Thirty-two eulogies were printed and published about Sir Francis Bacon when he died in 1626, ten years after Shakespeare. The death of Shakespeare was apparently marked by a resounding silence.
Sir Francis, the Baron Verulam, probably deserved every word of praise. King James’ Lord Chancellor was known throughout Europe as a great and original mind, even a genius, though posterity sees error in quite a few of his choicest ‘scientific’ reasonings.
Shakespeare, today, is renowned around the world as the great dramatic poet and a ‘playmaker’ genius whose 36 plays (created over possibly a 27 year period; several more arguably attributed to him also) are now deservedly translated into more than 40 languages. No other nation has produced such a phenomenon. He is accepted as timeless and as universal, “not for an age but for all time”. The greatness and the legacy speak for themselves: comedy and humour, tragedy and pain, history and stirring declamations, refinement and bawdiness, universality and evil, stupidity and sensitive perceptiveness … and all played and depicted on the static, scenery-less stage. “Each play has its own universe, its own pervading atmosphere, each one different to another” is one London teacher’s insight into his Works. One theatre author of today believes that his flexibility of mind and the marvellous many-sided nature of his creative imagination is well displayed in the Canon’s 12 contrasting themes, wide divergences of mood, and the writing achievement over such a short period of time. Though in honest appraisal, the equally knowledgeable in theatre and the literary world will murmur that not every part of every play is perfect, far from it; in fact, a “Shakespeare text” today is “an unstable, contrived product” having been through many intermediaries, with many departures from the master’s original ‘first performance’ manuscript. The intriguing question is: just who might he have collaborated with, especially in the early years (say 1585 -1595).
Yet that silence, lack of public recognition at his Shakespeare’s death, irks some people enormously. However, it was not a complete silence. Nor was it unusual.
True, far from the repute given ‘poets’, the Theatre’s players and the emerging ‘dramatists’ were still widely regarded as “persons of dubious standing” and “grovellers on the stage” as the literary hierarchy had it. The talented aristocracy, close to the royal Court, could not have written and published freely – poetry as Art, yes, but not be seen among the newly-emerging play-makers, some of whom were respectably university-educated.
There were many of talent “in private chambers that encloistered are”… but to write and publish, on politics, rule, state secrets? The Secret Service which emerged also, with its supposed, hidden ‘Department of Propaganda’, would have imposed itself with control and censorship.
Progress was made in breaking down this ‘not poetry’ culture in 1616, with Ben Jonson’s rather egocentric and bold printing and publication of his own Works, a mixture of play and poetry (this initiative helped towards recognition of some kind for all those working within the newly-professional Theatre, besides countering Jonson’s non-university background).
(Some things then haven’t changed today: shout loud and the world listens – speedily after Jonson’s death in 1637, his collected poems were published and he was buried in Westminster Abbey; Shakespeare had to wait till 1740 for his statue there.)
There WERE eulogic mentions for departed playmakers, in Shakespeare’s time, but in MANUSCRIPT not printed form. Only nobility, knights and churchmen were eulogised IN PRINT during Elizabethan and Jacobean times.
However, what explanation is there for the virtual silence in eulogies on the death of Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford in 1604 and for his unmarked grave in Hackney? He was said in his time to be a great poet and sometime playmaker, today as with Bacon, promoted enthusiastically as the “hidden writer of Shakespeare” himself. Shakespeare in fact was well memorialised in manuscript over the seven years until the First Folio was printed in 1623, and many times more in the next decades.
Posterity sees him, Shakspere the Stratford-upon-Avon man, as the poet inspired and playmaker supreme with little overall to criticise in his Works, the Shakespeare canon. The plays, as one scholar notes, cover a dozen different types: classical and historical dramas, revenge drama, elaborate and sophisticated, comedy-in-intent, comedy-drama, the bitter-comedies, comedy-tragedy, the openly farcical, the light fantastic, lively romantic, dramatic romances, romantic tragedy and tragedy. They were shot through with his “fathomless abundance of verbal and metaphorical invention”.
Shakspere/Shakespeare would have agreed that “a witty conceit is oftentimes a conveyor of a truth not so well (otherwise) ferried over” – Francis Bacon
Many knowledgeable assign greatness to Shakespeare’s final period, when he wrote ‘romance-resolution’ or ‘romance-reconciliation’ plays, beyond or avoiding tragedy. These are seen as unique dramatic-designs, synthesizing in masterly fashion many elements – masque, tableaux, mime and music, “full of dramatic daring”.
Outstandingly different, Tolstoy hammered the great “Lear” as a “complete absence of aesthetic feeling, “unnatural events and unnatural speeches”, “unnecessary verbose absurdities” and as “having nothing in common with art and poetry.” He praised Homer for works of artistic, poetic originality. Yet a later author found “Lear” to be a great and “a tragic vision of humanity”.
Equally notable even fascinating are Shakespeare’s 154 Sonnets and the two dramatic narrative poems, “Venus and Adonis” and “The Rape of Lucrece”. They reward reading after reading, and more is said later.
The First Folio, and the facade on “The Folger” Shakespeare Library, counsels us “His Wit can no more be hid than it could be lost – Read him therefore and again and again”. But the exact authorship of that “Wit” IS in question.
In quite a few plays, knowledgeable critics do find fault, but this is as nothing to the charge: that he did not actually write all the plays. The extreme question is: did he, Shakspere, the man of Stratford-upon-Avon, actually write any of them?
More to the point, why does the First Folio include 10,000 words never heard or known about before? They were in 15 or more plays emerging fresh into the strong sunlight of publication. They had never been ‘registered’, in the Stationer’s Register. Whose was ownership – besides the World’s? How did they apparently remain, unowned? To a company, they would have been valuable financial assets. It is a considerable Mystery in itself, in some ways as great as the leading Mystery.
The questions, the unease, about precise authorship arose because there is no undoubted proof, only circumspection and the circumstantial. “The number of official records that apparently refer to Shakspere as Shakespeare is disappointingly small”, admits one ‘Stratfordian’ (pro-Shakspere as Shakespeare). The heretics (anti-Stratfordians) go further, believing there are no documents relating Shakspere to Shakespeare.
People have found it almost impossible to believe that one man, from modest home and no documented path of universal education, could – even if a genius – have achieved what his name is given to. Shakespeare may well have written his best lines “by the dim light of Nature” as a middle-period contemporary of his said. He is also mentioned in a survey of that time as “among the most pregnant wits of our times”. He appeared blessed with a natural innate Grace. But he had a knowledge dimension to uncover, virtually unaided in his early days.
He had ‘passion’ – his passion in the plays and poetry includes “every mental condition, every tone, from indifference, familiar mirth, wildest rage, despair.”
He was also a master of words – and his use communicated meaning, and that passion. Today we all suffer from imprecicity of words; we use them, often indiscriminately; as a result we are attenuated, lost from the fineness of words, the “thorough, logical and precise explanations of things”, the actual meaning of words – word-mongering as explained in Bacon’s ‘Idols of the Tribe’. Jonson, very close to Bacon, later, agreed.
Shakspere’s potential may well have attracted support which encouraged, enhanced, sustained his progress – according to many this came from the young Earl of Southampton and the young Francis Bacon, as patrons and benefactors.
Today, a modest start in life is no insurmountable barrier to man and woman achieving great things by natural effort and will, allied to opportunity, even if they cannot attain genius. Then, Shakespeare needed that “intellectual power arising after supernatural, spiritual inspiration to produce his outcome inexplicable”, as one attempt at describing the fusion of natural genius with human will.