What if everything we know about Shakespeare is wrong?
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This may not be as crazy a question as you might think. After all, there is precious little that we do know about Shakespeare. Just read Bill Bryson's biography of Shakespeare. It's so short you could finish it in an afternoon.
This question occurred to me as I was reading about the recent anniversary of King Richard III's death at the Battle of Bosworth Field. He was defeated by and succeeded by Henry VII, who was the last king to win his throne on the field of battle.
To read Shakespeare's play, Richard was a hunchbacked villain who murdered his way to the top, even killing the two child princes in the Tower.
Of course, Shakespeare did not invent this story. His source for the story was historian Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles.
But today we know better. Richard was not a hunchback. He may not have murdered the princes or anyone else. The allegations against him were made by Henry VII and successive rulers in order to poison Richard's reputation.
What if everything we know about Richard III is wrong?
I found a great passage in Stephen Greenblatt's Hamlet in Purgatory where he describes the chapel in Westminster Abbey that Henry VII ordered to be built, which according to one architectural historian is "the largest and certainly the most expensive structure ever built for funerary purposes."
Henry VII ordered or left provisions in his will for many suffrages. Three monks were to serve as chantry priests, to pray for his soul in perpetuity. Anniversary masses were to be held across the country. He founded three hospitals and an almshouse in order for the grateful inhabitants to pray for his soul.
As Greenblatt continues "But even these extraordinary efforts to hasten his soul through Purgatory were not enough for a king who evidently thought he might be facing a long prison sentence in the afterlife."
"Finally, he saw to it that immediately after his death ten thousand masses would be said for the remission of his sins and the good of his soul. Ten thousand masses."
So, I ask you -- if Henry was so worried about his soul, then doesn't it seem likelier that he was the villain who killed his way to the top? Maybe he killed the princes in the Tower.
And what does it say about Henry VII that his own son, Henry VIII would reject the Catholic church, and therefore all that his father had fervently believed?
As Greenblatt explains "Somewhere buried in the story of Henry VIII's suppression of the monasteries and seizure of their great wealth is a son's violent repudiation of his father's attempts to ease his soul's torments."
Did Henry VIII know something that we do not? Did he suspect, or in fact have proof, that his father was the villain we believe Richard III to be? Did he want his father to suffer?
I just read Sylvia Morris's essay about Richard III, where she mentions that the location of the Battle of Bosworth Field had been in the wrong place, and the real site was only very recently discovered.
The right location is two miles away from the wrong one. It required an archeological dig to verify the location.
This is the same week where the location of Richard's body may have been discovered -- I couldn't make this up if I tried -- in a car park!
This is the world we live in, where truth and history are not always constant. We often need an archeological dig to determine the truth. And even then, is it the real truth as they -- Richard III and Henry VII -- knew it during their lifetimes?
So, what if everything we know about Shakespeare is wrong?
What if he was a famous actor in Stratford before he moved to London?
What if the love between him and Anne Hathaway was real and true, and he never cheated on her?
What if his arrival in London was a celebrated affair?
What if his plays were wildly successful, each and every one of them?
What if he hobnobbed with the nobles, and was a frequent guest of the Queen at her court?
What if he and the Earl of Oxford were friends, and the Earl offered advice to Shakespeare?
What if he travelled extensively throughout France, Italy and beyond -- accompanied by the Earls of Essex and Southampton?
What if he was so rich that he had to bury most of his wealth in the Stratford countryside?
What if there is proof hidden somewhere that he wrote all of the plays?
What if he was the most written-about, most chronicled man in the entire Elizabethan period?
What if there is written proof of all of this, written during his lifetime, but now all of it is gone, or hidden?
What if it all burned when the Globe theatre caught fire and was destroyed in 1613?
I could go on, but you get the point.
I am not saying any of this is true.
However, as I wrote my versions of Hamlet, Richard III and The Merchant of Venice I discovered that the way the plays are interpreted and performed today is wrong, and the man behind the plays, as I see them, is a very different Shakespeare.
The picture we currently have of Shakespeare is no more correct than the one we have of the villainous bloody King Richard III.
We might as well forget Shakespeare as we think we know him.
I am asking you to consider the versions of plays as I have written them, and discover a different Shakespeare.
Do I think that the old Shakespeare is all wrong?
But let's just say that it's more than two miles away from right.
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