The following is excerpted from a long thread on The NY Times blog Paper Cuts, “The Sonnets at 400,” by William Neiderkorn, on May 20, 2009. See also my essay “The First Folio.”

The Sonnets make no sense if you accept the traditional biography of the man from Stratford, Indeed, they are positively baffling.
The sonnets are written by a man who is clearly much older. Conventional chronology dates the sonnets to between 1592 and 1596. At this time, William of Stratford would have been in his late twenties and early thirties. Even if we up the date to 1599, William of Stratford was still in his thirties.
The sonnets tell us that the poet was in his declining years when writing them. He was “Beated and chopped with tanned antiquity,” “With Time’s injurious hand crushed and o’er worn”, in the “twilight of life”. He is lamenting “all those friends” who have died, “my lovers gone”. His is “That time of year/When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang/Upon those boughs that shake against the cold.”
The sonnets that most contradict Will of Stratford’s life story are those about shame and disgrace to name and reputation. Here Shakespeare’s biographers have nothing to go on. In addition, he refers to having “born the canopy” (Sonnet 125), a reference to carrying the canopy over the head of the monarch during a wedding procession. There is no evidence that the actor from Stratford ever came within a thousand yards of the Queen or ever carried any canopy. It would have been forbidden to a commoner.
— Howard Schumann
12. May 23, 2009 2:17 am

Some years ago I had the opportunity to handle–unattended– and read the First Folio, published seven years after Shakespeare’s death. It’s a massive book with thick boards, sewn signatures, and very dark nut brown pages, barely legible because of that and the crooked type.
The thing that struck me most about it was the front matter including the full page woodcut portrait of W.S. and the attributions of half a dozen men, including Ben Johnson and two men of S’s company, The King’s Men, John Hemminge and Henry Condell. If ever there was a book that proclaimed its author to the world, it was this book.
Certainly from our viewpoint today we can understand why these men celebrated their Bard, his achievement stands as remarkable now as it seemed to them in their time. However mysterious S may seem, to assert that the man depicted in the book by the name of W.S. was not the author of the plays, creates many more puzzles than to accept that S. was in fact Shakespeare, author of the poems and plays.
If the book was a fraud, it was a very expensive fraud. Why would a man of Ben Johnson’s reputation sign his name to such a fraud? All the men who signed attributions to the Master would have known who S really was–so why has not the secret be outed after four centuries? If not Stratford, then where did W.S. come from?
Shakespeare is mysterious, no doubt, somewhat in the way that Jesus of Nazareth is, except that S poured out thousands of words to us, telling us a great deal about his inner life. It is his outer life that puzzles us because it seems so unlike a man with such a rich and well-informed imagination. But then literature is filled with examples of authors who lived cloistered or unreported lives the opposite of their imaginary lives. Think of Emily Dickinson who lived almost entirely in her room.
In handling the First Folio, I was handling a book touched by men, and possibly women, who certainly knew of the man if they had not met him personally–perhaps they stood him a drink, swapped him a story. That gave me an eerie feeling, a wonderful feeling, if I may say so.
— Hudson
13. May 23, 2009 12:02 pm

To Hudson: It seems a bit strange to me that the only testimonials to Shakespeare occurred seven years after his death. While the First Folio is evidence for the attribution of the plays and poems to WS of Stratford, it is full of contradictions (see Diana Price “Shakespeare’s Unauthorized Biography”.
The truth is that during his lifetime, he was not celebrated as a writer. The fact that some works were published under the attribute of William Shakespeare does not identify the man behind the name. There is nothing in his handwriting ever discovered except for six almost illegible signatures. There are no letters, no correspondence, no manuscripts, no paper trail at all to identify the man behind the name, not a single word. Huckleberry Finn was published under the name of Mark Twain but there is nothing to identify him as Samuel Clemens.
When contemporaries refer to William Shakespeare, they are referring to the name on the title page and nothing else. When he died, no eulogies were forthcoming. Indeed, no mention was made.
There is no dedication by the poet in the Sonnets and scholars have been baffled for centuries by the apparent absence of the poet in the publication and proof-reading process. .Ask yourself this question – Would the greatest writer in the English language have allowed his daughters to remain illiterate?
— Howard Schumann
15. May 23, 2009 9:08 pm

