I guess I’ve been on a bit of a Shakespeare kick recently, so I might as well get the rest of what’s been on my mind about the Bard out. Then, I’ll try to move on to other stuff in future entries.
One of the oft-argued opinions about why Will couldn’t be the actual author of the works put out in his name is that is that there is no evidence that he had travelled widely enough to know all about the other countries which show up in his plays, nor could he know as much about as many topics as he seems to in the works, given his lack of education, etc. Of course, only a nobleman would have had the education and worldly experience to adequately write such works. I confess that I find this argument to be of some interest, although I also have found it to be rather flawed.
It seems to me that the major flaw in this argument, which is developed at much greater length and detail in the writings of the “anti-Stratfordians,” especially those who support Edward de Vere, the Seventeenth Earl of Oxford, as the “true” author, because it makes an assumption that one can only write autobiographically. That is, one’s writing MUST be based on personal experience. So, since we have no evidence of Will traveling, he couldn’t have written plays about other countries. Since he wasn’t a nobleman, he couldn’t credibly write about the court, etc.
Now, since the vast majority of the plays (I think it’s all but two.) are based on source material which we know (can document) was available in England at the time the plays were written; and, since most of these plays are fairly clearly based on those sources, it seems quite reasonable that a reasonably educated person (We are pretty sure that Will had a Grammar School education, which, at the time, meant a great deal more than we think of as a grammar school education today.) could have adapted these stories for the stage. There is every reason to believe that he was quite familiar with what was going on in the theatre of the time, being a working actor and theatre owner. In fact, many of the plays follow their sources quite closely, so closely that, on some occasions, specific descriptions, etc. have been “borrowed” directly, even to mistakes in geography, etc.
Of course, the plays are ADAPTATIONS of their sources and we don’t have source material for all of the works. Of course, it might be possible for someone to write something (or adapt something) based on imagination. I really don’t understand the “autobiographical” argument. If one could only write (or otherwise create) based on one’s personal experiences, I find it hard to believe that much fiction would be possible, especially science fiction, fantasy and mysteries. Now I am not especially familiar with a lot of fantasy (with the exception of the Harry Potter books, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings), but I know the works of Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein and the “Dresden Files” books of Jim Butcher (science fiction) pretty well. I am also quite familiar with a fair number of mysteries, including the “Bones” works (the novels) of Kathy Reichs, the works of James D. Doss, Sarah Graves, Earl Emerson, Colin Dexter, Rick Boyer and, of course, the Sherlock Holmes works of A. C. Doyle. Sure, I’ve read other stuff (a lot of other stuff), but these I know the best.
Now, with the exception of Katy Reichs, who IS a practicing forensic anthropologist and who admits that her stories are BASED on her actual cases, I have grave reservations about how “autobiographical” most of these works can be, although they MAY be based, to some extent, on things the author has experienced. Yes, Tolkien was a student of Beowulf and other early epics, so the resemblance of his writings to them is understandable, but I doubt that his best-known works are based on his own experiences, unless there are elves, dwarves, rangers, wizards, etc. wandering around England which have been unreported to the rest of us. Of course, it could be that the Wizarding laws of secrecy used by J. K. Rowling do actually exist, which might explain why we don’t know about the existence of such creatures.
I have heard that Heinlein had a large poster on his wall listing his timeline of “Future History,” with various, imagined, technological developments, sociological events, etc. which he used as a time line reference for many of his stories. These stories seem to use this timeline more for consistency of ideas than as source material, however. I find it hard to believe that this notion of creating a “future history” is based on personal experiences. Sure, as is true with most authors, I suspect, individual characters may (at least to some extent) be based on actual people known to the author, although many authors (while admitting to that idea) also suggest that they combine personality traits, etc. for the purposes of telling their story. Thus, they are imaginatively creating characters using ideas from experience or sources.
