a delay.  The remaining individuals who had been close to Will were most likely trying to capitalize on what once had been.  After seven years, with no one taking over Will’s place, the actors needed to resurrect fame in the shape of The Folios.  Why does Hollywood make sequels?  Didn’t Disney remake The Jungle Book for release AGAIN?! (On a side note, the coming attractions look good so yes, I'll be spending money to see it even though I already know what happens.  Hmm, no wonder the actors brought The Folios out again!)

We must also remember Will was not writing for publication so it’s not surprising that his works weren’t initially credited to him.  Will was writing for theatre.  I only know of five 16th century comedies and tragedies remaining.  During the Medieval period, theatrical works were not very original nor well preserved.  Prior to Will’s time, most theatre was religious stories brought to life; they encompassed mystery, miracle and moralism.  Once the Protestant Reformation came about, theatre shifted and farces were accepted.  Will wrote all three.  His plays brought in crowds who didn’t care who wrote the script.  Attendees wanted to simply be entertained.  Do you know who wrote your favorite television program from twenty years ago?  I don’t and really don’t care who did.  The scriptwriter, much like the prop mistress or the understudy, was unimportant and would remain in the wings. 

Besides, Will wasn’t going to make any pounds by selling the script after the play closed.  No one would purchase Hamlet to read by candle light at the time. There was no store in the theatre to sell mementos of the event.  Will was a scriptwriter; he only became an author when the fame of his scripts spread.  When others wanted to put on his plays to draw in the crowds and make money, his role changed.  Compiling his works together transformed him from script writer to author. 

The Doubters believe that Will was illiterate.  There were local schools that Will may have attended.  In fact, the Blackfriar’s Theatre in which his plays were performed shared the venue with the Children of the Chapel, a choir composed of children who attended local schools.  They were quite the sensation and scholars think that Will was a tad jealous of their success as he wrote in Hamlet about the "little eyasses."

Here’s what school was like at the time Will lived:
The schedule for school
7:00-7:30, Dancing
7:30-8:00, Breakfast
8:00-9:00, French
9:00-10:00, Latin
10:00-10:30, Writing and drawing
10:30-1:00, Prayers
1:00-2:00, Cosmography 
2:00-3:00, Latin 
3:00-4:00, French 
4:00-4:30, Writing
4:30-5:30, prayers, recreation, supper ...

Boys were educated to be able to read and write to be members of society. The most important part of their teaching was memorization and recitation. They had to be proficient in Latin.
When boys were six to seven they started grammer school. Classrooms were very strict.
In younger grades they focused on Latin grammar and vocabulary and in older grades they read poetry and studied the stories of writers. Most boys started out as apprentices in grammar schools. Sons of richer families attended university's and inns of court.[2]

There is no doubt that Will was literate.  Doubters question the remaining few copies of his signatures and believe the handwriting might not be his but that of court clerks instead.  That is possible and a moot point regarding whether he wrote his works or not.  It is also possible that he was in declining health which could have made writing difficult.  My handwriting is not what it was in my youth so variations in signature can be expected.

Doubters also are concerned that not one letter he may have written survives.  For the Kinship Determination Project I just completed, not one letter survives from the 2nd generation individual who was known to be literate.  There are only three surviving documents with his handwriting, two as a young adult and one in middle age.  He won an award for writing but the piece he wrote no longer exists.  He died just 70 years ago.  I'm not surprised there are no surviving letters from Will.  I wonder how many letters the doubters have from their great grandfathers.  Take that back several generations and Id expect none. 

Doubters wonder why so many of Will’s plays take place in the upper class and how he could possibly have known what their ways were like.  If they looked at Will’s ancestry they would have a better understanding.  Will’s mother was Mary Margareta Arden, a descendant of Siward de Arden.  The Ardens, according to Burke's Peerage, Volume 1, are one of only three English families that can trace their lineage back to Anglo Saxon times.  Sure the family fortune wasn't what it had been by the time Will was born but as a once affluent family, Will would have had knowledge of the glories of his ancestor’s pasts. He's also related the the Beauchamps, Vernons and Bromwich's.  

My maternal great grandparents would be considered as peasants today.  They were poor farmers after my great grandfather was let go by the Austrian-Hungarian cavalry for being injured.  They were illiterate.  They were immigrants.  They were not, however, lacking in culture.  They passed down the stories of being the descendants of PL’s, noble men and women who had been recognized by a long ago king for bravery in the distant past.  My grandmother, their daughter, loved lavishly set tables, the latest fashion and travel.  One may ask how it is possible she had acquired such refined tastes coming from such humble beginnings.  It was always in her.  She aspired to culture and attained it.  You may have a similar story in your family.  Why do the doubters not understand that Will was writing about what would most interest those that did not have it but really wanted to. Why do pop magazines have Prince William and Catherine, the Duchess of Cambridge, on the cover?  Because it sells.

My connect with cousin Will is through the Ardens and my line twists and turns and at the time of Will's life, a contemporary great grandfather of mine would be Francis Hollingshead.  Does the name Hollingshead ring any bells?  Francis was a cousin of Raphael, the renowned historian. They likely new each other and I often thought that Will may have "borrowed" Raphael's work, jazzed it up and offered it to the masses.  Historical fiction of his day.  I have no proof but it's a hunch I'd like to explore when I'm done with my BCG portfolio.

That leads us to answer the doubters that question why Will wrote so much about Italy and not about himself and his community.  Perhaps Will visited Italy in those lost year or maybe his teacher had.  He was taught Latin if he attended the town school so he would have gained knowledge of the language.  Geez, I was also taught Latin in elementary and my teachers gave us knowledge of other countries.  Trade between Italy and England was not unusual; he could have met visitors when he was in London. Remember, too, that England had once embraced Catholicism which was rooted in Italy.  Will's father had been Roman Catholic.  As such, he may have been in closer contact with Italian customs that we now know.  Definitely would have been something to keep quiet about!

Doubters also wonder why Will never wrote a play about his own life experiences or about Stratford-on-Avon.  People rarely wrote autobiographies in the 16th Century.  Will was writing to bring people into the theatre. Why would he write his life story or about his neighboring countryside?  No one would spend money on something they already knew.  People won’t part with their hard earned income for something that is not novel or necessary.  Clearly, the theatre isn’t a necessity so novelty had to be what drew in the crowds.

Doubters question why Will did not record the death of his 11-year-old son in one of his sonnets.  Perhaps it was too painful but I think that he understood his life experiences were not that much different from the collective human experience of the time.  His pain was no greater or less than anyone else.  He wrote what he thought would interest the populous.  Childhood death was commonplace and a part of life in Will’s time.  There was no need to write about something that so many experienced. 

I do not doubt William Shakespeare was the writer of the sonnets that are attributed to him today.  As we approach the 400th Anniversary of his death I use his words in remembrance, “This above all: to thine own self be true". - “Suspicion always haunts the guilty mind;.” - (Henry VI, Part III, Act V, Scene VI).

[1] Brooks-Gunn, J., & Duncan, G. J. (1997). The effects of poverty on children. The Future of Children: Children and Poverty, 7(2), 61.


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