To Howard Schumann:
To Howard: If you can’t get your hands on the First Folio, then I recommend Michael Wood’s four-episode 2004 PBS series “In Search of Shakespeare,” which covers the man’s life from cradle to grave, as quite a good doubt-queller. I know there was a book of the series, and I’d imagine a cd or dvd, also.
I think the unknown gentleman stand-in theory works best for a poet, working at his leisure in his library away from the scrutiny of the world. However, playwrighting is a hands-on experience. Over the course of a long and successful career, WS must have known and been known to hundreds, if not thousands, of people, including every tattle tale in London. Not even the Queen could keep all those tongues silent.
— Hudson
18. May 29, 2009 12:32 pm

Hudson – Yes, I have seen Wood’s film. After four hours, I’m still scratching my head.
Although the dating of the plays is guesswork at best, Mr. Wood boldly asserts the chronology of Shakespeare’s work as if it was agreed by all, confusing dates of publication with dates of composition, desperately trying to fit the plays into contemporary events. One must forgive Mr. Wood for his over zealous attachment to the Stratfordian agenda when he makes statements for which there is no evidence. These include:
• Will was an usher at King James’ coronation and “bore the canopy”, a reference to the first line of Sonnet 125 “Were’t aught to me I bore the canopy”.
• Will was the recipient of a “privileged education”
• Shakespeare joined The Queen’s Men and was a traveling player
• By his early twenties, Will had acted in plays and had written poems
• Sonnet 145 is a love poem to Anne Hathaway written at age 19 in which the words “hate away” are a clever pun on his wife’s name.
Old myths die hard. “In Search of Shakespeare” may be looked upon by future generations as one of the last attempts to cling to the myth of the unlettered common man as literary genius. In spite of ferocious opposition by the academic establishment and British Tourism to even consider the question, I think the average person has serious doubts about the attribution of the Stratford man as the author of the Shakespeare canon. Many of course, simply don’t want to know. They prefer their Shakespeare to be a kind of a disembodied intelligence looking into our lives like some literary Jehovah, a man who understands and knows everything.
We recoil at the thought that Shakespeare was an ordinary man, a spendthrift who could not manage his money, an adventurer, a womanizer, a man with a villainous streak, or even (heaven forbid) the lover of the Queen who produced a bastard child. So we don’t want to know too much and the Oxford challenge makes us confront both our urgent need to know and our strongest fears that it is better not to know.
— Howard Schumann
19. May 29, 2009 4:17 pm

June 3, 2009 4:44 am
Howard: You are right that Shakespeare Inc. has a vested interest in the cottage industry of W.S., and that the keepers of the trust, as it were, would certainly be loathe to let go of, or have conclusively disproved, their legacy image of W.S.
However, I think you err is saying that: “We recoil at the thought that Shakespeare was an ordinary man, a spendthrift who could not manage his money, an adventurer, a womanizer, a man with a villainous streak, or even (heaven forbid) the lover of the Queen who produced a bastard child.”
What writers like myself recoil at is the idea that the poems and plays were a confabulation of some literary expert, that the wisdom and humanity of the works was invented in vitro rather than in vivo; that it was unlived and sprang from the imagination of some “evil” genius.
This offends our sense of how literary works are written, our sense of the connection between the man, his life, and the words that flow from his pen, modern deconstruction theories notwithstanding. We happily accept that W.S. was a flawed human who took some secrets to his grave, whose foibles and failings found their way into his characters instead of a tell-all autobiography. That makes sense to us.
What does not make sense to us is the notion that all of W.S. was a kind of secret plot, a government conspiracy, or the machinations of an individual, in the case of the E. of Oxford or F. Bacon, who in his acknowledged writings fell far short of the Bard’s success and caliber, or was some unknown without any other literary life who somehow “hijacked” or otherwise constructed the entire Shakespeare life and canon.
— Hudson

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