Continuing my thoughts on Shakespeare I think the biggest hurdle biographers have to overcome is not his boyhood with all its attendant myths, or the lost years before his arrival in London, but his return to Stratford where he would spend the last years of his life with occasional visits to London mainly it would seem (there we go, it would seem, perhaps, maybe!) on business and the purchase of property. He had money, there’s no doubt about that or he wouldn’t have been in a position to purchase a substantial house, New Place and an acre of ground, dabble in real estate, (Bought from William and John Combe 107 acres of land in Old Stratford for £320) and go to law issuing writs so the question I have to ask is, where did this money come from? Another question is, how did his family in Stratford keep their heads above water or the wolf from the door (two beautiful clichés for you there) all the years he was in London? Did he send money home during the entire period he was absent? If so I reckon that would have depleted his budget somewhat. What money could he have made out of his poetry and the plays? Not very much I reckon. There was no such thing as copyright to protect a writer’s work and anyone who fancied using it could do so without offering any payment. This copyright problem lasted well into the nineteenth century when playwrights like Boucicault would hop over to Paris to see a new play, take notes and hop back to London to write their own version. And even today the laws of copyright are not always a one hundred percent safeguard as I know to my cost but that is another story which, if it ever comes to a conclusion, I will tell you all about. But getting back to Willy, what would his income have been as a jobbing actor? Probably not much; actors then, like now, being two a penny. (The star system still had to be invented.) Still, as a shareholder in the theatre he would have made money there so maybe that is the answer. Or was he supplied with a continual stream of the readies by a patron? The Earl of Southampton?
No, apart from, where did he get his money; it was his apparent mind-set that worries me. Was his behaviour symptomatic of a universal genius? Mooted as the greatest writer in the English language? How did he behave on his return to Stratford? Did he have with him copies of the plays or the poems? Was mention ever made of his career in the theatre? Was there even talk of plays? Did he not own a single book? Do we know if he could even write as all we have are those six signatures? There are those who believe that, being the offspring of illiterate parents and begetting his own illiterate offspring, William Shakespeare of Stratford on Avon could neither read nor write. He describes himself as “William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon in the county of Warwick, gentleman.” Maybe the coat-of-arms, originally applied for by his father was indicative of his standing in the community.
After His long absence and having made quite a reputation for himself how was he greeted on his return to his home town? As a famous man of letters? Someone of consequence, if not renown? Someone to talk about and applaud? A VIP of the period? Was there a fanfare of trumpets, the proverbial red carpet, a banquet, the equivalent of a ticker tape reception? It would seem not. As far as the good folk of Stratford were concerned he was merely another citizen and merchant albeit a rich one now. His reputation in the last few years of his life didn’t seem to amount to much but over the years, over the centuries, his history became so embellished that in the nineteenth century it got to the point of being what Bernard Shaw described as ‘Bardolatry’.
By now statues and monuments were springing up all over the place which brings me to the biggest mystery of all; the Shakespeare monument in Holy trinity Church, Stratford. The first sketch was made by William Dugdale in 1634. In 1656 it appeared in ‘Antiquities of Warwickshire’ an engraving by Hollar followed in 1709 by a copy. In all these illustrations Shakespeare is shown with his hands on what is possibly a woolsack indicating a merchant and it wasn’t until 1725 that suddenly a quill appeared in his right hand and a piece of paper in his left. Has there ever been an explanation for this?
In September 1856 a man named William Henry Smith of Harley Street wrote –
WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE’S is indeed a negative history.
Of his life all that we positively know is the period of his death.
We do not know when he was born, nor when, nor where, he was educated.
We do not know when or where he was married, nor when he came to London.
We do not know when, where, or in what order, his plays were written or performed; nor when he left London.
He died April 23rd 1616.