We celebrate Shakespeare’s birthday on April 23, but this is only a guess. The parish records give us his baptism, on April 26, 1564, and his death, on April 23, 1616, “in the 53rd year of his age”. The birthday date is innocent guesswork, but some popular beliefs about him are less happy.
Ben Jonson “loved the man this side idolatry”. But idolatry eventually flourished, and so did legends and misconceptions. Shakespeare offered his own legend: “As long as men can breathe and eyes can see / So long lives this.” The claim, made in the last lines of a sonnet, is that the poem will live for as long as we have eyes to read and breath to read poems aloud.
Each time the words are read they come true. We read poems aloud less often than we might, but Shakespeare’s poetry remains the first of his attractions. One also learns more of life from his plays, and more quickly and vividly, than one can from any novelist.
The daftest legend about Shakespeare is that an actor from darkest Warwickshire could not have written such plays. Instead, a well-educated aristocrat, not wishing to be known to scribble for the public stage, must have used this actor as a front. This conspiracy theory, first proposed in 1857, has found many believers, among whom, curiously enough, are some famous actors.
Perhaps the earliest misconception about Shakespeare was to see him as a natural but uneducated genius, a Green Man of English literature. For the bookish John Milton, Shakespeare was “fancy’s child / Piping his native woodnotes wild”. He was a country boy, from near the Forest of Arden. But Stratford had a grammar school, and Shakespeare learned to use Latin and love Latin poets. His woodnotes were natural but educated. A later report says that he was “in his younger years a schoolmaster in the country”.
Later misapprehensions arose from trying to find the author’s biography in his work. The Sonnets, if read as autobiography, show a poet who is attracted to both sexes, worshipping a fair young aristocrat while having a guilty affair with a promiscuous woman. The poet’s loves then betray him with each other. But these 154 Sonnets are works of high artifice, not sincere confessions. They form a story created by a dramatist: the doubly betrayed poet within the Sonnets is not William Shakespeare.
William’s only son was called Hamnet, named after his godfather, Hamnet Sadler. The boy died aged 11. Sigmund Freud was positive that Hamlet, a sad play about a son, must be about Hamnet. It has also been claimed that, since Ophelia drowns, Hamnet died by drowning. Here are a few other misconceptions:
1) The comedies are above all meant to make us laugh. But in the 16th century “comedy” simply meant a play with a happy ending.
2) In The Merchant of Venice, the Christian court shows Shylock no mercy. In fact, the Duke spares his life; then, at Antonio’s request, Shylock is allowed to keep half his goods (albeit with some painful further conditions).
3) The Tempest is a political fable about colonialism, rather than a miracle play about whether humans can become better.
4) We should identify with protagonists throughout: admire Hamlet, indulge Romeo, and find Antony and Cleopatra lovably glamorous.
The theory that Shakespeare was a Catholic is not exactly a misconception but if there were Catholic loyalties in his upbringing, no biographical evidence has been found as to his own Catholicism. He was, however, an actor, which Protestants abhorred: a player whose plays have none of the attacks on the Pope and papists found in Marlowe and others. Malvolio in Twelfth Night is a pompous Puritan killjoy. The line “Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang” regrets the fate of the monasteries. And characters express the attitudes of traditional Christianity.
Proof that Shakespeare was a Catholic is unlikely to come. Meanwhile, as we mark the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, it is worth trying to encourage a proper appreciation of the Christianity in the plays: the latter are with us, the author is not. King Lear is often staged so as to show that mankind is alone and without God. But nine centuries had embedded Catholic ways of thinking, and these emerge in this, the darkest of the plays. Edgar stops his father killing himself in despair. (Suicide is against the Fifth Commandment, as Hamlet knows: “O that the Everlasting had not fixed his canon ’gainst self-slaughter.”)
Earlier in Lear, the King and Cordelia kneel and ask each other’s forgiveness – Christian acts and Christian sentiments in a play set in pre-Christian Britain. Edgar and Edmund also “exchange forgiveness”. To our horror, Cordelia is then hanged. Yet Christianity does not say that virtue is rewarded in this world, and the horror does not erase those Christian moments.
Michael Alexander is Emeritus Professor of English Literature at the University of St Andrews. His Reading Shakespeare is published by Palgrave