Who wrote the greatest plays in the English language? Or a middleclass actor, playwright, impressario? [ cf. A highborn nobelman of courtly intrigue? ]
SHAKESPEARE buff? Not me! Shakespeare lover is more like it! Give me a class of students who think they don't like Shakespeare, and I'm as happy as a Beryl Markham flying the Atlantic. We don't spend much time on his biography. It really doesn't signify. Fortunately, whoever he was, he was more interested in box office success than in creating a memorial, so what we have is dramatic genius rather than camouflaged autobiography.
You certainly can't find the man in his plays. Some would find him in Hamlet, but a Hamlet couldn't have created the other characters in the play. He's not the perceptive observer of his fellowman that his creator was. So involved in his own individuality, he tends to see others as types - heroic father, wicked stepfather, frail women. Hamlet is a hero for all time. What he isn't is Shakespeare masquerading as a Danish prince.
Most of us love a mystery, and I've certainly enjoyed all the speculation about the Shakespeare plays. What really fascinates me is that the genius which inspired the plays has come to have such impact on the world. Teaching those plays and watching productions of them satisfies me that their author was William Shakespeare.
Three favorite pretenders Shakespeare buffs propose are Christopher Marlowe, Sir Francis Bacon, and Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford. A further-fetched theory is that a woman wrote the plays. The most interesting theory of the three is that Marlowe, who supposedly died in a brawl at Madame Bull's tavern at Deptford, actually lived and wrote the plays we credit to Shakespeare.
A college professor once suggested that if he had lived, Marlowe would have been a greater playwright than Shakespeare. Indignant, I compared - play for play - the work of these two dramatists, born in 1564, and found, in brief, that while Shakespeare owed a great deal to Marlowe, especially his pioneering in blank verse, Marlowe's plays are period pieces, while Shakespeare's are not. There is no way one man wrote both Shakespeare's and Marlowe's plays. Marlowe was bound by the university education that Shakespeare escaped.
There is an element of heroics, a thin line of hysteria, and an edge of sardonic humor in Marlowe's drama which makes one think of Byron. Moreover, in Marlowe's major characters - Tamburlaine, Faustus, Edward II, and Barabas - there is a cruelty unrelieved by the human touches Shakespeare gives his villains - Richard III, Macbeth, Richard II, and Shylock.
Furthermore, there are no embryonic Juliets, Rosalinds, or Cordelias in Marlowe's plays, whereas there are in the early works of Shakespeare. To see the difference in their portrayal of women, one can compare Shakespeare's Jessica in ``The Merchant of Venice'' with Marlowe's Abigail in ``The Jew of Malta.''
Marlowe advocates point to the lines Shakespeare borrowed (we call it plagiarized) from Marlowe, but Shakespeare borrowed lines, characters, plots, anything from anywhere, spinning them to gold in the process.
I don't believe that the Shakespearean plays are the work of a noble, even a minor one. I find contrived the proposal that either the Earl of Oxford or Sir Francis Bacon wrote them. And I think that scholars who insist that the man from Stratford couldn't have written the plays have spent more time on his biography than on his work.
The fact that he made no effort to publish his plays proves to some that they were the work of a closet celebrity, some courtier too noble to traffic openly in the theater. I believe that he considered them the property of his company - working scripts, ones he revised to suit the performance.
There is a stagecraft in the plays which denies the theory of a gifted theater buff. Whoever wrote them was interested in the profit that was not in the publishing but in the producing. And he had in mind the groundlings as well as the privileged audience.
The universal quality in the work derives from the writer's position in society. Like Chaucer, Shakespeare was born into the class between nobility and peasantry. Both had occupations that brought them into contact with the general population as well as the court. Both achieved a higher rank than their fathers.
Oxford and Bacon were educated at Cambridge. Many of the other Elizabethan and Jacobean playwrights were university men. Not one of them enjoys such popularity today. Their drama is gifted but of its time - dated - hard for the average theatergoer to follow. ``Volpone,'' written by Ben Jonson, the greatest university wit of Shakespeare's day, a favorite of English majors, is rarely performed except in theaters like the Swan in Stratford, which specializes in Renaissance drama.
One final comment about the Earl of Oxford: I cannot believe that a man of shallow character wrote the plays, which match the classical Greek in presenting universal themes. And about Bacon: The observations that emerge from the plays belong to a thinker rather than philosopher.
Finally, even feminists have to admit that the female roles play well. To say that a woman had to have written the plays because no man could understand women so well implies that a woman can write a man's part, but a man cannot write a woman's, which hardly deserves comment.
So, for me, the matter of Shakespeare's biography is simple: He was Will Shakespeare of Stratford and London, lover and husband of Anne Hathaway, father of three, actor, playwright, major shareholder in an acting company.
The author teaches continuing education at Rhodes College in Memphis.