Shakespeare Solved ®

Shakespeare Solved ® is a forthcoming series of novels that covers the Bard's entire life and work.

These novels solve the mysteries surrounding Shakespeare by transporting us back in time, to walk in his shoes, and see his world through his eyes.

Only when we see Shakespeare in his original historical context can we understand what his plays and poems really mean.

This blog explains some of my ideas and discoveries, to prepare for this series of novels.

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Friday, September 15, 2017

No Shakespeare?

I love counterfactual history questions.

What if Germany had won World War II?

What if we had not gone into space, or not landed on the moon?

And the biggest question regarding Shakespeare, to me, is what if Shakespeare had not existed?

What if he had never been born, or had not survived childhood?

The closer you look at his biography, the more you realize that he could have died very young, or in his youth.

He had siblings who died, and he was born during a time of plague.

There was never a guarantee that he would survive for long, or at all.

I do not believe, had he not existed, that someone else would have done what he did, and create the poetry and plays he did.

When you look at his rival playwrights — Christopher Marlowe, Ben Jonson, Thomas Dekker, Robert Greene, and the others — not one of them rises to the level of Shakespeare.

They were all very talented artists, but none of them could capture the imagination of their Elizabethan and Jacobean audiences they way that Shakespeare did.

I think the biggest reason why Shakespeare was so unusually successful, and why his plays have endured, was because Marlowe and the other playwrights were writing for the London elite. 

They did not write for the public, for the people.

Shakespeare, on the other hand, was the people’s playwright.

It is often noted that Shakespeare did not attend university, as the others had. The point seems to be that his education was not as good as Christopher Marlowe’s, who went to Cambridge.

I am convinced that Shakespeare’s lack of a university education actually benefited him. It made him far more ambitious than the others, and the life lessons he learned were far more valuable than anything in their lectures at Oxford and Cambridge.

Shakespeare’s success was accidental, it was unexpected. He was off everyone’s radar.

Had he gone to university, his home-spun and folksy wisdom, and his priceless and real-world sense of humor would have been beaten out of him. He would have been expected to conform, to fit it, at university. 

Writing plays for the public, and making them laugh, cry, and close their eyes from the horror — none of that was on a university curriculum.

But Shakespeare was a misfit. That is his brilliance, his charm, his greatness.

His greatest artistic creations are characters who don’t conform, who don’t follow the rules, and who always draw outside of the lines — for better or for worse.

Falstaff is the patron saint of misfits. 

Hamlet should be strong and heroic, decisive and brave. But he just can’t. He can’t live up to what we expect him to be. He just can’t be the Prince he should be.

Cleopatra should be regal, composed, divine, and above mundane human and earthly matters. But Antony shatters all of that. She simply loves him way too much for her to behave like a proper divine ruler should.

Even Macbeth. In the beginning, he seems like a competent vassal lord to King Duncan. Then he becomes consumed with ambition, and it leads him on a path of murder and insanity.

All of the great characters are all too human.

Shakespeare was all too human. He embraced it, rather than run from it.

All of the other playwrights ran from their humanity, and wrote plays that were less inspired than his.

And today, as Shakespeare’s plays continue to be performed, and interpreted around the world, the plays of his rivals are relatively forgotten.

Had Shakespeare not existed, it is very likely that theatre in the time of Queen Elizabeth would have suffered terribly. As the other playwrights were dying out, from poverty, from drinking too much, from disease, the theatres would have died out, too.

The Queen enjoyed theatre, but preferred animal baiting matches. 

It is doubtful that she would have allowed theatre to prosper had it not been for the popular appeal and success of Shakespeare — and Shakespeare alone.

By the time that King James succeeded Elizabeth, he might have dissolved the playing companies. He preferred masques anyway, and he arguably would have brought theatre into the royal court — and closed up The Globe and other venues.

But they could not close the theatres, because Shakespeare had already changed the game on them.

Not only were most of Shakespeare’s rivals too busy drinking and partying to bother with making a body of work, none of them organized the theatre into anything resembling an industry. 

Shakespeare, with the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, organized themselves as sharers in the profits and responsibilities of running a playing company as a for-profit company — not just as a band of actors who served for the benefit of a royal patron.

They made a business out of it. That successful business created competition — and in short order, a theatre industry was born. As far as I know, that was unprecedented in world history.

Queen Elizabeth tried to put the theatres under control. But it only made them more popular.

By the middle of the 1590s, it is doubtful that she could have closed theatres without sparking a city-wide riot. 

By the time that King James arrived in London, in 1603, it was far too late to shut them all down.

Yes, the theatres were shut from 1642 to 1660. But that can’t be attributed one way or the other to Shakespeare, who died 1616.

But, I would argue that if Shakespeare had not so successfully established, and firmly planted theatre in London, over the course of his almost 25 year long stage career, then the theatres would not have reopened in 1660, or at all.

Once the theatres were re-opened, they began to perform Shakespeare’s plays again. It was as if London, and England for that matter, could not live without him.

It was as if once the light of Shakespeare was lit, it could not be snuffed out.

In the decades and centuries since, I think the world as a whole would have been far worse without him, and England in particular would have been far weaker than it turned out to be.

I think even today, the world would be far darker than it already is.

Why? Because he was one of those unlikely miracles that comes along in history. He shined a light on the world and on men and women, in order to teach us more about ourselves than we knew before.

Shakespeare helped shine a light that helped guide England through some of the darkest times in history — not the least of which was the potential invasion by Germany during World War II. 

Sir Laurence Olivier as King Henry the Fifth was one of the greatest symbols of English pride and defiance in the face of Hitler and Nazi oppression.

We are very fortunate that the light that is Shakespeare is still shining today, and he has become a source of light that illuminates and unifies the whole world. 

There are not enough people or things that truly unite us in our humanity. 

His plays and poetry do.

I like to think that he somehow knew that his work would live on long after his death, and what he was doing would have a global impact — especially since he named his theatre The Globe.

I like to think that he chose that name for the theatre because he could, in his vast and brilliant mind, imagine a future world where people were far more free and happy than the one in which he lived — and that he would play some small, but critical, part in helping it get there.


David B. Schajer

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