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This place matters

Thursday, April 28, 2016

A tale blogged by an idiot

I knew we didn't know much about William Shakespeare's life, but before reading Bill Bryson's Shakespeare, I didn't realize just how miraculous it is that we know much of anything at all. 
The things we know for sure about the Bard are few and mundane. We know when he was baptized (though not when he was born). We know that he married Anne Hathaway, although it's possible her name was actually Agnes. We know that his theatre was called The Globe, but we have no drawings or illustrations of the inside, and we only glimpse the outside in drawings that may or may not have been made by people who had ever seen the place in person.
We don't even have much of an idea of what the man himself looked like. The engraving from his first folio was created after his death by an artist who had never met him and was probably working from a now-lost painting.
We have two portraits that probably were painted during Shakespeare's life, but only might be him - the clothing and facial hair would have been quite common among men of Shakespeare's station. And don't hold out for a forensic reconstruction - although we do know where the old guy's bones lie, archaeologists recently scanned his grave and discovered his head is kind of missing, probably the work of 18th century grave robbers. Or somebody looking to do a epic rendition of Hamlet. 
At yet, according to scholars, we know more about William Shakespeare than almost any other non-royal of the era. Amateur and scholar alike have searched through mountains of barely legible public records to find a handful of signatures (all in the same hand, but each spelled a different way), some passing mentions in legal disputes, birth and baptism and death records of a few of his family members. 
Yet these glimpses of the man's public life offer us no insight into the man he was. We don't know if his marriage was happy; if he was a loving father or a faithful son. We don't know if he was as witty in person as he was on paper. We don't know whether he believed in God, was kind to animals, or respected his conquests in the morning. And yet, we have his plays. And maybe it is unreasonable to ask for more than that.   

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