Despite new insights being revealed every year about his work and the early modern world he inhabited, the things we still don’t know about William Shakespeare would fill several internets. Though we talk a lot about Shakespeare’s genius — the richness of his language, the timelessness of his characters, the universality of his stories, and the beauty of his poetry — for my money, we don’t talk enough about his greatest achievement of all: The mystery surrounding the man himself.
We know only the barest facts of Shakespeare’s biography: Where he was born and when he died, when he was baptized, the date of his marriage, the birthdays of his children, a number of his court appearances, and a handful of real estate dealings. There are huge gaps where we know practically nothing about him (most of his first 18 years) and don’t know where he was or what he was doing (particularly the seven-year gap between 1585 and 1592). And after 400 years of searching, scholars still haven’t uncovered any of Shakespeare’s workbooks, diaries, rough drafts, or love letters written to his wife (and/or mistress) — anything that would reveal something of the man’s politics, personality, or personal feelings.
This shouldn’t seem strange — after all, we don’t know that much about many of Shakespeare’s artistic contemporaries — but it does. The disconnect between how large Shakespeare’s work looms in today’s culture and how little we know about the man himself leaves a huge gap that begs for explanation and compels our fascination.
And I maintain this is exactly how Shakespeare planned it.
Shakespeare helped create a theater industry where the more people attended his plays, the more money he earned. Thus, it was not only vital to create and sustain the audience’s interest in the stories he was telling, but to keep people’s focus where it belongs — on the plays themselves. The relatively few mentions of Shakespeare during his lifetime, and the lack of public utterances or any of Shakespeare’s personal writings being found in the historical record suggests he kept a low profile.
Yes, these things might have easily been lost or destroyed in the subsequent 400 years, but I prefer to think the man who famously wrote “The play’s the thing” very deliberately did not want his celebrity to overshadow his work. He knew that mystery is irresistible and creates a relationship with the viewer (or reader or listener), inviting them to keep searching, keep exploring, dig deeper, in the hopes that one day the answer will be revealed. If answers were easily forthcoming, people would move on and lose interest, stop searching, stop exploring. It’s a good trick: Always leave your audience wanting more.
As much as I love to wonder “WWST?” — What Would Shakespeare Tweet? — it’s probably a good thing he wasn’t on the early modern equivalent of social media. I’m not sure we want to know more about what kind of man Shakespeare was. A large part of Shakespeare’s appeal is that we simply don’t know that much about him so we’re constantly driven to discover more. Would his artistic achievements be seen in the same glorious light if, like Peter Shaffer’s depiction of Mozart in Amadeus, we discovered Shakespeare to be an obnoxious infantile child? Would interest in his plays diminish if, like J.K. Rowling, Shakespeare tweeted hateful opinions? Would Twitter beefs between Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe trend?
In the absence of a social media presence or chat show gossip, we’re grateful for any contemporary mention of Shakespeare in court documents or other records, such as this surviving anecdote from 1602. A law student wrote in his diary that Richard Burbage, one of the most famous actors of his day, arranged a rendezvous with a female admirer who told him to announce himself at her door as Richard III (his most famous role) and she would let him in. “Shakespeare, overhearing their conclusion,” (according to this bawdy diarist) got to the lady’s chambers first and was “at his game” when Burbage arrived and announced himself as “Richard III.” Hearing this, Shakespeare called out, “William the Conqueror comes before Richard III,” an entendre so double it proves that sometimes the pen and the sword can be mighty at exactly the same time.
This tantalizing glimpse of Shakespeare as both a real-life wit and subject of gossip is the rare appearance of Shakespeare as a public person. The very lack of further evidence, I submit with tongue only partially in cheek, is deliberate and irrefutable proof that Shakespeare the artistic genius knew exactly what he was doing and should therefore be remembered as Shakespeare the marketing/PR genius as well.