Given the extent of the brouhaha that has surrounded Shakespeare’s big 450, it’s worth remembering that we’re marking the anniversary of the birth of an enigma. Records do show that he was born in Stratford-upon-Avon and died there 53 years later; that he married Anne Hathaway and they had three children.
There is certainly evidence, though some prefer to cast “reasonable doubt” on this, that he was the author of his plays. But most of Shakespeare’s supposed “ biography has been assembled by scholars who have mined his work for clues about his life.
When I decided to include "William Shakespeare” in my own novel, I was encouraged by the fact that he is such a shadowy figure. Shakespeare’s mysterious identity enables writers to re-imagine the myth of the iconic poet to suit their own ends, and their own times.
Early inventors focused on his super-human qualities and divine inspiration. In the 18th century, David Garrick laid down the foundations for the Shakespeare-worshipping industry, selling pieces of mulberry wood (said to be taken from Shakespeare’s garden) as if they were holy relics. And in the 19th century Walter Savage Landor created an idealised figure in The Citation and Examination of Shakespeare Touching Deer Stealing, while Arthur Quiller Couch’s Shakespeare’s Christmas (1905) presents a messianic hero who has to deal with his Falstaffian father. Rudyard Kipling’s attempt suggests that Shakespeare was a clubbable, donnish sort of fellow, who squabbled amiably with Ben Jonson about the writing of the Authorised Bible.
But it wasn’t all Shakespearean hagiography. In his work, George Bernard Shaw ridicules these “Bardolators” and insists that Shakespeare was an ordinary man – with extraordinary gifts. There’s a whiff of self-identification in his Dark Lady of the Sonnets (1914), with Shaw suggesting in the introduction that Shakespeare’s creative process was not unlike his own.
The dark twin of the Christ-like genius is the driven, self-destructive madman, and Shakespeares have been invented to fit both the angelic and the diabolic role. In Nothing Like the Sun (1964) Anthony Burgess imagines that lust, syphilitic rage and self-loathing are poured into Shakespeare’s works, while Edward Bond invents the ultimate Bad Shakespeare in his play Bingo: Scenes of Money and Death (1975) which presents the bard as a corrupt, materialistic nihilist. Meanwhile, Robert Nye takes a comically deflationary approach in Mrs Shakespeare (1988) a rumbustious version of Shakespeare’s life told from the point of view of a long-suffering Anne Hathaway. Perhaps no one can observe ordinary uselessness more acutely than a spouse.
The most popular recent version of Shakespeare is the manic, sexy Will portrayed by Joseph Fiennes in the 1998 film Shakespeare in Love, written by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard, and recently adapted for the stage. Here, Shakespeare is conceived as the classic struggling writer. Although the title specifies that Shakespeare’s love life is the subject of the film, this is in fact a story about the integration of his life and his work. Shakespeare does not win the “fair youth” Viola De Lesseps, but he recreates her as the Viola of Twelfth Night.
All of these versions offer an insight into the contemporary context in which they were written. But for me, the most intriguing versions are those created by Jorge Luis Borges in his short stories Shakespeare’s Memory (1998) and Everything and Nothing (1962). Borges presents versions of Shakespeare that celebrates how unknowable he is and considers the mystery of creative genius.
In Shakespeare’s Memory, Hermann Sorgel, an academic, acquires the memory of William Shakespeare and expects to be enlightened by it. Fragments of the dead poet’s memory seep into both Sorgel’s waking mind and his dreams. These memories are flashes of sensory experience: a recited alphabet, a whistled tune, “unknown rooms and faces”, a memory of Jonson asking him to recite Latin and Greek verse and the “hilarity of his followers” when he gets it wrong. Not much light is cast on Shakespeare’s creative process; Borges reaffirms the importance of sheer invention.
And in Everything and Nothing Shakespeare becomes an actor and later a writer because he knows he is empty to the point of nonexistence. Behind his “fantastic and stormy” words, there is only “a bit of coldness”. When he dies, he tells God: “I who have been so many men in vain want to be one myself.” But God replies:
Neither am I anyone; I have dreamt the world as your dreamt your work, my Shakespeare, and among the forms in my dreams are you, who like myself are many and no one.
Godlike and all-seeing; an everyman with a protean identity. Borges has infused the legend with magical realism, while staying faithful to the accumulated mythology. And the beauty of this myth is that the “identity” of Shakespeare is itself simply a series of inventions.