William Shakespeare: International man of mystery

All the world’s a stage … Shakespeare standing surrounded by creatures from his plays / R. Hind ; C. H. Jeens. 19th century. Folger ART File S527 no.295 (size XS)

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.

⇒ See primary sources on Shakespeare Documented

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.

⇒ Listen to a podcast episode about Shakespeare’s biography

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.


  • I think you forgot to mention that the biggest possible reason that so little is known about Shakespeare is because Shakespeare wasn’t Shakespeare. Rather than trying to be low key it was more like someone or more than someone did not want the world to know the truth. De Vere.

  • Emil — Your points are all well-taken, but I think you missed the line where I mentioned I was writing with tongue partially in cheek.

  • This is very interesting. I did not know that many Elizabethan and Jacobean records are still uncatalogued. I also did not know that John Hall died in debt. As to the whereabouts of Shakespeare’s books and possessions, another possibility, raised by Sir Edmund Chambers, is to explore the descendants of Sir John Bernard’s family, to whom Elizabeth Hall, Lady Barnard, left her property when she died in 1670.

  • This article’s premise makes little sense—for Shakespeare was doubtless well known to many of his contemporaries. It was that vital contemporary knowledge that disappeared, once the Elizabethan and Jacobean age ended, and not any deliberate act by Shakespeare, that erased his life from our view. It must also be remembered that his profession was remarkably disreputable; that he worked and played (in both senses of the term), in the midst of the London stews; and that many of his contemporaries—particularly the Puritans—would have had little to do with him, simply on principle, and surely would not have recorded for posterity any of their meetings with him. Nonetheless, men knew him, and knew of him, whether they approved of him, or not. The Queen herself ordered a new play about Falstaff from his company (Merry Wives), that he wrote in a few scant weeks—a clear indication that his reputation had circulated among the higher regions. When Essex’s plot to succeed Elizabeth was afoot, on the night before putting his plan into action, Essex and his men deliberately sought out Shakespeare’s company, and demanded a showing of Richard II, the notorious deposition play. And when Essex’s plot came to grief, Elizabeth herself, commenting on Essex’s choice of entertainment that night, said, “Why, know you not that I am Richard II?” So she again indicated her knowledge of Shakespeare’s existence as a writer.
    Moreover, his name on a play ensured higher sales at the gate—and so, if anything, as a theater-man, he would have courted publicity, because it was in his financial interest to be well known. He kept most of his plays unpublished during his lifetime because they were much sought out, and still making money for his companion-players. The idea of a coy Shakespeare deliberately evading the limelight so that we, 400 years later, would know next to nothing about him, strikes me as ludicrous, and suggests a wildly cockeyed view of our own importance in the world. I repeat: Shakespeare was known during his lifetime. When he died, and when those who knew him died, intimate knowledge about him died, as well. This happens with each of us. He did not deliberately live with an eye on the cultivation of future generations’ adulation. How many of us do? Nor has he been shown deliberately to have hid his existence from future generations. Where in this article has the author offered any proof of that? He was, like most of us, I suspect, indifferent to the ages that would follow his own, and grounded most likely in the present—which was lively enough, and absorbing enough. He differed from us exceptionally in ability, and of course it would be wonderful if we could know more about him. But the idea of a Shakespeare who deliberately covered his tracks to evade the Sherlock Holmeses of the future strikes a bizarre and sour note.

  • There are a couple of possible explanations why it’s hard to find information on Will Shakespeare. One is that after the death of John Hall, his son-in-law, the sheriff and his men broke into New Place House and took books, papers, anything of value they could find to pay John Hall’s debts.
    Dr. Hall had left no will, and Susanna Shakespeare Hall seems to have closed her eyes, hoping this would all blow over. Instead, many potential documents, books, scripts, etc. were thrown to the four winds. So much for the loving care of the son-in-law he liked and the daughter who was his purported favorite! Secondly, many documents from the Elizabethan and Jacobean Periods are sitting in archives, still unexplored. The Elizabethans were excellent record keepers, but the material they retained has never been fully explored and catalogued. In addition, though it would be shallow to read Shakespeare’s plays, searching for “the one who is really Shakespeare speaking,” I think if you live with the plays long enough, you get a real feel for the soul of the man. I personally think it’s a hoot that he hoarded grain and tried to avoid paying Church fees and refused to get involved with local land disputes. In my trilogy of full-length plays, The Lives of Shakespeare, I have explored what Shakespeare might actually have been like. The first play was presented at The Utah Shakespeare Festival of 2014, and all three have been given beautiful staged readings at The Players Club in New York City, sponsored by John Andrews, President of The Shakespeare Guild. A rave review appeared in the following Shakespeare Newsletter, written by John Mahon and Dr. Charles Altieri, Shakespeare Lecturer at UCal, Berkeley. Please see my website at http://www.schaeferonshakespeare.squarespace.com.

  • Let me remind the audience that Shakespeare did not write those plays, that give him title. The Lord of Avon is the master here who actually wrote the works of W. Shakespeare. It was Queen Elizabeth I who discredited the Lord of Avon and credited Shakespeare to bear his name to the plays written. That is the reason we do not know much about Will. He was a Stage Manager at the Globe.

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