I can’t prove it, of course, but I strongly expect that the same sort of thing is true of many authors of fiction and, I suspect, of plays. How can any reasonably educated person (especially a “theatre” person) believe that a writer can’t work from his/her imagination to create a play, but that an actor can create a character based on the material provided by a playwright in a script. Sure, I know about the “Method” and “becoming” your character and all of that. But, a character is a fiction! Especially when the playwright is dead, all an actor has to draw on for her/his creation is the material on the page, imagination and personal experience. Now unless one has had the experience of having his/her father (the King) die, his uncle become king AND marry his mother, etc., etc., etc. there are very few personal experiences which really parallel Hamlet’s story. Unless one has had a group of weird folk prophesy that “you will be King hereafter” and then, in response to spousal urgings, gone on to commit murder, it would be hard to be able to figure out how to play Macbeth from personal experience, etc.
Yes, much art does draw on personal experience, but it also draws on imagination. It doesn’t matter if we are talking about plays, acting, painting, architecture, or other arts; the creative process is imaginative, at least to some extent. A long time ago I had a design professor (who I think did very good work and who I was proud to know and learn from) who said something to the effect that design was five percent inspiration, fifteen percent perspiration and eighty percent plagiarism, or something like that. Now, he went on to be sure to explain to us that the “plagiarism” was taken from our experiences, from things we had seen, sensed, done before, etc. What made our creation unique was not just the raw material, but how we USED it, which requires both inspiration and hard work (perspiration). I can’t prove it, but I strongly believe that that is how plays are written. The vast majority of Shakespeare’s plays were “plagiarized” (in the sense use by my old professor) from other sources. What makes them great (some of the same sources were also used by others whose works weren’t so great) is what Will DID with those sources. I find it hard to believe that others haven’t explained away the geographical knowledge (which is sometimes incorrect) perfectly satisfactorily. Besides, most of the “mistakes” are from the source material.
Okay, I’ve gone on about the plays at some length. The Sonnets, they say, HAVE to be autobiographical, so they “prove” that he committed adultery, was bisexual, etc., etc. My argument is why? I won’t argue that these things COULDN’T be true, just that the fact that these ideas appear in creative works doesn’t PROVE that they are. If we grant other poets (or any other artists) an imagination, why can’t we do so for Shakespeare? No, there are not specific (known) sources for the sonnets, although the idea of the sonnet cycle was pretty well established at the time of their writing.
Of course, since Shakespeare didn’t publish his Sonnets himself, we have no sure way to know that they are in the intended order (or even that they were intended to HAVE an order). To assume that they MUST bear a close relationship to actual events in Will’s life seems to me to be quite dangerous. Sure, the MIGHT, but we can’t prove it. We have no real way of knowing if they have any bearing on his actual experience. His other major poems, The Rape of Lucrece and Venus and Adonis or (rather blatantly) based heavily on works by Ovid. It also appears that they were written in an attempt to win favor (political support or, more likely, money) from Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton. After all, there was a lot of plague about, the theatres were closed, so money was needed.
Apparently, Lucrece and Venus were fairly successful as they (apparently, but not proven) got a positive response from Southampton and became quite popular (seemingly as eroticism). That would lead one to think that Will COULD have had a more active sex life than we can prove, but (as most people won’t admit) sex lives often tend to be highly embellished by imagination and the basic material was, in fact, based on sources, just as the plays were.
I think that it’s highly likely that Will was a highly imaginative writer and that he used that imagination to “flesh out” the details he didn’t find directly in his sources, both in his poetry and his plays. London, itself, was, of course, a huge resource: a major international trading port, the center of the legal system, the permanent home of the Queen’s (King’s later) court, filled with soldiers, sailors, lawyers, foreigners, merchants, all sorts of people. If Will needed to know how folks quite different from his Warwickshire background talked, it wouldn’t have been very hard to find out about their accents, phraseology, etc. just by walking around town a bit.
I find the argument that Will was unqualified (on the basis of personal experience) to write these plays and poems, implausible, but I can’t prove it. Does it really matter?