William Shakespeare turned 450 years old this week.
You might think that after 450 years we’d know pretty much all that there is to know about Warwickshire’s most famous son. But in my talk at Stratford Literary Festival on Tuesday 29 April, I’ll be explaining that we already know a lot more about Shakespeare than we think we know – and why now might be the most exciting time in Shakespeare research.
Two years from now, we’ll be commemorating the 400th anniversary of his death. Between now and then, I’m looking forward to some very interesting developments, starting with the chance to look at a skull.
The skull is in a crypt beneath a private family chapel attached to a church, 12 miles from Stratford. A 19th century vicar announced that this skull was ‘THE VERITABLE SKULL OF WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE’ and claimed that it had been stolen from his Stratford grave one dark night in December 1794.
Sounds too good to be true? Well, maybe. The story told by Rev. C.J. Langston in the 1880s does have its problems. But the skull is there, and it shows many of the features that also appear on portraits of Shakespeare.
One of the best of those portraits was brought to my attention only last year. We call it the Wadlow portrait. It has the distinguishing features I’ve come to expect from Shakespeare portraits, including the wall eye, the drooping eyebrow and a prominent scar – immediately above the left eyebrow – which matches an old injury visible on the skull.
The odd thing, though, is that great strides were being made in Shakespeare research around the time that Rev. Charles Jones Langston wrote his remarkable account of How Shakespeare’s Skull was Stolen and Found. And yet, all that research was quickly forgotten.
A different Shakespeare – one invented in the late 18th century – was reinstated as the “official” Shakespeare. This Shakespeare is almost invisible, a man about whom we know next to nothing, which means that we can make up our own minds about who he was. And some people have decided that this rather invisible and (dare we say) boring Shakespeare can’t have been the genius who wrote the plays.
What will make the next couple of years so interesting, I believe, is that we will finally be able to lay the myth of the “unknown” Shakespeare to rest. That myth was invented for political reasons. Our Victorian forebears were working their way beyond that myth. We were on the brink of discovering many fascinating facts about William Shakespeare, before the First World War intervened, and the old myth was reborn, repackaged, and sold – successfully – to millions of students and tourists.
But the myth is tired, now, and it was never very true anyway. We have always known more about Will Shakespeare than the “experts” care to admit. It’s just that what is known doesn’t fit comfortably with the myth.
As I see it, we have two years to demolish that myth, with all its 18th century nonsense, and let the real Will Shakespeare emerge. And I believe he will, though I doubt it will happen without a fight. Too many scholars have based their reputations on parroting the outworn myth, rather than exploring the real life and times of Shakespeare.
In my talk at Stratford, next week, I shall outline some of the things that I expect to emerge over the next couple of years, and explaining why these things have been kept out of sight for so long.
So – happy birthday, Mr Shakespeare. And here’s to the next two years! By the time the 400th anniversary of his death comes along, let’s hope that we have a more realistic, more honest and more accurate account of the life of this fascinating, brilliant man.
Simon Andrew Stirling is the author of Who Killed William Shakespeare? The Murderer, The Motive, The Means (The History Press, 2013). His talk on “Who Killed Shakespeare?” will take place at the Stratford Artshouse, at 4.45 pm on Tuesday, 29 April 2014, as part of the Stratford Literary Festival.
The Wadlow portrait, photographed by Chris Titmus at the Hamilton Kerr Institute, is reproduced by kind permission of the owner.
– See more at: http://www.welovecoventry.co.uk/features/two-years-find-shakespeare/#sthash.6zyT7bi3.dpuf