Book: Thirty Great Myths About Shakespeare

Macbeth: the historic curse of the 'Scottish play' turns out to be completely fraudulent. Picture: Dan Phillips
Macbeth: the historic curse of the 'Scottish play' turns out to be completely fraudulent. Picture: Dan Phillips
Share this article
Have your say

“Deeree Sirree, Wille youe doee meee theee favvourree too dinnee wythee meee onn Friddaye nextte, attt twoo off theee clockee, too eattee sommee muttonne choppes andd somme poottaattoooeesse?”

Thus the Telegraph parodied the newly discovered cache of documents purportedly by Shakespeare (including a letter to Queen Elizabeth, his staunchly Protestant Profession of Faith, original manuscript versions of the most famous scenes and even an entire play, Vortigern, unknown till that point) at the end of the 18th century. William-Henry Ireland eventually confessed to the fraud – and latterly made a living selling forged versions of his original forgeries. But although scientific editing methods quickly proved that his works were fakes, it did not analyse the desperate need to believe in such documents, a belief on which Ireland cleverly capitalised. A combination of rampant Bardolatry (Garrick’s Stratford Jubilee took place a generation before Ireland’s forgeries) and a distinct lack of personal documentation was the perfect vacuum for a hoax. The same factors are in play today, when, as Laurie Maguire and Emma Smith observe in this fine book, both Doctor Who and Superman (and Morpheus in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman) have had adventures with, and inspired, Shakespeare.

The 30 myths tackled by Maguire and Smith fall roughly into three, sometimes overlapping, categories: myths about Shakespeare’s life, myths about Shakespeare’s work and myths about his reception. Not all the essays are exercises in debunking – a fair few of them might be described as judging the case not proven. They run through the ideas that Shakespeare was poorly educated, never travelled, was a Catholic, hated his wife, was a plagiarist, had a preternaturally large vocabulary and did not revise his plays. They deal with the Sonnets as autobiography (with this key Shakespeare unlocked his heart, as Wordsworth said), that The Tempest is his farewell to the stage, that the women were all played by boy actors, that there was no scenery and that everything should always be played in Elizabethan dress. Among the more frequent dinner-party assertions discussed here are the idea that he would now be writing for Hollywood, that, conversely, the plays don’t work in the cinema, that Shakespeare’s characters are “like real people” and that his work is “timeless” (“not of an age but for all time”, as Ben Jonson said). In a light style but with sound academic rigour, these 30 enjoyable essays actually add up to something more than just the minutiae of whether or not a real skull was used for Yorick (with due nods to both David Tennant on a stamp and Philip Henslowe’s 1598 list of props). The bold assertion is that, despite him being the most studied English language author of all time, there are still new things to learn about Shakespeare.

The essay on “Hamlet was named after Shakespeare’s son” is representative of the whole collection. Shakespeare’s son Hamnet died at the age of 11 in 1598. Sigmund Freud certainly thought this was as significant in the composition of Hamlet as the death of Shakespeare’s father, John. (As the authors point out, pacé Freud, Hamlet is a play about a son avenging his father’s death, not a father avenging or mourning his son’s death). But the slight homophony of Hamlet and Hamnet is suggestive. Hamnet, in fact, was most likely named after his godfather, a Stratford neighbour called Hamnet Sadler – and Hamnet’s twin sister, Judith, was named after her godmother, Judith Sadler. Is there any relationship between the death of Ophelia and the death by drowning in 1579 of a Stratford woman called Katherine Hamlett? Why did Shakespeare change the name of the Prince to Hamlet – since the source, Saxo Grammaticus, translated into French, calls the Danish Prince Amlothi? Just to add more into the confusion, what relationship has Shakespeare’s Hamlet with other plays with a character called Hamlet that were current on the stage in the 1580s, 20 years before Shakespeare’s version?

The answer to all of it is that we can never know what was going on in Shakespeare’s mind – the lack of diaries or letters or essays or an autobiography mean the creative process is sealed off from us (and even if we had these, it would still be sealed off to an extent). Shakespeare may well have been thinking about all these things, or none. (Although for my money, the death of Mamillius in The Winter’s Tale is the most likely suspect for a strange tribute to Hamnet Shakespeare: the death of that boy is the only tragedy in the late plays which is not transformed into something redemptive).

The fact there are new things to say about Shakespeare has come about through different methodologies. Firstly, modern critics are more sensitive to some presumptions that went unchallenged in the past; whether that takes the form of Germaine Greer’s analysis of misogynistic readings of Anne Hathaway or an awareness that WW Greg’s firmly held belief that Shakespeare did not revise his work underpins some of his assertions in his great book about the printing of the First Folio. Secondly, the rise of micro-histories – the painstaking accumulation of disparate pieces of data on a small scale – has given rise to new subtleties. Charles Nicholl’s The Lodger is a fine example: what, for example, do we make of the fact that Shakespeare’s collaborator on Pericles, George Wilkins, was tried for kicking a pregnant prostitute he was pimping in the stomach? Thirdly, the digitisation of printed works from the period means large scale analyses of word choice, syntax and allusion are now possible in a way they never were before.

Thirty Great Myths About Shakespeare fluently brings in the works that used to be described as “minor”; the plays by Chettle, Middleton, Heywood, Fletcher, Marston and others. For example, studies in Warwickshire dialect provide a new reading from the song “Fear no more the heat o’ th’ sun” in Cymbeline. It ends “Golden lads and girls all must / As chimney-sweepers come to dust”. One can banish thoughts of Dick Van Dyke now, as “chimney sweeper” was a Warwickshire word for a dandelion (and this also makes more sense of the “golden”). Finally, there are still many, many aristocratic archives that have never been fully or adequately catalogued. There might not be a Vortigern out there, but there will certainly be documents from which new insights can be gleaned.

Even if you know Shakespeare well, this delightful book will offer thought-provoking new angles. My personal favourite must be the Macbeth superstition. It was first recorded by Max Beerbohm (who wrote the wonderful satire Zuleika Dobson and the brilliant story “Enoch Soames”). Beerbohm cited two examples of cursed productions mentioned by John Aubrey and Samuel Pepys in the 17th century.

It was only ten years ago that the scholar Stanley Wells thought to check the actual references, only to realise Beerbohm had perpetuated a better fraud than anything William-Henry Ireland accomplished.

Thirty Great Myths About Shakespeare By Laurie Maguire and Emma Smith

Wiley Blackwell, 224pp, £14.99