William Shakespeare’s “real” identity has been argued about for so long by so many that one shudders to see the bones of the dispute exhumed yet again. This time the task has been taken on not by a snooty British scholar like Frank Kermode, but by no-nonsense “entertainment lawyer” and novelist, Bertram Fields. He brings the whole complex of ideas about the world’s most famous playwright into the scope of forensic science and courtroom revelation. American style.
His final conclusion – that Shakespeare was two people – is not unique, but anyone involved in the subject will be fascinated with how he gets to it. And who the perps are.
There’s a classic example of Shakespeare’s seeming multiple personality in the play The Merchant of Venice, in which we are allowed to have genuine sympathy for a Jewish money-lender, a quality of mercy strained indeed in Elizabethan England. Yet we then see him punished to the letter of the law after making his poignant speech, “hath not a Jew…..” Why did the playwright let him expostulate like a real human being, and then turn around and make him suffer like a puffed-up racist parody? Fields believes that a sensitive and brilliant mind wanted to let the Jew have his day in court, demonstrate his kinship with the Gentiles in the box seats perhaps, while a practical person who understood what makes a play a popular success wanted to be sure the hoi polloi were placated with a big laugh at the Jew’s expense.
The “Stratford man,” as Fields calls him, would be the latter, someone who could act, who knew the theater scene inside and out, and who wouldn’t mind taking nominal credit for the plays. The plays were written by someone else, someone with the wit, the education, the language, the passion of a great creative genius, and then put on the stage with edits by someone with savvy about how the theater works, how to get butts on bleachers.
It’s a plausible theory explaining many mysteries – why the Stratford man’s passing was never noted publicly, why the Stratford man was famously unable to write without physical pain, and why so many of the plays have, like The Merchant of Venice, passages that are contradictory (the limping, empathic Richard III plotting bloody infanticide, the secretly flawed Hal and the intellectually tormented but murderous Hamlet).
Players will open, I’m sure, more cans of worms for more literary critics to poke around in. Undoubtedly it will be dissed by the snooty Brits, but it should not be. It’s a tight piece of work - if American.